Archive for November, 2006

Delicate hints of orange blossom

As Bill Hicks would say: I’m not alone? Thank God! I thought I was alone!

The unacknowledged sophists of the world

Some might blame P.B. Shelley. Whether it’s his fault or not for the bit about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, creative writers holding forth on whatever political issue catches their attention has become rather pro forma. And it’s hard to determine exactly how this came to be considered a normal state of affairs. Granted there have been a few rather spectacular instances of literary authors leading or perhaps even embodying great political causes, like Émile Zola or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but I feel that in general it might have more to do with writers being in a particularly good position to shape others’ perceptions of their contributions and expertise.

Granted the track record of scientists, philosophers and other types of non-political thinkers expostulating on politics, from Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins, has perhaps not been a great deal better. Yet at least they made their names through rigorous analytical thought, and one would like to believe that it is simply ignorance, or perhaps a lack of being held to professional standars when speaking outside of their fields, that accounts for the sloppy thinking and dogmatism. The point is that there are at least semi-rational grounds for imagining that someone’s proven ability to think clearly in one area might transfer over in some measure to another, even if knowledge of the subject matter doesn’t. But as for creative writers…I fancied myself an aspirant to a creative writing career for several years, and so I’ve spent a fair amount of time around creative-writing types. They tend to be more emotional and intuitive than analytical, and even when their perceptiveness is keen it tends to be a sort of automatic response to diverting stimuli, like a cat pouncing at whatever is moving near it. Among college campus groups I’d probably put the creative-writing groupies at about the same level as the comedy clubs and the People Enjoying Every Possible Substance. I suppose authority as a “political thinker” is just a concretion of the more nebulous roles of idealist and “social critic.” Yet there seems to be something a little contradictory in the way many in the intellectual community are willing to excuse writers like Peter Handke for holding views that they find reprehensible as a prerogative of genius. Personally, I have begun to find the whole rubric that establishes “realistic” literary works as being almost inevitably social critiques a little tedious. Granted, it’s probably better than the patronage system of the past that kept writers employed as paid sychophants of the aristocracy, but there is a high price to be paid for forcing every story to be somehow typical or symbolic and hence–not truly individual. This is somewhat related to the claim, often made by realistic writers but less coherent the closer one views it, to be depicting a general but not a specific truth.

Moderately abstract

Man hardly needs a theoretical justification for selfishness. So although perhaps no one perfectly embodies disinterested ethical principles, and everyone struggles to reconcile their self-interestedness with the principles they struggle to live up to, and even if perhaps the greatest hope for happiness both individually and collectively lies somewhere in the uneasy middle region between care for others and care for oneself, it does not necessarily follow that equal intellectual space should be granted to self-interested reality and ethical principles, unless, as some like Adam Smith have tried to do, the selfish and self-interested can be put to the use of the ethical. For like massive bodies in a gravitational field, the weight of self-interested motives warps reality around itself and does not need the support of theory. As Mary Sarton said, “one must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” One ought not make the unsophisticated mind’s classic mistake of believing a description of an unpleasant reality or potential reality to be tacit support for it, but it is equally common for more dour minds to mistake a hope for a naive belief in the existence of that which is hoped for. And of course another distinction exists between genuine ideals and unrealizable fantasies. But as long as we bear all these differences in mind, and remain always conscious of what ideals really mean in practice, I think that it is perhaps best to keep our minds just a little elevated above the wilderness we slog through everyday, for in some sense, to use another metaphor, our lives are like the trajectory of a snake, which leads with its head.

Random thought of the day

Tight ends from the University of Colorado seem to be disproportionately represented on NFL rosters. Currently, former Colorado tight ends Tom Ashworth, Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, Joe Klopfenstein, Matt Lepsis Note that Ashworth and Lepsis play offensive tackle in the NFL. and Quinn Sypniewski play in the NFL. While none is a star, Slight qualification: though he’s no Walter Jones, Lepsis is one of the better left tackles in the league. If offensive linemen had the same visibility as quarterbacks or running backs, he would arguably be a quasi-star of the likes of a Marc Bulger or Rudi Johnson. they’ve all (aside from Klopfenstein and Sypniewski, who are rookies) had solid NFL careers. In other words (giving Klopfenstein and Sypniewski the benefit of the doubt), for most of the last 15 years Colorado has lined up a future productive NFL player at tight end. If the trend holds, watch out for Riar Geer in an NFL uniform in a few years.

Given that he was around for at least part of all six players’ college days (and presumably involved in the recruitment of all but Fauria), it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that former Colorado tight ends coach Jon Embree (himself a former Colorado tight end who played in the NFL), is currently plying his trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. Coincidentally or not, Tony Gonzalez seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance of late.

Tolerance or submissiveness?

I often think that human society would be founded on much better, or at least more realistic, principles if everyone repeated to themselves upon waking up in the morning that we’re all in the end a bunch of (relatively) hairless monkeys whose ethical and even cognitive distinction from our simian forebears is much amplified (some might say exaggerated) by our ability to communicate extensively with each other. Of course that truth would have to be tempered by the realization that being a hairless ape doesn’t absolve one of all responsibilities to other hairless apes, or even to beings that aren’t hairless apes, but no even moderately truthful view of the world could be predicated upon a denial of that basic fact. Why bring this up now? For one thing, our society is starting to understand that tolerance necessarily has its limits. This has no doubt been a vague intuition all along, but it would have been clear from the beginning had anyone stopped to consider the matter in evolutionary terms, namely that unlimited tolerance does not represent what is somewhat grandiosely called an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy, i.e. it can’t last. If we define tolerance as intentional passivity with regard to the activities of others, total tolerance of others would presumably involve allowing them to take one’s food, mates, etc. Assuming there to be at least a few opportunists in such a society, they would quickly begin to take over. Of course, being totally intolerant and hostile toward one’s neighbors would not work any better, because those who cooperate can combine their efforts to accomplish a lot more. Think of an army against one man. So of course an equilibrium would have to fall somewhere in the middle, some sort of system where opportunists are successful but provide enough prosperity to everyone else as not to provoke them, like for instance the developed world. One should not entirely blur the distinction between a normative ideal and practical considerations as to whether it can be reached and sustained, but in my opinion tolerance isn’t even a normative ideal, it’s more like a concession to other peoples’. As I’ve said before, tolerance of wrongs is a pretty shady practice, morally justifiable only if the attempt to stop them makes things worse (such as, arguably, Iraq right now). The value of toleration can only be assessed according to a pre-existing set of norms and values. So tolerance as an ethical concept seems contradictory to some extent. Acting decently demands more than just putting up with things, it also requires standing up for something.

The divergence between the free and their supposed guardians

To vie with a rival or opponent often requires that one come more and more to resemble them. This is a truth of which I was reminded reading this profile of Stewart Brand, the founder of the The Whole Earth Catalogue, a sort of clearinghouse for ’60’s bohemian consumer culture. The reason is that, while of course a large distance separates communism from comunalism, ’60’s bohemians are not generally known for their antagonism to Soviet-style communism. Their political aversions were generally directed at the American government, and sometimes even wrapped around to identification with its foes, including the communist countries. But the article reveals that Brand was early inspired by a visceral fear of living in a individuality-crushing Stalinist state, and his embrace of the counter-culture indeed probably represents a more philosophically true rejection of that form of society than many of its more overt opponents in the ranks of business, government and the military. He seems to have felt, in fact, that not a great deal separated bureaucratic life in America from that in the Soviet Union, although presumably with the crucial distinction that in the U.S. one could opt out of that existence. Of course, without the legions of officials in the government, military and business American society could not very well have resisted Soviet hegemony, much less outlasted it. But those who might be inclined to view people like Brand as worthless to the well-being of society, if not actually subversive in some way, would do well to remember that one cannot wait until all of one’s enemies disappear before embracing one’s ideals. The philosophial ideal of a free society is supposed to be that it allows people to pursue their own inclinations and define themselves according to their own standards whether or not their actions contribute to the competition with its neighbors. For a similar reason I don’t have much sympathy for those who complain that Western society today is decadent in the sense of luxuriously self-indulgent. Isn’t that one of the main reasons why people work so hard to accumulate money in the first place, so that they or their families and offspring will have the chance to enjoy leisured, comfortable existences? That doesn’t mean that the resultant state may not contribute to the erosion of that wealth and power, because after all decadence can mean decline as well as luxurious indulgence, but that’s hardly an argument for shunning it entirely. No point in earning it if you never enjoy it.