Monday, August 26, 2013

Sentience and Guilt

N.B.  This is a somewhat updated (and less politically dogmatic) version of an earlier post entitled "Riddled by Guilt."  I hope that the conclusion to the present post is fairer and more cogent than the final ramblings of the earlier essay.

It's pretty much a commonplace to observe that the source of human psychological anguish is the guilt we feel for having somehow acquired sentience--the knowledge that we are "something" but not "everything"--that we possess some godlike powers of knowledge and yet (through our "most grievous fault"--presumably) must nonetheless endure very un-godlike death.

This reality finds its religious explanation in the myth of The Fall of Man, of which I here summarize the Catholic version.  Satan (whoever he is/was) goaded human beings into eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, by which act we arrogated unto ourselves a self-awareness that only God "deserves" to possess, because only God is truly superior to, and not bound by, the physical laws of the universe.  The fact that we must die is definitive proof that--despite our presumption--we are not gods, we are not free, we are not perfect, we are, in short, evil, and selfish and sinful.  Original Sin, then, is really nothing more than the guilt we feel about being separate from the universe, about "knowing" and nonetheless "deserving" to die.

The irony, of course, is that we cannot bring ourselves to want to not know, to want to reunite ourselves with unthinking, brute matter.  Far from yearning to return to a state of robotic beatitude, incapable of choice, incapable of knowing good from evil, we instead cling stubbornly, as to the most precious of gifts, our ability to know, and hence to do, evil.  We call this "la condition humaine" or "the quality which makes us human." We don't like knowing that we're "bad," but we sure prefer the guilt feelings to knowing nothing at all.

Several responses to human guilt are possible--and here's where I'm going to play around with American political attitudes:  A) the Religious (Save Me) response; B) the Humanist (Save You) response; C) the Libertarian (Fuck You) response;  D) the Helpless Victim (Fuck Me) response. And, of course, there may be others.

The most popular response is A, the Save Me Religious response (espoused most especially by Republicans, but by a good many Democrats as well).  The person holding this belief is, essentially, childlike and undemanding in his thinking.  He acknowledges that he does evil, even that he knowingly and sometimes enthusiastically does so, taking pleasure in exploiting and dominating and controlling (as if he were God) while simultaneously regretting (like a small child) the empirical evidence that his actions are not automatically "good" and that he, too, in the end, deserves punishment and must "pay."

This fearful Type-A person therefore behaves as children often do, inventing for himself an imaginary, parental, yet all-powerful friend (a god) who will rescue him from his guilt--a savior who will swoop down and make a deal with the erring child, a deal that costs the child very little and that will make it possible for the poor baby to escape the punishment (death) he richly deserves.  Jesus (but also Allah and Yahweh and Quetzalcoatl) will "forgive" and/or "redeem" our friend for his sin (i.e., that behavior which he most cherishes) of behaving like the god he isn't. Convoluted, but logical--to a child.

The second most popular response is probably the Humanist Save-You response (advocated by many Democrats and a few Republicans). These Type-B individuals (of whom I am one) are relatively adult and responsible in their thinking.  Like the Type-A folks, they, too, recognize their yearning for personal knowledge and dominion, their love for experiencing the exhilaration and exaltation of godlike power.  And like the Type-As, the Type-Bs feel guilty about their selfishness--they are quite aware that much of their behavior is not "good" and, indeed, deserving of punishment.  Type-Bs, though, do not usually take refuge from their responsibility by believing that faith in divine saviors and/or superhuman redeemers justifies their sinfulness (though many remain un-dogmatical or tepid churchgoers). Rather, they rely upon their own human faculties to make compensation for their failures and excesses; they choose to "pay for" their sins, to balance their selfishness, by doing good--by being liberal.  Thus, by changing and/or moderating their own behaviors, by committing themselves to solidarity with others, they themselves expiate for their sin.

(I note, in passing, that St. Paul was a Type-A--inventing a redeeming Christ to save sinful man--the original "justification by faith" guy); the historical Jesus, however, insofar as our very spotty evidence reveals him--was probably a Type-B, advocating responsibility and proper conduct--a "justification by works" guy.)

The third and fourth types of responses can probably be considered together, since they both involve a categorical "refusal" to acknowledge personal guilt and/or responsibility--and as such, they are essentially delusional.  These guys--at both ends of the political spectrum--are deniers of human reality and, as such, essentially dishonest, foolish, and often dangerous people.  The parallels in the defective reasoning are apparent.

For instance, the Libertarian says, with Ayn Rand, "Fuck you:  I am God and I have no obligation to anyone but myself.  Whatever evil exists is your fault.  I will do what I please and, if you cannot care for yourself, then you deserve to die.  But I WILL NOT DIE (or if I do, I'll have the last laugh). Hahaha."

The Helpless Victim, on the other hand, asserts--along with countless pseudo-Marxist apologists--that his very haplessness renders him somehow intrinsically superior to his exploiters.  "Fuck me; you fuck me over, all the time. But you are evil.  All evil is your fault.  I am entitled to be loved and cared for because, as you will one day see, I am God. Then you will die.  But I WILL NOT DIE.  Hahaha.

It depresses me a bit that so many modern Americans remain strongly theistic--and thus tempted by Option A attitudes. Such puerile thinking merely encourages violence, strife, tribalism and wantonly irresponsible conduct--on the part of both individual citizens and the national government elected by them.  But I take some comfort in a truth that I have observed within my own family, to wit:

Aside from me and my two nephews, most members of my immediate family (siblings, aunts, cousins) are fairly regular churchgoers, i.e., they acknowledge a "savior" and pay lip service, at least, to the notion that "right belief" i.e., faith justifies them and frees them from their guilt. Nonetheless, these same people, in their political actions, in their daily lives, behave pretty much in accord with the progressive "savior-free" path of tolerance and good works as the remedy for primal guilt.

Does this indicate, then, that fellow feeling is mankind's "built in" remedy to original sin/guilt? Is Option B the human default option?  Such that, even those who, for whatever reason, "prefer" the savior/right belief solution, sense deep down, that justification by faith is a kind of bad faith, dishonesty, a cop out, an excuse to justify clinging stubbornly to the very selfishness that causes their guilt, but that they are too weak or too lazy to control by doing good?

I certainly hope so.  Because, quite frankly, I'm pretty fed up with Options A, C and D.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

French Toastiness

Dateline:  June 2, 2013, PARIS, 75011.  (Finished August 24, 2013.)

I've been in Paris for almost two weeks, now--in a pleasant and pricey little flat in the 11th arrondissement--playing at being a "real" Parisian, though of course, such authenticity is actually quite beyond my reach.

It has been incredibly rainy and cold for almost my entire stay--record-breaking low temperatures for the month of May.  Somewhat depressing and demoralizing, I suppose, and definitely "damp," but overall, I've thoroughly enjoyed myself.  My Paris friends have overwhelmed me with hospitality--always accompanied by food, drink and good conversation.  So I was initially a bit shocked, last night, to hear a dinner companion complain bitterly about the coldness of the French.  Max, the source of this criticism, is an Argentinian, perfectly fluent in French and English, living and working in Paris.  Though he is much more authentically Parisian than I, he wants nothing more than to get out, because, he says (and this to me--a Francophile--and to our fellow diner--an American who has taken French citizenship), the French are simply cold and mean-spirited, possessing absolutely no real sense of "fraternit√©," and so hostile to their fellow creatures that they alone among civilized peoples have found it necessary to legislate human kindness, via their "good Samaritan" law.

Max offered this opinion without bitterness, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as if his judgment were little more than a mere statement of self-evident fact.  En France, sauve qui peut!  And those who don't like that way of life should, well, get out.

I have, of course, heard similar criticisms from others--but almost always from Americans (not Argentinians) and, especially, from Americans who do not speak French, who have never tried to learn anything about French culture, who have never spent longer than a week in the Hexagone. That such parochial and navel-gazing Americans should find France "intimidating" and "unfriendly," is not really surprising.  But the reaction of Max, a pretty worldly guy, DID surprise me.  Mostly, though, it was Max's conflation of coldness with hostility that got me thinking.

So what about it?  Are the French significantly more frosty than other national groups? And if so, is this frostiness a sign of some sort of gratuitous and unjustified hostility to other humans?

Well, I admit that I once might have answered a qualified "yes" to both questions. My earliest trips to France--even the entire year I spent there as an assistant d'anglais--yielded very little true contact and no enduring friendships with Hexagonals.  I'm pretty timid, so much of the fault may have been my own.  Still, the cool, albeit usually polite, "signals" sent me by those with whom I interacted were of the "let's not get too close" variety.  And so, though I'm not sure I regarded this aloofness as "hostility,"  I confess that I did sometimes feel--as Max suggested--as if my French colleagues and fellow students had inexplicably encased themselves in a sheath of ice.

Ice glaze.

Now much later, after I have finally come to know and love a good many warm, caring and generous French people--people who have become deeply cherished friends, I return to that image--ice glaze--but I interpret the metaphor quite differently at present.  In 1966, I thought--like Max--that the ice glaze was, as Max would say, a facade--not necessarily hostile, but nonetheless rather puzzling--erected seemingly for the sole and irrational purpose of keeping outsiders definitively "out."  Now, in 2013, I perceive that, in many cases anyway, the ice glaze was (and is) something much more positive--something more about the individual Frenchman's confident sense of self and of self-reliance, and considerably less about the outsider's merits or lack thereof.

BTW, here's what the National Center for Home Food Preservation has to say about ice glazing: ice glazing is a unique protection net for frozen fish, seafood, and chicken. In essence, it's a thin layer of ice, which, with the use of modern technology, embraces the product permanently and firmly and thereby protects the foodstuff from contact with air and prevents the oxidation/deterioration caused by such contact. In other words, ice glazing ensures that a product so treated will remain fresh and nutritious much longer than a more conventionally packaged product.


Yes, the French are a little like that, aren't they? A bit ice-glazed, but perhaps for the purpose of maintaining their cultural "freshness" and personal independence--the frostiness serving as a protective envelope to keep them safe from over-exposure and cultural/emotional "oxidation."  In other words, the average Frenchman is a pretty autonomous guy--sealed by his very culture--against rot and deterioration. As a consequence, once the ice glaze is melted (by sustained and/or fortuitously intimate contact), the result for the erstwhile outsider is a relationship that--like the flesh of the ice-preserved fish--is especially fresh, nutritious and free from the toxicity often induced by too many shallow and devitalizing "friendships."

The story of how my particular "break-through" took place is too long to be told here:  I'll save it for another post.  But, in conclusion, suffice it to note that I am now persuaded that Max was only superficially right: yes, the French can indeed be quite frosty.  But in the long run, Max was wrong:  once the ice glaze is melted, a "French connection" is likely to become intensely satisfying--a genuine friendship that can nourish the outsider deeply on the richness of French culture.  And so I am inclined to think that French frostiness--far from being hostile--is in fact a kind of necessary prelude to a very special French "toastiness."  So it has been for me, at any rate.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

War Against Stupidity

I recently read The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, a little book written way back in 1976 by the Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla--but only recently published in English (even though it was originally written in that language while Cipolla was teaching at Berkeley).  I loved both Cipolla's tongue-in-cheek style and his keenly insightful definition of human stupidity:  "a stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

Cipolla further points out that the relative occurrence of thus-defined stupidity within any given group is a constant wholly unrelated to other factors (such as socio-economic status or education): in other words, the possession of wealth, power, or education in any combination or configuration whatsoever does not in any way ensure that an individual will not be stupid.

Since this tiny pamphlet was intended to be a literary tour de force, not a scientific treatise, Cipolla does not bother to present elaborate statistical evidence to prove his "law."  Rather, he trusts that his readers' experience will corroborate his own and thus validate his arguments.  As indeed my experience certainly does.

For instance, it is obvious to me that:  a) a great many rich people are stupid (Donald Trump has nothing to gain from his cringe-worthy stances on politics--and don't even get me started on the damage done--to others and now, finally, to himself as well--by the contractor who shoddily built my house); b) an astonishing number of powerful people are stupid (what will Tea Party legislators gain by shutting down the government?); and, c) countless so-called "smart" people are stupid (any college faculty lounge brims with idiots willing to harm their careers in the long run for the momentary pleasure of sabotaging a rival).  Dumb, dumber, dumbest.

For me, personally, the most painful assertion made by this book is actually a pretty self-evident verity that, as an educator, I have nonetheless stubbornly resisted: stupidity cannot be eradicated--not by anything--not even a good educational system or by powerful teaching.  Nature, it seems, has a yet-unexplained need for stupidity--just as, apparently, it has a need for a few more boy babies than girl babies and for a steady supply of homosexuals (who just refuse to stop occurring, much to the chagrin of the religious right)--and it has accordingly hard-wired our species to provide, in spite of all well-meaning rectification efforts, the requisite numbers of crackbrains and holy fools.

In other words, those of us who were/are teachers may do a perfectly marvelous job of dispensing knowledge (all the latest techniques, all the exhausting effort).  But no matter how well we accomplish that task, a relatively constant percentage of our students will nonetheless turn out "stupid" (even if they are accepted to Harvard).  That's rather discouraging, isn't it?

Still, let us accept the truth, since it is a truth (whether or not Cipolla proved it with a scientific study).  Where does that leave those of us who cling desperately to our non-stupidity?

Well, since we cannot eradicate the stupidity of the stupid ones and since Nature seems implacable in its determination to replace any crackbrain lost by attrition, our only recourse is to confront these incorrigible blockheads and to fight them, vigilantly, unceasingly, determinedly--with words, of course, but especially with actions. Above all, as Cipolla reminds us, we must resist the temptation to underestimate the potential these singularly zealous people have to do harm. We cannot just sit back and "be nice" while they sow discord, wreak havoc and--if they acquire sufficient influence--blithely undermine the very foundations of our social contract.  Nor, certainly, can we successfully "compromise" with them. This is because stupid people are afflicted with a kind of brain impediment which a) prevents them from understanding the notion that both sides can sometimes win and b) makes them believe erroneously that the other guy's loss is necessarily a "win" for them.  Since, therefore, "win-win" is a foreign concept to a booby and since, consequently, his/her sole objective in human interactions is to make others lose without regard for his/her own advantage, any "deal" with a stupid person is almost certainly doomed to either collapse and/or turn out badly for all concerned.

President Obama--not himself a stupid person--nonetheless seems unable to learn this lesson and persists in trying to negotiate with the boobies who control Congress.

I doubt that this is the right tactic, Mr. President.  And it may be the undoing of your administration.  Governance by compromise was probably possible once upon a time--when the level of stupidity in Congress was no greater than its level in the population as a whole.  In such a "balanced" situation, logic and reason could occasionally prevail, I suppose, even when intelligent people had to make deals with "bandits" (a race distinguished from the stupid by their reluctance to behave irrationally in defiance of self-interest and without regard to outcomes). But now? When, since 2010, the Tea Party Stupids have acquired effective control of the legislative process?  No, Mr. President, negotiation and deal-making can no longer provide a win to anyone, don't you see that?  Don't you see that the stupids will never permit anyone (and especially not you) to win--even if they, also, win thereby?  So, if you want a victory, Mr. President--as distasteful as you, a refined and (alas) aloof gentleman, find belligerence--you will simply have to get down in the muck and WAGE WAR, marginalizing and neutralizing the boobies and their hapless, intimidated allies.

Not a pleasant scenario for a man who hates confrontations and who prefers preaching to brawling, is it?  Well, sir, I don't pretend to know what specific tactics you might ultimately employ in this war (you figure it out:  you've got a good brain and many advisors.)  But I'm pretty sure it's your only chance--and, by extension, the only chance for the majority of Americans who, in spite of the Tea Party successes/excesses in Congress, remain (I sincerely hope anyway) non-stupid. Can we count on you, for once, to be audacious?  You already won the Peace Prize.  Now it's time for WAR.

Fair Inequality

We hear a lot about equality.  It's a popular agit-prop word, sure to elicit a knee-jerk reaction. Everyone, apparently, is in favor of equality.  Until, that is, we stop to think about it.  What do we mean by this term?  Equal opportunity?  Equal legal rights?  Equal income?  Equal responsibility? Equal status?  Equal wealth?  Equal health?  Equal appearance?  Equal sexual prowess?

We really don't mean all of those things, do we?  And we really don't believe very strongly in equality, except in very specifically delineated contexts.  For instance, most Americans would agree that everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed in life (i.e., equal access to education and employment; we quibble about health care, but mostly about how to finance it, not about whether or not we should have it.)  Similarly, most Americans would espouse the notion that everyone should be treated equally before the law--though not necessarily the corollary that every law should apply to every person.  In other words, we believe that an individual, in whatever endeavor he/she engages, should be judged and "positioned" according to his merits, as measured by a criterion common to all. 

Beyond that, I'm not sure.  Generally, our outrage against inequality springs less from not having the same qualities as others and more from not having the same opportunities as others and/or not being evaluated according to the same standards as others. Any reasonably sentient person understandably resents being treated as intellectually, socially or economically inferior to people who, in an entirely objective world and judged according to universally standard measurements, would themselves be the inferior parties.  The catch here, is that notion of "universally standard measurements."

What is the universal standard against which people should be measured and according to which rank, wealth and influence should be distributed?  I'm guessing here, but I wonder if our "merit meter" isn't pretty much the same as our "morality meter," i.e., we assign both merit and morality to behavior that serves to advance the common good, that serves to enrich our lives as human beings and as a community (and not merely the life of a particular individual within the community). On the other hand, conduct that does not contribute to the common good or behavior that affords advantage only to some, often at the expense of others, is perceived as both "immoral" and "unfair" (inequitable).  Similarly, compensation of any sort, when incommensurate with one's contribution to the commonweal, provokes resentment.

Thus, I rail against the uber-rich Kochs (and feel "cheated" by them), not because my economic inferiority is wrong per se, but because in "buying" elections, the Kochs are using their wealth in ways that are not justified according to our "merit/morality meter," in ways that exploit rather than contribute to the overall well-being (including mine).  On the other hand, I can honestly say that I felt no sense of injustice in being subordinate (in both authority and salary) to a talented principal such as Walt Holmes or to a brilliant mind such as Brandon Zaslow.  Both of those men were contributing more than I was and, probably, more than I ever could, given the inalterable and/or freely accepted circumstances of my life.  

So maybe what we mean by "equality" is nothing more than our quest to be treated--by society and the "system"--at least as well as others who a) possess similar qualifications and competencies, and b) against whom we are either obliged or freely choose to be judged (an important point, I think, since voluntary refusal to be "measured" is tantamount to an acceptance of inferior status).

In any event, my main point remains the same:  human beings do not really believe in absolute equality. Rather, we quite comfortably accept elaborate hierarchies of responsibility and compensation, even as we occasionally (rather sheepishly) whine that "it isn't fair."  We know, deep down, that much of the time it is fair--and that we, personally, could never (or would never) perform the function that the envied person performs.  And so, our resentment is directed more at the randomness and arbitrariness of the universe than against any individual incarnation of that arbitrariness.  We believe in FAIR inequality, but we want the playing field to be level (I hate that hackneyed metaphor, but it's useful) and we want the criterion used to distribute rank and reward to be a criterion applied universally and objectively to all people who either must or wish to be measured.  Fair enough?