Friday, December 16, 2016

Remembering some things about the real America

We’ve heard a lot recently about the real America and how it has been overlooked and forgotten recently. Pundits tell us we misunderstand it and sleight it at our own risk. Most of those pundits have never spent more than a week in any one part of it and know nothing of it, by the way. Nonetheless, they are writing a mythology of that magical place.
I’m from that real America. I grew up in the same area that (part of) my family had been in for just over 140 years at my birth. Granted, some of the rest of my family were incomers, but all from other parts of that great real America, all of them having settled somewhere in middle America—if we include Appalachia—well before the Civil War and many before the Revolution.
My hometown was a great place to grow up, with some important caveats and for only some groups. But there’s a tendency now to talk about places like Huntington as if they are citadels of virtue to be contrasted with the Babylons and Sodoms of the big cities and the coasts. That’s just not the case. I’ve been thinking about just some of what went on in my town. Here, I give a partial list:

  • The son of my first grade teacher got into an argument outside a drug store with another boy from the high school. He was beaten so badly that, though he continued to age, he returned to the mentality of a mere child.
  • My elementary school had a fourth-grade teacher who regularly had male students sit on his lap. Everybody knew about it. Everybody talked about it. Everyone warned their boys about it. No one did anything about it.
  • When I was in elementary school or junior high, a man killed his father after his father “looked at him wrong.” They were cutting wood at the time. So, he hacked him to death.
  • When I was in high school, three boys went to the home of an eccentric and probably gay businessman, ostensibly to rob him. Well, maybe two of them thought it was a robbery or they were going to settle some dispute the third of them had had with the man. In fact, that man also ended up being axed to death by the third boy.
  • Also, when I was in high school, there was a rash—I mean it seemed like an epidemic if such things could be catching—of men being found hanged at one of our local reservoirs. They had hanged themselves in the pursuit of the perfect orgasm through autoerotic asphyxiation. They, of course, were not the only ones pursuing release at the reservoirs.
  • There was another fellow who was arrested numerous times for criminal trespass. It seems he couldn’t resist the wiles of a group of llamas living on another person’s farm.
  • Another man recruited men for his surgery hobby. How this was possible in the days before Craigslist, I don’t quite know. Anyway, he offered them amateur castrations., effected with everyday tools. Several men took him up on this. He kept the fruits of his labors in jars. He was only caught and jailed when the girlfriend of a recruit found out what he was offering.

That’s not all, but it’s enough to get to my point. What’s my point? There’s no real America. There’s no idyllic place where everything is perfect and virtue still reigns. That’s not because everything is horrible. And, it’s not a denial that there are or might be better and worse places, but humans are everywhere and the evils of human life and the goods of human are everywhere where humans are. Seeing one part of the country as either the only real one or a cesspool is not only unhelpful, it’s a reflection of an unwillingness to think much about anything, especially the political.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A quick thought about a liberal arts education

Before the very idea of a liberal arts education becomes entirely subsumed in concerns about marketability and utility and the the equally horrid buzzwords of twenty-first century pedagogy, it's important to remember something that was distinctive about it once upon a time. 
Its goal was never the same thing as that of professional education. If you study business, you are doing so in order to go into business. And, that's right and good. 
But, that's not what studying literature or philosophy is in the first instance. Sure, lots of people get degrees in philosophy and then go on to study more philosophy in graduate school. That's fine. And, it satisfies to some small degree that hated and hateful question: "What are you going to do with a degree in that?"
No, the point of a liberal arts education, once upon a time, was the education of a person, a person who could go on to do a lot of different things. That person was a person who was going to be able to think liberally and philosophically and humanistically (and mathematically and logically and ...). (Such a person would be an intellectual in the best sense, not that we have any value for intellectuals these days.) That education involved a specialization, but as Oakeshott argued, that specialization was itself a training in the ability to delve into a subject, to explore more deeply, to dedicate oneself. It wasn't, or didn't have to be, a commitment to do this thing professionally or for the rest of one's life.
I don't know how many people recognize this as valuable anymore or how many realize the importance of leisure and non-utilitarian, non-box-checking approaches to the world to this pursuit, but I think we are paying a price and will continue paying a price in the polis for the loss of this idea of education.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Some Thanksgiving thoughts about perspectives and the search for truth

I've been reading Scruton's, How to Be a Conservative, both because I find a certain kind of conservative theory interesting and because it's important to read people and ideas with which you don't necessarily agree. In his consideration of multiculturalism ("The Truth in Multiculturalism"), Scruton faults this approach as turning into a kind of cultural relativism. He finds the philosophical grounding of relativism in the perspectivism of Nietzsche and its adoption by "postmodern" thinkers. 
Elsewhere, he has praise for some of Nietzsche's thought, but the belief that there are no truths and only perspectives he calls both self-refuting—"What then is this, a truth or not?" he asks—and the basis of our inability to stand up for or against any cultural practice. I think the claim that dear Friedrich has unwittingly contradicted himself is too quick, but what is more interesting to me is a common understanding that Nietzsche is introducing his denial of TRUTH ex nihilo. 
This isn't the way he seems to understand himself, nor is it the right way to understand the genesis of his approach. He sees himself as showing the endpoint of philosophy and, most especially, Christianity. To paraphrase: Christ tells us the truth will set us free and, at the end of the day, it sets us free of itself. He's taking things to what he thinks are their logical conclusions. He might be showing his reader the way forward or he might be providing a reductio, but he doesn't think of himself as fully breaking with the tradition he's critiquing.
I don't know whether that full historical path can be fairly traced, but perspectivism and its denial of truth can be seen as having its roots in Kant and his distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal. If that's right—I so rarely am—then we have Hume to blame for awakening Kant from his dogmatic slumbers. Hume's own skeptical project only makes sense in the context of the search for absolute certainty with which RenĂ© Descartes begins modern philosophy. Descartes—for all his smuggling of philosophical method and terminology—does see himself as a rupture with the philosophy that went before.
So, my point? It's become a commonplace to criticize relativism and postmodernism and to locate their genesis in Nietzsche; but, if you want to find the error, you have to go back further. Once you go down the certainty-seeking skeptical rabbit-hole with Descartes, you're going to end up at either solipsism or perspectivism. 

Also, Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, September 30, 2016


The house settles,
Cracks appear
Each returns;
to the void that bore us,

Monday, July 25, 2016

Washing our hands in the abortion debate

It’s one of those periods when lots of people are talking about abortion in the United States. With one political convention over and the other just beginning, pundits and even some real people are thinking about the positions of the two major parties—one absolutely abolitionist, the other nigh on celebratory—and the four candidates. All of this had me thinking a little bit in the gym about not abortion, but the two main positions: Pro-life/anti-abortion and pro-choice/pro-abortion, to give them both their preferred and disdained names.

I don’t want to argue about the ethics of abortion here. I’ve done that before and probably will do so again. I don't want to argue about whether men should have opinions on abortion. I don’t even want to argue about the politics of abortion or what the law should be. My views on all of those questions would be upsetting to almost anyone.

What I want to point out is something I have noticed about many of the most ardent proponents of both views. Now, of course, this doesn’t apply to you necessarily, so you don’t need to explain to me why I am wrong about some or even most of the people who hold whatever view you have. What I have noticed is that there is often a kind of washing-of-the-hands that goes along with both positions.

There are, of course, many people who are opposed to abortion and who work either to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies or to share and alleviate the burden that comes with bearing and raising those children. Whatever your view on abortion, these people show a commitment to their beliefs. 

There is another—I fear, more common—opponent of abortion. There are many exemplars of this sort in the political class. This opponent is adamantly opposed to abortion, but isn’t invested in changing social structures either to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies or do anything for those women who would have to bear the costs of bearing and raising children. They won’t support the kinds of safety nets, whether governmental or private, that would make having children part of a flourishing life. In a real way, they wash their hands of these women who are not their concern. Their opposition to abortion is easy and morally lazy, because it makes no actual demands on them. For them, the right-to-life is merely a negative right that places no positive moral responsibility on the rest of us. 

I think this moral laziness occurs on the other side, too. Of course, people who are in favor of abortion access tend to vote for progressive policies, so they will at least tend to support a social safety net at the governmental level and such things as wider access to childcare. Many of these people also work to help those women who decide to keep their children to thrive. Whatever your opinion on abortion, you should praise such efforts. 

I say that such people will tend to support such policies, but there are also many libertarians who support access to abortion without supporting any of the policies that make it easier for women to keep and maintain their children. There are also supporters of abortion access who are quite happy to see the social safety net shrink; the age of welfare reform in the nineties was also one of demonization of single mothers by conservatives and liberals. That kind of demonization is related to my point. Support for abortion rights can easily bleed into an attitude, if not a belief, that the woman who chooses to keep a baby—even or especially when that decision will impact her life negatively or she can’t quite afford to raise it as well as she or we would like or that child is going to require extra help—should be fully responsible for the consequences of that decision. After all, if she couldn’t raise the child, she shouldn’t have had it. This is an attitude that also washes its hands of these women and their children. (And, it’s an attitude I’ve heard expressed sneeringly by good liberals.) For those in this camp, the right-to-choose is a fully individual right with material support only for one possible choice. It is in this camp, too, that you find the slightest unease with abortion equated with misogyny.

This tendency to let people fend for themselves may be the true American character of individualism: no one's decisions make any personal demands on us. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Against the revolution

In theory and practice, I believe we should emphasize and privilege the particular over the general, the concrete over the abstract. We must often speak in general or abstract terms, but in doing so we should take our speech to be an approximation or simplification of a much too complex account of all the individuals we are talking about. What I mean is that when we talk about humanity, for instance, we are using a handy way to talk about billions of individuals and not talking about some thing over and above those individuals.Since we can’t make a statement about all the individuals, we abstract away from the particular. In so doing, we lose not only particularity, but a good deal of accuracy. It’s easy to forget this, but it’s important not to lose the individuals for the crowd. (I know that sometimes it is the crowd and its effects on the individuals that matters, too.)

In matters of ethics and politics—for those who wrongly assume that there are two spheres of concern here—an emphasis on the particular means an emphasis on humans. You might think that it’s obvious that humans matter ethically and politically, but many people place their emphasis on humanity. And, “humanity” and “humans” often don't mean the same thing. Consider the way that millions of humans were sacrificed in order to bring about homo sovieticus or his Maoist counterpart or consider the way that fascists are willing to sacrifice millions to bring about their utopia. Yes, the sacrificers here were wrong about what would be good for humanity. Of that there should be no doubt, but they are exemplars of a way of thinking. This way of thinking privileges humanity over humans, and it is a way of thinking that is present in almost all revolutionary thinking.

The revolutionary—here my thought is inspired by Camus in The Rebel—has an idea of an ideal utopian future. This utopia might be a religious paradise, a republic of reason of the sort imagined by the Jacobins, a workers’ paradise, or some other version. The belief is that the utopia is the right, the best, the only correct environment for humanity. Because of the great value of this ideal, sacrifices must be made. I don’t doubt that sometimes lives must be lost in the pursuit of justice, but the brilliance of a utopia means that almost any sacrifice can be justified for this great boon to humanity. In other words, innumerable humans will have to die so that humanity will be better off.The world will burn but how much better things will be after the purifying fire!

The revolutionary is an anti-human humanitarian. If that seems paradoxical, you should think more about it. It is very, very easy to love humanity. The difficult thing is to love one’s neighbors. It’s easy to think that we ought to do something about the suffering of the homeless or the refugee or the victim of racial or sexual or … discrimination or violence; it is hard to treat the homeless woman sleeping in a doorway as deserving of my hospitality, to welcome the refugee into my home, to comfort the victims of discrimination or violence or give up some of my privilege that they may live better.

Talk of revolution is talk of universal morality or a political ideal, whatever the cost. That cost is always borne by real, living, breathing humans. I prefer the humans. That’s why talk of revolution is always terrifying to me; that’s why I think it is always, at best, irresponsible. It’s also why I am a kind of conservative. I believe that human beings are the most valuable—not the only valuable, but the most valuable—beings in my world. Thus, we must do what we can to preserve and conserve them and their lives. That demands justice and it demands change and progress, but not a justice and change and progress that can say, “Let’s tear the world down and start again.”

Sunday, May 01, 2016

From a bestiary to perspectivism: Sunday morning thoughts

I'm always half- or three-quarters-way through six or seven books at once. One of the books that I'm swimming around in is TH White's translation of a medieval bestiary, The Book of Beasts. At the end of the book, White discusses the history and role of bestiaries in the medieval imaginary. One of the points that he touches on is the way in which, for the medieval—and for many of those before and after, for what it's worth—the universe held to a rational pattern and the macrocosm could be reflected in the microcosm. In the older worldview, one could see the structure of the universe in the slug that crawled across the path in front of you (I have a thing for slugs) and one could draw moral lessons from the behavior of the lowliest animal or plant.
The modern mind is much less likely to find moral allegories in the behavior of bees or ants or other parts of the natural world. At least in part this may be because the modern world for all its (correct) embracing of the lessons of natural selection sees us as more separated from the (rest of the) natural world than the medieval mind would have fathomed.
For all that, the modern mind still sees a rationality in the universe. Of course, we no longer think it is rational because it has been planned by some Being. Our common-sense understanding of science as limning the structures of the universe and cutting nature at its joints requires not only that the world be rational or understandable but also understandable by beings like us. It might well be the case that not all scientists understand themselves as doing this, but I take it many do; moreover, most of us laypeople think that's what's going on.
We should see there is something odd about this, or at least odd about it from a certain perspective. From a certain kind of religious perspective, especially one that accepts that we are created in the image of the Creator and posits a great chain of being, it makes perfect sense to think that the universe is rational and that it should be understandable by us. But, absent a Creator, why think the universe should be rational? Maybe you still have justification for thinking that the universe will have to make some sort of objective sense, though I'm not sure what that really means. Even on that assumption, why assume it should make sense to beings like us? Why think that any natural process should create a being able to comprehend the processes that led to that being?
Maybe I'm in a Nietzschean or mysterian or even—Heavens forfend—Kantian mood today, but there's a kind of faith here. I'm not sure that this
faith can bootstrap itself merely by talking of the usefulness of our theories into anything more than a kind of pragmatism.

Monday, April 18, 2016


I think Twitter took me there, but in my office hour—during which, as per normal, a student failed to show up for an appointment—I ended up reading a little bit about the work of Guy McPherson, late of the University of Arizona, who has predicted for more than a decade that humans will be extinct by 2030, all of civilization having ended years before. The last few days have been unseasonably hot. Of course, the last few months and years have been, as well. So, the idea of abrupt climate change leading to massive changes doesn't seem all that implausible to me. 
I'm not that interested, though, in figuring out the science of his predictions. Instead, it got me thinking, as we always should be—and, as I take McPherson to think, since he believes we are well past the point of solving our problems—about whether this life is one that can be thought of as worth it. Of course, if I knew that all of humanity had no more than 14 more years at best, I would radically change my life; but, in that case it would be because I'd not be sure that there was much point in anything at all. Maybe there would be a point, but that point would have to be entirely present-oriented. Even assuming that humanity will make it, am I living a life that is worth it, or a life that, were I to die in 14 years, I could look back on and think, "That was a pretty good one?" If not, why not?

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

One more thing about Mateo

For the past several weeks—and especially on the weekends, probably because we were around him all the time and he couldn’t show us just his energetic side—our Vizsla, Mateo, had been acting like he was suffering from a little bit of arthritis. He was stiff and achey and sometimes he wouldn’t really want to walk. We were upset, but not that surprised. He was closing in on his tenth birthday and was definitely becoming a senior. I said, again and again, that this was what things were going to be like now and that we just had to enjoy his good moments and make him as happy as possible. We bought him some joint support treats. We let him spend more of his time in the evening on the sofa between us. We, of course, let him spend the entire night and most of his day in our bed; his bed had become more a formality, to be moved from room to room as if he were actually going to use it, though we knew that ours was the bed he preferred.

This last weekend, he had a good weekend. He played on Saturday and Sunday. He went on a great walk with me in the sun and heat of Sunday. Monday, Fernando took him on another walk he really enjoyed. When I got home from the university on Monday, they were still out on their walk. I heard him crying from blocks away because he had sensed that I was home. When they got back, he searched the house for me—I was in the bathroom—and he was so excited to see me.

Monday evening, he was stiff again. He was having trouble getting comfortable. We called him onto the sofa after dinner and he finally relaxed between us. When we went to bed, he got into bed with us. But he woke up at midnight, as if he were thirsty or needed to go out. Fernando got up and opened the door for him, but he collapsed. He couldn't stand on his back legs. Fernando got him back in and he got back on the bed. When I got up with him at five, the same thing happened. He collapsed. Then he got himself up and tried to drink water, but he couldn't lean down to do it. He got up again and walked into a corner of the patio and lay down. 

I lifted him—this was a dog who would never let you pick him up—and carried him back into the bedroom and onto the bed. His breathing was labored but he started to calm down. He wouldn’t, though, turn his head when we called him by name; he was concentrating on not hurting, it seems. We talked about what to do. Should we see if he felt better? Should we go to the vet immediately? Should we wait until our vet opened?

He fell asleep again and so we let him sleep between us: the dog who was always with us, around whom we defined ourselves and our lives. We got up at seven. He tried to drink water. He couldn’t. He vomited it. He collapsed again. And, so we called our vet, who couldn't see him until the late afternoon. Off to the emergency vet. It took us far longer to get there than it should have. Modern technology doesn’t always help you get where you need to go.

We took him in. The vet came to talk to us quickly. Our boy had bloody fluid in his abdomen and evidence of at least one mass. The prognosis wasn't good. Even if it was benign, the chances that he would make it through the surgery were low; among other problems, the old boy had a heart murmur we knew about. And, the chances were that it wasn't benign. If it was cancerous, we were told, he would have another month or maybe four. And, that was only if he made it through the surgery.

We made the decision we had to make: to have him put down. We went back to see him and though he couldn't kiss us as he used to do always and given every opportunity, as almost every picture of him shows, but he gave the tok-tok-tok-tok of his tail that always meant that he had seen his guys.

They wheeled him into the room where we had been earlier and we spent time with him before and during and after the procedure. We bawled and have been bawling for the twenty-four hours since. 

We left a piece of ourselves, individually and as a couple, on that table. We scheduled our days around him. We bought the house we now live in because it would be good for him. We bought cars based on whether they could carry him. We planned vacations and trips based on who could take care of him—he was too idiosyncratic to be boarded successfully. Half our conversations were about his bowel movements or what funny thing he had done or what he had eaten. He kept us both sane. He has kept my depressive swings from going too low, because there was always him to take care of and to comfort me and us. You didn't have to explain things to him. 

He was a dog, but he wasn’t just a dog. He was a friend. He was a lifeline. He was an object and giver of love. He was supposed to live longer. We were supposed to get to watch him get older and take care of him and see his face turn white and hold him and feel him against us in the night.

I hurt—we hurt—in ways I haven’t in a long time. All I see in the house and all I heard in the night was his absence. We look for him and he’s not there. We look at each other and start crying again. I want him to comfort me and he won’t ever again. 

I’m really, really sad. It’s because of something—someone—really amazing who is gone. I miss you.