Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

More thoughts on non-trending topics of the day.

Have you ever wondered what Steve Bannon might have been talking about when he used the phrase "deconstruction of the administrative state"?

Perhaps you've heard Jordan Peterson talk about "deconstruction" and "Derrida" and wondered what those things are and why anyone would care about them?

After going down a fair number of dead ends I found a lecture online from someone named Wes Cecil who knows a lot about "deconstruction" and "Derrida". Wes Cecil describes himself as someone, "interested in literature, philosophy, history and gardening." He lives in the beautiful town of Port Angeles Washington. He has a PhD in English and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Derrida. The fact that he's studied many different languages and comes from the English studies part of academia makes him a good candidate to interpret Derrida.

I had a suspicion from my reading and research that some philosophy professors and others who mention his name, don't understand Derrida - but are upset with Derrida. You'll understand why after listening to Wes Cecil's lecture.

This discomfort with Derrida's way of thinking may boil down to the futile effort of analytic philosophers and others (after 2500 years or so) to come up with the one true and final answer to the -

"Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything"

Francis Fukuyama thought western style liberalism provided such an answer, as he outlined in his 1992 book called The End of History.

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I don't think anyone "understands" Derrida and that's the way he wanted it. That's not to say he didn't have some super interesting and at times what seem to be profound ideas.

In this lecture the professor says Derrida wrote over 50 books and that none of them are readable. He talks about the sort of cultish admiration of Derrida that caused large numbers of students, who didn't understand French, to sit through talks that Jacques gave in French. He says Derrida wanted high schools to teach philosophy (two thumbs up to that) and that Derrida wanted everyone to read (re-read) the canon of great philosophical thinkers. He talks about how upset many people (mostly in academia) were with Derrida.

Here's my boneheaded interpretation of why Derrida gets so many people upset -

Derrida asks us to question how much we really know about anything. Derrida asks us to particularly question things we think we know - for example what it means when we categorize a person, or group of people as "black". Absolute certainty that we have the only right answer to something can cause (and has caused) all sorts of problems for humanity.

When I think, say, or write, that some one or some group is "Republican" or "conservative" or "liberal" or "illegal" or "Evangelical" or "Christian" or "Catholic" or "Muslim" I'm thinking, talking or writing about some "thing" that doesn't exist; but that non-existence wouldn't necessarily prevent me from hating other people or groups and possibly going to war to defend my (and my tribes) singular interpretation.

Derrida was asking us to show a little humility, lighten up and enjoy the ride.

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In my quest for understanding I watched a "documentary" of Derrida and thought....that guy seems (a) like a bit of a trickster or joker (b) to have a sort of strange aversion to cameras and (c) like a nice guy.

After listening to Wes Cecil's lecture I think my hunches were fairly accurate.

Anyway if you are at all interested in this stuff his lecture is the best thing I've found.

The lecture gets more and more interesting as you go along - I found it fascinating and hope that you may as well.



Wes Cecil has over eighty lectures on his Humane Arts YouTube channel. They are also on Soundcloud and Apple podcasts. A lot of them look really interesting. Perhaps a nice break from the trending topics of the day...

Monday, August 19, 2019

Solitude

The prose poem Desiderata  was written by Max Ehrlmann in the 1920's.

The word desiderata is defined as "things wanted or needed."


It was quite popular to have a posterized copy of the poem on your wall back in the 60's and 70's. You may also have had a poster of a solitary figure on top of mountain, or fishing in a beautiful river, with "alone but not lonely" imprinted on it. Maybe a poster of Steve McQueen jumping a motorcycle over a fence...but I digress.

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The opening sentence of the Desiderata talks about a form of solitude,
"Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence."
That sounds good but how might you do that?

First lets define what we mean by "solitude". Websters online says a definition of solitude is "the quality or state of being alone or remote from society."

Therefore you can find solitude by being physically alone or by by being remote from society.

Since you probably can't be physically alone all the time, and wouldn't want to if you could, we will choose being remote from society as our path to solitude - so that we might occasionally "go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence."

Being remote from society...probably requires turning off the TV, getting off our computers and putting down our cell phones for awhile. I say probably because if you are using your TV, computer or cell phone to access something "that is remote from society" then it doesn't break your cone of solitude.

If you are using your TV, computer or cell phone to access some non-trending things - like history, educational programs, philosophy, literature, theology or art you are safely removed from the destructive effects that society and popular culture have on the ability of an  individual to continue to construct a "self" by increasing their knowledge of themselves and the world they live in. In order to do that you will need some solitude.

The good news here is that you don't need to go into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights eating locusts and wild honey, or build a small cabin beside Walden Pond, in order to find solitude.

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Rather than just going cold turkey on the whole "shut out the outside world thing" we have to prepare ourselves to be able to live with our self. Who knows - it might be a bad thing, or an impossible thing, to shut out the outside world and just be with your self?

You have to prepare yourself for solitude.

Buddhist meditative practices where we concentrate on our breathing to quiet our monkey mind is one path. If you are curious about Buddhism,  the PBS film The Buddha by David Grubin narrated by Richard Gere is one of my favorites.

Contemplative Prayer sometimes called Centering Prayer is another discipline preparing a person to be able to sit doing, and at times thinking, nothing.

The idea of either of these practices is similar - quieting your mind in order to prepare for some form of higher consciousness.

In the Buddhist case by recognizing the beauty in transitory things, seeing that their transitory nature makes them all the more precious and working toward a state of being that allows one to live a life of joy in that tension.

In the Christian case by experiencing God (the unknowable) in that quiet place and realizing the concept of the trinity in Christian belief tells us that we are part of God and God is part of us - when we are filled (or touched a bit) by the holy spirit.

Both these practices teach us to focus on the here and now - the moment, rather than worrying about what happened in the past or what may happen in the future.

The end goal of either practice being to reach a state of equanimity.

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We are all children of the universe - having originated from stardust we will return to that state when the star we call the sun explodes in 6 billion years (give or take a billion or so). If the big crunch theory is right the universe will eventually contract and the show will start all over again with a big bang. In the meantime be sure and hug all your favorite pieces of stardust.

I realize that sounds kind of new-agey and woo woo but it doesn't sound any more strange to me than to say God put the first man on earth and made the first woman out of that man's rib.

I have to rely on what science can tell us, but I don't have to think science can tell us everything. It takes an enormous amount of foolish pride to think otherwise.

Having utter faith in science and reason - leads to the disenchantment  of our world; and on a purely practical level has, and is, leading to all sorts of surprises from Mother Nature.

On the plus side there is an Enchanted Village south of here ;-)

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BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time has a podcast on the Philosophy of Solitude if any of this piques your interest. The description of the podcast on the BBC website says,
"Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophy of solitude. The state of being alone can arise for many different reasons: imprisonment, exile or personal choice. It can be prompted by religious belief, personal necessity or a philosophical need for solitary contemplation. Many thinkers have dealt with the subject, from Plato and Aristotle to Hannah Arendt. It's a philosophical tradition that takes in medieval religious mystics, the work of Montaigne and Adam Smith, and the great American poets of solitude Thoreau and Emerson."
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I have a Centering Prayer app on my phone that allows you to select from a variety of opening texts. This one is from a book called "We The Ordinary People of the Streets" written by Madeleine Delbrel and talks a little about solitude.

The basic revelation of the Gospel is the overwhelming, penetrating presence of God. 
It is a call to encounter God, and God allows himself to be encountered only in solitude. 
It would seem that this solitude is something that those who live among the people of the world would have to forego. But this would be to believe we precede God in solitude, while, on the contrary, it is he who waits there for us; to find God is to find solitude, because true solitude is spirit, and all of our efforts at human solitude are merely relative approaches toward the perfect solitude that is faith. 
True solitude is not the absence of people, but the presence of God. 
To place our lives before the face of God, to surrender our lives to the movements of God, is to roam free in a space in which we have been given solitude. 
If the eruption of God's presence in us occurs in silence and solitude, it allows us to remain thrown among, mixed up with, radically joined to all of the people who are made of the same clay as we are.

She said clay - I say stardust..same difference and in any event it's a miracle to be here now.

May we all someday live in peace.


Sunday, August 18, 2019

God's Work Our Hands

This year's “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, is Sunday, September 8, 2019.




I've been reading a few interesting articles in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics which is described on it's website as, "a free, monthly, ecclesial online publication living out the Lutheran tradition of addressing social issues theologically, using the resources of historical, theological, and ethical tradition, biblical interpretation, and social sciences."
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If you are looking for a way to live an ethical and moral life, and aren't interested in reading a boatload of philosophical or theological works The Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5-7 might contain all you need to know.

I just started reading The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy. I think Tolstoy is making the case that Jesus was a man, not a supernatural being, who's teachings could form a moral and ethical way of living in the world. He poses this question in the book,
"Did Christ really demand from his disciples that they should carry out what he taught them in the Sermon on the Mount?"
Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with Leo Tolstoy through the last year of Tolstoy's life. This correspondence led Mahatma Gandhi to follow Leo Tolstoy as his teacher.

Martin Luther King pointed to the works of Leo Tolstoy as a primary source of his inspiration.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

What Do You Mean?

I watched a video of Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris discussing something before a large audience. In case you don't know who those people are Jordan Peterson is a popular author and speaker who appeals to pre-fascists and lost boys. Sam Harris is a popular self-described liberal.

In the video Jordan Peterson says something, not particularly intelligible to the non-indoctrinated, and gets a big round of applause.

Sam Harris replies with something close to, "I have to do some work to figure out what point your audience thinks you made." which draws a big laugh. This conversation starts at 1:00:00 if you want to check it.
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The word philosophy comes from from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally "love of wisdom"

In order to gain wisdom you need some way to communicate. Speech and writing are two common ways we communicate. When we speak or write we use words.

That sounds really simple minded or obvious but it really isn't. Try this thought experiment involving speech -

Assume one of your coworkers comes into the office and says to her fellow coworkers, "I ran into a tree on my way to work this morning." 

One person may think, "she was jogging to work and ran into a tree". 

Another may think, "she was driving to work and ran into a tree".

A third may think, "she says she ran in to (inside) a tree on her way to work, and I see she's holding a cup of takeout coffee, - cool there's a new coffee shop in town that's inside a tree".



Words have a meaning right?

In the case above if you could see into the minds of the three people envisioning the "tree" the woman ran into - what would you see? A pine tree, oak tree, a big tree, small tree..etc.

The indeterminate meaning of the word tree, doesn't really matter for the first two listeners. The speaker can communicate the essence of her meaning without describing the type and size of the tree. The listeners kind of know what she's talking about - she was driving, or jogging, and collided with a tree.

However for the third listener the indeterminacy of speech leads to a complete misrepresentation of the meaning the speaker was trying to communicate.

If you find this sort of discussion interesting the BBC Radio 4 Philosophy podcast has an episode discussing Ludwig Wittgenstein and other philosophers who considered the difficulty humans sometimes (often, always?) have in communicating using words.

These sorts of "failures to communicate" happen all the time but it's most observable in areas where people have some emotional attachment to the topic. Some parents (mine) recommended not discussing religion or politics in polite settings - because it almost inevitably leads to misunderstanding, hurt feeling and sometimes anger. We all know this, which is why we don't show up at a random gathering and ask people for their thoughts about Jesus or leftists or the so called alt-right. The internet changed all that of course.

Here's one more example from politics. Lets say I tell you I'm a conservative. What does that mean? Without context it means nothing. I might be someone attracted to the 18th century thinker Edmund Burke or I might be a devoted follower of the co-president of the United States Sean Hannity.

In common discourse, words or phrases like conservative, liberal, left, right, far left, far right are mostly just an attempt by some humans to figure out who's part of their tribe. For those unencumbered by the thought process, words like these are rocks they carry in their pocket to throw at the enemy.

Here's the thing though...

Thoughtful people of good faith care deeply about words, writing, speech because they care about meaning. Not meaning in the sense of what does this or that word mean but meaning in a broader sense - wisdom and knowledge that we can communicate and retain as human beings, now and in the future.

The New York Times article Paging Big Brother: In Amazon's Bookstore, Orwell Gets a Rewrite is one example of how this kind of dilution of knowledge is happening.

Unless we all want to live in the idiocracy we need to hold on to meaning.           

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Friday, August 16, 2019

Is Fascism Right or Left?


There's a video at Prager U., an online university possibly associated with the now defunct Trump U, called "Is Fascism Right or Left?".

Early in the video the speaker says, "the true source of Fascism has been erased by the left."

Many people, once they heard someone say some silly conspiratorial thing like that would move on, but the video has been viewed by over 1.5 million people and shows up near the top of Google video searches for anyone entering the  words "Is Fascism Right or Left".

It's "revealed" in the video that the source of Fascism is an Italian named Giovanni Gentile.

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Benito Mussolini co-wrote a paper with Giovanni Gentile titled "The Doctrine of Fascism" in 1932. The paper is available on the web or you can listen to a reading on YouTube. In the front matter of the paper it states "this article co-written by Giovanni Gentile is considered the most complete articulation of Mussolini's political views."

It's not a long document at 32 pages but I thought it might be useful to snip out some sections from it to see how one might answer the question "Is Fascism from the Right or the Left?" simply by reading what the paper says.

The following italicized text is from "The Doctrine of Fascism - Benito Mussolini (1932)"

"Indeed, it was during those years that Fascist thought armed, refined itself, and proceeded ahead with its organization. The problems of the individual and the State; the problems of authority and liberty; political, social, and more especially national problems were discussed; the conflict with liberal, democratic, socialistic, Masonic doctrines and with those of the Partito Popolare, was carried on at the same time as the punitive expeditions."

"Fascism will have nothing to do with universal embraces; as a member of the community of nations it looks other peoples straight in the eyes; it is vigilant and on its guard; it follows others in all their manifestations and notes any changes in their interests; and it does not allow itself to be deceived by mutable and fallacious appearances."


"Fascism also denies the immutable and irreparable character of the class struggle which is the natural outcome of this economic conception of history; above all it denies that the class struggle is the preponderating agent in social transformations. Having thus struck a blow at socialism in the two main points of its doctrine, all that remains of it is the sentimental aspiration-old as humanity itself-toward social relations in which the sufferings and sorrows of the humbler folk will be alleviated."


"After socialism, Fascism trains its guns on the whole block of democratic ideologies, and rejects both their premises and their practical applications and implements. Fascism denies that numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society; it denies the right of numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations; it asserts the irremediable and fertile and beneficent inequality of men who cannot be leveled by any such mechanical and extrinsic device as universal suffrage. Democratic regimes may be described as those under which the people are, from time to time, deluded into the belief that they exercise sovereignty, while all the time real sovereignty resides in and is exercised by other and sometimes irresponsible and secret forces. Democracy is a kingless regime infested by many kings who are sometimes more exclusive, tyrannical, and destructive than one, even if he be a tyrant."


"It is much to be feared that the last word of democracy thus understood (and let me hasten to add that it is susceptible of a different interpretation) would be a form of society in which a degenerate mass would have no thought beyond that of enjoying the ignoble pleasures of the vulgar ".


"In rejecting democracy Fascism rejects the absurd conventional lie of political equalitarianism, the habit of collective irresponsibility, the myth of felicity and indefinite progress. But if democracy be understood as meaning a regime in which the masses are not driven back to the margin of the State, and then the writer of these pages has already defined Fascism as an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy."


→"Fascism is definitely and absolutely opposed to the doctrines of liberalism, both in the political and the economic sphere."←


"Germany attained her national unity outside liberalism and in opposition to liberalism, a doctrine which seems foreign to the German temperament, essentially monarchical, whereas liberalism is the historic and logical anteroom to anarchy."


"The Fascist negation of socialism, democracy, liberalism, should not, however, be interpreted as implying a desire to drive the world backwards to positions occupied prior to 1789, a year commonly referred to as that which opened the demo-liberal century. History does not travel backwards. The Fascist doctrine has not taken De Maistre as its prophet."


"Granted that the XIXth century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the XXth century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the " right ", a Fascist century."


"If liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government."


"The Fascist State organizes the nation, but it leaves the individual adequate elbow room. It has curtailed useless or harmful liberties while preserving those which are essential. In such matters the individual cannot be the judge, but the State only."


"The Fascist State is not indifferent to religious phenomena in general nor does it maintain an attitude of indifference to Roman Catholicism, the special, positive religion of Italians."


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If you want to read about a strange and dark pre-fascist thinker check out Isaiah Berlin's lectures on Joseph De Maistre. You may have noticed that De Maistre is mentioned in the paper by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile, where it's stated, "The Fascist doctrine has not taken De Maistre as its prophet."

In his lectures Isaiah Berlin states that he considered Joseph De Maistre to be a proto-fascist. De Maistre's thinking was a harbinger of the Fascist states to come led by Mussolini and Hitler.

In his lecture Isaiah Berlin says De Maistre was an aristocrat of sorts who as part of his responsibilities attended executions as a young man. It must have made an impression on De Maistre since his writing is filled with bloody, violent images.

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In attempting to trace the origins of Fascist thought it's important to note this statement in Mussolini's paper, "The Fascist State is not indifferent to religious phenomena in general nor does it maintain an attitude of indifference to Roman Catholicism, the special, positive religion of the Italians."

The hard right wing of Catholicism has a special affinity for fascists. I'd say had a special affinity but if you search for De Maistre you'll find articles like this in some sort of online Catholic publication.

In that article the author is reviewing a book titled "Contra Mundum: Joseph de Maistre and The Birth of Tradition" written by Thomas Isham. The article states, "One result of his (De Maistre) intemperate style is that even so judicious and scholarly a person as Isaiah Berlin considered him a prototypical fascist and totalitarian. The truth is otherwise, as Mr. Isham shows."

One of the three reviewers of the book on Amazon said, "this book was so bad it wasn't even worth giving away." I don't think I'll be purchasing it anytime soon.

Here's another quote from Isaiah Berlin's lectures -
"The Catholic Church maintained, and Maistre with it, that the true cause of the failure of the French Revolution was the rupture with the past, the departure from the word of God, heresy, the fact that there was a particular kind of life which had been enshrined in tradition and in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and by breaking this, by mutinying and rebelling against it, man had put himself beyond the pale, had become an outlaw, and had been duly punished by God with such scourges as Robespierre and Napoleon."
This article on Medium called Remember When Fascism Was a Catholic Problem? is interesting and educational.

In the video "Hitler Fascism and the Catholic Church" Christopher Hitchens says,
"Fascism, the original 20th century totalitarian movement, is really, historically, another name for the political activity of the Catholic right wing. There is no other name for it: Francoism, Salazarism, what happened in Croatia, in Austria, in Bavaria, and so on. The church keeps trying to apologize for it, but can’t apologize for it enough. It’s the Catholic Right."
The popular misinformation spreader; professor Jordan Peterson stated that, "religion in general provides a philosophical alternative to fascism and Marxism, and said that the Catholic Church has operated in history as a bulwark against extremism."

As a baptized Catholic and a former dedicated altar boy I don't feel any qualms about criticizing some of the Church's history or criticizing people who use the guise of Catholicism to somehow legitimate fascist ideology.

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The italicized text below is from Isaiah Berlin's lecture on De Maistre to give you a taste (the original doesn't have much punctuation sorry) -

"The general notion is that he (De Maistre) is out of date, that he is the last defender of a completely outworn order, a man tragically concentrated upon a partly imaginary but no longer restorable past."

"This I believe to be a false account. Maistre is far more a harbinger, alas, of the future than a reconstructer of the past."


"The hysteria of his writings, the dwelling on blood, the view of man as possessed by irrational instincts, the darkness, the proposition that it is fundamentally the irrational and the uncontrollable which are in charge of men; the view that the analysis of the Encyclopaedists is shallow because they do not take account for self-immolation, of the human desire for destruction, of the whole bundle of irrational impulses of which man is to a large extent composed, and the proposition that only by exploiting these, by taking notice of them but also by directing them, by canalising them, by disciplining them, by making use of them, but above all by looking them in the face, can human society survive; the extreme contempt for liberals and democrats, the view that human beings are totally unfit to govern themselves, and must always be governed by small oligarchical élites, which must be groups of self-sacrificing men trying to tie up this terrible tiger with the most utmost effort, which gives them no pleasure at all, any more than the executioner takes pleasure in his executions; the notion that human society can only persist if a few self-sacrificing men are just able to rein in this monstrous beast, and must do so by appealing not to his rational self, which is weak, but to his irrational self, which is dominant, and must direct it towards ends not intelligible to him but intelligible to those who direct him – this view, which is the view of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, does not appear to me to be an eighteenth century view at all – neither progressive nor reactionary, nor liberal, nor conservative, very remote from Burke, by whom he was supposed to have been inspired, and totally unrelated to Thomism or the official Catholic political philosophy of that or of any other time. 


In this respect, I think, he is a proto-Fascist. It seems to me reasonable to say that his stress upon the seamy side, upon the black side, of human nature does qualify him to be so described. That, in effect, is his vision."


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Sorry for the lengthy quotes in this but I didn't want to try and interpret. If you are interested I'd recommend reading the source material to come up with your own analysis.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Love Says They Will




This song makes me cry. 

Of all of life's gifts a loving and committed relationship has to be one of the most precious. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Most Dangerous Man in America?

Is it possible that the most dangerous man in America is a Canadian college professor?

Please allow me to try and explain why that is a question worth asking.

In "Theses on Feuerbach" (1845), Karl Marx wrote, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."

As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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Before I get to the Canadian, who seems to be a philosopher very interested in changing the world, I need to provide some background.

The potentially most dangerous man in America, likes to talk about Marxism and something he calls cultural-marxism, if he has the right audience.

Cultural marxism, as near as I can tell is a pointer to something evil.  It seems to identify some one, some group, or some idea that non-cultural marxists don't like, maybe hate and are definitely afraid of. Based on my spins around the internet I'd say "cultural marxism" is a phrase used in a lot of speech intended to "other" some group of human beings.

Marx was an important philosopher who was reacting to the changes happening to society as a result of industrialization. Based on my limited reading of his works I'd say he had some insightful things to say about industrialized society and capitalism. The BBC special Masters of Money provides a high-level overview of Marx's thinking. The Essential Writings of Karl Marx edited by David Caute is a concise look at Marx and Engles major ideas that I found educational.

Reading "The Communist Manifesto" isn't a good place to start learning about Marx. The manifesto is deliberately written as a short polemic and doesn't have nearly the nuance, insight and depth of other writings of Marx and Engles.

I'd guess very few people have read the three volumes of Marx and Engles foundational work "Das Kapital" given that each volume is over 1000 pages of challenging material. Even though most people have never read any of Marx and Engles works, many people use the words marxism, socialism, communism with little or no understanding of the philosophy underpinning them.

Taking the name of some thing and saying the name is the thing is a fools errand. Here's what I mean - saying North Korea is a democracy because it's named "The Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea" doesn't make it so. Saying Communist China is Communism (the political theory derived from Marx) makes about as much sense. How much Marx's ideas, and how much inherent human evil, greed and a will to power contributed to the terrible things that happened in China or the USSR - is complicated.

In the United States with a democratic form of government we saw genocide of native people and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings but we don't say that happened because of democracy. It's complicated.

When the working class is ready to take over the means of production here in the USA you'll know socialism has arrived. I expect that to happen - never, but maybe I'm wrong.

I think it's not impossible that we will slide into some sort of totalitarian fascist state. When the economy tanks or some localized Antifa vs. Proud Boys or other violence escalates - we could be in for a bit of tight spot.

As dire as the prediction may sound I'm not worried. We are a strong people who've been though a lot and I am 100% confident that whatever comes along we'll ride it out. We all are able to choose our own response to whatever comes our way - so have fun, hug your friends and family and make the most of your one singular beautiful life.

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Which brings me to Jordan Peterson, a super smart guy and philosopher (or something) who seems to be popular on the internet. I haven't looked at everything he has on the web (there's a lot) but I've looked at enough to say he's found something. The video that made me think he may be inciting people to violence, perhaps unwittingly, has been viewed by over 2 million people.

What he's found is a group of people unsatisfied with their lives and looking for answers, or at least someone or some group to blame.

What he's found is not completely unlike the "something" Donald Trump found that propelled him to the presidency.

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Before considering my concern with Jordan Peterson please watch this short video discussing identity politics. Olly the young philosophy teacher in the video isn't talking about what some in the popular media, and professors like Jordan Peterson, refer to as "identity politics" so you might learn something you didn't know.

I'd also suggest viewing Olly's video discussing the only true fan of Jordan Peterson in the entire world. Spoiler alert - it involves what appear to be live snakes crawling on Olly's semi-naked body ;-)

Listening to Jordan Peterson preach about philosophers and philosophical ideas I wondered where he was getting his ideas from, because many of them seem misguided. It appeared that he had not read the works of many of the philosophers he characterizes. Cuck Philosophy has a video explaining the book that Jordan Peterson recommends his disciples read to understand some thing he calls post-modernism. You'll understand why Jordan and his devotees are so confused about some things after watching the video.

I was musing if it might be worthwhile to request that Jordan submit a paper for peer review outlining his theory of "post-modernism" or "cultural-marxists" or Derrida or Foucalt's ideas. I suppose not since in the radical right view - academia is corrupted. The idea that higher education is corrupt, going to hell in a hand basket or being taken over by radical feminists, social justice warriors or leftists isn't a new one in the United States. William F. Buckley was making noises like that back in the 1950's. The aristocrats fear that providing an education to the common man would make him ungovernable, goes back much further than the 1950's.

Another video that is a good corrective to some of Jordan Peterson's philosophical confusion is Derrida - The Father of Deconstruction. It's an interview with Paul Patton a professor of philosophy at the University of New South Wales from the Australian Broadcasting Company. I listened to him explain deconstruction about five times and couldn't make it out but it's an interesting video nonetheless.

Rick Roderick talks about deconstruction here in a lecture about Heidegger. He says that Heidegger introduced the term "the deconstruction of philosophy." Roderick equates deconstruction to - clearing away a pile of junk, to get to what might be called it's archaeological roots, to see if there's anything there that will help us in this project of understanding what it means to be in the world.

Wesley Cecil  has a lecture on Derrida here. Early on in his lecture he says, Derrida wrote over 50 books in his lifetime - none of which are readable.

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To understand why I think Jordan Peterson is dangerous you'll need to look closely at the video of a talk he gave to a group of young people in Vancouver B.C. The video has a nice clickbaity and rather nonsensical title "Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege". It's over 2 1/2 hours long, but you only have to look at a couple of spots where young men are asking questions to understand what I'm getting at.

Jordan Peterson has an aura of authority and legitimacy because he is a professor. Many people assume he knows what he's talking about because of his status and because what he says sounds credible. He has some advice for young people that I agree with but the value of what he's saying doesn't in any way make up for the violence he may incite in impressionable people.

The thing that makes him most dangerous may be that he's identifying things in our society that many people see as problematic. He's got some points, but he's mixing it all up in a toxic stew which seems to incite rather than calm the passions of impressionable students and others. He has a trait you see in some politicians where what he is doing is precisely the bad thing he accuses "them" of doing. He preaches a gospel opposed to identity politics while practicing the most extreme forms of identity politics himself.

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He rails on a lot about "post-modernism", "cultural marxism", Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucalt. The fact that neither he nor most regular people have the slightest clue what the phrases "post-modernism" or "cultural marxism", might mean in an intellectual sense, if they mean anything at all, never really enters into the picture. Those terms do seem to have an emotional meaning that resonates with some people. 

A similar situation exists when he refers to the French philosophers Foucalt and Derrida. At least they were real people, but who knows what they were talking about? People a lot smarter than I am will tell you that the writing of Derrida and Foucalt is difficult, sometimes deliberately obscure, at times enlightening, and very challenging to understand. That's why some philosophers and thinkers like reading and discussing their works.

Jordan Peterson preaches about "post-modernism", "cultural marxism", "Derrida" and "Foucalt". He can interpret these concepts and thinkers, because most likely you won't have any frame of reference with which to judge the accuracy of what he's saying. His spiel basically boils down to - you should be angry at, and afraid of, a group of people....in fact so afraid that you might think they are going to kill you as you will see in the video.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
LEWIS CARROLL (Charles L. Dodgson), Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 6, p. 205 (1934). First published in 1872.

The first part of the video that is concerning is at 2:06:37 where the young man asks a question about ideologies that students may be attracted to that "in the end will get them killed will get them hurt." Jordan Peterson gives an answer about the horrors of the Soviet Union.

The problem is, if you listened to the 2 plus hours of his talk up to that point he had been conflating the horrors of the Soviet Union, Communist China and Nazi Germany with some group of people in the United States and Canada. The group is a bit hard to define but seems to include college professors, "leftists", "cultural marxists", maybe "liberals" and "post-modernists?"

The conclusion the student can draw is that since these ideologies may get "them" killed, may get them hurt, then whatever means he chooses to resist "them" are justified by the ends (saving lives).

Jordan Peterson has some valid points but he (at least in this video) mixes those valid points up with rhetoric appealing to desires and prejudices like any demagogue.

What he says sounds like a rational argument mixed in at times with emotional pleading which I imagine is quite appealing to some young (and not so young) people.

What young person doesn't want to save the world? Here's a guy who's telling you the leftists and cultural marxists want to ruin the world - better do something and whatever you do it will be justified...since you are saving the world.

The second part of the video that is concerning is at 2:20:08. The student says "the left has pushed for total control of our society for twenty years...", "the mass red pilling of the conservative movement", "this is the answer to defeat the leftist stranglehold on our society"..etc.

At this point Jordan Peterson seems to realize that something is dangerous about how the student interpreted what he has been preaching for the previous 2 1/2 hours. He gives an answer calling for non-violence and suggests not thinking one side has to "win".

We can only hope his followers will listen.

Saying there's no need to "win" seems sort of disingenuous considering he'd been preaching that there are groups of people afoot wanting to take away all you hold dear in this world...again not unlike Trump.

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Miscellaneous critiques..

Being somewhat interested in theology I was confused by Professor Peterson's interpretation of the old testament story of Cain and Abel starting at 38:36. Jordan tells us that God tells us in that myth that, "sin  crouches at your door like a sexually aroused cat...that's basically the metaphor God uses." An unusual interpretation and somewhat bizarre statement but myths can have many meanings.

He goes on to preach that Cain killed Abel because Cain was resentful (like the "cultural marxists" etc. are resentful today). It's a strange and potentially dangerous sermon Jordan is preaching. If I wanted advice on how to interpret the story of Cain and Abel I'd consult a Jewish scholar, a priest or a minister; not a psychology professor.

Jordan Peterson makes a mistake I make all the time. He thinks because he's smart, and knows a lot about something, he knows a lot about everything. I don't really have a problem with that provided it's localized, but when you have a pretty big pulpit and people think you know what you are talking about - it becomes problematic.

Jordan Peterson preaches against making straw man arguments while creating a city of straw men to battle. A good example of this is when he says something like postmodernists or Derrida or some one holds the belief that "any idea is as good as any other."

As one actual professor of Philosophy said, not only did Derrida never make such a claim, but "no one ever said this."

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One of the challenges of understanding if Jordan Peterson is stoking a dangerous level of polarization is that it depends on which of his videos you watch. I watched most of three long videos of him and Sam Harris (a liberal of some sort) talking and it was like a different guy showed up - he didn't say anything about cultural marxists, post-modernists, college professors, or liberals.

Finally I'm going to make a supposition about what I think drives the freak out you get from "conservative" or the "right" figureheads when they talk about post-modernism, Derrida or Foucalt. It's the concept of "deconstruction" which may be a way of saying lets look closely at the text to trace where a particular idea, norm or "fact" originated. Once you start asking those sorts of questions you are quite threatening to some people who have power. It's in a way, an argument of whether to accept authority of those with power to define acceptable ideas, or to question that authority.

Not all authority is bad and not all hierarchies are bad - it's hard to see how humans could accomplish much without them in some form. The flip side to that is that unquestioned obedience to those in power has led to some very bad things in the history of humanity.

The preacher Jordan Peterson is, to use a phrase from the late West Texan philosophy professor Rick Roderick, the Pharaoh's enabler whether he realizes it or not. Hopefully he has the insight, self-awareness and a moral compass that will allow him to see that although some of what he is doing may be valuable, some of what he is doing is morally reprehensible and potentially dangerous.

Eric Hoffer wrote about mass movements. He tells us that in any mass movement the intellectuals play a key role in inciting the true believers. Intellectuals cannot move their ideology into the world directly. Implementing the ideology is done by men of action - through local mob violence and eventually by the iron boot of the state. Unlike Donald Trump who has lots of visible warts - Peterson is smooth, sounds credible and is charged with emotion. He's also a chameleon who changes his color depending on his surroundings. He's admired by the alt-right proto fascists and that is a bit worrisome.

Disclaimer: To be honest I don't really care about any of this other than in an abstract sort of way. I like to think and make notes to myself. It's not my reality. I'm happy, healthy and thankful for the life I have. I have truly been blessed with my life, my family and friends. I hope whatever reality you live in is equally as good. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

She Said, He Said, I Said

Dialectic is a pretty highfalutin word but when described in simple terms shows us a valuable lesson for how to operate in the world.

Dialectic describes a way of thinking.

The dialectical method consists of a thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

The Wikipedia entry on dialectic contains this description,

The dialectical method, is at base a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments.

Dialectic comprises three stages of development: first, a thesis or statement of an idea, which gives rise to a second step, a reaction or antithesis that contradicts or negates the thesis, and third, the synthesis, a statement through which the differences between the two points are resolved. 

This description of the dialectical method is pretty dry. Let's say you are interested in finding an answer to the question - should people be allowed to smoke?

You could read some stuff from the tobacco industry and those with a libertarian bent, then read some stuff from doctors and other worry warts ;-) then decide what you think.

To know what "you" think you have to be open to examining both sides of the argument.

Here's another example using the "she said, he said, I said" idea...

She said immigrants are dangerous.

He said immigrants are valuable

I said - (whatever you think after doing your own research and considering both sides of the argument)

It all ties back to the idea that for a "you" to exist you have to know what you think - not just what someone else tells you to think.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Cool Story Bro

Narcissism has been a topic of discussion in some circles for the last few years with some people claiming the occupant of the White House is some type of narcissist. I don't care to argue that point. I'm more interested in the concept of narcissism and how prevalent it is in our country.

The current popular discussion of narcissism isn't new. Christopher Lasch wrote a fascinating, and somewhat difficult, book in 1979 called the "The Culture of Narcissism". The New York Times obituary for Christopher Lasch said, "he described postwar America as a society of dangerously self-absorbed individuals, fixated on personal goals, fearful of their impulses and easily controlled by power elites."

The description of Yale historian Elizabeth Lunbeck's 2014 book "The Americanization of Narcissism" makes a counterpoint to Lasch's negative portrayal of narcissism as consumption,
"Psychoanalysts had clashed over narcissism from the moment Freud introduced it in 1914, and they had long been split on its defining aspects: How much self-love, self-esteem, and self-indulgence was normal and desirable?"
In this short video Elizabeth Lunbeck talks about how complicated the topic of narcissism is.


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After reading "The Culture of Narcissism", I wanted to learn more about the origin of the concept of narcissism which meant digging a little deeper than the usual children's stories of Narcissus.

I've never been that interested in Greek mythology. I've been more interested in Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist mythology since these myths inform the religious beliefs of people in modern society. As I've become a tiny bit familiar with the works of Freud and Jung (and listened to Joseph Campbell talk about Greek mythology) I find Greek mythology of more interest; lately focusing on the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus.

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There are any number of people who will decode a Greek myth for you just as there are any number of people who would be happy to decode the Christian biblical myths for you. I'm not picking on Christianity you can choose any religion and there will be lots of decoders telling you what the myths of that religious belief mean.

Myths mean whatever you want them to mean. That's why they're called myths. They aren't the facts or the truth but rather an allegory, story or metaphor that helped (and help) people at a point in history cope with the difficulties of living in this world.

Myths and fables serve as a means of moral instruction for children.

Myths maybe above all else serve as a springboard for further discussion and thought.

Of course I wouldn't say myths mean whatever you want them to mean to a priest or a minister or a childlike person with simple (beautiful) faith. If I lived not that many centuries ago I'd be burned at the stake for heresy for talking like that.

On the other hand sometimes when you're lost it's good to ask someone for directions. If someone spent years studying something you need help with and you trust them, or if you just trust their advice, then by all means ask for guidance.

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Anyway...here's the cool story bro. The three links below are for a reading of Ovid's story of Echo and Narcissus. I don't know why the reading was split into three parts since the whole story only takes about 17 minutes.

Echo and Narcissus (Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid) 1/3

Echo and Narcissus (Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid) 2/3

Echo and Narcissus (Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid) 3/3

The reading is from the book Tales From Ovid by the English poet, translator, and children's book author Ted Hughes. Here are a few stanzas from near the beginning of the story -

The boy she bore, even in his cradle, 
Had a beauty that broke hearts.
She named the child Narcissus.

Gossips came to Tiresias: "Can her boy live long
With such perfect beauty?" The seer replied:
"Yes unless he learns to know himself."

All regarded these words as a riddle-
Till time solved them with a peculiar madness.
A stranger death completed the explanation.



Narcissus radiiflorus


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Constructing Your Self III

The project of creating your authentic self can appear to be, and actually may be, just another form of navel gazing, culturally-defined self improvement or narcissism.

In addition to those negative aspects of our self construction project we also need to consider that a human who becomes, and operates as, a free individual may be ungovernable by the state resulting in anarchy as more and more people become "individuals".

The word anarchy has at least two definitions, "a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority" or "absence of a government and absolute freedom as an ideal". The first is frightening and how we usually think of anarchy. The second is interesting to think about as we consider ways humans might create a better world.

Peter Maurin, Dorothy DayChris Hedges and Jesus Christ, propose a form of christian anarchism where humans receive authority from God not the state.

According to Wikipedia, Leo Tolstoy's book "The Kingdom of God is Within You" is a key text for Tolstoyan proponents of nonviolence, of nonviolent resistance, and of the Christian anarchist movement." Gandhi wrote that the book The Kingdom of God is Within You "overwhelmed him" and "left an abiding impression". 

Nothing in excess - we all know that a theocratic state or other forms of theocratic hierarchy (the Church) can lead to all sorts of badness.


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Navel gazing can be defined as, "self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue, at the expense of a wider view."

In your project to construct your self you can avoid being a navel gazer by having a higher good (an end) other than simply becoming who you are or finding your self. Without a higher good we end up with cases where who you really are may be a thief, a sadist, or a murderer.

It's possible to use religion and philosophy to find this higher good. Of course it's also possible to use religion and philosophy to justify all sorts of terrible things.

In picking religion(s) or philosophy(s) to help you find the higher purpose for your life it's best if you have a foundation from your parents to help you choose. You may also find a particular minister, rabbi, teacher, coach or friend you trust who could help you choose some possible paths. You could also start by reading Plato, arrive at your own conceptions of goodness, truth, beauty and then use those conceptions to guide your further investigations.

Societies, families, organizations and most types of work require that humans cooperate with one another. The human species survived through cooperation. Cooperation requires empathy, listening, speaking, suppression of the self at times, forgiveness at times and above all trust. Investigating religions (or parts of religions) and philosophies (or parts of philosophies) that adhere to these basic ideas that allow people to live together should keep you on a fairly good trajectory. 

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Culturally-defined self improvement vs. constructing a self.

Culturally defined self improvement is a multi-billion dollar industry, where some one wants to sell you some thing to improve your self. Some of what they sell is useful, some of it useless, and some harmful. None of it resolves the existential anxiety all humans must confront, in their short time here on earth, if their project to construct an authentic self is to succeed.

Authentic selves are constructed not purchased. It's a hard DIY project...nobody sells a pre-assembled version.

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Isn't constructing a self just another type of narcissism?

That's a good question, and as a good liberal I'd answer - it depends. 

First we need to decide what narcissism means and then what a narcissist is. The word narcissism has it's origins in the myth of the Greek hunter Narcissus who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water. It wasn't quite that simple though. Narcissus fell in love with his own image in the water mistakenly believing the image he saw was someone else. 

If we think of a narcissist as someone who is in love with their self we have it all wrong.

A narcissist is someone who looks outward for justification, definition, and affirmation of their self. A narcissist has no self other than the self defined by how others view him.

The narcissist looks in the mirror not because he loves himself but because he fears others don't.

Even if others view him as beautiful and strong he fears the day when he will lose his beauty and strength. Rather than acknowledging this anxiety, and constructing his own "firm foundation", he suppresses the dread with trivial pursuits and magic elixirs.

To summarize - being a narcissist isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism writes,

"This irrational fear of old age and death is closely associated with the emergence of the narcissistic personality as the dominant type of personality structure in contemporary society. Because the narcissist has so few inner resources, he looks to others too validate his sense of self. He needs to be admired for his beauty, charm, celebrity, or power - attributes that usually fade with time. Unable to achieve satisfying sublimations in the form of love and work, he finds that he has little to sustain him when youth passes him by. He takes no interest in the future and does nothing to provide himself with the traditional consolations of old age, the most important of which is the belief that future generations will in some sense carry on his life's work. Love and work unite in a concern for posterity, and specifically in an attempt to equip the younger generation to carry on the tasks of the older. The thought that we live on vicariously in our children (more broadly in future generations) reconciles us to our own supersession - the central sorrow of old age, more harrowing even than frailty and loneliness. When the generational link begins to fray, such consolations no longer apply."

This New York Times article says, "In Lasch’s definition (drawn from Freud), the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval."

This Kansas State University professor's site Political Philosophy has several lectures on Christopher Lasch and his books.

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BBC Radio 4 In Our Time has a wide range of thoughtful podcasts on culture, philosophy, history, religion and science.

I was particularly interested in this podcast on authenticity This is the BBC Radio 4 description of the discussion -
"Melvyn Bragg and guests dicuss what it means to be oneself, a question explored by philosophers from Aristotle to the present day, including St Augustine, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. In Hamlet, Polonius said 'To thine own self be true', but what is the self, and what does it mean to be true to it, and why should you be true? To Polonius, if you are true to yourself, ‘thou canst not be false to any man’ - but with the rise of the individual, authenticity became a goal in itself, regardless of how that affected others. Is authenticity about creating yourself throughout your life, or fulfilling the potential with which you were born, connecting with your inner child, or something else entirely? What are the risks to society if people value authenticity more than morality - that is, if the two are incompatible?"
Participants in the discussion include -
Sarah Richmond
Associate Professor in Philosophy at University College London
Denis McManus
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton and
Irene McMullin
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex

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It's always sort of odd to think about putting a lot of work into constructing a self or becoming a good Christian, when we meet someone who never read or thought about either and yet is the best of both. We've all met people who are characters in the best sense, sometimes a bit of a force of nature - people who definitely have a "self" but didn't learn it from a book. Many of the most Christian (in the sense of following the golden rule) people I've met, thought very little, if at all, about Christian theology.

Fifteen years ago I was pondering if Van Gogh might of been close to the truth when he said,

"The best way to know God is to love many things." 
Vincent Van Gogh
Maybe all the wisdom we need is in some good old country music...




Friday, August 09, 2019

Constructing Your Self II

We have all seen bumper stickers that let us know the car owner is a native of some place - for example a Montana Native. It's understandable that a person would have some sense of pride regarding where they came from. What is less understandable is why a person would think the state they were born in was somehow of enough importance that they wanted to announce it to the world via a bumper sticker on their vehicle.

I'd propose that having a great deal of pride in something you had nothing to do with is indicative of a self, and therefore a life, without meaning.

Taking that previous statement more broadly you can see there are other examples of someone having pride in something they have no control over. Shirts with sports teams names or hats with a beer brand on them, come to mind. George Carlin said it a bit differently -
“Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth.” 



The pride you have in something you have no control over can be benign or pathological. Like so many things in life it's a matter of degree and context. Certainly being a proud Seahawk fan or member of the Sons of Norway is not some sort of pathology. This can be fun, a way to connect to other people and a way to honor and appreciate your heritage. 

The pathology comes about when that pride becomes excessive and  becomes a, or possibly the, defining characteristic of a human being. A person without an independent sense of self - who you are, will be blown about by the winds of culture and society. True Believers in all mass movements are those without a foundational sense of who they are. As the Country Western song goes "You've Got to Stand for Something - Or You'll Fall for Anything" 




Before you take the country western singer's advice "that you've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything" it would be wise to take heed of Nietzsche's thoughts on conviction -

"A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!”  
"The countless people who sacrificed themselves for their convictions thought they were doing it for absolute truth. All of them were wrong: probably no man has ever sacrificed himself for truth... It is not the struggle of opinions that has made history so violent, but rather the struggle of belief in opinions, that is, the struggle of convictions. If only all those people who thought so highly of their conviction, who sacrificed all sorts of things to it and spared neither their honor, body nor life in its service, had devoted only half of their strength to investigating by what right they clung to this or that conviction, how they had arrived at it, then how peaceable the history of mankind would appear! How much more would be known! (Human, all too Human)"
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Who are these persons without a self?

I'd break them into two groups one exciting and normal the other sad and sometime dangerous.

Who's looking for a self might be another way to ask the question.

The first group is of course young people. They don't know enough about the world to have an idea of who they are or who they want to become so they try on all sorts of different identities. That's exciting and normal.

The second group is made up of people who never tried on multiple identities or explored different ways of looking at the world.  They may have been raised in an authoritarian fundamentalist type family where anything other than "the" accepted identity was punished or discouraged. They may, in their search for meaning have happened upon some person, group or ideology that was so compelling that they formed an attachment without understanding why. This group is sad and sometimes dangerous. Sad because being a cleverly constructed automaton (not having a self defined by your self) is the waste of a perfectly good life, and dangerous because of the historical record of some mass movements and cults.

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In ancient Greece, the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription Meden Agan (μηδὲν ἄγαν) - 'Nothing in excess'.

I pulled that quote off Wikipedia but I remember sixty some years ago or so my mom saying nothing in excess all things in moderation. My mom was a bit of dreamer I suppose. My actions and ideas in the sixties and seventies growing up were probably more from culture than mom. 

But I digress. The point I wanted to make was that pride in your city, country, race, sexual orientation, religion, ancestry or any number of things you didn't make happen may be okay in moderation but becomes problematic in the extremes. All those things can be a part of your self - but none of those things can be who you are, your self. If you think they are who you are - then "you" don't exist and that is a shame.

In general it's probably advisable to not have a lot of pride in yourself. For one thing it will make you not all that likeable (for example see Donald J. Trump) and because pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I'm not trying to thump anyone with my bible - but you can find wisdom literature in various places.

Being sort of a scold I'd say that many people sacrificed to allow us the freedom available to us in our great (and sometimes not great) country. Sacrificing your self, your ability to think independently - to the mass movement, mass culture or cult and therefore giving up your freedom, you dishonor those people who fought and died so you could have freedom.

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Discussing and thinking about why people choose not to be free (not to have an independent self) is an abstraction if you are referring to anyone other than yourself. You might gain some understanding for why people become possessed by an ideology but you can only change yourself.

Erich Fromm a German Jew who escaped the Nazis wrote the book Escape From Freedom in 1941. In this book he outlines three ways in which man escapes from freedom - authoritarianism, destructiveness and conformity. If you are interested in Erich Fromm this 1958 interview with Mike Wallace provides some of his thinking. Aside from the validity of the ideas Erich Fromm is talking about it may be somewhat instructive to consider that network television carried shows with this sort of intellectual depth for popular consumption decades ago and compare that with television content today.

Eric Hoffer's book True Believer - Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements is another good source for this sort of investigation. Eric Hoffer was sometimes called the longshoreman philosopher because he was a dock worker in San Francisco. He had no formal education but was a highly educated man. One of my heroes.

Philosophy is great and all that but what practical advice is there for developing your best self?

You could turn to a fictional work like Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Road". The authors page describes the book as follows -
"Through encounters with other survivors brutal, desperate or pathetic, the father and son are both hardened and sustained by their will, their hard-won survivalist savvy, and most of all by their love for each other. They struggle over mountains, navigate perilous roads and forests reduced to ash and cinders, endure killing cold and freezing rainfall. Passing through charred ghost towns and ransacking abandoned markets for meager provisions, the pair battle to remain hopeful. They seek the most rudimentary sort of salvation. However, in The Road, such redemption as might be permitted by their circumstances depends on the boy’s ability to sustain his own instincts for compassion and empathy in opposition to his father’s insistence upon their mutual self-interest and survival at all physical and moral costs."
This part of the book, where the father and son are having a conversation stood out to me -
He [The Boy] sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
[The Man:] Yes. We're still the good guys.
[The Boy:] And we always will be.
[The Man:] Yes. We always will be.
[The Boy:] Okay.
So that's it - make sure you are one of the good guys.

You could also turn to music and listen to Crosby Stills Nash and Young sing about it...






Thursday, August 08, 2019

Constructing Your Self

In the end it comes down to you.

Not your society.

Not your political party.

Not your religious belief.

Not your race or class or gender.

Not your job.

Not your country.

Not your school.

Not who you love or who you hate

To be a human the you that is "you" will have to find meaning in this transitory, sometimes cruel occasionally sublime experience of being alive.  To be a human you will realize that the flower fades, the grass withers, people die - but that's what makes life so beautiful so precious in the here and now. The Stoic philosophers knew this and encouraged the practice of momento mori literally meaning "remember that you have to die."To be a human you must at some point come face to face with the perfectly democratic fact of human mortality.

Or not.

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Questioning your life's meaning assumes you have a "you" and aren't a cleverly constructed automaton created by a commodified culture in which case rather than having any sense of despair or anxiety you can buy a Coke. Coke is "it" you don't need anything else. If Coke turns out not to be your "it" there are many ideologies, products, processes, and parties available to give you the impression you are somebody, that you have a self. This is both reassuring and dehumanizing.

It's reassuring because it's soothing to be part of the group - the tribe - the party - the church - the state - the nation.

It's dehumanizing because the only freedom humans have at our core is freedom to choose. Being free to choose requires you have freedom to think, learn, debate, ponder and ultimately choose - what constitutes a good life.

Ideologies - alt-right, conservatism, liberalism, left wing, democratic socialist, Christianity etc. etc. are soothing to the true believers since they mask the existential dread that would result from an examined or partially-examined life.

This leaves us in quite a dilemma. The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has a potential answer that rejects the theological, the church, the dogma - in search of an individual means of salvation. He doesn't tell you how to eliminate the dread, despair or anxiety of human life but rather how to recognize these feelings as being part of what makes us human and an essential part of what gives us a "self". Negating that dread, despair and anxiety with widespread use of anti-depressants  makes us more comfortable and less human. I don't want to be cruel on that point so I'd also quote one of my drill instructors from Navy boot camp who said, "Whatever gets you through the night." We all have our crutches.

If you have an interest in Kierkegaard's thinking this lecture by Rick Roderick is informative. Rick Roderick was from Texas and liked to smoke and drink. In one of his lectures he says his mother was a beautician and his father was a conman - so he's an interesting character and in my opinion the kind of philosophy professor most students would love to have.

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Given the variability of humans and the complexity of life on this planet any system that claims to be the one answer is absurd, and potentially dangerous. If someone or some group tells you they have all the right answers and someone (group/stereotype/tribe) has all the wrong answers - run far and fast.

Products may be purchased to provide you with a life if you believe the advertisers and the culture. Products may be purchased to provide you with a salve that masks how empty and dehumanized life can be in a post-religious, post-industrial capitalist society if you believe some post-modern thinkers. In any event if you can keep watching the commercials and buying the trinkets you can sort of ignore the homeless people, the burning planet, the hatred and violence.

If you are curious about post-modern philosophy, this channel is interesting. If you are curious about philosophy in general this channel is one of the better ones I've found. You need hours and hours of free time to delve into this stuff so it all becomes somewhat abstract outside a small circle of devotees. Intellectuals in all times have constructed beautiful theories in their ivory towers.

On the far end of the spectrum - the inability to construct a satisfying self may lead to opioid addiction, suicide, joining a cult, becoming a mass shooter or any other of a number of pathologies.

Processes may be purchased to provide you with a life. You can reshape your face to look younger, suck fat out of your body to be thinner, inject some collagen into your boobs to make them bigger, buy some teeth implants to be more attractive and get some hair implants to make you look younger. At the end of the day you are going to lose your hair, maybe your teeth, and your boobs your face and your neck will all sag.

Parties are available to provide you with a life. You can join the Republicans or the Democrats or the Communists or the Fascists and become a partisan who either (a) has a foolish and dangerous belief in an uber-ideology (b) is simply a partisan tribe member with no understanding of the ideological basis for the party. The GOP is only a party of partisan tribe members (a cult) at this point since it has no ideological basis or certainly no consistent ideological basis.

By the time Bill Clinton came along in the 1990's the Democratic party had lost most of the ideological moorings it had when FDR led the party of the working class, so we ended up with two parties that represented a version of classical liberalism with an irrational faith in unfettered capitalism and mythical free markets. One completely representing the interests of the .1% and one representing the interests of the other 10%....leaving the vast majority of people with no representation.

The idea that unregulated markets lead to freedom was inculcated into the populace in the Reagan era (the 1980's) through popular means such as having the economist Milton Friedman (who's either a narrow minded ideologue or a genius depending on your point of view) espouse the infallibility of the market on popular daytime shows like Phil Donahue.

Karl Marx said something like, "In all historical periods the acceptable ideas are the ideas of the ruling class."

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Depending on your religious background you may see a similarity between what I'm writing and what you've heard a minister or priest preach. Christianity in the United States did (and does in some denominations) teach the gospel of Jesus. Jesus was about the Good Samaritan helping the stranger, overturning the money-changers tables in the temple, and striving to love our enemies.


In the 20th century the ruling class decided that the old style Christian beliefs put a crimp in their project to acquire power and wealth so a new acceptable idea was formed - the prosperity gospel. This wasn't a unique event - mankind has modified theology throughout history to bring theology into agreement with economic, social, and governmental systems in place in a particular society.

People who claim that of all the ideologies only capitalism has provided the most wealth and freedom for the most people must first define what they mean by wealth and freedom. Does wealth mean accumulation of money and material goods or is wealth something else like health, friends, learning, family, faith and spirituality? Perhaps providing a hospitable planet for future generations could be considered the ultimate form of inter-generational wealth?

When freedom degrades to mean that in the richest country on earth we are all free to live under a bridge or on the sidewalk, or live with the pain of an abscessed tooth, or go bankrupt because of a medical issue then it becomes a cruel and cynical hoax.

We desensitize our selves, create myths and modify our ideologies to absolve ourselves from the part we play in the system. How else could members of the GOP find something in their parties ideology that justifies taking children from parents hoping for a better life and locking those children in cages?

Aristocrats and their court jesters make up stories to tell themselves about why things are the way they are. "They" poor people - are lazy, ignorant, dishonest, insane, confused and in need of a good strong police state to keep "them" in check. Or if not that they at least just need to try harder, which is a slap in the face of all those hard working poor people considering 60% of today's wealth is inherited. This video from Bill Moyers on Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the 21st Century is informative if you want to learn more.

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So finally what is the good life? What does it mean to live a good life? Only you can answer that question, with fear and trembling as you kneel before the God or Gods you choose to worship.

You know the problem with that statement though right?

It's broad enough that I could use it to justify being - a Nazi, a mass murderer, or a slave owner. I could justify exterminating native populations, subjugating women, hating and killing all sorts of people.

That wraps around to what I started with - what you are not. You are not your society, political party, religious belief, race, class, gender, job, country, school, who you love or who you hate. You are certainly influenced and constrained by those things but they aren't you. If you think they are you and define your self by one or all of them - then "you" don't exist and you may very well die never having lived at all.

The you that is you when you talk to your self is influenced by all those things -  but the precious one of a kind you is realized though the (hopefully) self-created project you call your life.

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People, this life, this planet will all pass "all those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain" but...paradoxically as sad as that fact is - it is also what makes life so beautiful.