Sunday, May 21, 2023

A Bridge Not So Far



May 21 2023

I read the news this morning, have you? I know. Who wants to do that?

There is so much of real concern. Today the headlines are more than war, climate catastrophe, corruption, racism and bigotry shamelessly advocated by one of America's two political parties.
Today it must include a crisis that does not need to happen, one entirely of our own making, one wholly avoidable. What sort of society conjures such madness when there is so much that needs to be addressed in shared interests? Why do we seek our own pain, our collective ruination?

To appreciate the debt ceiling crisis---and it is a crisis---we must first opine a bit on human nature. I may not know jack (or his best friend's name) about economics but I pretend to contemplate our shared humanity. What I know is that humans are capable of things worse than we ever like to admit and sometimes better than we imagine.

Let's start with the importance of denial. In the face of illness, death, impending catastrophe, even inevitability there is no quota placed upon our willingness for denial as a strategy. We would, as Bartelby reminds us, prefer not to. We postpone, live "as if", and do everything we can to say not me, not today, even never because admitting otherwise is traumatic, painful, far too real. To put this in our vocabulary, we need the Maya because reality is just too much to deal with before the sky actually does fall.

Denial is a feature not a quirk when it comes to being human. It's no more solvable than any other shadow that occupies the human light that burns as consciousness. 

Let us add to the normal denial (not a good thing, just a normal thing) the abject ignorance of those driving this bus over the cliff. It is genuinely painful to hear Republicans speak about, well almost anything but economics in this case is as dangerous as it is (and I don't like this word but it seems undeniably true) stupid. Think of the fact that 68 million voters thought Trump competent to run this economy. Think of who controls the votes in the Republican Congress. Yes, we are in serious trouble because they simply don't comprehend where this is taking all of us with them.

Then there is the cruelty, the sheer vindictiveness blended into mendacity, craven indifference to consequences, and the shameless joy they take in making people hurt. Cruelty is the point and again Trump is their example: the law like any tangible advantage should belong only to them and must never apply to anyone else, especially their enemies. But that latter point is crucial: they may define themselves with madness, ignorance, and cruelty that they refuse to admit but they are much happy to define themselves by who they perceive to be their enemies. They are not partisans, they are nihilists because they don't care to protect even their own if that means giving in to their "enemies".

I say the problem isn't partisanship. I think it is that we are not partisan enough. Partisans stand with their side but care not to destroy their opponents. Rather they merely figure out how to live with it all. Refusing to accept racism, bigotry, the expurgation of women's rights, the rejection HUMAN rights is not hate: it is to side with humanity. Nihilism is not an abstraction, it is a way of life. "They" must fail at any cost. It's not as if we have not seen this before. But ironically we need to say that the Nihilists must fail and that we are also in the business of helping them live to see another day. Enter Joe who says as much every single day.

Republican white supremacy along with their nihilism must fail.  Caring about all people, even those who want the world to burn if it means destroying themselves and somehow admitting that these shameless, willful bigots too are human and so warrant concern, this may not be a solvable dilemma. I will not grieve their demise in any form that might take even if I will not seek to expedite the worst for them. We are going to need peace even if we cannot have reason. We will not survive a culture based principally on menace and violence.

It seems apparent that playing Russian roulette with the entire structure of the American (and so the world) economy is not beyond this intellectually arrested and ethically bankrupt Republican Congress. The debt ceiling, according to those who really understand this mess, is no joke. But Republicans enjoy watching sane people squirm, they will do anything to "own the libs" and that includes driving the country over a cliff.

The gambit to use the 14th Amendment would require litigation and even if that were expedited to the SCOTUS (as the country melts down), what then? This is a novel legal theory and what makes anyone think that this corrupt Court will not simply allow the world to burn. Remind me, wait you don't need to. Dobbs. Shall we entrust the full faith and trust of the American economy to the likes of Alito, Thomas, and the drunken frat boy sexual abuser? There is really no sane way to rely on the Court to fix what this Congress can ruin and Biden I think knows this. Otherwise the threat of the 14th Amendment or the trillion dollar coin would be made much more.

None of this needs to happen so why didn't the Democrats eliminate the debt ceilng move---why a two step, where you spend the money and then refuse to pay the bill? Because the politics of saying there is no ceiling for debt despite the fact that the spending was authorized by both parties is too hard to sell to people who can't understand or refuse to pay attention to even this simplest argument. Never underestimate the ability of people not to understand when that depends on thinking with a shard (just a shard) of complexity----call me the cynic for that one. If reason made for politics we'd be living on Vulcan. Earthlings for all of their rational achievements prefer simple feelings to complex ideas. Politics is 99% "gut feeling" which is why it is equally foolish to think that Trump cannot win again.

So Yellen is running out of paper tricks, Powell is likely shitting his establishment Republican pants---MAGA hates McConnell almost as much as Democrats. (Check that, they hate Democrats more than they love life: this is why they are nihilists, not just racists and morons.) So now what?

We must be better than we want to be. As they rig and manipulate the system, use their corrupt courts and the power of the structural advantage (think electoral college because the popular vote really does NOT matter), we must be smarter, wiser, more prudent. We must not become bent upon their destruction but rather the victory of decency. They live in a world in which not only must dogs win but cats must lose. We must make room for the cats (no matter how we might feel about them) because without difference we are nothing but sameness and that, that leads to everything that is destructive about humankind.

I don't know if cooler heads will prevail. I don't respect holding the world hostage for the sake of hypocrisy, stupidity, and nihilism. I am going to spend my day reading something more humanizing and enjoying the beauty of this late spring day. But I am not indulging in denial so here I am with too many words writing to you on a Sunday morning. We should be scared enough to step up and pay attention, at the very least, especially when we are more or less powerful to control what happens next. Sometimes paying attention and deciding who you want to be as a person is all you manage. Let us manage that together. We must be that bridge not too far but close enough to hold each other.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

RE: The National Divorce

 I'm a little slow on the uptake but David French is the new right wing commentator on The Time op-ed page. He is of course wrong about almost everything since Republican policies have proven themselves utter disaster since Ike was President. That said, he's not unreasonable, he's just usually wrong. Meh. My unhelpful judgment notwithstanding he makes no case here why secession is a bad idea other than that it would be terrible, dangerous, and undoubtedly violent. That's reason enough.

The problem at this point of partisan inflection is not simply that we disagree but that we neither respect nor much like each other. People divorce for many reasons but irreconcilable differences are cause (certainly that is the legal case). In what world are our differences reconcilable about fundamental issues? On gun safety? Police reform and violence? Climate catastrophe? Education, ummm, Florida? Women's healthcare? Racism? Our fellow citizens traffic in overt, shameless hate and we are supposed to respect these as values, particularly justified by their religion? All the while Red Republicans live off the Feds when it come to Medicare, Social Security, you name it, they take more than they ever give. Sounds like grounds for divorce to me. That said, such a parting is as French says impracticable, surely dangerous and if we can't agree on naming a Post Office or the facts of an effort to overthrow the government, we're going to amicably part? Of course not. There is no solution, no way to around the problems, and nothing good comes of burying our heads in the sand and pretending we don't have to care. If you ignore politics it's because you not only have the right to do so but a sense of privilege that abdicates democracy itself. Such folks might well deserve to live in an even worse authoritarian oligarchy that passively accepts dictatorship. I'll repost my reply to French. My not really public conclusion is that we can't retreat to our Blue refuges and think that immunizing. You may live in happy blue dots but the red infection is certainly going to ruin the fun sooner or later. Blithe indifference and insouciant superiority will not suffice. So what is the solution? To rally politically as far as it is truly possible with the active intention of marginalizing Red power over us. We must use the resources of the law to reduce their effects. Problem is, they are about half the nation so it's also likely we're just screwed. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/05/opinion/national-divorce-civil-war.html#commentsContainer

Monday, February 27, 2023

What I Am Tellling Them and Why

Yet another well-documented article today about the death of the humanities in higher education. Once again the issue that receives no consideration is the one that matters most to me.

What is left of humanities studies is nowadays centered on the politics of inclusion and how and if our study of being human will make for a more just world. Who could possibly object to these needs and aims? Of course the article further details the impracticalities and so the apparent irrelevance of college work that doesn't land a job with a particular skill and expertise purchased at this great expense. Thus the humanities are consigned to navel gazing and less than basket weaving. After all, who doesn't need a good basket and what how do Dante, Dickinson, Tu Fu, Kalidasa, Shakespeare, Patanjali, and Akka Mahadevi have any relevance to making at least a decent basket?

Undoubtedly accomplished students with STEM degrees are going to have employment opportunities and advantages going forward. No one could possibly dispute this and, you will recall, even Obama told students not to major in Art History. I knew then, in something like '08, that I was merely rearranging the deck chairs on civilization's Titanic.

It is a privilege to sail into the heart if life has presented you a near empty or too crowded life boat. But reducing life to survival, resources, and shelter is yet another kind of crime. We cannot make every conversation about survival if we are to live lives of value. We must do better. Everyone deserves the privilege of searching the heart and exploring the greatness of human creativities. I would suggest it's something of a necessity.

So I will continue to play in the string quartet even as the boat sinks. When these kids are 40 and success has brought its usual damages and life is beginning to catch up---sickness, children, death, aging parents, the rest---what will really finally get them is their impoverished souls. The gateways to the soul do not remain forever wide open. In truth, they narrow as we claim the benefits of worldly leisures and address the required banalities of success. The heart is never a desert but sooner or later you must drink from its well-springs and they are filled only with the resources of learning and creativity: if there is no poetry, no music, no literature, no critical thinking and mythic imagination, the thrist will dessicate, the soul will shrivel.

They are unprepared for life not because they have chosen STEM or something practical but because the most important things that are going to happen to them as human beings having nothing to do with practical matters. Without serious study of the human past and our literary and artistic achievements we will become a soul-less society. And of course incapable of claiming the resources we will need to live with ourselves.

The task of the humanities may involve our social and moral betterment but that is not its best or most important purpose. The reason we study human creativities---as we study myth and the rest---is because the deeply private experiences of the heart must enter into these conversations in order to be human at all. Neglect those efforts at your peril. At some point we are all going to recognize that the bell tolls for thee.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Making Peace In the All of It


"I read the news today, oh boy..."


And of course, no one likes the bad news. We seem to get a belly full nearly everyday if we dare to pay attention. To ignore it may be a matter of mental health. Just how much can we take? And the good news is that there usually is good news: life isn't just a vale of tears, life itself should never cease to be the wonder it is. We can make wonder but we can just as much appreciate what is right on offer.

To be grateful is heaven itself, as Blake reminds us, and to be paying attention to all the rest of the truth surely has its consequences. It's likely "bad for business" to offer up here, in social media, views that encourage the whole of the conversation. Why not just tell folks what we'd all prefer to hear? Wouldn't more come to your yoga class?

I've always maintained the yoga means engagement with everything we experience and that it asks us to be vigilant, serious, to develop our critical awareness, and not to shrink from the uncomfortable truths. That can prove stressful and make us reach for an alternative definition, that yoga provides us the relief, the reprieve, the place we go to find remission and restfulness from the world. That is not an argument without merit if we consider the full spectrum, especially from those proposing a nirvana (extinction) of the recurrent suffering (samsara).

But I've never been sold on the soporifics. I do love puppies (alot), rainbows, and memes about how we can distinguish suffering from pain as much as the next person. I don't love being in the fray or feeling frayed anymore than you. I'm not looking for a fight. Still I will not look away. I won't stop caring about learning the truth even when I can't do much about it.

We may be afraid of the truth because we've learned the hard way that it does not always set us free. This means however that we must take up the task of living with ourselves no matter our commitments to understanding and honesty.

A case in the news is worth our reflection on this matter, I think. You will have had to have paid at least some attention to the news to follow. There is far worse news in the news, so this will come as little surprise.

You will recall that Dominion is the name of the company that made voting machines used in th last election.  They were singled out by Trump, the insurrectionist conspirators, and the right wing media as having had a hand in "rigging the election."  Dominion has sued for defamation and this week the process of legal discovery proved unremarkable: Fox and its minions all knew there was no rigging, no fraud, that the case against Dominion was slander, false, a ruse to feed their audience the story they wanted to hear.  What we know now about the Dominion case is that the Fox Propaganda machine was concerned over their credibility in this one case because they actually had told the truth: Biden won. That was the problem. What they also knew was that their viewers were not willing or able to accept the truth. So they sustained the lies not because they believed them or even because they wanted to but for the money. (It's always the money, btw.) (H
ere's the op-ed from Michelle Goldberg that makes the case, plain as day: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/17/opinion/fox-news-dominion.html#commentsContainer)


Should these revelations concern Fox? That they've been outed and hold their audience in such contempt? Hardly. The Fox audience will either never hear (from Fox) or won't care that they've been had, that their heroes are grifters, liars, and frauds. People so determined to believe what they want will either find an excuse for them, deny the truth, or simply turn off any message that doesn't conform to their world view. Empires have been built on lies and fantasies with even less credence. Emperor Constantine knew this just like the Murdochs.

My point is simple enough: are we content to live in our safe delusions or do we dare to find out what's true? And then how do we choose to live with those facts of life?

I say, there is no time to be merely cynical. Better to hold fast to the heart, and while we reckon with our own foibles and flaws, sustain a certain humility for the difficult processes of learning and learning from our mistakes, we stay the course, we try to be human with all our will and effort. Being good may be optional but it is the better option. When others need help to withstand the onslaught, offer what you can. But don't turn aside. If you need help, reach out. Life's blessings should be abundant. Its upheavals will remind us there is more to do. Yoga can be about more than the easeful. Yoga can make peace with staying in the fray.


Monday, August 29, 2022

What You Haven't Earned Is More Important



This week there’s been a lot of hubbub about forgiving student loans. I had them. I paid them. I am thrilled others will find relief from such onerous debt because why should they have to go through this? Just because I have?

Is this one of those Two Kinds’a People Thing? You know those who think everyone should suffer as they have to “earn their way” or maybe that others needn’t have to go through it quite so ? Do we all have to suffer more to somehow be better? I think not.

Don’t mistake me, as Spinoza reminds us, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” But there’s always room for more care, compassion, and insight than self-important claims to meritocratic virtue, most of which ignore how they’ve been built on privilege, luck, and appanage. The value of an education is not merely a job, a profession, or in what you've earned. It's in the heart that can open to a deeper appreciation of what might be possible.

“Merit” has its own complications---not the least of which is that its shadow is virtue. But when you have worked really hard for something it can lead you to work harder and harder and harder and then you forget to do other important things like take time to love what’s valuable.

Merit surely has value but not everything valuable comes from merit. We don’t need to earn love. Grace must have priority.

***


No one could possibly believe that this loan forgiveness is a "solution." It was not meant to be. It was a political effort that appeals to important elements of the Democratic Party. The question then is whether it is good politics in addition to whether it is morally adroit. I would argue that the former is open to debate and the latter is plain.

Republicans will use this to rally resentment and pose their grievances. This is, after all, their sole political platform. They have no ideas other than to anger and inflame their base with culture wars. This will suit them just fine. Nothing Biden or Democrats could do---and I mean NOTHING---would be acceptable to them in terms of any action or policy. Part of their grievance is simply to hate us, we the Libs.

So does it rally Republicans even more to vote? Purely a political question. More importantly, does it anger, estrange, or disaffect Democrats from voting and who does it incentivize to vote? I think the people most benefited by this policy are also unlikely to vote because they received it. In other words, I find Democrats unreliable voters on issues, on voting _for_. Dobbs will more likely draw voters, as Kansas proved. Thus I think the policy is likely neutral.

Nothing changes the venal Republicans; not much affects Democrats. Are there any Democrats estranged by this policy? Not enough to matter. Politics solved. However, this was bad politics insofar as it is a distracting talking point that cycles in the news. Biden and the Democrats must talk about how Republicans are a real and present danger to democracy---because that is TRUE and that message must dominate, penetrate, be made every single moment every day.
Was this a good thing? A moral thing that attempts to redress an onerous, horrid situation? Namely that education is unaffordable and yet so important that it drives people into debt? I would assert that to be paramount. This was a good thing and certainly not the best thing or a solution. There can be no solutions without the political will to alter systems and structures. In today's America, that is a pipe dream. So Biden did what he could, appealed to some segment of his diverse coalition, and helped a ton of folks who are most in need of such relief. It is a fact that the majority of beneficiaries will come from under represented communities and working class families. It is a good thing and that might be the best we can hope for under the circumstances.

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Welcome to the Department of Irrelevance and Dead Languages

  


You will notice from the chart above that I teach the least popular, perhaps the least important subject in the humanities.

Our Department is Religion & Classics.

As professional fields these are two very different worlds---journals, conferences, guilds, etc. Our original intent was to rescue a failing Classics program (circa 1986) but also to form a Religion Department that demurred from the apologetic description as "Religious Studies." We meant to say that we are of course NOT a theology or advocacy department (or supposed to be) but rather critical secular historians and linguists, etc.

They don't call the people down the hall from my office "Historical Studies," so "Religious Studies" is an apology implying a distinction that might be useful for some but is essentially insulting and wrong-headed. We imagined that we are NO DIFFERENT from every other subject: assumptions, evidence, reasons, conclusions, these are the things we do and we investigate. So far, so good, right?  We who study religion professionally have always had to argue for our legitimacy in the academy.


Of course the problem is exacerbated because so many Religion Departments are filled with religious people who shamelessly advocate one (usually) or another (or many?) religions. This undermines our mission.  Being religious doesn't disqualify you from studying religion but neither does it have anything to do with teaching religion.  In fact, the conversation about being religious only complicates and confuses the matter.  There should be a wall of separation between studying religion and being religious that is taller and more formidable than church and state.  Keep your religiousness out of the conversation.  I don't talk about my personal chemistries in chemistry class do I?

I also argued from the outset that Arabic, Sanskrit, and other languages we teach (not Modern) should be treated as "Classics." This angered the Classicists who saw it as undermining their guild, even their subject. You can only study Sanskrit in Religion and Classics yet Sanskrit is apparently neither religion (because it is not) nor is it classic (because the Classics guild hold that "classics" means only Greek and Latin and are ill-disposed to admit others in their sandbox).

At a place like Rochester we originally in R&C made a BFD out of our secular identity and insistence that we are not advocates.  I think that no matter how clearly or frequently we have made this case it doesn't much matter.  It is too culturally ingrained, too nuanced a point, and we are too unwilling to learn this important, nay vital distinction.  All we can continue to do is shout about it and hope someone/anyone listens.  Maybe it doesn't matter that much either.

I would not personally describe myself as advocating or adhering to any religion since that is irrelevant to my profession and work. However, our method in the study of religion is secular, I happen to be both an atheist and a Hindu measured by the duck test. Does it waddle? Quack? But so what? Who cares? BEING one IS NOT qualification of expertise.  (I might describe my own religiousness as utterly secular too inasmuch as the method and the "belief" is nothing but what I also do academically.  Secular critical study is as much my "religion.")  I am biological and chemical but that is no qualification for expertise in the study of biology or chemistry. Being "religious" is ZERO qualification for the critical study of religion. '

Being "religious" is data, it is what we study. One's personal relationship to a religion must be irrelevant if the subject belongs at all in a university. Most scientists are so ignorant about what we do as scholarship that they think we are advocates and dismiss our subject or would prefer to abolish us.

That said, now imagine how students or, worse, their parents understand NONE of these points and arguments. Religion is worse than Art History, which even Barack Obama told us could not be any longer justified. But why? Because costs make college prohibitive.

I will continue to rant.  And this is shameless advocacy but not for being religious.  If you are religious I might study you.  If you are religious I might not care if you don't make your religion my problem.  Many religious people do make their religion my problem, like Samuel Alito or Clarence Thomas. 

Unless we study history, literature, language, and culture we will be under exposed and ill informed citizens and humans. How can we presume to organize socially and politically if we have so little appreciation of what we might learn about being human from one another? The Humanities are not a luxury but a necessity, especially if we have any hope at the more complex and precarious human endeavors like the rule of law or the public good.  

However the same necessity of inquiry frames topics in science. Because we are culturally illiterate we are unable to fathom climate science. Because people are under educated, ill-informed, and under exposed to the truths of science, we frame debates about vaccines and disease in ways that should embarrass and shame us all. We look stupid. Worse, because we don't know how to study religion and how opinion, faith, belief, and unexamined data operates on the human psyche we confuse religion with science. Then we are worse than stupid because now what we feel or believe has more weight than reasoned argument.

We are human, imperfect and science is not infallible. But it is the best we have and if it is a test of personal belief versus the evidence of reputable academics, there is no serious choice. Are you with the magical goatherders of the Bronze Age or do you understand what academics has in fact done to advance the human cause?

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Confederate Party of Lincoln

When Lincoln wrote that the nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal he knew this wasn't true because it had not been realized. He proposed a new birth of freedom of, by, and for the people. These phrases are so well known we likely don't fully appreciate how radical it was to say in its day.


Lincoln was conceiving the United States that had been merely United States. In that he was targeting the Confederate oligarchs who had maintained a minority rule and a federal government that secured the rights of all people. In their view government must not be the peoples' unless it serves the interests of the few who are competent to decide for the collective. Reverting to claims of State's rights was their means to secure power in the hands of the few thus insuring that the will of the people could not interfere with their cultural claims and financial interests.


It is the combination of these two Confederate features that has once again seized control of our system. The minority means to govern and if they cannot govern with the consent of the majority or use the system to secure their power, they mean to rule by any means. Should that process fail to maintain their power they have demonstrated the willingness to use violence. Rule over the majority by intimidation and force are key elements of fascism.


It is no small irony that the current Republican Party and the illegitimate and corrupt Court that imposes their will over the majority mimic the interests and agendas of the Confederacy that Lincoln brought to defeat. At some point I think the impositions of minority rule will once again not only splinter us but will bring the kind of civil unrest and protest that we may not be able to resolve using the mechanisms of liberal democracy.


As rights are taken away---and Roe is just the beginning of that dismantling---people will actually come to realize more palpably the oppression that the minority means to impose. There is a forthcoming ruling of the Court that will likely effectively eliminate the ability of the federal government to delegate regulations to agencies, thus wrecking havoc on the EPA, FDA, well, all of it. The rules will somehow belong to the States where business oligarchs will make sure, as they have with guns and climate, that the majority's will has no power.