Archive for the ‘Short Essays’ Category

Murray, the Trickster: Correcting Ernest Becker’s neglect of Carl Jung

October 12, 2017

 

Jordan B. Peterson remarked in the fourth installment of his biblical lecture series that Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, is “seriously flawed, but wrong in useful ways.” Becker, according to Peterson, “missed the point in the way that Freud missed Jung’s point,” and a “major mistake” of Becker’s work was only briefly referring to Carl Jung in the introduction to his book. Peterson quickly digressed and never followed up on his claims about Becker’s work, or what “the point” is, but much can (and should) be inferred from Peterson’s equation: Becker’s theoretical sketch of Heroism and its inescapable ubiquity is an astonishing but incomplete answer to Freud’s psychoanalytic writings on religion; Freud and Becker share the mistake of missing Jung’s point, according to Peterson; Jung’s point is more sophisticated, more all-encompassing, and better accounts for the situation that Becker outlines (in response to Freud); therefore, revisiting and correcting Becker’s and Freud’s mistake will yield a more accurate and more useful account of the human situation.

The most economical way to demonstrate this pattern of inferences from Peterson’s ambiguous thesis is to analyze Don Delillo’s novelization of Becker’s theories in White Noise, a book of death denial in which the character Murray is a clear instantiation of how Jung’s reading of the human situation, though similar in scope to Becker’s, is greater in explanatory power. Murray is better represented by Jung’s “trickster” archetype than Becker’s sketch of “heroism,” and, further, Delillo’s book could be more accurately read by a Jungian framework than a Beckerian reading – all the way down.

Peterson’s accusation that Becker missed Jung’s point can be sourced to the tepid conciliatory gesture at the end of Becker’s introduction, in which he dismisses Jung’s theoretical relevance. Instead of grappling with Jung’s arguments, Becker grounds many of his core arguments in the writings of Otto Rank, whose neglected writings become a sort of causa-sui revival project of Becker’s own. To these “heroic” ends, Becker attributes Jung’s absence to the then culturally prominent status of psychoanalytic literature, but doesn’t resist the temptation to jab (thus revealing a deeper-seated motivation to ignore Jung’s work): “I can’t see that all his tomes on alchemy [my italics] add one bit to the weight of his psychoanalytic insight.” That is, Becker conceived of his own central claims as operating independently of Jung’s more obscure works primarily because of Jung’s willingness to encompass seemingly any metaphysics within his own; Becker’s reading of Jung thus discards the nuance of Jung’s more central claims: the collective unconscious, the archetypes, the symbols of transformation – all of which litter the otherwise vacant cavities of Becker’s massive theory. Here is where Becker “misses the point,” as Peterson would have it: Becker confused Jung’s “needless esotericism” with his more important writings. Becker’s compartmentalization and thus misreading of Jung admits to a faulty first premise by which Becker (incompletely) argues the rest of The Denial of Death.

Even the explicit intertextuality of Don Delillo’s White Noise and Becker’s The Denial of Death is interrupted through a more patient inclusion of Carl Jung’s arguments, yielding a more complete sense of the work that Becker (and Delillo after him) was trying to accomplish. Delillo’s illustration of Becker’s work is most obviously present in White Noise’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, but Delillo’s illustration loses focus when peripheral characters, like Murray, collide with Jack’s heroism. Delillo’s focus on Jack’s heroism by definition excludes the heroic complexity of the novel’s less immediate characters, a subtlety that Becker’s account of heroism similarly omits. Becker stretches the theory of heroism across all swaths of society but Jung goes deeper, detailing and accumulating evidence of archetypal manifestations beyond the generalities of heroism.

Carl Jung’s illumination of the trickster archetype more powerfully explains Murray’s character than Becker’s rendering of heroism. Murray is an embodied counterexample to Becker’s claim that “our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic,” and that Jung’s archetypes – personified representations of instinctual systems – have a greater explanatory power than Becker’s heroism – attitudinal descriptions of terror management. Murray symbolically embodies Jung’s response to an ambiguity at the heart of Becker’s thesis: “If the basic quality of heroism is genuine courage, why are so few people truly courageous?” One might imagine that Murray has read Becker and is investigating this question of courage at different levels of analysis throughout the novel. White Noise’s protagonist, Jack, shores himself with the courage to pursue heroic projects like learning German, while Murray, Jack’s colleague and friend, is written into the novel as an unorthodox, brilliant, and foolish character. Murray’s absurd investigations into Becker’s question of genuine courage are best explained through Jung’s “trickster” archetype, a character that evades direct contact with powerful threats while at the same time more cleverly deals with these powerful threats than the “hero” archetype.

Murray’s presence as the Jungian “trickster” archetype first becomes clear at the Most Photographed Barn in America (Barn, hereafter). Becker’s heroism would interpret the following exchange as a demonstration of neurotic, learned, narcissistic character traits:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.’ He seemed immensely pleased by this.

Murray’s phenomenological remarks in this scene examine the “aura” that Becker describes with regard to psychological transference. The Barn’s aura is sustained by the masses who pilgrimage to the site, and Murray’s comments to Jack juxtapose their own silent presence to the unthinking, “incessant clicking” of the masses. This juxtaposition sustains Murray’s sense of heroism, and Jack’s own by extension, according to Becker. Jung’s account of this juxtaposition, however, in terms of the “trickster,” clarifies what Becker would call Murray’s heroism as the “therapeutic effect.” The therapeutic effect of Murray’s character, in Jung’s terms, presents the “low intellectual and moral level before the eyes of the more highly developed individual,” namely, Jack, “so that he shall not forget how things looked yesterday.” Murray’s presence reinforces Jack’s heroism, but Murray himself cannot be described in the same terms. Recall Murray’s supposition that “we can’t answer these questions […] we can’t get out of this aura.” Jung would argue that these remarks came straight from the mouth of the trickster: “We like to imagine that something which we do not understand does not help us in any way. But that is not always so.” Here, both Murray and Jung’s trickster archetype presuppose intrinsic worth in (seemingly) impractical knowledge, as well as take pleasure in the impracticability. Seen in this way, the questions Murray says we “can’t answer” are, as Jung’s portrayal of the trickster suggests, “helpful” – a claim that doesn’t traditionally make sense. The immediacy of this parallel demonstrates how Jung’s explanatory power outshines Becker’s with relation to the manifestations of heroism in Delillo’s novel. Heroism doesn’t sufficiently account for Murray’s presence in this scene; or, at least, Jung better details and contextualizes the uncanniness of Murray’s presence as it relates to Jack’s heroism.

Murray’s response to Babette’s uncanny television appearance is, similarly, only partially explained by Becker’s account of heroism. Babette’s television appearance startles every character except for Murray, whose “sneaky” smile and notetaking unhinge Jack’s sense of heroic certainty. In Becker’s terms, Murray calmly reasserts his heroism in this unexpected scene, a response which “covers over” the anxiety that Babette’s appearance has produced. A Beckerian reading of this nature might ignore Murray’s emphasis on “the wrong kind of attentiveness” so present in the characters’ attitudes towards television, and might renegotiate (or undermine) Murray’s palpable ambiguity within the Gladney family dynamic.

Jung’s characterization of this television scene would critique the generality of Becker’s reading of Murray, which allows for but does not predict Murray’s specific responses. Jung’s “trickster” explicates Becker’s vague reading of Murray to the extent that a primary feature of the trickster is “a reversal of the hierarchic order.” Murray argues that society has “reversed the relative significance” of higher and lower order consciousness in passive engagement with television. Murray goes on to say that “misuse” has lead to this reversal, a trend similarly found in Jung’s discussion of the trickster’s origin in which “a higher level of consciousness has covered up a lower one [while] the latter was already in retreat.” Murray thus embodies the revelatory aspect of Jung’s trickster as well, as evidenced in his critique of society’s “misuse.” Seen this way, Jung might correct Becker’s emphasis on the heroic aspects of Murray’s critique in terms of the “gradual civilizing” force of television. Murray, as does the trickster, behaves in the most uncivilized ways in situations when Jack’s heroic narrative fails; Murray is most alive in times when Jack is most flustered. Reading Murray’s character in this way further demystifies Jung’s remark that “the so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster” until the “shadow,” the dark force of the unconscious, arises. That is, Jack, like Becker’s heroic portrait of humanity, has forgotten the importance of recognizing archetypes – perhaps with mortal consequences at stake.

Murray’s encounter with the prostitutes during the Great Airborne Toxic Event (GATE, hereafter) most benefits from a Jungian revision to more obvious Beckerian readings throughout the novel. An unorthodox encounter with a car full of prostitutes undermines Jack’s relief at Murray’s familiar presence during the alienation of GATE. Jack, surprised, asks Murray what he’s solicited these prostitutes to do for “twenty-five dollars,” to which Murray’s deadpan answer shocks Jack into silence: “The Heimlich maneuver.” Murray’s answer subverts the casual reader’s expectations of lust, sexual fulfillment, and economic predation associated with prostitution. Becker might describe Murray’s justification to Jack that he will be satisfied “as long as she collapses helplessly backward into my life-saving embrace,” in terms of a way to reinforce his sense of heroism. Murray externalizes his anxieties in the form of what might otherwise be read as a “love object.” More accurately, however, the trickster’s “divine-animal nature” emerges in this scene. That is, two fundamental identifying aspects of the trickster archetype are “extraordinary clumsiness” and a “considerable eagerness to learn.” In this scene, Murray’s “extraordinary clumsiness” arises in his catechetical diction with regards to prostitution (e.g., “representative” and “fellow” clearly refer to a pimp), and Murray’s “considerable eagerness to learn” about the Heimlich maneuver serves to confuse Jack as to Murray’s “divine-animal nature.”

Becker might object that he accounts for Jung’s distinction when he writes that man’s “paradoxical nature” arises from “the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.” In other words, Jung and Becker may eventually agree about Murray. But Jung’s distinction is more subtle, in that the trickster is a “primitive ‘cosmic’ being,” something prior to the symbolic move towards the heroic on which Becker’s book focuses. In Jung’s revised account, then, Murray, the trickster, never quite makes the Beckerian move into the heroic. Murray’s role as the trickster in White Noise embodies more primitive elements of Jack’s character.

In contrast to the archetypes, Becker has much to say, but Jung says it better and more thoroughly – especially in the task of analyzing Murray’s character. One might suggest the ambitious project of nesting the totality of Becker’s heroism into Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious; for the trickster archetype is hardly all Jung has to offer in this theoretical domain. Jack Gladney, for instance, might benefit from a cross-examination of Becker’s heroism and Jung’s hero archetype. Babette, as well, might gain symbolic depth through a deeper integration of Jung’s writings on the mother archetype into her character. And so on. Delillo’s White Noise might not exist if not for Becker’s Denial of Death, but it might come back to life through a Jungian revival.

These brief examples of Murray’s better-suited role as the trickster archetype rather than a manifestation of heroism return to a higher-order theoretical concern: Does Ernest Becker’s theory of heroism warrant a full-scale Jungian revision? After all, Peterson’s adamant accusation that Becker “missed the point” still remains. In fairness, Becker’s avoidance of Jung’s more esoteric, amorphous, relativistic metaphysical investigations (on alchemy, on religion, etc.) wisely focuses the scope of Denial of Death’s arguments. Murray’s role as the trickster, however, demonstrates the imperfections of Becker’s oversights as they apply to individual cases and idiosyncratic characters – whether Becker intended for this or not. Parsing this relationship requires a patient negotiation of neglected Jungian nuance into the increasingly anachronistic isomorphism of Becker, a task which might be taken up by Jordan B. Peterson if he ever gets back to his point.

 

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Free Press Paperbacks, 1973. Print.

Delillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press, 1969. Print.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Adam and Eve: Self-Consciousness, Evil, and Death.” YouTube, 19 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ifi5KkXig3s

 

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Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017

godottree

“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?

 

Floridian Failure: Repairing a Diminished Democracy

April 1, 2016

Voting in America is a rather ambiguous affair, even considering the fact that voting is considered to be a right of citizenship. And, in being the bastion of democracy, one does not often consider America to be a place of voter suppression, but voter disenfranchisement is widespread in this country.

Be it forcible suppression, gerrymandering, arbitrary state-level obstacles to register (i.e. closed primaries, lack of absentee ballots, etc.), or just plain apathy, there is much to criticize about the American democratic process. These multifaceted problems are deeply entrenched in American culture, unfortunately, and are metastasized by the media echo chamber of sensationalism. What no one ever bothers to report on, however, is the problem of voter disenfranchisement on behalf of ex-offenders.

As things stand, a felon loses their right to vote. This, on its own, makes no sense. But Florida, our home state, is one of the three states which revokes an ex-offender’s right to vote for life. One mistake could cost you the central pride of American citizenship: your democratic voice. In America, roughly 2.5% of citizens, due to their criminal history, are ineligible to vote. And, courtesy of  Rick Scott’s benevolence, it’s looking like the path towards voter restoration is even more tangled than before.

A widespread entrenched feeling amongst the American people, regarding the voting rights of ex-offenders, is largely in favor of restoration. Admittedly, only one-third approve of allowing the currently convicted to vote. But roughly 60% of Americans favor restoring voting rights to ex-offenders who “served the time” or were on parole. Furthermore, two-thirds endorse voting rights restorations for those on probation. These numbers are both statistically significant, and culturally turbulent such that we cannot make a firm determination on the rightness/wrongness of the state of modern ex-offenders’ voting rights. Maybe there is some veracity to the hesitance to disallowing the currently convicted to vote–though we fail to find warrant for such a parsimonious view. It is our position, and motive in co-authoring this editorial, that one should at least not be devoid of rights after serving time in what is purportedly a “correctional” facility.

We are motivated by viewing ex-offenders not in terms of the crimes they have committed, or the sentence they have served, but the views they now express, the hopes and values they wish to bring about into the world. This is what is known as basic human decency, extending one’s sense of worth to another person, especially someone as powerless as an ex-offender. If America is truly a “democracy,” then we will not be motivated by fear of former law-breakers to guide our moral concerns regarding political rights.

Florida’s current legal position on the restoration of voting rights for the recently-released is rather straightforward. Ex-convicts are allowed to petition for restoration of rights (non-violent offenders are also automatically considered), however, this process is lengthy and yields low results. Despite legal strides toward progress, the system remains ineffective. The levels of offense and their legal access to restoration are paltry, as a result. And nearly every examination on the issue of voter disenfranchisement has yielded akin results: voter laws which restrict offenders’ voting rights are disproportionately affecting racial minorities and, thus, we should reexamine the conclusions of the federal courts regarding this matter. Gov. Scott’s overturning of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s automatic restoration policy, for instance, is one case in which African-Americans are directly targeted as an unwanted voting population. In our view, that needs to change.

The legislative decisions Governor Scott has made regarding voting rights deserve far closer scrutiny than they have heretofore received. Something broadly progressive and democratizing, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is antipodal to the decisions our Governor has made (allegedly on our behalf). A brief Googling of “Gov Scott Voter Purge” will paint a bloody picture of the kind of ruthlessness which Scott has become known for, regarding voting rights.

Before the lack of renewal of the act by Congress in 2014, Scott’s unsavory positions would have never taken clot. Despite his demonstrable cynicism towards the democratic process, there is some hope in one thing: the federal legality of Florida’s laws in comparison to federal statutes are questionable. One could use the information to make a case for the ultimate unconstitutionality of some parts of Florida’s current legal system, and we hope to undermine his (mistaken) decisions in the near future.

Given these briefly sketched concerns, we ask you to take the briefest of moments to sign our Change.org petition to Governor Scott to reconsider his actions and views on voting rights. Too many ex-offenders are being unfairly discriminated against after their release–ranging from job applications to bank accounts–and the least we can do to facilitate their reintegration into society is to restore their voice: allow them to be heard once more. Let them vote.

Love at Last Sight

March 10, 2016

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The Flaneur is he who wanders, observes, and turns those observations into works of art; but perhaps the most crucial detail specific to the Flaneur’s activities is his seeing in motion, seeing in time. That is, the Flaneur pays primacy to the fleeting, fugitive aspects of life. William Carlos Williams’ works most clearly exemplify this constant characteristic of change. His poetry, both literally and metaphorically, moves through spaces, through time. Reading Williams as a Flaneur, in addition to his being a doctor and a poet, reveals the ways in which Flaneurs have captured something in their works, something reflecting a deep-seated wisdom about the present moment, namely, the Modern.

William Carlos Williams was a man who spent much of his life in motion. As a doctor, he was incessantly immigrating from house call to house call; he was seeing the world in motion. Constantly faced with the births of many newborn babies, Williams invariably was forced to see the world in time. One could go on about Williams’ biography, but this motion and time with which Williams navigated his everyday life moves into his poetry as well. For example, in “Aux Imagistes,” he wrote of the motion of blossoms: “I think I have never been so exalted, / As I am now by you, / O frost bitten blossoms, / That are unfolding your wings / From out the envious black branches.” In this opening stanza, Williams gives the flower blossoms agency of a kind; the “unfolding” of “your” wings is juxtaposed with the “envious” branches. This agency suggests not only the literal movement of unfolding wings, but that the plant itself will soon follow with spring’s insistence.

The poem continues, “Bloom quickly and make much of the sunshine. / The twigs conspire against you! / Hear them! / They hold you from behind!” The easy target of this second stanza is the word “quickly,” as the reminder of temporality is interpolated by the poem’s narrator. There are, however, several more subtle suggestions of movement and time within this stanza. The invocation to “make much of the sunshine” implicitly acknowledges the fleetingness of daylight, how night will return, how the seasons change. The anthropomorphic, conspiratory “twigs” of this stanza also implicate how the changing of the seasons will soon rid the plant of blooms, and restore it with leaves. Even the image Williams’ poem provides, “They hold you from behind,” suggests a literal, physical movement of the twigs–militantly, as though fighting to take back territory–to retake the branches from which the blossoms now dwell. Both elements of the Flaneur’s seeing in motion, and seeing in time, surreptitiously dominate the background of this poem, in the form of a plant, thus far.

This poem’s final stanza, however, pulls together these threads of motion and time nicely: “You shall not take wing / Except wing by wing, brokenly, / And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” The image of a wing is one which conjures the image of some bird or butterfly, some animal capable to freely move, unfettered, through the air. To characterize this poem’s plant as one bearing wings is peculiar, but not in the analogical realm. That is, the wings of this plant may be as literal as its leaves, but the following line, “wing by wing, brokenly,” can be read as each leaf falling, wing by wing (one by one), brokenly (leaving the plant bare). In other words, the plant will try to fill itself out in vain. It struggles against the weather, the elements, the seasons, and does what it can. But it will lose leaf by leaf, inexorably, in the end: “And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” This poem’s closing stanza acknowledges the physical changes in the plant over time–capturing both of the Flaneur’s fluid fascinations of motion and time. On the surface, one might not be inclined to attribute movement to plants, or think of them as anything remotely exciting to watch in time. However, as evidenced by William Carlos Williams’ many plant images throughout his poems, plants were something he saw as very much in motion. This poem is an example of the very thing Williams read into the world itself: Motion and Time.

A less abstract instance of Williams’ seeing in the Flaneur’s fashion is seen in his poem, “The Young Housewife.” This poem begins “At ten A.M.” where this young housewife “moves about” from the narrator’s perspective, behind the walls of “her husband’s house.”. Initially, time has already been accounted for in the very first line; motion has been observed in the housewife, motion contrasted against the still backdrop of her husband’s house. The narrator, himself, is also in motion, as he passes, “solitary in [his] car.” Not only is the housewife in motion, but so is the narrator. The poem continues, “Then again she comes to the curb,” suggesting both the further movement of the housewife “to the curb,” but “again,” as though the narrator has watched her make this movement repeatedly. As the narrator continues on, he witnesses her “shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair, and I compare her / to a fallen leaf.” The narrator’s noticing of her lack of corset reveals the movement of his eyes, and her tucking in of hair provides the reader with a fluid motion of delicate fingers securing loose locks of hair into proper place. But why compare her to a fallen leaf? Given the value Williams gives to the motion and time of plants, this image suggests that this woman does not belong on the metaphorical tree from which she came: her husband’s “wooden walls.” One wonders if this woman as unhappy in her marriage, sexually inviting in a “shy” way, perhaps even as adulterous, as she comes out to meet the “ice-man” and “fish-man” in an “uncorseted” manner. Returning to the narrator’s emphasis on seeing her make these motions “again,” it could be that the narrator has indeed concluded that this young housewife is indeed unhappy in her marriage. All of these possibilities branch out into realms of speculation, all containing within them the transformative movement and time with which the Flaneur sees the world.

The poem concludes: “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” This final stanza captures further the themes of motion and time, and even harks back to the speculative connection between the “fallen leaf” and “wooden walls,” given the sound of “dried leaves” as the narrator passes by. That is, Williams used the image of leaves twice in this poem: once “dried,” and once “fallen.” Like with “Aux Imagistes,” these leaves could be literal, but a connection between the “dried” and “fallen” leaves is begging to be made. For example, the plurality to the leaves at the end of the poem leaves open the possibility of being in a crowd, rather than literally in a car. If this woman is a leaf, and he is driving amongst the leaves, then perhaps he is in a crowd, not as isolated as the poem insists. In any case, this poem serves as an illustration of the brief encounters of modern life, the fleeting nature of motion and time, in Williams’ poetry.

These two poems, “Aux Imagistes,” and “The Young Housewife,” are but a sliver of the kind of vision which Williams’ poetry offers. It is as though Williams saw the movements of life and love and lust in every realm of his life. As banal as a plant, or as seductive as an uncorseted young woman, Williams’ penetrating clarity of observation reveals the effects of modernity on the Flaneur. It is as though, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Flaneur, Williams’ delight was not “love at first sight,” but, rather, “love at last sight.”The plant evoked a motion and moniker of temporality to Williams because he was seeing these blossoms about to be “conspired against” by the twigs. He was seeing the blossoms “at last sight” when he stumbled upon them. Also, with the housewife, Williams saw the young housewife, who may not love her husband, who has a story ongoing in time with his own. But he passed her by. He saw her love “at last sight,” as though it may as well be over before it had begun. These kinds of seeing, Benjamin calls the “never” of the poet’s encounter with this notion of “love at last sight.” The “never” Benjamin describes is “the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” That is, the poet’s “passion” which “bursts” forth is, in Williams’ case, his poetry; Williams was intent on documenting these “nevers.” There is a sensuous delight in the involvement we have–only once!–with the blossom, with the plant, with the housewife, and from which life then continues. Seeing the world as fleeting, fugitive, and full of wonder to be had–including the “nevers”–seems to be the philosophy with which Williams navigated his everyday life. Taking the moment to recognize and transcribe these “nevers” into poetry was, to Williams, more the point than the passing itself.

Baudelaire’s Clock

March 10, 2016

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All of Charles Baudelaire’s writings stand on their own, but many of them bear nearly identical, overlapping titles (i.e. “Cats,” “Cat,” and “The Cat”). Though I am at the mercy of translation from French to English, I’d argue that these overlapping titles are conscious, calculated moves on Baudelaire’s behalf. On the surface, many of these instances of title duplication reveal little, if any, patterns across the source material of Baudelaire’s writings. But, in the following paragraphs, I wish to turn to Baudelaire’s poem, “The Clock,” and use a reading of it to then scrutinize his prose-poem “The Clock.” These pieces appear quite different, yet many identical themes are evoked, which yield interesting insight into the mental machinations of Baudelaire. For the purposes of this essay, I will henceforth refer to “The Clock,” from Baudelaire’s Poems, as the “Midnight” version, and “The Clock,” from Paris Spleen, as the “Noon” version.

Before turning to comparisons, it would be wise to briefly unpack each poem individually, beginning with the Midnight version. This poem explores the obvious existential implications of “Time” in human life, and begins by characterizing the clock as an “Impassive god! whose minatory hands / repeat their sinister and single charge: / Remember!” Here, the movement of clock hands represent the passage of time; the clock serves as a mnemonic device of one’s ever-aging life. But Baudelaire characterizes this reminder as “sinister” which suggests something beyond the mundane: mortality. Or, in other words, “Remember!” your time is limited, and you are on your way to the grave. The poem continues with images of theatre and, implicitly, performance on a stage being the metaphor for one’s brief life: “One pirouette, the theatre goes dark.” And as this theatre goes dark–as time marches on, and death approaches–the poem’s narrator remarks how “each instant snatches from you what you had, / the crumb of happiness within your grasp.” No happy messages here. The clock is a mnemonic token of death to the narrator, moreso than the literal ticking away of one’s own life.

Perhaps the most profound stanza present in this Midnight version of “The Clock” is the third: “Thirty-six hundred times in every hour / the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies /in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past, / who passing lit and sucked your life and left!” The mosquito incarnation of the present moment–”Now”–is both hilarious and shudder-inducing; for time, as Baudelaire is presenting it, is always out of our “grasp,” it is beyond our control: “Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins / on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.” The narrator is frantically pointing to the Clock, impelling the reader to “Remember!” how fugitive each passing moment truly is. And there is some irony embedded in this Midnight version, given how, regardless of this apprehension of mortality-remembrance, “Time” defeats us in the end.

The “Noon” version of Baudelaire’s “The Clock” is, on the surface, a much more lighthearted departure from the menacing “Impassive god” of the Midnight version. This version, as a prose-poem, contains cats, a little boy, and notably takes place in broad daylight. It begins, “The Chinese can tell the time in the eyes of cats,” which is a very provocative and unscientific assertion. For who in the West has ever heard such nonsense? But the narrator, passively and credulously, observes a “missionary, strolling through a suburb [who] had forgotten his watch.” This missionary asks a little boy the time, and the “ragamuffin” (boy) darts off to catch a “very fat cat,” which correctly yields the time: “he declared without hesitation: ‘It’s not quite noon.’ Which was correct.” A surprising and accurate clock is revealed to the narrator in the form of a cat. This leads the narrator to reflect upon his own cat which, when he gazes into the “depths of her adorable eyes,” he always sees the hour “distinctly, always the same hour, an hour vast, solemn, and grand as space, without divisions into minutes and seconds–a motionless hour unmarked by the clocks, but light as a sigh, rapid as the blink of an eye.” This “hour” the narrator describes has an uncanny quality about it, especially given our unpacking of the Midnight version of “The Clock.” That is, one can’t help assign this “motionless,” “solemn,” “unmarked,” time as something akin to death.

If Baudelaire’s intention is to divorce the Midnight version from the Noon version by setting up a bright sunny day with a children and cats, then he did an awful job. But Baudelaire was no fool; the prose-poem continues with a question to the narrator: “‘What are you looking at there so attentively? What are you seeking in the eyes of this creature? Do you see the hour there, you idle, wasteful mortal?’–I would reply without hesitation: ‘Yes, I see the hour; it is Eternity!’” The words “idle” and “wasteful mortal” suggest the connection between time and death as explored in the Midnight version. This hour, “Eternity,” may in fact be everything outside of “Now” (borrowing from the Midnight version).

The form of the Midnight version is that of linear quatrains, whereas the form of the Noon version is that of paragraphs. The Midnight version is constrained moreso to the realm of conceptual analysis and reflection, images and ideas, rather than narrative or plot. The Noon version, as a prose-poem, reads almost like a story, with time passing within the prose-poem itself. Baudelaire may have intended to embed the link between time and death, from the Midnight version, into the Noon version’s light-hearted imagery of the Orient. The “pretentious gallantry” found within the Noon version serves to mask these ideas within the setting and story of the prose-poem itself, whereas the Midnight version does not feign to do so; the Midnight version is explicit in its message, whereas the Noon version requires a more scrupulous reading.

The parallels, however, between the Noon and Midnight versions of “The Clock,” provide some synthetic reading regarding the ways in which Baudelaire’s poetry, his prose, and even his conceptual positions, are implicated by, and are found within, each of his poems. By name, by time, or by theme, Baudelaire’s inner turbulence, regarding his own antagonistic relationship with death and time, spills onto all the pages he penned.

No Preamble: Eating Animals

February 29, 2016

Eating-Animals

I have struggled with the ethical dimensions of eating animals for most of my life. It first came to my attention when my high school crush, Katie Loughran, shared PETA’s “Meet Your Meat” video. I was appalled, like most who see the short (horror) film. Thus followed nine months of capricious veganism, and then many years of relapse. Even yesterday, my boss cooked up turkey chili in the breakroom and brought me a bowl: I ate it with relish, as he is a fantastic chef. But in the back of my mind lurks the ever-growing concern: The question of what kind a person I am in eating animals.

I write this brief reflective essay regarding a book I just finished, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Speechless, or rather, so full of words I can’t contain them, I write this rambling account of the ways in which his book moved me; personally, socially, ethically, etc. the depth of Safran Foer’s argument cuts right through me. Personally, I’ve acted via the “conscientious inconsistency” Foer evokes regarding vegetarianism. Socially, I’ve found myself accepting meat from my manager/coworkers because they’re proud of their cooking and want me to share in their delight. As Safran Foer notes, it’s often more rude to turn away the meat than it is to stick to my principles. Ethically, I vacillate between thinking (1) it’s wrong to kill animals, and (2) it’s not inherently wrong to kill animals for consumption, but it is obviously wrong to kill animals in the manner of the factory farming system; this book does wonders to complicate that picture even further, as the author repeatedly suggests that there is indeed genuine ambiguity about killing for necessity. The list goes on ad nauseum, but Foer’s mantra that “Stories about food are stories about us” rings true for my own life.

The brief section titled “Battery Cage,” early on in the book, startled me to my core. Until reading that meager little page, I surprisingly hadn’t performed the thought experiment of being, myself, an animal confined to a cage for slaughter. The horror had gripped me in the studium (intellectual life), but never heretofore in the punctum (emotional life). The way Safran Foer turns the second person into a reinvisioning of the hierarchy between humans and animals is unnerving, to say the least. This is the first motivator for my now vegetarian/vegan-leaning ethical stance (if not yet in practice).

The section titled “Environmentalism” also shook my foundations, in the sense that my higher education is aimed towards Applied Environmental Ethics. In the light of his analysis, I must conclude that being a “casual omnivore,” as Foer puts it, is environmentally inexcusable (again, that difference between the studium and the punctum). It’s one thing to read about the environmental degradation resulting from our agricultural practices and, implicitly, my food choices. It’s another thing to see it phrased so bluntly: “omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” I don’t want to say something cheesy and (temporally) insincere but, in reading this book, my turbulence about the question of eating animals was absolutely slaughtered (pardon the pun). I can intellectually commit to reducing my meat intake–perhaps to zero–but habitually retraining myself and, in some cases, going out of my way and others’ to behaviorally commit, is another matter.

And, though Safran Foer doesn’t outright name it, his provocation for a “democratic” farm system reminds me much of what I’ve explored this semester regarding Food Sovereignty. I hadn’t heretofore transmogrified that movement into political terms (surprising considering how often I bloviate about American politics). To do so would require replacing “corporate” concerns with “civic” ones and, thus, extremely effort exerting. But, as with the work of John Dewey regarding the philosophy of education, redirecting the means and aim of any system towards democracy seems–to me at least–a noble, fruitful, optimistic endeavour.

I only maintain one worry regarding Safran Foer’s compelling narrative/argument: I find it interesting–if not frustrating–that Safran Foer neglects to mention artificially grown meat. For those unfamiliar, we are now on the cusp of scaling up meat tissue, grown without any animal to raise or kill. If our concern is, as Safran Foer writes, “all of the time […] between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals,” then I wonder how our concern would change regarding this “animal-less” (for lack of a better term) meat. That is, if we eliminate the suffering and killing of animals, but still eat “meat,” do we still have an ethical travesty on our hands? The only foreseeable objection to this innovation would be akin to arguments against homosexuality, one of squeamishness: “That makes me feel uncomfortable/That is unnatural, thus, wrong.” If this harmless new method of growing meat becomes scaled in the way the innovating company wants it to be, then how does Safran Foer’s argument shift?

(Link to a podcast in which “Meat Without Misery” is discussed at length: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/meat-without-murder)

In any case, I highly recommend this book, Eating Animals, to all. It’s the kind of book I had to read in one sitting, the kind of book that is a perfect storm of the personal, social, and the ethical. Give it a read, and see where you stand in regards to the question of eating animals.

I’ll tempt you with this brief excerpt: “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?

Kurzgesagt: Why Bernie Sanders has my Vote

January 14, 2016

berniecover(My friend solicited my opinion on Bernie Sanders as a political candidate. Without editing, here is my reply.)


K—–, thank you for taking my position seriously, as I know these conversations are too often just self-satire of people talking past eachother.

Firstly, I should say that my general political views are culturally libertarian, and economically socialist (not the “socialism” of Bernie). If not for Florida’s closed primaries, I would be still be a registered Independent. I voted libertarian in 2012, and I’ll probably vote Green Party this year if Bernie isn’t the Dem nominee–just because I’m stubborn.

In truth, I didn’t like Sanders at first. His charisma just rubbed me the wrong way. However, I took the “I Side With” quiz online and was stunned by my 97% alignment with Bernie. That puzzled me, so I went to FeeltheBern.com and looked into his positions. I think the 97% figure is a *little* inflated, but it’s something like 85%.

I watch many rallies, speeches, and every debate. I am on the treadmill for an hour every morning watching CNN and Fox next to eachother. I just have an armchair understanding of politics, but I’m actively trying to figure out what to think and what’s true–even if that truth is bitter. From these efforts, I’ve concluded that Bernie is the only candidate who relentlessly brings the political conversation back to things which matter most to me, personally: Getting money out of politics, addressing climate change, rebuilding infrastructure, keeping jobs in America, deinflating our ridiculous criminal justice system, making college more accessible, etc. I’ll expand on these one by one:

  1. Money in politics is the biggest issue, and Bernie has been preaching the same message for decades. Martin Luther King Jr, Pope Francis, etc. have said the same thing. I drink the Bernie kool-aid that we’re living in an oligarchy. I firmly believe that we can’t truly “fix” our government without fixing this first.
  2. Climate Change is the issue I’m most sensitive to. Idk how much of a science geek you are, but it’s pretty clear that Earth is an extremely vulnerable, fragile place for us. A meteor could strike us, a massive earthquake could sink California, Yellowstone could blow up North America, etc. but Climate Change (investing in both the technology, and the research) seems fixable and is a *must* if we’re gonna survive as a species. You think we have a refugee crisis now? Wait until Florida floods (projected 3-6 foot sea rise by 2100).
  3. Turning to his economic issues, it’s easy to blame people at the bottom for their being there, that’s the implicit premise in a meritocratic system (i.e. the American Dream). I agree with a lot of my republican friends who think it’s a drag on our system to have people on welfare (we can get into what I think in terms of solutions, but this is already a novel reply). But I don’t think we’re wise to abandon anyone in our country.
    Infrastructure is such a non-sexy political topic. But most of our infrastructure is far underfunded, as Bernie says, “crumbling,” and fixing it provides decent paying jobs to tons of people. Seems like a great idea to me (even Trump espouses this idea).
  4. Prison, as you saw my post, is something that really bothers me. Particularly the prison-binge we’ve seen over the last thirty years. I think we need to get rid of private prisons. We need to stop looking at prison as “punishment” in every case (though I can understand exceptions), and instead focus on their role as “correctional facilities.” Our recidivism rates are insane. We have more than 1% of our population incarcerated. Nonviolent drug offenses are ridiculously over-punished. And they cost so freaking much; one prisoner for a year costs as much as three kids’ K-12 public education. etc. etc. You get the point. Bernie is the only candidate making any real effort to fix it, in my opinion.
  5. Making college affordable is important to me. I’ll admit, I’m biased, being someone going after his Ph.D. But I think that education is never a bad thing. It’s not expensive (when bureaucracy and neoliberal administration doesn’t inflate, as it has). And there is no world in which having a better educated population is a bad thing, to my mind. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
  6. Healthcare another big issue for me. Forget Obamacare, and transition to a single-payer system (again, odd that Trump also has this position). The fact that you can go bankrupt for being sick or injured in the hospital is insane, to me at least. Take Breaking Bad as an example, the dude cooks meth to pay his hospital bills. I consider healthcare a right, even though it costs a hell of a lot. But a single-payer system is far cheaper and provides for all. I think that’s important.
  7. The final major agreement I have with Bernie is regarding Social Security. In the Republican debates, almost all candidates (with the exception of Kasich, I think) say “raise the retirement age and cut social security.” Yes, social security is very expensive. But people need it precisely because of reasons like lack of affordable healthcare, and lack of education. If we fix those other issues, then social security becomes easier to attack. But I think they all kind of work together. I worked with a 70 year old who washes dishes to keep food on the table. Call me a “bleeding heart liberal,” but that stuff really gets to me.
  8. I also like his position on guns. He’s not all paranoid “BAN ALL GUNS ALWAYS EVERYWHERE” like most liberals tend to be.

The kind of conversation Bernie is having is starkly different than the right. Generally, the Republicans talk about cutting taxes and strengthening our military. I don’t believe in either of those values. I think taxing is necessary, whether we like it or not. And we spend far too much on our military as it is (ironically, hundreds of thousands of our veterans starve on the streets, are mentally ill, and/or are incarcerated). And what automatically turns me off from republican candidates is their outright denial of Climate Change. My argument is that *even if* 98% of scientists are wrong and Climate Change is not real, we are still ridiculously wasteful. We use far too many resources. If nothing else, get off fossil fuels to keep the air clean. I spent some time in Beijing last year, and there are days where it’s necessary to wear masks. That’s where we’re headed unless we get off fossil fuels (and cows, but that’s a whole other story regarding climate change). And there’s just the sheer buffoonery of what happens with accidents: Deepwater Horizon, and the recent incident in California, for example. Even if Climate Change isn’t real, we can and should do better. Doing so creates thousands and thousands of jobs in America. I’m stubborn on that one issue more than any other, perhaps unreasonably so. Thus, I can’t in good conscience support another candidate.

And Hillary… oh god. We don’t even need to get into that circlejerk of slaying her.

I don’t consider Bernie my ideological savior. I actually agree more with Jill Stein of the Green Party. I somewhat disagree with Bernie on the $15 minimum wage. That seems to be an issue where we’re just begging for inflation, and treating the symptom rather than the disease. (I will say that a “living wage” seems like a great idea, however. You shouldn’t be in poverty if you work full time, simple as that.) There are some other things like the “wage gap” that I’m skeptical of (as the 77 cents figure, specifically). His pro-Israel stance puzzles me (more than it should?), etc. But in general, he has my vote.

There’s all kinds of things I want to say, but that’s the short(?) version.

What do you think? What about him are you skeptical of?

Reacting to the Regressive Left

December 31, 2015

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The year 2015 has been fecund to the lunatical ideas of the ideologically repressive cultural authoritarians on the left. My ideological neighbors have invented genders, manufactured outrage, increasingly barricaded us against dissenting ideas, and have even maddeningly tried to repeal free speech protections. Enough, I say. Somehow this vocal minority dominates political dialogue, parroting absurd maxims like “Check your privilege.” These intolerable, insufferable, regressive ideas have unwittingly abandoned their very liberal founding principle: Liberty for all.

Notable public figures such as Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Dave Rubin, Majiid Nawaz, Milo Yiannopoulos etc. have merely began naming the problem. Every side of the political spectrum has begun to wake up to this unconscionably stupid movement on the left. The dogma of minority groups has seeped its way into the very fabric of public universities, social media, and now our government. Let’s not be cowardly and ignore what these hateful “liberal” goals are: The subjugation of the straight, white, cis-gendered, middle-class male. These gender, race, class warriors have no idea what the hell they are talking about and, thus, don’t notice the glaring contradiction of their skeletal ideology. With one hand, they preach tolerance, with the other, they oppress the group they are preaching to.

Roughly a year ago, I penned two brief essays alluding to these problems. My writings weren’t nearly ambitious and honest enough; my rhetoric was hedged by an urge to remain neutral and politically correct to my friends on the left. Unfortunately, neutrality is no longer possible if we are to maintain the kind of free speech and liberty I value as a participant in the democratization of society.

I’ve defined Regressive Leftists as cultural authoritarians; that is, collectivist ideologues who dictatorially and unorganically impose their values onto society. Regressives are most clearly exemplified in millennials who, in their attempt to subvert racism, sexism, xenophobia, ageism, etc., become vitally and dogmatically concerned with social justice. (Funnily enough, my generation is the most tolerant, least xenophobic in history.) On the surface, this is wonderful to see. There are no tenable arguments in support of such unreasonable, prejudicial views about human beings, in my view. Trickles of discrimination clearly have festered to some extent in America and, sometimes, are far from surreptitious. Thus, we must address these bad views through civil discourse. To this extent, my views on these issues are indistinguishable from my fellow liberals. That all human beings should be treated with equal dignity and respect, is a self-evident truth.

Regressives go further than the position I have outlined, however, for these views on basic human decency have been hijacked by angry, ignorant, misanthropic, imbecilic values. There are explicit ideological tenets and doctrine to which one must adhere if one is to nowadays be “politically correct.” Whether explicit or implicit, one must be ideologically hegemonic in these politically correct circles, lest one be smeared with a laundry-list of pejoratives. These pejoratives are tools with which to immediately besmirch the insulted person’s intelligence, integrity, opinions, and beliefs, thus dismissing their argument without every needing to engage it. That alone is an embarrassingly immature way to begin civil discourse, especially regarding politically salient issues (i.e. disproportionate black men in prison). Radical as it is, I find it a deontic imperative that one listens to differing views from one’s own. My fellow leftist Regressives are too often not acknowledging the humanity of their interlocutors, which is terrifyingly pernicious.

I’d go as far as to characterize this regressive, cultural authoritarian movement as religious. Borrowing from Maajid Nawaz’s excellent work, consider these four elements of religious social movements: Ideas, Narratives, Symbols, and Leaders. Ideas–or, more accurately, dogma–are the cause one believes in, the goal of the social movement. Narratives are the propagandistic mechanisms employed to sell the aforementioned idea. Symbols are identity tools of iconography to congregate followers under one banner. Leaders are the charismatic individuals which we transfer the symbolic meaning of the social movement onto. Collectively, all of these elements comprise what are being called “Social Justice Warriors.” I’d go further, as these uncannily religious qualities are the very foundation on which my regressive political neighbors make their arguments–well, claims really.

I deplore the trend of regressivism so vitriolically because of this uncanny resemblance to organized religion. Religion, to my mind, is beyond mere theism–which I will table for now so as not to derail the broader discussion of the regressives. Let it suffice for me to supply you with Steven Weinberg’s famous quip about religion, supplementing (in this case) regressive leftists: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” The semantic shift here, is doctrine. There’s even the metaphysical component to regressive religion, “the Patriarchy.” The same, I think, applies to these issues between the progressive left, the regressive left, libertarians, and other political affiliations. Identity politics are at the heart of regressivism, which stem from misdirected collectivist ideology. That is, by forming a collective you implicitly have barricaded yourself to those outside of the collective. In being so obsessed with engendering minority groups (are women even minorities at more than half the population?) with power–which is frankly a poorly disguised imposition of historical guilt–we have razed the voices and issues of the majority.

In Islamic doctrine, for example, there is the declaration of hatred (and violence) towards apostates. The analogy is most boldly paralleled with regressivism because of the same ideological mechanism of collectivism. We can all agree that killing someone, or maybe even hating someone, for having dissimilar beliefs from your own is a bad idea. Why is it not a bad idea when regressives commit such ideological insult? That’s not a rhetorical question because, as aforementioned, we are seeing hate, vitriol, straw manning, and cruel punishment for ideological heterogeneity. But I propose that it’s wrong for anyone to get fired because of something they said on their private account, outside of work. It’s wrong to spread patent lies and mischaracterizations of anyone’s view, without charitable interpretation. It’s wrong to dismiss someone’s humanity because they disagree with you. The list goes on, and the regressive left have misstepped on each account.

As I have mentioned, the irony of the regressive left is that with one hand they preach tolerance, acceptance, anti-bigotry, equality, etc. yet, with that very same hand, they dogmatically attack ideological opponents like no other. (We wouldn’t have coined the neologism, “doxxing,” had we no regressives.) In preaching tolerance, they intolerantly scream at people, unloading their quiver of pejoratives. In enacting acceptance, they, by definition, exclude those who have opposing ideological commitments. In fighting bigotry, they become quintessential bigots. In waving the rainbow flag of equality, they shut down the very group they are trying to dissent: Straight, white, cis-gendered, middle-class males. I can’t emphasize this irony enough. Take, for example, Milo Yiannopolous’ breathtaking closing speech at the recent Oxford debate on the question, “Have we reached an age of gender equality?” Regressive ideology is hilariously wrong, but has terrifying consequences for classical liberals such as myself.

Take another example, the popular pejorative of “Islamaphobe.” Not only does my spellchecker indicate that this word is meaningless but, often, so is the way in which regressives use this term. Any time a political commentator on the left wants to link Islam to terrorism, they are met by charlatans. These charlatans operate in the trade of obscurantism and religious apologetics. “ISIS is just a symptom of US foreign policy,” is an all-too-common equivocation from dealing with the specific problems in Islamic doctrine. If you are already flaring up at the fact that I am criticizing these ideas, then you are probably a regressive; it’s a pretty easy litmus test, really, as I haven’t once made a criticism about specific people. Again, to borrow from Nawaz, “No ideas are above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity.” I wholeheartedly believe in this maxim. My regressive friends make the mistake of apologizing for Muslims, “Not all Muslims…” as though I had made that generalization; more comical is calling a critic of Islam a “racist.” I object to this insipid, cowardly, two-faced religious apology, for the sake of political correctness, because Islamic theocracies in the Middle East offend on the very cause these regressives scream about in the West. When the Qur’an and Hadith are taken literally, vacuously, fundamentally, we get societies where women are oppressed, apostates are murdered, free thought is restricted, sexual fluidity is stamped out, etc. I cannot allow these farcically contradictory mental gymnastics to dominate the political discourse on the left any longer. I reject Islamic theocracy, as I reject anything which impedes on the liberty of all.

The absurdity of the modern movements for “equality” is no secret which I alone have the ability to identify. Regressive, cultural authoritarian influence in our society is ubiquitous. They take it much further than Islamaphobia (which, a good case can be made for its existence, particularly on the right), as each group under the regressive umbrella has emerged its own language, that of privilege, oppression, trigger warningsmicroaggressions, safe-spaces, transphobia, misogyny, etc. To those of us who speak English, these pseudonyms and neologisms are intentionally, unintelligibly, childish and provocative. And, though there are absolutely marginal cases of these terms doing some intellectual work, they are largely vacuous, commonly referring to innocuous, insipid, bastardized versions of what these terms were intended for. That is, regressives abuse these words–they see them everywhere–and, thus, they lose their meaning almost immediately.

Douglas Murray argues that this abuse of language stems from the left’s “supply and demand problem” for bigotry. That is, there aren’t enough genuine racists in the West anymore to really make a case against. There aren’t enough raging sexists, homophobes, etc. Thus, we begin to hear the regressive language of a “microaggression” if I make a joke which steps on the toes of minorities. We begin to see college students cordoned off into “safe spaces” when they can’t handle elementary argument and disagreement. It’s intellectually embarrassing, linguistically inept, and–to those who suffer from actual discrimination, oppression, violence, and hatred–disgustingly insulting. The abuse with which regressives treat the language of oppression stultifies, rather than inspires, positive social change.

The skeletal structure of the regressive language is so hollow precisely because it is used too often, and often wrongly. Sexism is not a man asking a woman out at a bar; racism is not criticizing someone who happens to have black skin; homophobia is not being unattracted to your own gender. Yet, surprisingly, regressives smear these actions, those “privileged” people, with these pejoratives at every turn. This is an embarrassment in every sense of the word, for I pride myself on being a liberal, being someone who treats all equally and with respect. Regressives have dismantled the meaning of oppression and xenophobia such that we are beginning to see otherwise political allies disassociating themselves from liberalism, as such, hence the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. Oppression, for instance, is synonymous with a tyrant, despot, slave-driver, autocrat, dictator, etc. Being a recipient of social “privilege,” (which is in scare quotes despite my acknowledgement that such social forces do subtly remain in everyday life) does not equal these damning definitions of oppression. Generalizing about people is not an evil, despite what regressives will scream at you; if we can’t make generalizations, we can’t discuss anything at all. It’s insanity that, in the year 2015, I have to defend the position that men are not oppressing women in modern day America such that we are “slave-drivers.” But regressives now have entirely tipped the scales in the other direction such that I must dissent; minorities are treated with incessant privilege, and regressives–in defining men as oppressors–have by definition generalized against a gender. This point deserves no further justification.

Are we so cowardly as to not refute this utter nonsense? The answer is yes, we are terrified. Professionals are having their careers ruined, individuals are being harassed simply for expressing skepticism about these views (but so far we have no shootings. I guess that’s an anomaly in and of itself in modern day America. The regressives, to their credit, are remarkably non-violent), and there are increasingly larger scale penalties for ideological dissent on these matters. New York, for example, has now made it legal to fine someone up to $250,000 for misgendering a transsexual person. I understand the psychological rammifications of being misgendered, and I don’t intend to dismiss that; but it’s hard enough to remember faces and names, yet we’re now criminalizing ectopic pronoun usage. If this indicates the trendline of the political climate, then I think those of us who believe in the necessity of unfettered civil liberties have a lot to be wary of in the coming years.

The real problem with regressives is in their socio-political power–particularly in the news media and on college campuses. In my previous writings, I have characterized a common and weak evasion of argument called “the offence card.” When one invokes the phrase, “I’m offended,” or nowadays, “That’s problematic!” we know all reason has flown out the window. For, who are we to pontificate on an area of genuine dispute and ambiguity of interpretation if we haven’t heard both sides? Perhaps there are, in fact, measurable differences between sexes, genders, differing ethnicities, different abilities, etc. Regressivism, as things stand, fundamentally resists these possibilities. I don’t have a well-informed opinion on whether or not these differences exist. But the mere supplication of argument about these concerns is translated, through the foggy regressive lens, into bigotry and intolerance.

To be charitable, I am not determined to be a voice of authority on these issues of social justice; this brief essay is merely opening the door to the broader conversation (i.e. change my mind). I have seen this phenomena in my ideological neighborhood and I am tired of being evangelized about something I already practice and believe. I don’t need consent classes, for I am not a rapist. I don’t need to check my privilege (even though I just did?), for I do not take advantage of others. I am not a sexist simply for eyeing a woman or asking her out for a drink. I am not a racist because I don’t like the behaviors and qualities of someone who happens to be of a different race than myself. etc. Each one of these claims devolves into further, mad contortions of political correctness which I, frankly, will not waste more time accounting for. If my mere writing causes offence, I have done my job well.

I wonder if we have outgrown our infantile human tendency to hold historical grudges. The only reason for violence in many areas of the world are because of historical injustices. The only reason for the regressive left is that we used to actually oppress those members in which the cultural authoritarians, i.e. intersectional feminist community, broadly speaking, are advocating to now privilege and whose issues we prioritize. This kind of thinking, of assigning blame to someone for what their predecessors or progenitors committed, is absolutely untenable. I’ve written about the native Americans, how we killed nearly all of them, how we stole their land, their culture, their lives. That is actual oppression, that is actual evil, that is actual despotism. But when these atrocities happened, I was not born. My grandfather’s grandfather hadn’t even made it to America yet. In which way am I culpable for the crimes of my associative ancestors? Furthermore, am I morally responsible for cruelties which, if happening today, I would rail against? The urgency to abandon historical prejudice is equally salient for border conflicts, for religious conflicts, and this is currently most true for the regressives. We have not learned the lessons of history. The regressives are busy legislating about pronouns whilst we ignore the North Koreas of the world.

I have not denied the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in this essay. I am simply saying that we are at a point in society where these regressive groups have taken these ideas too far. There exists, simply, Murray’s supply and demand problem regarding the bigotry regressives are begging to find. Cultural Authoritarians, to my mind, are looking for excuses to be assholes to people who they think are assholes. The supply of racists, sexists, and homophobes is paltry; the demand for them is longer than a Black Friday (racism??!??!) line. The logical conclusion of safe-spaces, scholarships for seemingly everyone who isn’t a straight white man, having gender quotas in the workplace, etc. is evolving into a new form of “oppression.” To even propose that men could be marginalized is laughable to regressives; they often, hypocritically, hold no sympathies for men. It matters not to these “bleeding heart liberals” that men comprise over 90% of the prison and jail population, that men comprise nearly 80% of the homeless, that 75% of murder victims are men, etc. The regressive rhetoric flicks these statistics out the window like cigarette ash. And I worry that these groups will end up becoming the very despots they rail so hard and vocally against.

Usually, my philosophy for approaching disagreements of this kind is to first lay out what we have in common. Only then do we explore towards the realms of disagreement. Humanizing your interlocutor in a debate or an argument is fundamental if you’re serious about seeking what is true. Immediately closing off their point of view because they have a differently self-assigned label than yourself isn’t helpful. You aren’t going to change your mind if you don’t want it changed. But, conversely, you should not being jamming your ideology down someone else’s throat if you aren’t willing to have the same done in exchange. That’s what a conversation, argument, or debate, implies: multiple voices in the conversation.

To the regressives, I would brandish the fact that I am not your enemy, I am an ally. But being incessantly criticized and dismissed for how I am privileged, oppressing, demeaning, etc. for factors beyond my reasonable control (straight, white, cis-gendered, male) does not help start the conversation. It shuts our minds down rather than opening them up. You are a deplorable, disreputable hypocrite if you don’t think every human being has a voice to add to the conversation, a role to play in the quest for equality and social change.

Recently, I have been told that my opinion–my thoughts, ideas, beliefs, research, etc–had no value in the conversation of social justice. As a contrarian, this strategy naturally backfired and I had a long passionate exchange against a handful of friends online. I was defending attacks from all sides; rather than spam their social media feeds, I have chosen to pen this brief essay. Out of pure spite, I vow to write about this issue more frequently, specifically, and honestly in 2016. I understand minorities need a voice in civil discourse, and I would never deny that. Yet, the regressive tendency is to push my ideas aside–not on their merit–because we need to fill a gender or race quota. Treating ideas unequally is antithetical to equality, and if the regressives believed in civil liberties for even half a second, they would shudder at the vile hypocrisy of their constitutional cowardice.

In contrast to the regressives, I don’t care at all about your sex, gender, race, age, etc. It has no value whatsoever in the quest for figuring things out about the world. If a fresh idea, undermining tradition, works better and maps more accurately onto reality, then it must be apprehended in practice. Yet, above all, my philosophy is to divorce ideas from people. Ideas are criticizable, modifiable, and easily tossed aside when no longer useful. It’s a bad idea when we treat people in this manner (i.e. You are X, therefore Y).

2015 was the year victimhood and grievance culture peaked, where irrationality dominated the discourse, where fear drove decision-making. Next year will be better.

Reviving a Conscientious Conservatism

December 28, 2015

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In regards to Christopher DeMuth’s piece in Imprimis, titled “Reviving a Constitutional Congress,” I propose the following analysis and evaluation. I find this brief essay to be wrong in many ways, but not in its reasoning. I write a lot from an admittedly “liberal” point of view, so I am attending to a conservative writer who makes some good points, for a change. I shall give no summary, rather, I will assume my reader to be one who has read his article.

DeMuth makes some assumptions at the top of this piece regarding the nature of preference for Americans: We have a “distrust of power,” and a “taste for competition.” I squint at both of these assumptions, because I can think of everyday examples where we worship power–or at least covet it–and cases where we wish competition would evaporate–for selfish reasons. I don’t think these two qualities are generalizable like DeMuth wants them to be.

He writes that “A well-led government can present, at least for a time, a unified, dignified, self-confident public face.” I circled “well-led” here because, at the present, virtually none of our congressional representatives have any integrity. They are often bought-and-paid-for clowns in suits, vomiting vacuous rhetoric. Despite this, I, personally, have faith in the ability a “well-led” government can play. DeMuth, on the other hand, seems to have a suspicion of government entirely on principle.

I agree with him that we need to increase the visibility of political competition. In fact, this is one of my gripes with the fact that most Americans only vote once every four years. When I voted for Mayor this past year, there was virtually no depth, substance, or difference between the two candidates for office. One had an R, one had a D. If government is to have the optimistic role I wish it to play, then DeMuth is absolutely correct that we need to “expose” competition for all to see.

Furthermore, I think DeMuth is correct in that “checks and balances are important means of policing the corruption and abuse that arise whenever power is monopolized.” Of all politicians, I think Bernie Sanders pays most lip service to this issue, particularly in his incessant perseverations on the urgency with which we need to overturn the disastrous Citizens United supreme court case (allowing unlimited lobbying and money in politics). Unlike DeMuth, my view is that money in politics is what has effaced the checks and balances system. Power is now monopolized by the top 1%–I really believe this–and, thus, our political system has been transmogrified into an oligarchy. We can bicker across the political aisle all we want, but until that legislative embarrassment is rectified, nothing truly integrous will follow.

I diverge again with DeMuth’s assumptive tendencies when he asserts that Americans especially care about “limited government” and “humble leaders.” Again, obvious counterexamples arise: Limited government translates to lower taxes, a concern of the Republicans. But a single-payer healthcare system, for example, run by the government is extremely more cost-effective than the current mayhem we have (and had before Obamacare). Take the UK, for instance; they pay 33% of what we pay and report better health outcomes. Privatizing healthcare is, ethically and economically, as bad an idea as privatizing police officers, to my mind. DeMuth’s second assumption, here, is that we praise humility in our leaders. If this were true, we would not see Tuesday night’s GOP debate full of war cries and threats to “carpet bomb ISIS…to see if sand can glow” (Ted Cruz). Donald Trump would not be dominating the presidential field and the news media if we loved “humble leaders,” as DeMuth assumes. Thus, I think we have reason to ditch the generalizability of his claims, once again.

I agree that we are losing a balance of power. But, unlike DeMuth, I think civil liberties are only exercisable insofar that economic security is achieved. By that, I mean retaining jobs in America with higher wages, stronger unions, and pay grades reflective of production-progress. That being said, we are the richest nation in the history of the world for a reason: We can outsource labor for the jobs we don’t want to do. I don’t know how to solve this seemingly aporetic economic issue, but I don’t think concentrating the top 90% of wealth in the top 1% of earners–who mostly either inherit it or just move it around to make more money–is a good idea.

I’ll assent to DeMuth’s criticisms of the “executive usurpations” of President Obama. Though I agree with the main thrust of the Affordable Care Act, it is cumbersome and not Obama’s place to be installing. I would agree to this much, but again I am coming from the position of considering healthcare to be a fundamental human right, as FDR once did. I look back to the New Deal with relish. That was the path I wish America was still treading.

DeMuth’s distrust in government betrays ignorance of the significant work the EPA and OSHA are doing in American Society. They are not perfect, but they are necessary. I would not agree with his snide criticisms that these organizations are not involved in “real policy.”

I agree that we are in an era of congressional “self-enfeeblement” in which nothing is getting done. I regularly watch C-SPAN’s live coverage of various voting decisions and debates in congress, which reveal the incredibly capricious arbitration and clunky system we have. Instilling seniority in Congress is an interesting proposal that DeMuth makes, but I maintain my suspicions. We have seen, too often, threats of government shutdown over petty, fatuously misguided issues (Planned Parenthood comes to mind, which is an issue in which DeMuth is obviously ignorant).

A vast number of congressional representatives run unopposed and, thus, remain in office, largely because most people don’t even know when to vote. Most Americans can’t name their home state’s own representatives. That is a scary reality. Not only are our politicians bought out, they actively gerrymander voting districts and precincts, insulting democracy. At every turn, politicians make it harder and harder for democracy to be enacted. I consider myself to be Independent or, more specifically, a classical liberal/libertarian. It is an outrage that we have become a two-party system in which smarmy slimeballs such as Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, are seriously being considered for office. As DeMuth is pointing out, this is a fundamental, across-the-aisle issue.

Given this, I think the Senate has no role in regulating the internet, for example, nor even slightly veering from the constitution to justify their lobbyists’ ends. I think, like DeMuth, I am a civil liberties fundamentalist–a constitutional absolutist. If you throw away basic rights when they’re inconvenient, then you never really believed in them. That being said, I think DeMuth is wrong in arguing that the Internet is something we should have regulatory policy over. If our politicians were integrous, virtuous, and wise, I might change my mind; but, in the pockets of big business, I don’t trust them with my freedom of expression on the Internet.

When DeMuth criticized the admittedly abysmal approval rating of Obama (low 40s), I think he was unwise to ignore the fact that Bush, for instance, had an even lower approval rating (low 30s). Both parties are disappointing the majority of everyday Americans. But the heavy-handedness in which DeMuth uniquely besmirches Obama is hard to swallow.

 

The Five Step Plan:

  1. Congress retrieve its delegated powers, subjecting them to annual appropriations.
  2. Congress should exercise its appropriations power.
  3. Congress should relearn the art of legislating
  4. Congress should reconstruct an internal policymaking hierarchy
  5. The Senate should cut back to near abolition the filibuster and the hold.

 

1) I think my digressions above adequately address this point. Cure corruption, fix the news media, and then we’ll talk. Until then, this only treats the symptoms, not the illness.

2) Agreed.

3) Agreed.

4) I am suspicious of this premise, but I will grant that, if DeMuth’s proposal were to be implemented, we need to reestablish “devotion to broad political principles…and skill at articulation, debate, and the arts of legislative negotiation.” There, I could not agree more. We have lost democracy in this country precisely because of people’s unwillingness to be vigilant in the democratization and problematization of societal issues and structures. It is now socially acceptable to be politically uninformed and apathetic. One does not breach the topics of politics, sex, and religion, at the dinner table. I think this is unfortunate; they are cavernous topics. Given this, a true democracy would not need representatives and gradations of hierarchy. A truly democratic society would have legislators who simply carried out the wishes of the people. We somehow have abandoned the conversation and left it up to the echo-chamber of congress. That is a shame, to my mind. Thus, I don’t know if a “reconstruction” is what is needed, so much as a revitalization of Critical Pedagogy in public education, and a reinvigoration of political philosophizing among the general public.

5) The filibuster is something I don’t know enough about to claim anything authoritatively. I have seen a few filibusters–some long ones, I might add–and they are sometimes ridiculous. Sometimes they are important and dense with data, however. I’d have to read more into the filibuster to say more. But I agree with DeMuth that “government growth [has been reduced to] executive lawmaking, punctuated by spasms of legislation.”

 

Funnily enough, DeMuth calls attention to the criticism I would offer his piece, which is that our government functions so poorly precisely because of “extreme partisanship and Republican disarray.” But he tries to defend conservatism from a historical lens, which I think isn’t reasonable to add to his argument: our government structure is inherited by a long line of tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, etc. That’s a red herring if I’ve ever seen one; not to mention the fact that the Greeks would not recognize our government as “democracy.” It has evolved quite a bit from 2,500 years ago.

I think the importance of secular, peaceable, legitimate, representative government, reflexive to all citizens, is far too understated in DeMuth’s piece. He resists the merits of compromise, which, fairly, give neither party what they truly want. I have more faith in the good nature of compromise.

There is indeed a power imbalance between “identity over locality, rationalism over representation, and decision over deliberation.” I think this goes back to education, again. Politicians are appealing to everyone, including the least educated, most credulous of us all. That is a little scary when stepping back from our place in society. I try to fact check every claim made by a political candidate. The failure to both politically and morally triage issues is egregious in America and, thus, the problems DeMuth is illuminating arise. I would object to his piece on principle: There is a reason European socialist countries report happier lives; I am not so arrogant as to disavow something because of the “infallibility of democracy and capitalism,” echoing Cold War propaganda and red scares.

I think the fundamental disagreement I’d have with DeMuth’s argument is that it is one from tradition: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I deplore all insipid, lazy deference to something because of tradition alone. Tradition is the mechanism through which Progress is shackled. We, in our society, are terrified of being wrong–it’s embarrassing and leaves us vulnerable–but making decisions, especially political and ideological ones, based on fear, is an awful idea.

But, this being said, DeMuth also is advocating for a “classically liberal” government, which I am, in some sense, in favor of. I am currently reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” which is a foundational philosophical-political text for classical liberalism and libertarianism. I find myself agreeing far more with Mill than with DeMuth. But, I don’t think DeMuth is coming from an unfair place or making a bad argument. I happen to have different assumptions than him about the role of government, but I think we are both trying with each breath to ensure democracy and liberty.

 

Phenomenology of Poetry

October 21, 2015

Poetry is more than mere description, it is an expression of feelings and ideas. Poetry stitches together the self and the world. For example, in Charles Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, he seems to suggest that poetry is a “confusion” between reality and subjectivity. Arthur Rimbaud also returns to his assertion that to be a poet, one must become a “seer.” True poetry, then, both invents and clarifies ways of looking at the world. There must be, for Rimbaud, a “derangement of the senses” if a poet is to produce anything of worth. Given these views on poetry, is poetry in fact a confusion, distortion, and/or derangement of the senses? Furthermore, what is the relationship between poetry and reality?

Arthur Rimbaud’s Letter of the Seer contains humbling insights into the relationship between poetry and reality which complement Baudelaire’s own perspicacity on the matter. Rimbaud first boldly declares “subjective poetry” to be “horribly insipid” (1). On the face, this might appear to be a categorical condemnation of poetry’s lifelessness. But Rimbaud follows up his criticism by offering us an alternative: “objective poetry” which sees things “sincerely” (1). We now have a clear distinction of subjective and objective poetry. Rimbaud has identified the division: Subjective poetry is insincere and bland, while objective poetry is sincere and lively. Rimbaud gives us a clue as to what this objective poetry would look like when he writes, “It is a questioning of reaching the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.” (1). Objective poetry, then, interrupts the coloring of one’s intuitions, impressions, and interpretations; it gets to the heart of things without the self’s intervention. A true poet, for Rimbaud, has “knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it.” (3). Though it might seem self-evident, Rimbaud is advocating an unorthodox breed of poetry that is more scientific in nature.

So, the ideal poet for Rimbaud is an objective and sincere one. He argues that any true poet is a “seer” which necessitates a “long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses.” (3). Again, the word “rational” ascribes a scientific quality to this derangement. This poet embraces “All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.” (3). In other words, Rimbaud is describing a poet who does not flinch at the fluctuating fullness of reality. He writes that the ideal poet is “truly the thief of fire,” which suggests a willingness to travel to Hell in order to birth a new poetic creation. The ideal poet is exemplary precisely because “he reaches the unknown!”, he is “responsible for humanity” (3). The “unknown” is something to be invented or discovered. Poetry, then, has to produce something new, something humanity hasn’t already encountered. The paragon of poetry, for Rimbaud, is a “march toward Progress!” (3). Yet again, this is severely scientific. This poetic science is searching for, what Rimbaud calls, a “universal language” or a language “of the soul for the soul, containing everything” (3). This universal language is an invention, then, which calls out to the innermost recesses of the human heart. In this light, Rimbaud pays deference to Baudelaire, who he calls the “king of poets, a real god!” (4). Baudelaire has massively contributed to the poetic project of the human spirit, according to Rimbaud. It is prudent, then, to pry into Baudelaire’s writings on poetry to get clear on his understanding of the poetic relationship between reality and subjectivity.

In his Poem of Hashish, Baudelaire proposes how, under the influence, “you forget your existence, until you confuse the objects of your senses with the objects of the real world. You stare at a tree that harmoniously rocks in the breeze; in a few seconds what would for a poet be a natural comparison becomes a reality to you.” (51). There is an imbricated understanding here–an explicit overlap–between one’s subjectivity and reality. Through intoxication, one’s “conscious nature has disappeared” and “objectivity…follows a course of abnormal development.” (51). Intoxication, then, fulfills Rimbaud’s charge to “derange” the senses. Yet, Baudelaire clarifies how one will “forget” one’s existence, until one will “confuse” the senses with “the real world.” (51). This confusion compares objects external to oneself with one’s own objects of consciousness. Baudelaire’s description indicates how this, almost hallucinatory, effect is contingent upon his intoxicated, poetic musing. He writes that “what would for a poet be a natural comparison becomes a reality” for one experiencing this distortion between one’s symbolic understanding of reality, and reality itself (51). This indicates some kind of cognitive projection onto the surrounding landscape, a passionate and desirous longing to feel unity with the external world.

We can find support for this longing for unity in Baudelaire’s description of a nearby tree, where he writes how one under the influence of hashish will “endow” this tree with one’s “passions and desires” such that its “capriciously swaying limbs” become one’s own (51). This unity found in the tree metaphorically suggests that our own “passions and desires” are also capricious. We take up images and blur them to fit our own cares and concerns. When the boundaries between reality and subjectivity are blurred, true poetic creation is birthed; without incertitude, nothing new is tempting to be discovered. Returning to Rimbaud, discovery on the frontier is the paragon of poetics.

It’s easy to write off Baudelaire’s examination of the tree as a product of his intoxication at the time. But there’s more going on here, namely, how natural all this would seem to the poet. It took hashish for Baudelaire to realize the connections between himself and the tree, but for the poet it would be second nature. Perhaps this is how poetry can, itself, act as an incarnation of intoxication. Understanding how intoxication distorts the world, we can see that if poetry is an intoxicant, then it, too, distorts the world. It misrepresents and misshapes one’s understanding of the world independent of oneself. This is not a negative evaluation of poetry, however. In fact, if we described things as they are, we’d never have novelty or take interest in the fundamentals of our world.

 

Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradises. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publ. Group, 1996. Print.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Letter of the Seer. Lunberry printing press, English Dpt. 2015. Print. 🙂