Sunday, December 9, 2018

Storm Upon Storm, A Winter's Tale, Another Sunday Sermon

We all want it to stop. Relentless. That's the part we haven't felt before. That it doesn't let up. The turmoil is ordinary but the madness, the depth of the illness, an illness of character and basic decency, is unfamiliar. We're not used to being under siege, that being a privilege of American life.  Its very forms offend and invite us to wonder how we arrived at _this_ and what we can do about it.

There's a fair preponderance of opinion across Punditland that Trump is worried, scared, and at the end of his rope. That there will be some fair and just end game too. I'm skeptical of the latter not because the rule of law will fail but only because so few understand or ever consider the idea. That takes effort that is not demanded of the citizenry.

Of course, I know only as much as the rest who look from the outside and I'm not going to dismiss those working in that environment with keen professional eyes. But I don't think Trump is any more of his deeply problematic emotions than he has ever been, which is to say that I don't think he is worried or concerned or fearful like any normal person would be. Can we even think about normal anymore? What's that?

We all have reason to feel anxiety or fear or worry. In truth, we don't _need_ reasons to feel any such ways: it comes with our humanity. It's normal, if by that we mean these are experiences selecting us. Life's ordinary storms come as they do, no matter our preparations or care. What more that is asked from us also will also come from our humanity. But it will require more, more than mere indulgence of life's precarious terms of survival. To flourish is a ceaseless endeavor; the task to ask for more and that requires skills learned.

We're not born or naturally equipped to fathom what life presents to us as human beings. We were born with the ability to feel what ordinarily happens and a good bit of that is well beyond our control or comprehension. We have to ask more about what we can be. The deeper resources aren't provided, we have to invent them. Some never do or can't. Some chose to pass it off, project it on their God to do the work that they well-understand is beyond their ken.

Becoming more human remains unfinished no matter where we turn to find that more. There are complex reasons for that too, whether or not we care to inquire. Looking for ways to care for ourselves and others isn't a requirement, it's an opportunity we must help create and nurture whenever possible. We all work from within worlds that created us and not all seek to create.

Trump, as he always is, is wrapt inside layers of narcissism and self-approval that he's needed since boyhood. Unable to win father love, learn from mistakes, or cope with his limited cognitive circumstances, Trump has few skills and can only repeat the same strategies. It's bluster, "charm," threat, the same old story, same old act. He won't change any of that because he can't.

Truth to tell, he hasn't the emotional intelligence to grasp much at all---ask Rex Tillerson or Tony Schwartz, they know how little he comprehends whether that is intellectual or emotional. He doesn't want anymore and none of the work. We might reduce it to something pathetic, warranting compassion or sympathy, were it not so debased, craven, cruel, and threatening to our shared fate as citizens. Instead we have a citizenry held hostage.
The majority of us know we've yet seen only the outlines of criminality and depravity, that the depth is yet to come as Robert Mueller untangles this sordid tale. But a significant percentage sees a portion of themselves in this sick, wounded, tortured man. They cannot possibly be as wholly debased as Trump because they haven't had the privilege that fuels his spiraling mental illness.

But what appeals is the power, the ability and audacity not to care what anyone else thinks or feels or does. They want a certain kind of autonomy over their lives; they want to protect what leaves them vulnerable or makes them victim to a world they barely manage, much less control. Trump believes that they will believe anything he tells them and I think, for the most part, he's right about that. Why?

For that 89% of Republicans who just last week reported that they still support Trump, their needs match his even if their circumstances do not. They _need_ the feeling of being right, persecuted, besieged and triumphant because those are their resources, their means, the ways they cut the emotional deal.

For some others, the especially wealthy, matters are simpler: they use Trump because they want their wealth or power at any cost, they _want_ and the rest can just be damned so long as they can profit. But the majority, the Fox voter, the rural poor, the suburban once-middleclasser feesl a deeper desperation and despair, no matter how that configures into real world problems.

It's not the desperation that singles these folks out. It's the different strategies and shapings of experience. I'd wager most of us here too feel the rushing water of the deep blue sea just below the oak plank we use to keep from drowning in the everyday. We hold ourselves upright and know that what keeps us barely dry is a strange alchemy of kindness and terror. It storms too from above, so it's coming from all directions. Such is a life that promises nothing more but invites better.

But unlike the Trumpists, for whom the desperation has projected remedies and deals in assertions, we look to a different set of emotional tools, feelings that demand more ambivalence and nuance, like empathy and constructive forms of frustration that point as much towards as away. We're looking for questions as much as answers and the sort that might not answers. Some folks just don't want that or the consequences.

What's different for Trump and his followers is that any form of denial or affirmation suffices until the next one and the next one---but the truth that mines the unfinished while admitting vulnerability is cast aside.

Looking at yourself is no small matter. Some, it's important to remember, just can't. They never learned, they don't want to, they don't believe in the powers of reflection, self-inquiry, or constructive critique. These are not structured into a life of self-learning and won't be. It's easier to trade in more sanctimonious forms of assurance, the sorts that reside in more settled opinion or "values" to be asserted but not questioned.

When the world brings its inevitable turmoil or failure ensues and salvation does not, they find redemption in fantasies that come with religion or some other belonging-club, it could be guns or sports or 'family', it doesn't matter, something, anything that says "us and not them."

It's harder to take in a world that promises nothing more than the chance to love, accept those costs, and ask for what else is possible that can better a human life.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Different Kind of Hope

If you make it to the fifth paragraph here you might see my point without getting too upset with me. I have a take on commitment that may not suit you or resonate for _you_ but I'm willing to admit that all of this "hopefulness" does nothing for me. I find the "yes, we can" inspiration a distraction rather than a help. I prefer another way to commit.

"If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour."
---Henry Vth, Act 4, Scene 3d

How does telling yourself what you want to happen help make things happen? I see why people need this kind of narrative to do the work, to be motivated and inspired. You know, the whole power of positive thinking thing. It's real enough if it's real for you. I just checked the Google Gods and you win, there are hundreds of books and videos. But I'm telling you, there's an entirely different way of approaching life.

I think because I don't subscribe to this emotional strategy that I'm mistaken for defeatist or a cynic. But "positive thinking" and the hopefulness tact is not the only way one can be motivated to do that right things and to do hard work that may or may not succeed. It's particularly hard for Americans, well maybe for anyone, to see the point that we can work, want, and urge ourselves forward without the discourse of the emotional salve of hopefulness. We Americans are the can-do society, or we used to be. But while that may help you, for me it's less help or even part of the problem.

When Krishna admonishes Arjuna at the opening of the Gita and even then closes the discourse, he does not encourage the warrior to feel or to hope or to indulge in a "can do" attitude. He urges him to do his duty and, in fact, not to let his hope, pessimism, or _any other_ kind of emotional state to govern his actions or intentions. In effect, he tells him to be as Spock as possible: calm, cool, determined, focused, resolute, committed. He doesn't tell him he needs to feel like he can win to win. In fact, he tells him the chips will fall, he might fail, and there will be consequences to that.

The emotional salves, the emotional inspirations, pep talks, all the rest might help some but they are not necessarily the cause of effective action. Effective action means doing the work, like it or not, no matter how you feel or what you want, or what you wish. Just do it is the message. I am a creature of duty. How quaint. But when it's my job, I show up, I do it with all my heart, I care because I am supposed to be that person. Sure I _feel_. I love somethings, dislike others. I care about people, about life, about politics and culture. But how I feel on that given day or in that given situation can be irrelevant because I must do my duty, my Dharma. That is _enough_ for me. I want to do what's right more than anything else I want. It's _that_ feeling that I love best of all. Do you really think I love teaching every class or that my being hopeful or positive matters to the quality of my teaching? I certainly do not.

In other words, you can "put your heart into it", that is have śraddhā or "faith" without the least bit of wishful thinking, hope, or claim you can win in the face of the facts. When the Bard creates the voice of Henry Vth before the Battle of Agnicourt the King doesn't give the troops a can-do, we can win this talk. Instead he tells them how lucky they are to be there, to fight the fight, and how those who sleep in their comfortable beds are missing their chance to do what is good and right, missing the gifts of effort and friendship, that there is something good about doing what is right. That is the same sentiment that Krishna makes in the Gita. Winning and losing are not irrelevant---it's better to win. But what you need to be in the fight is the desire for the right, the rest is emotional salve.

So if hope is how _you_ do it, that's fine with me. But there are other ways to think, to feel, and to be committed to the work. I prefer the numbers, the study of history, I prefer a cool, sometimes dark realism. I'm sure I don't love any less. In truth, for me, I'm sure it reminds me why I love so much. I want to feel without fictions. I may work harder because the facts tell me we won't win. But I will do the work no matter whether we can win because it's what's right. I want to do the right, that's enough. Nothing about thinking we are not likely going to win makes me work less hard to win. YMMV. Really. It might vary. Do your needful. I will do mine. But this too,

"Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
...For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition..."

Carry on.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Further On Down the Road, A Few Notes Sung About How to Move Forward

First a love song for a friend.

"Further on down the road baby, you will accompany me...
I think back, your love was like a sun
Don't remember no dark days, I just remember the warm warm fun
Further on down the road baby, you will accompany me
If we fools in life... a happy fool I'd rather be.
Oh baby I'll be glad to learn from you
And darlin' I know you will be glad to learn from me
And if we get down and things get sad, we can cheer up each other
And grin 'cause things just ain't that bad
If we fools in life, than a happy fool I would rather be
Day by day, just one step, one step at a time
'Cause you have given me so much
Just to ease this stubborn little achin' heart of mine..."

It's been a rough few months. It's not likely been easy for you either. These are troubling times.

I've sat for days and days with my dear friend Dr. Kishan Pandya till his end this past Sunday. I would have chosen nothing else, nothing less. Kishan was a brilliant doctor, a wonderfully gifted artist, and a visionary of self. He retired from medicine to pursue Sanskrit studies, to make more music, to revel in the company of a beloved family and the company of a few good friends. We spent hundreds of hours together over this past decade, talked about love, language, politics, religion, and life. I don't know what I will do without him now. Something needs to ease this stubborn little achin' heart of mine.

I've been delinquent in finishing the Gita commentaries, only occasionally rising to meet more immediate responsibilities including University lectures and Seminars. Built into my RajanakaDNA, my training as a student of India, is a deeply Indian sense of duty, a concept that both invites us to character and challenges our very core. It's not only an Indian idea, expressed plainly in the opening of the Bhagavadgita, it's a shared human value, each culture creating its own version. Everyone does a cover version of this one.

After all, a duty is the experience of an incumbency mixed with urgency, it is the real sense of responsibility and that we must act upon those things, it is the honest expectation not only to one's self but to others. We can be devoted and assured but duty's shadow is just as real: we can also lapse into self-righteousness, be given to folly and blind to the ways we are reciting commands---self-imposed and otherwise---that are mere inventions. I've been keen to keep both light and shadow in mind. But one is never sure how to stay in that seam where both real value and the wound make for deeper engagement, a yoga of meaning when there can be no yoga of clarity. We must persist. What is life but to love its strange gifts when sorrow is never far?

I've been working some too, not enough, that has had it's distractions including staying up far too late to be productive. I'm blessed with friendship and conversation, inside and out. Somehow I found myself playing the Burns and Novick documentary on Vietnam over and over again, especially the early episodes that describe the vile impositions of colonialism and then the precipitous slope of dissimulation, the fully cognizant lies, and the failures of leaders which brought death and devastation to the Vietnamese and others, and to young Americans and their willing allies. I was only ten years old in 1967 when my brother was drafted, when the FBI came looking for him at our door, when it began to become crystal clear to my child's mind that we being lied to, that our country was failing again at its noble experiment. And indeed it has always been a noble experiment. Why must it fail again and again to so much insipid folly?

It would be a few more years for me before the follies of religion would become as clear, though that never deterred me from pursuing what I thought was religion's greatest gifts: art, music, poetry, myth, ritual, and honest philosophical inquiry. But let's be honest: not all of that inquiry is honest. Much of it is devoted to the same kinds of falsity, distraction, and consolation that led us into and kept us in that war.

Religion, as we all know, is a tool and a prop for whatever purpose we might want, far too often to manipulate our honest human needs and herd us towards our worst human instincts. But like politics, we would be mere beasts without it because however we fail to fathom our feelings or reach into reason, we are only as good as what we can create. God is on no one's side. I learned that too at this tender time.

On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, the Great One himself, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces. He said plainly, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” And this was considered unpatriotic, even unAmerican. On June 20, 1967, they convicted Ali of draft evasion, sentenced him to five years in prison, fined him $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. They meant to destroy him. But he would have none of it. We should take that lesson to heart, deeply to heart.

It was then in the summer of 1967 that the ironies and tragedies of the age crystallized yet another revolution of thinking, feeling, and action. We were presented with the fantasizing proposition that All You Need Is Love. (The song was released in July 1967 as non-album single.) In the midst of a politics of bitter division and well-justified social unrest came the imperative to _create_ something else.
The declaration that "'s easy" is an irony we know John meant us to savor: why is it so hard to do what is so easy?

There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy
Nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time
It's easy

Let's not mistake the psychedelia for the deeper truths. We were asked to be carried away, to create an alternative. The world we'd inherited wasn't all evil but it had taken so many terrible turns we knew our elders and many of our leaders were lost. The maelstrom was real, just as it is today. We learned in our purple haze, that in our own "procul harum" we could enter into and experience things that are literally "far from these things." ("Procul Harum is a Latin misanthropy meaning "far from these things," but it might just have been the name of someone's cat. Absurdity is a great teacher, no?)

We took leave, we went elsewhere because the world, especially the world of our parents' truths, the just war world that defeated fascism, that world was obviously failing. What is truth and where is meaning? The facts were lies and somehow the withdrawal from reason was understood: it could provide new insight if only we listened more deeply to the heart.

We learned the truth from the goddess Vesta who reminds us: "She said there is no reason/ And the truth is plain to see..." There was acid changing The Beatles on the greatest single record album ever made---Donovan was the Sunshine Superman, and Traffic proposed that this was all a Hole in My Shoe. Our deep melancholy and pain for the war, for the violence of the white nationalist racists, and for the realization that "god and country" are both lies was palpable. All the while there is napalm in the jungle and our innocence burns. The words break through and the revery offers only a brief respite from the tragedy of a world at war with decency itself. When decency is lost then love is all that might remain if only, if only we make it easy. And easy is the hardest thing we ever do. Zen knows, and so does Rajanaka, that's what Appa taught me. I need to remind myself everyday.

I think these recent late night forays have brought home both hard facts and well-worn dreams. I am not worn out but I feel worn, and that's not all a bad thing. I am comfortable with this deep discomfort; the pain is a great teacher. My friend was dying and medicine, however heroic and honest in its efforts, would not save him or even give him a few more months or years. And after all, isn't "save" just another lie?

In the meantime America now condones the state murder of journalist who was divulging corruption and pleading for freedom of speech while, on the very same night, our president holds a rally in which he applauds violence against a journalist and the crowd cheers wildly. We are the mob he says. It's us, not they who protect the murderers or incite the mob before them.

The recursion of our collective failure at this moment in our history reminds me that 1967 was no anomaly. What we need more than ever---and what we are in fact creating---is a new activism and a new call to do something easy. What's easy? To care for refugees fleeing from violence and oppression, to listen to women coming forward to tell their truths and create meaningful change and pursue justice, to put in place an _alternative_ to the violent, racist, sexist rhetoric and rise to the occasion of human rights: justice, protest, and the exercise of democracy.

We must not, I think, allow our feelings to get too much the best of us. We can rather learn something from the prophetic voices of 1967---from MLK, RFK, Lennon&McCartney, Dylan, Janis, Velvet Underground, Aretha demanding we Take a Look, Sam Moore and David Porter singing about a Soul Man. All of these artists asked more from us and, at the same time, the simplest things we share in our common humanity. John Berryman published his Sonnets, Gwendolyn Brooks and Marianne Moore offered brilliance and real alternative vision, Lowell and Atwood and Ondaatje, all created artistry in the face of a world gone mad. They wrote about madness and the madness it would take to make the world a far better place.

I think a lot these days about Robert Kennedy too, about what might have been had he been president. He wrote in what can today appear with a bit too much anachronism.  But let us not fail to take his point,

"“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Write on. Rage Calmly.

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:

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:

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.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

An Average Essay

Ah, the inevitable Back to School essay in today's Sunday New York Times with all its earnest and undesigning intendments. It cites the renowned physicist making the point that if you are an average person who applies themselves diligently you'll get very good at something and that that's a real something. Thank goodness most of us are average, I say. I'm sure _he_ wasn't and I am sure I am. So I take his point.

Bruni does make a point you rarely hear from these sorts of Dean-like inducements. (N.B., when I went to college we didn't have a Dean of Inducements or Wellness or Something. I'da'done better? Not sure.) Bruni writes, "Another of those skills, frequently overlooked, is storytelling. It’s different from communication: a next step. Every successful pitch for a new policy, new product or new company is essentially a story, with a shape and logic intended to stir its audience. So is every successful job interview. The best moment in a workplace meeting belongs to the colleague who tells the best story." There's a romance to this I cannot resist. And there's a better chance that Trump can spell White House "Councel" [sic]. Yes, the President of the United States can't spell "Counsel"---see his latest tweet---or doesn't know the difference. But that's yet another story because he tells only the best stories. Hard is an America than can elect _this_ guy.

Much of the Bruni article nails it, of course, because it's not hard to get it right. Build human relationships, study outside your comfort zones, explore and work with less purpose and more play, sleep and exercise, don't drink too much---it's not hard, so what's hard?

Hard is doing all of these things well and _then_ entering a society that largely does not value them. Worse is going through college as vocational school and then entering a workplace that is so fraught with pressures that all you really do is work and work. Worse is a society intent on making sure that you can't afford healthcare, childcare, your elderly parents, or your own retirement that you are working every single day on the very edge of your sanity. Worse is a world where doing something valuable barely pays you a living wage and what pays is just making money, which then becomes something you have to resent.

What's wrong with college isn't in its privileged respite from the world because without that respite you will never learn to read, write, or think. Those skills take time and time _is_ privilege in a world that gives you almost no time to do much but survive and take the occasional vacation. How many of you can come home from work and do something _more_ for yourself than bare necessities, even if that's a yoga class, something you like?

What would make for a better life isn't just getting college right because, like I said, almost anyone could write _this_ essay. What would make all the difference is coming into a world that placed more value on those things you actually could learn. The rest is a job and a race that is better suited to rats than human beings (apologies to real rats).

Friday, August 10, 2018

More About Complexity and Learning

School is on the horizon and I mourn more than the loss of a summer largely lost, but that's all too personal a matter to matter much. I don't lament my shrinking university enrollments, they mean I can pay closer attention to students in the classes and that I will have fewer papers to grade and _every_ college professor would prefer that, especially those few of us who must grade our own papers.

My purpose here is to raise a few issues other than the failing state of liberal education. What's "failing" isn't the subjects or the merely the pressures of capitalism on learning but a great politics of learning. What's failing in education is failing everywhere else too. We are feeling overtaken, overwhelmed, overdone by complexities we don't control, by lives that we struggle to manage in everyday ways. Why?

What's "failing" aren't the subjects nor is it merely the pressures of capitalism on learning. We fail because there is more world than we can comprehend, far more than we address or change---learning means there is always more, and I can assure you that if you are serious about learning, there is more than ever to consider. As anti-intellectual as Americans are, the state of our learning has never been even remotely this advanced. We know _so much_ that we are overwhelmed by the horizons of our ignorance. We even know sometimes that we don't know. Because there is more to learn than ever before; because there is more real world than ever around us. And it _is_ complex.

We're inclined then to tell ourselves how we long for simple things, like family and friends, the pup's constant love, the things we like. None of this will make the world a less complex place. We want reprieve but there is never going to be less complication or confusion because they too come with complexity. Ritual often points out the disparity between what's "really" happening and what we wish were true, but that is a matter not only for communion or graduation, that incongruity is happening all the time.  It doesn't often feel good and so we avoid talking about it but nonetheless find ways to address it, because we must.

To escape complexities and the serious effort it takes to learn about the real world, we use allegiances to sports teams, hobbies, we take yoga classes about feeling good, and who doesn't want to feel good? Life is precarious, short, and what's the point of more hurt? Who can object even as we acknowledge the privilege not to contend is a privilege? We daily need instant-vacations, anything from 30 seconds to hours of relief in which we vacate from the complexity. But it is complexity that really scares us as much as the world that seemingly could stand a little more nirodha and little less vritti-esque tumult.

Identity politics is a way of reducing problems to a list of grievances or factors that make them manageable. Laura Ingraham is making white anxiety about change her focal point on the far right---and mainstreaming it on Fox to that self-selecting audience. Those on the farther end of the left have complex arguments about structural historical problems but being a bottom-line, get to the point, keep it simple culture that avers complication at all cost, issues are similarly reduced as far as possible. Racism, misogyny, however these are reasons for things that we long to change, no _one_ variable is _the_ reason. It's just more complex than that. We prefer to look for one reason, _the_ reason why this or that is the core and then the source of our particular concern. Not a chance that's true.

The pursuit of simplicity is anything but failure, as Occam so helpfully demonstrates. But it is Occam's razor that reminds us that "simple" means the _fewest_ number of variables and our world shows us how rare "few" is and how ordinary complex needs to be. That is, if we have any desire to take matters seriously. Like I said, we'd prefer to reduce or vacate whenever possible. That's going to make the world a worse place, as I see it. Why? Because knowledge continues to grow, because humans live in a global community no matter who tribal or parochial we are. So what can we do?

First, we have to admit that our subjects, our understandings, our efforts are more complex and need to be, that this process is more unfinished and in progress than ever, that no _one_ of can keep up with what we _need_ to know. We're going to have to delegate, specialize, and trust that those we rely on are acting in good faith, on the basis of the evidence and something like facts, that they can be wrong as much as we want them to be right. aComplexity means simple trust is always at risk because the world won't relent from complexity even for a moment. Information is global instantaneously and all good argument (let's use that phrase to mean "truth") means is an informed opinion. The more that we _really_ know, the more doubts we will have. This isn't the same as uncertainty, it's more complex than that. Not everything is worth doubting.

Second, we have to become more agile, more resilient, more capable _with_ the deeply discomforting features of complexity. We're likely ill-equipped for this in evolutionary terms much less emotionally. We're going to need some character evolution, more willingness to use the imagination to try to get further than our own immediate perspective. Just how to do that when time conspires to overwhelm us with the daily anodyne necessities, like making a living, raising children, dealing with our health? Time may be all we have so we have to ask how willing we are to make time for things that are important to us. Deciding what's important or what to prioritize is no simple matter. Once again complexity rules us no matter how simple we make our lives.

Last (for now, 'cause complexity tells us there is always more), we need to embrace complexity rather than run away, merely vacate, or use reduction as our preferred learning. Students often ask me how long a paper needs to be. I say they should write every word they need and fewer that they don't. This never helps. Then I say something like not fewer than X pages, not more than Y. They would prefer questions with answers, at worst multiple choice, and a world that doesn't ask so much of them. But that's the point: the world is never going to ask less of you unless you give up on caring about how the world really is. How's that world? It's mixed up, muddled up, and shook up. It's not going to get less complex until you will depend on it to take care of you. Take care, as much as you can. Complexity won't give up, so don't give in to less.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Towards a Humanist World

Ross Douthat in the NYTimes writes today about how the humanities are on life-support, at best, in colleges and universities. I am here not merely to confirm anecdotally those enrollment facts---my classes for the first time in 30+ years are under enrolled when once they bursted at seams.
The crisis in teaching the humanities is real because we have not learned their value or understood their necessity. Douthat claims their value but utterly fails to appreciate the origins of the problem and its plausible remedies.

I'm not less now than I was when my classes were seam bursting and there are reasons that Douthat does not address. A significant number of our students do not have the language skills required to do essential humanities work given the serious pressures of science learning. I assign the work and it rarely gets done because they can't do it and don't have the time. But these same students do have the science skills and they are admitted to the college. The courses we compel them to take are wholly inadequate and urging them by building a "Humanities Center" into the university structure is nothing more self-rationalization and another way to subvent poor salaries for underpaid professors. This is another story entirely. But Douthat is right that the children of Hermes have lost the war to Apollo's claims to usefulness. He is wrong about why this happened and has worse still ideas about any remedy.

His critique of contemporary humanist academia, I am sorry to say, is largely correct: they have made their work insular, self-important, inaccessible, and uncommitted to humanizing and developing the values of character that make the humanities more than political platforms. I don't share Douthat's rightwing peevishness about how the critical theorists now have little more than political identity agendas. I think those theorists do indeed raise the important issues about power, privilege, sexism, and exploitation. But I do agree that we have largely given up on thinking in the kinds of perennialist and humanist terms that would allow us to take seriously what makes us _human_ not merely human under this or that cultural and historical umbrella.

Humanists have _narrowed_ humanism because they run the risk of claiming universalities that are yet further expressions of domination and political determinism. To become real humanists again we will need to take more seriously how we can talk about shared values, ideas, and common human needs. For my part, I read comparatively with students, placing something like Aurelius's Meditations nexts to the Bhagavad-Gita, and Dickenson's poems beside Mirabai. What can two very different things tell us about the third thing: our shared humanity? But I am ahead of myself here.

Douthat has three explanations, all of which reflect his decidedly Catholic and rightwinger worldviews. I think he understands his own argument when he writes, "Communism is dead (I think), the religious landscape of the 1950s is even deader, and the humanistic history of midcentury was Eurocentric in a way that a more globalized and multiracial society could neither embrace nor sustain." (To follow this line of thinking may require a close reading of the piece, but it's short and typically easy to follow.) But he's dead wrong as to what it would take to revive the humanities. He makes his proposal clearly enough: "First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed." This is neither wise nor possible. There is a better solution.

No humanist can talk about "religious truths" with a straight face because we know better: religions were once what we demanded to be true because we asserted facts without the critical apparatus, largely denied by the religious. Once we found out that their literal assertions were little more than superstition that game was supposed to be over. That it's not over, that we still have to contend with Douthat's idea that religious truths are "serious" is part of problem. What's dead serious about them is that people take them seriously. This is why we need to study religions: not because they are true or because they humanize us but rather because people endeavor religiously and so act upon worlds of their invention.

First, for humanists to have a role in a 21st century learning process we must begin with _humanist_ rather than any religious notions of truth. That is, we need to have the temerity and seriousness to claim that we are pursuing matters that reach into our common humanity _through_ the windows of history, culture, and unveil the structures of power, prejudice, and abuse that have shaped civilizations. This dispenses with Douthat's call to religious truth and invites us to think about being human without the fictions of any literal gods and their big hat standard bearers. Since I study religion for a living I can assure you that we must study how religion---sometimes for good, mostly for worse---continues to shape culture and individual lives.

That religion brings with it art, music, mythology, ritual, and other cultural achievements that invite us to invest in our soulfulness, character, and moral well-being demands that we divest from literalism even as we study its continued demands and effects. Critical thinking demands we ask every question, follow the evidence, and look for reasons to revise our deepest convictions in light of the process of knowledge: all of this is anathema to religious "truth." Our pursuit demands that we use the method to ask about what it means to be human: unfinished, incomplete, and in pursuit of ourselves. The humanities go to the core of our deep need to feel _human_, not to believe supernatural claims. We need those instruments and forms to take us to those core and elemental feelings and ideas about how we live and how we might want to live.

Second, history is indeed a litany of crimes and wrongthink, Mr Douthat, and claiming otherwise is worse than denial, it is part of the problem, certainly another good reason _for_ the humanities. But our studies need not focus on the justifiable grievances nor merely focus on political corrections and remedies. Rather, to reveal a greater humanity we must study light and darkness, goodness and shadow, the strange paradox of humanity's possibilities for altruism and our equally limitless potential for mendacity.

This human possibility for goodness matched by evil is a bug in the system, it is a _human_ feature. As we learn and unveil the honest history of human cultures we can take more seriously how each offers insights and proffers values that _might_ reach to the edge of a common humanity. The goal of all knowledge is to reach generalization---true for all, true in every case---and yet that same aspiration is as much a sort of tyranny and oppression as it is case for collective moral advancement. We need to teach the varieties of human achievement and the many formations of human character that will allows us to embrace a more complex and diverse human _nature_. We are one species but many, many kinds of humans.

Last, we need not attempt to stem any tyranny of machines even if we justly fear what we humans can create. The real totalitarian threat doesn't lie with machines but with those who reject evidence, reason, and open, honest enquiry. The real threat from the machines is that they will be, and are being used, by people who would do what they have always done: sought power and profit at any cost. We have a planet that we are ruining for humans, cultures that fear the future not for technology but for a new global politics, and individuals without the intellectual humanism they need to explore their own character, feelings, values, and ideas.

We need to _take the time_, not away from the machines but into the questions and works of history that empower us to think more clearly, read more critically, understand more deeply, appreciate more affectively the world we live in. We need to invite young people to study and do the work of becoming more fully human. The machines are not in the way. Rather it is the cultural will required to value these endeavors.

Here's the link to Douthat: