Archive for November, 2011

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Making Connections

November 29, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

One of the self-indulgent joys of literature is “making a connection”; that is, reading a line in one book that reminds you of a line in another book. Of course this recognition means nothing, and unless one is talking to another bookish fellow, it is probably better the similarity not be mentioned.

This morning, for example, in my rereading of My Antonia, I read the scene about Otto Fuchs, the narrator’s grandfather’s hired hand, making a casket for Mr. Shimerda, an immigrant, who killed himself because  of “homesickness.” Fuchs makes the casket in the kitchen of the Burden house (the kitchen is in the basement). After figuring on paper, measuring on the planks and making marks on them, he is finally ready to begin work. “The hardest part of my job’s done,” he says. “It’s the head end of that comes hard with me.” And then the man, almost joyfully, begins his work. He knows what he is to do and he knows how to do it well–and do it well he shall.

Says Jim, “All afternoon, wherever one went in the house, one could hear the panting wheeze of the saw or the pleasant purring of the plane. They were such cheerful noises . . . .”

Immediately when I read the above excellent description of the carpenter at work, the “wheeze of the saw” and the “purring of the plane,” I thought of Whitman’s line:

The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp.

Randall Jarrell says that even though we can dismiss a lot Whitman’s poetry, nobody who has any affection for poetry and language can decry the above line, diminish its beauty, the stunning and apt metaphor.

Once, some years ago, when we were having some work done at the house, I watched with great interest two carpenters work in my backyard, where they measured and marked and cut, both men knowing precisely what they were doing, working easily through the day, talking with each other, both men, so it seemed to me, content, somehow out of time, free of time’s restraint, free of the mind’s obsession with directing the eyes to the clock. Stealing from Robert Frost I can say that the fact was the sweetest dream their labor knew. Becker knows this truth as well. A man preoccupied with what he’s doing relieves himself of brooding on the human predicament.

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Libertarianism?? No thank you!!

November 18, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

The nice folks at the Cato Institute have a new website for us promoting their libertarian ideology (www.libertarianism.org). Oy… Well, like many others, I also went through a libertarian phase back in early days of moral development, so I remain at least interested enough to view the introductory lecture that leads off this website. There, the lecturer summarizes libertarian philosophy as “Each person has the right to live his (sic!) life in any way he (sic!) chooses, so long as he (sic!) respects the equal rights of others.”

It made me smile to remember those heady days of youthful enthusiasm, then that would have been so convincing and full of wisdom to me. Now, however, I see that there are at least two major hidden assumptions in it that are clearly, demonstrably wrong, and fatal to the philosophy itself.

The first hidden assumption is that each individual has approximately the same amount of power in society, that is, the ability to executive his/her choices. If that were true, this philosophy would make sense. If that were not true, however, then this philosophy quickly reduces to the statement that those who have more power and ability to execute their choices are morally justified in doing so. Furthermore, it implies that less powerful people, pooling the power they do have (which is basically the power of numbers) so as to collectively counterbalance the power of those who wield superior power individually, are not morally justified in doing so. They are acting “tyrannically,” to employ a favorite term of libertarians.

I take it for granted that empirical investigation would lead all thinking people quickly to the conclusion that there is not anything even approaching an equal distribution of power among individuals in our society (or any other, as far as that goes, not even small voluntary associations.)

The second hidden assumption is that each individual functions within a sort of atomistic sphere of “personal space” in which his/her actions have no impact on others. Thus, the implied social contract of mutual respect offered by libertarianism is, “you stay in your bubble and I’ll stay in mine.”

This is a highly ideologically constructed view of reality, to say the least. In the social sciences, we mostly adhere to a very opposite view, a view that is usually called an “eco-systems” perspective. Even in the hermetically sealed social science, that is, economics, there is increasing dissatisfaction with this view any time one of its practitioners tries to be interdisciplinary (for example, the behavioral economists), though preference for the autistic view remains strong because it yields the kind of “clean data” economists love, whether or not that data has any relevance to actually existing conditions of life.

In the eco-systems view, there are no isolated spheres of action. Any and all actions are understood to have effects and repercussions throughout the entire system. The effects may be large or small, but this has mostly to do with what one decides to measure and the tools employed to do so (and most effects and repercussions are unknown entirely because they aren’t even on the radar screen of our attention at the moment – we only recognize them retrospectively, sometimes decades later, and wish we had acted differently back then.)

One might argue that the eco-systems perspective is also a highly ideologically constructed view, and I would agree. But I would also argue that it corresponds much more closely than the libertarian alternative to the current understanding of our environment found in the natural and life sciences, and is also much more compatible with a religious/sacred/spiritual worldview than its libertarian opposite.

Obviously, if you conceive of the world we live in as one of constant interaction with effects, repercussions and consequences reverberating through the entire ecosystem for perhaps decades to come, you quickly arrive at a very different understanding of private property rights than outlined in current libertarianism. It’s no small point to notice that, in a world of now seven billion people, it is exactly the area of property-use-promoting-personal-gain as opposed to property-use-promoting-general-welfare that quickly takes front-and-center focus in any libertarian definition of “freedom.”

I would only invite to ask which view (libertarian or eco-systems) corresponds more closely with a scientifically-honed sense of empirical reality. The answer is obvious. Libertarian philosophy is valuable, at best, only as an adolescent phase through which one passes on the way to incorporation into a more well-rounded political adulthood.

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Too Much Life

November 15, 2011

TDF Guest James Lieberman

Earth now holds 7 billion people. Some of us can recall when it was only 3 billion (1960). The human population on earth reached one billion in 1800. Estimates have us reaching 10 billion by the end of this century–a ten-fold increase in three centuries. Only 1 in 6 enjoy a high standard of living. At least 1 in 6 do not have adequate clean water. Many more are poor, hungry and sick. In Africa it appears that population control is more a consequence of disease, famine, accident, and war than family planning. Some religions teach that unearned suffering is redemptive and that’s fine if one believes it, but not if it’s deemed sufficient consolation for the poor, hungry, sick, and maimed. Too much life–human bodies occupying (not really sharing) the planet–is killing us. Denial of global warming seems to be a form of death-denial.

More details and U.S./World comparison at Population Connection online.

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Don’t Just Talk the Talk…Walk the Walk, You @#$!!**@#$

November 8, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

I am flying back from Toronto and have been contemplating our use of signals, symbols, signs and space, and how these act together musically, merge, emerge, collapse, and cascade into odd sculptures we often assume we understand, but are both as crazy and as patterned as the view in a kaleidoscope. [The inventor of the Kaleidoscope coined the name from the Greek in 1817, literally– “observer of beautiful forms”, may we all be kaleidoscopic.] Of course, we share a language with the Canadians, as well as most of a hemisphere and lots of aspects of general and high couture. But I began to doubt the depth and substance of this Northern Mitwellt when my faith in the natural order of things was shaken by an ungodly delay at customs after recurrent experiences  of Canadians ramming their bodies into mine as I tried to traverse Toronto city streets. The same thing happened in the quaint tourist town of Niagara on the Lake, Gateway to the Falls. [I wanted to write something here about Viagra on the Lake, Gateway to the expletive deleted, but there is no reasonable occasion for it, save the love of aborted limericks.] This has happened to me before in American cities, being forced to deal with these human battering-rams, and wondered why it was, that one (that one being me) could walk down crowded streets in Manhattan, Paris, Cairo, and Mexico City and never seriously collide with anyone or anything, except, in the case of Manhattan, where you are likely to collide with the opportunity to buy pretzel Rollex on the cheap. You certainly can’t say it’s because NYC is the more genteel locale.

I was offered an explanation by a true anthophile [in biology this term is also used as an adjectival modifier for various parasites, but here I refer to that meek breed that  Jesus spilled the beans about – may they indeed inherit the earth, which is the power-lust behind their dirty little conspiracy of masochistic sabotage of rational hedonism] that it all had to do with the Canadian demographic. Canada’s population is hopelessly doomed to bitter conflict due to division into groups with conflicting loyalties – namely Anglophiles, Francophiles, Freethinkers that despise one or both of these groups, and are therefore aligned with the Americans, and finally, sundry indigenous peoples and folks that even Canadians can recognize as foreign. [East Indians are not foreign, definitively Anglophile in orientation. You can’t trust Africans, they are as likely to be Frankophile or pro-American as anything else]

Here’s my anthrophilic friend’s atomic theory of homoculi in motion on sidewalks: Anglophiles insist on the affectation of walking on the left because they know the British drive on the left, and the Frankophiles stick to the right (oddly enough like their decedents on the Isles of  Greater Normandy). Freethinkers (really pro-American at heart) are dedicated to doing the opposite of what they think some despised group is doing. All of this takes a certain amount of mind reading and influence at a distance, [what we used to call magic until we found that electrons really do it].

Canadians for the full integration, as rare as ghost neutrinos, hold the middle ground, while the First Nations people are exercising any ancestrally rite (read right) of passage urged on by the spiritus loci, making them sort of like quantum jumpers, but somewhat less predictable. But, I protested, to my anthrophilic buddy, I have never had any body bang into me point blank in any of the international cities I mentioned, or on any of the few Indian towns I’ve been in here in the states, where, I have to admit, I have never seen a crowded sidewalk. Most folk just amble in the road in harmony with the weaving winds and with the same Honda pickups, RAV 4s, and Chevy trucks folks amble around in harmony with in Appalachia, only country ‘n western style.

Now, the folks who were running into me on this Canadian holiday of mine (I was not running into them, of course) were usually not built for intimidation. Some were panty- waist-sized metrosexuals, others were twenty-something bulimics imagining that they were laid off until the next fashion season. Others had a good solid thud to them, and some had a hollow sound that made me wonder if they had any innards at all. I know its unmannerly at best to speculate on another person’s innards, but when a thick side of Canadian comes ramming into you belly-first, your own belly is astonishingly orca-like in sonar capacity (however many inches of sufficiency or deficiency of orca girth). Instantaneously, you know more than you want to know about this person, such as how many hours had transpired since lunch when they decided to take you on, and you know with such exactitude that on the busiest sidewalks there is no need to carry a watch, or for the truly discerning, no need to buy the morning paper. [Read not the Times, Read the Tines. Rough paraphrase of Thoreau’s “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”.]

I have read in no less an authority than the NYT that the way to avoid such sidewalk communions is to never make eye-contact with the approaching obstacle, since these are no mindless ice-bergs to be steered around or plowed through, but thinking, reacting, spontaneous minds, that once aware of a similarly endowed consciousness in their proximity, cannot help but to engage in some kind of battle for dominion for the space defining you as someone who is not them. The most benign battle is that to be the one who most deftly avoids collision, while not yielding to the adversary a mote of recognition (although bashing the other fellow’s head in with your tightly rolled NYT or Guardian is another ploy).

If all this seems trivial, dear reader, please recall that it was Sophocles himself who first took up the feather or stylus and gave us that grave and fateful tale of Oedipus meeting a man on the road to Thebes (or from Thebes from the other guy’s perspective).  In those days, the road was no broader than a city sidewalk, and sort of a foot pounded clot of mud with a moat of muddy slush on each side, which in this early phase of the Carbon Era, contained along with any and everything else, the solid CO2 left over by horsepower, amply reeking of methane. Neither man yielded–no doubt eye contact was at fault–and the death and crowning of Kings, marriage to a queen-mom, bilateral self-enucleation, and psychoanalysis ensued. Freud himself, recalling that Jews of his father’s generation were forced to step off the planks for any approaching Gentile notable, may have had his own dog in this battle for the sidewalk.

Of course the internet teaches me more than I wanted to know. It’s being called Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Sidewalk Rage, and at the University of Hawaii a researcher has created a Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale, with these items:

·       Acting in a hostile manner

·       Feeling stressed and impatient

·       Walking much faster than the rest of the people

·       Not yielding

·       Walking on the left of a crowded passage way, when most are on the right

·       Muttering at other pedestrians

·       Bumping into others

·       Not apologizing

·       Making insulting gestures

·       Hogging or blocking the passage way

·       Expressing rage at drivers as well i.e. throwing objects or yelling

·       Feeling engaged at other pedestrians and enjoying thoughts of violence

What this doesn’t capture are all the people who pretend that this is never a problem, that either people always yield to them (intimidators) or that they are above it all (deniers and meek ‘n mild-ers) and just couldn’t condescend to acknowledge the annoyance.

As for me, I have resorted to carrying an umbrella or walking stick lance-style in the crook of my arm. I now accept that walking in populated areas is the modern plebian version of medieval jousting. I start off with my lance in the nook of my left arm and away from any vital organ (American conventionalist that I am) ready to steer off anyone veering too much into my lane, but I stay on the alert to switch to the other arm to deal with those who imagine a sidewalk shoulder on my right or who really want to play chicken.

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Occupying Room 231

November 4, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The recent Occupy Wall Street movement has afforded a new way of getting Becker’s ideas to a broader audience. My regular classroom is room 231, and when the Occupy movement began, I jokingly told the classes that I was occupying room 231. This was amusing and consistent, insofar as I regularly present progressive thinkers who challenge the perspectives of a fairly conservative student body. Upon further reflection, I realized that it was not merely amusing, but entirely appropriate. Becker explained, and social psychology has confirmed, that humans naturally invest themselves psychologically and emotionally in symbol systems that give them a sense of immortality. In the film Flight From Death, the law is cited as one such example. Similarly, Wall  Street and the ‘guiding hand of the market’ may well reflect not only an economic system but also a symbol system as well. It remains to be seen how all this will play out, but I cite it in class as an example of what we can expect more of, namely, social dislocation and the attendant disorientation and potential violence that may ensue as our culture shifts to new energy sources, local solutions and more technologically mediated communities. Divining the whys and wherefores of these changes is beyond the scope of this blog or even my classroom.  The point here is that Ernest Becker has given us a heads up on where to look for the irrational, the emotional, the potentially explosive. We should look to where our collective immortality projects are symbolically incarnated. As they are challenged, altered and revamped, we  need to be able to counter emotion with reason. The late, great REM famously said, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” If we want to ’feel fine’ about that, we’d do well to pay attention to Ernest Becker.

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Imperfect Sympathies

November 1, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Late yesterday afternoon I pulled from the shelves my copy of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, leafed through it, and settled upon the essay “Imperfect Sympathies.” After reading the essay, I am not sure how I should respond to it: whether I should applaud Lamb for his honesty, his eschewing of the easy solution, or whether I should find his views ugly. I am equivocating here. I know exactly how I feel about Lamb’s words in this essay.

He begins the essay by quoting from Browne’s Religion Medici: “I am of a constitution so general, that it consorts and sympathies with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather idiosyncrasy in anything. Those narrow prejudices do not touch me, nor do I behold with prejudice the French, Italian, Spaniard, or Dutch.”

Lamb accuses Browne of being “mounted upon the airy stilts of abstraction.” Lamb admits the can “feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess. I can look with no indifferent eye upon things or persons.” He is, he says, “in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices.” He says frankly that he can be a friend to a “worthy man who upon another count cannot be my mate or fellow. I cannot like all people alike.”

He says, for example, that, though he has tried all his life, he cannot like Scotchmen, and he assumes they cannot like him. He spends several pages explaining, cleverly I might say, his problem with the Scotch.  From what I can glean, Lamb finds the Scotch imperfect thinkers, dogmatic, blind to nuance and irony and humor, absurdly literal. (Here I recall that Dr. Johnson was markedly anti-Caledonian, though one senses in Johnson a bit of acting, as if he feels a need to bolster the notion of himself as a curmudgeon.)

On Blacks Lamb says, “In the Negro countenance you will often meet with strong traits of benignity.” He says he has always felt “tenderness towards some of these faces–or rather masks–” he has met in the street. His comment about masks is a perspicacious one. Then Lamb closes the matter about Blacks: “But I should not like to associate with them, to share my meals and good nights with them–because they are black.” I must say Lamb’s attitude toward African-Americans is much like that of many of the white Southern establishment had during the days of segregation. Men who would never cheat or harm a black man would not share a meal with him. I recall someone’s telling me that if he and a black man were in a room when night fell and the room contained only one bed, he would flip a coin with the other fellow for the right to sleep in the bed but that he would not share the bed.

Lamb, as we might imagine, has no use for Quakers. They are, he says, “given to evasion and equivocation.” Lamb disdains their austere lifestyle. Lamb likes “books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguity, and thousand whim-whams. I should starve at their primitive banquet.” His appetites are too high for the meager fare the Quakers provide..

I have saved for last Lamb’s appraisal of the Jews. He has, he says, “in the abstract, no disrespect for the Jews. But I should not care to be in the habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation.” He admits that “old prejudices cling about me.” Standard stuff, right, but then Lamb says something that, considering the sad history of the twentieth century, I had to think about for a while:

“Centuries of injury, contempt, and hate, on the one side–of cloaked revenge, dissimulation, and hate, on the other, between our fathers and theirs, must and ought to affect the blood of the children. I cannot believe it can run clear and kindly yet; or that a few words, such as candour, liberality, the light on nineteenth-century, can close up the breaches of so deadly a disunion.”

Auschwitz would prove Lamb right about the ineptness and essential fraud of a few words, of the liberal hope that progress had led to a burying of hate, to a state of social bliss. Lamb goes on to say that he does “not relish the approximation of Jews and Christians.” He finds it “hypocritical and unnatural.” He does “not like to see the Church and the Synagogue kissing and congeeing in awkward postures of an affected civility.” Lamb drags out the old shibboleth that Jews are interested in only “Gain and the pursuit of gain.” And he genuflects to the notion that Jews are shrewd, intelligent: “I never heard of an idiot being born among them.”

Of course one can take the essay in different ways. Some might say that Lamb is blindly prejudiced and bigoted, accuse him of being a racist, though the charge of “racist” is made so often these days that it sometimes ceases to have meaning and has become little more than a tired bromide. Others might say he is stressing tolerance but abjuring the notion that we must all love one another. “You can expect me,” Lamb might be saying, “to respect any worthy man, but you cannot expect me love every worthy man–or long to associate with him.” He seems to prefer associating with those who are most like him, those who relish in life what he does. The reader will have to decide for himself or herself his or her view of Lamb.

Certainly, my knowledge of Lamb, the kind of man I have assumed him to be, comes into play, and I have a hard time picturing him as a slavering racist or rabid anti-Semite. And yet we have his words, and they contradict that picture of the always slightly bibulous Lamb, always with a ready quip, a congenial man full of bonhomie, the life of the party. Some might say, “Well, he was a complicated man, a man with his quota of flaws.”

I’d wager that every member of the EBF is a complicated person, each one of us too with our quota of taints, some of us carrying too many. I’d wager too, though, that no member of the EBF can read Lamb’s essay “Imperfect Sympathies” and not be mightily troubled, even not, to put it simply, disgusted.