Tag Archives: values

Sincerity

Recently, I had a moment where I thought someone couldn’t possibly be for real and I was about to use his face to sharpen my claws . . . and then he responded with disarming sincerity.  It’s wonderful when that happens.

Sincerity—not honesty but the good-faith attempt to be honest, which seems far more powerful and important—is like a force of nature. It’s a technique of relating to other people and to oneself that supersedes all the usual forms of vanity, deceit, coercion, and betrayal we regularly inflict on each other just to make it through the day.

It’s something I tend to forget, since the vast majority of people I deal with are usually cynical, conniving, lost souls.  My economic survival often means, as a freelancer, staying one step ahead of them and being prepared for the worst they have to offer.  I’ve been burned in most ways you might imagine and in some ways you might not.  And, because it is necessary to be a student of human nature, I usually walk away, saying, Fool me once . . .

But people can surprise you.  When they do, it’s worth noting—not only because it’s rare, but because sincerity is like water in the desert.  You don’t know when you’ll see it again but, for the moment, it’s a relief.

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Surpassing Meritocracy: the Artist’s Way

There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture.  As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business.  Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.

It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance.  And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.”  A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values.  But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values.  What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.  

If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant.  In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you.  Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives.  They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in.  And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.

Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual.  One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self.  “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.

It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities.  As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours.  And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be.  If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else?  In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes. 

Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality.  But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing?  Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?

Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort.  Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness.  You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable.  Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt.  Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.

You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.


US anti-intellectualism through a glass darkly: the end of our national self-inquiry.

Today, Rebecca Schuman wrote a worthwhile piece in Slate, “The End of Research in Wisconsin,” covering the academic outcry against Gov. Walker’s $250-million budget cuts and subsequent demolition of tenure at state universities.  It’s mildly sensational Slate fare, which is to say, it’s well-written, informative, and disturbing.  I think one of the main reasons we’re seeing upsetting stories like this about the “worth” of a college education relative to the poisonous fallout that attends it is because anti-intellectualism is a theme in American culture that has never gone away; though it’s never seemed this poisonous.

Consider: higher education has always been a battleground in WI (and just about everywhere else). We know that the collision of opposing values (and the economic landscapes created by those values) that emerges when government and academia vie for power is as old as the United States. Or we would know that if history was actually considered as valuable as STEM.  The current STEM-fetish in the States is likely the invisible elephant in the room.  But Shuman’s piece doesn’t get into that.  Instead, she talks about how angry the University of Wisconsin faculty are at Gov. Walker’s maneuvering, citing the exploits of sociology professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who tried to strike back by warning incoming freshmen about the situation.  Well, that’s interesting and dramatic, isn’t it?

Gov. Walker is probably interested in (1) consolidating power; (2) controlling high-profile programs (STEM–ever see an English department with a research budget in the millions?) that will be directly and indirectly lucrative; and (3) silencing all opposition. What else is new? He’s a politician.  Do we expect him to have humanistic values?  His entire worldview is based around trying to eat the appendages of his opponents without letting his opponents eat his.  He is not interested in φιλόσοφος.

This is the same struggle going on in most state-funded universities throughout the country.  This is the same collision of values we’re seeing (in a far more complex and apocalyptic sense) in the current presidential campaign.  Sure, we should care about it; we should debate and discuss.  Our policies should reflect our deepest beliefs.  But college is not going away and neither are state governors.

The usual doomsaying is well represented in the media; though, many Americans still believe and will still believe in going to college, in tenure, and even in the humanities–despite the fact that self-help celebrity James Altuscher makes a pretty good argument to the contrary: don’t go to college because it costs too much.  If all we cared about was ROI, yeah, I could agree.  I guess that’s all many, if not most, people care about in the West: job skills, earning potential, stability.  And who could blame them?  They’re nervous wrecks, mostly because they’re in debt and jobs are scarce.

Still, I don’t buy the entire argument. You can’t commodify learning; you can only try to commodify what a particular degree is “worth” according to what the economy seems to be doing.   For example, student loan debt in the States is ridiculously exploitative. Few disagree with this.  And so when Altuscher says college is a horrible investment, he is more or less right. But sometimes an investment is horrible on one level and profitable on another.

How much would you pay to stay out of the rat race for 4 years, talking about ideas while learning how to communicate, lead others, and discover what really makes you tick?  Sounds priceless to me.  But maybe “priceless” doesn’t mean you want to go into debt for the rest of your life.  When the anti-intellectuals use ROI as an argument against the Academy, what they’re really talking about is student debt vs. the state of the economy.  And they’re conflating these things in an argument against all “useless college degrees” because humanistic inquiry runs contrary to the business values congruent with STEM.

But then, of course, there’s Penelope Trunk, a writer who often seems as damaged as she is imbalanced.  She comes across mostly as an internet troll masquerading as a career advice guru.  I’d like to present an impartial façade when I talk about her, but she’s good at what she does.  Ten minutes on her blog and I feel horrible about the world because she does; she’s making a living off of it; and she is a strong writer.  Sadly, all that learning she did in college has been aimed at destroying what made her.  She is the vanilla Ann Coulter.  And her perspective is where the University of Wisconsin controversy is destined to end.

Trunk has argued vociferously that graduate school, especially in the humanities, is now a frivolous pastime for the idle rich. She intensifies and extends Altuscher’s argument by saying that “non-science degrees are not necessary for a job” (the STEM fetish raises its head once again) and adds that “If you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy? It’s a more honest way of self-examination—no papers and tests. And it’s cheaper.”  This, my friends, is the fine art of trolling.

She loves it: “I do tons of radio call-in shows where I say that graduate degrees in the humanities are so useless that they actually set you back in your career in many cases. And then 400 callers dial-in and start screaming at me about how great a graduate degree is.”  And so I bring her up because this is the answer to what my friend, Al Cabal, has called “the end of America.”  It’s not the end of higher education.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s the final termination point of our self-inquiry.  As a country, at least in the media, we cannot bring ourselves to think past the trolling.  Cabal puts it like this:

New York City just shut down the subways because of snow for the first time in the 101 years that system has existed. Twitter trolls are grounding aircraft. A drunken federal employee landed a drone on the White House lawn. The entire American police state has been built on panic driven by bullshit with low production values. Never underestimate the taste of the American public. If you doubt that, just turn on a radio to any contemporary music station. Watch the most popular TV shows. Tell me who the Kardashians are and why I should care. Google “Operation Mockingbird.”

Bullshit, indeed.  In “The Great American Delusion,” Cabal writes, “When I think of the incredible hubris of this country and its anencephalic and heartless citizenry, I think of the Greek goddess Nemesis, and an old Elvis Costello lyric: ‘She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.’”  

Today, in Wisconsin, academics are screaming because their privileges are being abrogated by a power-hungry state government.  Today, in the United States, this dynamic is in flux on every level and all we hear are the trolls arguing an anti-intellectual bottom line so utilitarian that it would make George F. Babbitt blush.