Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Academic Humanist's Apologia

For some time I have been watching with interest as people have debated the place that the liberal arts (to which I have dedicated my professional life for more than a decade) have in modern education.  I believe in the value of the liberal arts, personally, but I think there are legitimate reasons why other people don't.  I think the future of the liberal arts looks better as we artists learn to relate better to others, including those who see us as a waste of space.

Articles like this one are too true for comfort. That said, I don't believe that people like Alan Bloom (cited in the article) are right to blame moral relativism for the death of the humanities. On the contrary, the real reason we care about things like justice is that they differ palpably (and relatively) as different people identify and apply them in different historical circumstances. The virtues are interesting to us precisely because they are not monolithic, uniform, or absolute. We are drawn to them because they are relative.

They are also not guaranteed to make anyone wealthy or "productive" (in the modern sense). They require time, hard work (ponos), and a high tolerance for failure (when you think you know what justice means and the result is blatantly unjust: you must have the acumen to notice this, acknowledge it to yourself and others, and move forward to something new). They teach us how to be happy, not how to have lots of stuff or be "leaders" (which seem to abound in modern society the same way the A-grade does: we are all super-intelligent leaders, so we all wear the same clothes, spout the same platitudes, compete for the same jobs, and expect the same material "rewards" from our moral education).

If people decide that the humanities are not worth paying for, then I will be sorry to lose my chance to be a professional humanist. But I will not stop reading, thinking, or cultivating the humanist virtues that I regard as essential components of my moral integrity. I don't do these things merely to make a living. I do them because I love them. I am a humanist first and foremost because I love humanism, not because I expect to make a comfortable living teaching, reading, and writing in the manner of some really fortunate humanists before me. 

Personally, I think part of the problem is that we are currently living in an education bubble similar to the housing bubble that just exploded. Contrary to the rhetoric we often hear bandied about these days, not everyone needs to take a university degree to contribute meaningfully to society. Not everyone needs to take a degree in humanism to appreciate what it has to offer. Not everyone needs to study ancient Greek and Latin to benefit from reading and interpreting the classics. I know this. I currently teach many people who have never had experiences like mine. They will most likely never read all the books I have read (as I have not read all the books read by all the professors I have ever studied with). My purpose as an educator is not to make these students into clones of myself, professional humanists seeking employment with their local university, but to introduce them to the wide variety of tools humanism has come up with over the centuries to enable happy, virtuous living. I don't need to make piles of cash to do this. I don't even require guaranteed benefits (for myself or my dependents). I would never force anyone to take my classes. I would not advise anyone to take out massive loans in order to enroll in them.

I think the value of the humanities speaks for itself clearly enough to remain relevant even if they kick us from the university (so that they can have all the money for more sports and administrators, not to mention all the super-fancy facilities: some students apparently cannot have a real learning experience without an indoor climbing wall, jacuzzis, multiple restaurants, dorms that look like the Ritz, etc.). 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Futile Rebellion: Why Terrorists Are Fools

In light of recent events, I have been thinking about my position on violence.  I think violence is something necessary to life.  I think we are all violent.  That said, there are better and worse ways of expressing violence.  Methods that involve useless escalation of dead-end conflicts are always worse.  Terrorism is a self-defeating, stupid modus operandi, whether the people employing it are heads of state or vigilantes among the people.

Take the case of the Boston bombing that went down recently.  Some civilian vigilantes get all riled up (for reasons that I have ranted about here on this blog: they feel threatened by society and its leaders, not always illegitimately).  They respond by attacking a bunch of civilians.  The final result is that innocent people die, and the crooks whose power the terrorists resent (no matter who they are or how innocent or guilty anyone finds them) obtain even more authority than they had before.  The vigilante terrorists actually make freedom less for themselves and everyone else every time they threaten the government's sheeple.  Under threat of attack, the sheeple lose what little inclination they might have to preserve the institutions that make us free: institutions like due process of law, presumed innocence, fair trial, and so on.  At the end of the day, the terrorists are dead, and the people are more under the thumb of government (well-meaning or not) than ever.  The resentment that led the terrorists to strike out against society terminates in a society even more likely to inspire resentment.  Attacking the bear with a sharp stick just makes it more dangerous, whether it is a Russian Kodiak or an American grizzly.  Stupid terrorists.

The best way to get back at the government is not to need it.  The best way to use violence is not to employ it randomly against helpless civilians.  The terrorists' problem is that they attack government by mimicking its worst aspects.  At least government is accountable, even if only in theory, to someone every time it decides to go haywire and kill a bunch of folks.  And seriously, dumb terrorists, have you not considered that governments have you utterly outmanned and outgunned?  If you are going to play the game of treating people as human shields, you should be aware that your opponent can cut through the shield much better than you can.  The second amendment doesn't exist to protect me from government in modern American society.  I don't want a shotgun to protect me from Uncle Sam's tanks, mortars, and nukes.  (What good would it be, seriously?)  I want a shotgun to protect me from cretins like you.  There is the place for legitimate social violence: Some punk goes to blow up a marathon and I take him out.

So much for the vigilantes who run planes into buildings or blow up marathons.  Now for the terrorists in government.  These people are in a tougher position in many ways than the vigilantes (who should simply stand down, since they do nothing good for themselves or anyone else: if they want to commit suicide, then they would do better to make it a private death).  Government is necessary at the moment: it is something natural that all societies have.  That said, it has an historical tendency to do bad stuff (e.g. kill crowds of people).  I don't want to tell government how to do its job, how to "protect" citizens from themselves.  I think it does this job best when we citizens don't need it much.  I would rather be free than safe.  I would rather be blown up by some punk on the subway than be strip-searched every time I get on.  Given a choice between vigilante terrorism and government terrorism, I will always choose the vigilantes: I think they are less dangerous.  Government here can do its job best when it helps me meet the vigilantes myself, preparing me to respond effectively (rather than imprisoning me in my own house for hours while it takes care of things for me--or pretends to take care of them, at any rate).

Ideally, government does not need police or military for much.  It takes free citizens and turns them into its police.  We become the police.  We become our own government.  We become the people making decisions that define our lives.  We become the people who get blown up by those stupid vigilantes and keep running anyway--not because we think the police or the military will save us.  We couldn't care less about that. We know life isn't safe, and we wouldn't have it any other way.  We do not ask for safety or security--we know that these are illusions--but for the freedom to respond appropriately ourselves to the threats that manifest unpredictably in our lives.  Good government equips us to meet those threats better, allowing and encouraging access to tools and training that will make more of us better stewards of our own mortality.  Good government encourages us to have the weapons, munitions, and physical resources (food, water, shelter) to handle threats in our environment (threats that include but are not limited to idiot vigilantes who decide that the best way to make a meaningful religious or political statement is to blow other people up and bring the heavy hand of military dictatorship down to crush us all).

I have never rebelled violently against government.  I never want to.  I see that such rebellion would be counter-productive (making things worse for me and for everyone else, not better).  If I do rebel, it will be quietly, non-violently, and inobtrusively.  I believe in kindness, civility, and decency above all else.  I believe in them so much that I am determined to practice them even towards historically rude government (within reason: there are regimes out there that I would oppose actively, either by fleeing the country or taking up arms, but those regimes are not the modern US one).  Smart people who know what violence is know its limits.  They see that they cannot force themselves unilaterally on others without getting hurt and hurting others unnecessarily in the process.  They see that reality, and they respond by standing down--permanently and resolutely--from useless rebellion.  Silly as those "occupy this and that" protests are, they are preferable to "blow this or that up" protests.  Dumb or dangerous as the Tea Party may be, the "blow stuff up for God" party is dumber and more dangerous.  If you want to rebel, do yourself a favor and take the route of Martin Luther King or Gandhi.  Find something positive to do, something that isn't hurting other people.  Make the beauty you cannot find in the world.  You don't have to kill the world to do that.  You don't have to hate it.  You don't have to fear it.  You don't have to care about it.  Just let it go and get on with your art.  Make an art of life instead of cultivating the art of death.

It doesn't matter if society is messed up.  It doesn't matter if other people don't like your art.  You can make it and enjoy it.  If you love it enough to turn it into life (instead of death), there will always be someone willing to see value in it.  Show them that value, and they will become your friends.  They will love you and help you make something beautiful--a garden of liberty whose fruits do not depend on regular watering with the blood of innocents (or even of tyrants: give it your own blood before you steal any from another human being).  If you cannot do this, then at least have the decency not to involve innocents in your death wish.  Do what Buddhist protesters do, and burn yourself to death somewhere in a public place.  Make your statement with your own blood, not mine or my kids'.  The sympathy I have for your plight--your suffering, your religion, your lifestyle, your family, your art--vanishes the moment you start gunning down random strangers.  I may resent the government boot-heel you bring down on my neck, but that doesn't mean I'm not glad when it breaks yours, you cowards, you dogs with no honor. 

You deserve the death you get.  You deserve it much more than all those people who will suffer because of you--not just the people you personally cut down, but also the other people the government will cut down needlessly because they remind somebody of you.  You are an emblem of what is most wrong in all of us--a giant, festering sore on the face of humanity.  As long as you persist in keeping the bear of bad government alive and angry, she will never stop tearing the meat off all our bones. 

As for that bear: dear representative of the American people, the next time you wonder why vigilantes go nuts and attack you or your people viciously, take a look in the mirror.  Look at the blood dripping down your face, the blood of people killed all over the world to keep us "safe" from death (that always gets us anyway), and see what it is that the dumb vigilantes fear.  They are dumb because they express fear badly, not because they have it.  I fear you, too.  But I know better than to go poking you with sharp sticks.  And I am too civilized to make others suffer unnecessarily because I am afraid.  But I am afraid, more afraid of you than of the terrorists, more afraid of being "saved" than of being blown up.  I value freedom over security.  I do not waive my Constitutional rights.  I do not want you to declare war on anyone or anything as a result of stupid vigilantes going nuts and murdering innocent people.  I don't want more military and police.  I don't want more laws.  I don't want more security.  I want you to stand down.  Weep with me, if you like.  Teach me ways to defend myself better.  But don't pretend you can make all the violence disappear by taking absolute command of society.  Don't listen to the cowards who want you to promise them the impossible--reward without risk, profit without loss, happiness without sorrow, life without death.  I fear your lies more than I fear the terrorists' truth. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Leadership and Happiness

Some thoughts that I decided to write down this morning as part of an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a good leader.

Leaders will always be dangerous. This is true whether they deliberately set out to lead or not. It is true no matter what their intentions are: often well-intentioned leaders do more harm than those whose only purpose is to screw their followers over. (The shepherd who milks his flock for profit wants them to survive and be happy enough to make milk. The shepherd who wants his flock to be "happy" in some nebulous fashion that he struggles to make objective and singular invariably ends up torturing them. He is out to manage their lives much more intimately, intrusively, and dangerously than the guy with a bucket whose clear purpose is to collect milk.)

I can defend myself against the man with the bucket. But what to do with somebody who baits me with happiness? The best response I can come up with is to recognize and see (over and over again in all my experience, personal and vicarious) that there is no such thing as universal happiness. Happiness is a generic regularity that we all experience in fundamentally irregular ways, such that yours is not mine and never will be. You cannot offer me happiness, no matter what your name is, no matter what degrees or experience you have. I am freest to be happy when I recognize that my happiness is not your gift, never was, and never will be. I like you best (no matter who you are) when I see clearly what you cannot do for me and avoid expecting you to be something you can never be, do something you can never do.

Looking back at the course of my life thus far, I see myself as a lucky survivor in humanity's ongoing battle to destroy dangerous heretics--a warlock who somehow managed to avoid getting burned at the stake, so far.  I think the best way to deal with any leader, whether or not he (or she) is ill-intentioned, is not to expect from him (or her) something that no human (or god speaking through a human) can provide.  It is harder to be betrayed when you don't expect impossible things from other people.

As for lies, they are at least as ubiquitous as the leaders who tell them. Sometimes they are deliberate. Sometimes not. Sometimes they are well-intentioned. Sometimes not. I don't believe pure truth is possible, personally. I have never met it--in myself or anyone else, at all. So I live my life as a giant lie. I know that everything I say is going to be false somehow, no matter what I intend. I cannot manage my "persona" the way the modern LDS church tries to. I cannot run damage-control to manipulate your perception of what I write or say. I have to throw down and let you respond as you will (or won't). I have to respect your right to lie the same way I do. So I strive to do that. I strive to lie as honestly, transparently, and non-judgmentally as possible. I live for the epoche of the ancient skeptics (my favorite prophet from antiquity is Pyrrho of Elis, who like me spent his time reading Democritus and Homer in an effort to avoid passing judgment on stuff). Nobody has to believe a word I say. I don't believe them all myself. They are momentary ripples in a wild, untamed stream that can never be dammed and controlled with the precision many people expect. The human mind's capacity for comprehending the universe is severely and irreparably limited. There is no magic formula for making our thoughts inhumanly wise. Enlightenment is something you already have, hidden somewhere impossible to find in the dark recesses of your miserable little soul. Happiness is noticing how it peeks out every now and then:


"Hey, come back here!"

"Come and get me if you can!"

There is no substitute for living your own life. We all make our own religion. Attempts to create and define giant communities like the Catholic church (or even the much smaller LDS one) are a total waste of time--a giant exercise in mental masturbation that becomes worse as people work harder at it (and seriously expect more real results). Catholicism that matters isn't about what a bunch of old fogies in red robes do somewhere in the dark halls of the Vatican (with or without altar boys). It is about the little family of Hispanics who walk past me on their way to St. Gertrude's, where the priest blesses them, the nuns help them with cheap school and daycare, and nobody would dream of molesting their kids. Mormonism isn't about what a bunch of old fogies do in a secret temple chamber in SLC (with or without plural wives). It's about my friend who goes to church here in Chicago with his wife and little boys and participates avidly, even though he is openly agnostic (does God even exist? who cares?). Theological debates are a sideshow: masturbation can be fun, but it isn't the same thing as sex, folks. Never was. Never will be.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ethics 101: Civil Society

A rant about the modern rage to make us all practice the same religion, as though such a thing were possible and/or good.

There is no such thing as "general moral decline" affecting an entire society of people uniformly.  I don't change my standards for what constitutes rape because some stupid yahoos in Steubenville reveal themselves to be criminals.  I don't change my standards for what constitutes pleasant sexual relations because my neighbor is into BDSM.  I don't decide to like Gatorade because some celebrity appears on TV telling me to.

Forget society. Forget all the morons who think they can make me like stuff merely by playing commercials and offering soundbytes. Forget marketing. If you have to tell me why I need something over and over while showing me a bunch of beautiful people (and/or celebrities), then I almost certainly neither need nor want what you're shilling. (Reverse psychology: seeing commercials often makes me hate what I see advertised, such that I become more likely to avoid it.)

Forget the ridiculous way of thinking that associates random decisions people make in utterly ludicrous ways: "My daughter decided to smoke: obviously this is because gay people are trying to get married! Heterosexuals in Steubenville cannot help getting horny and raping people: the homosexuals strike again!"  If there is a devil out there playing games with people's heads, then he is most certainly playing with yours as you spew this kind of nonsense.  For goodness' sake.  Grow up and take some responsibility for yourselves. Don't mind what all the people around you are doing. They are always doing dumb stuff (i.e. stuff that would be dumb if you did it).  Read history.  The best way to save the world is to stop trying so hard to make it sin the way you do.  We don't all sin the same way.  We cannot all like or dislike the same things.  We should not all want or avoid the same things.

People are always going to like and dislike different things, sometimes with really good reason. Eating wheat is a cardinal sin for my sister (who has full-blown Celiac disease: she was dying in her teens because she ate my mom's homemade bread), but not for me. The correct response to reality (bread kills my sister, not me) is not to ban bread (it is evil for my sister! people who make it are murderers!), but to make other options free to those who cannot stomach it (for whatever reason: if you eat bread and your stomach hurts really bad and you poop blood, then you shouldn't need doctor's orders to pass on the breadbasket). Be whatever you are, and ignore anyone who isn't OK with that.  You have the right to think my sister is silly for avoiding bread.  You do not have the right to punish her for avoiding it.

We do not all need to have the same habits.  We do not all need to recognize the same sins or deal with them the same way.  My sister's ability to make rice bread does not threaten my mom's ability to make wheat bread. Homosexual marriages do not threaten my heterosexual one.  Civil society is not about making me and my sister eat the same things (as though there existed some kind of food that was not also poison).  It is not about making homosexuals and heterosexuals (or anyone else) have the same kind of marriage.  It is not about making us all like the same stuff (as we never have and never will).

Everyone has different needs.  Everyone has different tastes.  Everyone does things harmless to himself that would be harmful if other people did them (as you know if you have ever helped a teen learn how to drive, or shoot a gun, or do anything at all, really).  My life is never going to be a prescription for other people's, and theirs is never going to be a prescription for me. I don't like what others like.  I don't need what they need.  I don't need or want their approval every time I decide to order steak for myself when they would rather have something else.  The restaurant of life has many options on the menu: let other people take whatever they want, and I will do the same. We can share space and be nice without liking the same stuff.