Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Crying Out For Myth and What Happens When We Deny Its Power

The facts may not yet be fully known but neither are they beyond our human abilities. State sponsored murder in plain sight is nothing new. While concealing the truth never makes it less true, what we need isn't only more and plainer facts. What we need is meaning that delves more deeply into the costs of virtue. We're going to need our mythologies, more than ever. Without a story to accompany the facts, we will never be better than these diminishing truths.

The hypocrisy that is the price virtue pays as tribute to vice is as much part of our political alchemy as are our noblest human aspirations. We seek the blessings of power but at what cost to virtue? How do we otherwise explain the American experiment built as it is on expressions of human freedom, equality, and dignity and as much on on the back of slavery, native pogrom, sexism, and every profit-driven exploitation?

We possess myths of American idealism and innocence and while they are patently false _in fact_, both in history and manifest behavior, what we must realize is how little we are without them. Until we take the mythology of the American experiment, the invented narratives of principle and virtue to heart, the best we will ever be are our sordid facts. Real or fake, the news is that America articulates in its mythic imagination compelling spiritual ideals: freedom, equality, dignity, and virtue's pursuits. We may only be merely human, with or without our myths, but until we embrace their power we're nothing but power's worst instincts and indications. We will be little more than beast if we forsake entirely the deeper meaning of myth's beauty.

The American presidency has embodied our hypocrisy and conflict from its invention. What we now witness is the dissolution of every last vestige of pretense. As we acknowledge the wiping clean of even the veneers of decency and the connection between aspiration and all of the rest of our fraud, demoralization, and delinquency, we come to a more lucid recognition. America without its mythology may become nothing more than a bully, an insolent and dangerous villain in a world that rewards debasement.

America admits to the world that when we stand for nothing but power, we embolden others to reveal their own distinctive perversions and moral desecrations of civility and convention. That we claim to do it with God on our side cannot offend more because such an appeal to righteous, affected piety merely reminds us that the Almighty is yet another human invention concocted to collar the mob and insure its compliance.

Who has ever failed to ennoble their unctuous displays of imposture without claiming some divine beguilement? Enter the religious right, the staging of piety is never virtue but when did that stop us? We wrap our authority and clothe our treacheries and conceits in some or another supernal resource meant to absolve failure or provide cover for mendacity. Religion is never far away from our worst and, even occasionally, our best instincts. How it plays its role is usually predictable.

There's an inherent, inextricable relationship between power and goodness---and how this relationship manifests in politics, culture, and personal conscience often reveals to us the depths of human beneficence and just as often debasement. Can one exercise the privileges of power and, at the same time, be good, stay good, want the good? And exactly is that good? Will we even pretend to agree? Will power always corrupt? Will goodness always demand more character and sacrifice than we can command?

At the heart of the conflict are interests, values, and choices that point as much to paradox as they do to aspiration and pragmatism.
We will not agree what is good or right.
We will not acknowledge the same goals or claim the same values. And when we do, we will usually know from the outset whether or not we actually agree or are prepared to compromise. What cost?

We can debate these matters as creatures born, as are all, the complex processes of natural selection. But human nature does not appear to require we be much more than primates engaged in what Hobbes called "the war of all against all." The invention of constraints, be they religious or secular, have done little to prevent us from our extremes.

When people have structural privilege and the bias of history, coupled to money, seats of power, and ambition, the incentives to act from principle or some self-determined moral yearning enter a maelstrom of competitions. We must admit every form of need, hope, want, and possibility. There are no guarantees and few binding covenants that cannot be brokered, compromised, or renegotiated. We are nothing if not pliant beings, adaptive for better and worse to do what we can, when we can.

Trump---yes, it took this many paragraphs to say his name---has laid it all bare. Everything and anyone that does not acquiesce and satisfy immediate need warrants invective, cruelty, or blithe indifference. No truth is too sacred that it cannot be contradicted or disavowed. Nothing should delay or diminish profit and nothing will stand in the way of harvesting every last remnant of power for any purpose. Character, accountability, and the discharge of justice are the province of losers: no apologies, no explanations, power knows no burdens of responsibility or liability.

This is Trumpism and "America first" is merely a further projection of such personal aggrandizement and multiplication. Are we really surprised that Republicans have condoned and endorsed this shameless, consummate avidity? Someone is bound to do it because power can always justify the means and disregard or rearrange its ethics and aspirations.

In today's world outrage is a news cycle away from irrelevance and the powerful know that simple distractions will entertain or re-induce an insensibility that keeps even the vigilant off their marks. We are all too busy surviving to attend to every indignity or sacrifice the pleasures that intervene as salves to relieve the malady of the everyday. Whether or not we are particularly privileged, Americans can largely decide to live in their own personal reclusions---and the powerful count on that to keep the streets quiet.

So when Trump says that, sure, the Russians are murderers or the Saudis did a "very bad thing," he reminds us that these are not proximate to the average American's life, that they happen in "other countries," and that what we want are jobs, profit, and just enough moral outrage to assuage our need for the pretext of conscience. But everyone knows, both here and abroad, that power left to its own devices rarely pursues virtue, acts upon the facts, or demands justice when its just too inconvenient. What we could be shouldn't stand in the way of what we can safely ignore.

At least not until our mythology intervenes. Then we stand a chance at betterment because we can make _real_ what we can dream.

We are left again asking not who we are but who we want to be. We're not merely individually culpable: few of us commit crimes of overt evil. We prefer more duplicity and deflection, a more insouciant infidelity to our ideals if we bother to have them. But having character is no human imperative. It takes work. It's a bother. But it's not difficult to learn just often tedious--- and almost always exhausting.

We also have to have enough privilege to care what to do with however much power we possess. Paying power back as virtue is a cost too few will make not because we are evil or merely fail but because we prefer more useful myths that don't demand we take them seriously. It's only when we decide that the "myth," the ideal, the invented story of virtue is better than profit will we become something more than Trump and his ilk. It is indeed the power of myth that is before us. The question is will we endeavor to allow it to change us for the better or merely pander to the facts of power without it.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"Sacred Language" is Not God Talk

This morning's New York Times features an op-ed suggesting that we have a God problem, one that points to a "rhetorical problem" because Americans are somehow inhibited, less than fluent in God.

But, truth to tell, that train goes nowhere and the problems we face, especially in America, won't be solved somehow with "more God." A more adept humanism need not wholly forsake "god-talk" but unless we take on the follies of supernaturalism, we're boarding the wrong 21st century train. 

First, the link to the article. I'm sure I disagree with just about everything it has to say:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/13/opinion/sunday/talk-god-sprituality-christian.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage#commentsContainer

My initial reply is directly to the author:
Perhaps what you really need is a vocabulary suitable for the 21st century, one that employs more sophisticated metaphors rather than traffics in fantasy and anachronism, rooted in the literalism of Bronze Age goat herders? The proof that we don't need "God" to be moral or to have a conversation about what it means to be moral is just one secular person with sound ethics. That would also suffice to disqualify all of the evangelical Christians now supporting Trump.

The last thing we need is more "sacred language." Instead, how about more people educated in the rich complexities of humanistic metaphor and the facts of science who can deal more thoughtfully and compassionately with the real world. Life is hard enough without more obfuscating God-talk-nonsense and harder still with more of it, precisely because it's a means to bypass, false consolation, and creates more ethical atrophy. That's the more honest "rhetorical problem" before us.

The solution isn't a more active "vocabulary of faith" but a more open and honest wisdom rooted in plain speaking candor. We can keep the metaphors but let's keep your revival to yourself, thank you.

But here's a bit more:
In America the more self-designated religious people are in red states and identify their Republican/Trumpist politics with their God-politics. The outcome? Higherrates of poverty, crime, preventable illness, child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Who pays for this? Blue-state tax dollars where people are less religious and so better able to address these problems.

So there'll be greater prosperity and joy if we forsake human accomplishment and reason to praise Jesus? Those telling us as much do a fine job reaching into our pockets, 'cause somehow that's the path to heaven?


Now here's the alternative.
We _need_ to know too much about the natural world these days to require the supernatural. And _that's_ the real problem we can solve. People don't know enough about reality---because that's hard to learn. They know plenty about God because that's the easy way to skip the truth.


For those who can't learn or need to get along with supernatural religious talk, we can feel compassion. Some are compelled for social reasons to claim these beliefs or use this rhetoric just to stay in their tribe. It's a sociological imperative. Some can't afford to be more honest but all can be better educated. The godless among us might not be able to be more honest about that without hurting the god-filled's tender feelings, but that too is a price of education. Those who need to resort to dissimulation might well have to, but that is a steep price to pay just to protect those who can't handle the facts. It's no small matter to draw lines between worlds of metaphor and religion-baked fantasies.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

America in the High Castle, A Meditation on Nihilism

Don't hold this against me. I'm perfectly happy to tell edifying stories about who we _could_ be. My life depends on that or at least some significant portion of my livelihood.  I have tried not to fool people with the usual unicorn nonsense but given the furtherance of Kali Yuga, you can call on me for most anything if you need it.  Let's start with some stone cold facts, okay?  We can move on to consolation fantasy soon enough.

Now, despite the fact that the universe has no intrinsic meaning, purpose, or reason to exist, is entirely bereft of supernal agency or design, and otherwise turns us out as the strange consequence of stochastic caprice, it sure does have a way of being ironic. Evidencing a level of contumacy unwitnessed in any living memory, the American republic this past week made itself a spectacle of refractory nihilism and mob rule. When the minority that rules us decides there is no longer the need even for the pretext of decency, we have Kavanaugh's America, sort of like Trump, only worse because it's not nearly as stupid. Without a hint of fourberie, they were straight faced while dissimulating, more like mugging for their low information base which are now declared to be "pumped up" for the midterms by this debacle. No doubt. So where's the irony?

Well, Amazon---that bastion of Who Me, Steal Your Life? Capitalism we all can't live without---released Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle. Sure, I'm a sucker for anything that filters and foments some Phillip K. Dick sci-fi but this is downright prescient for its coincidental weirdness. You see, this story begins in a world in which America lost WWII and we are ruled by the Japanese on the west coast and the Nazi Reich in the east. In between there is some wild west neutral zone that is more like rural Blade Runner meets the Pale Rider. The twist is that there is more than one time line, an alt-reality in which the principals have different lives because, well, America won the war over _there_, in _that_ reality. It strikes me as Trump Wins is all too much like the time line in which the Reich won and here we are living in America wishing it were Alt-America. Problem is, we know all too well how we got here even if getting out is _everyday_ a more precarious matter.

We got here because white America---a motley coalition of the rightwing rich, the suburban and exurban class that thinks "fiscal conservative" is somehow Republican tax cuts, and the all too familiar low information Fox-viewing religious, rural know-nothings---decided that a narcissistic, misogynist, soulless buffoon should reset the nation's temperature to stupid. They are angry at us liberals and elites because they know that we think their religion, selfishness, and hypocrisy is exactly what it is: nonsense, superstitious folly, anachronistic idiocy. They resent the truth they are committed to denying.

I am genuinely sad to say that what links them all together is that they share in Trump's most distinctive personality trait: anything that does not affirm their worldview is worth scorn and must be answered with cruelty. Trump likes that cruelty, in fact, he seems to need it just to make it through a day: someone has to pay for his inability to manage himself.

There's a meanness in America---I think it's always been there, founded as we are on pogrom of the native population and the importation of an enslaved labor force---which is _also_ why we are such a generous people, I mean to charity, to neighbors, to whomever needs a hand. Our shadow is so deep and so dark we act it out by phoning in our donations and serving up soup, doing dishes like VP-candidate Ryan did.

Alternately, we could actually create an entirely different paradigm for the dignity of work, a living wage, real opportunities that redress structural inequality, and so engage our long, sordid history of racism and misogyny but that would require levels of self-reflection that the majority does not even know it would need. Why bother? There's the playoffs, the new season, wtf gets you to look the other way.

So as I predicted with the usual dose of caustic, sardonic candor, we now have the Kavanaugh Court. There were the hopeful, the holdouts, the ones who thought that the likes of Collins or Manchin or Flake might have been born actual vertebrates. In this timeline---the one where the Reich rules---that was never going to happen. Only in some alt-hopeful world in which the magic of mudras or the next meditation saves you do people come to their senses---or rather avail themselves of the insensate escape, at a price.

Can this change? In what alt-America is there another Obama who can win rather than another Democratic Senator grifting on this most current loss and making sure his or her rivals are swiftly dispatched to some more time with the family oblivion. It is supposed to be the one that votes in the midterm, provided the Russians, North Koreans, Chinese, or someone who has real reason to hate us like the Canadians or Norweigians hack the election. If people vote will the votes count or be counted? And how much does that matter now that the issues of the day will be legislated by the white men in black robes (Clarence Thomas gets honorary white man status and, finally, a seat next to a fellow sexual assaulter.) What a wonderful world.

So this week alt-America isn't the fascism we feared it's the America we now imagine, the one that won the Civil War, that won the Great Society, the one that invited us to HOPE but then sat on its hands. We may be the majority but we are a team that doesn't know how to win. The America we seek is now further away, somewhere in a post-Kavanaugh world. And if I hear one more bit of unicorn bullshit about how he is going to be impeached, I will likely have to take up some overpriced meditation program just to check out even further.

In the meantime, buckle up 'cause the ride ahead will be sure to take care of all those who opposed him. Trumpists get mad and they don't just get even, they get vindictive and use all that spite to make sure their retaliation is as ruthless, as venomous, and as baleful as possible. To turn this around we will, as Lindsey Graham said, have to win some elections. Graham proved himself among the most loathsome and execrable of this week's Trumpists but, you know, he was right. If we don't like it, we're going to have to win some elections. And if by some alt-universe timeline that actually happens, we'd better learn the lessons these "Christians" teach: turning the other cheek just invites them to do the same thing again. Vote. We'll see if it matters.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Fix is In, Democracy and the Sham of Democracy

There are any number of articles in the past few days and, given it's Sunday, there will be more today in which reasonable people will say reasonable things about the Kavanaugh nomination, Rothstein, and Trump's madness. All of these presume we as Americans are playing the same game. Unless we all pretend we're in this game, that is, as those resisting the Republican objective, there may be nothing left. But let's first clarify why this is a game and why that is not a trivial way of putting it.  Fans of democracy need to take note.

By "game" I mean the rule of law as well as the traditions and ideals that are supposed to protect the rule of law and the function of our democracy---however incomplete, corrupt, hypocritical, and craven that project of government is both now and historically. Do Democrats in power really suffer this misconception that the current Republicans and "conservatives" are playing by the same rules or mean to?

Republicans are interested in the game only insofar as it is a means, an excuse, a pretext for their objectives of power. The Democrats mouth the words of the game (i.e., the rule of law, democratic institutions, etc.) and the press follows with the revelation of facts, analysis, and the hope that someone like Robert Mueller "still" stands for the law as such. They repeat how this or that is some really big deal because the abyss of tyranny is real and far too grim for most to accept.  We live in a surreal mockery of democracy built on the strength of differences that must be treated with respect and addressed in ways that allow us to live with slightly less than tyranny.  Unless Democrats participate in their own self-deceptions about American democracy's functionality they are left with nothing but the facts of tyranny upon us.  Tyranny is upon us.  It's a tough one to admit.

The irony that Republicans (and Democrats on the left) claim that Hillary was the fix is a treacle of Orwellian doublespeak worthy of, well, Orwell.  Secretary Clinton proved that America is not ready for seriousness, whether or not you agree with her ideas or believe she represented corruption.  Politics is always corrupt, can we admit this? How else does one answer to all that money and all that power and all that it entails? We must measure in quantities, not only qualities.  We must understand that the best democracy involves compromising to your adversaries and finding a way to live.  Perhaps it could be less corrupt?  But let's not digress from the moment.

Democrats and the press may _have to_ act like this because it is the _pretense_ of democracy that is all that may be holding us together. What you will witness this week in the Senate---and have over the course of the Kavanaugh hearings--- is something more craven and more honest. You see, Republicans don't care anymore, if they ever did. Trump has given them license to come out, to show their hand. The game is now for all to see. It is not a game at all. The fix is in. McConnell counseled patience because, well, they have the votes and the power and whatever they want will come to pass. The rest is all show. Republicans believe they are _entitled to rule_.  Governance by compromise, by shared interests, governance that demands we live by imperfect accommodations of difference, that is not their agenda.  Not. One. Bit.

What Republicans know is that government is professional wrestling: it's there to entertain, at best, the mob and create a pretext for cashing out and working their will. The Court is simply the most explicit example of their patriarchy and their claims to power, entitlement, and _rule_. Put another way, governance by democracy is a pretext, a sham because Republicans mean to _rule_. Not just Trump, not at this point. It cuts more deeply. And they will do or say _anything_ to do that. Nothing is beneath them. Nothing will stop them. There is nothing to persuade. To bring this to fruition requires the affected, adulterated, spurious appearances of democracy. But they care not a fig for that or anything else but their entitlement to power.

This is their moment. An election could (temporarily) thwart them. But they will not relent and for as long as they maintain their power, they will do anything to keep it. This is why even an election may not function any longer; they have help from their authoritarian allies, the big money, and theirs dupes who long to be led, to be _ruled_ and to rule over those they despise.  That would be us.  Clear?

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pure Power at Any Cost

It's Power, Just Power
Kautilya and Machiavelli Commingled


There's a classic of Sanskrit law attributed to Kautilya called the Arthashastra. It makes Machiavelli look like a kitten playing with string. But put the two together and we have some chance of understanding what is going on with the Kavanaugh hearings. It's about power.  There's nothing else in the picture.  No image available.

For the next five days we will hear the continuing voices of reason regarding due process, fairness, and decency that should be the real issues involving Kavanaugh and the wholly credible voice of Professor Ford. Editorials, TV pundits, and the _majority_ of the country will demand a fair reckoning, a call to the rule of law, and urge a bipartisan effort to uncover the truth. This fails to understand the Republican pathology, its determination, and strategy. Democracy is a ploy, an inconvenient obstacle that has no bearing on the end game.

Kavanaugh is precisely the justice that Trump promised his electorate: he is the frat boy right-winger they have voted for time and again. Grassley, Hatch, and the rest of the white men who were there for Clarence Thomas are not about to let this crowning "achievement" slip away. Kavanaugh will be on the bench come hell and high water. He will vote to overturn Roe, make sure Citizens United remains the law, and do the bidding of their extremist agenda like the partisan hack and ideologue he is. Republicans will do _anything_ to complete this task.

Their base demands it and their money men require it. Every hope of remaining in power requires they do whatever is necessary to give both their religious fanatics and oligarchs their man. That Kavanaugh is a proven liar is of exactly zero consequence. That Trump is a dangerous narcissist unfit for office has no bearing on them. To think any of this talk about due process or serious investigation means anything to the Republican leadership is pure delusion. Collins and Murkowski and the lot of them will fall in line. Their careers depend on it. Money, power, it's plain as day. They will say and do anything to make sure this happens.

We can rightly criticize Democrats for living in some alternative universe of laws and ideals but that, in fact, doesn't matter. They don't have the power to stop this and Republicans know it. It's only about power. And everyone knows that.

Nothing can slow the Republican Party's advancing authoritarianism but removal by election. They must have the court on their side and this guarantees it for the next thirty years. But even if an election slows them down, their Republican pathology of patriarchy, oligarchy, and religious fanaticism remains. Eric Cantor, Ryan, and McConnell proved that when President Obama was elected and they committed to his failure at _any_ cost. Trump is merely an inconvenient and embarrassing tool who they can ignore so long as he gives them their agenda. He will. Trump knows what it takes to feed the mob.

The entire Republican establishment will continue to tolerate him because he's the red meat that feeds their circus of low information voters and presses their single issue buttons: guns, god, bigotry, sexism, and the rest of their needs when faced with failure in a changing world. The wealthy just want the money and Republicans make sure they get it.

When Trump delivers Kavanaugh he is half way or more to reelection. "Conservatism" in America is a disease rooted in our long history of authoritarianism, bigotry, racism, sexism, oligarchy, and religion that will remain, win or lose come this November. It may be a dying ideology in blue States and for the _majority_ of Americans but white power, patriarchy, and money will do _anything_ to remain in complete domination. Democracy is only a minor inconvenience when there is this much at stake.

Our hope lies in electoral decimation, sending them to the margins. That's still quite a long ways off. They know it and so should we. The long game is nothing but the short game. That's how they will play it and that's how they can continue to hold power, win or lose at the polls.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Heart Aches, My Reason Seethes with Rage

Roe is obviously about far more more than a woman's right to make her own health choices or abortion. It is as much about those who seek to control women, who seek to shame, manipulate, or use people for their own purposes, and who would impose their will and values on others. It is a test of decency, a matter that cuts to the core of liberty and probity, and its weakening or overturning poses a threat that brings us closer to tyranny, oppression, and an imperiled life determined by the will of the minority. What is clearer to me than ever is that nothing will stop those who seek this power and that there is nothing that can persuade them of their error and their evil.

The irony is rich: the deciding voice will be not only another white male with far beyond mainstream religious beliefs but one appointed by a president who boasts of sexual assault, elected without the majority of female voters, and in need of this justice on the bench if he is to retain power. This phony president is empowered to proffer a lifetime Supreme Court appointment that will endure for _decades_ and produce decisions that will deeply affect the course of public life and the country---all as a gift to the ex-frat boy now credibly accused of attempted rape.

Kavanaugh will find his ally in the irredeemable mendacity of the all-male all-white Republican Judiciary Committee. His goal is to join with the likes of Clarence Thomas, who we know now not only for his sexual misconduct, his proven lying, and moral debasement but for his dangerously out of touch judgments on the law. He will find a true colleague in Thomas since both will demand our respect by virtue of their office but stand apart for their vacuous moral character. The highest court in the land will have then a majority determined to vote against the court’s three women and gleeful to impose the will of their patriarchy.

How much more of America's future will be further decided by men beyond the pale of decency and without the slightest respect for a future that no longer tolerates their privileged claims to power?

I reject every last bit of this horror and I will fight however possible this tyranny but the facts are undeniable, bitter, and deeply saddening. I want to live in a world in which these forces of regression and patriarchy are in retreat, not in power and gaining power.

We can only hope these rancid men are crushed under the weight of their own venality and our good efforts to see them fail. Where the future lies depends on who will care to reverse the horror they insist we accept as law.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Loving Life Invites Truth: Deconstruction, “Fake News,” and Making Meaning

One of the more compelling elements of the yoga tradition are sources that suggest we change the world when we understand more about it. Our actions, intentions, feelings are driven by feelings and impressions, and often incomplete and lazy arguments. The tasks that demand rigor, seriousness, a conscientious appeal to facts---best we can discern---and arguments---organized to insist we must all play by some of the same rules to communicate---are not easy or welcoming. It’s gonna take time, effort, a willingness to ask very uncomfortable questions as well as a deep intention that demands a willingness to change your mind in the face of changing evidence. Are we asking honest questions or just the ones that we feel we can ask?

Careful here. We can put ourselves in peril with too much candor. Candor might be asking too much. It’s unlikely adults will be persuaded or dissuaded of much of anything that they regard as hard won conviction or tribal dogma. The best we might hope for is a budge, some listen and learn and maybe bend, some move just a slight from where we started. But I digress. The issue here is to distinguish the messenger and the message, the explanation from the implication of advocacy.

In a recent Washington Post piece philosophy professor Aaron Hanlon makes an insightful argument about the uses of meaninglessness for political purposes. Here’s the link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/postmodernism-didnt-cause-trump-it-explains-him/2018/08/30/0939f7c4-9b12-11e8-843b-36e177f3081c_story.html?utm_term=.e00c3485e319).

I think he’s got this bit right, “…the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.” One of the more mordant ironies expressed here is that those claiming “fake news” are not only propagandists actively distorting truth---they can claim with a straight face that “truth is not truth” and at the same time claim reliance on absolute religious truths. Whateveris said is manipulated to further any given agenda or just as easily ignored when some other goal is expedient. Because their God abhors abortion, shameless lying and other “sins” can be summarily dismissed. This isn’t mere hypocrisy, it’s an authoritarian artifice meant to maintain power at any cost without the slightest nod to conscience, integrity, or care.

At the outset Hanlon captured the meaning of “post-modernism” in a few clear sentences. How ironic is that, eh? Gotta’love that. Clarity about a world that we now know can’t ever be made clear? A world that we can reasonably argue has no inherent purpose, natural objective, or meaning because it doesn’t need any of those things---much less a God---to continue to do what it does. But Hanlon does a fine job here explaining the honest purpose of deconstruction and it’s worth quoting at some length (so here we go, read on, please), “Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it. Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality. Each of these concepts was an attempt to identify trends that, according to postmodern theorists, were changing our understanding of language, truth and knowledge.”

Hanlon suggests that these ideas are meant to explain our modern situation, not loose chaos, nihilism, and meaninglessness upon us. So even if the world is more chaos than comprehension and order little more than a distorting consolation, even if life has no inherent purpose, meaning, or goal, we need not be captive or victims of nihilism. These are interpretationsof what is happening rather than efforts to change the world further into such vagaries of being. He argues these philosophers offer insights and interrogations and have forsaken Marx’s plea: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” On the contrary, the effort here is to fathom something about the world first and what's left to change can only follow from that effort. I think there are Indian philosophers who would admit as much: understand what you can first, even if it’s just māyā, and do what you can because that’s true enough. That there’s no effort on the part of deconstructionists to change the world with meaninglessness, well, for that I think we can be grateful.

I want to side with Hanlon on this and say that true deconstructionists demur nihilism as a way of life, they're here merely explain it. An inherently meaningless world need not be made into meaninglessness and so it spares us the cost to our sanity that Marx would extract if the philosopher’s agenda is to change the world into personal vision. I want to live with believable explanations, however rife with limitations and complaints of incomplete, unfinished understanding. I also want to invent some meaning and try to live by those principles and values, no matter how contrived they may be. I can live without morenihilism in my life, there’s plenty. I’m pretty sure I don’t need more help feeling more desperate about the mortal condition. But I’m sure I don’t want any more consolations that demand more “faith” or belief than this storm of reality seems to offer.

I never tire of reminding my students that Charles Darwin withheld the findings and averred the implications of the theory of natural selection for twenty odd years before he was compelled to reveal his place in the history of ideas. After Alfred Russel Wallace came to much the same ideas about evolution and natural selection, the truth needed to find a way forward. Wallace was a good sod about it because Darwin got the credit he deserved. But they both came, more and less, to the same theory: a theory that really does explain how we got here as living beings. Truth can do that: it can appear without consultations or conspiracies because human minds can discern from evidence things worth knowing. I confess my own bias in this matter since I would regard Darwin’s idea as the single most important insight in the history of human thought. But both Darwin and Wallace understood how unready we humans are for truth.

Before Darwin we had no explanation of human existence that wasn’t mere religious assertion; after Darwin we found out that these meaning-making efforts were at best consolations and, more truthfully, memes of historical recursion imposed upon us by traditions, by the kind of authority that can use them to direct and dictate our behaviors and control our interrogations of human nature. The outcome of this Single Best Idea Ever is eventually the explaining deconstructionist.

When we can explain the world without gods, the specious excuses of mysticism, or some or another fanciful assertion of supernatural ineffability, the world becomes more believably ineffable: it really is more than we can fathom and daunting in all of its prospects. If we want a life that is more than mortal we’re asking for something that we’ll never all agree is real. The Buddhists, like their Hindu brethren, seem to have captured the problem of suffering correctly: we suffer, things will go amiss from whatever benchmark of happiness we desire, and what we want is often the cause of further suffering. In the spirit of Darwinians and deconstructionists we might stop right there---we can admit the first two “noble” truths, ignore the third about nirvana, and then query what’s all that’s “right” about any path’s claims to right this and right that. Buddhas are supposed to know, supposed have solved the problematics of this human condition but then we find ourselves tripping again over religious claims. Can we make peace with our condition when, after all, no one is reallyin charge of anything or really knows what’s going on? How could they? Who would that be?

Darwin understood that his theory left out god, buddhas, siddhas, the whole lot of them, anyone claiming to having all the answers. And so did Hawking more recently when he declared in print that the physical universe was well enough understood without a god and that what we do seemto know doesn’t require any such claims to omniscience or omnipotence. Leave out the fantasies, stick with what we can try to prove with our human tools, like math and imagination. We are indeed left to our human devices however incomplete, provisional, and co-dependent they are upon our merely human agreements and perceptions. It would appear that Nagarjuna was right after all when he told us that the Buddha we experience as our experience is not at all the Buddha. That there is something more ineffable than our experience is now self-evident. The “problem” is that this ineffability is no consolation and provides nothing better than our very human achievements. But do we need better? I think we being slightly more attuned to being mortal might suffice.

The (further) good news is that these hard truths about life don't make life harder. They will require us, as Darwin foresaw, that we change our very stubborn opinions inherited from history, culture, and habit. No one likes that. It’s important, I think, not to get all angry the facts, even if they’re grim or disappointing. Nothing about a world that made us from physics, chemistry, and the accidents of biology cooked in a crucible of time, space, and luck tells us that our human accomplishments, ideals, or values are nonsense or pointless.

Despite the conspiracy theorists and wingnut deniers, we humans have been to the moon and back, we’ve cured some terrible diseases and we can make mortal life more pleasant and tolerable because we have understandings and the means to do as much. We can’t stop death and it’s likely we’ll never knock human evil off its perch but we are capable of amazing things, some even wonderful. Our prospects for venality and abilities to cause pain may be beyond attenuation but there’s plenty about what we have invented that brings joy to our individual embodied and oh so brief tenure in this world. Is death as a finality really that gruesome? Hume joked that because he didn’t miss the world before he got here how could he miss it once he left.

The deconstructionist reminds us that meaning isn’t merely hidden and deferred, it must be invented and imposed if it is to be believed at all. Belief doesn’t make things true or real but it’s part of how we function in a world that will otherwise annihilate us, with alacrity. Rather than deny us our need for character, the argument for a meaningless world invites human beings to acknowledge that they are creating worlds of human invention and distorting them to suit their needs and desires. We tell ourselves the stories that please us, even if those stories cause us pain. While we can’t control what we need, we can dream and want and imagine in ways that really do soothe and animate and encourage us to keep doing things we value. Those things don’t have to bevaluable prove, the proof is that we value.

There’s something here quite like the many versions of māyā theory that inhabit Buddhist and Hindu traditions: the world we are measuring may be little more than a measure of ourselves and that often turns out poorly, with all the limitations and terms imposed upon us by a world that makes us from itsprocesses of measurement. But not all māyā takes us to pain or worse; there’s plenty of māyā, no matter how illusory or invented or contrived that gives us reason to live life a bit more audaciously and love what we do. Even if all we cando is fool ourselves, we need not think ourselves fools.

The Sanskrit verb here that takes us to māyā is /ma, to measure, and is obviously cognate to our English words “measure,” “meter,” you get the idea. We measure in worlds defined by our experiences of difference and its values. When we do this māyā “well” then things like technology “work” in the natural world and we become socially capable of virtue, acting both for and against immediate self-interest’s measurements. Things will break, after all “things fall apart; the centre cannot not hold,” but that is precisely what the deconstructionist tells us could never have been true and won’t be, not matter what we do.  Is that really so awful?  It doesn't have to be.  We can decide for that.

When we insist on measuring poorly---or when we give up caring about what we know we do not control---we seem capable of doing nearly anything without regard for conscience or consequences, to ourselves and to others. Humans can be deplorable in ways no other living creature could warrant such description. But we’re capable of inventing better and it doesn’t have to be more real than temporal and ephemeral, composed of the limited terms of a human life. We can be good and we can do good, even imperfectly, incompletely, with all the failure and shadow included.  Pay that measure forward and we might even have reason for hope. Give freely what you love and others might come to respect you for your commitments.

Just because the world doesn’t provide meaning doesn’t mean we can’t construct some, deconstruct what we’ve constructed, or commit further to efforts to understand what we want and what we are prepared to do about it. What we understand about life may preclude any greater certainty but what’s more dangerous to ourselves and others than being certain? I’ll tell ya’: it’s the propaganda that denies that meaning has meaning even if we’re only just human. We will be better humans when we decide to create from a deeper commitment to our mutual joys. There’s just not enough time (or anything else) to ever get it “right,” so let’s try to make things work a bit better for everyone.