Category Archives: belief

Tiredness, Truth, and Mockery: the American Way

...

Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

Today, I wonder whether I should re-think some of my ultra-liberal biases and attendant leftist news consumption.  This is good.  But, man, I’m beat.

The alt-right (and the radical religious right) to me seems like a uniquely American expression of deep stupidity but, of course, I would say that. Look at my demographic: college educated, democrat, fiction writer, from Southern California, who’s been an expat for almost a decade. Of course, I think Trump is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the world. Of course, I wanted Bernie but voted Hillary. Of course, I want net neutrality. Of course, I support many (but not all) positions taken by the ACLU. Of course, I believe that, in an earlier era, Obama would have been considered a moderate republican. Of course, I have a problem with drones, civilian casualties, the terrific scope creep of the Patriot Act, and the “war on drugs.” Of course, I care about my country.

If I didn’t think the Green Party was run by bumblers, I would probably join. I’m pro-choice, pro-Planned Parenthood, and I support gay marriage. I think many of these things should not even have to be controversial in a liberal democracy. I dream of a day when there will be universal healthcare and free college tuition. I think climate change is one of the most, if not the most, serious issues we face today. But the truth is that most of these biases and beliefs can be (and are) predicted by an algorithm. The even sadder truth is that I only have so much energy I can devote to fact checking and being outraged. This is a problem. Tiredness is a problem.

The problem is not that there is a right answer we have to find. The problem is that uncertainty and complexity are exhausting over time, especially when you’re necessarily engaged in other things. Most Americans are not, actually, stupid. They’re invested in certain areas–mostly job and family–and in most other respects have a general (superficial) understanding of the world, including political issues and identifying yellow journalism, confirmation bias, and what passes for fear mongering click-bait. I have also seen this in European and Asian countries, relative to various cultural differences and levels of education. The USA doesn’t own “stupid.” Every country with a powerful media has a horse as a proconsul somewhere. The difference is that the States likes to put its toga-wearing horses on display, whereas other countries have not. But this is changing.

In an enormous post-industrial society, you will have many levels of political, historical, and economic awareness and many opinions emerging constantly in the news media. You will also have crackpot theories; secessionism; separatism based on race, religion, and / or gender biases; conspiracy paranoia; multi-directional shaming; late night talk show infotainment; social justice fanatics; religious absolutists; new age hucksters; ambulance chasers; a continuous horde of cynics; doom-saying historians looking for their 15 minutes; the resurgence of failed orthodoxies (like Nazism, ethno-nationalism, and whatever Steve Bannon happens to be reading); and the all-encompassing opportunism that feeds off these things. What you won’t have is a simple black-and-white truth. You will have truthiness.

To live in an information society infected with truthiness is extremely taxing. But just as there is no black-and-white truth, there is no easy solution. A friend of mine has suggested “slow news” as opposed to internet news feeds. It seems like there are some merits there. But slow news does not necessarily safeguard against yellow journalism, which has been around since newspapers could fold. In many ways, the 24-hour news cycle and its problematic presence on social media makes it harder for governments and corporations to spin interpretations in their favor. We should be grateful for the ineptitude of Sean Spicer and the alacrity with which he and his boss are covered by the press corps.

I don’t have answers. I don’t think there is a single version of what is true—at least not one that can be had through the media. But I also don’t think the cross-eyed chants of “burn it down” and “fuck your feelings” have done any good. They helped Trump get elected as president, and he has thus far made a mockery of America. The left understandably wants him gone. The GOP wants him to calm down and let them get on with the kleptocracy. His base supporters are currently upset because he bowed 5 inches to receive an award in Saudi. Some of his supporters are no doubt upset that the Reich hasn’t yet emerged in all its glory. I suspect they will still be upset when he gets impeached.

“Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted” – Hassan-i Sabbah

Advertisements

The Professional and the Superior Man

A long time ago, I watched a black-and-white movie about the French Foreign Legion in Algeria. The title escapes me, as does most of the plot, but I vividly remember one scene. A young recruit had snuck off to a local village to visit a girl he liked and was arrested for deserting his post. He was brought before his commanding officer, who gave him a lecture very similar to a bit of dialogue in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a film I have watched over and over. I think that’s why I remember the scene from the former otherwise forgettable film.

In any case, the lecture went something like this: You think you care about this girl, but you’ve already seen people die all around you. You think you want to go back home someday, have a family, and grow old comfortably. But these are civilian dreams. You are not part of that world. You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The recruit is visibly agitated, angry, surprised. He asks whether they aren’t there to make the world a better place as they have been told—to fight the National Front for democracy and to preserve social order. The commander shakes his head and says: Today, we fight them. Tomorrow, we fight with them against somebody else. Politics changes like the weather. But we stay the same.

I’m reconstructing this conversation from memory. So it may not be exact, but I think I’ve captured the essence of the dialogue. It was a good scene, maybe the only good scene in the movie, but still very romantic in how it evoked the “this life is not for you” sense of doomed heroism we love in stories about the cult of the warrior.

For many years, I’ve rejected this romantic perspective. I’ve thought about professional soldiers the way I’ve thought about sport hunters: anachronisms at best. More often, they seem dangerous and cynical, full of misplaced machismo and the need to justify their existence with bullets instead of brains. So I felt annoyed when someone recently referred to my freelance writing as “being a hired gun.” Not only is that inaccurate—though I can see it in terms of private investigators, lawyers, even lobbyists—but I think it sensationalizes what is basically a very humble line of work.

While there is a lot of professionalism in the field, writing content for media sources and corporations has always struck me as nothing like being a mercenary, a legionnaire, or even a samurai. It always felt more like being a craftsman who specializes in a very specific sort of product. Still, it got me thinking about what a “professional” actually is in a philosophical sense. And now I’m not so sure about these distinctions. This morning, I gave myself a writing assignment, something working writers, especially freelancers, need to do on a regular basis. I set a goal of 700 words in response to: what is a professional?

The Existential Condition of the Professional

I started thinking about that Foreign Legion movie scene and the moment in Seven Samurai when the samurai have successfully defended the farmers against the bandits; though, their friends have died in the process. Kambei Shimada expresses the inherently Pyrrhic nature of military victory: “Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”

Again we are defeated…

It’s a melancholy moment that resonates with You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. But, thinking about it in terms of my many varied writing jobs over the years, I think I’ve come to a deeper understanding. Being a professional means walking the path of mastery and radical individualism. So while it may be true that “civilian life is not for you,” such a path seems more like an existential choice than involuntary alienation from normal life.

It seems to me that if you are a true professional, you engage in one thing so deeply and exclusively that it emerges as an aspect of your nature. Your will, your inner self, and this thing you do are indivisible, indistinguishable. Essentially, you learn that it is who and what you have always been. It’s an inner part of your character that has now found expression in your life as some kind of career or activity.  This emergence ultimately transcends existing categories of normal, mundane life, realigning your values with the profession as the most profound and worthwhile source of meaning. All else must take second place or no place.

The I-Ching alludes to it in hexagram 32, Heng / Duration: “The dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed.” To embody an enduring meaning is to become synonymous with it, to presence it such that you are its student and its conduit. As Yeats says at the end of “Among School Children,” “O body swayed to music,/ O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

The Superior Man vs. the Inferior Man

Not everyone is called to be a professional in this esoteric sense of the term. Its exoteric definition simply indicates a level of proficiency where one can expect to be paid for one’s efforts. But there seems to be a deeper stratum of self-awareness that emerges in some practitioners. The I-Ching calls this person the “superior man,” meaning that he or she operates on a more profound, more philosophical level.

32, Heng

The “inferior man” is someone content to live more superficially within existing, inherited cultural frameworks. Above all else, the inferior man values gratification and relief from the problems in his life and offers up obedience to conventional society in exchange. Conversely, the superior man seeks mastery and will pursue it to the detriment of family, friends, finances, and even social respectability—which is not to say she automatically gives up these pleasures. Rather, she assigns them second place in her life.

In The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a 17th century Edo samurai in the service of Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, writes “Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.” To a samurai, “awakening from your dreams” means accepting death as the most likely consequence of your profession. It is pursuing the path of mastery regardless of the consequences. And it is therefore the way of the superior man, who embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life above and beyond the conventional joys and trials of mundane existence.

Seduction of the Youth

This way of life can seem very romantic. The young, in particular, are often attracted to its emphasis on integrity and its ostensible clarity. This is how it should be. If the long painful road to mastery didn’t enchant and seduce people from an early age, humanity’s deepest knowledge would eventually be lost to time and mortality.

And yet, very few set foot on the path of Duration fully realizing how much they will be asked to sacrifice. In the fullness of time, they will die to their old lives and be reborn in the image of their chosen profession, which is to say, they will embody this thing which now sustains them, which flows through them, and which has come to define the purpose of their existence.

Consider the difference between these two expressions: he is a dancer versus he dances. The first describes a professional. The verb of being shows equivalence. He = dancer. There is no distinction between the two. Contrast this with the second expression where dancing is something he does. It is an action undertaken by a noun, not an existential state. He does some dancing. It is not what he is.

Many people who are frustrated with their lives, especially teenagers and disappointed young adults, fantasize about being absorbed into the lifestyle of some profession. They think, if only I could be like so-and-so (often a professional athlete, artist, or celebrity), then I wouldn’t have these problems. But becoming a true professional involves as much pain as it does pleasure. It can mean cutting out everything that is not the profession—a high price to pay that becomes a brutal requirement for those trying to progress. Lawyers will sometimes say, “law is a cruel mistress,” which is undoubtedly true for all professions where mastery is concerned.

Who Becomes a True Professional

Anyone can do it, but few will, since the obstacles are wholly internal. Time, age, finances, social permission, and starting ability are ultimately irrelevant because the path of the true professional is a state of mind. Only the inferior man has to worry about those external things, since he functions primarily within the constraints placed on him by others. The true professional, being the superior man, develops his own set of constraints organically by paying attention to his character and the dictates of his heart.

Jean Reno showing one-pointed focus as Leon, the Professional

This is a matter of discernment, of self-understanding, which makes the professional mindset possible through a succession of insightful shocks or moments of clarity. Such realizations often come when certain sacrifices have been made.

For example, the time, money, and logistical arrangements necessary for living in a remote cabin for three months in order to finish your novel will produce not only work product but also greater awareness of what you really want to write and who you really want to become. This, in turn, will provide a vision of the next step, the next goal and its necessary sacrifices. Every step entails a sacrifice to be made, something material that will be given and received, a self-insight, and an altered state of consciousness.

In some philosophies, this pursuit of mastery is considered dangerous, an outlaw ethos. It’s seen as “antinomian” (anti / opposite or against + nomos / rule or law) in the sense that it often disregards approved social norms. Those who have become proficient to the degree that they have “awakened from their dreams” have disregarded the desires and statuses manufactured by consensus culture. They threaten the system by their very existence. They have undertaken a path of radical individualism that privileges subjective personal meaning and depends on mastery and self-understanding for forward progress.

It is very hard to control such a person with conventional rewards and punishments. The path of the true professional stands in stark contrast to lifestyles that interpolate people into preexisting categories designed to provide gratification and relief in exchange for obedience in thought, word, and deed. Instead, having transcended superficial levels of meaning, the professional finds himself enjoying hidden pleasures and suffering from unique pains. He can talk about his discipline to beginners and to the uninitiated, but only to a point. There are things that can only be understood by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, developed through firsthand experience.

There is no Going Back

It’s not hard to see that the path of the true professional, being extremely demanding and fraught with difficulties, is not for everyone, nor should it be. There is something to be said for the joys of a simple mundane life and the fun of dilettantism. Moreover, as you walk the path of individuation, you may come to a sobering realization: once you took the first faltering steps toward what would become a life-defining quest for mastery in your field, there was no going back.

In a sense, as the commanding officer says to the legionnaire recruit, you reach a point at which you have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The path has changed you forever as you’ve sacrificed and been reborn again and again. The Egyptologist, Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, expresses this beautifully in Her Bak: the Living Face of Ancient Egypt, a speculative account of initiation into an Egyptian mystery cult where radical self-transformation is the highest goal:

What is life? It is a form of the divine presence. It is the power, immanent in created things, to change themselves by successive destructions of form until the spirit or activating force of the original life-stream is freed. This power resides in the very nature of things. Successive destruction of forms, metamorphoses, by the divine fire with rebirth of forms new and living is an expression of consciousness that is independent of bodily circumstance.

When the dancer is the dance, both emerge as an expression of consciousness, a state of mind above and beyond the movements of the body. This is the reality of the true professional.


Nobody Knows It But Me

classroomLong ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.

Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.

I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.

I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.

I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.

We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.

Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.

For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.

In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.

Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.

But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.

Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:

In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.

In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.

Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.

So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.

Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.

Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.

“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” 
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum