Sunday, December 23, 2012

Just a couple of thoughts at the end of the semester

There are so many joys in teaching that they almost always outweigh those moments when some friend reminds me that he makes more than twice what I do, and still thinks he is underpaid. However, those moments--seeing the spark of curiosity or learning something from the fresh and incisive perspective of an undergraduate--are hard to remember at the end of term, when the pain of grading and realizing that this has almost no part in the real intellectual and educational work the university can achieve at its best is compounded by the emails of complaint about grades and the catching of students at plagiarizing and cheating.
At these moments--as in those when I suspect that I am the only one who had read the assignments or who has read any of the classics of the canon--I mourn just a little for the notion of the educated person and the liberal education that was once meant to create her.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Atheists and Christ

One of the classes I was assigned this semester was Twentieth Century Continental Philosophy. For non-philosophers it might not be obvious that contemporary philosophy has divided itself into two different traditions that, all in all, don't much talk to each other. Almost any philosopher you find teaching in a department anywhere in the US has been trained, unless she does history of philosophy, as an analytic philosopher. The Continental tradition is the dark, bad-poetry Other, that we are trained to ignore, scoff at, or try to forget. It is also the one that non-philosophers are much more likely to think of as contemporary or roughly contemporary philosophy. There you find Sartre and Camus and Heidegger and (shudder) Zizek. But, it has to be taught, and someone has to teach it. And, this year, that someone was me.

One thing that is notable about this tradition--though it doesn't greatly differentiate it from the analytic tradition--is that most of the Continentals are stridently atheistic. There's a good deal of "God is dead and we have killed Him," starting with dear old Nietzsche, but not ending there. And, this can be offputting for a lot of students, especially when I am yelling "God is dead" near the top of my lungs.

But what is also notable is the way that members of this tradition, Nietzsche among them, have more to say of value about Christ and the Christian idea (not so much Nietzsche there, but still) than the majority of stridently Christian thinkers. Nietzsche thinks of Christianity as a misnamed religion, because he can think of only one Christian, the one who was crucified. Camus speaks of the genius of Christianity in tying together heaven and earth, an incarnational theology from a non-religious man, and speaks solemnly of the feeling of abandonment on the Cross as the most profound moment of the Gospel narrative.

How much is lost when we fail to engage with those we disagree with, those whose worldviews are different to ours, those who start with assumptions we have already ruled out. And, how much that might be of value for our very own worldview.

In many ways, I am not a conventionally religious man; I am also not spiritual, because I have never understood what that was supposed to me, as a contrast to "religious." But, in other ways, I have a religious outlook, if not quite theistic. I can say though, I have never been as touched by some of the deepest beauties of religion as when reading the most strident atheists.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Libertarian or just bourgeois?

Some of my students like to engage in political sparring with me, especially during the election season. And, since they tend to assume I'm a far-left liberal—they tend to have a very skewed idea of what my views actually are—they like to try out right-wing or libertarian or conservative arguments on me.

One quite intelligent student, who wears campaign shirts to class every day and self-identifies as a libertarian, was talking to me about the various propositions on the ballot in California this year and asking me what my vote would be on several of them. I told him my general dislike of propositions, because of the way they lead to inconsistent legislation, the writing of legislation by interest groups, and because of the way they allow the Legislature to avoid dealing with any hard issues, the very job for which they are paid.

So, he asked me in particular what my vote would be on California's Prop 34, a measure intended to effectively repeal the death penalty. I told him I would probably vote for that one, because I'm opposed on practical, though not clearly theoretical, grounds to capital punishment. And, I threw in, that I am also opposed to the three-strikes law that California enacted through the proposition system.

He seemed amazed that I would be opposed to the three-strikes law and the death penalty. I told him that, apart from the fact that the three-strikes initiative was bankrolled by the Prison Guards' Union whose members have a financial interest in longer sentences—and, he had just told me how unions have too much influence in society—I have little faith in the police or the courts or prosecutors and certainly not enough faith in them to allow them to take lives. He seemed to find this surprising. And, then I realized, he isn't really a libertarian at all. Like many anti-government Americans, he doesn't like government when it interferes in his life in any way, but the idea that government is corrupt in those instances never bleeds over to the idea that it might be corrupt in its exercise of the police power or military adventures.

Not unlike the common belief in some circles of socialism for business and libertarianism for the individual, there is a theoretical inversion with the same result: libertarianism for the middle and upper classes and authoritarianism for the poor and delinquent and the foreign. But that's just to say, that too many of our political commitments are nothing more than rationalizations for whatever we think will benefit ourselves. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A puzzle about property rights

Frank lives on a roughly triangular plot of land bordered on each side by a different neighbor: Joanna, Therese, and William. That is, his property is completely surrounded by the property of others. 

When he purchased this property, there was a well on the property. Through no fault of his own, nor through any actions of his neighbors, the water in the well has become undrinkable.

Because of some unchosen characteristic of Frank’s—his ethnicity, his sexual orientation, his nationality, … you may pick—his neighbors have taken a dislike to him. This dislike is so strong that they would just as lief that he be dead. However, his neighbors all respect his (negative) right to life as much as they respect property rights, absolutely. 

Thus, when Frank comes to them asking to buy water, they refuse to sell the water to him. No price that Frank is able to pay is a price that they are willing to take. There are more distant sellers willing to sell Frank water at a price agreeable to him, but they would have to cross the property of Joanna, Therese, or William to do so. And, none of these are willing to allow access at an agreeable price.

What may Frank justly do to rectify the situation and obtain water? And, why?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why the gay panic? Or, why the right still smears the queer.

Just why is it that gays and lesbians loom so large in the heterosexual imagination? Why does such a tiny minority—somewhere between two and ten percent, but surely closer to two—figure in culture wars again and again?

It can’t be a fear that we will somehow take over. Unlike racial or ethnic minorities, we don’t increase by reproduction. And, given our presence in almost every historical society in always the same relatively small numbers—even in Classical Greece, the number of exclusive homosexuals was notably small—it isn’t that we attract others to join our ranks. We have always been present and always will be, barring attempts to find and remove whatever genetic dispositions there might be, but we will always be a permanent and small minority. So, what exactly is the fear?
I have a few different, though not mutually exclusive theories. Because I believe that it is gay men rather than lesbians who tend to be more feared, at least by the men who largely still run our world, and because I myself am a gay man, I am going to focus on the fear of gay men, though I will say something about the fear of the lesbian at the end.
Many heterosexual men objectify women. That is, they treat them as something other than real, full human beings. Women aren’t subjects, they are merely objects. This probably comes as no surprise to anyone. So, those men at least believe that this is the way men always think of sexual partners. And, if that’s the way that men think, then there are men, gay men, who want to objectify them. There are men who want to treat them the way that they treat women, and that is absolutely horrible! Horrible, I say.

I think there is an interesting parallel to this line of thought in the way that some feminist scholars think about gay porn. I have heard it argued that even gay porn is discriminatory to women, because even when no women are present, someone is taking the role of the woman and being objectified. But, just like the fear of objectification that underlies much anti-gay animus, this anti-porn thought gets things wrong. It may well be that gay men objectify one another and that gay porn does the same thing, but this is an objectification that, to use the parlance of de Beauvoir, doesn’t make the objectified into the Other.

There’s no objectification of something or someone significantly different, so no separation between the subject and the object. That this is possible, that one can objectify in the moment of sex someone that is still a subject, a real living human being, for you, is a matter of surprise both for the fearful heterosexual man and for a certain kind of theorist.
Many men—and some of those same theorists, for what it’s worth—view penetration as violence, as really tantamount to rape, and as the assertion of power over a weak and vulnerable victim.

This leads to a two-fold problem with gay men corresponding to two of the stereotypes of gay men: dangerous predator and effeminate target of ridicule.

In the first place, if all penetration is rape and violence, then gay men are not only dangerous predators (part of this relates to my third point below) but they also are so dangerous that they attack not only the weaker sex, in the eyes of the heterosexual man I have in mind, but the dominant one. Very little could be more frightening than this.

But, since some gay men allow themselves to be penetrated, they are themselves victims and have given up—horror of horrors, willingly—their position as the dominant sex. Thus, they are even worse, in this view, than women. They have chosen to let themselves be used and penetrated, and so they are rightful targets of ridicule as faggots and fairies.

On both these views, it is beyond the pale of conception that being penetrated does not alone make one a victim, that the penetrated could be partly or wholly in control, or that it could be enjoyed. Again, there is an explicit sexism is both these views, and so this is not so different to my first point above.

Homosexual men are often criticized by others and themselves as being narcissistic. And, we are. But a certain type of heterosexual man—the sort who argued that the repeal of DADT would lead to the ogling of poor helpless Marines by gay comrades in the showers—is even more narcissistic. He cannot imagine that any gay man in existence would fail to desire him as his prey.

Whether this is simply because these straight men have such a high estimation of themselves or because they themselves want every woman they see or believe they could have every woman they desire, I don’t know. But, this belief that the gays are out for every heterosexual man combines with the other fears to make gay men loom larger in the imagination than we ever could in the world and increases worries about the ubiquitous and nefarious gay agenda.

At our best, gay men and lesbians lead lives that are not exactly like everyone else’s.  We lead lives that are experiments in other ways of living, that don’t have to conform to the general form of life constrained by traditional marriage and family. If gays and lesbians have ever been more creative or added a special flavor to culture, it is largely because we have lived outside the normal boundaries of social life.

I know that the largest and most successful parts of the gay-movement industry have done as much as they can to claim that we are indistinguishable in every way from heterosexuals and many in the gay community have done all they can to “normalize” themselves. This is why we have the spectacle of GOProud demanding entry into CPAC claiming to be no less conservative and no different to the Heritage Foundation or the Eagle Forum and why mainstream gay rights groups do all they can to marginalize the queer, the effeminate, the transsexual, the drag queen, the butch dyke, the non-monogamous, etc. It is also why the acceptable gays are the married couples with children on sitcoms.

But , the fact that we can—whether we do or not—live outside those traditional forms of life that many people feel as burdens is a challenge. And, it can lead to ressentiment, a feeling that it isn’t fair that others can lead a queer life, when I can’t. And, ressentiment is hostile. If they can lead a life that is different, that is queer, that is not, I think, open to me, then that life must be bad and immoral and unnatural and it must be stopped.

It is not just different, but it is a contagion, a danger to rest of respectable society. The different is always a danger.
This has gone on long enough, but I want to say a word about lesbians. I think much of what I have said above applies to the way much of society feels about lesbians, as well.

But, two of the major drivers of opposition to lesbians, apart from those I have addressed above, are, first, the inability of heterosexual men to place lesbians. They don’t fit into any of the functional categories that a certain type of man places women. They are not the wife or the mother—except when they are—or the real or potential lover. Without a cubby in which to place them, lesbians are a challenge to a particular kind of heterosexual picture of the world. (The same can be said of gay men; apart from those who attempt to be “straight-acting”, gay men fail to fall either fully within or fully outside the stereotypes of masculinity.) And, no one like a challenge to his worldview.

And, lesbians provide a picture of relationships and a life in which intimate relationships with men are not necessary to happiness. If you are even the slightest bit insecure—and, if you are concerned so heavily with the way others lead their lives, you might have some worries about your own—the idea that any group of persons could live fully without you and do so without being incomplete or unhappy is a challenge. So, clearly, they can’t really be happy; their lives can’t really be complete. They surely need to be cured.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thoughts about human nature at the end of the semester

Because a few students asked what I think about some of the issues we have discussed through the semester, I put together a few of my (not necessarily consistent) thoughts about what we can know philosophically. I am leaving out all the argument that I think establishes these points. I am leaving out what additionally we might be able to know via faith, because I take that to be a separate realm from what can be known by more or less pure reason.
To know anything completely, we have to be able to step back from it and get an objective view of it. Our own humanity precludes us from taking just such an objective view of humanity. At one and the same time, we all are intimately aware of what it is like to be a human, but we may never be able fully to articulate what it is to be human. So, every attempt is going to give us the shape of the human condition without ever quite filling in all the detail. At least, I am going to use that claim to explain the way that I will fail to give a full and fully clear picture of human nature.
We are, by our biological and psychological natures, social beings. We cannot survive well alone, either as children or as adults. Our identities are formed in relation to others and continue, to some degree, in relation to others. For this reason, our ethics have to be concerned with others, but this is not somehow in distinction or opposition to our interests to ourselves. We don’t exist without others and our interests cannot be separated in some clear way from the interests of those around us. We are neither good nor bad by nature, but rather torn between our narrow self-interest and a wider interest, sometimes opting for one rather than the other. And, this connection is not just a matter of our reason, but also of our emotions, which also must have a part in our conception of humanity and in our ethics.
Similarly, though we like to think of our selves as entirely individual, we are communal and our identities are relational. There’s no hard and fast delineation of my “self” from those around me. This is another reason why concern with others is not opposite to concern with myself.
For these reasons, there is very little more important to a well-lived human life than friendship and the virtues that underlie it: courage, justice, honesty. 
I think we are more determined than the existentialists would have us believe. Our choices are often severely constrained by our situations, our backgrounds, and—as current neuroscience suggests—the operations of our brains below the level of our consciousness. We are not absolutely free. But, I believe that we are free—we certainly cannot help but feel free—that our conscious decisions make a difference to our action. In our conscious decisions, we need to be more aware of the ways that we are constrained in our decisions and assert our control in spite of these constraints. Freedom is a burden, but partly because we have to struggle against our unfreedom and because we have to be careful not to constrain the choices of others.
In one sense, there is certainly more to us than just our physical being. We are not merely matter; we are also conscious, we have minds. But, we cannot know whether this mind is some substance over and above the physical body. And, we have no evidence to think that it is, while believing in substance dualism has largely intractable problems. We do know that somehow, out of a very complex physical mechanism, a very complex mental mechanism arises. That makes us special, though perhaps not unique. It also means that we are on a continuum with the other animals, who resemble us physically and, to a lesser degree, psychologically. But, we are pretty distant from the other animals on that continuum, whether that is for better or worse.
That being said, I don’t think we can have any evidence that there is more to our lives than what we experience on this earth. That means that we should make this life the best life we can. In no way does this mean that everything is permitted or that there is no morality. Given our social nature, given our physical nature, given our interconnectedness, there are better and worse lives for us and there is no account of a good life for me that doesn’t take into account its effects on you and others around me. Many of us—perhaps most of us—don’t achieve a happy or fulfilled life, but it is what we all aim at.
Our consciousness is what makes each of us what she or he is. This consciousness is both intensely private and personal—making us each alone in it—and formed in our interactions with one another and in our presentation of ourselves to others—making us profoundly partial and interrelated. We are each individual and alone but driven by a need to connect; back to that idea of the importance of friendship.
This consciousness, at least as self-consciousness, is also a creation and a constantly changing creation of some part of us. The best evidence we now have tells us that even our memories are constantly in flux and not “stored” in the static way that external memory can be. So, we are always creating ourselves, in every moment. In a sense, there is only the me that exists at this moment, but a me that is generated by the same brain, the same mind, arising out of the same body, and with a sense of being the same self. One sense in which we survive is through the continued re-creation of this consciousness in the consciousnesses and memories of others. One way, for instance, that my grandfather lives on is through my memories of him and through the sharing of stories about him. If we survive in any other way that can matter to us, this consciousness must be part of that survival.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Public Vice and Private Virtue

In the wake of Andrew Breitbart's recent and surprising death, there has been much discussion both of how we should speak of the dead and to what degree we should judge another—if at all—based on his public versus his private persona.

I have little to say on the first issue. Though, given Breitbart's (and Hitchens' before him) attitudes to the dead—one need only read his comparisons of the then-recently-deceased Edward Kennedy to human excrement—he surely cannot have expected to be eulogized in death by his opponents. And, personally, I cannot see why we should praise in death those whom we would gladly damn in life; here we would have been in agreement.

As to the second issue, there is of course the question whether we should judge one another at all. But, surely Breitbart had no problem with judging others. I believe he was wrong to do so on partial and heavily edited evidence, but there is no doubt that human interaction and moral maturity require that we judge one another both positively and negatively. So, I've no problem with informed judgment, only the prejudicial sort pushed by the pundit and polemical class, of which Breitbart was himself an exemplar. 

But, then, how should we judge a figure like Breitbart? Many, especially those who had private interactions with him, have claimed that he was a good husband, a good father, a good friend. This may all be true. But, they have made a further claim, that for all these reasons we should see him as a good man. The argument here seems to be that one's private character is the center of one's being, the real core, the real identity, and the only correct basis for judgment. One's public actions, it seems, even when those actions involve the destruction of another person's lives in order to further one's own agenda—with the justification that the agenda will ultimately be better for everyone—or the manufacturing of evidence or the unwillingness to admit obvious errors or self-aggrandizement or eternal bloviating, are not as important as one's private homelife. 

That this account is wrong-headed seems so clear to me as to need almost no explanation, but I must be nearly alone in this. So, a few words on this seem in order. My standard response to this line of thought in a student is to point out that by most reports Hitler was kind to animals and could not stand to see or hear of animal cruelty, but surely this one private virtue does nothing to ameliorate his public vice. Similarly, as Lifton makes clear in The Nazi Doctors, physicians who worked in the concentration camps often continued to be good fathers and husbands and, shockingly, were often quite nice to the children in the camps—Mengele was beloved of the children in the Gypsy camp and regularly brought them gifts—right up to the moment they would have them liquidated. Similarly, by his daughter's reports, Stalin never used his vast power for self-enrichment, showing some modicum of private virtue in this one area. 

Now, of course, these are extreme examples and it is suspect to put too much weight on extreme examples. But, my very small point is that public vice and private virtue can well live in the same being. This very fact does not justify disregarding one's public persona and vices in an evaluation of the person. 

So, I would argue that, in a case where someone has regularly dishonestly attacked others, leading in some instances to the loss of their livelihood and reputation, and been quite willing to use other human beings as means to an end, one has demonstrated vice, public vice. And, inasmuch as our actions both flow from and form our characters, there is no question that shows a bad character. In such cases, the claim that this person was—in his private life—virtuous, can be discarded as of little to no importance in an evaluation of the person as a human being. 

I say this first, because he has nonetheless demonstrated vice; second, because this very bifurcation shows a failing as a human being to approach anything like integration; and, third, because the combination of public vice and private virtue shows a lack of shame not shown in the opposite combination of public virtue and private vice and a capacity for shame is itself integral to the formation of virtue. 

I make no claim to virtue, but for those who make some claims for themselves or others, it had better extend beyond the private sphere.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Nietzsche, Jay-Z and the Humanities

Once in a while I hear or read a complaint from a student about the amount of time we spend talking about historical figures in class—the classic Dead White Males—with the implied contrast being a class in which we only talked about contemporary issues with, I suppose, no reference to the past or—though I doubt anyone would be interested in this either—lots of reading of today's thinkers. I have to admit that I don't always know what to do with this sort of worry, except to worry about it in an entirely different way. 

The students are bored or can't figure out how anyone who lived in an era before computers or cellphones (like me in my youth!) could possibly have anything of interest to say to people today; that's their worry. But mine is what it means to live a life in which everything is now. 

Of course, the world in which the figures of the past lived is a different one to the one we live in now; so is the world in which I grew up, to a lesser degree. But the inability to see ourselves in conversation with those figures surely makes human life and our experience of it a more shallow and colorless one. I don't have much truck with nostalgia or attempting to recreate some golden age, nor do I believe in a golden age, but I hope that we can still learn from the past as I hope that the future can learn from us. If not, I really can't see much point in the humanities or the humanist tradition I think of myself as part of. And, when my students can't see the difference between mere history and a conversation with the past, I get a little sad.

But, then something amazing happens. A few weeks ago, I was talking about Nietzsche's analysis of good and evil in a night-time ethics class at a community college and a student piped in to tell me that when she had read the assigned selection(!), it made her think of a line from a song of Jay-Z. And, I thought, there it is, she gets what we're trying to do. And, the sadness went away for a bit.