Monday, March 31, 2014

A Personal Economic Manifesto

A brief diatribe summarizing my take on contemporary economic policy in the United States of America (particularly, but my outlook has relevance elsewhere).

As long as we the people are stuck playing on Wall Street, its insiders will always have us by the throat. It does not really matter what their motives are, whether they are philanthropists or misanthropists or psychopaths or sociopaths. People like me will always be invisible ciphers to them, chips to move around in games where the outcome is some profit or goal that is remote from my experience. They cannot relate to me personally, humanly, or humanely--not even if they try. All the courses in good business ethics in the world will not change this. All the bureaucratic red tape in the world will not change it, either. There is simply no substitute for creating a street small enough for the individual to interact with people who see his personality, who respect it because they see it as the peer or mirror of their own integrity.

We don't need to fix the Street. It is irredeemable. We need to walk away and build new Streets (not one Street to rule them all: that is precisely the problem with our economic system as it exists right now; it is too unifocal, too centralized, too big not to smash little players like me to smithereens). The rhetorical dichotomy between Wall Street and Main Street is too neat the way most people conceive it. Main Street is not a unit the way Wall Street is. It is a bunch of incommensurate and incommensurable stuff, an incoherent plurality that resists reduction to monotony. How it looks in one geography is no indication of its appearance elsewhere, and there is no prescriptive blueprint for building it the same way everywhere (to make regular profits for all people on it, implementing the same principles the same way). Saving Main Street is impossible, because no matter what anyone ever does, some Main Streets will die as others live. Wall Street is just the biggest Main Street trying to avoid its own death, unnaturally, by making all other Streets die prematurely so that it can harvest their organs to keep its defunct carcass breathing (barely).

There is no economic recovery because the Street is dead. It already died. It doesn't matter who killed it (Republicans, Democrats, greedy businessmen, bankers, ignorant suckers pouring their money into business they didn't and don't understand, etc.). Passing the guilt, and there is plenty to go around, will not patch Humpty Dumpty or get us moving on toward cleaning up his mess. We need to build new Streets. And we need to consider that each and every one of them will be mortal the way Wall Street was. I want to puke every time I hear people talk about the economy (in the United States of America), only to discover that they conceive that entity as Wall Street and (mehercule!) they have a plan to save it. I don't want to save that sack of shit. I want to drop it like a hot potato, burn it, and never look back (except to remind myself what not to build, what not to carry, what not to care about).

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Understanding Identity Loss

Jonathan Lear.  Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.  ISBN: 0674023293.

The following passage comes from Lear's book, a very interesting study of the collapse of the Crow culture (in the American West). Throughout the book, Lear tries to explain what the Crow chief Plenty Coups might have meant when he said, "[W]hen the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened."  This explanation of Lear's really touched me:
Imagine that pieces of a chess game had inner lives.  And imagine that each took itself to be a center of agency.  I am a knight!  I see myself in tribal terms: I am a black knight!  I am proud to be a black knight!  We shall fight a glorious battle and capture the white king!  I think strategically in terms of my possible moves: two up and one to the left.  Perhaps I should wait here quietly for several moves, and if that white rook comes my way ... I understand all the other members of my tribe in terms of the roles they play: and I understand that we are all aspiring to excellence in the sense that we are trying to win.

Unbeknownst to me, my world exists because it is protected by a group of humans.  These are the guardians of the chess world, who insist that the only acceptable moves are moves that are allowable within the game of chess.  From my point of view as a thoughtful knight, the humans are as unknowable as the transcendent gods.  But suppose these chess-guardians were one day just to give it up: as a historical phenomenon, humans got bored with playing this game, and the game of chess goes out of existence.  My problem is not simply that my way of life has come to an end.  I no longer have the concepts with which to understand myself or the world.  I understand the other pieces in terms of their roles, but there are no longer any such roles.  Perhaps I am found attractive by humans as a physical object.  I am put on a bookshelf as a curiosity, an objet d'art.  I might sit for generations on a series of bookshelves--get traded as what humans call an antique--and all this while I am in utter confusion.  I have no idea what is going on.  This isn't primarily a psychological problem.  The concepts with which I would otherwise have understood myself--indeed, the concepts with which I would otherwise have shaped my identity--have gone out of existence (Lear, pp. 48-49).
I am that knight.  Outside the various games I have played over the course of my brief life, I have no identity.  Historical circumstances have forced me beyond those games--the game of being a good family man (as I understood it), the game of being a good Mormon, the game of being a good Christian, the game of being a good academic.  I am simply a curio now, a museum piece, a disoriented bit of misshapen matter that aspires to be part of a work of art--a game that it cannot find.  I need a game, a place to identify with, a geography to occupy--to contend for with others who see things that I see as mattering in some sense.  My fellow contenders and I don't have to agree precisely on everything, of course, but we need to share a sense of value, integrity, honor, culture.  We need to value the same kind of information, and to value the intellectual process that the other uses to address it--even when that process is not our own.  It might be hostile to ours, as the Sioux were hostile to the Crow: that hostility actually gave their lives meaning, as the hostility between black and white gives meaning to the game of chess.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Odi et amo

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The past two decades have been quite an experience.  I have seen so many things come and go from my life.  I have built things, some without noticing and others with great care and deliberation.  I have broken things down, some carefully and some not so much.  Hardest of all, from my perspective as an agent who aspires to control life: I have seen things broken, despite all I tried to do to save them.  Some of the things I see broken now are things I cannot look upon easily.  I see many of my most long-cherished illusions lying dead and destroyed beyond all hope of recovery (redemption, resurrection).  I think it is fair to say that my identity, the persona or mask that I use to identify myself alone and in company, is currently broken (or breaking: I keep trying to patch new identities together only to find at the last minute that they simply cannot hold).

Buddhism has been a great blessing in that it allows me to deal honestly with the reality I experience, a reality in which my self does not exist as something simply, intelligibly, coherently permanent.  But the practical utility of Buddhism is limited, since the reality I experience is one in which retirement from samsara is impossible.  I would like to flee into the wilderness, to leave society with all its impossible expectations that I have never met (and will probably never meet), to die to the world and then see if that might teach me how to love it without killing it (or myself).  My reality is closer to that of Kierkegaard: my self might be called an illusion, a fiction without any permanence (speaking ontologically, objectively), but it is an illusion I cannot shake (speaking epistemologically, subjectively).  I must carry that illusion with me in the world, where I must live (as other selves depend on me), and where it is broken beyond hope of repair (I begin to suspect).

My self might be unreal, ontologically, but from the perspective I must inhabit, it is eternal and inescapable.  I have watched it die a thousand deaths without perishing.  I have seen it smashed and smashed again, on a thousand different battlefields, and still it lives on.  Its life is changed by every loss, torn and disfigured by its continual failure to achieve victory (that may be ontologically impossible, but is subjectively necessary, at least as a goal, an aspiration).  I am Prometheus, the fool who finds himself waging useless war with the universe.  For my sins, for the mask my self embodies, I must stand chained on a mountaintop while Zeus' eagle eats my liver, eternally.  How did this happen?

I thought my self was a good family man.  So I went out into the world and had a family, only to discover that this requires me to become a political and economical force.  I must sell my self to politicians and bankers to be a good family man.  I hate politicians and bankers, not least because I don't know any of them, and all the ones I know of seem to lack basic human qualities (like honesty, decency, humility, a sense of responsibility larger than their greed for profits or victory).  So I am a terrible family man.

I thought my self was a good Mormon, a good Christian.  So I went out into the world and tried to practice Mormon Christianity.  I read my scriptures (the Bible too) till they fell apart (literally and metaphorically).  I noticed every sin I committed and repented constantly and sincerely -- in private prayer and verbal confession to my priesthood leaders.  I paid tithing on my gross income.  I served a Mormon mission to northern Spain, where I did my very best to share my religion thoughtfully and non-confrontationally with people who had absolutely no use for it.  I attended Brigham Young University, where I tried to learn everything I could about early Christianity, which I was taught would be ontologically the same as modern Mormonism.  It isn't, for the record.  Worse than that, my religious practice eventually became so harmful to my self that I simply could not do it anymore.  I couldn't pretend that confessing sin made it less powerful in my life: my experience is that confession made sin a stronger influence, leading me to find it in almost every moment of every day that I lived.  I was utterly miserable as a good Mormon.  The rational arguments I was given to make me endure this misery without apostatizing did not work (because I put in the legwork to learn what early Christianity looks like, what early Mormonism looks like, and I saw clearly how neither one resembles Mormonism today).  So I let go and became a terrible Mormon.

I thought my self was a good Christian, but my experience investigating early Christianity made me realize that this identity was as weak and unstable as my Mormon one.  I believed -- and still believe -- in what I call human values (justice, decency, reciprocity, honesty, cooperation, etc.).  But historical Christianity adds a lot of extraneous stuff to these values, sometimes obscuring them altogether with expectations that the body of Christ function as a tool in the hand of some inspired leader, or text, or historical tradition.  I could not bring myself to submit unconditionally to leaders, interpreters, tradents (traditores!) -- not even when they called upon authoritative texts and traditions to justify their leadership, so I became a bad Christian.  The body of Christ, it seems to me, is built on war and death.  The eye, the foot, the hand, and other members all make war against each other, invoking the head to justify their quarrels, and the end is that they all come away slashed, burned, cut off, and crucified.  As soon as the church emerges in history, we have orthodox and heretics at one another's throats, and the schism continues today (as in the day of Joseph Smith, who called it "a war of words and tumult of opinions" -- in other times it has manifested as war in deadly earnest, the kind of war in which men, women, and children take up arms and kill one another).

My two cents?  If you meet Christ on the road to Damascus, prepare to be crucified.  Like every Christian, bad or good, I can offer you reasons for this faith: Nolite arbitrari quia venerim mittere pacem in terram; non veni pacem mittere sed gladium.  Omnes enim qui acceperint gladium gladio peribunt.     

I thought myself a good academic, so I went into the university.  Here I discovered yet another impossible conflict.  As a good academic, I am supposed to care passionately what other scholars working in my field think about information and questions deliberately removed from public relevance.  This pedantry manifests as multiple publications in academic venues (journals, or book-publishers expert in producing curios for libraries that no ordinary private citizen could afford to purchase even if he were inclined to read them).  I am also expected to interest modern undergraduates in my field, seducing them into thinking that I am not really the boring pedant I pretend to be with my colleagues.  So I am supposed to have a bucket-load of bulletproof publications under my belt guaranteeing my pedantry, while students give me rave reviews for being such a great comedian in class that they couldn't help but major in the particular brand of pedantry that I represent.

Why the requirement for a double life?  Well, the university needs money.  To raise money, it needs me to look smart (hence the requirement for pedantry), busy (hence the requirement for teaching and other service in addition to pedantry), fun (hence student evaluations), and profitable (hence all the insufferable bloviating about education being job-training, as though people investigated the liberal arts for the same reasons that they read technical manuals or sit through seminars on company policies and procedures).  What is the university doing with money?  Well, it is building bigger, fancier dorms (to attract more and richer undergraduates).  It is building bigger, fancier sports facilities (to attract more and richer undergraduates, who have a real taste for our modern American improvements on old Roman bread and circuses).  It is hiring more -- and more expensive -- bureaucrats to manage all these games.  It is also cranking out more tools like myself -- ignorant pedants so focussed on publishing more and more recondite information that they fail to notice how the whole system of cancerous growth is doomed to collapse, when people don't have the resources to pay $600,000+ per student.  No economy on earth can sustain the levels of consumption we are actively encouraging people (students, faculty, administrators, staff) to enjoy at the modern university.  The whole thing is simply Wall Street writ small in the Ivory Tower, which it turns out is just as vulnerable to human greed and ignorance as every other man-made institution in the history of history.

How am I supposed to ignore this colossal disaster going on all around me in academia?  How am I supposed to ignore colleagues and friends broken on the Wheel of Fortune to which we have hitched our academic apple-cart?  I cannot.  I cannot just burrow down into the library and compose my perfect, perfectly pedantic articles, pretending that I don't see people suffering all around me (students gulled into dead-end careers built on economic castles in the air, adjuncts struggling to survive in a culture that rejects them as useless failures, smirking punks with tenure passing righteous judgment on everyone else, administrators doing their best to make the whole charade appear stable and desirable).  Instead of writing those articles, I appear here emoting about the collapse of civilization and my personal existential angst.  So I am a terrible academic (and probably a terrible educator in general, at least at institutions which measure academic value in terms of perpetuating our current economic system, which I find rotten to the core in academia as on Wall Street).

After failing at so many things, it naturally occurs me to suspect (to my wife's frustration) that I am simply a failure.  My eternal self, the mask that I carry with me from one disaster to the next, is one that inevitably finds its weakness in every corporate environment.  I find my weakness and write it clearly upon my face in blood, sweat, and eventually tears.  As an individual, I have many wonderful friends and great experiences (that have taught me much and given me real cause to be grateful).  I take things well.  I am a good dependent, a good person to owe things to (since I don't demand retribution or restitution when circumstances make it inhumane to do so).  I am a terrible provider, though, a terrible person to be dependent upon (since I let debts go and refuse to fight seriously until my back is really to the wall, where I am no use to the religious, political, and economic mobs whose institutions create human justice in this world).  My tendency is entirely against the spirit of the age that demands growth, recovery, and an imperious hand maintaining the powers that be (in the face of information that indicates their incorrigible insolubility, to me and to others).  My integrity (decency? honesty? virtue?) as an individual human being requires me to commit social, religious, political, and economic suicide.  I hate what my personal integrity entails, for me and my dependents, but I love that integrity, too.  I cannot abandon it.  I have tried.  I spent much time and effort working to overcome my limitations -- the honest ignorance that keeps me from being a good family man, a good Mormon, a good Christian, or a good academic -- but after two decades my conclusion is that this exercise is futile.

This post represents my official surrender on all fronts.  I see my vulnerability in all the battlefields where I stand, where my self exists transient and impermanent. I see that I cannot heal that vulnerability, no matter where I hide myself, no matter what rituals I perform to any gods (who may or may not exist, like my self: questions of ontology don't matter to me anymore, if they ever did).  I see that I have had a good run.  Now I have finished the course.  I have fought the good fight.  I have kept the faith (the only faith I ever really had, which was my individual integrity).  In reliquo reposita est mihi iustitiae corona quam reddet mihi Dominus in illa die iustus iudex, non solum autem mihi sed et his qui diligunt adventum eius.  Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Chasing Dreams

I have been reflecting lately on the spiritual journey I embody. I use the word spiritual deliberately to point to what I see as a junction between my past (as a religious fundamentalist in the Mormon cultural tradition) and my present (as a lay Buddhist very interested in Christianity of all kinds, including Mormonism).

My personal quest has essentially been a search for happiness that is not poisonous, to me or those around me.  I have always wanted to find joy and to share it.  When I was happy as a Mormon, it was because of the joy I found and shared (with my family, my friends, my mission companions, my comrades at BYU, my fellow Saints in graduate school).  When I am happy now, the underlying cause is the same: I find joy and the means to share it.

Looking back into my past, I see a tendency to reify joy improperly.  I see a tendency to mistake it for something too particular, too singular, too unique to one individual set of circumstances (something that Buddhists would refer to as karma; Christians might call it grace).  I choose the word spiritual to describe my journey because I want to dissociate myself from the idea that joy can be equated with a single set of circumstances, that it can be found predictably where particular circumstances appear to repeat.  Maybe the following example will help people follow my meaning.

I really enjoyed studying at BYU.  My time there was one of the best times in my life.  I learned many great things, made lifelong friends, and laid a foundation for my future. Buddhists would say that I acquired a lot of karma there.  Christians might express that as growing from grace to grace, and remind me that "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."  I found joy repeatedly, and shared that joy with many others, whose companionship I still cherish today, even where circumstances have separated us since (in more ways than the purely spatial: our minds have drifted apart, too, in many cases).  Over the course of my experience with BYU, the future that presented itself over and over to me was one in which I returned to my alma mater.  The narrative for this future directed me to go out into the world, find whatever joy I might find, and then bring it back to share with the BYU community (where I had a place, a place I worked to build).  Unfortunately for the coherence of this narrative, I encountered a dissonant joy.  At some point in my experience (at BYU and away from it), I became aware that my personal integrity as a Mormon and a scholar was threatening to the personal integrity of various other Mormons (some scholars, some not), with the result that I could never be useful to BYU the way I wanted to be.  My place there ceased to exist.

Given my karma with BYU, it is still possible for me to create the causes and conditions that would allow me to find very good work there.  I could happily do a job I am qualified to do well, among people I respect and enjoy.  But the price for that would be abandoning my dissonant joy (which my enemies would call sin, though I do not name it this way).  I do not want to give up (or pretend to give up, since I cannot really unmake them) insights that seem to me critical to my well-being, to my making a meaningful contribution (that heals people more than it hurts them), i.e. to joy.  I am thus faced with a difficult decision.  I must decide how to deal with the load of karma I carry from BYU (and my Mormon past more generally).  I must put the broken narrative of my impossible future as another Hugh Nibley to rest, and make some other story to give meaning to my life.  I need a story, because that is what human beings do.  We cannot find joy without some kind of story, some illusion of coherence that lets us aspire to goals we worship as worthy.  Life broke my Mormon story, but I can still write another one.  It may not be as good (in my eyes or the eyes of outside readers), but it will always be better than any futile effort I might make to deny what really happened to me as a Mormon.

As a result of my journey through Mormonism (at BYU and elsewhere), I cannot believe that the Great Apostasy is a simple event or series of events in human history, like the Battle of Lepanto or the Hundred Years' War.  As a younger man, I went into the historical records convinced that I would find there a simple vindication of Restorationism (the idea that Christ originally created a single church with coherent institutions that was then lost over time, only to be restored at a later date by reformers).  I did not.  Not only that, I discovered somewhere along the way that my lived experience did not vindicate important tenets of my Christian faith.  I learned that the power of sin in my life did not diminish as I confessed to bishops, that temple worship did not enrich my spiritual practice, that reading the scriptures could lead to all kinds of bad things if one did it carelessly (as many Mormons do, especially in seminary manuals, conference talks, and other official church publications).  I cannot unmake these experiences of mine.  I really had them.  I really noticed them.  They made an impression on me.  I was offended, my enemies would say, and they are right.  But that does not mean that I must be angry, or live my life as a constant bitter war against them.  That would be no kind of joy that I want.

What I must do--my task since I was offended--is to find a place to heal my wounds.  I must move on to something else, some other community or communities with mythology for story-telling that will not be mortally offended by my experiences.  Of course healing will not erase them--the experiences, the wounds, the offense--but it can help me bear them well, turning the pain into joy.  My wounds have alienated me from Mormonism--the Mormonism inside me as well as the Mormonism of my friends at BYU--but they have also brought me closer to other things in my experience.  Today I can derive joy from sitting in a Catholic cathedral meditating on a bloody crucifix, or chanting Tibetan prayers that remind me how the fundamental essence of reality is a pregnant emptiness (not nothing, but the infinite sea of possibility from which all things arise).  I have much less certainty today about my future.  I don't tell stories in which I meet my dream job and live happily ever after, working my way into the eternities.  I know now that these stories need not be true.  More importantly, I see that they are already untrue for me.  I see my wounds, the unexpected end of my Mormon story, and I realize, viscerally, that death is out there.

Everything that I have, everything that I am, everything that I ever could be, is a compound of some kind, an amalgamation of matter or possibilities or desires.  The nature of compounds is to come together, and to fall apart.  There is no such thing as coming together without falling apart.  Life is built from death.  This story is true no matter where I look.  My clothes are made from the death of other beings (displaced so that factories might exist and produce textiles I can afford).  My house too, not to mention my food.  My individual cells are constantly dying to make way for new versions of themselves.  Eventually, I will die to make way for my children (and other living species that need space in this world we inhabit, a world that does not exist simply to serve us humans--as individuals or communities).  I see death at the heart of life now, as before my wound I didn't, and that has become a powerful insight.  Seeing death changes the way I live, not because I choose to be sinful now, but because I see limitations.  I see how my joy is limited: it is not your joy, and there might be good reasons for you to avoid it; maybe it would make you miserable.  I respect your right to find joy that is not mine, to deal with suffering and wounds as I would not, to be wounded in ways that I find obnoxious or disturbing.  That is my compassion now, a very different compassion from the one that charges out into the world determined to make everything better for all people by making us all the same.  What a disaster that would be.  We would have to maim or kill (at least metaphorically) everyone who didn't meet the standard of some committee somewhere.  We would crush their joy and tell them to take ours instead.  That is nothing I want to be part of (in any religion, society, or culture: particulars don't matter).  The compounded nature of my reality means that my joy is always eventually pain, even as my life always turns to death.  I cannot deny this unity or defeat it, breaking life and joy away from suffering and death.  I cannot tell stories in which life and death are separate.  What I can do, what I must do, is learn to find joy in the processes whereby life and death transmute, writing themselves into the matter or possibility or desire that I embody right now. 

If that means that I lose dreams (the dream of being a good Mormon, the dream of working at BYU, the dream of being a successful academic, the dream of writing books, the dream of having time to think and think and write, the dream of having time free to spend with family and friends instead of working hard nine-to-five, etc.), then I must let go of them joyfully rather than grudgingly.  I must give my dreams a good funeral, put them away quietly in their graves, and then let them rot without resenting them for failing to be more than just dreams (mortal, fallible, weak, and so on).  I must see how I am too attached to dead dreams so that I can release that attachment, offering it on the altar and freeing my mind to create new dreams.  I cannot say that the new dreams will be better than the old.  They may not be.  But chasing live dreams will always be better than dwelling on their predecessors that have already died, and resenting these for being dead without finding proper fulfilment (whatever that might be).  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Katabasis Again

I am not sure how I feel about this.  On the one hand, it is sad to see that I might be unemployable even if I weren't such a loser (i.e. if my books were already written).  On the other hand, I have less to lose now if circumstances force me out of the market.  I can transition to another life without the interlude of fake success that is a temporary lectureship or visiting professorship.  I don't have debts, yet.  My kids are young.  I still know them, still interact with them regularly.  My wife and I are close, and she has a job that isn't going to vanish overnight (the way mine will).

I can still read.  I can still write.  I can still teach, even, and make a positive difference in the life of some community where I will be something other than an empty cipher (with the label “failure” trailing me everywhere I go, as I fail to live up to expectations that move inexorably to inspire more effort, more busywork, more committees sitting in dark rooms demanding that people have dreams and then destroying those dreams so that they can meet again next year and do it all over again).

I don't think the humanities are a dead end.  I love the liberal arts.  I don't need to be rich or famous, or a professor, to have a meaningful life as a humanist.  What I need now is the confidence to transition from being a big-company man (a big-company humanist, a mercenary willing to do anything to work for the big-time winning army on a shrinking battlefield) to being something else (a small-company man?).  I do need a community of sorts.  But it doesn't have to be your standard academic department.  It doesn't have to involve prizes and piles of cash and loads of time spent currying favor (by writing the right way about the right things for the right audience).

My friends have done all sorts of interesting things with their lives—unexpected things, educational things, seemingly unimportant things that became very meaningful to them and their families.  I am open to that now.  I don't need academic success.  I might want it, like the guy in this article, who is a much better scholar (in terms of track record) than I am right now—but that does not matter.  My wants are empty and vain—vanitas vanitatum.  I can want anything, superficially speaking.  What I really want, what I really need, is the kind of two-way commitment that Mormons call a covenant.  I thought I had this with the LDS church, but I didn't.  I wondered whether I might have it with the university.  I don't.  So I need to move on.  The big church does not love me.  The big university does not love me.  Maybe some small group will.  I promise I am worth investing in.  I will give back, and what I give will not be worthless: it will be the best that I am capable of, the highest expression I can muster of whatever qualities Nature has given me.  I do not take credit for these qualities.  I do not demand respect for them.  I merely seek to use them for the improvement of humanity—my own and that of other people, who might be students, colleagues, friends, family, enemies, etc.  Es macht mir nichts.  Whatever comes from my own job hunt, in and out of the academy, I am ready.

Success to me looks small and modest.  A little group of people who care about me, as I care about them.  A little culture we share together, contributing to one another as we are able without reference to something as abstract and meaningless (not to say poisonous) as "the field" (or "the market" come to think on it).  My ideas are not produced for the market.  I did not go to school to serve the market--to teach it, to enrich it, to enlarge it, to make its fattest denizens "too big to fail."  The masters of the universe--economic, academic, and religious--appear to me in the guise of vultures who batten on the corpse of culture.  They pretend that this vampirism of theirs is necessary, is the very apex of culture even, but that is precisely a lie.  They might argue that it is a noble lie in the tradition of Plato.  I don't personally experience it that way.  If it turns out that I cannot embody this lie well enough to live by it myself, then I will have little problem leaving it behind--and living by some other lie, a lie of my own construction that I can believe instead of a lie some other person tells me.  "Sour grapes!" they will call after me, as I leave their feast, and the charge will be true.  What do I care that it is?  I must go on living.  If that means that I must fight the church, the academy, and the market instead of joining them, then so be it.  We shall be enemies, and I shall do my very best to wage honorable war, aspiring to a death (literal or metaphorical) like Cato's.

I have given those vultures all they asked.  I gave them my youth, my strength, my faith, my sweat, my blood, my tears, my time at home and abroad--and what do they give me?  Scholarships, so that I have no debts now?  Libraries I can still aspire to access?  Years to read and learn about all kinds of human culture more or less at my own will?  These are no mean gifts.  I value them quite highly, actually.  Even if I find the end of the vultures' feast obnoxious, when I am meant to be the main course, I cannot fault its beginning.  I see the bad and the good--in the church, the university, and the market--and I see how they are the same.  I enjoyed the good, and so I must suffer through the bad.  My suffering is easier to bear when I realize that it need not go on interminably, that I need not join the author in that line of whipping-boys begging the masters to let them into the good-old-boys' club (with tenure, healthcare, library funds, paid leave, and all these other vanishing privileges that I don't need or afford).

I reflect that my LDS mission has prepared me well for life.  I spent two years in Spain, two years during which I woke up every day to be insulted by almost everyone I met.  The Spaniards hated me viscerally because I was trying to force my religion upon them.  My LDS mission leaders hated me because I was so unsuccessful in this endeavor.  I bore it all stoically, for the most part (there were a few lapses into passionate rage that I regret).  I became hard.  I learned that it is useless to plead with people who hate you.  It is useless to invest too much of your own fragile identity in the opinion of some stranger who sees you as a cog in his bureaucratic machine (be that a church, a business corporation, a political faction, or a university: they are all at root the same nuts and bolts repeating the same process, a reduction of individual humanity to bland corporate profit that managers call "the greater good" and use to justify giving themselves all kinds of perks and privileges for which they risk nothing of their own if they can help it).  Every time you give your soul to these vultures, every time you let their bureaucratic process override your individual humanity, you die--and become a little less moral, a little less able to maintain that precious illusion of integrity that we require to exist virtuously.  The recurring lesson of my youth, adolescence, and young adulthood is that you don't compromise yourself to serve corporate ends, no matter what some official suit tells you.

When the suit offers you religion, ask him how much tithing he wants (and notice that you cannot afford it).  When he offers you food, examine the label (notice that it says "food product") and the advertising (notice that real food doesn't require a prostitute to make you buy it).  When he offers you a job, read the contract (notice that being paid for 2-3 years to do busywork is one of the poorest definitions of "freedom" that exists if this process leaves you dependent on suits for the basic physical necessities of life: Aristotle would call this freedom slavery).  When the suit offers you glory and honor and meaning, the ultimate prize, look closely at those he passes over. 

Look at the people who don't get honor from the suit because you do.  Look long and hard at the grim reality that honor is precisely the linchpin holding the entire framework of the suit in place.  It is the crux of the game, the keystone that allows suits like Agamemnon to run idiots like Patroclus to early death.  When I first read the Iliad as a naive undergraduate, I was perplexed and bothered by Achilles.  "What an ungrateful, irascible wretch!" I thought.  "He should make things up with Agamemnon.  After all, the big guy did say sorry, and then offer him all kinds of stuff to make up for what he stole. Society requires forgiveness to exist and get on, right?  We cannot carry grudges forever.  We cannot afford to sulk forever like Achilles, the big baby."  Today, I see things differently.  I would never take anything other than the bare necessities of life from Agamemnon, and even then I would think twice.  (Maybe if I didn't have a family, I wouldn't even take those.  Sometimes, it is better to die than to live.)  The virtuous man, the man with real integrity, doesn't take anything from people like Agamemnon.  You don't fight him by becoming him, either.  The answer to that awful question that Popper discovers behind all the talking in Plato's Republic--the question who should rule?--is very simple.  Nobody with any self respect should rule.  Nobody with any decency should go about telling other people how to die.  The good ruler is the one who abdicates soonest and makes himself first to suffer most from his rule, which is always going to be bad (no matter what ideology informs it). 

I get Achilles now.  Sometimes, I feel just like him (meaning I want to throw my hands in the air and yell, "Fuck that shit!" when Agamemnon comes into my office to demand some new token of servility from me or one of my subordinates).  But I am not made to fight the system.  I am not built for virtuous suicide, though I finally think I understand it.  No, I am Odysseus, the hateful wretch who serves Agamemnon so well that nobody notices his rebellion until the war is over, the ships are gone, and he is heading home to claim the only thing that really matters to him--his family.  When it comes down to fight or flight, I will always flee (like Odysseus: he only fights when the other side is asleep or unarmed or otherwise at a significant disadvantage).  I run from shipwreck to shipwreck--from the ruin of my religious vocation to the ruin of my professional career, and so on and on being hated and cast out until I finally find my death.  But I have my family meantime, which is more than Achilles or Agamemnon (especially the latter, for all his rhetorical fuss and bluster about traditional values) can boast.  My wife won't stab me in the back.  My sons aren't out to eat their parents.  My parents aren't distant Olympians.  Agamemnon can keep his gifts, his kingdom, his honor, whatever carrot or stick he is currently using to goad sweating slaves.  I don't want it.

Now, if you will excuse me, your Majesty, I am going to get busy building some kind of boat, so that I can leave your Highness and the Achaeans to do whatever it is you came to do with the Trojans.  I have other things to do, other places to be, other paths to tread.  Viam aut inveniam aut faciam ultra te saevosque canes tuos.   

Friday, March 14, 2014

An Authentic Life

It occurs to me that what I really want from life, and have always wanted, is something we might call authenticity.  I want to find myself in circumstances where I have a useful outlet for the impulses I carry inside.  I want a field to labor in.  I want friends with whom (for whom, in whom) I can make a positive difference in the world.  I want to belong somewhere.

The hardest thing for me to deal with as I struggle to find a job, a church, etc., is the recurring realization that there are many places I exist but few where I really belong.  I am a transient, a vagrant, a mercenary, a useful idiot (whom the real community dismisses with a smirk or a smile when his contract is up).  I want to be something more.  I don't want riches or honor.  I am willing and able to make sacrifices to belong.  But I cannot sacrifice my commitment to doing good (as I see it) and avoiding evil (as I see it).  I cannot look away from evil I see myself doing and pretend that it is somehow good, unless I see clearly how the pretence is justified.

As I look for somewhere to belong in the world, I run across many other people with different ideas of what I should be, how I should belong (to them or some gang like theirs).  To some I look like a good recruit (though they don't always recruit me); to others I look like shit.  I understand.  I don't expect everyone to like or want me.  I see my own limitations clearly all the time, as I attempt to do things and find myself incapable of carrying through as I thought to: this does not have to be bad; some of my greatest achievements have occurred as unexpected outcomes from failure.  The hardest thing for me to deal with is unremitting failure, with no immediate positive pay-offs in sight.  This is particularly hard when I see how I might be very close to fulfilling someone's need--so close to belonging in some gang where I might make a positive difference--but circumstances mean that I cannot carry through on that promise, that it remains a dead end rather than a live opportunity.

I do not resent the success of other people.  I do not think that life owes me anything for happening to exist as I do.  Mine is and has been a very privileged and blessed existence, I judge, and perhaps it is my turn to suffer for that, to pay a little back for all the good things I have been given in the past--not because I was deserving of them, but because Nature and the people around me were very kind and I was not unappreciative (of that kindness).  I do feel sorry for my dependents, the people who rely on me to help them stay alive and find happiness on the way (we hope).  I wish I could provide for them better than I do (not that I would like to be materially richer necessarily; what I would like would be to give them some stability, a place to grow up without the constant threat of unnecessary change that currently looms over them).

I see more clearly now why the scholar's life is historically a solitary one (locked in an empty garret somewhere, reading, writing, living on pennies, finding friends in the library without getting to close to anyone).  It is not really secure (as few lives are in this world).  Taking dependents is something strong people do, and the young scholar is not strong (usually, typically--and I am quite typical in this regard).  The honest pursuit of truth is not one that lends itself well to wealth-production; even in academia, what gangs love most is a smooth lie.  Smooth lies get you tenure where complicated truths get you rated and written off (as an ignoramus, which I admit that I am: I have struggled to correct this flaw my entire life, only to realize at last that it is incorrigible).  If only I could find the right gang, a gang that might have some use for my ignorance.  If I were a better man, I might be able to say with Oscar Wilde, "I have nothing to declare but my genius."  Alas, instead I find myself echoing that poor fool Socrates: "I have nothing to declare but my ignorance."  And I am not ready to drink hemlock.  What an idiot I am!