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.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Prostitution

Some thoughts in response to this article on the recently deceased poet Maya Angelou's past as a sex worker.

"There are many ways to prostitute oneself." I think this is a very important insight.

It seems to me that there are three kinds of people: (1) those who are prostitutes and hate it; (2) those who are prostitutes and don't know it; (3) those who are
prostitutes but have managed to come to terms with prostitution (finding a way to be honest and happy and even healthy as prostitutes).

Too many of us spend effort and energy rejecting and loathing the prostitution that we see other people participating in without considering (1) how we ourselves are prostitutes or (2) how the quality of one's approach to and experience with prostitution matters more than someone else's external perception of it. Selling favors (sexual or otherwise) is only evil to us if we do so under duress (being forced against our will), or if our goal is to create suffering rather than alleviate it (trying to prey upon the vulnerabilities of others in some way we see being profitable to ourselves). If I sell some intimate piece of myself to another person freely with honest intention to do them good, then my prostitution becomes something potentially very rewarding (in a good way). This is true whether I am selling my body or my ideas (time, resources, opportunities, skills, etc.).

There should be no shame imposed upon people whose experience with prostitution turns out badly because of others' taking unfair advantage of their weakness. Blaming the victims of bad prostitution for their own suffering is not a useful thing to do: it helps nobody, whether individuals or society. The proper thing here is to punish predators and try to help victims escape--from physical and psychological danger.

On the other hand, there should also be no shame imposed upon people whose experience with prostitution leads them to find happiness where others would not. Maya Angelou should not be an object of shame or blame from society merely because she sold sexual favors at some point in her life. That is not in itself a bad thing. Blaming people for being what she was, or what she seemed to be, does not make the world better--for her, for individuals who resemble her, or for society generally.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reflections on Violence

In light of recent events, specifically the murderous rampage of a young male college-student from Southern California who explained his attack as the fruit of being rejected sexually and hating American women (for wounding his self-esteem by rejecting him "unfairly" for other men who struck him as inferior), I offer the following thoughts.  I refer to this particular individual as R in my comments.  

Personally, I feel that there is a profound benefit to be had from breaking the illusion that my importance somehow trumps yours, that my integrity (or esteem or in a word, life) matters more than yours. How do we break that illusion? How do we provide space for young fools like R to realize the limits of their importance or worth without destroying themselves or others? I don't think there is any way to build a society utterly proof against accidents (that will on occasion give us criminals like R who must be put down), but I do believe there are things we can do to mitigate these accidents.

I have heard some folks say that boys are socialized to be violent, and that this is responsible for the creation of monsters like R. I disagree with this idea, though I might agree with some of the practical approaches to dealing with violence that come along with it.  (It is not always clear to me how we are supposed to stop "socializing boys to be violent." With therapy? Religion? I am uncomfortable with these options, for reasons which appear in articles like this one).

Why do I disagree? My disagreement comes from a lifetime (more than 20 years now: I am getting old) spent around boys--my peers growing up, and now my two sons, who are 4 and 6 years old. As a kid, I was drawn to martial arts. This is not unusual in itself, but other things about my life were undoubtedly strange. Unlike many kids, I grew up without access to much TV or movies. My parents put an end to our TV-watching when I was about 7 or 8 years old; the last shows I watched "live" as a kid were Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. Once a week, on Fridays, our family would gather around the VCR (remember those?) and watch one or two movies from my parents' collection. The Internet did not exist as a public utility until I was a teenager. What does this mean? Well, I was drawn to martial arts without knowing who Bruce Lee was (in the '80s), what boxing was, what video games were (we didn't have any), what violent movies looked like (my parents were not into that), etc. I just wanted to move, and to fight. There was no "because"--no social pressure from my folks, no social pressure from my friends, no cogent aspiration on my part to be tough or manly or whatever.  Later on I discovered words and rituals aiming to express the values I already felt as a 9- and 10-year-old kid: martial values, fighting values, values built around violence. The point is that I was not a blank slate upon which society wrote violence. As a little kid, I already contained something people call violence, something my martial arts' instructors recognized and taught me to control with respect. For that I am still grateful to them.

Fast forward to the present. My wife and I have two kids, boys whom we aspire to raise right. I suppose you might say that with my background in martial arts (which I still practice), I accidentally provide some kind of subliminal message to them that violence is golden, that they must fight one another. But my wife certainly doesn't convey that message, and I spend more time breaking fights up than starting them. My observation of their experience (as good little kids, who are learning to be responsible and respectful: I hope they don't grow up to be like R) is that it mirrors my own. They fight naturally with each other or with me (not with strangers, and they are learning not to fight with kids at school, not even their friends). I did not teach this, any more than I taught my dog to bark and bite my heels when we bought him as a tiny puppy. The violence is already there in animal nature, masculine nature especially (perhaps). The question is what to do with it.

I think it is very dangerous to let people spend their lives unchallenged, to accumulate experience winning that does not involve loss. My martial arts background was very useful to me in that it taught me to respect not just myself but also my opponent, who might not look like much but could now and again whip my ass (in ways that I would have to respect: getting caught with a stiff kick to the liver teaches you not to gloat too much when you are the kicker). The values my martial arts instructors had were explicitly geared toward minimizing physical damage: you don't want everyone leaving the art prematurely aged and broken, even if you are a selfish bastard as my teachers weren't.  As a result, I came away from my years of training physically developed (enhanced rather than broken) and mentally balanced.  I was not going to go out and hurt other people because "Life is unfair!" I knew in my gut, from years' experience, that you don't complain to the ref when the other guy takes you down and wins the match. You smile, shake his hand, and give your best effort the next time. Defeat is simply the other side of victory, a price that we must pay to win responsibly. The contest need not be fair--your opponent is different from you, with physical attributes that you don't have, and vice versa--and the best way of handling that asymmetry is with respect and deference (particularly when you win: you must show the loser that you respect his effort, that you are not the kind of asshole that R would call "alpha male").

For those who wisely require more than just my personal observations and experience to back these ideas up, I offer this National Geographic article on elephantsConsider these two paragraphs in particular:
Bradshaw speculates that this early trauma [seeing older elephants killed or carried off by poachers], combined with the breakdown in social structure [no older elephants left to guide the tribe in the bush], may account for some instances of aberrant elephant behavior that have been reported by field biologists. Between 1992 and 1997, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa killed more than 40 rhinoceroses—an unusual level of aggression—and in some cases had attempted to mount them. The young elephants were adolescent males that had witnessed their families being shot in cullings at Kruger National Park—sanctioned killings to keep elephant populations under control. At that time it was common practice for such orphaned elephant babies to be tethered to the bodies of their dead relatives until they could be rounded up for translocation to new territories. Once moved to Pilanesberg, the orphans matured without the support of any adult males. "Young males often follow older, sexually active males around," says Joyce Poole, "appearing to study what they do. These youngsters had no such role models."
One effort to repair the torn fabric of an elephant group lends further support to the idea that early trauma and a lack of role models can lead to aggression: After Joyce Poole suggested that park rangers in South Africa introduce six older bull elephants into Pilanesberg's population of about 85 elephants, the aberrant behavior of the marauding adolescent males—and their premature hormonal changes—abruptly stopped.

My observation of R and his kind tells me not that we socialize violence too much, but the opposite: we socialize it too little. Too few violent kids like R grow up without the kind of socialization into violence that I experienced (with peers and older men, mostly, who served me as role models for respectful, socially constructive ways to channel violence). Instead of watching older men court older women respectfully, R was watching college freshmen. Instead of watching older men fight in the arena, R was watching reality TV (or some other garbage remote from real life, until he mistook himself for the hero in an action film and charged out to die stupidly). I am profoundly grateful that I do not live R's life, that when I graduated with a BA as a virgin (no sex for me until I married at age 26), I was not homicidal. I knew that "real men" (the men I grew up with) don't kill women who don't want to go out with them. I knew that "real men" don't jump from "Life is unfair!" to "Kill everyone!" These are really valuable lessons, lessons that I hope to pass on to my sons as they grow up and come to terms with the violence they embody.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Science against Religion

Has there ever been an instance when religion and science came into conflict and religion legitimately won?  Imagine the reverse of the flat-world idea, e.g. science posits that the world is flat and religion argues it is round.

I think this is an unfairly loaded question.

Science, on my reading of history, exists as thoughts that people hold in a certain way. To put it crudely, the thoughts of a scientist that constitute Science are thoughts that can be transmitted clearly from one person to another and that can be proven false upon critical observation. I am annoying to some real scientists (and almost all science journalists) because I don't believe in scientific truth: for me the process of science is an accumulation of skillful lies about reality, skillful lies which exist as we become aware of our fundamental ignorance about how things work in a particular environment and learn to make that ignorance minimally poisonous. The theory of gravity, to my mind, is a skillful lie about how bodies relate to one another in space. It is skillful because its precision allows us to notice clearly where it ceases to work (e.g. in very small spaces). Much that passes for Science in the popular mind, and even in scientific journals, does not rise to this level of rigor (and skillfulness). This is particularly true of modern scientific publications dedicated to medicine and soft (not to say hopelessly squishy) sciences like psychology or economics (which latter I regard as the modern version of ancient astrology).

Religion is different from Science in comprising more (and more incongruous) things. Historically, scientists practice religion (along with other mortals), which is just a kind of organized human behavior that is more often than not explicitly irrational. (Why are we met on this field to sing at the top of our lungs, dance naked, and drink beverages that might make us live longer or kill us quicker, depending on which scientist we want to believe? That is a question that only an idiot would think he could answer definitively, it seems to me. And yet you will find some scientists--the ones I scoff at--trying to give definitive answers, explaining how the history of the universe makes rock concerts or Catholic masses inevitable.)

More often than not, what we call Science arises out of people reflecting on Religion (asking what we are, how we exist, what happens when we get drunk together, etc.). A more honest assessment of the relationship between Science and Religion, to my mind, would be that people generally have ideas (more or less clever) about what the heck Life is, and that some of them then go on to make these ideas falsifiable while others follow an opposite trajectory. Neither group of people (the generally skeptical or the generally dogmatic) argues pure Science or pure Religion (historically never simply theology, which is to Religion proper what Science is to medicine). Both tell clever lies, and both live a Life that refutes their lies constantly, whether they choose to notice or not.

Now, in light of all this, I come to the question: has Science ever gotten wrong what Religion got right? If we limit Religion to theology, historically a kind of Science (as I just noticed), then the answer is probably not.  But let this be no comfort to thee, Science, for (as just noted) Religion contains much more than just the rambling thoughts of a Plato or a Thomas Aquinas (let alone hacks like Ken Ham). It also includes years of practical experience, which is often incredibly wise where Science is naive and stupid.

Some of the most telling examples of Religion winning against Science occur in the area of diet and exercise. Religion gives people seasonality (rest at least once a week, observe holy days), where Science gives them lab schedules (work 7 days a week, night-shifts, etc., and when you get sick we'll hook you up to a fancy CPAP to see what the heck is wrong). Religion gives people fasting (the real secret behind many "miracle diets" that look great when native cultures practice them and terrible in clinical trials), where Science gives them whatever idiotic nonsense the US Department of Agriculture and the American Medical Association are currently shilling. I don't level the charge of nonsense lightly. If you care to dig into real Science, i.e. medical research, you will find a growing field in the study of iatrogenics, which reveals that much "cutting-edge" medical science (particularly in the realm of diet and exercise, and the cure for things like obesity, metabolic syndrome, and CVD) is dangerous bullshit.

If we move outside medicine to say, economics, we have Science offering people complicated mathematical formulae "proving" that debt is safe, whereas Religion tells them it is evil. In light of recent events, I am personally inclined to give this one to Religion (though others, notably economists, politicians, and bankers, will put in a bid for Science--and demand taxpayer money for further trials of their beautiful theories).

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Escaping the Bubble of the Contemporary

Below I offer a passage from Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher (pp. 422-425) that really hits home as I contemplate the world of the professional humanist (or liberal artist) that I inhabit.  I thought about truncating the passage, which is rather long, but every sentence in each of the six paragraphs demands to be read, so I reproduce them all:
A familiar problem exists wherever something is taught in which creativity plays an indispensable role--be it art, or music, or imaginative writing, or whatever, and that includes philosophy.  Is it to be treated as a subject or as an activity?  One does not want to train students to be only passive admirers of the great.  It is essential that they should be trained in the activity itself, trained to perform and to produce. Yet in the nature of the case ninety-something percent of them are not going to be particularly good at that--one is not going to be able, with a straight face, to expect strangers to take an interest in their work.  Nor are any but a tiny number of people who teach them going to be all that good at the creative activity either.  The danger then is that both teachers and taught will develop standards on the basis of what they live with in daily life; and to the extent that they do they will lose touch with the aim that their activity is supposed to serve, namely the production, consumption, and appreciation of the best work there is.  They can, in fact, quite easily develop a way of life in which such work plays little part.  And from that point onward their perspective will be awry, as in the familiar case of the schoolteacher who sincerely assures his friends that the Shakespeare performances put on by his pupils are as good as those at the National Theatre.  The best way to avoid such a deep yet common corruption of standards is to teach students through the best of what there is, so that this becomes what they live with daily, and shapes the standards they form.

The two approaches implicit in what I have just said represent the parameters within which a creative activity can be taught; and an institution or university department may tend towards either extreme.  Let us for a moment take a look at an example from outside philosophy.  A music academy can conduct itself ultimately in one of two ways.  It can base its teaching on the works of great composers, encouraging its students to learn by emulation: in their composition classes they can study such music, and as instrumentalists they can perform it.  The advantages of this approach are that they become saturated with great music, getting to know some of it extremely well, deriving their standards and models from it, and developing their own skills through it.  But there will be critics of this approach who protest: "Your academy is a museum, if not an embalming parlour.  You play only music by dead people.  Your young people are slaves to the dead, and you are ignoring the fact that music is a living, breathing art.  An academy of gifted people ought to be among the pioneers of progress, at the cutting edge of musical advance.  You ought to be encouraging live composers; and your young instrumentalists ought to be playing the music of their own contemporaries.  Making music is what this is all about.  You and they ought to be breathing the air of practical innovation, the exciting and the new."

This sounds plausible and attractive, and goes hand in hand with the attitudes encouraged for the most part of the twentieth century by the modern movement in artistic and intellectual life, based as that was on the notion of sweeping away the past and starting afresh.  Because of this, the more traditional approach has been seen for most of my lifetime as old-fashioned, confined, inimical to the creativity of the individual.  Yet wherever the more "modern" approach is put into practice the students find themselves spending nearly all their time immersed in mediocre and uninteresting music--simply because all but a tiny amount of the music produced by any one generation is mediocre and uninteresting, including that which they produce themselves.  They will be incited to compose it, and also to perform it, and in these most practical of ways to set great value on it.  They will find, of course, that scarcely anyone outside the academy wants to listen to most of it, or even sustains for very long a continuing interest in what they are doing; but this is only too likely to develop in them a contempt for music-lovers in general as being unadventurous, stick-in-the-mud, past-bound, a lot of fuddy-duddies and stay-at-homes, uninterested in what real live composers are doing.  Then a gap will appear, and will widen, between full-time music students on the one hand and music-lovers on the other.  The full-time students will be blinkered and confined in their outlook by whatever happens to be the fashion prevailing at the moment, and will more and more be producing and playing such currently fashionable music for one another, and for a few trendies.  Meanwhile ordinary music-lovers will continue to listen to the best music they can find, regardless of when it was composed or of what the more fashionable set may say about it.

A generation later, when such students are at the height of their powers and professional success, they will find that scarcely any of the music they favoured in their youth is remembered even by themselves, and that when they nostalgically revive it, it is not of much interest to anyone else; while the music of the masters is as often played and as much loved as it ever was, perhaps more so, and is still the music that they are most often asked to play for others.  They will not find, if they remember to look, that what were thought to be the most modern academies have in the meantime produced more or better composers than the old-fashioned ones used to, or that leading instrumentalists are now noticeably better than they used to be.  The worst thing of all will be that they will have lived their lives marinading in the formaldehyde of fourth-rate music, which is not something anyone who loves music could possibly want to do.  Indeed, people in love with great music will by now tend to sidestep such academies as places where that love is not easy to develop, and will pursue it another way, sometimes along a path that consists mostly of individual study and working at home.

Every point in this comparison has its counterpart in the world of academic philosophy.  It sounds all very fine and large to say that philosophy if not a collection of great books, nor a conspectus of philosophical doctrines, but an activity, and therefore that teaching philosophy consists not in getting students to study the great philosophers of the past but to do philosophy themselves, and learn to think philosophically, and to engage with contemporaries who are also thinking philosophically.  The trouble with it is that most of what they then do along these lines will not be very good, nor will most of the contemporary work they engage with.  They would learn far more about how to think philosophically by studying the works of great philosophers; and furthermore these would then be valuable possessions for them for the rest of their lives, every bit as illuminating after thirty years as when first encountered--whereas if they immerse themselves in whatever happens to be current literature they will find after thirty years that most of it is no longer of interest even to themselves.  Worst of all, their continuing mental world all this time will have been a world of the third-rate and ephemeral, when it could just as easily have been a world of the lastingly valuable.

In both cases the more so-called modern approach flatters and elevates the current practitioner, who is therefore almost bound to have feelings in its favour.  It encourages him to think that what is happening in his day, and what he personally is doing, are what really matters.  It encourages him to produce, regardless of the quality of his work, and to set serious value on what he produces.  He is led to believe that he and his contemporaries stand on the shoulders of all the past, and therefore stand higher than anyone has stood before--not in personal ability, of course, but in understanding.  So their work, he will probably believe, is in advance of anything produced before.  But all this time the harsh truth is that he will be a journalist with a longer timescale than most journalists, a producer of articles on topics of current concern which will be of no interest in a few years' time.  And all this, together with its concomitant downgrading of the past, will be terminally distorting of his perspectives, and corrupting of his standards.  He will, most probably, lose tough altogether with what are in fact real standards and achievements in philosophy as they have existed and endured over long stretches of time that include his own generation (whether he realizes that or not).  He is likely to live out his life in an air bubble of the contemporary. 

Along the way to a PhD in classics, I took a series of exams (in Latin and Greek language, scholarly French and German, a particular classical author that I chose freely from a long list, and a particular classical field of inquiry that I invented with a professor to advise me: my author was Hesiod, and my field ancient astrology, for those who like to know such things).  The last exams I took were a pair known as "comprehensive"--one in Greek and Latin literature, and the other in Greek and Roman history.  I failed these the first time I took them.  When I went round interviewing folks to see what was wrong (and set a course that would let me bone up for round two), the examiners said that my failure was owing not to lack of depth or preparation, but to the fact that I kept "questioning the questions" instead of simply answering them.  I realized after talking to several of them that they shared a common belief in the integrity of their questions that I did not have.  On an existential level, I resisted the kind of questions they were asking, resisted them as offering nothing valuable (to my own idea of what constitutes humanism, an idea which I was only vaguely aware of at the time: for reasons many who read this blog will know already, I was undergoing a kind of existential crisis at the time I took these exams, a crisis which involved rethinking every conscious thought I ever had about the purpose of Life and my place in it).  I was playing Socrates to the department's Athenian democracy, and so inadvertently setting myself up to drink hemlock.  Fortunately (or not), I managed to get from my examiners a clear enough idea of what I should think as a classicist to pass "comps" (with infamy rather than distinction) and move on to the dissertation, which I finished just last year.

I currently find myself on the job market, increasingly diffident about my chances of being employed--but more importantly, uncertain about the way my desires and motivation align with those of "the field" (academic humanists, classicists, pedants).  I entered classics (the humanities) as an undergrad because I believed that they contained information both valuable (practically useful) and beautiful (aesthetically pleasing) to modern concerns.  I still believe in the practical and aesthetic utility of the liberal arts, but I am not sure that I believe in what university departments do (particularly research university departments) as representing that utility.  My favorite "class-work" in grad school involved (1) reading the classics (in the original language), (2) trying to understand them (especially when this involved doing composition work in the original language: "how would Cicero construct an argument before the US Supreme Court?"), and (3) trying to find ways to apply them to modern life (what can Homer teach us about human conflict as it exists in contemporary society?).  Reading secondary literature occasionally helped (2) my attempts to understand what classical authors were saying (usually by supplying some context that I did not know, e.g. historical and archaeological information pertinent to my text but not encoded directly into it).  But outside of that, it was often a distraction, especially when it was contemporary: every time I go to a conference and hear papers read, I roll my eyes, not because presenters are "bad" per se (I certainly would not be better!), but because I cannot for the life of me see what the point of more than half the questions is.  What is useful and beautiful in classics is the tradition as it exists historically--a collection of the best of the best (somewhat arbitrary and accidental, but people make up for this by preferring e.g. Vergil over Silius Italicus as recreational reading).  Contemporary scholarship is mostly hogwash, a trifling waste of time that might be fun (for those of us who enjoy being pedants, making up new ways to express and explain the old texts we read).  But it is not terribly serious or important, not something I want to spend the rest of my life engaging day in and day out (with the kind of dedication that my PhD examiners had, the kind of burning passion that grips you and makes you write things whose profundity arises from the depths of your own lived experience).

As I read the liberal arts, they are about giving students methods (or processes) for coping with some of Life's most intractable problems.  The humanities (art, including philosophy and literature) are about tinkering, conceiving morality as heuristics (rather than universal, unified theories), making mistakes, confronting particulars without hope of achieving definitive universals, etc.  They are not a road to wealth (they might be, but most scholars are poor). They are not a road to fixed employment (as though the point of existing as a human being were making oneself obsequiously obsessed with some limited task).  They are not a road to eternal permanence, though they can make your own road to disintegration and death an easier one to walk--slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, appreciatively, with minimum expectations and maximal gratitude for whatever goods Life brings you.  If every thought we think becomes bullshit eventually, humanities are potentially the best kind of bullshit, I think, in that they do not come with a built-in need to be comprehensive or definitive or true (in some empirically objective way). They give our mind the opium of doubt instead of the heroin of sure knowledge, allowing detachment rather than attachment, and "opening the doors" of our understanding to a world of feeling that is obviously too vast to be comprehended (by humanity writ large or small). In a world wherein knowledge is power (to misunderstand reality and cause unnecessary death), the humanities offer an antidote (giving us the chance to step back from deadly knowledge before it kills us prematurely, or something we hold dear).

The utility of the humanities is particularly evident in "society"--religion, politics, economics, the courts, the battlefield, even medicine.  Science offers increasingly little help dealing meaningfully with these arenas, which are too complex, mutable, and mutant to allow for objective, replicable solutions (that require the existence of permanence and universality where Nature simply does not grant these).  I want to write about this utility, to become a humanist (even a bad, third-rate one) rather than an academic pedant (even a first-rate one, supposing I might be fortunate enough to pull that off).  I want to write about the meaning of Life, broadly conceived, not the meaning of Silius Italicus--or even of Vergil: Vergil is a fascinating window onto Life that is larger than he is. I want to see through Vergil rather than get stuck examining every little, incidental, accidental piece of him--as though the window mattered more than the view, as though people made hoes to be hoarded in museums rather than put to use in the garden.  To me, it feels like the classics offer this incredible tool-kit for thinking about and engaging directly with the World (with Life, writ large and small)--this incredible tool-kit that almost nobody uses.  Most of us with time to see it wind up composing journalism that describes it rather than putting it to real use.  I see that as unfortunate, and I would like my life--my career--to be different.

I think Magee is right that most creative artists don't make the best stuff.  I am probably not a great artist.  But I still need to engage great art.  I want to live the kind of life wherein what art I make is made in the shadow of greatness--ancient greatness that I see regularly (when I read Homer or Vergil, etc., perhaps even Silius Italicus).  I don't want to live in the bubble of the contemporary that Magee describes.  I don't want to spend hours pouring over secondary literature that doesn't engage Life (in any way I can appreciate).  This may ruin me for classics yet, as it already almost did.                

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Useless Man

Bryan Magee.  Confessions of a Philosopher.  Modern Library, 1999.  ISBN: 0375750363.

I have been reading Magee's book slowly since Christmas, when I received it as a gift (and a welcome opportunity to explore modern academic philosophy, the alien universe into which my last job thrust me unwitting but not unwilling).  It is very good.  Here I want to share some passages from chapter 15, wherein Magee describes what he calls his "mid-life crisis" (a mental breakdown which happened after he had achieved some measure of personal and professional success; I feel I have already gone through a very similar experience, though mine comes much earlier in my life and career).

Years before I made it conscious and explicit on this blog, I had the nagging feeling that I don't really value collective human activities that are conventionally very important (e.g. making money, making a name, making a career, being the kind of person people reward with power or prestige).  It is not that I actively hate power or prestige (now or in times past).  I just don't care much for them.  I have never pointedly avoided opportunities to befriend people or do interesting, important things.  I just haven't found "networking" (i.e. looking for useful acquaintances on purpose rather than encounter lifelong companions by accident, which I prefer) or "producing what powerful people want" (as opposed to producing what goods I can as best I can) inherently useful, beneficial, or desirable activities (to pursue as ends in themselves).

This attitude of mine is deep-rooted.  I remember playing on the playground as a kindergartner, usually alone or with one or two other kids, weirdos who decided to leave the group and join the hermit, for some reason.  I was not the kid people chose first for teams.  I was not the kid who cared, either.  I was not really picked on much.  (My only memorable trouble with bullies in kindergarten came from a girl in first grade, who took advantage of being bigger than I was to steal my lunch-box and hold it hostage for kisses.)  When the school asked me to join the gifted class that met during recess, I told them I would rather go out and play in the yard, with the trees and the sunshine.  (I still remember the confused and slightly angry look on the face of the little girl they sent to invite me.  Her name was Bethany.  She was very bright, and very nice to me.)  Magee offers a lucid, adult perspective on this attitude:
I felt I knew with some degree of certainty that if there were anything at all outside space and time we were at our closest to it in the private world of personal relationships, and of art and reflective thought, and were at our furthest from it in the public world of social organization and politics. I abandoned, or so I thought, the idea of becoming a member of parliament, and declined approaches made to me to stand for parliament. In all these ways the centre of gravity of my life shifted from the public to the private, from the impersonal to the personal, away from whatever it might be that was currently going on in the world of affairs to things of a more individual and abstract nature, and of much longer-lasting influence. I knew that many of my friends and colleagues saw me as falling out of life's race in a way that was cataclysmic for myself.  Indeed, some of them remonstrated with me about what they saw as my craziness in blowing a successful career. But the truth is that I no longer regarded the considerations they cared about as mattering (pages 256-257).
This has been my position ever since I was old enough to act with intention.  I did not care what teachers and classmates cared about in school.  When I went on a mission for the LDS church, I went to serve God, not the Brethren in Salt Lake City, who as it turned out had all kinds of impossible (not to mention immoral) expectations of what it meant to be a good missionary.  When I went to the university, I studied to improve Humanity, not to make a brilliant career or impress the bureaucrats in control of education (who are every bit as impossible and immoral as the Mormon leaders, it seems to me, with expectations that make a mockery of mankind and education).  I do what I see as the right thing.  I do it no matter what.  I see that this tendency is problematic (anti-social, dangerous, etc.), and I make efforts to correct it, but so far it is stubbornly incorrigible.  I am not always as keenly self-aware as Magee in this passage: more often than not, I simply don't see what institutions value in some activity that draws me, like a moth to a flame.  Institutions see opportunities for growth, for profit (that can be quantified), for results (that are evident to multiple players in an institutional game for survival outside the scholarly game of solving puzzles).  I just see interesting problems, problems to which I simply must contribute something--a process of personal engagement and development whose outcome is fundamentally uncertain and untrustworthy.

For me the process of study is always useful, always valuable, always to be pursued, even though its fruits are repeatedly, predictably, and predominately utter garbage.  The result of my life's process to date is a pile of stinking shit, hardly the reason I keep waking up eager to try again, to break my head once more against some problem that will not leave me alone.  I don't choose what to research, what to think about when I am not trying to keep my kids from killing themselves vel sim.  Problems simply find me, and I cannot let them go until I have read, thought, spoken, and written them out of my system.  I am not in control of my career, academic or otherwise.  I respond to the problems Life sets me, not the other way round.  This is the way it has always been.  Unfortunately, this means that I am always "blowing my career" (as Magee's friends would put it), failing as a good Mormon missionary or a good professional academic.  I ask the wrong questions, and answer them badly (from the institutional perspective, which I am constitutionally incapable of valuing the way leaders want me to).  Caesar has little or no use for Cato (who kills himself in the end), and I am Cato (esse quam videri bonus malebat).

The second passage from Magee that I want to quote is one I might have written. My own experience is almost identical to his (not quite the same, but close), in terms of what happened to me and the way in which I react to it (so far):
Perhaps I should stress that all this [mid-life crisis, blowing my career] was not primarily an intellectual experience, and was in no sense whatever a reading experience. It was not a matter of studying certain writers and being influenced by their ideas. Books and study had nothing to do with the causes of it. It was an existential experience, one long permanent state of mental and emotional crisis, in which I came many times near to breakdown. It consisted of agonizingly direct experiences, felt feelings, thought thoughts. And it was from this state that I came to my reading. Given the overwrought state I was in, some of what I then read impinged on me as if I had been skinned. For instance, there seemed to be a certain body of doctrine that was common to nearly all great religions and their famous sages, moralists, prophets, and so on, which I found self-evidently (and in that sense platitudinously) true and to the point, and which had an overwhelming impact on me, and yet which the world disregarded. Perhaps I might express it as follows (page 257). 
Let me interrupt Magee a moment here to comment on my own experience.  In the wake of blowing my own career (first as a Mormon, lately as an academic), well-meaning people (friends, advisors, mentors, and so forth) have come to me suggesting that I am just reading the wrong people, following the wrong gurus, attending the wrong classes--that my crisis might vanish in a moment if I just found the right book, entered the right class, dis-identified as a post-modernist (which I am not), got religion (the right one this time!), wrote more stuff in a more pedantic style, etc.  This advice is very frustrating to me, because my experience is not something external.  While it is true that certain authors, teachers, and religious folk have made a big impression on me over the years, personally and professionally, the overwhelming source of my personal and professional angst and its expression has always been myself (my very own self, the identity that I construct every moment I breath with conscious awareness, noticing phenomena to which I respond voluntarily and involuntarily).

How to put this into words?  I lived staring into the abyss and watching it stare back long before I encountered Nietzsche verbalizing that experience--a very harrowing experience that will always shape me in powerful ways, even if I hate Nietzsche and decide to refrain from reading, writing, or thinking of him for the rest of my life.  Even if I don't practice Christianity as a "believer" (however anyone defines that, anyone who is not me), that will not change the truth that Christ has a powerful impact on my existence.  I came unto my own, and my own received me not.  I know these words.  I have lived them.  They are written on the fleshy tables of my heart, in blood that will not be erased--my blood.  In the same way, my relationship to Mormonism is intimate and personal, not impersonal, objective, historical.  For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.  I don't especially care what Joseph Smith really saw (anywhere, at any time), but I know my own vision--and like him (in the story, which need not be true history in any sense) I cannot deny it.  Similarly, when I encountered Buddhist teachings like all compounded things are impermanent and all emotions are pain, they stuck with me because they honestly, accurately describe my own experience.  I am like the legendary arhats whose response to the Buddha's doctrine of emptiness was to die.  Like them, I do not experience thinking, reading, speaking, and writing as abstract exercises, separate (or even separable) from the business of life and death (the same business, whatever we call it at various moments that taste different to us).  For me religion and research are intimately bound up with life (and its other face, the one we call death).  I cannot live outside my life, mi camino propio hacia la muerte.  I cannot write outside it.  I cannot read outside it.  I cannot speak or think outside it.  I cannot pretend I care about it in ways I do not.  When I do, the result is obscene--and fools no one.  Even if people cannot put words to it, they sense the reality.  He is not one of us.  He does not get it.  He never will.  He is a witch-doctor, a sorceror, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  Stone him!

What do I see, then?  What do I live?  Magee gets it (nails it, makes me hope foolishly that there might be wolf-clan for me out there somewhere, a group that I might not have to despise for having me as a member):
The world is governed by false values. People in all societies seem anxious to do what they think is the done thing, and are terrified of social disapproval. They set their hearts on getting on in the world, being thought highly of by their fellows, being powerful, acquiring money and possessions, knowing "important" people. They admire the influential, the rich, the famous, the well-born, the holders of rank and position. But none of these things have any serious relationship to merit: as often as not they are ill gotten, and nearly always they are partly dependent on chance. None of them will protect a person from serious illness or personal tragedy, let alone from death. And none of them can be taken out of this world. They are not an inherent part of the person himself but are merely external decorations, hung on him. They are the tinsel of life, glittering but worthless. The things that really matter in human beings are things that can matter more than life itself: loving and being loved, devotion to truth, integrity, courage, compassion, and other qualities along entirely different lines. But human beings are all the time sacrificing these true values to the false ones: they compromise themselves to get on, bend the truth to make money, demean themselves before power. In behaving like this they are pouring rubbish over their own heads. If they stopped abasing themselves in this way and started living in accordance with true values their lives would become incomparably more meaningful, more genuinely satisfying. They would even, to put it at its most superficial, be happier (pages 257-258).       
Insofar as I have a gospel to preach, this insight is definitely a very important part of it.  I see it as good news, an evangelion worthy of worship, but my worship is not that of society:
In the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, in the Old and New Testaments, and almost everywhere I looked in the works of prophets and mystics, wise men and teachers--of any century and any society--some such message as this was to be found. Perceptive people seem to have been saying it since writing and teaching began. Even creative artists: the great ones seldom preach, and are diminished when they do, but, unspoken between the lines of what many of them write, these values are to be discerned. In the world's greatest opera and drama the conflict between private and public values is the most common theme of all, with the artist invariably enlisting the audience's sympathies on behalf of the private. And while the members of the audience are in the theatre, or reading the book, they respond almost universally this way. But the moment they come out of the theatre, or close the book, they revert. It is true that in temples, mosques, synagogues and churches they offer lip-service to true values, and feel better for having done so; and those values may even sometimes be taught in schools; but again, no sooner do people leave such places of instruction than they behave in their old ways. Worse than that; if any of them does not so--if one of them sacrifices his interests to someone else's, tells the truth to his own disadvantage, declines to be sycophantic to people with a lot of power or money--the others remonstrate with him and tell him not to be a fool. If he persists, they lose respect for him: they come to look on him as stupid, someone who does not know how to manage his own affairs, someone making a botch of his life. The truth is, then, that the values people publicly acknowledge and pay lip-service to are in reality values that they not only repudiate but actively despise. It took me a long time to realize this, but when I did I came to understand in a new light the evident frustration and even despair of so many prophets and teachers, their isolation, and their characteristic tone of railing at people who they know are not going to take much notice of what they say (page 258).
This is quite simply the truth!  Whenever I hear the spokesman for some large group saying things I like (e.g. we should express love for our fellowman), I remember the words of God (as they occur in Jewish, Christian, and Mormon scripture--search and ye shall find): They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  And they really hate it when you point this hypocrisy out in public, even if you go out of your way to be nice about it.  (Some folks actually believe their own bullshit.  That doesn't make it less shitty, but it does make them decent folk, and I would not wish to dishonor that decency while noticing where it cloaks dangerous hypocrisy.)  What should you do if Life makes you an obnoxious prophet?  Run away?  (That did not work for Jonah, did it?  I get that story much better today than I did as a kid in Sunday school.)  Lean in?  (Or as my non-feminist friends would put it, Eat shit?)  That can be devastating, too.  At this point, I find myself stuck between the urge to run (away from society, away from people, away from all the lies) and the urge to fight (against society, against people, against all the lies, especially those that demand uncritical obeisance--as though they were simply true).  I cannot break my integrity, and every company I work for is determined that for them I will.

Like many people before me, I find myself wandering about in the proverbial desert, lost and hoarse (vox clamantis in deserto), wondering as I wander whether that desert might blossom as the rose (and then wilt of old age rather than succumb to hordes of hungry locusts).  I don't know whether my garden can exist or not, whether my life will yield anything to others besides shit in the desert, but my integrity forces me to cultivate it anyway.  I till.  I plant.  I water.  I avoid the company of those who do not know my desert, those fair-weather gardeners who think I live in Eden and despise my meager harvests accordingly.  And I wait.  I wait to see what lot Zeus casts, where he weighs me in the scales of fate, whether I will live to till, and plant, and water again, another crop of bitter herbs infused with the harsh, poisonous flavor of my wilderness.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Rejecting the Robots

A rant in response to this interview of Bill Gates.  A pertinent quote from the article: "As for what governments should do to prevent social unrest in the wake of mass unemployment, the Microsoft cofounder said that they should basically get on their knees and beg businesses to keep employing humans over algorithms."

What we need are institutions and communities committed to human values over machine values (in the terminology of the late Lewis Mumford).  We need people to build communities redundantly, rather than efficiently, using technology that is old and outdated (from a mechanistic perspective).  We need to make it possible to be happy as a poor person again (fed, clothed, sheltered, and contributing meaningfully to a community that makes this possible without enslavement, i.e. without owing anything to large industry outside the community).  In terms of quantitative measurement, people may suffer or die more in these new poor communities.  The quality of healthcare will be lower (by some evaluations: note that this need not mean that mortality rates rise).  But qualitatively, our life with humanity will always be better than our life without it.

The future I see lies in disengagement and dispersion.  Leave the global society, the national power grid, the Internet (as an alternative to the village square), regular international travel, industrial agriculture and medicine as backbones of society (propped up by markets "too big to fail," which really don't exist).  Education should prepare us to live well and cheerfully with minimal reliance on industry and technology, particularly where these make our existence more miserable than not.  If the rise of robots makes men miserable, then we must simply abandon the robots.  Not reason with their masters.  Not beg for more scraps from people who couldn't care less.  Not look for dreams of expensive happiness that we are never going to achieve (many of our parents did not even achieve them, and their generation came closer than ours ever will).  Bill Gates is the voice of a past that I don't want, leading to a future wherein I have no place.  As I write these words using an operating system not designed by Microsoft (which I despise without hatred: it is simply shoddy) or Apple (which I despise without hatred: it is simply shoddy and pretentious), I am glad that Bill Gates and his like can never own the world, no matter how they might try.  Nature is bigger than any of us.  She does not make me live and die as Bill Gates, or the mindless minion of Bill Gates, not even when circumstances thrust me into a position where it is easy for me to imagine myself this way.

I think my own way to a death uniquely mine--uniquely tragic, uniquely comic, an intimate, personal experience I savor for myself with faculties that come to me from something much richer and more ancient than elite snobs with dreams of robots and rigid world-systems (wherein the future belongs to efficiency and algorithm rather than redundancy and imagination).  I think Bill Gates is full of shit.  As shit-stirrers go, he means well enough, and does his part to fulfil the little measure of that which he conceives to be virtue.  For that I respect him--as a man (not a prophet, certainly not a prophet I am eager to follow, since his heaven looks like hell in my eyes).  In his advice to governments, Bill Gates makes the same mistake that Occupy Wall Street did: you don't beg bureaucrats for anything you really want to get, ever, whether they serve private shareholders or pretend to represent the public.  It makes no difference.  To beg them is to give them power, to feed their dream at the expense of your own, to love the Devil more than God (waxing Christian again).  I do not beg Wall Street for anything.  I do not beg Uncle Sam for anything.  I do not beg Bill Gates for anything.  I expect nothing from them but death (and thus greet each new moment of my life with conscious wonder and gratitude, as the arrival of something blessed that I did not expect, that will certainly end soon).