Thursday, December 23, 2004

Inside voices

There's probably something a little strange in blogging about the loss of privacy in contemporary society--after all blogging is often little more than sharing what would otherwise be private thoughts and private facts about one's life in a very public form. In blogging though, the blogger has the ability to edit his thoughts and to decide just what should be shared and the reader makes a choice to read (or not read) the blog. A blog is a loss of privacy, but a negotiated loss of privacy.

That's not what happens now on the bus or in the grocery store when the person in the next seat or comparing prices of different canned vegetables is talking on the phone telling her interlocutor and everyone within 20 feet what her doctor had to say about her bowels or her cousin's recent run-in with the law.

It's also not what was happening two nights ago when I went out with my partner and my mother, who's visiting for Christmas. From the time we started eating our appetizers through the meat and the dessert, a group of high-school friends somewhere near my mother's age, regaled each other, us, the entire restaurant staff and all the patrons with tales of how well and badly their marriages were going, which of their children don't respect them, and in just which ways Mary Magdalene is superb--I will be much happier when people get over the badly mixed mish-mash of ancient Gnosticism and long-lived conspiracy theories so tragically publicized in The DaVinci Code and so well lampooned in Eco's
Foucault's Pendulum more than a decade ago.

I guess my problem is that where I was raised, most people had two different sorts of voices: one public and one private. The public one is the one that you use when you are teaching, preaching, otherwise declaiming or warning little old ladies that a Mack truck is fast approaching. The private one is the one that you use when you are talking to friends, on the phone where someone might hear you or discussing matters better kept to a small group of friends.

Whether it's the current ability to have phone conversations no matter where you happen to be or the way that people share every intimate detail of their lives on daytime television, it seems that much of society has lost the ability to be discreet. And yet, for some reason, when someone is talking about what they caught their husband doing and talking about it so loudly that I can hear it 10 feet away, they still become offended when I stare and give them a sympathetic look.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Neither gods nor monsters

Sitting in my apartment on a sunny, warm winter's day in San Diego, trying to recover from a night of dancing after my bartending shift and lazily leafing through the January GQ, I read an article about Justin Volpe the NYPD officer convicted of sodomizing Abner Louima in a precinct bathroom in August 1997. The article is a well-written and sympathetic piece by Robert Draper, focusing on the events and stresses leading up to the attack and the effects the subsequent conviction and 30-year sentence has had on Volpe and his family. I say it is sympathetic, but of course it is in no way exculpatory, nor is it meant to be. Instead it attempts to live up to a promise to show Volpe as a human being rather than a mere monster.

Of course, it is easier to see Volpe as a monster, just as it is easier to see the soldiers in Abu Ghraib (and, it seems, a few Marines at Guantanamo and at least a few SEALS in Iraq) as monsters or a few bad apples--as the current Administration characterized them--or to see the two boys who so brutally murdered Matthew Shepard merely as drug-crazed maniacs--as 20/20 has stipulated they were in the absence of any corroborating evidence. Seeing the perpetrators of these acts as monsters or bad apples or under the influence of such strong drugs that their reason and humanity had altogether left them is easy, because it is so reassuring.

If the soldier humiliating a detainee is a monster or a bad apple, that means she isn't like me. Because after all, I am a human being. I wouldn't or couldn't do anything like that, because I have a good moral foundation and I am a robust and hearty apple, resisting the rot spreading through the barrel. And as frightening as it is to face monsters, because of what they might do to me, it is far more frightening to be brought face to face with human beings who perpetrate truly horrendous acts. These are more frightening less because of what they might do to me, than because of what they show me about what I might do to others.

It's easy to demonize others and, like most easy things, doing so is laziness. In seeing others as monsters, we remove ourselves from their midst, just as we remove them from our human community. This lets us avoid the questions that considering what they have done as human beings raise. Questions like: What could lead someone to do that? How could someone who seemed otherwise moral do something like that? How could somebody who was always a good apple so quickly become a bad apple? How far below the surface are the parts of me that could do those same things?

These are important questions for our own moral and ethical health. As Arendt put it, evil is banal. It is commonplace and perpetrated by commonplace, ordinary people, not by--at least not always by--moral monsters. This is precisely the point of, for instance, Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors where he documents the lives and psychologies of the physicians who worked in Nazi death camps. For example, he explains how Mengele was able to act as an uncle to Gypsy children, to gain their affection and apparently return it, to bring them gifts and yet on the next day to order them killed. It is tempting in cases like this to say that the affection was just more evidence of this monster's evil. But, as Lifton makes apparent in this and other cases, there is no more reason to think that the evil was defining of his character that there was that the affection was.

As these sort of cases, the results of the Milgram experiments and others which followed--which demonstrated that otherwise moral people will, with very little impetus, torture their fellow humans for nothing more than the carrying out of a purported psychological experiment--and cases like that of Volpe and Abu Ghraib show, we have not just angels of our better nature to call upon but also devils lurking not far below the surface.

So, while those who commit atrocities are not monsters, we also have to remember that we are not moral gods, that put into strenuous situations we, too, are likely to engage in actions that would make us almost unknown to ourselves. Perhaps this is the lesson of the traditional idea of the fall of man--or one of them, since I spend too much time thinking about this particular topic: that though we have the capacity for great and moral behavior, we also have the capacity for the most horrendous of acts. And this applies not just to a few bad apples among us, but all of us. If anything this knowledge can help us to avoid those situations--those near occasions of sin--that would lead us to such acts. This self-awareness might just help us to stop ourselves when we see that we are falling closer to the acts of those we so easily call 'monsters'.

Friday, December 17, 2004

On meritocracy

This week, President Bush awarded three Presidential Medals of Freedom--the highest award that a United States civilian citizen can be awarded--to L Paul Bremer, Jr, the former administrator in Iraq, retired General Tommy Franks and former CIA-director George Tenet. It has always been a central plank in the philosophy of the GOP that people ought to be rewarded for their efforts and merits--indeed that the ideal society is a meritocracy. This has been the traditional Republican argument against Affirmative Action, for example.

But, then, as a casual observer, I have to ask myself what these three men were rewarded for. American citizens have been assailed on all sides with reports of just how bad the intelligence situation has been for years. So Tenet's award must not be for the job well done at the CIA, unless it's just for having had the job. But a Medal of Freedom is a far cry from a pocket watch.

The early days of the Iraqi invasion seem to have been a series of missteps, misestimations and outright mistakes. For this, Franks is being rewarded? Of course, he did campaign for Bush's reelection, but a Medal of Freedom isn't supposed to be a political gong--our minimal system of awards is not supposed to mirror the British Honours system.

Of the three, only Bremer seems to have done an admirable job. Whatever one's view of the invasion and following occupation, once in power, Bremer brought a modicum of order to a country over which he did not have total control using a military he was not in command of. He probably made the most of a bad situation.

Awards like these, not unlike former Administration officials retiring from public life to lucrative careers in industries they used to regulate (or de-regulate) make one wonder whether there are any members of the Grand Old Party who actually still believe that one should be rewarded for effort, or whether this is just a slogan to be thrown out when public welfare is cast aside in favor of the market.

Judging books

I'm a firm believer in enjoying all sorts of pleasures: I'll gorge myself quite contentedly on a farm-style breakfast or the king-sized version of a Kit Kat but I can also appreciate a fine dry-aged steak served medium rare with a mash of baby leeks on the side. I like foreign language films (except ones in French: the sound of the language grates for me) and I love to watch Desperate Housewives. Some pleasures are coarser than others and some pleasures might take more acclimatization to appreciate than others, but pleasures are pleasures. Having said that, though, I realize that even if a novel by Danielle Steele deals with some of the same themes (betrayal, love, family ties, the effects of world-events on individuals) as one by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Mann, they aren't equivalent in artistic merit. And, the fact that they deal with the same matters, or both give pleasure or both are equally useful as doorstops doesn't make them the same thing.

All I'm saying is that as silly as it is to judge a book by its cover (although I do resist buying any book with a movie-tie-in cover) it's just as silly to judge a book by what uses it can be put to: giving pleasure, telling its readers something about broader themes, holding a door open. And, if it's wrong to judge a book that way, it's much, much worse to judge a person that way. But these seem to be the two standards by which we usually judge people. I have no doubt that this is worse in the gay microcosm where I spend most of my time, but microcosms, too, reflect something about the macrocosms of which they are part.

Item, the first. I'm a fairly muscular man, hardly a body-builder, but it would be fair to say that I work out religiously, in at least one of the original senses of 'religio'--conscientiousness or scrupulosity. And I realize there's probably a deep and troubling psychological explanation for this as well; I'm self-aware enough to realize I have neuroses, but not enough to want to remove them, having explored them to their depths. Spending time developing my body is an organizing activity of my life, though not the only, nor even the primary, one. So, when I get involved in a conversation about politics or philosophy or my favorite movies or authors with mere acquaintances, they often tell me that they are surprised that I would have thought about the things I have or that I have the opinions I do. After all since I am big, I must be dumb or simply uninterested in any matters of intellectual import. In other words, if I care about the exterior of the building, I must not have bothered to furnish it.

This, of course, is the familiar phenomenon of judging a book by its cover. Since it is so familiar, it's less interesting. And, while it's annoying, it's not as troublesome to me as the second--and, I think, allied phenomenon--judging a book by the uses to which it can be put.

Item, the second. As often as I have to tell people that there are plenty of muscular men or attractive women and men who are, may the Heavens forefend, nonetheless intelligent, thoughtful and interesting people, I am forced to tell them that there are plenty of bartenders, physical laborers, desk-clerks, drivers, waitstaff, baristas, etc., who have exactly the same properties.
You see, I have more than one job, and in the opinions of some people I meet, they are greatly divergent jobs. On the one hand, I'm an adjunct philosophy instructor--someday, Oh someday, I'll finish my dissertation and be a real live professor, the Blue Fairy willing--and on the other, I tend bar. I also do some freelance writing once in a while, but it's the teaching and the bartending that keep me eating, and I do like to eat. Often, when someone sitting at my bar hears that I teach, too, they try to suppress their surprise and then tell me how interesting that is. Sometimes they will just come out and tell me that they assumed I was just a bartender. Sometimes, before they've learned what my other job is, they will ask me if I really want to bartend for the rest of my life and whether I've ever thought about getting an education. Or sometimes they will ask me whether, since I teach, I teach physical education. Once I had someone ask me if what I taught was philosophy of sport; I replied curtly that my area of interest was actually philosophy of mind. And, often, when the conversation has gone on for a bit, as it sometimes does on quiet nights, they'll tell me that I'm pretty smart for a bartender. And right there is the very center of the problem.

It's the 'smart for a bartender' or 'just a bartender' that sticks in my craw. This is meant as a compliment, of course, and I accept it as such, even if I'm not so good at taking praise. But it's not a compliment full-stop. Instead, it's a comparative compliment. I'm not just being told that I've been judged to be of at least passable intelligence; I'm being told that, unlike other bartenders, I have actual thoughts. But that's just an instance of being told that, in general, my interlocutor judges people not just by their appearances but also by the uses to which they are put occupationally. Since a person is a bartender, they must only be so intelligent--perhaps smart enough to remember lots and lots of drinks and their prices and make change correctly most of the time, but not smart enough to worry or think about foreign policy trends, the meaning of life or whether religious belief, quite apart from being true, is ultimately an estimable organizing principle for a human life. If they are making these sort of job-based assumptions about bartenders, then it's only fair to assume that they make these assumptions about gardeners and desk-clerks and bus- and truckdrivers and the list goes on and on.

And, that's just silly. There are, of course, jobs, occupations and avocations that assume a certain high level of intelligence. If you are an astrophysicist, you are probable pretty damned intelligent. If you understand the intricacies of contract law or thoracic surgery, you aren't an intellectual slouch. But this sort of assumption only works at the upper end, it doesn't and cannot work at the 'lower' end. The fact that someone is engaged in menial or service work or whatever other sort of labor we tend not to admire or value very highly doesn't show anything about that person's intellectual gifts, anymore than their attractiveness or physical prowess does. As my grandfather--a very smart and intellectually curious man if just a heating and cooling technician and salesman--used to say, 'It all pays the same.' Of course, it doesn't all pay the same, but the point remains: there is nothing undignified in working in most any job if it keeps you and those you care about living.

After all, Socrates was just a potter who made copies of religious statues, Spinoza was just a lens-grinder, Kafka was just a clerk in an insurance office, Jefferson was just an unsuccessful farmer and, if you're so-inclined, Jesus was just a carpenter and Muhammad was just a merchant in the employ of his first wife. For the most part, jobs are just jobs, and the majority of people work to live; their lives are not defined or fairly-evaluated in terms of what puts bread on their tables. And, if you are unable to see that fact, you will never grasp that their can be anything of value in any human being per se. So, the next time you tell me that I'm smart for a bartender or, when I make a mistake in making your drink that 'at least I'm pretty', you'll understand the momentary grimace before I smile, laugh and say 'Thank you'.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

An SUV in every garage until death

Living in California makes it clear to me just how much we need to rethink the necessary connection between individuality/independence and personal automobile ownership. On the one hand, this state is full of people making up for personality and other personal shortcomings--not all, but most, of them explicable in Freudian terms--with Hummers and Envoys and Armadas that don't nearly fit in freeway lanes, let alone city streets--why does anyone need to drive an entire navy? And why do so many men (and women) who never approach a farm need such big payload capacity?

In addition, San Diego with its beautiful weather is full of retirees. While I have the greatest respect for older people, especially those who have worked hard throughout their lives and quite often have sacrificed for their communities and the nation as a whole--so much respect that I resist the urge to tell them to get out of my way or hurry them along in the grocery store , a feat requiring great restraint as those who know me could attest--American culture has screwed up in leading them to believe that independence is equivalent to the continued driving of personal automobiles. Our highways are overcrowded and our parking lots are too small, leading people who cannot maneuver their too-large SUVS or their oversized but totally safe Lincolns, Cadillacs and other throwback monstrosities into parking places and instead "parking" them in the fire lanes in front of the grocery store, blocking foot and car traffic and making emergency vehicle access impossible if needed.

But asking people to give up driving, even when they have reached a point when it is no longer safe to do so--like the woman I watched getting into her car as I ate breakfast at a local diner this week--is tantamount to asking them to give up freedom. She was severely hunched over, in such obvious pain as it took her 15 minutes to get into her car after she had finished eating her meal, could not see in either her rear-view or side-view mirrors, was smoking and drinking coffee as she drove and pulled out into traffic without any possible knowledge of whether a car was coming or not. Surely she was not the safest of all possible drivers or even anywhere in the top 75%. But at the same time, having a car and driving one are so much a part of American life and what it means for most of us to be complete and whole, that to take away her car would be a near-literal imprisonment in her home, not unlike a psychical castration--back to Freud. But the answer can't be letting everyone drive forever--if the problem is in the American mind, then the solution has to be there, too. And not on the streets or the parking lots of America. (And, of course, the solution would involve a lot of Hummer drivers and, even, Hyundai drivers like me, hoofing it or getting on public transport a lot more and, instead of complaining about how slow and dirty buses and trams are, getting more of them.)

So, when I'm yelling at an elderly couple parking their Town Car in front of the local market--like I was today--remember that it's not just because I'm angry, wrathful and nasty, but also because I care.