Thursday, September 11, 2014

Intellectual Property

One thing that has persistently fascinated me is the manner in which ideas refuse to be owned, despite our attempts to claim them (e.g. Newton and Leibniz fighting over calculus, Darwin and Wallace over natural selection). My own research consistently discovers people saying utterly ridiculous things about individual responsibility (e.g. "Plato is largely responsible" for some trope that runs thick through culture before and after him). It seems to me that ideas find people: a really powerful idea will find more than one person (over and over, as people bump into the circumstances that enable it).

I once tried to express this insight to a fellow student (in grad school), and his response was to worry that I would steal his research--and claim it for myself--as though my assertion that I could never really own an idea amounted to an excuse to lie (about ideas that might not even have occurred to me). I was surprised by this (and a little saddened, honestly, that I presented myself so poorly to this person that he came away from our encounter taking me for a thief). For me, the reality that I don't really own ideas is one that invites honesty and openness rather than the reverse. I don't care if you steal my ideas: I relinquish them as assets that I control. I cultivate ideas not because they make me rich or famous or respected (famous in the right places), but because I enjoy thinking--and want to do it mindfully. If there were no external fame and glory in my work as a thinker, I would still do it--and have "a real job" on the side, as so many other thinkers (more skilled than I) have in the past. To live by one's wits is fundamentally, for me, to be an honest charlatan. I see that I claim a kind of superiority over my own thoughts that I don't really possess. I see that thoughts possess me at least as much as I possess them. I see that it is silly to worship me when I am possessed by a thought that society judges to be cool (for whatever reason: the judgement of society, even learned society, is always at some point absurd). I feel this very deeply. I hope I can learn to express it without coming off as some kind of sleazeball (the academic version of an empty suit).

Every good idea I have, including the one for which I get credit (and tenure and κλέος ἄφθιτον), is one that someone else has probably also had (or will have, with as much claim to originality as I). Seeing this reality, I cannot take too much credit for my ideas. This does not predispose me to take credit for your ideas, but to take less credit, and give less, for the mere possession and expression of an idea. Ideas are valuable. People are valuable. People are not valuable to me because of their ideas, but because of their character (the way they use those ideas). This means that I am very comfortable sharing ideas with people whose character I would never adopt. I can think with Hitler, or Lenin, or Osama bin Laden, or anyone, really. I can see their ideas with the realization that these are present, powerful, and real to them--and perhaps to me. But I cannot then act as they do. I must keep my actions, my responses to ideas, filtered by character.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Musings on Market Share

I hear people talk about there being an 'asset bubble' in the Western education market, similar to the one in the US housing market that popped around the turn of the century.  I agree that there is probably a bubble in education, and here are some thoughts I had about it, and about asset bubbles (or "economic growth") in general.  In sum, I do not believe in progress without regress, life without death, up without down, etc.

Every commodity can be over-valued. I think many people pay far too much for education right now--largely because they confuse education with institutional affiliation, as though learning or professional vocation were somehow inextricably dependent on possessing the imprimatur of a particular institution. The more the latter becomes true, the closer to collapse the market is. The more institutions corner the market on education, the more they invite the kind of corruption and abuse that sow seeds for a regime change that will severely depreciate the social value of their imprimatur (which may go extinct as a valid way of offering credentials, the way Bear Stearns is extinct as a means of managing finances).

Why do I oppose Monsanto? Not because I don't believe in science (or evolution, or agriculture). I don't believe in putting all eggs in one basket. I don't believe in cornering markets. I would like to find the smallest margin of profit I can maintain without going under (as an individual or institution), and then seek to maintain that (as long as the environment supports it)--not grow it to the point where I dominate (and invite the lightning-bolt of Zeus).

I oppose Monsanto because I see them doing to agriculture what universities aspire to do to education, what GoldmanSachs aspires to do with banks (and the nations that rely on banks), etc. To control all shots is dangerous, semper et ubique. I want minimal control (enough that I don't die), not too much (so much that I become "too big to fail" and wind up dragging entire communities down with my inevitable failure). Whatever we build must eventually fall down. I want to engineer institutions with this reality in mind--with the mortality of all companies clearly present in the mind of those creating them and working for them. We should aim not to live forever (nobody has achieved this, and you are not smarter than the guys who built Rome), but to die with minimal harm to those in and around us. We want to minimize corrosion, not maximize utility (or profit or advantage or brand or control or market-share or whatever anyone wants to call it). Losing well, over a history of multiple market-cycles, is more important than winning in any individual cycle (and there is no such thing as winning over all cycles).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Chris Hedges.  War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.  New York: Perseus, 2002.  ISBN: 1586480499.

This is a sobering book, packed with insightful observations of the human condition at its worst.  Hedges writes from the perspective of a seasoned war journalist, well aware of all that his job entails (especially the evil).  Here are several passages that really struck me.  Even though the first is quite long, an extended reflection on war built around anecdotes from modern conflicts (especially the Persian Gulf War), it is worth quoting entire (pp. 146-150).
It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective. And because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.

Edmund Dene Morel, the British crusader against Belgian atrocities in the Congo, denounced World War I as madness. He argued that through a series of treaties kept secret from Parliament and the public, Britain had become caught up in the senseless and tragic debacle. His fight against the war saw mobs break up his meetings with stink bombs and his banners ripped down. He finally could not rent a hall. His friends deserted him. Police raided his office and his home. The wartime censor banned some of his writings. He was flooded with hate mail. The government finally jailed him in 1917. It was only after 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded that he was proven correct--the treaties did indeed exist. The war was a needless waste. But by then the myth of the war was no longer needed, since the fighting had ended.

The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism. And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, used to tell us that we would end our careers fighting an ascendant fundamentalist movement, or as he liked to say, "the Christian fascists." He was not a scholar to be disregarded, however implausible such a scenario seemed at the time. There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war--both for and against modern states--and those who believe they understand and can act as agents for God.

History is awash with beleaguered revolutionaries and lunatic extremists who were endowed with enough luck and enough ruthlessness to fill power vacuums. The danger is not that fundamentalism will grow so much as that modern, secular society will wither. Already mainstream Christianity, Judaism, and Islam lie defeated and emasculated by the very forces that ironically turned them into tolerant, open institutions. In the event of massive and repeated terrorist strikes or an environmental catastrophe, an authoritarian state church could rise ascendant within American democracy. The current battle between us and our Islamic radical foes can only increase the reach of these groups.

But whether the impetus is ostensibly secular or religious, the adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause. When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices.

The cause is unassailable, wrapped in the mystery reserved for the divine. Those who attempt to expose the fabrications and to unwrap the contradictions of the cause are left isolated and reviled. We did not fight the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, but to ensure that we would continue to have cheap oil. But oil is hardly a cause that will bring crowds into the street.

I was with young Islamic militants in a Cairo slum a few weeks after the war. They no longer attended the state school because their families did not have the money to hire teachers to tutor them. The teachers, desperate for a decent income, would not let students pass unless they paid. These militants spent their days at the mosque. They saw the Persian Gulf War for what it was, a use of force by a country that consumed 25 percent of the world's petrol to protect its access to cheap oil. The message to them was this: We have everything and if you try to take it away from us we will kill you. It was not a message I could dispute.
We allied ourselves with some of the most despotic regimes in the region during the war, including the Syrians, who sponsor an array of terrorist groups. Damascus demanded $3 billion as the price for sending its troops to support the war effort. The morning the invasion began, I traveled with a Marine detachment past the Syrian soldiers. They were drinking tea. They waved us forward. None of them ever saw any fighting. We did not see Syrian soldiers again until they were passed through our lines after the combat was over so they, and our other Arab allies, could "liberate" Kuwait City. The ecological devastation to the region, the fact that Saddam Hussein remained in power to slaughter thousands of Shiites who rebelled with our encouragement against his regime and then were abandoned by us to their fate, the gross corruption and despotism of the Kuwaiti rulers, who did not move back to Kuwait City until their opulent palaces were refurbished, were minor footnotes to a stage-managed tale of triumph. As in most conflicts, the war, as presented to the public, was fantasy.

When those who commit crimes do so in the name of a cause, they often come to terms with the crimes through an ersatz moral relativism. Facts are trimmed, used, and become as interchangeable as opinions. The Muslims may say the Serbs shelled the marketplace in Sarajevo while the Serbs may say that the Muslims fired shells on their own citizens there to garner international support. Both opinions, if one sits in a cafe in Belgrade, may be valid. Both the facts and the opinions become a celebration of ignorance, and more ominously, a refusal to discredit the cause that has eaten away at one's moral conscience.

Destruction of honest inquiry, the notion that one fact is as good as the next, is one of the most disturbing consequences of war. The prosecution of war entails lying, often on a massive scale--something most governments engage in but especially when under the duress of war. The Serbs who were eventually able to admit that atrocities were carried out in their name explained away the crimes by saying that everyone did this in war. The same was true among the elite and the military in El Salvador. All could match an atrocity carried out by our side with an atrocity carried out by the enemy. Atrocity canceled out atrocity.

Hannah Arendt noted this attitude in Germany after World War II, calling it "nihilistic relativism." She believed it was a legacy of Nazi propaganda, which, unlike that of non-totalitarian states, was based on the concept that all facts could and would be altered and all Nazi lies should be made to appear true. Reality became a conglomerate of changing circumstances and slogans that could be true one day and false the next.

Illusions punctuate our lives, blinding us to our own inconsistencies and repeated moral failings. But in wartime these illusions are compounded. The cause, the protection of the nation, the fight to "liberate Kuwait" or wage "a war on terrorism," justifies the means. We dismantle our moral universe to serve the cause of war. And once it is dismantled it is nearly impossible to put it back together. It is very hard for most of us to see the justice of the other side, to admit that we too bear guilt. When we are asked to choose between truth and contentment, most of us pick contentment.
In these pages, I feel that Hedges touches all the problems that define my personal struggle to exist in society as a moral individual, somebody with real moral integrity.  His rhetoric comes from physical battlefields, where people kill and dismember each other in the flesh, but it applies also to metaphorical battlefields, where fanatics wage "culture wars" to kill and dismember the souls of people whose existence makes them uncomfortable (for reasons that are usually specious).  I grew up rather close to the Christian fascism that Hedges mentions, hearing a lot of talk as a youth about my duty to wage war with the devil--and "the world" (meaning people with no affinity for the particular brand of fascism I was meant to identify with the will and cause of God).  I was told that the devil would use "the world" to destroy me, that I had to band together with God's faithful to resist him--with money, labor, votes, whatever God's generals wanted.

As a trusting kid, I gave those generals everything they asked.  I took my marching orders, and I went to the battlefront (or "the mission field," as it is also called).  There I saw everything Hedges describes--less immediately and awfully revolting, but revolting nonetheless.  I saw that "the world" were mostly just people like me--fools following orders, idiots trying their best to make sense of the mess that is human society, and (yes) a few malicious criminals playing the fools against the idiots to get power and swag. I saw people condemned to hell-on-earth by God.  I saw them redeemed by the devil (and "the world").  I saw families ruined by specious "defenses of marriage" (which somehow required me to attack all the intimate human relationships that God's generals disliked, for reasons that amount to nothing objectively defensible: I know this because I tried to defend them--to good people, to myself, with words and deeds of integrity, words and deeds I could not and cannot find).  The immediate outcome of this experience was that I became alienated from Christian fanaticism.  The long-term outcome is that I am permanently alienated from human society on the large scale.  I mistrust all institutions too big to treat me, and individual people like me, as having more than statistical significance.

My experiences with religion led me to disaffiliate with organized churches on the large scale.  I can join small groups of people doing work I believe in.  I cannot and will not join a world-wide church (or movement).  I do not believe in world-wide movements as offering on balance more reward than risk, more good than evil.  I also disaffiliate with political movements on the large scale.  I will support politicians to whom I might matter as an individual.  I will not support factions (Left or Right, Republican or Democrat, communist or fascist).  There is a certain amount of calm that comes with this resolution of mine, a resolution that has some integrity.  But that calm is undercut by the realization that worldwide movements exist and use me, even when I wish to depart from them permanently and absolutely.  I am too weak still to take the road trodden by Diogenes of Sinope, and others whose attitude toward society (in the collective) I admire.  I aspire to be a good person--not a good Mormon, or a good Christian, or a good American, or a good capitalist, or a good global citizen (unless that is something I do by refusing to recognize any meaningful collective as acting for all people everywhere).

To the extent that I do participate still in society at large, I recognize that I am complicit in all kinds of political crime (that Hedges writes about in his book) and religious thuggery (that I write about on this blog).  I don't believe there is any way to exist in society at large without leaving a messy footprint, unfortunately.  I try to balance the evil I cause (when I must rely on large corporations in society) with good (that I do with small groups of people close to me), but I fear it is not enough (and never will be).  I have at last come to the place where the lines of the lyric poet Theognis (425-8 Gerber; Bible-readers should compare this with Ecclesiastes 4:3) make sense to me--become something I might think, feel, and say for myself:
Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
    μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
    καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.
This brings me to my other citations from Hedges:
It has been rare in every war I have covered to find a reporter who did not take sides. I believed--and still do--that in Bosnia and El Salvador, there were victims and oppressors in the conflict. But along with this acknowledgement comes for many a disturbing need to portray the side they back in their own self-image. The leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the rebels in El Salvador, the African National Congress, the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo, or the opposition in Serbia were all endowed with the qualities they did not possess. The Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr warned us that moral choice is not between the moral and the immoral, but between the immoral and the less immoral (p. 144).

"I, too, belong to this species," J. Glenn Gray wrote. "I am ashamed not only of my own deeds, not only of my nation's deeds, but of human deeds as well. I am ashamed to be a man" (p. 176).

To be a human being, it seems to me, is to be a dangerous animal. We need certain things in order to live.  To put it simply, we need death. Something must always die so that we may live, and the inevitable outcome of that reality is that we create evil. We embody evil. It is not something separable from our entity. It is precisely the same, in purely material terms, as the good we embody. If I am not careful, my love (of humanity, of God, of justice, of family and friends) becomes hatred (of humans unlike me, of others' gods or the devil, of injustice, of my tribe's enemies).  Even if I am impassive, resisting the transformation of love into hatred, others must still die so that I (or the collective I associate with) may live.  Plants, animals, bugs, ecosystems, and other people.  They will all die to support me, sooner or later, until it is my turn to die for them.  That is Nature's way (or God's or the devil's or whatever: they are all the same to me).

The moral dilemma in all this mess, as Niebuhr recognizes, is not to find good and maximize it.  It is to find evil and make it as small as possible--without eliminating it entirely, because that would destroy humanity.  God and the devil are really the same, it turns out.  We cannot have one without the other.  Love implies--creates, demands, is even--hatred, or at least indifference.  This remains true even when we deliberately set out to love all things.  "I love all things, including all those things that just died because I wanted to go on living."  We might feel justified in such love.  It might improve our quality of life.  But it does not change the reality that that life is built from death, death in which we remain complicit as long as we live.

If you are not the sort of person to care about this kind of thing, on an emotional level anyway, that is fine.  I have always felt somewhat guilty for existing, I confess.  I was inclined to read Theognis, even before I had learned to feel the pessimism and cynicism he expresses so eloquently.  I felt the evil of man early in my heart, and my experience in the world has confirmed my fear that human good is also evil.  I still love humanity--and myself, too.  I just cannot join the choruses of people working to fight terror (politically), to defend marriage (socially and religiously), to educate us all in the one true path to virtue, etc.  I believe that all such endeavors are fundamentally evil, and that that evil compounds awfully as movements gain traction in society--spreading from small groups to large factions like a deadly plague.  I hate it when people find me with some cause, political or economic or social or religious (they are all the same), and invite me to join the mob.  "Solidarity!" They cry.  "Let's all get in this together!"  My soul abhors this, the wild abandon with which we throw ourselves into the latest lemming charge--as though the past never happened, as though we know nothing of our condition as social animals (and indeed, many of us are clueless, naive in a way that is cute when we aren't heavily armed and full of deadly moral conviction).

"What keeps this misanthrope in society?" the reader might legitimately wonder.  "Is he a hypocrite as well as a miserable wretch?"  I stay for many reasons.  My family.  My friends.  Inertia.  My aptitudes and frailty (I have no love for death, no Stoic conviction as strong as that of Cato the Younger, and I lack the means to survive without civilization).  There is also art:
All great works of art find their full force in those moments when the conventions of the world are stripped away and we confront our weakness, vulnerability, and mortality. For learning, in the end, meant little to writers like Shakespeare unless it translated into human experience.

"As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary," Proust wrote. "It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place" (p. 91).

I love life, even though it is sometimes an awful thing.  I love it, though its fabric is woven with death.  I do not desire life without end, life without death, heaven without hell, etc., for I know now that such a thing is impossible (for gods as well as men: I speak here of the life and death known to men, of course, not some life and death too remote from our experience to mean anything to us).  I desire merely to paint the best little portrait I can with the life I have, a life made of death, a life that some will legitimately hate or ignore, though I love it.  I desire to make my life and death a work of art, something that points to realities beyond me that I will never fully comprehend (realities that we point to vaguely with words like love, virtue, integrity, health, work, and even divinity or justice).  I don't want to force others to live my life.  I don't want the death that builds my life to arise in conditions where it is unwanted (though I know beings have died unwilling to keep me alive thus far, and they will do so again: still I will that my life be built of willing deaths, and I will that my own death find me eager for it; I want to give myself back to the world as ransom for all that I have taken from it). So I remain a man among men, an active participant in society, even though I can never again embrace any society (anytime, anywhere) as purely good (or just or fair or divine, etc.).

I love the process of making mistakes, even though these are sometimes catastrophic, and then struggling to overcome them.  I love combining the thoughts of other writers with my own personal experience, and then seeing what comes out--even when that is not always what I want or expect.  I love striving for virtue, even when I fail to achieve it, sometimes even when I see good reason to deem it unachievable (in certain domains).  I see how this love of mine is similar to the alcoholic's love of whiskey.  Let him die of his poison, and I will die of mine.  I wish us both happy, but not so bent on happiness that we die killing one another.  Better to die doing what we love than to waste time trying to convince the other to be like us.  He isn't, and he never will be.  Let him be, and make art of your own life, not his.  Muérete jodido, como quieras, sin joder al mundo entero, como haría un santo o un demonio.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

My Mormon Mission

Jesus wants me for a salesman,
To shill for him each day,
In every way try to pimp him
At home, at school, no play!

A salesman, a salesman!
Jesus wants me for a salesman!
A salesman, a salesman!
I'll make my quota each day!

When Mormon youth reach social majority, they usually go out and spend two years (or 18 months if they are female) "serving a mission" in some place remote from their home.  This activity is a right of passage for Mormons, for young men especially, and is often described as "the best two years" of a good Mormon life--a kind of palate-cleanser between childhood and adulthood that prepares the young to find their way from naive incapability into mature responsibility.  This essay represents my latest thoughts on my own mission experience, about which I have very mixed feelings.  I definitely learned many valuable lessons from my mission, lessons that I carry with me to this day as a kind of treasure that I am very grateful to possess.  Some of these lessons were a joy to learn (and I carry them fondly to this day).  Others were very painful (and I carry them gingerly to this day).  Here I will try to share a little of them all.

First, the good stuff.  The brethren sent me to northern Spain.  I already spoke Spanish, so I got to spend only three weeks in the Missionary Training Center (in Provo, Utah), heading directly into "the mission field" after I had finished memorizing the six "discussions" that missionaries in my day shared with "investigators" (people interested in learning more about Mormonism).  I was very excited to be visiting a foreign country, and to have something real to do.  During the last leg of my very long flight from Salt Lake City to Bilbao (where my mission president had headquarters), I struck up a conversation, in Spanish, with some guy sitting next to me.  We chit-chatted a bit, and I told him who I was, what I was doing, etc.  He was very nice about it.  I was, too.  I didn't try to pressure him into anything (to make commitments to baptism or reading the Book of Mormon or whatever).  I just told him what I was up to (and felt very flattered when he asked if I was from Bilbao: apparently he was visiting there from the south, and my accent was good enough to pass for native).  Throughout my mission experience, I followed this same pattern: I talked with people.  They would tell me things about themselves, as they pleased, and I would respond by telling them about myself.  I never felt comfortable pushing them to take something from me that I wouldn't take from them.  I think this is an important balance to respect in relating with other people.

I came into my mission with some serious psychological problems.  (Every young person is crazy, right?  Well, I was no exception.)  For years, I had worried more or less constantly that every sexual experience I had might be a sign that the devil finally owned me, that I could not ever serve God or do good in any meaningful way.  The mission helped me a lot with this problem--though I almost didn't go, when I was too afraid to answer questions honestly in the "worthiness interviews" that candidates must have with their local priesthood leaders: I was so afraid my leaders would sense my evil and kick me out of the church.  The mission did much to break me from this fear.  In the first place, it placed me among a cohort of hormonal young men for the first time in my life.  (Unlike most of my fellow missionaries, I did not go to high school.  I stayed home, got a GED, and went straight into college.)  I quickly learned that my sexual experience was tame (and practically nonexistent), comparatively speaking.  If the Lord could not be served by horny lads, then the entire mission was in trouble--and I was somewhere at the bottom of the list of people to worry about: somewhere below the elder who baptized a well-known local prostitute, went home under a cloud of awkward gossip, and then came back to marry her and take her to the US.  God didn't sent that guy straight to hell (far from it: I think he was a district leader), so maybe I was OK.  Besides putting me with peers, the mission also gave me a ton of work, so much that I had little time or energy to waste on the endless soul-searching that I had done before.  I was too exhausted to stay up at night wondering whether I was worthy in the eyes of God.  Instead of praying and crying and debating my next visit to the bishop's office to confess some spurious sin, I was sleeping or working.  Every few months, I would have a slight relapse into guilt (a memory that I should feel bad about something, that I hadn't been confessing much recently, that I still "looked upon women to lust after them," etc.), but these relapses were few and far between--and the pain they caused me was much less than I experienced before I became a missionary.  

Getting out and about in a foreign country was good for me, in many ways.  I met a wide variety of people: poor and rich, immigrants and locals, educated and not, religious and not.  I learned not to judge people prematurely: some of the nicest folks we met were pretty rough on the exterior (like the branch president in the last town where I served, who lived in a ramshackle house surrounded by chicken coops and wore rags around his house; I love that guy).  I learned that people have a very different view of me than I have of myself.  People who considered themselves friendly or hostile to the United States would randomly walk up to me and offer outlandish praise or blame, as though I had something personal to do with whatever American policy they loved or loathed.  Outsiders constantly mistook us for Jehovah's Witnesses, to our mutual consternation--but both faiths are American, rabidly dedicated to proselytizing, and fond of Bible-thumping.  The more I got to know the people in Spain, the more I learned to see myself from their perspective(s).  The more I saw myself from their perspective(s), the more sense their view of me made.  They taught me to look at myself critically, to examine my motives and activity skeptically (why am I asking you to do X? is that a fair request for me to make of you, given our mutual positions, the circumstances that bring us together? am I taking unfair advantage, or vice versa?), to put my feelings aside enough to consider those of people unlike me (as so many of them were). 

I love the people I met in Spain.  I love the guy sitting next to me on the plane in.  I love Courage (his English name), the crazy Nigerian who gave me the scariest car-ride of my life in Bilbao.  On the way to his house, where we met his wife Faith and their little baby Wisdom, we changed lanes with abandon, honked constantly, grazed at least one little old lady (not to mention lots of cars), and never went less than 40 mph (seemingly).  I love Jacinto, a nice old guy from La Coruña who would always talk to us, respectfully and at length, feed us, help us, come to meetings with us, etc., though he had no intention of joining any church.  I love Jairo, who invited us into his home and his church (a very charismatic church from Brazil, in which the gifts of tongues and prophecy were loudly practiced).  I love Felipe, a Venezuelan refugee who took us into his home for Christmas and shared so much with us, though he too had absolutely no interest in Mormonism.  (I can hardly blame him.  The one time we did take him to church, our local members spent the entire time babbling about the Book of Abraham and the necessity of submitting to priesthood hierarchy.  Felipe responded by calling them scribes and Pharisees, quoting the New Testament liberally from memory.)  I love Andrés, the kind old Jesuit who introduced me to the reality that some really good people read scripture allegorically.  I love Juan, who from a chance encounter in a crowded street has become a life-long friend.  I could go on, of course.  I could talk about Daniel (and our visits reading the Book of Mormon back and forth in Spanish and French), about Prince (and his epic trip across the Sahara in a broken-down jeep: he had to bury himself in the sand for a few days and drink his own urine), about Santiago (and his willingness to be baptized, to please us, if only we wouldn't make him give up sex), about José Luis (and his facility with English, unusual for a Spaniard, though his Catholic atheism was par for the course).  There is no way I would ever wish these people out of my life.

Now the bad stuff.  When I became a missionary, I thought I would be helping people improve their lives.  I thought I would be performing a service for them.  I aspired to be a kind of saint or hero (writ small), a person known for his dedication to making the world a better place.  That dream died within six weeks of the day I stepped off the plane in Bilbao.  I quickly realized that I was destined to spend two years annoying the shit out of most people I met--in the church and outside it, as it happened.  My church associates came in three varieties: priesthood leaders with direct authority over me, local church members in the areas where I worked, and fellow missionaries.  Outside the church, I dealt with whatever people crossed my path (or had the misfortune to encounter me knocking doors: there were only so many neighborhoods in the areas where I worked, and most of them were already tracted out before I arrived to confirm for the umpteenth time that José Manuel and Maria Luisa had absolutely no interest in leaving their family, friends, or society to join some crazy American cult).

Inside the church, most of my time was spent attending meetings with mission leadership, meetings during which we missionaries were regularly berated for poor performance.  You see, the apathy and active disgust that most non-Mormons (especially Spaniards) felt for us and our church was apparently our own fault.  We were not righteous enough.  We did not pray with enough faith.  We lacked vision.  We kept forgetting to brush our teeth (or if we remembered, we got to bed five minutes late--and wham! amen to the priesthood of that missionary).  If we could just keep all the mission rules, if we could just walk faster and smile more, if we could just use this brilliant new technique for stopping families that our local General Authority learned from Jesus, etc., miracles would occur: we would step out of our miserable existence into the life of Wilford Woodruff (who didn't have to tract because he could simply walk into an English country church and expect to preach to a crowd of people eager to listen).  The pressure from mission leadership was unremitting, with missionaries internalizing lots of responsibility (I have to do this for Jesus! today we cannot be even five minutes late for anything) and, even worse, policing one another (with the best intentions, of course).

The consequences were many different kinds of bad.  Some missionaries became raving lunatics, scarcely able to function in a normal fashion as they wondered how they might be damning Spanish souls to hell today (did I smile at that old lady right? is it really my fault that this guy just told me to go to hell and blow American Jesus?).  Nervous breakdowns were pretty common, only occasionally so catastrophic that mission leadership noticed (and sent the missionary in question to a doctor, who usually recommended things like "more exercise, more free time, less stress," etc., i.e. stop being such a good missionary, kid).  Others slipped quietly into depression, doing whatever they could to maintain appearances of working hard (like management wanted) while they died inside.  I was one of these.  Others yet learned how to game the system.  They would teach an impressive number of discussions to teen girls, or mental patients, or immigrant workers.  Most of these "investigators" were completely unaware of their commitments to Mormonism--right up until the day when they failed to show for their scheduled baptism in one of our store-front chapels.  Some of the girls were genuinely sad (not to say heartbroken) when their boyfriends moved off to a new area, to convert new chicks, and neglected to stay in touch (let alone come back and take them to America).  Immigrants who could not speak Spanish caused all kinds of headaches for local church members, who were left with responsibilities they could not meet (your home-teaching assignment, should you accept it, is to venture into a ghetto of desperate foreign toughs speaking a language you cannot comprehend; good luck finding the guy we just baptized: he has probably been stabbed, moved to France, or become a Seventh-Day Adventist by now).  The game we played was always lose-lose.  If we pleased the Spaniards by avoiding work, mission management would breathe fire and brimstone down our necks.  If we pleased mission management by committing every biped in sight to baptism, we annoyed the heck out of most folks (who wanted nothing to do with Mormonism and were tired of having to affirm their disinterest to a new set of missionaries every few months) and ran the risk of annoying our local Mormon church, too (when the only people we could baptize were minors with angry parents, junkies with no mind, or immigrants with no fixed address and no cultural ties to Spain or any of the Spanish peoples).

When I applied to serve a mission, I imagined myself doing lots of service work (kind of like Ammon in the Book of Mormon).  I thought I would get to put principles of Christlike devotion "out there" in the world for people to see, doing deeds whose goodness other people could not deny.  Instead, I found myself confined to a crushing schedule of street contacts and door-to-door salesmanship (10 hours per day, 7 days a week, with 2/3 of a day off to do laundry and clean).  Every moment of every day was planned out, regulated, allocated (and set in stone: the first rule of mission life is that nobody admits to bending the rules).  It was really suffocating.  The only service we got was a little four-hour window, which we didn't always fill: as a rule, management was much more interested in making sure we were hitting the streets at least 60 hours a week than in helping us do any meaningful community service.  (Why did you only get 50 hours of proselytizing in last week, Elder?  Oh, you were wasting time with that volunteer clinic again, packing medical supplies for doctors abroad, who insist that they need contraceptives?  Do we need to pull you out of there so you can get back to the Lord's work?)  We could help people, sure, as long as this frivolous waste of time did not distract us from the real work ("the Lord's work") of proselytizing (which I recognized as a complete waste of time within two weeks of landing in Bilbao: imagine the horror I felt then as I contemplated the prospect of doing useless busywork virtually non-stop for two fucking years).

I admit that my dream of being a real servant, not just an annoying shill, died rather hard.  I still did everything I could to make myself feel that I was representing the Lord and the church to the best of my ability, in a way that was at once honest and attractive.  But my lived experience made this illusion really hard to maintain.  I still recall vividly the afternoon when another salesman knocked doors two floors above us in a rather large apartment building.  We started on the building first, buzzing our way in (or using a credit card to jimmy the lock open, I don't remember) and going to the top, where we commenced knocking doors and being sworn at.  About halfway down, we heard our competition coming behind us--a gravelly-voiced Spanish man pounding on doors as loud as he could, shouting, "¡Máquinas de coser!"  He got precisely the same reception we did, for the most part, though some of the people uninterested in our polite offering of American religion were apparently more intrigued by his brusque offer of sewing machines.  He was moving through the building really fast, much faster than we were, and in the end we bolted rather than face the prospect of confronting him in the hall for an epic sell-off.  But the incident burned itself into my mind--painfully, especially when I would go to mission conferences and hear blatant sales rhetoric from my priesthood leaders (Help your investigators feel obligated in some way: it will assist them to come to Jesus).  Growing up I had a good friend who was really into authors like Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, and being naturally curious I gave these guys a look-over.  I found them rather distasteful (even sleazy).  They approach life from a position that in my experience is either hopelessly naive (take this drug! nothing bad happened to me when I took it!) or wickedly malevolent (take this drug! it will make me rich, and who cares what it does for you?).  I don't want to win friends and influence people naively or malevolently.  As a 19-year-old kid, I didn't want it.  It was hard to hear that God really wanted me to want it.  While I definitely felt some guilt about being a failed missionary (terrible sales numbers from start to finish), I admit that this guilt was much less than my youthful guilt associated with sexuality.

There were rebellious missionaries.  I was not one of these.  When I first came home from my tour of duty, I used to have nightmares that I was back in Spain, back under the thumb of mission leaders and their impossible expectations.  Today, I no longer have those nightmares.  Today, I wish I could back.  I wish I could go back, sit down for one of those cursed early-morning planning sessions (mandatory of course), take my little blue day-planner out of my pocket, rip it to shreds, and say to my companion, "Elder, today we are going to make a list of soup kitchens and start contacting them to see what we can do to help. Fuck baptisms, discussions y la puta que los parió."  (Perhaps I should apologize for all the swearing in this post.  But in my defense, I have never heard as many expletives in my life as on my mission, which was practically a two-year course in being sworn at--by some of the most renowned and disgustingly eloquent potty-mouths of Europe.)  I wish I could go back and do what felt right to me, instead of wasting so much time doing wrong because some wannabe Napoleon Hill just knew that his little manual of marketing techniques was a better teaching tool than the New Testament.  This aggressive response was a long time coming to fruition, but the seeds were definitely planted in my mission.  I saw myself and other elders walking around like zombies, trying to implement stupid sales tactics that only sounded good to morons with no field experience.  (We called the new missionaries "greenies" and praised their wholehearted faith in tactics we knew to be worthless as though it were some kind of virtue.  The sad thing is that within our corrupt mission culture, it was.  We aspired to be cheerful dupes, eager to believe the latest tripe from mission headquarters even when we knew it would never work.) 

The more I lived as a missionary--the more nonsense I heard from the pulpit (have faith, keep making goals, and miracles will happen: Spanish people will flock to the church and transform their lives for better), the more I failed to make positive contact with non-Mormons, the more insults I fielded (from everybody--Spaniards angry with me for being an American, a missionary, and a god-damn nuisance; mission leaders angry with me for failing to meet their sales quotas; church members angry with me for crap other missionaries did, like baptizing immigrants or drug addicts; missionaries angry with me because I was a convenient outlet for all the frustration they felt as they confronted a hopeless situation), the less I could believe in the integrity of what I was doing.  What does a devout young Mormon do in these circumstances?  Naturally, you turn to God.  You pray.  You break down and cry.  And you sit back and wait for answers.  I am still waiting.  The silence of God was initially very tough for me, I admit.

There was at least one time in my mission experience, that I recall, when I let my thoughts become explicit as deep doubts.  I was riding in a car to some zone conference (to be browbeaten and force-fed another fake sales push guaranteed to save the world), and the missionary at the wheel put on a tape containing one of Truman Madsen's lectures on the life of Joseph Smith.  I listened to Brother Madsen go on and on, in his melodious voice, telling me about all the wonderful spiritual experiences that accompanied the foundation and dedication of the Mormon temple in Kirtland (Ohio), and I wondered where the miracles were today.  Why did I get no miracles?  Maybe I was faithless.  Was the entire mission faithless, too?  Our conversion rate was less than one baptism per missionary per two-year mission.  I was not the only one failing miserably, from the standpoint of our leadership (which ran things by the numbers, collecting statistics carefully every night from each companionship and then rewarding people whose numerical outcomes were best--in public and privately, in the regular personal interviews our mission presidents conducted with their sales force).  Where were the angels, the trumpets, the pillars of light on the road to Damascus?  We got nothing.  Nada.  (That's not quite true, of course.  As you already know, we got a lot of mierda, from everyone, all the time--and Jesus did nothing to stop it.)  I was terrified by these thoughts.  I was not ready to drop the only hope I had left in what was a very bleak psychological wilderness, the hope that God might at least be grateful for all my effort on his behalf, despite its being utterly worthless (or worse) to everyone and everything I could see around me.  So I abandoned my doubts.  I retreated from them.  I had almost no access to books (though the special permission I got to bring copies of the scriptures in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek was a real life-saver).  I had no leisure time to speak of.  I had no strength or time to do much more than grimly hang on, pound sand, and wait for the blessed day when my time in hell-on-earth would end.

When the end of my mission came at last, I was not an atheist, nor even an ex- or post-Mormon (as I have since become, not because I hate Mormonism per se but for reasons which include but also transcend my mission experience).  I still believed (and to be honest, still in many respects believe) in the Mormon gospel as a useful moral framework, a valid paradigm for assessing difficult ethical decisions (that historically find no easy or definitive resolution, at least never one that obtains for all men and women in every circumstance).  But my testimony of missionary work was completely changed.  From the perspective of many faithful Latter-day Saints, we could correctly say that it was utterly shattered.  When I went into the mission field, I had a naively beatific vision of what I was as a missionary.  I thought I was a child of God, an altruistic saint dedicated to serving others.  I thought church leaders had my back.  I was willing to believe in proselytizing as a worthwhile human activity.  When I came home, I knew I was an hijo de puta, a selfish cabrón whose idea of community service was pestering people to change religions and refusing to take no for an answer.  I knew certain church leaders didn't give a flying fuck about me as an individual capable of making useful decisions.  And I knew that I am terrible at marketing, that I hate it with the passion of a thousand burning suns, that I would rather shoot myself in the face with a shotgun than do it again.  To this day, I still recall with awe the sense of overwhelming joy that washed over me when I thought that in a few weeks, a few days, a mere handful of hours, I would take off that idiot badge--and never have to knock another door in my life.  I was still deep enough in organized Mormonism to feel a little guilty about this.  I knew David O. McKay's dictum, "Every member a missionary," and I had already been admonished that this required some enduring dedication to proselytizing.  I confess I did not care.  I was done, and I still am.  If there should come a day when I am presented with the stark option, Proselytize or go to hell!, I will gladly take my chances in hell.

One of the last places I lived as a Mormon missionary was the ancient city Santiago de Compostela, an object of pilgrimage even before it acquired the remains of a Catholic saint and became Christian.  I spent a lot of time walking in and around the cathedral in this town.  I spoke with pilgrims and locals, including some people who were devout Catholics.  I remember thinking to myself that it would be a real shame, culturally speaking, if all these people suddenly stopped being Catholic--stopped maintaining the cathedral, stopped saying mass there, stopped walking on foot from central and northern Europe, stopped caring about their religious heritage (which some of them held differently from others: each pilgrim walks his own path)--and replaced it all with my Mormonism.  I imagined the cathedral boarded up and shut down, while all the town flocked to our little strip mall, to dress in awkward American suits and talk about American religion as though it were somehow more universal and universally beneficent than it really is.  I thought of this, and the thought filled me with sadness.  I realized that I, good Mormon that I was then, wanted there to be good Catholics.  I did not want them to stop saying mass.  I did not want them to convert to my religion, even.  I had seen enough of them to know that some of them were genuinely good people--as good as any Mormons I ever met, and as likely to make it into heaven as I was.  To me it seemed that they would be taken care of, that God did not need me to pester them, that he would attend to any external requirements needed to save them (whatever that means or meant to anyone then) in his own time, in his own way, and that I should just butt out and let them be. 

Seeing so much Spanish heritage laid out for me there in Santiago, warts and all (the Catholic saint I mentioned bears the epithet Matamoros), I realized that I did not want to erase or replace it.  I did not want the coffee shops to go away.  I did not want the bars to close.  I did not want the bare naked ladies to put on three shirts in the middle of summer, to cover their sunburned shoulders or their plunging cleavage.  I loved the Catholics, the Spaniards, the Basques, the Gallegos, all these people, for who they already were, not for their imagined ability to look like me.  On a very deep level, I perceived truth that came to me as a revelation: proselytizing, the way most of us do it, is the work of the devil.  If we aim to do good in the world, real good, then we should aim to help others live their own lives, rather than attempt clumsily to shoe-horn them into ours (as though that were even possible).  We should not be there to teach but to serve.  This does not mean that we should abandon our own integrity.  I am not Spanish today (nor Catholic, nor Catholic atheist, etc.).  But we should deliberately build that integrity as something unique to us, something personal that exists between God (or nature or the universe or whatever you like to represent the mystery of life outside us) and ourselves.  We should not pretend that it can be easily transferred to other people, that the results must be good when this happens.  To do this is to ignore the facts, plain before our very eyes every day, that we are all different and require different things to exist, move, and have our being with any kind of happiness.  I am not you.  My happiness is not yours.  My marriage is not yours.  My family is not yours.  My love is not yours.  My health is not yours.  My diseases are not yours, and their cure will not be yours.  Don't try to make me take your medicine.  The fact that it helps you says nothing definite about its helping me.  What if the drug that saves you becomes a poison that kills me, eh?  (The ancient Greek word pharmakon nicely captures this paradox, as real today as it ever was, by meaning both drug and poison.  Life is built out of death.  What brings one civilization up to a better state of being might easily plunge another into rigor mortis.  Caveat medicus, diffidat gravatus.)  There is no such thing as "the good life" that involves us all doing the same things the same way.

This lesson recurs throughout my own lived experience.  One of my favorite anecdotes for conveying it (e.g. to a class of undergraduates studying philosophy) comes from my own family.  A sister of mine suffers from Celiac disease.  Eating wheat makes her die.  I do not suffer from this disease.  It is demonstrable that we cannot get the same effects from the same food.  The imperative to find one single diet that must serve both of us is fundamentally stupid.  I am a man.  She is a woman.  I do not have Celiac disease.  She has it.  I am one self.  She is another.  If we went to see God today, both of us, and he cared enough to give us the time of day and prescribe a regimen aiming to give us perfect health, then he would give us different regimens.  Because we are different.  Obviously.  And yet so many people, not just naive Mormon missionaries and their clueless leaders, don't get this.  They insist on finding "the one true diet" and then forcing whatever that is upon the rest of us.  If they are Mormons, they come by insistently asking you to be Mormon, too.  Just ditch your family, your friends, your culture, your upbringing, your nationality, everything you know and love, and join this weird American cult that wants 10% of your income, the right to tell you what kind of undergarments to wear, and lifelong loyalty.  No wonder so many Spaniards told me to go fuck myself (¡por el culo, maricón!).  When you read my message from their perspective, with empathy, you realize that I am asking them to commit suicide.  I am telling them to give up the reality that they embody for a dream I have of what they might be, a dream most of them don't even like--with good reason, since it involves destroying whatever integrity they have spent a lifetime building.  I am telling them to close their eyes and jump off a cliff, in hopes that something good results.  Even as a very young man, I knew I could not offer this challenge with integrity unless I was willing to make that leap myself.  I knew I had to lay myself open to the possibility that God might not exist the way I thought he did, that he might not want from me the things I thought he wanted, etc.  I had to be willing to put myself through the same rigor I demanded from them.  I had to face my own doubts (referenced above) honestly.  No hiding behind some prophet's skirts for me.  I was the one standing in people's doorways, offering them the gospel.  If I was not willing to take it myself, then I had no business dishing it out.

In sum, then, my Mormon mission taught me (1) that I had a moral duty to test my faith the way I invited investigators to test theirs; (2) that I hate marketing more than death; (3) that I am a terrible marketer, in part because I care more about how people use products than about what particular products they use.  Being good for me is a matter of personal moral integrity, not affiliation with some group (any group anywhere: it does not matter, until membership in the group requires you to sacrifice your integrity; at that point, you have a moral duty to disaffiliate, it seems to me).  These lessons I am not sorry to have learned.  I think they have made me a better person--and unfortunately a worse Mormon, from the perspective of many faithful Latter-day Saints.       

Thursday, August 7, 2014

American Politics

Somebody wondered why conservatism in the United States of America isn't more popular.  My two cents appear below.

The modern "conservative" party in the US has become a sham. They make some noises that people like me want to hear, admittedly, but when the rubber meets the road they are all in the same boat as people making the opposite noises (their political "opponents"). Conservative politics in the USA lately, and perhaps not so lately, seems largely about making the government a matter of us doing our business with federal money and muscle and then blaming any untoward consequences on the opposition. How does the opposition respond? With the same tactics, obviously, because they work--if your goal is to win elections (rather than do anything constructive with life, personal and collective).

Winning elections is a piss-poor goal, it seems to me, particularly when the price for victory is moral integrity. If you have to be the kind of no-account bum that typically represents conservative politics in the Senate or White House to get elected and "win," then we need more losers. We need somebody to stop playing the stupid game and just do good work, for its own sake. Eat your own mistakes. Don't pass the buck to "liberals" or "progressives" or "gay people" or some such nonsense. Make your own communities, using your own values, without playing the sanctimonious victim and trying to beat up people who don't agree with you. Some people don't want your values. Fine. You don't have to marry them. You don't have to punish them. You don't have to look for excuses to make everything good in your life depend on them. Stop doing that. That is the coward's way--and the way of conservative American politics since I came of age, it seems.

When I was 18 years old, I registered to vote as a Republican, recognizing that I was definitely not a Democrat. Then, I noticed what Republicans were doing with the country--to win elections. I noticed how they wanted to have their cake and eat it too, pretending that their mistakes belonged to the other side (which is certainly not blameless, I know). I noticed, and I said, "This is not how I do things. This crap does not represent me, and come hell or high water, I am not going to vote for it any more. I don't care if the economy tanks and the country dies: at least I won't be the one pulling the trigger." I left the GOP, registering as an independent, and I am probably not coming back (certainly not as long as these weak-ass "blame the liberals for everything!" tactics continue to be the only politics of substance that "conservatives" offer). I am under no delusions that there are armies of people just like me waiting in the wings to transform the political landscape. I have no large-scale agenda for dominating people who don't like my life or want it for themselves. My approach is to avoid imposing on such people as much as possible, and ask in return that they avoid me in similar fashion. Most of them do, until they get elected and buy into the idea that governments own citizens the way farmers own cattle.

When "conservatives" start treating me like a human being, maybe I will identify as one of the gang, again. But I am not holding my breath. All I feel from both major political parties right now is deep indifference (when they try to save me without caring what I might want or need or think) and occasional contempt (when they notice that I do have opinions about justice, or integrity, or education, or anything that matters to them). I'm done playing the game in which I exist merely as a pawn. I don't play in this game: I get played--by the same punks, "conservative" and not, pretending to represent me so that I will legitimize their attempt to consolidate and extend power over this wreck we call the state of the union. I am not united, folks. I want no part of that. I am also not violent or revolutionary (in the traditional sense): I want no part of political secession (e.g. the recent Arab Spring, which seems like a disaster to me), preferring to leave politics alone as much as possible to work on other ways of meeting my needs for food, shelter, friends, a life with good society. If you are willing to ignore politics and live with integrity in communities where people value you as a human being, good things can still happen--even in this sham Union, even with all the vultures pretending to represent you as they pick over your carcass every time the legislature sits, the court convenes, or the executive signs another order.

I am conservative when it comes to keeping things that work for me, things that I see contributing on balance more good than evil to the communities where I am a meaningful player. I am not conservative when it comes to supporting the sham that is the GOP.

Monday, August 4, 2014


There is an interesting choice that civilization makes possible.  We can choose to be sick and weak for an extended period of time (rather than dying in short order as we would in nature). 

Going back to the old Greek fable, civilization puts us at a strange crossroads.  We can head downhill toward Pleasure, who will make our wasting and waning momentarily sweet (and chronically painful as we lose mobility, strength, flexibility, and eventually our lives).  Or we can head uphill toward Virtue, who will make our growth and stasis satisfying and fun in the long-term (while she gives us hell in the short, as we practice mobility, strength, flexibility, and living--hard tasks that really beat us up).  Heracles went up, of course, but his choice is not very popular. 

The thing about Pleasure is that it really wants to look like Virtue.  These days, it goes to the gym and the office.  It eats right.  It passes easy judgement on people who don't do the right thing (i.e. whatever it happens to like doing in the gym, the office, or the dining room).  If you don't look carefully, it wears a very compelling mask of Virtue.  The thing that gives it away, semper et ubique, is its focus on aesthetics over ethics.  It wants to look good.  It wants to win medals.  It wants to play, not work.  When its regimen gets hard, it goes home (and complains about "austerity" in the office, "chalk on the floor" in the gym, etc., while noshing some sweet snack--approved once by some nutrition guru--in the dining room).  It does not see value in learning through loss (what the old poet Aeschylus calls "suffering into truth," the bequest of gods to humanity).  It does not know how to value the suffering that outsiders do not see or recognize (with some external reward, some outward sign of approval that must become ever louder and more extravagant to keep people's pleasure-sensors firing wildly).  Virtue is different because it can take pleasure in defeat, and in victories that the outside world does not see (victories too small to be rewarded with money and prizes and shit, but they are some of life's most important gifts to humanity).

Virtue does not mind if you like to look at yourself in the gym, if your job at the office is mostly make-believe and pretend ("well, the boss needs this BS, so we will give it to him in the best order we can"), or if you indulge in the occasional "bad" food (all food is poisonous to somebody at sometime).  But if you never strive to live beyond your "comfort zone," if you never push away from the apathetic pleasure of relaxing into the active (and pathetic) pleasure of acting, then you will not know Virtue.  Your strengths will decay into weakness, your pleasure into slow pain, and you will live and die prematurely senile (rotting like untreated grapes rather than aging like fine wine).  If you live in the artificial world of civilization, the world in which you are not starving or homeless, then this choice is real for you.  Will you suffer here and now to feel better for years to come?  Or will you kick back and feel good here and now to feel like crap as you move into "the golden years" (which will be pleasantly unpleasant, punctuated by intrusions of chronic illness)?

The mind and the body are not separate in our human environment: we use both, and we use them together.  Naturally, we must exercise both if we want to retain function (and push our little envelope of blood and guts up Virtue's path).  What applies to your muscles applies to your mind, too.  Keep reading.  Keep learning (new information, new languages, new applications for theoretical understanding).  Keep looking for ways to integrate thoughts with action.  Keep looking for inconsistencies in yourself, in your environment, in whatever fantasy of reason or unreason you have constructed to make sense of the world.  The path of Virtue is a path of relentless inquiry--a process of defining, honing, perfecting, breaking, and discarding the self, which must then be built again, and again, and again, over and over as many times as possible until death. 

Some people, devotees of Pleasure, want you to build "the one true self," preferably when you are very young, and then carry it unscathed from adolescence to old age.  This is a recipe for avoiding Virtue.  You must banish "the one true self" from your life, if you take Virtue's path.  You must take a sledgehammer to that self, prove its weakness (for it is always weak), and build another.  There is no end to this process, no perfect self creatable that can withstand everything you or the world might throw at it, but the end-result of a lifetime building and breaking selves is that you become much better at the process.  You still tell lies.  You still make weak selves, mortal selves that disintegrate as you wish they wouldn't.  But you do it so much better--so much better than you did as a little kid, when you scarcely knew what it was to be coherent, to make a self.  

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Real War on the Family

Today I am rather upset.  For some time now, I have lived in an apartment complex with unrepentant hypocrites, punks who are perfectly happy making trouble for me (drunken parties at all hours, furniture falling the middle of the night, ear-ringing music, singing, cleaning, running, jumping, moving, whatever) but periodically complain--quite insistently--that my kids make more trouble than they can possibly be expected to bear (running, playing, laughing, being punk kids).  I accept that my kids are sometimes obnoxious.  I try to contain them.  I do not accept that this requires me to abandon my job (to become a full-time denizen of local parks with my offspring), to force my wife to abandon her job (she works at home), to chain my kids to the wall with gags when they are in the house, or anything similar (e.g. the demand that no movement occur in our house after 7 PM: sometimes, people have to go the bathroom; sheets get pooped on and must be washed; kids wake up scared and need to be comforted as part of putting them back down, etc.).  My neighbors' obnoxious insensitivity is an acute stress in my life, and the life of my family, which does not live quieter or more peacefully as a result of constant complaints and threats (overt and implicit) from people living close to us.

Periodically I hear rumors that there is a war on the family, that the family is under attack in America (or the West or the world generally), and that the Enemy is some ideology or behavior that is "weird" or "unnatural" or "non-sharia" (forbidden in some holy book like the Bible).  Frequently the Enemy is called out as homosexuality or liberalism (conceived in a very odd fashion) or non-Christianity (some religion that is obviously neither Christian nor Jewish; Jews get something of a pass for being ur-Christians and enduring the Holocaust).  Most recently, my ears have been subjected to a more or less unremitting din that the Enemy is using "gay marriage" (in particular) as a tool to destroy families like mine, which happens to be cis-gendered heterosexual with kids (a picture-perfect image of what the religious right in America has decided to call "the traditional family").  Let me lay my cards out in the open here: I have serious rational doubts that "gay marriage" of any kind represents a serious threat to my family or families like mine.  I hear from time to time that government recognition of "gay marriage" as a thing will force churches to solemnize unions against their creed.  That is nonsense.  As a heterosexual, I have no right to a Jewish wedding.  I cannot make a rabbi marry me; the fact that my local courthouse will marry me changes nothing about my relationship with my local rabbi.  The Mormon wedding I had, in the Salt Lake Temple (very beautiful!), did not permit a sizable number of friends and family to be in attendance.  The fact that the local courthouse would have made them welcome did not--and does not--change that.  The push to make us all marry the same way, to make there be something we call "the American marriage" (and worship together as an entire nation), strikes me as fundamentally evil (fascist, authoritarian, destructive, arrogant)--and frankly un-American, insofar as it violates the clear strain of disestablishmentarianism that runs through the American experiment from its inception (in the 18th century).  I don't want the power to make other people marry the way I would marry, to make them live as I want to live, to make them have kids as I want to have them, to make them make noise the way I do, etc.   

The American religious right wants me to believe that my marriage is not real (or legal, or safe, or useful to me in public venues like the court) unless it passes muster with a board of experts or elders somewhere (who might be nice, reasonable people or raging lunatics: that is irrelevant).  For these people, the greatest threats to my family arise from "weirdos" who live outside it (e.g. homosexuals)--and must be forced to keep their weirdness in check.  I have long felt that this is simply bullshit, that the real threats to my family are more mundane.  I think the collapse of American social institutions (non-governmental organization and associations, small businesses, small churches, small schools, small farms) that has been going on since before the Great Depression is more threatening to my family, and "the family" generally (however anyone conceives it), than gay marriage (which doesn't threaten the family at all).  The people killing families in America are those who support corrupt business (Wall Street), corrupt government (Washington and most state legislatures), and corrupt religion (big churches and schools who care more for their own power, and bottom-line, than for the well-being of the people who fill their pews or their classrooms).  The thing that all these corrupt forces have in common is bigness: the worst organizations are always the huge ones, pretending to serve millions (which in practice means serving thousands well at the expense of treating ten-thousands badly). 

Want to know who really has it in for my family--and the family generally?  Here is my beginner's list: the Federal Reserve, the White House (no matter who occupies it), the Senate, Congress, the Pentagon, GoldmanSachs, JPMorganChase, Citibank, General Motors, Merck, Pfizer, TimeWarner, Comcast, Harvard, University of Michigan, Monsanto.  These motherfuckers, and people like them, people who expect society to eat their failures while they reap outlandish profits for success, represent a serious ongoing threat to the family's existence.  Want to confirm my bias?  Go read about every industry these people wreck: healthcare, housing, travel, banking, education.  It is always the same.  They come in with huge mounds of capital, wipe out competition from small competitors (which operate close to failure as a rule), and then use government goons as their enforcers--writing laws to make it impossible (or at least really hard) for people like me to get decent shelter, healthcare, travel, food, or religion without putting money in their greedy fists.  When the service they provide is lousy--when I am poisoned by bad debt, bad education, bad religion, iatrogenic medicine, etc.--they blame me (for being ignorant and foolish: "if you took proper care of yourself, loser, you would be like our star performer, Ms. X, over here, who is putting her Harvard degree to good use!") and keep right on trucking, selling their schlock to dumb kids like me who have yet to be burned (and lose their house, their travel, their career, their time, their relationships, their money, their illusions, their dreams).  And then monied interests on the religious right come in and put all kinds of effort into banning gay marriage, like that matters.  I am being strangled slowly by the Great Society that saved my grandparents and great-grandparents' bacon, but we cannot notice that.  No, it cannot be that "the family" is under threat today from ordinary human beings (most of them heterosexual, male, and white, just like me!) doing their utterly normal and boring thing (i.e. creating socio-economic asset bubbles that help them at the expense of hurting everyone who deals with them).  It must be Satan, the Illuminati, the Lizard-people, feminazis, illegal immigrants, terrorists, and the gays!  Guys, it's clearly a demonic conspiracy by the weirdos.  Think how cool this would be: we could form a Fellowship of the Ring to sneak behind Enemy lines and throw gay marriage into Mount Doom.  Unfortunately, people seem to take this sort of nonsense really seriously.

This brings me full-circle to my recent experience with awful neighbors.  Know something interesting about these punks I live with?  I am pretty sure most of them are straight (not gay!).  I am pretty sure they have opinions that might in some environment qualify them to pass as "conservatives" (though I hate the way this word is used today, much as I hate the way people use "liberal" or, God help us, "progressive").  But I don't know: maybe my neighbors are gay (and neo-Nazis, Illuminati, Lizard-minions, feminists who want to stick it to the Man, etc.).  What I know for sure is that one of the few people I will miss when we leave this neighborhood is a gay Buddhist--an older guy who went out of his way to befriend us, to make us feel welcome in a neighborhood that otherwise hates our guts.  It is possible that his gestures of kindness (like the friendly conversation we had yesterday) are a cloak for some devious agenda: he probably just wants us to like him so that he can begin the process of destroying our family.  It is possible, but I really, really doubt it.  How does it make my marriage one bit stronger when I join a big group of bullies to make his marriage illegal (or impossible)?  How does this action do anything (1) to make his life better (rendering thanks for the charity and consideration he has shown us)--or (2) to confront the real threats that assail my marriage (like the existence of organized gangs who think that I owe them fealty, that "religious freedom" and good society generally require me to pay them money and time for goods I taste as spurious fakes, cheap knock-offs that don't deliver anything like what the salesman promised)?

Here is my understanding of religious liberty, a very American one (if I do say so myself).  The state, our American one(s) included, is not functionally distinct from a religious cult.  (All religions are cults to me, for the record.  They all involve groups of people organized into hierarchies that exist to perform certain tasks, tasks that include some necessary goods and services and some more or less empty rituals that are also necessary insofar as they let us get along with one another.)  Historically, in America, the state is a cult that aspires to be ecumenical, embracing more than one religious community.  The Puritans who originally settled Massachusetts wanted to stone Quakers, for reasons that we might legitimately call religious.  To them the American state said, "No!"  The English adventurers who settled the South wanted to keep black slaves, for reasons that included religion (you can still read their position in the historical record).  To them the American state said, "No!  But wait: we need unity against Britain, so maybe yes?  OK, Britain is gone and we don't like your 'slaving way of life' (or whatever you want to call it: 'traditional way of life' works too).  Hell no!"  All these things might be logically construed as infringements on religious liberty (e.g. Puritan liberty to stone Quakers, southern Protestant liberty to enslave blacks).  Personally, however, I prefer to see them as legitimate victories for the religious liberty of Quakers and black people, whose right not to be stoned or enslaved trumps and should trump the rights of others to stone or enslave them.  But perhaps I am simply a naive fool, deluded by the homosexual agenda.  Today we find the religious state of America trying to decide whether to make its marriages, the marriages that it performs in courthouses and recognizes for legal purposes (in the environments wherein it decides whether to treat people as married or not), available to gay people or not.  While not being married or marriageable might legitimately be construed to constitute a burden significantly less onerous than being stoned or enslaved (I am not saying that modern gays endure the same fate as early Quakers or black slaves back in the day), it seems clear to me that the usual American principle applies to gays as to those before them.  As long as our state provides services to people, it has an historical duty to make those services ecumenical. 

Marrying gays does not constitute a heavier burden on society than marrying straights.  If there is such a thing as the "traditional Judeo-Christian marriage" that is cis-gendered heterosexual, then the place to advocate for that and practice it avidly is in private spheres, not the public one (where there is not, has never been, and never should be one single doctrine of marriage to rule them all: unlike many American Mormons today, I explicitly repudiate the Edmonds-Tucker Act and everything that it stood for).  You can wear a burkha of your own free will and choice, if you so desire.  You can choose to marry a toaster, or a dog, or anything you please, provided you do so without perpetrating criminal violence.  This is your religious freedom in America.  You cannot make me wear a burkha or marry a toaster against my will and call that "religious freedom."  That is bullshit.  (If it were the '60s or '70s, we could say it was commie bullshit, i.e. the idea that we must all be on the same page all the time for society to function well.  But communism collapsed, so it is now just American bullshit: Americans don't even know what the American tradition means anymore, if they ever did.)  Unfortunately for Americans like me, some of our fellow citizens in high places, places as high as our Supreme Court (not to mention Wall Street or state and federal governments), think this shit is gold. Like the fools who gave us Edmonds-Tucker and Prohibition back in the day, these people cheerfully waste public time and resources fighting lame crusades against gay marriage (etc.), all the while leaving the real threats to families like mine completely unaddressed--unnoticed and unchecked, proceeding to create the next asset bubble that will make it impossible for me and mine to preserve the illusion of economic and social stability that earlier generations of Americans enjoyed.  (Note that these illusions are always illusory, and some people always see through them.  I am not saying all the old folks had it better, only that their experience allowed them to create illusions that my experience will not allow, that it ruthlessly falsifies.  I need to break free from their American dream before it turns into my own American nightmare.)

To my neighbors, who think it is their right to be loud and proud while my kids cower silent in a dark room, I say, "Fuck you" (as I arrange to move elsewhere, a luxury I am fortunate still to afford).  To self-styled champions of religious liberty who think that life will improve for everyone if we block my gay neighbor--one of the few nice ones I have in the hell where I currently reside--from marrying in an American courthouse (not your local synagogue, unless that is what the rabbi wants), I say, "Fuck you, too."  I hate the high and mighty condescension of people who pretend to know better than I what my family needs, people who want to save my family by trampling all over it and remaking it in their own image.  Yes, my family has problems.  Yes, some of those boil down to our own human imperfections (we have too many kids; they are too noisy; we don't make enough money; we don't discipline them the way Dr. Phil would, etc.).  No, you cannot solve our imperfections with a heaping dose of unilateral judgement--condemning our kid-noise because it interrupts your drunken orgies, forbidding gay marriage because the thought of two men together or whatever makes you say, "Ick!"  How do you think they feel about you?  I am sick and tired of people passing judgement on others that they are not willing to eat for themselves.