Monday, December 28, 2015

Some pretty random and disorganized thoughts about wanting what we lack

We consistently fetishize and idealize those things that we lack, that we can't quite achieve. It's as if we recognize our incompleteness—whether we think of this as our fall from grace, our looking for our other half, our alienation, the absurdity of our lives, or any number of other ways it's been conceptualized through the years—and think that if we could just get that one thing everything would be complete. And, since it's a thing we aren't ever going to get, we can be guaranteed never to be complete.
So, many gay men fetishize a particular picture of masculinity. I'm not saying that gay men can't be masculine. Hell, I'm so mascmusc it's painful. But, so many in the gay community long for the "straight-acting" man. Why would you want this unless you think that's not what you are? Unless you think there is something missing in your own masculinity or femininity or wherever you fall?
But this isn't a post about gay men. You see the same thing in political discourse with its strange nostalgia for a time that never was, quite often a fantasy of the 1950s or early 1960s (though only if you are both White and straight) or sometimes a Rousseau-tinged fantasy of the rural life (only ever indulged in by people who do not remember that life), a time that could not possibly be regained—there is no way back there from here. If only we could regain that, if only we could live in that way again, everything would be fine. The world would be perfect; utopia would be achieved.
You see it in religious believers who long for a golden past—the Tridentine Mass, primitive Christianity—or the millennium whatever that is supposed to look like. 
You see it in revolutionaries who long for the utopia to come when everything will be made whole.
You see it in our consumerism, when just one more possession, a new car, a nicer house, that jacket, those kicks, will be the thing that makes everything right, that will finally make me happy.
I see it in myself, in a need to think of people who are merely acquaintances as friends, in a need to feel I belong even to groups that I know I could never belong to. I idealize community and friendship in a way that points to my own inability to feel or find either one very often. That is, I idealize it in the way that one of nature's outsiders is bound to. If only I would belong, if only they would think of me as a friend, then I would be happy. But they won't, so my unhappiness is external.
And, that's the thing about all of these: happiness is conceived of as something I will gain if only I could achieve the unachievable. But this is a kind of nihilism—in the way Camus conceives it in The Rebel—in the way it removes value and happiness to some future state. It also leads us to do things that are wrong (for us) in order to achieve that unachievable or constantly progressing goal. 
I'm not saying that part of happiness isn't finding things outside ourselves. I have to admit that much or most of the happiness in my life relies on the presence of my partner/husband/friend. But, I am saying something that has been noted by thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and RuPaul: love and happiness have to start with a love and happiness in oneself. I have to start by loving my life and my situation as it is in its imperfections. This might well include a realization that it could become better, but it has to have some value as it is. Nothing else can complete me unless I am already complete.
If we can't love the here and now and the person we are, we will never love any there and then or person we can become. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

On thinking about natural law in the shower

I first learned to think and do philosophy as part of a tradition, a fairly conservative Catholic tradition that took both Aristotle and Aquinas seriously. My graduate training was very different, but the effects of that initial training are still in me. I might be a very bad and marginal member of that tradition, but I am still in it in some ways. One way that I remain is in a general respect for virtue theory and—oddly enough for an avowed homosexual—natural law approaches to ethics. I still take Aristotle and Aquinas seriously and I think their approaches to the good life, to flourishing, to what is good for us still speak to us.
If there is something odd about this it is because natural law moralists, in particular, have been at the forefront of objections to the decriminalization of homosexuality and to recognition of same-sex marriages. I'm not interested in debating whether modern advocates of natural law are in the right here. But I do want to note one important thing. Both virtue theory and natural law theory are meant to be empirically grounded theories. They make pronouncements about what is good for beings like us and what would amount to a good life for beings like us based on facts about our biology and psychology.
It is a basic assumption of both sorts of accounts that humans have some immutable nature. I think this is probably right, at least in the medium term; what might happen to that nature over evolutionary time is a different issue. But, many modern proponents of each of these theories seem to assume that our knowledge of this nature is also immutable. What I mean is this: Contemporary natural law theorists operate under the assumption that Aristotle and Aquinas had a complete and completely correct account of human nature, in its biological and psychological aspects. Thus, they believe not only that human nature is immutable, but that we have known all there is to know about it for at least almost a millennium. 
What we have learned about human biology and human psychology and the nature of human interactions since the middle ages is or seems to be of almost no interest to many practitioners of both virtue theory and natural law ethics. You see them quoting Aquinas as authoritative on all such matters.
Now, I think that Aquinas understood quite a bit about human psychology, but I don't think he got it all. And, his biology was pretty bad. Similarly, I think Aristotle understood human motivation and psychological development and society pretty well, but he was missing out on some pretty important pieces, pieces which have partially been supplied by further exploration in the ensuing years. 
Mostly, I think that Aquinas and Aristotle and others in this tradition were right to base an ethic on what we are like and what will lead to happy and fulfilling and flourishing lives for creatures like us. They were also right to think that is largely an empirical question. But this empirical question is an empirical one, not an a priori one or one that was settled in the high middle ages. If we discover new things about ourselves—say about sexuality or human interaction or the family—then our theory has to respond to that.
If virtue theory or natural law is just a constant rehashing of what people thought 900 or 2300 years ago, it isn't philosophy, it isn't even virtue theory or natural law, it's just a dead orthodoxy. And, that's exactly how it should be treated: as dead and irrelevant. 
(I should mention one exception to the immutability of the theory here: Almost all such theorists have discovered that lending at interest is morally acceptable; that we learned something about economics that Aquinas wouldn't have known, since he roundly condemned this practice as usury and a violation of the natural law. This exception may be self-serving or might be a realization that the theory needs to evolve.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Aut ridenda omnia aut flenda sunt: some thoughts on anger

We live in an age that at least appears to be bathed in outrage. Maybe we are angrier than we used to be. Maybe we are made angrier by the way social media allows us the intimacy of knowing the thoughts of our non-intimates while accelerating the formation of virtual though effective mobs. Maybe nothing has changed but the way we think about these things.

It's not just that we appear to be angrier. To some degree we are expected to be angry. If you enter a discussion about abortion or racism or campus sexual harassment or ISIS or Trump's latest tirade or whatever the issue of the moment is, it isn't sufficient to have the correct opinion. Of course, it won't be accepted if you have a different opinion even if you can mount a reasonable defense of your heresy. But, even when you are on the right side, you have to be sufficiently passionate about it. If you aren't outraged and ready to march, it's suspicious that you even care. 
But this may just give anger too much credit. This week, I've been reviewing Seneca's De Ira. Among the demonstrations of his erudition and theoretical virtue, he speaks to the way we live now. Particularly striking is his questioning of the effectiveness of anger. I think it's common now to think that anger helps to motivate action. Seneca denies this more than he should; in his Stoicism, he believes we should motivated and act wholly on reason. I'm suspicious of this for both Aristotelian and Humean reasons—reason alone will always leave us cold—but I think he's right in the way that anger can at least tend to motivate us in the wrong ways. 
Anger is, after all, an emotion, or a passion in his taxonomy. When we are passionate, we don't think clearly and we act in ways that are not means to the ends we desire. Anger, in particular, takes over. We strike out at people who aren't to blame for the injustices we are angry about; we don't dig deeper into what we are angry about, failing in some cases to see that there was nothing to be angry about in the first place; we harm ourselves and those we care about, metaphorically (and sometimes literally) punching walls and destroying those places and relationships in which we live. We commit injustices small and large to vent our rage. None of this gets us to our goals, at least not in the most direct way. If the machine is unjust, maybe raging against it isn't the best plan. Maybe planning, rationally and coolly, would be more effective.
More importantly, it is easy to lose the humanity of our opponents in our rage. Anger turns our opponents into demons. Demons don't have any goodness left in them, demons don't have reasons, and demons don't deserve our respect. And, if they are demons, we are angels or saints at the worst. Angels are fully good, they have all reason on their side, and deserve full respect. Angels aren't humans; even saints aren't like any humans we know. In anger, we lose the humanity of others and we lose our own. We can no longer see their goodness nor our own failings. And, every disagreement can become an existential fight between Good and Evil. In such fights, no compromise is possible. There is no cooperating with evil. Thus, injustice is likely never to be ameliorated if it can't be erased altogether.
Finally, as Seneca also notes, anger is hard to maintain. You can coldly hate someone for decades, even generations. But, it's hard to maintain the froth of anger for long, at least about the same thing. Online an outrage lasts for no more than a day or two and then another gains our attention. The mob swarms from one to the next. But when we move onto to the next outrage, what happens to the one we've left behind? It's left behind. And, the thing about real problems, real injustices, is that they take time and commitment and anger just won't keep us at that. It takes something else, maybe a passion after all, but not that one. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why shouldn't you sit in my front yard to eat your lunch?

In the middle of the summer a contractor for the city began replacing the sewer lines in our neighborhood. Having finished that, the same contractor is now digging up the streets they have just sort-of repaired to replace the water lines. This has meant a summer with the constant sound of heavy machinery and multiple backhoes and bulldozers racing through the street at breakneck pace and parked throughout the neighborhood overnight, through weekends, and during holidays. The work is scheduled to be completed by March 2017; so much for private contractors being more efficient than public workers. 
These are the sorts of first-world problems that people like me like to complain about. Living in San Diego, they combine with the third-world streets—only slightly better than those around my husband's family home in La Matanza in Argentina—to give us some small thing to temper the weather and sun and ocean and mountains and everything. But I'm not going to complain about that now. Instead, I'm going to complain about myself.
Since this is the last week before the academic year picks back up, I am still at home with the dog and my one remaining monarch caterpillar. I spend the day reading and avoiding work and dreading/longing for the beginning of classes. As I ate a piece of leftover pizza today, I noticed that one of the workers had walked from the work-zone, which surrounds us, but isn't within a block of our house in either direction, to sit on our retaining wall to eat his lunch. This irked me, but I figured that he was only sitting on the wall and, after all, he needs somewhere to eat his lunch. After a second piece of pizza, I looked out again and he had been joined by another worker. His companion wasn't sitting on the wall but lying on the stones on our front yard, between two plants. From being irked, I became angry.
When I walked the dog I noticed that they had their coolers and a radio and a whole spread in front of the house. As Mateo and I walked around the block, I thought about what I should do. Should I confront the workers and ask them not to lie on our yard? Should I call the company and complain about their behavior? Should I wait for Fernando to deal with it?
When we got back to the house, I said hello to them and went inside. By this time I had begun to ask myself a different question: What the hell is wrong with me? Here were two people eating their lunch in the middle of a hot day doing relatively unpleasant work. And, I was upset because they were sitting on a wall and lying on some rocks. Of course, that wall and those rocks are mine. But, they were doing no harm and getting a little bit of rest.
The answer to what is wrong with me (in this context) is a fully American, fully Lockean, common, and inhumane conception of property. The harm they were doing was a very minimal trespass, one that did no damage either to the property or its owners. The wall and yard are in the same shape as they were before their lunch. I wasn't going to be using it for something else during that time. But, as my reactions and actions show, I have deeply imbued the notion that property is sacrosanct, that is exists as a right and value in and of itself and before all others.
But that's not what property is like. Property, as Aquinas taught, exists for the good of the community. A right to property exists to help us avoid tragedies of the commons, because people take better care of what is theirs than what is all of ours, because collective farming and cooperatives and group work in classes tends not to be as productive. But property is not some primary value; it can be justified only insofar as it contributes to the commonweal. In a certain, very real way, each of us holds it in trust for the community. And, when the good of the community is threatened by property claims those claims must be reexamined. Sometimes the community will win and sometimes property will. But when it's between two men sitting down for fifteen minutes and my claims on the wall, it's probably the community that wins. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Truth against truth

A few semesters ago, I had a truly brilliant student. He wasn't one of our majors—not that that matters—but he was the kind of student who has a genuine and deep interest in ideas: exploring them, understanding their motivations and justifications, teasing out their implications.
At one point we were discussing the Republic and Plato's blueprint for the education of the Guardians, including his canons of censorship and the Noble Lie. We began talking about whether it was ever acceptable to lie to children (Santa Claus, family myths, etc.) or whether it was necessary always to tell them the unvarnished, if not complete, truth.
Our conversation continued after class and after several more meetings. As it continued, it expanded into related questions.  In the course of thinking through these questions, we got to fiction. He told me that he never chose to read any fiction, because he just couldn't see the point of reading things that aren't true.
In his case, this preference seemed to come from a a certain type of ethical seriousness, one I can admire even if I find it mistaken in its application.
But, in effect, he shared a preference with many in contemporary society. Consider how A Million Little Pieces was first rejected by publishers when submitted as a piece of fiction, but won acclaim and bestseller status when it was published and marketed as a memoir. (And, how it came to be seen as not just a fraud, but worthless, when it was again seen to be a fiction.) This must mean our standards for nonfiction are vastly lower.
"Well," the prospective reader says to herself, "I wouldn't read that, but since you tell me it is a true story, well, now I'm interested."
Or, consider the plethora of memoirs now published, often by people in their 20s and 30s. There was a time when memoirs were written mostly by people of note at the end of illustrious—interesting—lives. Now, people write them when they are still in college. Of course, this reflects the narcissism of our selfie-culture, but they also sell. Apparently, the reading public wants to read these things.
Not only do we want to read them, but sometimes we want to see them made into movies. For one egregious example, consider Julie & Julia. The part of the movie about Julia Childs is watchable. It has Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci and it's about an interesting person with an interesting life. But what of the other part? And, yet, because it was true-life, it sold as a book and movie. I mean, it actually happened!
Or, consider how a book or television series can add to its appeal by claiming to be "based on a true story" or having tired police procedural plot-lines that are, nevertheless, "ripped from the headlines."
We want truth, even if it's dreck.
This reflects a loss of something of value in our society, one we can regain by thinking about a simple distinction between truth (as positivistic factuality or representation of a state of affairs that obtains in the world) and truth or truths (as something transcendent, both above and below the facts of the matter). Good art often shows us the latter without expressing the former.
Consider Oedipus or The Magic Mountain or Emma or True Stories or the myths of most cultures or so many more. Each of these presents truths about humans, about our lives, our natures, our interactions, our psyches, our ethics. But they do this while being manifestly false. In some cases, they aren't even plausible or life-like.
This is part of the point of Aristotle's suggestion that ethics be learnt from fables or that drama can lead to catharsis, it is what Alasdair MacIntyre was getting at when he said to his students that we should read Austen if we wanted to know how to be, it is how Wittgenstein could deny that there were any ethical propositions even while claiming that Westerns had a moral function.
Of course, there can be art that expresses both types of truth, but it will always be rarer than that type that tells us true stories that tell us nothing about ourselves. If we are honest, most nonfiction is banal, empty, little more than an entertainment masquerading as something profound—and not that good artistically. (And, I am not defending that art that attempts to provide truths while claiming, falsely, to be true.)
What I am declaring is that I am a partisan of fiction and the imaginary and the fantastic. Only in these can we see important truths about ourselves. Without them, we are impoverished, left with only the real. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

You're fine, how am I?

As I've aged, I've started to function in an almost behavioristic fashion. I mean the behaviorism of the Ryle and Malcolm and (maybe, but probably not) Wittgenstein and not that of Skinner. Obviously, I don't quite take behaviorism to be wholly true; I think I have internal states and I am even sometimes directly aware of them. Often though, my primary access to those internal states isn't through introspection at all. In particular, I find myself knowing my mood not by peering inside, but by noticing what I happen to be doing.
Many is the day I find myself singing one of my stupid songs—about dogs or cheese and crackers or potatoes or someone in the gym or something off-color—or doing one of my signature and quite bad dance moves in the middle of the kitchen or the grocery store or hallway or public restroom, or I begin to skip or gallop down the hallway at the university and I realize that I must be in a good mood. Perhaps because my default mood is a certain funk that I call The Fog, I can be surprised to discover that I'm not in it but actually happy. 
Equally surprising is that I discover this mood the same way my husband does, through my actions and behaviors, and not through some privileged access I have. The internal reflection, often as not, comes from the recognition birthed by action.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Just a minute, I'm checking my phone

We went to one of our semi-regular places this morning for our semi-regular practice of a weekend breakfast out. While I waited for my fully-regular order, I noticed the booth across the aisle. A mother sat there with her two young boys. 
One of the boys was probably around four or five and had brought a toy car to the diner with him. The other boy was young enough to be in a highchair (and the cutest onesie I’ve seen in a long time). Both boys were well-behaved, but the older one went from booth to booth looking for people to talk to and other children to play with, while his younger brother looked around for someone to make eye-contact with. 
While she waited for her food, their mother was fully engrossed with her phone, texting, reading emails, checking various social media platforms, looking at pictures. A few times the older boy called out unsuccessfully for her to notice something. She couldn't be pulled away from the phone.
When the food came, the phone went to a position by her plate, so she could keep looking at it while they ate their food. The phone remained at the center of attention, the very focal point of her time in the diner.
I’m in no position to judge her. I have no reason to believe she is a bad parent or a bad person. And, except when I babysat decades ago, I have never had to sit through a meal shared only with children. I have no kids and the world of the future is probably better off for that. 
I am also no better than she; it is a difficult thing for me to go through a meal without checking my phone. I can’t walk the dog in the morning without it. I check it immediately before sleeping and immediately before rising. I have it with me when I watch a show or a movie in the evening.
Watching her instead called to mind something I have thought about, if not personally addressed, many times before. We live in a time when the virtual too often trumps the real. We’d rather text with someone far away than talk to the person in front of us. We’d rather read about someone else’s life on Facebook than live our own. We would rather edit our experiences for Instagram than fully live them. Hell, much of the time we’d rather sext or use a hookup app than actually have  real, human-contact-involving sex.

Maybe part of the reason some among us dream of achieving immortality through uploading themselves into computers—and are satisfied that this would be a good existence—is that many of us already cannot imagine a life lived any way other than virtually. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

I love you, but I'm worried about your immortal soul

I'm not going to wade into a lengthy debate about whether laws purporting to "restore" religious liberties are really licenses to discriminate. I suspect that, in the current context, they are. No one seemed upset about catering or providing flowers for repeat trips to the altar in the past, but what do I know?

What does interest me is the discourse some religious full-bore supporters of discrimination against gays and lesbians engage in. It goes something like this: "I don't hate you. In fact I love you. And, I am concerned about your immortal soul and the souls of those you may influence. So, I think society and the law should discourage (punish) you for your life(style)." This can often trail off into talk of God's punishment. 
I suspect some of those who deal in this line do so sincerely, but it puts me in mind of another person who just wanted to see people converted—though he thought it as impossible as some modern day evangelists must see my conversion—and make sure they didn't adversely affect others. And, so, in the spirit of Christian love, Martin Luther wrote On the Jews and their Lies. Because he found them incorrigible, he believed their homes and synagogues ought to be burned. And, he hoped it might lead to repentance, but failing that, at least good Christians would be saved from a malign influence. 
How different is that, at the end of the day, from those who merely want to save me from my own perfidious ways?

Saturday, January 31, 2015

There's nothing more American than not vaccinating your children

We treat the anti-vaccine crowd as if they were an aberration. But they aren't outliers. They are the natural endpoint of two very strong and very American tendencies: distrust of all authorities and hierarchies; and, the belief that we are each responsible for ourselves.
There is a facet of the American ideal that sees each person as a sovereign individual, not just in charge of herself, but as intelligent, as well-informed, as wise, as good as the next person. Hobbes saw this in our English forebears, when he noted that every person is satisfied with the intelligence he has, since he is certain that he is as intelligent as everyone else. You see it in the almost universal negative reaction to being told that someone is smarter; rare is the American who will accept that this might be the case. 
Perhaps this characteristic isn't peculiar to Americans, but there is something special in the way that this distrust of authority leads to skepticism of science and the positing of individual authority here. We have no need of authorities. Each of us—every politician so quick to say he is "not a scientist," for example—is as much an expert as those with years of training, with decades of research. Climate scientists point to anthropogenic climate change and mean global warming. So what? It's snowing. And, I don't see that it's warming. So, my feelings and experience trump the data and the research. Biologists are unable to find any evidence of danger in eating GMOs—leave aside other concerns people might have. It doesn't matter. I just know there has to be something wrong with eating these  Frankenfoods. There has to be. There's no evidence whatsoever that there's any link between vaccination and autism. The only paper to support such a link has been thoroughly discredited. Its author has lost his medical license. But, though I lack any scientific training, though I cannot identify any plausible causal link, though I have no idea at all about the purported causal mechanism or the etiology of autism, I am certain that there is. And, the ample evidence that I put my own child at risk of serious illness or death—my mom told me a harrowing story of watching a child die of pertussis forty years ago—can never trump my maternal or paternal gut instinct that there just must be some connection. 
Who are the experts to claim authority over my own "knowledge" and experience? I am an American.
But, you say, not vaccinating my children also puts others' children at great risk? Well, I'm not responsible for them. They are their parents' responsibility, just as my children are mine. We are a country of individuals and families.
You don't have to be a fan of Ayn Rand or to talk about "makers" and "takers" to have imbued the idea that, in America, everyone is responsible for herself and those closest to her, but no one else. After all, the American God helps those who help themselves. You see this is debates about healthcare. You see it in discussions of the safety net and proposals that put having a life-plan before being fed. You see it in the inane way people describe themselves as have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. You see it in parents withdrawing their children from the public schools to charters and private schools, ignoring the effects on the children who are left behind. 
And, you see it in the women I watched on the news the other night trying to explain her decision not to vaccinate her children. Well, she actually refused to explain this decision, since she doesn't even owe others an explanation. Other people, she explained, are invested in their decisions and opinions, and she has her own. But, she needs to make decisions for her children. Risks to others, other children, played no part in her discussion. They don't really exist as any part of her moral calculation.
But that's not an aberration. That is quintessentially American. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

So happy, but so many shotguns

One almost constant refrain my students and I heard in Guatemala—from Guatemalans, from Americans, from workers in NGOs—was that Guatemalans are extremely happy. In spite of their sometimes crushing poverty, they are happy. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the happiest-nation-on-earth discourse about Bhutan. I'm not going to deny that I saw a lot of very happy people. I've already written about happiness and poverty and lessons we should and shouldn't take from such experiences here
I only want to add one small set of observations. For a country so universally-described as happy, armed guards are ubiquitous. Every morning as I would walk back from the gym to my classroom, legions of men—really boys—would fan out to their jobs as guards in businesses of every kind, from banks and jewelry stores to restaurants. Each of them is armed at least with a short-barreled shotgun. Many are also armed with sidearms. And, they accompany managers visiting stores, deliveries of canned goods to restaurants and cafés, they even guard ice cream salons in Guatemala City. 
Restaurants post signs warning that you are not allowed to smoke or bring in pets or come in armed. The assumption seems to be that many customers would otherwise be packing.
In addition to the guards and concerns about armed diners, broken-glass or razor wire or electrified fencing tops most walls and the boundaries between roofs, not only in the commercial but also in residential districts. 
What is there to be so afraid of in such a happy country? Surely, such a happy people are unlikely to engage in violent crime to change their status. Or could it be that the discourse of happiness serves the purposes of a radically unequal—and heavily influenced by those good old Chicago economists—society? They are so happy, why worry about how poor they are? We can keep them at bay with weapons.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What's the opposite of cosmopolitan?

I'm painfully aware of my foreignness in Guatemala. I mean the pain of self-consciousness and social anxiety. It's hard not to see that I'm out of place. I'm the wrong shape, and odd size, a mix of white and burn, with a noticeably non-Guatemalan beard. (I'm not sure whether the man who told me I have a nice beard, a very nice beard, at the gym was complimenting me, in awe, or taking the piss; I suspect it was the last.) I'm dressed in American clothes. I speak passable Spanish but with the wrong accent; my accent is porteño, but no one is mistaking me for an Argentine. It is barely possible that I'm not being stared at all the time, but there are more than a few side glances. And, when I greet people in the street, they are surprised. I'm not sure what they are surprised by, but something.
If I reflect though—as I did last night when I returned from not having dinner, having forgotten the book that would have been my companion—I realize I don't feel considerably more out of place here that I do at home. In the United States, my surroundings are more familiar. And, of course, I speak my native tongue. As my students remind me, I do that with an accent that most find strange. In the United States, I obviously know how to navigate, but I'm never comfortable doing so. There, too, I feel out of place, never quite right.
My philosophical commitments tell me I should be a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the cosmos. But, I can't manage feeling that. Nor do I feel the right connections to be a nationalist or a regionalist. I mean, I am an American and a Hoosier, but I'm no more comfortable around my own kind—are they my own kind—than I am among strangers.
But what do you call someone who feels himself to have no citizenship whatsoever?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

But, what do you want to do with your life?

This week a student asked me what I planned to do with my life. That’s a question that makes a lot of sense to ask your peers and yourself when you're nineteen. But being asked when you're forty-one can be jarring. When you ask it of yourself, it’s likely to push you down the path towards mid-life crisis.
Roughly, my answer was that this—teaching—was what I was doing with my life, that it was going to be what I was doing with my life as long as I can find people willing to pay me to do it. My impact on the world comes through whatever effect I have on students. I suspect my answer wasn't satisfying. The spark in his eyes when he asked was dimmed a click or two.
It was an unsatisfying answer for good reason. At nineteen, you are looking for something you are going to do in the world that will have world-historical impact. In youth, you want to change the world; your heroes are those who lead movements and revolutions, who organize their communities, who found religions, who bring down governments and empires, who build them. You have a hard time imagining life-goals that aren't transformative. There seems something a little sad about a life that isn't directed toward such a goal.
At some point for many people, if not for all, there’s a recognition that they aren't going to change everything the world has ever thought, that they aren't going to find the lever that moves the world, that they aren't going to be great figures remembered through all of history. (How long will I be remembered? Not much more than a decade or two.) Many of us come to believe that the hunger for immortality Socrates claimed to be present in all of us will have to be sated not with great deeds but through children or—for those of us who lack even those—through the small effects we can have on others than just might ramify even if our names are destined to be blotted out of both history and memory. 
To think this at nineteen would be almost tragically sad—it is a wisdom best left unshared until the time is (past) ripe—but in middle age (unless this is the prime), it is only sometimes sad. for instance when you reflect on what you might have wanted at nineteen. At other times, it is reassuring. That I am not Napoleon or Gandhi or King or Romero or Mann or Musil or Borges or Aristotle or Kant or Wittgenstein or … is not such a bad thing. I am having an effect; it’s small. But that is usually the way and better than no effect at all. 

It might just be enough to have tried to be a good man and gotten sort of close, once in a while. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

What lessons poverty?

San Miguel Escobar
I'm in my second of three weeks traveling with and teaching a group of undergraduates from the University. We've taken a number of trips and done some service work. Unsurprisingly, we've seen a lot of poverty here. And, though what we have seen does not approach the poorest of the poor, we have seen and talked to and spent time with people whose lives are vastly different to our own.
We see poverty in the street, in the central park of the city, on the porches of the churches—especially, La Merced. We saw it in Guatemala City, in San Juan del Obispo, in San Miguel Escobar, at Pacaya volcano, on the "chicken bus."
And, one of the striking things is that there is so much happiness in the midst of such poverty. It's not hard to seem or be happier than I do or am, but there is little question that so many—obviously not all—people who have so much less than I do, or than any of us do, are so much happier than the average person you are likely to see on the street at home. 
Of course, it is possible that they only seem to be happier; we can never really know another's internal states. Or, they might just be acting; they could be putting on a show for the American tourists. Either of these is a possibility, but I doubt that either is the case. A principle of charity demands that I take people to be showing their real states. 
Assuming that people are nearly as happy as they seem, there are at least two lessons the mildly reflective tourist can draw. One is conducive to a more virtuous life, the other a vicious one. 
First, something good: Our material possessions don't guarantee happiness. It is possible to have much more and not to have captured happiness. This calls for a reflection on our own values. What am I pursuing? Why do I need a bigger house? A newer car? Another watch or pen? The latest phone? Here are people with none of those things and they are happy. Have I merely been convinced by capitalism, or by the comparison and competition Rousseau identifies as endemic to our property-based social contract, that I need these things or that in gaining them I will gain or get closer to happiness? This lesson, this reflection, can help me refocus and perhaps get closer to happiness, to flourishing, to eudaimonia.
Something bad, and just as common: If people can be happy in such circumstances, things should be left as they are. What we see is a golden age, a window onto a simpler time and simpler lifestyle. And, it's good enough for them. (Though, this is always colored with a touch of Voltaire's Brahmin: it might make them happy, but it could no longer satisfy me; I've gone too far in another direction.) If these people can be be happy as they take their laundry to the local fountain as their children play in the dirt; if they can be happy with minimal or no plumbing; if they can be happy with homes roofed in tin held down by rocks in the corners; if they can be happy when their mules are stabled and chickens and ducks penned next to the porch on which they eat their meager meals; if they can be happy though they are broken and bent by lives spent working a little bit of land to produce coffee and get a little bit of the profit the vast majority of which goes to a large corporation, well, who am I to worry about this? In fact, in their golden, more perfect state, I ought almost to envy them. (This is the romanticism of the rural and the lumberjack and the primitive that permeates so much of our late capitalist society; witness the hipster and the pickup truck and the Presidential aspirants in cowboy boots.)
It might seem this second lesson I have drawn is one that no one could possibly draw. But I think it is as common to see poverty as picturesque as it is to see it as so abject that nothing can be done about it. Both are recipes for doing nothing, for not really caring, and—though the directions are different—for dehumanizing.
There's got to be a way to take the first lesson and still think that we have an obligation to make the lives of others better in material ways that they themselves wish for.