Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Prostitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reflections on Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

Science against Religion

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

I think this is an unfairly loaded question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Escaping the Bubble of the Contemporary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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