Monday, September 13, 2021

Our Toddler Nation



Robert Bly is still with us and I am glad everyday for all that he wrote in his storied career. The book that followed Iron John, which was immensely influential on culture, was the little-read Sibling Society. Bly's thesis is that America has refused to grow up, that people seek attention childishly rather than do the work required to deal with a complex self in a world they cannot control. Bly was pointing to the false proclamations of freedom and the bypass, the barely concealed racism and nostaligic nonsense that was fueling the "Reagan Revolution." Robert was not only insightful, he was prophetic.

We are now a nation of three year olds with car keys and guns.

As we witness the coup of the minority Party to seize control of the government, dispose of democracy, and impose their rule, we are also watching their base embrace the failures of their narcissism. Rejecting the vaccine has become a badge not merely of stupid or absurd conspiracy theories (i.e., implanting computer chips), it has revealed itself to be the desperate need of fellow Americans to gain attention. 

Finally the majority will not indulge the unvaccinated's need to be important because they seek attention. Their anguish, fear, reasons have now been shown to be what they are: excuses and foot stamping obdurate childishness. Imagine if we had to get TB vaccines that left a scar---as it is still the common badge of honor and public responsibility in much of the world where people still die from breakthroughs of this horrible disease. Republicans would have even more ways to claim their "freedom" while they endanger the sane.

Of course, there can be no liberty that rejects the injury that will be done to other. Freedom is not a free for all of your personal choices---your weaponized narcissism is not acceptable.

Unfortunately toddler-esque behavior is not limited to Republicans who appear willing to die and risk long term illness consequences to "own the libs." I have found more than a few lefty-yogis whose credibility has now been wholly undermined. If someone can't get a free, life-saving vaccine whose risks have been proven minimal, how can you trust them about anything else they say or do? The gravest threat to America and to democracy is not from abroad, it is from our fellow Americans.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

In 20 Years Since 9/11


9/11 was a Tuesday and I was walking to class at a few minutes past 9am, like I always am. I didn't know that the second plane had hit the tower nor about Flight 93 or the Pentagon. I knew something horrible had happened in NYC but I went ahead and taught the class.  I think that wasn't the right thing to do and I think about that not only as a failure of vision but of my own need "to carry on" when things go wrong.  It was still too early in the day to see what these events meant.  By the time class was over at 11am, matters were before us.

Today twenty years later is a day to remember the innocent and the millions of lives changed because nihilists chose to inflict their horrors on our shared humanity. Destiny has a way of revealing both what we knew then and are yet still coming to understand. I grieve for all of these losses but never for the nihilists.

As soon as I found out the rest of the day's news I was certain we were heading down the wrong road, that our response would be even more catastrophic than the terrorists' acts. America would need a kind of vengeance that would have little to do with the terrorists, we would find some way to go to war on scale without achievable goals or purpose but to satisfy feelings of revenge. I just knew we were going to fuck this up, I mean how could we not? With Bush as Cheney's poodle it was a guarantee.

What we needed was justice and that was far too long in the coming because it was not our first aim. It's what we said we wanted but it's not what we did. You could see that coming as clearly as the planes on that perfect September day.

I take no pleasure in where we have come since that day. I can't say it better than what Michelle Goldberg wrote this week, "We inflated the stature of our enemies to match our need for retribution. We launched hubristic wars to remake the world and let ourselves be remade instead, spending an estimated $8 trillion in the process. We midwifed worse terrorists than those we set out to fight...The attacks, and our response to them, catalyzed a period of decline that helped turn the United States into the debased, half-crazed fading power we are today. America launched a bad-faith global crusade to instill democracy in the Muslim world and ended up with our own democracy in tatters."

Now the gravest threat to America comes from our fellow Americans as they slow walk the coup that will end democracy right before our eyes. For the most part, we do nothing. Unless we see the danger they will instill one party rule for as far as the eye can see. Like that day when the villains with a solid plan pulled it off because we were asleep at the wheel, we are asleep again---and the country is driving over a cliff.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Dreaded Vaccinations



As I continue to move more deeply into the Upanishads I've come to notice how certain emotions are further nuanced and located in the larger matrix of feeling and action. How do we get from one to the other, that is, from whence the feeling arises to how we process the process of consequences of activation (that is, doing something about the feelings, not just the topic.)


This morning I had an interaction with someone we care about deeply who is not yet vaccinated. She's no anti-vaxxer, intelligent and caring, and she knows "I should have already done this and I don't know why I haven't."

 No one really likes to be explained to---it's annoying at best no matter how caring---but alas, like a good pundit (aka college professor) it's sorta' my job to state the obvious until it gets through. With your friends you can't just make them do what you say by threat or mandate of consequences. With college students, I am not so merciful. With pals, I try to offer a sweetness. Here she asked a good question. Why has she not yet acted?


At least some of the reason is that dread is a complex species of fear. It is fear in abeyance, not yet realized or with immediate consequence; dread is fear on the radar but not yet in sight. It comes with some important foreknowledge that things can be done---like you can write a will or get a vaccination. Dread includes the understanding that there's no endgame you can prevent but rather things to make the world better just for awhile.


You're not merely procrastinating over the fear itself. You are also residing in the space between the outcomes of fear and ability to act on them. Much of what dread portends isn't something you prevent or stop, like death or old age. That sense that what we could do is not enough to stop what we don't want plays an important role because it's precisely where we pause. We pause in dread.


Dread is also fear plus enervation or, to put it another way, another enervation-induced fear. This means we would rather not when we know we should but must right now is not wholly realized. Let's add that we just used the word "should" and little makes the autonomous human pull out the Gadsden Don't Tread On Me quicker than should ought must imperatives; make something normative (ought to) and it's suddenly not normal (regularly agreed upon by most?)


We feel dread when we feel our freedom is being impinged upon when in fact it is the dread that is creating the more insidious impingement.


The Upanishad reminds us that it’s in the words. Just saying them matters.



In English we first reference the word “dread” somewhere around the 12th century. The etymology suggests it is shortening of the Old English adrædan, which is itself a contraction of ondrædan "counsel or advise against.” The ond- is "against" and there lies the first root from Proto-Indo-European, that is, *ant (like in “answer”) plus the OE rædan "to advise,” which is from the PIE root *re, as in “to reason, count"). (Cognates would include the Old Saxon andradon, Old High German intraten.)


The key to it all is the relationship of apprehension to action. We are answering to something we feel deeply and we are simultaneously reasoning, or we might say rationalizing. 

As the Upanishad explains we are using both feeling and reason but in a less than effective ways or perhaps too effective ways. But in both cases the dread is doing us more harm than good, which leads the sage to declare that it helps us draw an important line between what is good and just downright evil.


Evil isn’t merely wrong anymore than it is unfixable but it is real enough to bring us to a less than healthy possibility when there are better ones before us. We might not be able to stop the thing that dread ultimately speaks to—death, taxes, whatever—but we can do something about the dread. Now just what would that be? More later.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Death By Faith



Within a few weeks the sane will have done everything possible to convince our fellow citizens that COVID is not only a matter of public responsibility---a fact which apparently will not move a significant portion of our population---but that it is also likely a matter of personal survival. If the Delta doesn't kill you, another more virulent strain will be coming next if we do not manage the disease.


The numbers are indisputable and despite increases in vaccination the enormous number of people who will not cooperate will spread infection, get sick, claim valuable medical resources, give the virus further opportunity to mutate into even more virulent forms, and may well die.

Some are saying that all the persuasion, bribery, counseling, cajoling, ease of access, and even shaming has now been concluded. Like the true Trumpist, there is nothing more that will penetrate their beliefs. Say, do, feel whatever you want and that makes it true. Have we heard this before? Wait for it.

Capitalism has incentivized and will now be used to create important disincentives: what if you can't fly, go to work, or visit a restaurant without proof of vaccination. How far will mandates go to isolate those who refuse to abide? We're on the honor system in my neck of the woods, virtually no one wears a mask, and I am confident that far less than 50% are in fact vaccinated. I don't trust my neighbors' judgments or choices.

While I'm confident that my contracting the illness at this time would prove mild and with little chance of hospitalization (much less death), I find myself simply not wanting to be anywhere near people I cannot trust to make the simplest decision based on the evidence of science. And there lies an important part of the problem.

We are not contending with people who _value_ science even if they in fact understand its methods and discernible conclusions. Now I am willing to concede that the majority of Americans are nearly wholly illiterate in the fundamentals of science and the basics of critical thinking. However that plays into our equation, it is the value of scientific knowledge that is in question, not its comprehension.

As we all know, science can be mistaken because it is human and knowledge is subject to revision. In the present case, of course, there is little left to dispute and the situation is grave and plain: the vaccinated are not getting sick and the unvaccinated are spreading disease, claiming important resources, and dying. So in the face of the evidence (and the odds), why is this population impenetrable? 

I think the answer to that question is complex even though I am about to suggest that there is a "dominant explanation." Some claim to be suspicious and distrustful of all authority. But somehow these same people will license their cars, stop at lights, get on an airplane they don't control, and eat blue Fruit-Loops. Just where their compliance ends or where their doubts begin is complicated by their irrationalities.

The point of course is that there's not much rational left to argue about or for: their faith lies in a neurotic need to claim an identity rooted (as we all are) in anxiety, fear about a world that is beyond control. Their particular version of this common human situation is to assert a personal reality no matter what other evidence is presented.

This situation must remind us that mental illness is not in the least uncommon. It's illness because there are better, healthier ways to live in a world that does indeed warrant degrees of anxiety and fear. Living well is coping with a world in which we are not the authors of our every choice or circumstance.

Others may express their "truth" as a political conviction or feel compelled (with or without awareness) to adhere to the shared tribal claim (the price of violation being excommunication of some kind). But now we're closer to my point: it's getting religious, this is about faith or sharing a faith. This is about asserting a claim rather than working within shared systems of experimental knowledge. Put simply, it is belief in lieu of critical thinking. Belief may or may not inform faith but it is the faith itself that will kill them. It's not hard to see why.

Republicans---the majority of the unvaccinated---are not only fiercely tribal but also more inclined to put their religious faith in front of any human understanding. Not all religious people are as captive of the faith vs. science problematic---and that problem is worth a few more words.

The church historically has posited that its incontrovertible truths are God's revelations and that human choices are fundamentally flawed, incomplete, and unreliable. Thus science as a human endeavor cannot produce truth that contravenes tenets of faith. In much of American Protestantism it need not be some or another _tenet_ of faith, doctrine or idea, but the _faith itself_ that must be upheld. Thus, it is not what one believes but belief itself that must stand over any method, evidence, or outcome that is _wholly human_. 

When mandates (coercion) and money (incentive) can't work it is faith that leads the way. When larger social pressures fail, it is faithful to remain in your own neurotic conviction or within the group that shares faith (or face the consequences). When people are literally dying _and_ denying the reality of the disease as much as the vaccine, the problem is not their beliefs but belief itself. The particular beliefs are window dressing. The matter cuts deeper.

Faith is killing them, no matter what other ideas, skepticism, or resistance they profess. They have been taught that faith is not only superior to the provisional, constructed values of human knowledge hard won by experiment, failure, and putative success, but that these are not to be trusted or valued if faith somehow tells them otherwise.

Human beings are wholly capable of inventing worlds of conviction that have little bearing on the facts. Facts are, in the end, merely human and thus inferior to faith. Facts may obtain in some limited realm of conditionality, but the most important matters in life are matters of faith. This is what people have been taught since, well, more or less ever.

Faith is not certainty because faith is thought to be better than certainty. Faith provides not only what limited, conditional human knowledge cannot, it surpasses the problem of certainty. Note, I didn't say that faith solves the problem of certainty, only that it surpasses it. Faith allows for uncertainty but its more powerful feature is that it also creates a shadow of distrust for all that is human in creation, like facts.

How can we know for sure if we are merely human? Well of course we cannot. But with faith we no longer need to bring the problem of certainty into the equations of choice or understanding. Faith provides what our shared absence of certainty clearly reveals: we are vulnerable beings because we are forever incomplete in knowing. Rather than that fact being the best we can do, the reason we must trust in the best human accomplishments, it becomes the reason to believe, to have faith.  Next thing you know it's another reason to "cling to guns and religion."

We are all uncertain beings but with faith our human limitations are revealed and our power over human truth is addressed---with religious truth. Religious truth is tested only inasmuch as it causes the "crisis of faith" as Kierkagaard put it, but the "knight of faith" endures while the crisis itself gives license to reject mere human truth. As if we had more than that mere human truth.  Where there is faith there is the "truth" of one's own immovable fantasies. We are left to distrust the human rather than revere the imperfect and, in this case, life-saving processes of learning.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Good Faith Arguments Without Faith and a Definition of Bad Faith



I have long railed against "faith" as a universal category for understanding religion or even for understanding how people go about being human. I am not a person of faith if the contrast is to evidence, analysis, and facts such as we know them. The latter may be provisional and incomplete but they are sure better than "belief" or "feeling" that flies in the face of the former. You can't tell me that one got up from the dead when all the rest of us stay dead---however if you convey that faith to me, you may not be acting in bad faith. You are just wrong about the facts and we can then decide how much that matters to the rest of us. When someone's faith becomes problematic to the welfare of others then it is no longer a private matter.


I'm wounded about "faith" too because I studied with an eminent scholar who wrote a book called Faith and Belief that I feel confident in saying was among the worst efforts in the theory of religion I have ever read. He was the director of my doctoral program and needless to say we could not get along. My response to him once was, "I refuse to sing from your Protestant hymnal." This did not go over well. 

The obvious counterexample was right before us: Vedic ritualism is not about any kind of faith or even belief. It is about the claim that this makes that happen even when the "this" is mantra and fire and the "that" is prosperity or heaven. Smith just couldn't get that. But I don't think he was acting in bad faith---he was transparent in making his arguments and his intentions were, dare I say, noble. He was just wrong, wrong in the sense of positing a theory as universal which was demonstrably inadequate, as I in good faith was eager to point out.

He didn't dismiss me when my disdain for his theory was palpable (and still is) and for that he demonstrated good faith despite the fact that faith as such was not important. What was important was that he could take my objections less personally and that I think he cared about me---though he thought as little of my talents as I thought of his theory. We were able to argue without being too disagreeable personally. Now, democracy is tedious, cumbersome because it demands negotiation, compromise, and, above all, a good faith effort to include those with whom you disagree. In effect, it is ill-suited to instant gratification, ideological intransigence, and the kind of feel-good and make the other guy hurt that characterizes our Twitter Age.


The core of the problem is that we are not mature enough to understand that a good faith argument, like democracy, takes time to reveal its intentions and outcomes. Much like Professor Smith who may not have liked me anymore than I liked him but was actually willing to continue to act in good faith because I too was acting in good faith. That is what it took for both of us and for me to survive his program. Good faith requires patience; bad faith is rewarded when we convulse into impulses and immediate gratifications. (Krsna makes this point in the Gita, obviously.)

Obama got trounced in 2010 by voters who voted for him in 08 not only by the revivals of racism but also by the fears invoked over Obamacare's putative implications. Bad faith then furthered fueled everything that was untrue or made people dislike everythingObama. That slope isn't just slippery, it's downhill and going back uphill is something very few people are willing to do. Most hard climbs will be avoided and that is said in good faith.

People are easily scared because the world of oligarchs puts all but the oligarchs at their mercy. They have no mercy, which is what we have always known. Don't you also routinely agree to the "terms and conditions of service" set forth by Corporation Oligarch? I just did it again this morning. Why should I read the endless pages of legalese when there is nothing I can do but submit to a system that I think I need to use? When we aren't protected by the government of the people, we are on our own: and that is the operative principle of Republicans nowadays, that being on your own is better than anything we the people can create. Get off my lawn means I can say or do anything I want, no matter how it affects others.


Biden stands in opposition, actually closer to the Eisenhower Republican ethos of government rather than any socialism; that is, he wants government when it can do what individuals cannot, thus closer to "leave me alone until I need us." It's not the nanny state and I suppose I warm to some of that ethos because no one likes to be told what to do. If there were more honest (i.e., good faith) justice and less systemic prejudice we could actually warm to the idea that liberty has a cost but there is too much structural corruption for any individual to change. I doubt we can wait much longer before the world---both naturally and politically---burns down around us.

We need a society, a vast majority, willing to act in good faith. Not with faith or from faith but merely in good faith. And that is what we do not have.

A very imperfect Obamacare bill has in fact made medical care more accessible to millions who previously had none. Did you get screwed? That's wholly possible. We need not debate how utterly inadequate, corrupt, or worse our system is in America when we know no matter how bad it is, it was worse before, at least for most. If you got creamed, that's what happens in systems of compromise that turn problems into intractable disputes without any ability to compromise. But as I wade here momentarily into policy, I miss the point. The real issue is bad faith, which any academic knows is something of a technical term.

The core of "bad faith" has two principal requirements. First, one must assume the stance of a blithe indifference to the welfare of others. This isn't the same as wishing ill on others; rather, one need only fail to consider what happens to others given one's intentions and behaviors. Second, one has to prioritize one's own interests in such a way that the effort to secure one's personal interest outweighs any commitment to reveal those interests honestly. These criteria let spies spy in "good" faith while lying and allows the "faithful" to say (or even believe) in things that might be regarded as patently absurd (e.g., virgin birth).

How does one's own "faith" impact others and so become a positive detriment to the public good? When we question nominees to the Supreme Court about their religion we act in good faith when we ask such a question about their faith. Bad faith is answering knowing somehow that what you are saying ("I will act on the evidence alone...) is in fact a dissimulation. But what about the situation when you don't know or fail to appreciate your position? Can you act in bad faith when you don't know you are? I think not. I think then you are just acting mistakenly and that if such errors are pointed out they can be corrected---so long as there is good faith.

So bad faith doesn't require faith as such, it requires self-consciousness regarding one's intentions and means. When that is possible then a faithless person like myself and a faithful Christian like Professor Smith can figure out how to get along just well enough that we both survived and even flourished.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Perils of Truth and Censorship

I am inclined to err always on the side of free speech. One of the bad faith arguments of the Right is that the Left wants speech codes and censorship and uses political correctness to inhibit speech. When Colin "Weapons of Mass Distruction" Powell came to the UR I declined to participate in a boycott though I signed the letter objecting to the fee they were paying him. He should be able to be denounced in public, I said. When it's not yelling fire in movie theatre, I am strongly of the opinion that censorship is the path of tyranny. Hitch and I agree on this even when I found his opinions deeply offensive (re: that war thing again). So what about COVID disinformation?

Disinformation is rampant. There is a direct corollary between Delta variant infection, hospilization, and death and Trump voters. These people are spreading disease that will lead to further shutdowns and the making of misery for those of us who, you know, can manage to understand science and deal with the consequences of a risky world. So should FB permit this spreading disease of misinformation? Where do we draw the line about censorship?

America rife with conspiracy theories, the Big Lie effectively destroying democracy, and an incorrigible, willfully ignorant, dangerous and proven violent population, what should we do? People are free to be stupid so long as it doesn't "break my leg or pick my pocket" as the inexcusably flawed Jefferson once put it, the hypocrite who also wrote the immortal words.

None of us is without flaws, any who have accomplished much of anything have deep shadows; there's no reason to make excuses but there is every reason to think about how truth makes life more complex, not always easier, and invites inner conflict. If we're not conflicted, we're not paying attention but that doesn't solve the problem either. I am willing to embrace the paradoxes of truth---living with conflicts of interest, value, and truth---but I am disturbed by problems that could be solved were our fellow humans less willfully ignorant and craven.

What should we do? We're going to have to try to figure out the difference between living with human paradox and the problematics of human problems. Problems, well, some problems can be solved. And COVID is a problem with a solution. That leaves us with another question: why do humans act so plainly in violation of their self interests? For that, we have even more opportunities to ponder how humans wager with existence when other living beings know better.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

A Fourth of July Sermon In the Pursuit of Liberty and Justice for All

In Pursuit of Shared Blessings

The more closely we look, the more to consider. Some writers mean every word because they are inviting our most careful scrutiny. Others are just as careful to take us off the scent of what words could mean because their possible meanings have never in truth occurred to them or have been dismissed and rejected. I have in mind today particularly Lincoln and Jefferson.


Jefferson lived in a world in which he regarded the privilege and power of white men much as any other self-evident truth: an unalienable endowment of the divine. That the words he (and his colleagues) composed and agreed upon did not include people of color or women was not debated. And in that so-called Age of Reason all plausible facts are worthy of debate. That tells us everything we need to know about how power arises from systems and structures that mean to serve themselves.


To break into other plausible meanings, reasonable claims, and so truths we pursue through debate does not test the self-evident but instead helps realize its purpose. Self-evident truths are regarded incontrovertible---and so the threat of disproof by reason alone is treated as beyond the pale. Until it is not.


Jefferson's basis for self-evident truth is that it is not human-made, which must strike us as ironic in light of the prevailing religious beliefs of his Deism. But notwithstanding this invocation of Divine sanction what is regarded as self-evident because it is incontrovertible might just as well be understood as shared premise. Not only must we be willing to make our assumptions, explicit or implicit, a foundation for further reasoned argument, we must understand that human-made claims are more than vulnerable; they fragile when untested.


If we abandon the assertion of the incontrovertible, we are not abandoning truth but rather the divine claim, the assumption of ordanance beyond evidence, reason, and debate. We are then left with very human selves to pursue truth. We the People must make the case that what must be true is something we alone must manifest and claim for all. This is no small matter. The humanist-alone truth is no longer self-evident but founded on premise and proposition.


This is what Lincoln did to Jefferson's argument, even though Lincoln is arguably far more the theist than his predecessor. Lincoln restates what was supposed to be self-evident as a propositional argument, which will necessarily have premises as vulnerable as the arguments themselves. We discover that our search for truth beyond conditions is once again conditional. What we want to be true before and after our analysis must be remade true in every effort, as the continuous argument.


We shouldn't dismiss Lincoln's theism---for it seems clear that he thought a just God would demand from us the pursuit of truth that is continuously true, which would make it for all purposes much the same as self-evident: always true from before, during, and after the argument. But that idea of pursuing truth is, I think, the genius we see in Lincoln reimagining the problem of truth itself. He aims not to dispute Jefferson but to force upon his self-evident claim the plausible argument that we uncover meaning only insofar as we are willing to pursue truth.


Truth for Lincoln is no longer static, a thing we possess or something known. Truth becomes a pursuit, an unfinishable business that needs to remain unfinished in order to be true. Thus the self-evident requires we work with the premises and test the propositions because they need to be made true, not because they "are."


What I'm suggesting here is that America's claims to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness means that we must dedicate to propositions rather than assert, that we must continue to seek what is moving rather than devolve into immovable declarations.


This kind of truth is going to require toil, tedium to learn and relearn, argument and the slower-moving processes of honest debate. There is no arc of justice but the one we create and for any such arc to exist will require re-dedication and re-application of its unfinishable goals. Justice to be just must pursue what cannot be completed but by our continued efforts to remain engaged.


Lincoln was right when he observed that the self-evident was not only unrealized and unwarranted but in effect unhelpful. What we need is not a static Justice (n.b., the capitalization like we would "God.") Rather what is demanded is dedication and the pursuit of justice--- above all that we agree to our shared premises and propositions.


That last requirement, I fear, is where America is currently failing, our greatest peril. Truth is like democracy: it is hardwon, fragile, and in need of continuous renewal and dedication. Truth like democracy is difficult, often messy and unclear; it is a process that tests our patience and requires inclusion and debate. But truth is also a matter of good faith, shared facts hardwon, and demands we reject the insidious purposes of disinformation. We must not accept the facts but win them in the crucible of arguments well-made.


How is it that 156 years after the Civil War we still cannot agree that all are entitled to the blessings of liberty and justice? To this we must rededicate, for those blessings are like truth itself---not things merely to treasure but rather treasures to pursue.