Thursday, August 28, 2014

Some thoughts on the Duty to Rebel and Robin Williams

In Chaim Potok's The Chosen Danny Saunder's father doesn't speak to him as a way to teach him about the suffering of others. I remember being impressed with the way Chaim Potok described the suffering that is there if you are willing to listen to it. The odd thing is that most people don't hear it, don't feel it. How is this possible?

One of Superman's lesser known abilities is super hearing. He can hear everything: abuse, broken hearts, depression, whimpers, pain, fights, hacking coughs, sighs...I think it would be overwhelming. I have an image of him floating in space, still and with eyes closed at a great distance from the Earth, for a moment of rest and reprieve. 

Society is a machine that turns off this noise. It must be turned off. If we didn't have some justification for all the terrible things that happen, we would be overwhelmed. Just as the human body cannot function well if it is in intense pain, say from having a deep cut (we scurry to stop the bleeding and close the wound), so too society could not function if it were deeply wounded--or if it realized it is deeply wounded. When there is a family tragedy, we give people time off of work and school to recover. But tragedies are happening all around us. If we saw all other humans (not to mention animals, plants, and other non-human things) as our family, we would be constantly surrounded by suffering and misery. It would be too much for us to handle. We would drown.

There is always someone suffering. So we have all kinds of deterrence mechanisms that shield us from seeing, hearing and feeling the ocean of suffering on which we float or help to justify it in some way that makes it less painful for the rest of us. They will go to heaven. They were bad in a past life. Their suffering is a result of choices they have made. All societies require some story that says the suffering will be ok in the end, it is not that bad, it is justified, they are bad guys, etc.

While it is necessary to find some way to quiet suffering, the danger is, of course, that one can silence suffering. Too much success in this regard results in obliviousness, an inability to hear suffering, and callousness. To feel comfortable living in a large home in a gated community while other are suffering requires a certain set of (bad) justifications, ignorance and/or a certain level of callousness.

Some people are sensitive to suffering more than others. In my case, I had to make myself recognize this suffering. It took and takes a choice on my part. I think this is an ethical task: to learn to listen to the suffering despite all the noise foisted upon us by modern society. This suffering silencing noise includes endless advertising, certain aspects of Christianity, the demands of a production obsessed society, sports, tv, the internet, etc. All of this conspires, in its way, to keep the system running and to keep us serving the machinery of production.

In the face of all this noise, I think for many of us (but, perhaps, not all) it is important to do the ethical work of listening to suffering. 

With all that said here is what set out to write about: the recent and sad suicide of Robin Williams. Now, I didn't know him personally. I only knew him from a distance through his films. Perhaps I am wrong, but Robin Williams always struck me as a person who listened to suffering. Even with all his maniac energy, I always felt I could see in his eyes someone who felt the immense weight of the endless deforesting, the relentless slaughter of animals, the abused children and wives, the distraught, the starving, the madness. I feel like he would often drag it out for us to see (because so much work is done to hide it) and then attempt to fight it off (because it is bad).

Maybe I am wrong. But when he died, I thought to myself: perhaps he was finally overwhelmed. If that was the case, I hoped he was free, because that weight can be so heavy. 

I was surprised to discover a nasty debate emerged between those who wanted to stress that suicide is a choice and wanted to heap shame on the decision to commit suicide. Many of these people called suicide a selfish act. The opponents of this position generally tried to argue that it wasn't a choice, that he was terribly depressed and that deep depression can lead to people seeing no way out. 

I don't know if or why he chose to do what he did. But I had assumed it was a choice and that it was a legitimate one, one that I thought could make sense if the narrative I had constructed for him was correct. I saw a person who had refused to succumb to the noise, who fought for others to see suffering, to take it seriously, and to do something about it. I didn't see a selfish individual, but someone who had given much of their life in the effort to make the world a better place but who, perhaps, could no longer stay afloat. I didn't see it as a selfish choice, but certainly as a desperate one. 

What surprised me most was the vehemence about suicide. For many people, suicide is never a legitimate choice. When I was little I remember my mother telling me that Dr Kevorkian was a terrible person and that God alone had the right to take human life. Even as a 7 or 8 year old I thought this makes God a terrible jerk if he is giving people nasty diseases and then keeping them alive to teach them some lesson. I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with someone who is suffering a painful terminal illness wanting to end it.

I find the facile dismissal of suicide troubling. Camus, in one of his many bouts of provocativeness, claimed suicide is the central problem of philosophy. Later he would change his mind and claim the death of the Other that we cause inevitably by our actions (I choose to eat while others are starving. I choose not to know about them. I accept justifications that claim it is their own fault. I cannot live without doing so at the expense of others) is the central problem of philosophy. These problems are related: they both hinge on the belief that there is something fundamentally flawed with this life--that it should not be as it is. Thus Camus' later work, the Rebel, is about different ways of fighting against the injustice and absurdity of life. This is the theme of many of Camus' novels.

Camus' point about suicide is that when we take the absurdity, the cruelty and the injustice of life seriously we should begin to wonder if life is worth living. While suicide is one way of rebelling against absurdity, cruelty and injustice, Camus thinks it is ultimately NOT the right choice. His heroes are all individuals who rebel by fighting against injustice and cruelty, despite being fully aware that this is a sisyphean task.

The indignant condemnation of Robin Williams strikes me as coming from a place that cannot take suicide seriously as a legitimate option, which in turn makes me doubt if those individuals who were so incensed have done the work of listening to the suffering that is there if you are willing to listen to it. I cannot be sure, but I suspect awareness of the suffering all around us would result in empathy for Mr Williams--not only for whatever personal suffering he was going through but for his noble and maniacal sisyphean task of making suffering visible and fighting it. Sadly, the facile condemnation of Mr Williams may actually be an indication of the superficiality of those who have not done the work to listen to suffering and who, comfortable in their metaphysical cocoons and inuring justifications, will miss the duty to rebel.

RIP Robin Williams, you were an example for me

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dependence Day

Some thoughts about a bad word: dependence.

Judging by the pundits and the politicians, dependency is a terrible thing. They tell us we need to avoid creating a "culture of dependency." By this they mean that if there are people in need and we help them out through government programs we risk get them hooked on such help. They will become "entitled" and expect social support instead of becoming self-reliant and independent. We need, we are told, to create programs that encourage them to work for welfare. We will help them, but they need to be responsible, to get a job and learn to earn their own keep. The economy is dragged down by those who don't do their part.

Independence is good. All the words that go along with independence are good: freedom, autonomy, liberty, self-rule, etc. Dependence and the words that go along with it seem to be bad: defenseless, poor, reliant, vulnerable, etc. No one wants to be vulnerable and dependent.

Of course, the convenient inverse of the irresponsibility of dependence is the responsibility of independence. From the balcony of his large house the self made man tells us how he built this all himself. Standing on my own, depending only on myself, I did this, he says. And, since he built it without any help, no one else can make a claim on it. The claim to independence is often also then a claim to NOT have to help others, to not have to pay attention to them, to be left alone. After all, since I earned it, how would it be fair for others to take what I earned? He puts up a no trespassing sign.

The claim that we are not and that we should not be dependent are very convenient for those who already have their big houses. It exercises a remarkable power over those who do not have big houses. If they work hard too, they will get a big house. Thus, oddly, some of the most vocal advocates of not depending on others are those who are desperately in need of help, but who hope through hard work to prove their responsibility and independence. They too want to be able to stand with pride on the balcony of the big house they built by themselves. Unfortunately, hard work does not necessarily lead to a big house and this kind of intense "every man responsible for himself" mentality obscures the ways we need each other and are all dependent on each other. It becomes a grotesque excuse to ignore each other. Let me give an example.

When I was 16 and living in Arizona I worked a terrible summer job taking apart old cars. My friend and I would get up at 5 am, begin work at 6 and finish by 12, because by then it was too unbearably hot. Our boss paid us less than the minimum wage because, since it was all under the table, "the government wasn't taking taxes." After about a month of being exploited and "working hard" I was done. But my friend, whose family was much poorer than mine couldn't just quit. He needed the money. He also took pride in working hard and the independence it brought him.

His mother was a single mother and she didn't have money to put him through college. With the support of my parents I finished in 4 years, like most students. It took him 10 years to finish his undergrad. Even though he was eligible for scholarships and financial support because his mother was Mexican, he didn't want to receive aide based on his minority status. He wanted to do it himself.

The same term he was finally set to finish his degree he was killed in a motorcycle accident. I went to his funeral. Over and over, I heard people talk about what a good worker he was, how responsible he was, and what a great example he was for the rest of us as to how hard we should work. This was not wrong. I had worked that terrible job with him 14 years earlier. I knew how hard he had worked. I also knew how terribly we had been paid and I knew that he had worked all sorts of odd jobs for many of these people who were praising his work ethic at his funeral. No one mentioned that perhaps paying him more than minimum wage would have helped get him through school earlier. No one mentioned that the do-it-yourself cowboy mentality had excused us all from helping him (and taught him that he shouldn't want the help anyways because that would make him dependent). I'm not sure it occurred to the many people living in large houses that the conservative talk show radio blasting in that dirty old car lot that lamented the mooching minorities and welfare mothers taught my friend it was a great evil for him to seek financial aid based on his minority status. In the magical kingdom of self-reliance, we had all done right.

Most remarkably, this was a deeply Christian community. But it had adopted a deeply unchristian attitude towards dependence. The Old Testament makes it very clear that the righteousness of a particular community can be determined by how the widows and orphans are treated--in other words by the state of the most dependent. A wicked community is one in which the widow and the orphan are ignored and not taken care of. The Bible is full of references to how all humans are dependent upon God and the repeated trope throughout it is the forgetting of this dependence and the claiming to be independent, to have done it without God's help. This claim is wicked not only because it forgets the fundamental dependence of all things on God, but also because it can then be used as an excuse to ignore others, especially the widow and the orphan. Thus the repeated anger of God at those who lay on ivory thrones and feed themselves and fill their own pockets while others go without.

The ideology of self-reliance and independence isn't stupid because the Bible says so. It is stupid because it forgets we all have mothers. There is no human who was not born dependent. Many humans also end their lives dependent. And in between we are still deeply dependent on others - to grow our food, to build roads, to educate us, to help us raise our children, to build our large houses. What is astonishing is not the hoards of mooching dependent people, but the idea that one could ever NOT be dependent. To systematically forget our dependence is an insult to all mothers. But it goes beyond that, we are fundamentally dependent on the Earth. The guy shouting about how self-reliant he is from the balcony of his large house is forgetting the mother that birthed him, the people that raised him, those that educated him, those that built his house, the Earth that provided the materials for his large house and the food he has lived on his whole life...these things, at least, he did not earn.

Life is a gift. Gifts are not earned. The appropriate response for them is gratitude and thoughtfulness. In the case of the work done by mothers, the gifts of the Earth, and for my Christian friends, the gift of salvation, there is no amount of payment that can be offered in return that will somehow make us even. We are always indebted to our mothers and to the Earth and, if you are religious, to God.

This is why there is something deeply wrong about denigrating dependency. We need to recognize it, accept it, perhaps even be grateful for it, and most certainly, be deeply wary of condemning those who are need help. Christmas, if anything, is a day of dependence. The image of the helpless and fully dependent Christ-child, whom in turn all humanity is dependent on for salvation, is one that should snap us out of our "every man for himself" mentality.

Nothing we own is ours. Even when we work for it, everything we have comes to us as a gift or built upon other gifts. We are deeply connected with others, and yet here in the US there is a ideology of self-reliance and independence that masks these connections and our interdependency and gives many the illusion of self-sufficiency. It allows for some deeply confused condemnations from the balconies of large houses and the sad trials of those laboring under the illusion of the American Dream. Christmas is nice, because, it seems, that for a brief moment these attitudes fade into the background and people are willing to give and receive. The poor can be helped and for a brief moment are not denigrated. In an imperfect and partial way, we get an image of what it would be like if we took seriously what it would mean to take interdependency seriously.

Perhaps we could think of Christmas as Dependency Day.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On Impotence

Haven't written in two years, just needed to think aloud...

One of the more remarkable aspects of being involved in academia is the universal pretension to "do something that matters" and the reality that the rare moments that actually change things are out of most of our control. Academics think what they do matters. It doesn't really.

Perhaps I'm just being cynical, but this doesn't only hold for academics, it holds for everyone. Rarely does anything we do change much. Sure, we can help our neighbor and we can do our part in our small, insignificant corner of the world - and, yes, it matters to the people we may directly affect. But society is upheld by general structures that are very resistant to human intervention - or perhaps I should say humans are very reluctant to change what is "working". Even if it isn't working well.

We tell ourselves what we do matters. We need to hear that. We need to feel that things have a reason and that we are a part in moving things forward in a good direction. Democracy seems to imply that all are important and that all should have a say. But when all have a say what one says is just a blip in the cacophony of things being said. The very hope democracy offers undermines itself by promising the same thing to everyone else.

The Buddhist and Daoist response to this conundrum is to let go of the desire to "do something that matters". Only when one learns to get rid of these pretensions, can one be at peace and be happy. But this seems to lead to quietism.

It is hard to admit one is impotent, It is hard to let go of the need to be potent. It is hard to avoid quietism without having delusions of grandeur.

It is easiest to be entertained and to be distracted.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


last post was my annual (or so) "starfish or system" rant. Because, like many Christians (and post Christians), I need to save the world, I get frustrated when I try to figure out what exactly to do. Three options:

1. individualized approach (help 1 person, then the next, then the next...)
2. structural approach (tweak the system and hopefully bring about broader results)
3. ideological approach (change basic assumptions/ideas)

The individualized approach is the most sensitive to specific needs, but it is also time consuming and can be easily undermined by structural issues or ideological issues. For example one could sink lots of time into helping so and so, only to discover it is nearly impossible for them to extricate themselves from a situation due to racism, sexism, cultural issues or deeply embedded problematic ideas. Furthermore, to use the metaphor, after throwing so many starfish back one can wish for a more systematic approach.

The social sciences tend to take the structural approach. They are interested in figuring out what is going on a larger scale, making adjustments and ameliorating problems most often through institutional means. This can have broader effects but it can also have unintended consequences. At worst it becomes human management that is over bureaucratic and insensitive to local conditions.

Lastly, the ideological approach is what philosophy should deal with (it doesn't always). This approach attempts to understand problematic often unrecognized assumptions or ideas. The hope is that bad ideas can be recognized, rooted out and altered/improved/replaced. This approach risks being abstract and impotent.

I have ended up in this last group and feel like I have gained some understanding of the problematic ideas of modernity, but am powerless to do much about it. So I tend to get fed up with 3 and want to go back to 1, but when I focus on 1 I run back to 3. By casting this in a personal light I suppose it may come across as whiny, but I think it is a fairly good mapping of the alternatives and the rudimentary pros and cons.

Friday, September 02, 2011

butterflies and stale air

"Forgive them Father for they know not what they do."

When DO we know what we are doing? Everything has unintended consequences. Life seems to be a cacophony of butterflies and hurricanes. Except perhaps when you want to stir up a hurricane. Then its all stale air and a dead end job.

We like - we need - to believe that we have control. And we do to some degree. We like to think we can do what is right. And we do to some degree. I think this is why we like to push our morals and our morays to the black and white extremes. I don't kill, I'm good. He kills, he's bad. It's almost always somewhere in between and it isn't hard to get lost in the haze.

God is going to sit me down, pull up an excel file with all the hours of my life added up and divided into general categories: I don't think it will be impressive. Somewhere along the line I wanted to get away from the petty neighborliness that feels so futile. Buy a tie for him, cookies for her. It is exhausting and people are dirty. There must be some structural shortcuts - something we can tweek and really get things moving.

Which battle to fight? little battles get little things done. big battles likely get nothing done. so getting anything done means becoming ephemeral?

Thinking about it all can paralyze.
Not thinking got us in this mess.

[Nothingman by Pearl Jam]
Once divided...nothing left to subtract...
Some words when spoken...can't be taken back...
Walks on his own...with thoughts he can't help thinking...
Future's above...but in the past he's slow and sinking...
Caught a bolt 'a lightnin'...cursed the day he let it go...

Isn't it something?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Angry thoughts about what Josh dealt with, RIP

My best friend from High School, Josh Flanders, died last month in a motorcycle accident. I went to his funeral in AZ. On some levels it was nice to see people I hadn't seen in years and walk around the old stomping grounds. On another level I found my visit very disturbing. Many good things were said about Josh and I have many things to add to that praise, but I want to talk about the disturbing things for a moment.

The Arizona I grew up in was deeply racist. The Mexicans in sixth grade were mixed throughout the classes but they stuck to themselves. They didn't tend to mingle with the whites too much. All throughout my teenage years racist Mexican jokes were quite common. It would not have been an easy place to have grown up if one was a Mexican.

Josh was 1/2 Mexican. His father was white and left Josh with white skin and the last name Flanders. I didn't know Josh was Mexican when I first met him. He didn't hang out with the Mexicans, he didn't speak Spanish, and he passed himself off as white. I remember him saying racist Mexican jokes.

I found out at the funeral that Josh was born in Mexico City. This came as a shock to me, because Josh had always told me he was born in Utah. He used to tease his brother Jacob for being born in Mexico (when, I think, it was actually Jacob who was born in Utah).

I didn't know Josh was half Mexican at all until we become good friends and he felt comfortable enough to invite me to his house. Josh, his mother and his siblings lived in a Mexican trailer park. I don't remember any white people in that trailer park, although I'm sure there were some. Most of the people who lived there were Mexicans who worked at the next door dairy. I remember the Mexicans driving cars in the neighborhood listened to strange, loud Mexican norteno music. When I asked Josh about it he said he hated that kind of music.

The neighborhood always smelled like cow poo being next to the dairy. After so many good times at Josh's house, I now actually enjoy the smell of cow poo (I reminds me of then).

Clearly, Josh struggled with his mixed race status. Those of use who got to know this side of Josh were aware of how he internalized the racism and didn't broach the subject with him. It wasn't just the racism though. Josh's father was out of the picture by the time Josh was 14 and his mother worked hard at the dairy, but they were never wealthy. As a result Josh worked a lot. He worked construction, he worked odd jobs, he did what he could. One summer I worked with him in an auto-parts yard. It was the worst job I ever had, I hated it. It was normal for Josh.

At the time of his death he was 30, and was just about to graduate from college. Because his mother couldn't afford to put him through college he had to go it alone, as many people do. This was a long, protracted difficult endeavor. Josh was always in and out of jobs, in and out of school. As far as I know, to the end, he refused to apply for scholarships based on his Mexican status. We would argue about this, but he insisted that he didn't want to "mooch" off others. I insisted that the kind of scholarships that he could receive were made precisely for people in his situation. If he ever did finally take advantage of such scholarships it was very late in his life.

Josh had not only internalized the racism of AZ, he had also internalized the Protestant Ethic story that was universal among the religious white people in our hometown. This ethic insists that everyone work hard by themselves and largely for themselves. We shouldn't be dependent on other people. We should work hard. Don't take handouts. Work for what you get. The flip side of this is: don't give handouts. Make people work for what they get.

The western cowboy version of the protestant ethic is particularly virulent. It is very atomistic, by which I mean that it tends towards "every man for himself." It is very suspicious of government and strongly opposed to any form of redistribution of wealth, welfare programs, scholarships for minorities etc.

Josh didn't have a chance. He didn't want to be seen as a "mooching" minority. He didn't want to take handouts. So he worked like a dog and took ten years to finish a BA. Meanwhile, many of his friends, whites, pushed through college without thinking twice about how we were going to pay for things. We had our token jobs that assured both us and our parents that we were working hard, and they supplied the rest. This "rest" could be quite a bit depending.

Josh had a lot of self hatred. This self hatred, I think, was aimed at his relative poverty and his Mexican race. He didn't always articulate this. Only late in his life did he begin to come to grips with it and to overcome his rage.


Sitting at his funeral, I couldn't help but be angry while everyone sat around and talked about how hard a worker Josh was. He was a good example of someone who struggled through things and achieved his goals. Yes, true. But the very language which had victimized Josh was being used to praise him. This language also exculpated the rest of us from taking any responsibility for such difficulty. "Josh had a tough situation and worked hard." No one said, we should have paid him a little more than minimum wage when he worked for us. No one said, we should have helped him get through college. No one said, at the funeral, Josh is an example of how many people struggle through life and we, as a community, should be more sensitive and do more, much more, to help.

Many, probably most, of those at Josh's funeral will continue to support politicians and vote for policies that make life difficult for the poor, for minorities and for anyone who needs help. I like to see Josh praised, but I found it difficult to see Josh praised in terms that will also be used to deny others. It is sad for me to see Josh talked about in language that will also be used to support an "every man for himself" type of society. Josh was always very charitable and I wish we talked about him as an example of someone who did his best and yet who could have used more social support too.

RIP my friend, I wish I'd done more for you (even though I know you wouldn't have taken it)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What I've been reading

Marxist Philosophy of Education

Post-postmodernism? Now this is interesting: Lipovetski is a French philosopher and seems to be the Zygmunt Bauman of France but with a twist on Bauman. He thinks hypermodernity is both good and bad while Bauman seems to be more pessimistic. Lipovetski examines the "logic of fashion" that drives (hyper)modernity. This is good stuff. His older book "Empire of Fashion" is on my list to read.

Dewey. 6 or 7 years ago I emailed Rorty with some questions. He recommended I read this book as part of his answer and I've finally read it. Dewey has too much faith in science for my taste. Too American. 4 or 5 more books from Dewey in my reading this term.

And the stuff for fun. This is a little too lite for me, a little on the Harry Potter side, but oddly compelling at the same time. i get tired of the genius trope. But it was good enough to get me to read the next one when it comes out in paperback.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Google Earth Eastern Oregon

I've always loved photography. Someday I'll buy a really nice camera.
Most of the time no one shows up to office hours so I spend my time looking around on Google Earth. lately I've figured I might as well save the cool pictures I find. If I can't take the picture at least I can look at the nice ones other people have taken.

These are all from Eastern Oregon.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Random Beautiful Places

Araucaria Forest, Chile

Real Del Catorce, Ghost Town, San Luis Potosi, Mexico

Chomolhari, China, just across the border from Bhutan

Kamchatka, Russia

Finger of Fate Spire, Hell Roaring Lake, Idaho

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

pics from the sea

yar a timely draft

for fear of wetting myself