Monday, December 29, 2014

Modern Economics: A Quick Look

The reduction of economics to science has destroyed the ability of people to see value that is not monetized, to the gross impoverishment of society (even when material profits have never been higher). People who cheerfully tout the superiority of "modern" to "ancient" society are dealing mostly in caricatures, which they turn into facts by manipulating mathematics. Also, I observe that many of them assume a view of "modern" that is incredibly narrow (excluding the 19th century, for instance, and even much of the 20th): "modern" society thus becomes the latest vision of a "return to Eden" that has yet to occur. 

People who want to make money these days in the US become, by and large, administrators (with degrees in economics, business, political science, communications, and various related fields that are all aptly euphemized under the title "marketing"). Administrative work consists largely in creating opportunities to squeeze money from people and institutions for spurious value (no "value added" to justify the expense that administration requires).

Why does college tuition continue to rise into the stratosphere? Administration. The people taking the money are not your professors, your instructors (who will soon outnumber the professoriate), nor your janitors and groundskeepers. They are deans, sub-deans, vice assistants to the provost, etc. Why do banks and car manufacturers require public money? Administration. The people taking the money are not your line-men, your mechanics, your bank-tellers. They are mostly middle management (with CEOs and CFOs and their like representing the flower of the cancer, not its root). Why are healthcare costs so large? Doctors and other providers are not hell-bent on making large sums: many of them work appalling hours for less money than the people who trained them (and the trend is to pay less and less to the providers, who are increasingly forced to avoid private practice and become the mercenaries of large corporations). Again, the people raking in the dough are middle managers, who sit at desks and fill out forms and pass absurdly high bills back and forth (from the middle manager in the hospital to the middle manager in your insurance company to you, and your jaw hits the floor when you realize that your ER visit cost $7000, and you must pay it all out of pocket).

When you investigate closely what it is that this middle management does to justify its increasing (and in my view unsustainable) expense to society, you find that it is engaged in a kind of legal piracy. Where it used to be "economical" to deal directly with the people you wanted something from (e.g. with a professor, a doctor, or a local banker--even a local politician), you must now call upon some middle manager (or a call center run by middle managers), take a number, and wait for a bill that will always cost as much as possible (and will cost more over time: next year, it will more expensive). You become used to this phenomenon; indeed, some of you are so used to it that you don't bother to wonder why it is that aspirin, tuition, cars, houses, justice, and basic healthcare cost so much more all the time. You don't stop to look at the deals other people (including some "poor" and "Third World" people) get from their providers (largely by having no time or infrastructure to impose the costly regime of middle management upon a public understandably eager to avoid paying a pirate for the right to live their lives). You accept the regime of extortion as "the way things are" even when you go to "fix things" (usually by voting for a change in the identity of your extortioner, as though swapping one face for another were the crux of the problem: it isn't).

The solution is both simple (to understand) and difficult (to apply in a practical fashion). Simply put, you must avoid doing business with middle management. Don't waste time talking with them, paying them, reforming them, voting for them, etc. Instead, you must build alternatives to them. Recreate relationships with service providers who exist without middle management. This will not be easy (or even "cheap" in the short-term; in the long-term, however, it will be much cheaper than any scheme that involves paying the pirates their protection money). You must put away the notion of being a consumer. There are no passive customers in a real market: instead you have to offer something to get something. You have to be trustworthy yourself, and have the acumen to recognize for yourself when someone is trying to take you for a ride. No "consumer protection" agency is going to help you (unless you give them real money, and even then, I would not trust them--whether they were public or private). You have to realize that abstractions are meaningless without some kind of concrete environmental referent. I don't care what the GDP is doing: it is a meaningless thing, since its rise might just indicate the proliferation of piracy rather than the creation of something really good (real value). Growth is ambiguous that way. I care what is growing, how it grows, more than that some growth occur. Middle management is eager to sell you growth, without drawing your attention to the fact that it wants to grow at your (and the world's) expense, via a process of piracy whose moral ethic is, "Make more money, no matter what: more is always better, no matter what the fallout is." If you like that ethic, then buy into it with your eyes open, instead of falling for the commercials that repackage it as something less brutal or short-sighted (like Adam Smith's capitalism or Karl Marx's humanism).

Friday, November 28, 2014

Job Security and Lack Thereof

To me it seems that we often ignore solutions to institutional indifference or hostility that involve breaking away rather than moving in.

If I am already a playing member of some institution--dea
con in a church, shareholder in a business, official in a government, tenured faculty in a university--then it makes sense to push for reform, as an insider, where I see it as useful or helpful ("the right thing to do"). I can campaign from a position of relative strength as an insider, using social and political capital that I already have to fix problems I see. As an outsider, I don't have that capital, the capital for reform. I cannot make a meaningful dent on insider culture, really, except insofar as I avoid participating in it where I find it obnoxious.

If I am a shareholder in a business, then I have a meaningful voice when it comes to decisions that business makes. If I am not, if I am merely one of several million faceless consumers (passive beneficiaries of business I don't make), then my most meaningful decision is often simply to take my investment elsewhere. If I were tenured faculty, then my outlook on academic culture would be different than it is. I would advocate more for political solutions involving existing powers. As matters stand, my advice is that nobody should bet too much on the success of an academic career (with "too much" loosely defined as "debt sufficient to procure a middle-class life like that of my parents, who owned homes and had pensions and vacations and whatnot"). I am open to publishing work in alternative venues (e.g. using Amazon to self-publish rather than submitting to journals or academic presses). I am open to distance learning, with or without the umbrella of institutional support. I am open to the reality that many of us do many different things over the course of variegated lives: there is no such thing, not even in my relatively small coterie of academic friends, as "the academic lifestyle" or even "the academic career" that moves predictably from grad school to tenure. If a student asks me about making a career in academia, you had better believe I will mention all of this stuff. I will mention that it is wise to have back-up plans, and a working partner, and reasonable expectations of the rewards available. It does not make sense to care more for institutions than they can care for you. Feel free to make professional inroads into business outside the tenure track, for strait is that gate, and narrow the way, and few there be that find it.

My own situation is not wholly without hope, though I appear to be headed down an employment rabbit-hole that swallows some people whole (adjuncting as a career).  I am hoping that having really low expectations and being frugal will help us as we come closer to death of natural causes. I really like the tiny house movement, myself, and will never have a mortgage if I can help it. Maybe we can move into a shed or an RV (or a yurt!) when the kids grow up and move out. We definitely won't be paying their college tuition, if they go to college (which I am not going to push as a necessity, not least because there is no way in hell we could afford it).

Healthcare is a problem that persists, thanks in large part to the really stupid system we Americans have jerry-rigged in which the only way to see a doctor is to pay some bureaucrat (with a private or public company of dubious value to anybody except career bureaucrats). But for now my wife has benefits, even if I don't, and we are young enough to aim for good health as a long-term option. I suppose I may have to invoke sudden death if I get a really nasty disease that nobody can pay to cure--but honestly, those diseases are often death sentences even with the best care that money can buy. My great-grandfather fell on a pitchfork (the blunt end, not the tines) while working in a barn-loft. He spent a few weeks in agony, and then was dead. He was not even 30 years old. Life happens. Sometimes all we get to do is clean up the mess, bury the dead, mourn, and move on. It isn't Obama's fault (or Boehner's).

Cars are an expensive nuisance, as are computers, but so far we have been fortunate with used machines and good deals. I think there is hope that we may make it all the way to death without needing more than a serviceable jalopy and a few relatively cheap machines that are not phones that can handle word-processing and other activities our employers require. Beyond that, all we need are clothes and food--and time to spend together.

At some point, which I seem to reach sooner than many, I would rather forgo extra income and spend another hour with my family. I know that my academic employers do not value me as a human being: I don't expect them to do so. They have a need for services that I happen to be able to provide, for the moment--impersonal services that they can afford to hire for a relatively small sum. I know that they care more about the services than about me. That is the way of institutions, which necessarily value data over anecdotes, process over people. Seeing this truth as I do, I make a point of limiting my exposure to the institution. I want a relatively low ceiling on the amount of distress that the university is capable of causing in my life. When the dean hauls me into her office, swears at me, and tells me that I am a loser who should go fuck himself and die, I would prefer to smile, tear up my performance review, and walk out--rather than sweat and weep and wail and gnash my teeth. It is easier to be impervious to ill fortune that we expect, I think--so I make a point of expecting indifference and occasional hostility from the university, seeing that it often rewards my colleagues with such things (and I am not magically different or special or superhuman).

My family care about me as the university does not and cannot, even if it were to offer me tenure. I would be willing to care more about its future, and so its institutional decisions in the present, if I had a real stake in them (such as the prospect of tenure would raise), but even then I would not love it as my family. And I would not expect it to love me this way. As an adjunct, my principal loyalty is to students, and to the integrity of my work (as a teacher and a really independent scholar, free to read and write and publish what I want on my own schedule, without giving a damn for whatever intellectual fad is currently hot with tenured faculty whose collective attitude towards me is largely one of indifference or disgust). I value those professional people I know personally--the friends I have made at work--and I endeavor to be worth something to them as another human being, no matter where they may be professionally. I like many academics, including some with tenure, and naturally I hope that they like me back. But this is hardly the same thing as liking the university. I like teaching, if you want to know the truth, and thinking and writing, so for the present I put up with the university. I don't really like it, and I know better than to expect it to like me.

In brief, when buying something really expensive (a house, professional training that lasts a decade or costs decades of work to pay off), consider the worst-case scenario rather than the best. If the worst is more than you can bear, then don't buy it (no matter how nice the best looks). I would advise the aspiring grad student to look elsewhere if she cannot bear vows of material poverty and intellectual humiliation--for such is the lot of many academics (probably all of them, at one time or another).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hope and Change

I do not have hope that the oligarchs who run Washington will decide to burn bridges with their masters on Wall Street--to save me, or people like me (small statistics who don't matter, until we become part of a large mob demanding Coke or Pepsi).

I do not have hope that it makes a great difference whether the oligarchs identify as Democrat or Republican.

I do not believe that America is the hope of the world.  (If it is, then I suspect that is at least as much a curse as a blessing.  We might legitimately hope to kill or bankrupt the world, given our past, but how can we hope to replace its hopes with our own?  How is this not the worst kind of arrogance, even supposing--as some do not--that we are in some sense envied by the entire world?)

I do have hope that individual people can make a positive difference in the communities where they reside.  I believe in doing good that we can see and respect, among people we know (or might know--as people rather than "constituents" or "customers").  I believe in the community I reside in.  I believe in my neighbors, my friends, my family.  I might even believe in local politicians.  But that is the limit of my belief.  I cannot believe in what I cannot know (America), in ideals pretending to serve a population or populations so vast that they become incoherent to the point of being practically meaningless.  "We the People" of the USA are 300 million souls, give or take, scattered over a geography and ecology (political, economic, religious, social) so vast and diverse as to be utterly incapable of sharing much besides ignorance and hostility--in my considered judgement (that anyone is welcome to question, to dispute, to reject, etc.).

Too often, when stewardship of others is invoked--by Left or Right--it is in a context of somebody else doing something for me, in my place, without my having to lift a finger or take any responsibility.  I am asked to punish people I never met, to give money to people I never met, to hope against hope that people who don't know me from Adam know better than I how to reward and punish.  I am supposed to cede moral agency to "representatives" who act in my name, waging war and granting charity for reasons I am never supposed to learn.  All I am required to do is listen attentively to the latest commercials, put my hand on my heart when the music plays, and burst into tears as I affirm with emotional conviction that Coke or Pepsi, Democrats or Republicans, is certain to save the world.  I find this vision of my activity as a citizen of a free republic rather confining--since I have no love for Coke or Pepsi, no private inclination to prefer either as I make my diet of water, coffee, tea, and milk.  It would be easy to brand me as somebody with no hope--a desperate cynic with no commitment to the ideals that made this country great, blah blah--but what does this really mean?  I was born in the United States.  I have lived the greater part of my life here.  I pay taxes.  I even vote--though I confess my motivation is not hope for change that my sober judgement views as impossible.  I work (for money when I can, for the comfort and security of those I care about when monetary employment is lacking).  I observe the laws as carefully and conscientiously as I can.  I am polite.

I don't expect people to live like me, to like me, to "join my cause" and make it into the kind of nationwide farce that is Coke, Pepsi, the Democratic Party, or the GOP.  Whatever hope I have for humanity existing in relative peace comes from my trust that individuals like me tend to love their family and friends, and the community around them--without losing sight of the reality that this love is fragile and historically inclined to become hateful (when the interests of my family bring me into conflict with yours).  I can give you space to make a family that is not mine, but I cannot bear it when we must all become part of the same gigantic, dysfunctional family.  "One nation" of 300 million people is a disaster, from my perspective, when we must all have the same moral values--the same diet, the same healthcare, the same marriages, the same education, the same careers, the same uncritical devotion to factional politics that makes us pawns.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Religion and Violence

Part of the problem with "the real reason" for human violence, I suspect, is that it simply does not exist. My kids, for example, fight like puppies (not always fairly or kindly), and when asked, "Why are you punching your brother, after I explicitly asked you not to?" often look up with genuinely blank faces (and even on occasion answer honestly, "I don't know"). I suspect many people genuinely don't know why they are violent (in ways that historically prove helpful--look up the benefits of play-fighting with kids--or not, e.g. jihad). They just are, and so inevitably their mind works to create justification(s) (Deus vult! national security! etc.) for a prior existing condition (must punch someone!).

The really intractable problem here is that it is genuinely wrong (bad practice) to arrest people for thought crimes, but that is essentially what I see us having (in many cases). By thought crime here I don't mean "carefully planned, conscious crime" but pre-rational determination toward violence (without any pre-determined method or justification).

Rather than take an approach like Karen Armstrong, who seems to suggest that religion is never to blame (as a legitimate rationalization of violence: I don't believe this), I prefer to observe that religion is simply one of many tools available to foster and culture (the old word would be civilize) human violence (which is simply there in humanity, an unavoidable part of our biological heritage).  Sometimes, we use our tools to express violence well (in ways that improve quality of life); other times, we don't.  Religion, like all our tools, is in itself neutral.  It is neither evil nor good.  How we use it determines what it is in individual circumstances (its immediate valence for good and for evil).

When people talk about transcending religion, leaving it behind, etc., what they are really advocating, it seems to me, is leaving behind some aspect of humanity whose momentary expression (as violence or superstition or whatever) they don't particularly like (indeed, they might hate it--with righteous indignation).  To seize upon some momentary justification for genocide (or some other awful crime in recent human history) as itself the cause for all genocide, to proceed in the righteous struggle against genocide on the assumption that (for example) de-converting people from Islam en masse will radically alter our species' expression of violence--to me this seems fundamentally wrong (ineffective, resting on a misprision of the reality that we are a genocidal species--we commit crimes of violence, historically, including the crime known as genocide, and we invent stories to illustrate, explain, and facilitate this aspect of our character).  If we got rid of Islam today, then tomorrow would bring us another myth equally obnoxious.  If we got rid of all Abrahamic religions, the same thing would happen.  If we got rid of every traditional religion, we would simply re-invent them (and tell ourselves, as many Nazis and communists did in the last century, that our crimes against one another were justified by some modern and progressive myth--clothing our genocide, etc., in the trappings of science). 

This is why I roll my eyes when people talk of abandoning religion for something better.  There is nothing better.  People really are that stupid (and violent, and whatever it is that you don't like that you are calling 'religious').  What we can do, what we should do, is learn to confront the evil we carry inside ourselves (Christianity gets this part right with its doctrine of Original Sin).  This evil is not something separate or separable from us (Christianity gets this wrong: Grace and Salvation are bullshit, at least as commonly taught among most believers; I don't mean that nothing good can ever come from believing in them, only that most people seem to derive more lie than truth from them).  We must learn to live with ourselves as we are--with tendencies toward crime that are inseparable from our other tendencies, which as often as not are those same tendencies, in different (and better) circumstances.  We have an instinct to love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to hate.  We have an instinct to protect what (and whom) we love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to destroy what (and whom) we hate.  Religion, and other forms of collective and individual culture, can help us prune these tendencies.  It can direct us toward better or worse ways of expressing ourselves in whatever circumstances we might be.  But it cannot remove these tendencies entirely, not even when we make the mistake of externalizing our evil and assigning it to religion that we dislike (for any reason).  Leaving my childhood religion behind might help me become a better person, empirically speaking, but there is no guarantee that this must happen.  I will still be a human being, no matter what I do.  I will still carry with me all the causes and conditions for superstition and violence and other potentially criminal behavior that comes coded into humanity (my own and everyone else's).

This is why Greek tragedy is so gripping.  It is about looking oneself in the face, honestly, and seeing everything there.  Katharsis is not a matter of expressing or indulging rage (as many modern readers of Aristotle seem to think); it is looking deep into the recesses of one's own humanity, and seeing there the little baby emotions that might become rage (homicidal and suicidal), envy, lust, etc.  It is seeing the strength and the weakness of our species, and realizing that they are the same thing.  The same qualities that make Oedipus king and savior also make him criminal and outcast.  Until we see this reality and accept it, we are fundamentally separate from ourselves--broken, lacking integrity, unable to help others or ourselves without running an unacceptable risk of causing harm (because we think we can love without hating, serve without ruling, help without harming).  We are like children who imagine themselves able to fly because they have wings patched together with feathers and wax.  Such fantasies are cute until we walk to the edge of a real cliff and jump.    

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lessons from Abroad

The following essay comes from a discussion about the nature of healthcare policy in the United States.  I started out wanting to talk about healthcare, and wound up addressing the entire Spanish economy as an illustration of problems we deal with in healthcare, education, employment, and government--i.e. economic and politics generally.

My personal feeling is that the USA is simply too large to have a coherent, consistent public health agenda that extends nationwide. Europe benefits from smaller administrative regions, with more homogeneous culture(s). In my experience, Europe is a gated community built to exclude outsiders (who respond by seeking to replace rather than assimilate: immigrants from the Third World do not become French, or Spanish, or Scandinavian, by and large). America is the opposite (though we keep trying to repent and become more European; unfortunately, we need cheap labor, too).

When I was living in Spain, there were serious political movements in every place I stayed whose central goal was complete autonomy. I did not meet a single population in northern Spain (over two years, I lived in these provinces: Castilla y Leon, Galicia, Vizcaya) without a significant minority who wanted nothing to do with Spain or Madrid. Some parties even wanted autonomy for smaller regions (there was a party that wanted to get Castilla out of Leon). People grew up in small regions, in neighborhoods where they could point to the house their great-grandparents occupied (which often as not was a cottage predating modern civilization). There was a very strong trend to shut the world out, to suspect "growth" and "progress" as cloaking devices for "rape" and "pillage," and to distrust outsiders permanently (because they are not from here, they do not know this place, they will take our stuff and make good with it somewhere else, somewhere we cannot follow). In America, I can move thousands of miles to a neighborhood where people have never seen me before, and the common reaction is, "Hello! Welcome to the block!" In Europe (Spain anyway), this reaction is still there (particularly if I am talking to foreigners or people who live in the city), but it is supplemented by another: "You're not from around here? Fuck you! Go back where you came from. We don't need foreign shit. It is hard enough to deal with all our own."

Everything is different (healthcare, economics, religion) in areas where people have deep-seated distrust of the novel, the foreign, the unusual. America thrives on imagining the novel optimistically: "This new treatment could work wonders for me! I might survive this illness and even come out stronger than before!" In my experience, Europeans imagine it pessimistically: "This new treatment is probably going to make me die even faster than I was already, smoking two packs a day. Fuck it, and the white horse it rode in on." My experience is colored by the reality that I have never lived in the "really cool Europe" that American Leftists like to gush over. While I met plenty of German, Dutch, and Scandinavian tourists (who were invariably tall, healthy, and very articulate in English), the local populations I met were Iberian (short, not so healthy sometimes, and incomprehensible in English). I know that Spain is not Germany, or Holland, or Sweden (or Finland: man, I love that place, though it does have a rather high suicide rate for being so awesome in so many other ways). If there is anything I learn from my limited experience with Europe, it is that poor people (in particular) do better trusting authority and novelty less. The less we aim at "wealth" (move to a big city, get a nice job and a fancy-ass house, settle down) and the more we aim at "competence" (move to a quiet place, acquire skills that make any particular job unnecessary, and live in the cheapest hovel you can afford)--the happier we will be.

Happy Spaniards knew their neighborhoods (their grocer, their doctor, their teachers), and were busy building those neighborhoods themselves--they did not trust you to come in and fix them. Even when your motives were entirely pure and you had no evil track record, they wanted you out of the way so that they could keep planting and building what they wanted, not what you wanted to give them. My purpose living in Spain, as readers of this blog know, was offering folks a chance to become Mormons. Needless to say, that did not go over very well. But I learned a lot--including two really important things about myself: I am a terrible salesman, and I hate sales. I did not sell the Spanish on Mormonism, but they certainly sold me on hating sales. That visceral distrust and dislike of advertising is something I think Americans could stand to learn.

To end this interminable comment en pointe: the official policies coming from Madrid make Spain sound like utopia (or at least, like France): free healthcare, job security, political democracy, etc. But the reality on the ground is rather different. You see, making this utopia real requires more economic strength than the nation has (leading some of the least economically depressed regions, e.g. Catalunya and Vizcaya, to produce large numbers of citizens who openly, loudly, and even militantly desire to secede from Spain). This is because there is a high ceiling for legal employment (meaning that employers and the state together have to be able to guarantee healthcare, wages, votes, and acceptable living conditions to legally employed persons, such as I was during my stay). But crap jobs still need to be done, so as we do in America, the Spanish hire foreign slaves (Africans and South Americans, and some Eastern Europeans)--who are willing and able to work for pennies that people have as opposed to the euros that dreamers (officials, humanitarians, managers, EU bureaucrats, Spanish bureaucrats) want to give them. There is this perverse dynamic at play whereby native Spanish youth have nothing to do (employing them would be exploitation, i.e. illegal and punishable as a criminal offense), so they must sit around on the street and in their parents' basements collecting pensions from the state (mostly; it occasionally cannot pay!) while Africans, Arabs, native Americans (many from Ecuador and Colombia), Bulgarians, and Albanians keep everything running for wages. The Spanish folk in my age bracket, while I was there (as a 19-, 20-, and 21-year-old) spent most of their time walking around town, smoking, making out in street-corners, getting drunk, playing video games or watching TV, and harassing people like me. Were they better off than I, health-wise, job-wise, education-wise (tuition was cheap)? In some ways, yes. In others, no

Monday, October 20, 2014

Semper Fidelis

I am increasingly of the opinion that modern Western police (many police, maybe not all) exist to clean up after crimes, to beat suspicious people up (especially if they are poor and otherwise defenseless: worst-case scenario, the cop just goes nuts and starts dropping bodies), and to collect a nice pension.

Crime prevention isn't really part of the picture (unless you think those press conferences mean something useful: I suppose there might also be real utility from classes that some officers give, e.g. explaining to youngsters what they see in terms of crime in any given community and how they would advise avoiding it). One problem I consistently have is that I feel some of the onus (for preventing crime) should be on me, rather than police. I feel that modern police have too much responsibility (protect and serve me, officer! I am too helpless to do anything in the way of protecting myself) and too little liability (saving that grown-up baby's bacon required killing a few lowlifes? no prob! back on the job tomorrow, with a raise!).

Communities that work, it seems to me, are communities in which we all take turns shouldering the real burden of "serving and protecting" ourselves--rather than passing the buck to professional mercenaries (who may or may not be assholes: in my mind, that is a different problem; I suspect many of these are honorable, and many are not). People (especially people in positions of authority or aspiring to such positions) need to spend some time "in the trenches" with soldiers and police, it seems to me. One of the great problems of our time is that we have leaders and citizenry utterly blind (in practical terms) to the realities of human violence. Professors, politicians, and clergy cannot really offer a useful, practical perspective on violence if they are never confronted with it--if they never have to deal with it in real time, with life and limb on the line.

I like the old Swiss model (every able-bodied citizen spends some time in the military / police), precisely because it involves ordinary citizens learning to provide protection and service to themselves, at a realistic cost (to themselves and the whole community). The Left would probably hate me if I became mayor (or anybody with political clout), because I would want to resurrect the militia (local military and police) as something to which every able-bodied voter must contribute. You put in your time--not necessarily in the line of fire, but close enough to see it--or you forfeit your right to vote on anything that involves public defense (because you are not qualified to have an opinion: the shepherd does not take a vote from the sheep when deciding how to fend off wolves). I think this model is the only way to create police and military forces that does not ultimately incentivize corruption. Of course I remain open to counter-argument, but for now that is where I stand.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Building My Identity

This article touches the fundamental problem with identity politics: the real Muslim (the real Christian, the real feminist, the real white man, etc.) does not actually exist. The identities we construct for ourselves are at some point uniquely personal, an expression of the particular self whose idiosyncrasy rejects (and breaks) every universal mould. Identity politics as an exercise require me to identify myself wrongly with people who look like me in some fashion, and then to go out and apply this mischaracterization to other people, as well. Identity politics, even when they are most factual (dealing practically with people who for whatever reason appear to act en masse), ask us to behave as pawns (the agents of some collective to which we must belong, to which we owe our identity). It is unfortunately true that I will owe many of my life's goods to groups that include people and things I find immoral, but that seems to me like something to limit wherever possible, rather than to celebrate. I would not choose to enumerate at great length the ways in which I am and must be the helpless agent of some larger identity (religious, political, cultural) that controls me against my own better judgement. I would prefer to dwell on the ways I can break these moulds, can defeat the mandate that I pick a faceless tribe and then stand with them no matter what.

It seems to me that the best way to defeat identity politics (which I regard as evil) or the evils of identity politics (for those who think that identity politics are good) is to quietly refuse to conform to the agenda of your "tribes" (the groups who seek to claim you as their pawn because you practice a certain religion, dress a certain way, come from a certain ethnic background, etc.). My identity is a temporary thing, fraught with many limits such that it inevitably becomes evil, to me and to other people, at some point. In light of this reality, I seek to make that ego as little active as possible in the world around me. I don't lend my weight to causes waged by "my tribes" against others merely because "everybody who looks like you is doing it." I do not know what all academics, all males, all white people (etc.) are up to, as a group. I don't want to put myself in a position where I have to know, where I make myself liable for some kind of gang activity that pretends (inevitably falsely) to speak for "our kind." We have no kind: you are one self, and I am another. Superficial likeness might conceal vast oceans of difference, so vast in my experience that I always assume we are more unlike than like until I see you acting, until I know you--as a person, not a stereotype.

The tribe that I want around me is not a nation, not a race, not an ethnos, nor a worldwide religion. I want real family and friends, people I know personally from historical interaction. If I am to go to war, to make bets with my life, to take risks with uncertain causes and conditions in a troubled world, then I am going to do it not for an imaginary identity or camaraderie (nationalism, racism, chauvinism, capitalism, Christianity, etc.). I am going to do it for friends and family I love, because I see immediately how their survival demands it. I do not care that my friends and family look like me in some superficial way (i.e. that they have language like mine, skin like mine, ethnic background like mine, or religion like mine). I care that they show me moral integrity I can respect, especially where it differs from my own. The more I embrace this integrity, and the people who come with it into my life (from all kinds of odd places), the less I identify myself with the "tribes" that sociology textbooks want to put me in. My friends and family can come from any religious background (I am on intimate terms with many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists). They can be any number of races (and they are). They can come from many different countries (and they do). I want to make my identity from them, from their small diversity, rather than take the large monotony of society's tribes as my heritage. I want my ego to reflect the people I love and care about, more than the people who look like me superficially.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Politics of Divergence

It seems to me that there are some communities too large to function democratically (the USA and the EU among them: Massachusetts does not want to live like Texas, and Germans don't want to live like Greeks). Sometimes, the best long-term solution is not "to enable agreement on a generally accepted solution" (or otherwise validate the idea that we all have the same interest where it is clear that we do not and cannot)--but to facilitate diversity, divergence and experimentation, admitting up front that there is no such thing (existent or creatable) as a single policy for all Americans or Europeans. I think the idea of "one policy to rule them all" (whether all the states in the USA or in the EU) is always going to break down catastrophically at some point (even in the domains where it works best, e.g. military alliances).

The use of irreconcilable differences in philosophy to discuss the limits of human ability to suppress divergence is not wrong, of course. Philosophy is one symptom of this human trait. But it is hardly the only such symptom (others would be the observation that people don't visit the same stores on the same schedule, or buy the same things in those stores; we don't all study the same subjects in school; if we do, we don't study them the same way; we don't do the same jobs; if we do, we don't do them the same way; etc.). It is wrong to think that this intractability between you and me boils down to nothing more than a vapid difference of philosophical opinion or expression--that there is nothing serious or intractable behind it. Historically, there is something there. A resistance to monotony and conformity that is always in the end stronger than any force we can bring to bear to make monotony and conformity universal and permanent. We have brought some really powerful forces to bear (e.g. the world wars in the last century, the Civil War in the United States before that) without achieving our object. Some of us see this and conclude that the object is one that we should not waste any more time pursuing, but others are still eager for the scheme of one policy to rule them all.

I have a significant philosophical problem with the existence of a central bank. This is not precisely the same thing as my problem with the existence of authorities with claim to rule the most intimate decisions of my life. At some point in the negotiations (between me and the central authorities who want to control me the way farmers control cattle), I am going to break away--either to run from the policy I don't like or to fight it (with whatever arms seem likeliest to avail). In today's climate, these arms are probably not militant, since the central bank has more firepower than I could ever hope to have--more than I would regard it as safe to use. So probably I will end up advocating for some kind of civil disobedience, in the tradition of Gandhi and Thoreau--and our own Martin Luther King, who did so much to fix problems the Civil War could only bring to a boiling head.

We cannot all live the same life.  At some point, your life would kill me in ways that I don't like, and vice versa.  I must give you room to live as yourself, without me, and you must reciprocate.  If we cannot do this, if we must choose one of our lives as "the one true life" and force it upon the other willy-nilly, then we are deciding to kill someone.  Are you willing to kill me now?  Maybe so.  There are acceptable reasons to want me dead.  But I would hope that these are only invoked when absolutely necessary, when peace between us is really impossible.  I would rather have another Great Depression than kill off half of society (even if that meant avoiding said depression).    

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Defending the Family

Another rant about gay marriage, and the religious Right in America.  This one comes on the eve of the 9th Circuit ruling against the right of states to define marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and the vow of certain state governors to fight this decision.

It seems to me that the surest way to destroy authority (and tradition) is to invoke it in ways that are patently absurd (and in this case, unjust).

The greatest enemy to heterosexual marriage and family, in any traditional sense, right now, in the United States, is the political movement that wants to strengthen these by attacking things outside them. Burning your garden down does not make mine grow better: in fact, if you look closely, you will see that while I have been wasting time and energy trying to kill yours (in vain), mine has become a neglected sea of weeds and garbage. "It's the gays' fault!" No, morons. It is your fault for wasting time attacking the gays instead of minding your own garden, your own business, your own family, your own tradition.

If I want a good garden, I have to go out and work--not find somebody else to blame. If I want to make myself strong, I have to go out and work--not punish you for going to a gym I don't like. If I want a good education, I have to go out and work--not punish you for studying something I wouldn't study. If I want to wear a burkha, I put one on: I don't come to your house and make you wear it against your will, no matter what the majority of people in our area believe about anything.

The worst thing about this political putsch from the Right is that it is so blatantly anti-American (in the old sense: it ignores the separation between church and state and makes "religious freedom" a piece of specious rhetoric). Essentially, these people want to enact their own brand of sharia in the US, and call this "religious freedom" (it is my religious freedom to make you wear a burkha, because if you don't, Satan wins; if you dispute this, it is because Satan owns you, and you cannot be trusted--you must be burned at the stake as a heretic). Hello, Inquisition! Hello, fascism! This is simply absurd (without rational standing) and dangerous (likely to break society more than defend it).

My final word on this nonsense from the Right is that even if letting gays marry did create opportunity for really bad things to happen (somehow, in ways I have yet to perceive), I would be for it. The same way I am for allowing heterosexual, traditional marriages that end in crime (or just divorce, pain, and suffering). You don't ban things simply because somebody somewhere might conceivably get hurt doing them. Eating is dangerous, but we all have to eat--and we don't all have to eat the same thing, the same way, at the same time: that would be bad. Kind of like we don't all have to marry the same way. That would be really bad, for everyone--straights included. But who is going to protect us from that? Who will defend us when one of Jesus' American mullahs receives a revelation commanding us to participate in the one true order of marriage or be damned--in this life and the next? I will take any defense I can get from this dangerous bullshit, including defense from "activist" judges (who in my view are simply doing what we created them to do, i.e. rule on problems within the historical legal framework that constitutes the official life of our society).

Here's a thought. Maybe, just maybe, people will have the moral fortitude to live decent lives on their own, without the mullahs--without a bunch of external "defense" (that seems not to do anything besides grind on the face of those unfortunate enough to appear untraditional from some narrow, hypercritical vantage-point). Maybe my marriage needs to live on its own, without taking yours (or a celebrity's) as some kind of fixed reference point (which it never was anyway). Maybe the best way to strengthen my marriage is to make it owe as little as possible to the kind of culture that values tearing others down more than allowing them the chance to make something beautiful of their lives--something that they choose and do for themselves (with success or failure: the outcome is irrelevant; what matters is that they have the option, the choice, the capacity to try something they want to try).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Ennui of Civilized Man

One of the great problems of our times is how to deal with the angst of civilization. We used to be happy to survive, back when food and shelter were our main concerns. Then, we invented ways of mass-producing necessities, and discovered "free time" (time that could be spent doing something other than looking for food, looking for shelter, or recovering from that search). Free time allowed us to play around more--to do things like build, trade, and make war.

The ancestral economy makes sense to us. Assuming you survive, it is not hard to live and be relatively happy while you are looking for food (that you expect to find), looking for shelter (that you expect to find), and recovering. Primitive, uncivilized people we can observe are often happier than their civilized counterparts, particularly as you look toward the bottom of civilized social hierarchies.

Civilized "free time" provides many benefits, of course, but these come at the expense of significant social and psychological turmoil. I don't know how to get my own food. I must rely on someone else to get it for me. I don't know how to get my own shelter. I need someone else to provide it for me. If I am living in a cultural backwater like the Middle East (or Africa or many parts of Eurasia and the Americas), then I am keenly aware that everyone really close to me lives subject to the whims of people we never meet. People with power. People who inherit a long tradition of free time, complete with awesome ways of making food, shelter, and war. I have three choices: abject worship ("please, god on earth, don't kill me! you want these shiny things? please, take them!"), avoidance ("better to avoid dealing with gods altogether: I think I will take up residence in a mountain cave and chant with some beads"), or revolt ("death to the evil gods who run my life without my consent!"). The choice between fight and flight is one that each person must make for herself, and we all make it differently. But some of us always choose to fight. Fighting is part of human nature.

For me, the really interesting question becomes one of finding ways to manage the fight-response to civilization. Can I take the urge to revolt, to burn civilization down for its crimes (which would be a crime, of course, but that did not stop the Mongols, and I am guessing that it will not stop the terrorists today), and turn it into something good? Can I build a cure for civilization into the death-wish that it spawns in certain people? We are always trying. (Politics and economics historically involve warfare: they struggle to contain and suppress and redirect it towards less destructive outlets, so that instead of burning your house down with fire I do it with bankruptcy in a court of law. It is easier to recover from bankruptcy than from war, on the one hand; on the other, going bankrupt too often will eventually drive people to war.)

The angst of civilization ultimately comes from lack of control over one's own life. The more you can convince people that they make decisions that really matter to their individual lives (and deaths), the less eager they are to blow themselves up (and seek another life beyond the grave, whether as glorified Homeric heroes or mujahideen copulating with crowds of virgins). The more invested people become in civilizations' games as active players, the less they want to burn every game to the ground (and start over, building new games--new ways of occupying people's "free time" that always resemble the old ways in time). When I hear people calling for more education (as a solution to problems of civilization), I think this is really what they are aiming to do: they want to show the desperadoes--the outlaws, rebels, and terrorists--that there is a productive place for them in existing civil games, that society has a nice place for them right here, if they would just put down their arms and play cool instead of fighting. Part of the problem with this idea, however, is that civilization is dynamic. People always lose its games; you have to lose (sometimes, something) in order to win. There is no such thing as a civilization that endures unchanging and perfect ("with liberty and justice for all," blah blah). If you play civil games (the market), you will get burned. Eventually, you will die. Confronting that reality is too hard for many of us (not just the poor or the outlaws), and some people cannot see it without going berserk. I don't have any easy answers for this problem. All I can do is observe it closely, and then take what measures are available to insulate myself maximally from its harmful effects (as I observe them in myself and the people around me).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Prophets

A prophet is simply a spokesperson (προφήτης).  Historically, spokesmen for divinity divide pragmatically into two predictable groups: (1) the divine spokesperson who speaks for some human establishment or institution (the Sanhedrin, the Synod, Senatus populusque Romanus, the LDS church, Harvard); (2) the divine spokesperson who speaks for him- or herself, and for humanity outside any particular establishment or institution (Amos, Jesus, Cato, self-appointed Mormon apologists, rogue academics).  The two kinds of prophet have a history of fighting one another tooth and nail, with the establishment predictably winning battles (Jesus is killed) only to lose wars (when the response to their crackdown is the foundation of a new establishment dedicated to preserve the memory of a martyred prophet).  The new establishment relatively quickly becomes everything it claims to loathe in the old establishment (read Mormon writings on the Great Apostasy and then compare the modern Mormon establishment with Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox establishments: from the metaphorical 30,000-foot view, they are virtually the same in terms of how they relate to outsiders and insiders via bureaucratic process).  The original sin of fallen prophets or their followers, it would seem, is that they found a church to entrain, contain, and disseminate in some controlled fashion that which is fundamentally unstable, unentrainable, uncontainable, and beyond institutional human control.

We need communities, of course.  But these communities will not be managed (not for long at least) by visionaries who speak meaningfully for interests outside the community.  To lead a community is, historically, to shut oneself off to the world, to commit oneself to a position that cannot be changed easily, to become fragile (and make others fragile as a means of protecting the fragility one has discovered by incorporating as a community with explicit procedures for life).  Caiaphas is the leader of your community, semper et ubique.  He is not always a bad dude, viciously or maliciously punishing people who shouldn't be punished.  He is legitimately a prophet.  He is a punitive prophet, a conservative stick-in-the-mud who pulls society back from the wild ideas of anti-establishment prophets (who are also dangerous, though not the same way he is).

Outside the community or on its fringes, we get another kind of prophet.  Jesus does not write books.  He does not live by protocol (until he visits the temple or the city, where he makes a good show of paying tithes and taxes--and occasionally busts some heads, when he finds the establishment cheating flagrantly at its own game).  He does not have a church.  He does not aim to exist in history, but in eternity: the atemporal present wherein individuals become aware of themselves confronting a unique and personal mystery--that I exist, inexplicably, and there is something else out there around and with and through me, something larger than I am that has the power to mould my life in interesting ways.  Communities, history, taxes, bureaucratic process: Jesus dispenses with these things (necessary and helpful as they are, for the down-to-earth inhabitants of this world).  "My kingdom is not of this world," he says, deliberately abandoning church, country, and even the family to live naked before his Father in the wilderness (fasting and praying and being generally useless or even detrimental to the community, from Caiaphas' perspective). 

When too many people follow Jesus into the wilderness, bad things can happen: society might collapse entirely, or (what more often happens) the check Jesus provides on community values (traditional values) may be lost--as Caiaphas moves into the desert without leaving the world behind.  "We can build heaven on earth here with you, Jesus.  We can make it an external, communal experience.  We can deliver it to groups through an organized, efficient process of education that I will oversee carefully."  Wrong.  There is no church of Christ.  Paul, the Christian missionary to the West, was just another Caiaphas.  He was building community, not running away into the wilderness to commune with God and then speak to friends.  The paradox of Jesus is that the gospel must be preached without ever being established.  You cannot put new wine in old bottles, and even when you put new wine in new bottles, it ages (and becomes old, i.e. other than it was).  As Caiaphas runs the risk of being a vindictive, reactive stick-in-the-mud, so Jesus runs the risk of being a cheerful onlooker to the collapse of human civilization (which requires rules and procedures and tradition that is communal and so at some point antithetical to the prophetic gospel he embodies).

At the end of the day, all prophets are dangerous--for they are human beings, and carry within themselves the seeds of mortality.  We are all going to die at some point.  We are all going to do things on the way to death.  At some point, all of us will embrace or avoid tradition in ways that are dangerous.  There is no way to "fix" this, no way to make death go away (or become innocuous).  Integrity is something we seek as we embrace mortality, our own and that of the species (collectively).  No individual is made to last, just as no community is.  Integrity exists as we seek and discover the means to negotiate this reality with dignity and respect that looks both inward (to ourselves and the mystery of life as we perceive it) and outward (to other people and the mystery of life as it appears to communities).  We need Jesus and Caiaphas, and both are prophets.  But neither one will save us from death: nobody and nothing can do that.  The only way to deal with death is to die.  Die well, my friends! 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Intellectual Property

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

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

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Musings on Market Share

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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