Friday, June 3, 2016

The First Stone . . .

Lately my newsfeed has been full of threads expressing outrage over the unfortunate death of Harambe, with everyone howling for the blood of the mother whose child slipped into the enclosure.  Without knowing the full circumstances, the virtual mob has set itself up as judge and executioner while consoling itself with its display of moral superiority and outrage.  My newsfeed is a hail of stones with no Jesus to intercede.  And the death of the gorilla is only the most recent instance of social media’s lust for vengeance.  The primaries have been one long stream of stones being hurled from Left and Right, because social media encourages the expression of self righteous outrage rather than ideas; and the prevalence of ad hominem arguments, the preference for invective, the laziness of brief retorts, the circulation of misinformation, and the constant resort to angry resentment have eclipsed civil discourse and rational analysis to the point where fewer and fewer people are capable of exercising it.  Critical thinking requires practice, and the necessary skills will disappear along with the civil attitudes if we continue to indulge these bad habits—habits, by the way, that profit the demagogues, the Super PAC funders, the NRA, ALEC, the social media moguls, and the press.  Politics is a rough and tumble business, and a bit of piss and vinegar is often a bracing element of any good debate, but when all you have to offer is vitriol, the debate serves no purpose other than to give you some cheap personal catharsis and provide massive profits for those who run the media.  As the president of CBS observed, “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, . . . The money’s rolling in, this is fun.”  Let’s face it, we are being played by these ringmasters of orchestrated resentment, just like the Roman plebs filling the Coliseum.  What’s worse, it’s all circus and precious little bread.

So many people disparage Trump for his schoolyard tactics, but so many critics of such behavior behave just like him.  Yesterday, on a thread I posted dealing with a typical webzine article—long on rhetoric, short on substance—about the schism in the Democratic Party, an outraged Clinton supporter referred to Cornel West as “Brother house nigger West.”  Pretty illiberal language for a person whose biography page leads with this self-definition: “Liberal.”  West himself has gone in for plenty of invective and ad hominem attacks, and it’s a damn shame; but that doesn’t mean anyone should follow suit and call him a nigger.  No one in this media circus is free of blame, whether the stone is thrown from the Right or the Left.  The obvious misogyny behind much of the criticism of Clinton from both Parties is reprehensible; if you don’t like the candidates there are plenty of substantive points on which you can task them—and that goes for all the candidates, Sanders included.  (After all, these people are politicians, not saviors, so let’s not idolize them either.)  The illiberality and incivility that rule social media discourse are turning all of us into petty, querulous Trumps, utterly convinced of our own moral rectitude and disdainful of substantive discussion.  Everyone is anxious to throw the first stone at whatever new offender appears on the horizon of the newsfeed, regardless of whether we actually know anything about the matter.  And nowadays there is no end of stones.

Criticism in a democracy is necessary but, like any weapon, it needs some control.  There’s a big difference between legitimate criticism and puerile, Trump-style condemnation.  If you are disinclined to be tolerant, then think of it as a question of self-preservation.  If no one among us is without sin, then no one is safe from the stones, and heaven help you if the collective wrath of the virtual mob turns on you.  But even if your immediate well being is not threatened, your social well being is inevitably degraded when our discourse is dominated by the groaning and shrieking of trolls.  Who wants to live in an uncivil society? 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Polymathematical pondering . . .

We are all polymaths by nature, though few of us ever develop all our faculties. We are compelled to ignore or rank all our interests in favor of one overarching endeavor which, we are told, will lead to "success." As a result, other faculties atrophy. And imagination withers; its abundant energies are narrowly channeled and lose much of their vitality. We become near-sighted and must wear the spectacles of social convention. We fit ourselves in and we adopt a label, we make a name for ourselves, so we can answer the question, "what do you do?" And we worry constantly whether we are doing enough, and life becomes a grind . . .

But for the polymath, life is never a grind, it is an open field of natural marvels and tantalizing questions; it is a playground where curiosity is given scope and imagination is empowered. The attitude of the polymath is the greatest tonic for melancholy that I know of. 

People say, oh but you must specialize if you are going to get anywhere -- without stopping to think where it is one must go and what makes for a worthy destination. Of course, if you want to be a great musician, for example, you must practice five hours a day, as Artie Shaw once told a fan who said he would like to play the clarinet as well as Artie did. But scratch a genius and you invariably find a polymath. Part of the genius of being a genius is knowing that imagination does not function like a one-track mind. What gives you vision enough to be great at any one thing also gives you eyes to see a whole lot more . . .

Robert Heinlein once wrote, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Whose American Life?

What is it about Sarah Vowell that makes me cringe when I hear her voice scratching like chalk across the board?  Is it the peculiar dissonance created by her little-girl, monotonous nasal whine and the precocious humor of her observations?  Is it that she never really manages to get beyond that precocity, the precocity of an odd little darling performing for the grownups?  Is it the compulsive reaching for the next flip quip to keep the interest in her rambling and glib essays alive?  Or is it the deceptively broad range of cultural allusions, mixing high and low as every hipster must who would write for the self styled edgy webzines, belied by the callow understanding of human experience which is the inevitable result of her inability to understand anything except through the lens of her own self absorption?  This is a person whose understanding of politics and history is achieved through minor epiphanies bestowed on her via the miracles of yuppie consumerism:

            Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much.

That is Vowell to a T  (pardon the pun).  The history of post-Columbian globalization is reduced to a clever aperçu capped off by a glib punchline.  Sarah Vowell is the reductio ad absurdum of the New Journalism that arose just before she was born.  Instead of the punk prose of deranged reporters like Thompson or Herr, who were intent on looking deep down the abyss, we get the urban hipster staring into the froth of her extra grande café mocha and lamenting the unquiet spirits of those who died so that Starbucks customers might live – and pay too much for their overhyped coffee.  In the end the thing about Vowell’s American histories and her sympathies for the downtrodden Other whom History has stomped and kicked aside, is that they are, ultimately, relentlessly self referential.  It is the boomer bourgeoisie at its most annoying – cosseted, precocious, eagerly identifying with whatever Other is in fashion but never actually spanning the gap, a bit guilty about its privileges, but too comfortable to do anything about it, except contemplate its own disquiet.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mad as Hell

Watching the news on TV is to subject oneself to a constant stream of fear mongering. Ebola is here! Illegal Immigrants are threatening our Border! Black people are rising up in Ferguson! Terrorists are beheading people!

The appearance of a few cases of Ebola within our borders is a non-story, but the TV news stations obsess over it, filling airtime with flatulence, forcing it into importance. And why? There are plenty of real stories out there that go unreported. But the media's purpose is not to report news, much less analyze it responsibly. Instead, its purpose is to inculcate beliefs, well worn beliefs that through their reiteration resist interrogation -- right wing, left wing, it comes to the same end, because the Tube reduces all points of view to a continuum of "information" that merely reaffirms what you assume you already know or fear. The pernicious consequence of this fear mongering is that it works to disarm the population by undermining its belief in the power of its agency. So instead of working toward change, we change only the channel, and watch yet another rerun of The Terminator.

It might be a good idea to inscribe on all television sets these words: "The only thing to fear is fear itself."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Your Reward in Heaven

Wonder is the basis of worship
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (I,10)

You are all stardust. 
You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded . . .
The stars died so that you could be here today. 
Lawrence Krauss

The ancient enmity between science and religion hides an impish affinity.  The awe that inspired simian beings, cowed by the immense vault of stars above them, to develop theology was also implicit in the nascent science postulated by the likes of Democritus, Anaximander, Ibn Yunus, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Zhang Heng, and others whom we are just now beginning to recognize, such as the unnamed Africans who developed the use of fractals.  Scientists are among the greatest heretics, but they are also Nature’s greatest acolytes, faithfully interpreting the mysteries of the oracle.  The awe that science inspired, however, posed a threat to the theology governing our thinking for centuries, because it offered no obvious niche to house human aspirations, no reflection in nature’s pool to assuage our vanity.  The terrifying, vengeful and imperial god of the Old Testament was still less terrifying than a universe in which he played no part.  Because even a Sky God, aloof, sublime, capriciously malevolent or beneficent, provided mankind with a kind of mirror in which the human scale was confirmed as a measure for the universe – this god after all was just man writ large.  The order of things remained consolingly anthropocentric.  But Science has displaced Man and God.  Its arguments gradually acquired such force and cogency that by the nineteenth century the philosophers pronounced God’s death.  The twentieth century simply provided an extended autopsy.  The twenty-first century, perversely zealous, has busied itself with reviving the corpse, setting the resurrectionists at each other's throats.
Entrenched beliefs don’t die along with the objects of their genesis.  Nietzsche’s übermensch, the new Adam who would recreate our values and reinvigorate culture, has indeed appeared among us, several times, but we have been slow to grasp their meaning.  What apostles can compare with Darwin and Einstein?  What gospel is more compelling than the great news of Evolution, the Curvature of Time and Space, the perpetuity of Energy, the infinitude of the universe, and the creation ex nihilo of the Big Bang?  The human imagination never conceived anything as marvelously intricate, terrifyingly vast, richly paradoxical, or fantastically sublime as this universe, of whose magnificent dimensions we have come to learn but a few.  In the wake of such ideas, one would think that religion could be regenerated, placed on a solid foundation, endowed with a new scope, and charged with a renewed respect and even adoration of Nature; but instead mankind persists in its slavish idolatry of paltry anthropomorphic schemes of creation, Intelligent Design, and, for the more secular minded, technological utopias like the Singularity.  The result is a persistent belief in the instrumentality of all Nature, with Man the Creative Brain as its motive force – not Woman, notice, because this would threaten the patriarchal norm of the anthropomorphism that animates all these schemes.  (Pachamama nonetheless bides her time, expecting her ritual recognition.)

Through us – and no doubt countless other beings scattered through the galaxies, as well as some of the species who ride along with us on this tilting ball – Nature becomes conscious of its laws, which seem to provide little quarter for our selfish aspirations, and therein lies our tragedy – and our comedy too, for we all slip on the banana peels that fate litters about us.  Yet even if the means whereby Nature achieves consciousness are ultimately inconsequential to its ends, we should not despair.  We are happy accidents, the astonished beneficiaries of a bit of Nature’s grace, heirs to a fortune whose riches were not intended for us.  The great good news here, the true gospel of Nature, is that Necessity is not so iron a law as we suppose: just as the Big Bang heralded a universe in which Chance converts Causality into its playfellow, so too each life is a playing field in which possibilities and improbabilities abound.  Error is not so much a sin as a signpost pointing a different direction.
And this is, perhaps, where Science falls short and betrays its inability to accommodate religious feeling.  Occam’s razor whittles Nature down; from a great tree, it carves a divining rod (the capitalist has his own sort of razor: with a power saw he whittles old forests into lumber).  The crude Darwinist sees nothing in the plumage of a bird but evidence of a generalized will to survive and pass on its genes.  The redness of a poppy is merely bee bait.  In this the scientist is no different from Wilde’s cynics, who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Nature is perhaps an artiste manqué, whose palette of colors has fascinated philistines for the wrong reasons. 

There is nothing so valuable as unnecessary things – tribal rug weavers knew this, as they toiled on crude looms over their engsis and asmalyks.  The true value of those objects lay not in their function as rugs or coverlets, nor in their value as a dowry; – no, they were, simply and ultimately, the patiently woven dreams in wool of the woman’s sense of beauty, and beauty, like art, is quite useless. That is its saving grace.  Their use as rugs was simply a dodge in order to assert the supremacy of beauty in the lives of nomadic people whose love of gardens sanctified their desert existence.  And yet, it would be a mistake to think that the luxury of beauty and the aesthetics of Nature are mere excess, an inconsequential by product of more exigent and important processes.  Is the mockingbird a mere ventriloquist, or a jazz player riffing on birdsong?  Or both?  Who is to say that the mockingbird does not delight in his mockery?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mother Nature's Son

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
Geoffrey Hill, Genesis.

The thing that defines humanity and separates it from the host of other animals on the planet is not just our opposable thumbs, our bipedal stature, our use of symbols, our society and culture – these things are shared by various other animals, although in rudimentary forms.  What distinguishes us is our divided self, because we are at once a part of nature and apart from it.  Unlike the society and culture of our closest simian relatives, ours have grown so complex and enveloping that we have dissociated ourselves from the rest of nature, and we live primarily in an environment of our own making, an environment that is becoming increasingly virtual.  Like any other animal, we have bodies, urges, instincts, frailties; but we have gotten displaced, dissociated, disembodied to the point that we have a hard time recognizing them or connecting them to rest of our social existence.  They are a problem for us, either to be repressed or attenuated. 

     This creates in us an unquenchable nostalgia for Edens and pastoral utopias that never really existed.  We invest these fantasies with the virtues of harmony, simplicity, organic unity, and moral authenticity.  The idyll was a Roman invention.  Roman writers liked to contrast the simplicity and purity of country life to the corruption of urban life.  But we owe our present reverie of rustic virtues more to the Romantic notions of Rousseau, who made an enemy of culture itself, a thing the Romans would never have done.  They understood that culture, otium, had genuine advantages over nature.  As Hobbes famously observed, life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short.  Animals are beautiful, and even loving, but they are murderous (one quality in which we can honestly claim to excel our fellow Earthlings).  We choose instead to celebrate the idyllic connection between human kind and nature in terms of a pacific vision of companionability.  We are fellow travelers on spaceship Earth (and we are too, but we have obliged the rest of creation to ride in 3rd class).

     Our institutions and customs embody this yearning to close the gap: pets, zoos, aquariums, animal fables, even, for that matter, research labs, are all practices that assert our fundamental connection to the animal kingdom.  The transposition of animals into human settings secretly implies that the door to cross back is still open for us too. Thus we indulge a host of benign representations of humans swimming with whales and dolphins, walking the African veldt with lions, riding horses, and generally enjoying all the benefits of the social life in a state of nature.  The centaur is not a grotesque and unnatural prodigy; it is a sign of plaintive wish fulfillment, a metaphor for our desire to be at one with the animals.  And while I dislike the false sentimentality of these stories we tell ourselves, this picture of Edenic peace shorn of blood and hunger and strife (and let it be said that George Adamson, unlike the millions of readers, including myself, of Born Free, was no sentimentalist, because he embraced the “terrible beauty” of nature without idealizing it), I cannot ignore the bitter loss it conveys or the poignant desire that it signals for a home in the order of things.  We are all Mother Nature’s prodigal sons who dream of a homecoming we will never know.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Let Us Make a Name"

Naming is a faulty business, and not just because words are arbitrary signifiers.  When it comes to naming, the intelligence community – a phrase every bit as ironic if not purely oxymoronic as military intelligence – proceeds as if it were Locke’s lunatic doppelganger.  They are not so different from that other bunch of lunatics who sought to “make a name” for themselves on the ancient plains of Shinar.  The idea of a surveillance state, which converts the whole of society into a virtual panopticon, is not just a threat to the democratic values outlined in the Constitution and purportedly embodied by the State it envisions; it is the pursuit of self annihilation.  Stellar Wind and Prism – odd misnomers, if you think about it – ought to be renamed Babel, because the same impulses drive them as drove the building of that all seeing Tower in the sky.  If democracy is to have any value, it must be opposed to all types of absolutism, and thus the totalizing impulse behind any quest for knowledge must be viewed with mistrust.  Omniscience always involves omnipotence as its evil twin.  The Knowledge of Good and Evil is a curse not because knowledge in itself is bad, but because it makes us conscious of our own limitations while tempting us to exceed them, though we know that the one thing differentiating us from God, whom we fashion in our image, is that the human condition is defined by error rather than infallibility.  It is this dilemma that rules our days in the valley of shadows.  What Christians call Original Sin is really just Error.  Knowledge comes to us through error, we learn gropingly, and for that reason we must never become too sure of ourselves or confide too much in the partial and partisan understanding we have of things.  The Greeks called that particular sin Hubris.

     Very often this transgression of limits is heroic, as when Prometheus brought us fire, or Copernicus toppled the whole edifice of human thought built on the Ptolemaic scheme of the universe.  The artist above all, as Nietzsche argued, transgresses the limits of the known through the power of the imagination.  Such transgressions are necessary but costly. They tear up our world by its roots (hence it is figured as an expulsion from the garden).  The loss of that provisional unity afforded by the glue of consensual belief, time and again, is often interpreted as a reiteration of the Fall, an agony of sweat and blood and tears.  Ages of change are ages of anxiety.  But that loss is our salvation, for the only truth that makes life tolerable and fruitful is a subtle matter of multiple perspectives and polyphony, of irony and paradox.  To the extent that truth is the property of no single ideology, institution, or tyrant, it is a very democratic force, and like the ideal democracy it is a delicate balance of competing ideas whose value lies partly in their opposition.  It is a tension rather than a uniformity.

     Some trespasses are necessary in order that other more tyrannical and overreaching ones be avoided.

     That the builders of Babel should be scattered and confounded by the proliferation of tongues is not a tragedy but a great lesson in the virtue of humility.  The truth is, we are better off in our fallen condition because it gives scope to the range of multiple desires and aspirations that animate us, while preserving us from the sin of hubris.  Seen from this perspective, doubt and uncertainty are not signs merely of ignorance or blindness; they are the ground of our imaginative exploration of the world and the impetus for creative, rather than destructive, endeavors.

     Where the government and its intelligence institutions err is in their belief that, like the Pope, they cannot err, that they guard against error, and that they do so by scrupulously adhering to legal limits and the principles of due process.  Yet a secret court of law is a contradiction in terms; FISA cannot be a democratic institution.  When authority assumes the mantle of rectitude, its subjects are wise to see past the Emperor’s clothes.  Inevitably, such surveillance not only defines good and bad, right and wrong, licit and illicit, in a unilateral and thus virtually absolute manner, but it seeks to create a totalizing yet exclusionary edifice in which certain values unquestionably prevail over others, and the fundamental nourishing values of the spirit go begging.  That is a tower of Babel for our times.  Its entire structure is at odds with the wayward human spirit.

     Lawrence Krauss once famously stated that “every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust.”  A stellar wind, therefore, is one that spreads the elements like seed on the fertile ground of space.  It is an odd name for a surveillance program, which, to the contrary, works against the free propagation of animating ideas.  Prism, likewise, is a curious name, since it refers to an object that refracts light and manifests the multiplicity of light waves.  No, I recommend that the spooks give their program a name that jives with the hubristic, self aggrandizing, and fantastic nature of the enterprise, one that implies the folly of its towering ambition and misbegotten goals.  One that heralds its inevitable doom.