Sunday, April 21, 2019

Understanding Nihilism & The Antidote to Nihilism

Understanding Nihilism

It seems like the right day to write about nihilism. There is a puzzling collusion of facts to consider. Nihilism isn't a metaphor, it's not a story we tell because of some inherited past. We may have nihilistic stories but there's always some way we try to redirect them. That can fail because human beings can collect themselves to destroy themselves. That is nihilism.

We need to understand that nihilism is a kind of pathology, it doesn't necessarily know that it advocates self-destruction. Nihilism can be a world view _and_, like our religious fantasies, it can be implemented without much intent or critical thinking. It can also be incompetent, lazy, unintended, and inadvertent because there's something to gain (material, emotional, etc.) or to sell by saying and acting like a nihilist. It can even take on its own vulgar and sardonic humor (irony here is noted), you know, with Calvin pissing bumper stickers and the like. So why are Trump voters nihilists? What can we do about it?

First, while Trump won the poor rural white vote, the average Trump voter earned $10,000 more than the average Clinton voter. We can dispel the notion that government wasn't working for them any worse than it has for everyone else. What we must conclude is that they want to make sure that government doesn't work for "those" people or even for anyone if that's what it takes.

The Mueller report will not change one vote. Trump's base either doesn't care or even wants him to be the person reported. This confirms our first conclusion: they don't want government to be changed or tweaked or reinvented so that it works better for everyone, they want it destroyed because they believe that government is the problem and that it's destruction is the best solution. More to the point, they will do anything to destroy their "enemies." There really is nothing worse than a liberal or a minority person and they will go down with them to destroy this "other."

Trump is an incompetent grifter---they don't care about that either---so long as this leads to the dissolution of norms and the undermining of laws. This defines the Trump base of course as the equivalent of terrorists and nihilists. They seek nothing less than the destruction of the republic as we know it though they may be too foolish to understand just how they advocate for their own destruction.

It's important to repeat that nihilism is a kind of pathology, it doesn't necessarily know that it advocates self-destruction. Oligarchy and authoritarianism taking democracy's place makes them feel better even as it furthers their own failure. That they claim to seek a better life for their children and grandchildren is part of the rationale that something "better" will emerge once their devastation is complete. The Second Coming is part of the pathology, whether or not they know it; it's another cultural feature of a nihilist view. 

This is why there is no reason to "work with" these voters other than to lead them, if possible, to their next pathology, which is to convince them that their nihilism has itself failed. That can be done passively by overwhelming them with voters who reject their candidates. However, this would also require Democrats to be competent, united, and determined. Good luck with that too.  Democrats would have to cooperate with each other but the good news is that they don't have to love one another.  Read on.

The Antidote to Nihilism

There's good news about a possible antidote to nihilism. It's not love, it's cooperation. And we humans have learned to cooperate even when we don't love one another. Sure, it's better that we care, it's even possible that we care so much that we are willing to die for each other. But that is not how we treat nihilism. We are just as willing to hurt one another, to act self-destructively, or to accommodate the meaninglessness that is also at the core of possibilities.
I've been reading King Lear again and when you see Lear in light of certain Hindu mythologies there's a possible antidote to nihilism. You see, in Lear love does not save and, in fact, it is the putative problem from the very outset. How do we prove our love? How do we believe in love? And what can people do that causes love itself to be a part of our just as plausible nihilism? All of these matters come to a summary in Lear. Love does not save us from ourselves however it might have saved us if we had understood that it won't.

What the Hindu mythologies bring to the conversation is that gods and demons are not as far apart as you think. What separates them are different interests but that's not the key. You see the demons are willing to burn down the whole world if they don't get their way. They don't always know what they want and they can be unaware of their impending self-destruction (think Ravana or Duryodana). But that doesn't stop them. There's something that _feels good_ that they want and here is the key to unlocking the difference between the demon's nihilism and the god's cooperation.

The gods cooperate even when it doesn't feel good. The gods don't demand that we love because they know that love does not save us from nihilism. The gods cut deals that don't feel good and will never feel good. The gods cut deals that sully them, that compromise their values, that undermine their purity, that take something from them so that in a greater _cooperation_ there is more possible than destruction or nihilism. To wit, the gods live for another day, with those they cannot control or even like, and they figure out how to live with themselves when they know they have given up an important part of their principle. They decide to cooperate for a greater good and not stand on principle alone; they know that principle alone is the path to nihilism. So they cut a deal.

The opposite of nihilism is the kind of cooperation that cuts a deal for peace. You don't need to "make" peace with the people you trust and love dearly. You need to figure out how to love them because they are flawed, like you. You do need to make peace with people you are pretty sure you don't love or who most certainly don't act like they love you at all, or even want to destroy you. You have to offer them a deal that might sully you some in the process. You have to offer them something they want, that feels good to them or gives them no other better choice that they can understand. If they don't take it, offer them another and another. 

Ask yourself how far you are willing to go and make sure to take note of that. If in the end there's no deal then know that out of the ashes of nihilism you can emerge to make another deal. If you survive, if you win. That's what Mahabharata reminds us is the alternative to nihilism. If you can't handle that then there's always the retreat into the mountain top cave. This is what most Americans will do because they won't read the Mueller report and will just wish it were all over with so that we can get to "important" things.  But they don't want the important things: that would require staying involved with uncomfortable truths.  So they will opt out, like the meditators on the mountain top.  Don't expect the rest of us not to care that you opted out.  We are all in this together.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

What's Left? Self-Respect and the Culture of Self Interest

Words like "disparity" or "incongruity" don't do the matter justice. I mean something more like "chasm," in this case the chasm between the legal and the ethical. Our president and his criminal mob are not being prosecuted because their acts or their position within the legal system suggests that their behavior has not risen to the level of illegality. We rely on the moral judgment of those trained to survey the evidence to reach this conclusion. That no one it seems---not even the president's dupes and toadies---believe him to have the slightest shard of morality is far less in dispute.

How ironic too that we use the word "justice" to describe matters at hand. Whether or not the president is a criminal is reduced to a political matter in a system putatively designed to elevate the rule of law to ethics itself while, at the same time, his craven immorality is regarded as anodyne, just another feature of his character-free character. His supporters cheer because this difference is plainly without distinction.

We have had presidents of low moral stature before, some true crimnals, but perhaps none who has violated the terms of self-respect so plainly on our public stage. It is as if reality is nothing more and nothing other than realityTV. That there is no reality in realityTV is not only the fault of an entertainment industry, is it?

Give the people what they want is the first rule of capitalism and of democracy. There lies some of the rub, no? What does the sale of the people's opioid have to do with morality now that it has no contours whatsoever than, than what? A tax cut? "Are you better off today?" What are the boundaries of collective acceptance when cruelty and vindictiveness are the certain aims of those who respect nothing but their own timorous claims to superiority?

Self-respect seems so, so quaint and old-fashioned. Joan Didion once wrote, "Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts."

It strikes me here that Didion is also looking for the contrast, that is for what merely postures. The posers of self-respect use bravado and brazen indulgence as a means of inspiring the rabble to do as they do, to do whatever they want no matter the matter. If it's not prosecutable, it's permitted. Is that what allows the Trump voter to hail their chief and mock Jimmy Carter? That being moral is only for chumps? What about being "better off"? Is that all we will become?

Such a hardening of hearts doesn't seem possible until we see as much the contrast with those asserting their own ethical standards. Then the litmus tests of moral purity conveniently exile all political rivals who cannot match the mob's determinations of personal offense. Once again there is no legal violation as much as there is another set of criteria for human interactions. How tender must our feelings be before tender feelings are the reason for everything we deign acceptable or liable to reproof? Because we are made "uncomfortable" does that mean that another's behavior is immoral or merely unacceptable? What will that accomplish?

When we reduce the world to personal space we can no longer tolerate the notion that the world really is indifferent to our preferences. How does anyone learn anything _without_ distress? Can self-respect demand that we must learn how to alchemize distress into grace? The sort that endures ordinary indignities and tolerates inescapable human foibles? I am not sanguine for our prospects but neither am I willing to give up just yet.

It is the "sense of decency" that we now hold in question. Prosecutors and pundits debate legality while filing for moral bankruptcy. This means nothing more than we anesthetize ourselves, provoking calls to "move on." We are dulled to the iniquity because we must not allow our own self-worth to be so dimmed that we cannot function in everyday lives. What we are left with is nothing better even if what we demand must be better.

I think Joan Didion is again worth citing because what is at stake is not the president's vacancy of moral values but how we question our own. Let's cite Didion at some length. We will have to withstand the arrows aimed at be-twittered attention spans. She writes, "To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give."

We live in a legal world in which what's legal has been successfully and finally severed from what is moral. When we turn to the moral we find ourselves without the means to interrogate a plurality of values, differing standards, and the need for even greater tolerance. Instead we demand a TV audience to voice personal grievances, albeit the kind that do indeed warrant attention for being personal violations. With the next example of personal grievance comes the call for purity tests for what could possibly be ethical in a world in which "standards" cause a rejection of pluralism itself. We need not be relegated to immorality just because we cannot all agree on what is contemptible. An ethical life does not posture, it stands.

We need to figure out what next to do when a significant portion of our fellow citizens care not in the least for what is ethical _if it suits them_. We must learn to live more deftly in a world of double, triple and more standards. That is, we must find ways to fathom multiple codes, even those that have succumbed to "no sense of decency." What we do next will depend not on fairness or the rule of law but on what each of us makes of a world that is neither legal nor moral but by the choices we make to endure. Whether or not we flourish remains to be seen.