Tag Archives: ethics

Cutting Up an Ox

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Ben Sasse fears for our youth.

He is a U.S. Senator, and therefore he is a very busy man with little time to spare for side projects. Yet, so great is his concern for our kids’ predicament, that he has taken the time to write a book about it. It is not a bad book, even if you do not agree with what it says. You will have to trust me (or not) on the exact contents, because, “You may not make this e-book public in any way”, is all I will quote directly from it.

His thesis is laid out in the book’s title, The Vanishing American Adult, and he has summarized the gist of his prescription in the subtitle, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

In the text, he depicts a generation afflicted by aimlessness. They have been stunted by coming up in the shade of social media and cultural relativism. Deprived of the harsh choices and bright lessons of social responsibilities and traditional rites of passage, kids have grown passive. They lack the ‘grit’ to sustain our society.

I won’t quibble with his depiction. Social media is a blight. The current generation operates on the assumption that ‘someone will take care of it’. Giving up is always an option for them.

I do disagree with his diagnosis and prescription, however. He seems to think that helplessness and hollowness result from a deficiency of citizenship. The correction would then involve a big shot of citizenship. He is completely mistaken. In fact, emptiness is the natural outcome of citizenship, and helplessness is just a reactive symptom.

On the most basic level, citizenship is a position in which one gets told that one’s life is fungible. One’s time, attention, motivation, and psyche can be chopped up and traded for goods to satisfy certain needs. Of course, Sasse recognizes this situation. He mentions “development of the individual” on a couple of occasions as a worthy pursuit, but only if it is pursued to certain ends (becoming responsible, self-sacrificing, ‘gritty’ – in other words, all those things that make a solid citizen). As far as I can tell, only the ends distinguish healthy developmental activities from selfishness, in Sasse’s estimation. And in a shocking coincidence, healthy ends are those for which the goods of citizenship come in handy.

“Why won’t my blood sugar go down?”

Maybe my analysis is unfair. Sasse contends that we are all a little defective, and our institutions may be a little defective, too. We should not expect a perfect synergy between man and social machine, even though the basic program is sound and actually the best that we can do.

But I hear differently all the time.

“I’m doing all those things that the diabetic educator told me to. I have changed my diet. I am walking every day. I am taking my medications like clockwork. So why is my blood sugar still high?”

This person is in my office every day, wearing a different, outfit, a different ethnicity, or a different gender. Yet they are the same person. They have a sit-down job, or two, in which they spend 40-60 hours per week dealing with an incestuous dataset – something so about itself, whether it is driving a cab or processing claims, that it demands attention to automatisms rather than any  particular skill. To ensure that their attention does not waver, an overseer tracks their activities and rates their efficiency. Their extraneous physiological and psychological functions are regulated by the employer as distractions.

The citizen in my office sleeps 6 hours per night, or less. They drink energy drinks to keep going, and eat foods which the package or the vendor says are healthy, because they haven’t the time or energy to prepare their own food. They are too exhausted to exercise properly.

As a result, they are obese, diabetic and hypertensive. As a result, they now require one of the goods for which they can sub-divide themselves: medical care.

Which brings us to where the defense of citizenship as a natural-born fertilizer for human development, breaks down. The trouble with the whole thing is not the palate of goods on offer, their costs, or the means of valuation. The trouble is the chopping, because the roots of experience (attention, motivation, responsiveness, etc.) can’t be cut up for a purpose, especially for delayed gratification of a specific need. The very notion mistakes the nature of needs and the relationship between our needs and our activities. Here, Sasse may have been better served by spending a little more time reading Nietzsche, and a little less time reading Rousseau and the Bible.

For an organism’s needs can’t really be parsed. The motivations underlying our activities are merely aspects of a single motive which Nietzsche labeled ‘will to power’. Even when we try to perform an isolated act of attention, we feel something about it, our neuro-hormonal system responds to it, and it tires us globally.

But Sasse seems to think there’s a neat way around the problem of dividing the indivisible.

Life on the Farm or 8 Pitches Up?

In the latter half of the book, Sasse talks about how he sent his daughter to work on a ranch. The idea was to teach her how to enjoy work – not any particular task, but work itself. Basically, he sought to teach her how to thrive as an instrument. It’s pretty clever, really.

He explains the strategy in a vignette:

Martin Luther met a man who had just become a Christian and wanted to know how best to serve the Lord. He asked Luther, “How can I be a good servant? What should I do?” He expected Luther to tell him that he should quit his job and become a minister, monk, or missionary.

Luther replied with a question, “What do you do now?

“I’m  cobbler. I make shoes”, the man answered.

“Then make great shoes”, Luther replied, “and sell them at a fair price – to the glory of God.”

In other words, find integrity in being a good instrument. I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious: Why not make great shoes to the glory of Satan? It’s the devotion part that really matters, right? This notion of the human lost at heart and essentially in search of a set of rails (any rails) undergirds fascism through the ages, and it works superficially, so long as the social venue is stable.

But I took another path with my kids, because I learned more from sitting on a ledge, than I ever did from a job.

We have climbed several long routes together. We have looked up, down, and out from ledges in the middle of those routes and soaked in the lessons: however precarious the position, what falls to us is to pass the water around, check the system, and find our way through the next rope-length of terrain; trust your partners as you trust yourself; no matter how cold, hot, tired or thirsty you are, the beauty of the sky and landscape remain; achievement, i.e. ‘ticking the route’, doesn’t really matter – it is only a means to get you to the ledge.

In taking them on those climbs, my hope was to offer them a way of life which put making a living in perspective, rather than telling them that making a living would put everything in perspective for them.

A different vignette illustrates my point:

     Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip, zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 3 (Watson translation)

I do not see the current generation as sissified hedonists, any more than previous generations. The hypersensitivity, the passivity, the absorption (self and otherwise) all look like symptoms of a bunker mentality. They see what’s in store for them and they don’t like it, but they don’t seem to know how to resist.

A Sasse-type message has gotten through. The citizenry coming of age does think that it must learn to embrace a social role (little worker, little voter, little contributor) wholeheartedly in order to fully mature, and it just can’t bring itself to do so. The instinct is right. Kids growing up in this era are being asked to pursue a sort of faux-maturity which involves merely “giving up childish things”, and the achievement of that state will leave them empty and utterly dependent on a structure which deals with them on the basis of a flawed methodology.

They need a little less Ben Sasse, and a little more Cook Ding, when it comes to advice about how to grow up. Because maturity means dealing with your situation – not just endorsing it – and dealing with it artfully. It means getting over being The Cobbler, The Christian, The Cobbler-Christian, or even The Cook.

In Sasse’s terms, I have laid out the Romantic counter-argument to his Realist argument regarding the nature of the individual’s relationship to civilization. But I reject that characterization to some extent. There isn’t an inherent conflict between the individual and the civilization. We are stuck with our civilization. It lies before us like the carcass of a great ox, and it is just as indifferent.

We get chopped up in our interaction with it, but our own hand is on the knife. And I agree with Ben Sasse here,  maturity is the solution. Not the faux maturity which the senator espouses, which is just a form of selling out, but actual maturity which sets limits and carves its own way, not towards some magical future, but like the cook’s knife, in the present where we all reside.

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Go Ahead, Say ‘Chattering Classes’ Again…!

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Sebastian Gorak Gorka is a strategist by trade, an ‘assistant’ to the President, Steve Bannon’s purse-dog, and real-life Dr. Strangelove.

And he doesn’t want to hear it from no protesters. According to him, the uproar around Trump’s attempt to make cowards of us all  (for what else is a zero-risk policy regarding the intake of refugees ?) arises from the chattering classes.

He isn’t too forthcoming with qualifications for enrollment in the chattering classes, but his implication is clear enough. The chattering classes are made up of poli-sci students, their professors, pampered, ex-poli-sci students employed in government or the soft sciences, and a few, deluded members of the aristocracy. A diverse group, it’s members hold in common a history of sheltered existence and an effete spirit. In Gorak’s  Gorka’s estimation, those qualities render the opinions of the chattering classes irrelevant.

It is the reapplication of common sense. Brexit happened — Donald Trump became president because the average voter said, Enough! We want safety! We want national security to be a priority. But the chattering classes do not understand.

“I’m not interested in the chattering classes, in the social justice warriors,” Gorka says. “If you’re really going to ask really churlish and childish questions like that, then there really is no point to the interview.”

The problem is, of course, that anyone who opposes the Chief Troll, his lackeys, or his lackeys’ purse dogs, is automatically part of the chattering classes.

That is the only real inclusion criteria. Otherwise, it would be hard to distinguish Gorak Gorka from the whiners he holds in such contempt. He has a PhD in political science. He was a writer for a fringe publication on the internet. His current purpose is to yap and bare his teeth at anyone who dares look askance at mumsy and her entourage.

He had better be thankful for the chattering classes. They are the manifestation of our society’s commitment to settle politics politically. They are what allow him and his ilk to exist.

He can keep saying ‘chattering classes’. He had better keep saying ‘chattering classes’. I dare him to stop,  jump out of that Coach, and try to take a bite. I double dare him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Ought to Be Climbing

Today was a climbing day, and I woke up tired. This happens with some regularity, and I have learned not to put too much stock in feelings of early morning fatigue. Like delayed-onset muscle soreness, tiredness is part of life’s Muzak.

I have learned to just get up, move around a bit, and turn off the thought process until the first 8 oz. of coffee get into the moving parts. Then, I can take a breath and figure out what I ought to do. Sometimes, I figure I ought to go climbing, less frequently, I figure I ought not.

I did not go today. There were traffic issues, household chores, homework for the kids, and an empty fridge, all weighing on me. But I could ignore those trivialities if the day looked promising from a climbing standpoint. If I had a good day out, I would return with motivation to spare for shopping, vacuuming, and glaring at a teenager while he did everything in his power to avoid completing an English research project on time.

However, today did not look promising. When I thought about the plan, I could not get my motivation to gel around the climbing which lay in store. Of course, a sort of meta-motivation was there, driving the self-assessment process.

Meta-motivation is part of the Muzak too, and is the explanation for why I actually get up when the alarm goes off, instead of following my tiredness back to sleep.

I can climb on the meta-motivation. I have climbed on the meta-motivation. It depletes itself, though. It relies on ambitions and creates them – getting to the next level of difficulty, getting payback on the route that thwarted me, keeping up or catching up with partners. Leaning on the meta-motives fails to reconcile the day’s motives with their sources in one’s emotional state, severity of muscle fatigue, metabolic state, etc. It works for a while, but the sources will not be ignored forever, and come back around to bite in the form of injuries and burn-out, neither of which can be overcome by ambition.

The day’s motive is the real thing, not the desire to realize plans and ambitions. Too bad it is so slippery. It can be reconciled with its sources in principle, but understanding the depth and relevance of the various sources is tricky.

The climbing-day ritual, in which motives get explored and reconciled with current affairs, is a moral endeavor, of sorts. Through it, I learn what I ought to do, and in a way which cannot be attributed to a calculation of debits and credits, or simple puzzle-solving, in which I just match up pieces of motive and facts at hand.

I think maybe that’s the way it is with all moral endeavors. They aren’t problem-solving with moral facts. All moral evaluations seem to suffer from the troubles of theodicy, if they are factual. The explanation for the existence of evil in a world ruled absolutely by a good God eventually defaults to the relevance of evil in light of God’s (infinite) magnitude. But all things go to zero along that asymptote. So it is with the determination of moral facts. One moral fact may always supersede the next, looking forward, and the qualifications proliferate endlessly in retrospect.

If that’s the case with the pursuit of moral fact, then pursuing moral fact is much like climbing on meta-motivation. The chase will lead to diminishing returns and, finally, to contradictions.

 

 

 

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Trump Humped Sheep -or- Facebook is for Stupid People; Twitter is for People Too Stupid for Facebook

Pathetic – you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame! Bad reporter.

Nor do you have sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not bugger at least one sheep. And he displays all the signs and symptoms of a sheep-bugger.

He spends an inordinate amount of time wandering around the Scottish countryside “playing golf”.

He is clearly trying to sublimate certain troublesome feelings toward one of his children.

He is admittedly ‘genital focused’ – the type for whom parts is parts, no matter what else is attached to them parts.

That’s not to say that he would  go after the ugly sheep. I’m sure that he has only done the pretty ones.

But he has done them, and nothing anybody can say can prove otherwise.

Pathetic.

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OK Trump Voters, Grab Them Bootstraps…

…and get ready to start yankin’…Wait, what are they doin’ back there?

Oh, that’s gotta hurt. No lube or nothin’.

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From the start of the current fiasco, two possibilities have existed. Either Trump meant that he subscribed to an authoritarian/fascist ideal (women in their proper roles, it’s fine for the state to torture individuals,  the National Identity is fixed and enforceable) or he calculated that enough people wanted to hear the language associated with fascism to get him what he wanted.

If you voted for this guy, you were either moved by that language, or you were willing to accept that language to get what you wanted (fags in their proper roles, enforcement of your religious preferences, suppression of alternative religious preferences, etc. whatever).

I want to be clear: I am not using fascism merely as an epithet. I am referring to its contents. Because fascism is the idea that the individual is feckless and decadent without a guiding star, and that the nation/state is meant to be that star. It is an idea which appeals to fear and weakness, especially fear and weakness caused by weariness. It doesn’t just get enforced from above. It needs the complicity of a large portion of the population.

That’s what the rest of us are pissed at: not Trump in himself, but your complicity.

And now, it is looking like that may be what’s left to be pissed about. Trump is showing some signs that he was delivering a calculated rather than a sincere appeal to fascist sentiments. Realpolitik, as advocated by Gingrich, may have been the program all along.

The Wall, mass deportation, and repeal and replace have been replaced by caveats, preparing the way for …whatever.

The current whatever looks to be folks like Ryan and Pence. These are the dingleberries  on the bung-hole of democracy. Objectivists at heart, their major concern is seeing Social Darwinism work out as they expect. For them, the nation/state is a farce, and an unnatural impediment to the natural forces (for Pence, natural forces ordained by the Lord) which sort the wheat from the chaff.

So get ready, because guess who these guys think are the chaff? It isn’t just black folks, who are obviously responsible for their own sad economic state because they haven’t been capable of working hard enough to transcend a few paltry centuries of enslavement, or illegal immigrants who obviously came here to sack this country by doing all our highly desirable agricultural work and then scurrying back to Mexico to live like kings on their ill-gotten profits.

Listen closely Trump voters, because Pence & Co. are about to tell you that it’s time to bend over, grab your bootstraps, and start yankin’. When you do, something else is going to happen – the same thing that has been happening.

When it happens again, I want you to think back to that Stones’ song that Trump’s campaign kept playing at his rallies: You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Sometimes, though, you don’t even get what you need. Sometimes, you get what you deserve.

 

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On Hating to Hate Hating on The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight is a Western movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title is a reference, if not an homage, to the famous Western, The Magnificent Seven, which is an American take on Kurosawa’s film, Seven Samurai.

Though this post will examine the plot and characters in The Hateful Eight, there is no need for a spoiler alert. Representations of art cannot spoil the experience of art. That is because true art is not didactic. It is about what it depicts  rather than being a diagram, so experiencing the art is everything, and knowing things about how a work of art is put together can never substitute for the experience.

Whether you think The Hateful Eight is good art or bad, it meets the criterion above. The film does not document the Western landscape, rugged individualism, or violence; it is about the Western landscape, rugged individualism and violence. I happen to think it is pretty good art, but I hate it anyway. Let me explain.

In the first part of the movie, we learn about the characters, who are all forthright, tough individualists. They have come West after the Civil War. They have come to be free to be themselves. They have come to be free of their pasts. They have come to get away from the hell of other people.

On  a long stagecoach ride, the rugged individualists recount all the ways in which they have stuck to their principles, no matter the cost. They have been heroes in war and agents of justice afterwards, no matter which side they championed. What matters is that they have championed something, and have served blind justice.

But then, the stagecoach stops at a lonely outpost. The conversation moves indoors. Other people become involved. And in a ugly crescendo, we are shown the consequences of unyielding principle, and an ethic which extolls championing one’s principles as a virtue in itself. The result is scorched earth, and an endless cycle of vengeance chasing death, all sustained by the moral satisfaction which comes of living a principled life.

As the cycle plays out, the Hateful Eight sacrifice others and finally even themselves, a piece at a time, in the name of family bonds, racial justice, legal justice, and cultural allegiance. If the first part of the film invites the audience to share a draught of moral satisfaction with the characters, the second part challenges us to keep on drinking as it all turns to blood.

Because, the narrative doesn’t change as events on screen descend into an orgy of violence. The action is cartoonish, but the actors do not play it tongue in cheek. They do their best to keep it real. Their efforts seem pathetic at first, then sickening, as each side in turn slakes its thirst for justice on the suffering of the other.

At some point, the film invites the viewer to turn away from the escalating grotequerie, and when the viewer does turn away, that’s when the film really becomes art. Because, veering off in disgust is a hypocritical act. The audience hasn’t earned the right to look away. We were just admiring the characters for the very traits which generate the revolting atrocities in the second part of the film.

And haven’t we engaged in the same hypocrisy in real life, whenever we’ve bought into the Western-spirit myth of self reliance, toughness and self- righteousness without acknowledging that that same spirit has just as often  manifested as selfishness, callousness and zealotry? We love Lewis and Clark; we choose to forget Wounded Knee. We admire Custer’s bravery at the Little Bighorn while we stubbornly ignore the intentions which led him to that spot. We buy into the nasty Western contradiction every time we choose to watch a Western movie.

Yet the film’s indictment is flawed. We do turn away, so we can make the distinction between, for instance, Bill Hickok and Emil Reuter. In illustrative contrast, the original film in The Hateful Eight’s family tree recognizes the schism between our moral ideals and our emotional reflexes.

The young samurai who idolizes the leader of the Seven Samurai expects glory and honor from defending innocent villager from a gang of bandits. What he gets, in the course of achieving his victory, is one bitter loss after the next. He finally turns away too, and although he achieves some peace in understanding that the choice to fight is merely one grim option among many, he must also accept that there can be no moral equation which resolves those choices. The last scene questions whether his own choice really is worth it – and if he could even know anymore, having made the choice.

Tarantino’s film points an accusing finger to the same end, but aiming the finger sustains the cycle of judgement and reduction. Sure, it brings us in and makes us feel what it’s really like inside, but it is an oversimplification. It dodges the hard questions which arise in arguments about just wars or the enforcement of human rights. It leaves open the possibility of moral equations.

So, though I hate to say it, I do hate The Hateful Eight. And I hate that that is my inevitable conclusion.

 

 

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Poorly Shod

My twin and I share two pair of identical running shoes. One pair is green, the other, gray. The shoes are otherwise indistinguishable. I wear the green shoes exclusively. I have won many races with them, and I consider them lucky.

My twin wears either pair. He cannot tell the difference between the two sets because he is color blind. He runs just as well while wearing the green shoes as he does while wearing the gray shoes.

I flounder in the gray shoes. He can beat me every time if we trade colors, because the duller pair does not recall soaring victories. The gray shoes mean nothing to me.

Though the difference between the shoes is entirely subjective, it is nonetheless real and it is true that the greenness of the shoes means something, even if no one knows it but me.

Now, you can say that I am silly for evaluating the shoes by color. You can say that I’m doing it wrong (if you have a solid alternative to present). But you can’t say that a subjective evaluation, with attendant meaning and minimal truth (and really, what else is there?) inherently fails and is not real necessarily.

Well, I guess you can persist in insisting that subjective evaluations are not real, if you want to branch off into a dispute about what makes something real…

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