Post by Category : Morality

Sic transit gloria mundi

Laplanche Afterwardness
Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

John Lanchester essays are always worth reading.

In a world facing floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, unprecedented winters, and mass migration on a never before seen scale, will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events.

LRB 18 July 2019

‘Nuff said.

Thus Spake the Zeitgeist


What does this photo tell you?

Roland Barthes would see the crowd, the signs being waved and the t-shirt logo as the “studium” of this photo; the physical, cultural and historical details of the photo that teach us something about the context of a frozen moment. What Barthes would call the “punctum” of this photo – the detail that compels your eye and skewers you – is the defiant and indifferent stare of an old white man.

My first reaction was that I need to jettison the rest of my lingering Socratism (the fanciful notion that if you marshal enough rational arguments you can bring anyone around to your vision of the truth). This old white guy is basking in belligerence; he is not beckoning anyone to civil discourse. I can see no political utility in trying persuade this man (and the portion of the electorate he represents) of anything. Instead, we must see this man and his ilk as the most visible symptoms of an underlying disorder.

I am listening for the politicians who speak directly to the root causes of this disorder; what Bernard Stiegler calls our culture’s “symbolic misery”. So far in this run-up to the 2020 elections, two candidates have impressed me. Elizabeth Warren when asked if she was a socialist replied, “I believe in markets…but capitalism without rules is theft”. The billionaire Sacklers get us hooked on oxy, hoover up as much money as they can from hapless victims and for the pittances they give back to museums are called “philanthropists”. Pillars of American society.
Peter Buttigieg said this:

To the folks on the other side, freedom means ‘freedom from.’ Usually, freedom from government, as if government were the only thing that could make you unfree. That’s just not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. If they get into the business of telling you who you can marry, your county clerk can make you unfree. Let’s talk about what freedom really means. Freedom means being able to start a small business because you know that when you leave your old job, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your healthcare. Freedom means that your reproductive health is up to you. Freedom means that when you have paid your debt to society, you get to re-enter society and become a productive, tax-paying, voting citizen. Freedom means you can organize for fair day’s work, a fair day’s pay, and a fair day’s conditions.

I don’t think Mayor Buttigieg read my post “The Shallow Freedoms of Neo-Liberalism” but given his education I cannot help but believe that he is channeling Isaiah Berlin as he zeroes in on a primary feature of the neo-liberal pathology- the reduction of the concept of freedom to retail choice. We are free to buy anything we want at the grocery store but our children are not “free” to attend school without active shooter drills. If you are an African American teenager you are “free” to buy a hoodie but you are not free to run down the street in it. If you are a poor American, you are “free” to stay poor and so are your children. You are “free” to go to college and “free” to be indentured to a student loan thereafter.

I am listening for candidates who will tell us that things are backward; that we are all the “government” and our life values must supersede the transactional values of the marketplace. I want to hear that we can collectively decide what constitutes a just distribution of wealth; that we are free to create the social and economic conditions in which everyone can flourish.

I am listening.

There Is No Future Filled with Reparations

I have plucked three paragraphs from the n+1 Winter Edition editorial “The Best of a Bad Situation” The link is here. It is a long read but worth it.

In our age of Republican minority despotism, attempts to grapple with anthropogenic climate destruction have been warped to encourage several varieties of despair, rendered acute by the ticking-time-bomb nature of the problem. The losses suffered by Earth and its populations — plant and animal — are neither reversible nor remediable. There is no future filled with reparations. There is no long moral arc. Ten or fifteen years ago it was possible to think of the polar bear and the white rhinoceros as martyrs, dying off to shame us into better harmony with the natural world. Not ruined archaic torsos but videos of extinct creatures would say, “You must change your life.”

So much of our daily behavior is confused and uncertain. We can’t seem to lead the lives we have and acknowledge the future simultaneously, even as we must. We keep our eyes on the middle distance — our hopes for the country (universal healthcare!) and for ourselves — and only feel the shadows on the horizon across our peripheral vision. We are everyday climate deniers the way we are everyday death deniers: we write our articles, save for “retirement,” canvass for causes that give us the most hope. We go to bars and ask our friends whether they plan to have kids.

Truly, we have fucked it up in so many ways! Yet while climate change increasingly feels like an inescapable doom upon humanity, our only means of recourse remains political. Even under the heavy weather of present and near-future conditions, there’s an imperative to imagine that we aren’t facing the death of everyone, or the end of existence. No matter what the worst-case models using the most advanced forecasting of feedback loops may predict, we have to act as if we can assume some degree of human continuity. What happens in the next decades is instead, as the climate reporter Kate Aronoff has said, about who gets to live in the 21st century. And the question of who gets to live, and how, has always been the realm of politics.

Early Fall Reading List

Is traveling outside of the U.S. therapeutic? I certainly hope so. But before I teleport out, I have to share some readings with you. If you haven’t read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ piece “The First White President” (here), please do.
Adam Shatz in the London Review (here) also writes about American racism and makes the same point Coates makes; Trump is a legacy of the Obama presidency. Is it paradoxical that “a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead”?

The New School for Analytic Psychology has started a film series (here). I will be helping facilitate the discussion after a showing of “Embrace of the Serpent”. This movie, set in the headwaters of the Amazon, flips Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on its head and made me think of Gregory Bateson’s essay “Conscious Purpose versus Nature” (here). From the depredations in the Amazon Basin to microplastics in Pacific Northwest shellfish to Caribbean hurricanes to U.S. politics, we are surrounded by our pathologies.

Though like “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, the sublime can occasionally emerge from our pathologies.

Humanity in all its Terribleness

Right after the election a friend sent me this Buddhist maxim:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

For Ta Nehisi Coates, the veil was pulled back in college:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own special Dream but would break all the dreams,all the comforting myths of Africa and America and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.

A basic substrate of white privilege in America has been a relative immunity to administration changes in Washington DC. But as of November 8th, if you present as a straight white American but you have black, brown or gay family members, there is fear in your family. For those of you who present as white Americans but belong to a union or worship in a synagogue or a mosque, there is fear in your workplaces and in your congregations. If you present as a white American and xenophobia, misogyny, racism and authoritarianism are affronts to your value system, welcome to the political discomfort millions of non-white and gay Americans have always lived with.

I wrote in July: “I think this election is turning out to be an inchoate plebiscite on neoliberalism” and that Trump was coming to bloom in a rich midden of economic dissatisfaction, racism and xenophobia. My last pre-election post shared Richard Rorty’s prescient warning about the appeal of the strongman to an America riven by economic inequality. But…however concerned I have been about our political culture…I refused to let myself believe what rough beast would actually get elected President of the United States of America. I feel like The Onion’s area liberal who “who no longer recognizes his fanciful, wildly inaccurate mental picture of the country he lives in“.

In Ta Nehisi Coates’ terminology I have been a Dreamer; unconsciously clinging to America’s moral exceptionalism. I am through Dreaming and I am going to take the advice Coates gave to his son:

Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.

Where Hope Lies

Ta Nahesi Coate’s long essay “Between the World and Me” is a work of profound humanism. Toni Morrison’s jacket blurb says the book:

“is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.’

Morrison is merely being accurate; this being the rare case where the jacket blurb has to undersell to remain credible.

Coates is an anthropologist in his own land; the structural Outsider observing the American “Dream” as it is beamed into his redlined neighborhood. This essay to his 15 year old son limns his personal journey as he has tried to come to terms with the disjunctions between how the world of “the Dream” is supposed to be and how it is actually lived by those it purposefully excludes.

Raised outside the African-American religious tradition, he is instead taught by his grandmother as a grade schooler to write and to use his writing to “ruthlessly interrogate” himself. He learns early that there are disjunctions between his own feelings and actions; he learns early about self-deception and mixed motives. He grows up in the physical peril of North Baltimore. Though he leaves Baltimore, goes to Howard University and becomes a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, he cannot escape physical peril because he is a black male in the America of Ferguson, Missouri. This is the America that has been built upon 250 years of plunder beginning with slavery, through sharecropping and Jim Crow, to redlining, “school choice” and the carceral state. Coates is explaining to his son that America has nurtured the idea of “race” in order to ensure that a ready supply of the “other” is available for plunder. The abiding American chestnut that social inequality can be cured by a little more will power on the part of the victims allows Americans to ignore economic realities* and thereby cling fast to their moral exceptionalism.

This is not an essay about politics or the voluntarism of political strategy. Coates is not telling his readers how to respond. He is using the tools of the Enlightenment; empirical observation, a respect for history and his own self-aware critical faculties to identify the institutions (cultural, political and economic) that are arrayed against his son. Even positive reviews of the book have not been able to repress the urge to suggest that the vision Coates paints for his son is too bleak, too fatalistic and that he does not credit “the progress that has been made”. Such observations fail to grasp why Toni Morrison calls this book “redemptive”.

Coates takes an unflinching look at America. He is disappointed by the enduring gap between who we say we are and how we behave. Though he is not optimistic, he urges his son to struggle:

Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.

Can you struggle without Hope? For Coates, Hope resides in the act of wrestling with himself in the world. Hope is a creature of reason. Only by thinking critically can you imagine a different world. The question “What’s wrong with this picture?” leads to imagining other ways “this picture” can look. Like Abraham who, with trembling limbs, wielded his reason and sense of justice against God himself; Coates stands before the omnivorous power of “the Dream”, calls it out, and redeems his freedom.

*Also known back in the day as “property relations”

At the Bargaining Table

Goya, The Hidden Dog
Goya The Hidden Dog

I represent workers in what used to be called “theater” and now more broadly should be called the “live entertainment industry”.

I sit at the bargaining table and often recognize that the employees I represent and the companies that employ them find themselves in the same structural position. My folks live from paycheck to paycheck. Our (mostly) non-profit employers live from season to season. A near miss in fund raising and/or a near miss in ticket sales sets off organizational alarm bells. For everybody at the table, margins are thin. Our economic positions are precarious and anxiety is high. Fiduciary responsiblity feels itself confronted by self-interest. Self-esteem is at stake; as is collegiality and hope for the future. These are the real stakes not the 2% raise that will purportedly keep up with the “cost of living”.

Typically everyone at the table (except me) is a co-worker.The employees rationally recognize that Management has more “power” and “control”. Those with “power” can bestow or deny the things we want. This distribution of power, at a root emotional level, is humiliating. It is easy to imagine (at this root emotional level) that Management has more to give and refuses to do so out of the sheer pleasure of withholding because it can. Management for its part has difficulty not begrudging the loss of its ability to roll out unilateral decisions. Furthermore, managers tend to view the stewardship of their enterprise as the anxious juggling of constraints that are insufficiently appreciated by their employees. For their part, the employees experience the net effects of contraints every time they look at their paychecks. They come to the table not so much interested in constraints as primarily focused on their needs.

The more similar the structural position the more relational the negotiations can become. If I can promote the mutual recognition that everyone at the table is a stakeholder in the same enterprise then Management’s anxieties and employee desires can be articulated, considered and refashioned in light of each other. Managers can be reminded that empathy for their employees is a virtuous constraint and employees can recalibrate their expectations. Our full, human struggle to reach agreement by recognizing the other’s position is morality in action.

Unsurprisingly, the larger the corporate entity, the less relational the negotiations. At the other end of the relational spectrum, I have been dealing with two, multibillion dollar corporations wholly owned by two multibillionaires. These entities are “too big to fail”; they are too wealthy to care. For the functionaries who negotiate on behalf of these behemoths, negotiations are not about people but about “units” of labor and time; resources to be costed out. There are no moral, qualitative variables in their corporations’ algorithms of “success”. Discourse about the employees as ends in themselves is irrelevant and unwelcome. The immiseration of workers is an externality to the bottom line. The people I represent are ciphers in a formula. If the numbers crunch, my people work and eat. If the numbers don’t crunch for us, then we are the “losers”. The “winners” are people who have no choice but to sell themselves more cheaply.

The functionaries across the table from me are themselves merely means to a corporate end. They are not allowed (and/or do not permit themselves) to engage in the essentially moral activity of recognizing the other. They are complicit and they are victims.

Dog Whistling Pt 3

H. Bosch,  Gluttony

H. Bosch, Gluttony

(This being the last of three posts “inspired” by David Brook’s column, “The Costs of Relativism“)

David Brooks is a “conservative intellectual”. He can don the trappings of post Enlightenment social science (“recurring feedback loops”) and he can write marvelous and empathic sentences such as these:

The profiles from high-school-educated America are familiar but horrific….The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

David Brooks, being human, makes careful judgements about how to compose a column for his own purposes. His misdirection is artful. He doesn’t want to define “relativism”; he merely replaces it with “non-judgmental”. (In my previous post, I argued that human “non-judgementalism” is an oxymoron; that being without judgement is not a human possibility.) Brooks wants to leave the concept vague and then taint it by associating it with bad outcomes, despair and abuse. He wants the word “relativism” to unsettle us.

Brooks knows that he cannot explain (in 800 words) how “R” (relativism) caused “P” (poor people’s poor behavior) but by being vague he allows his readers to fill in the causal blanks. He knows he cannot forge that causal link and he knows that he doesn’t need to because he is blowing the dog whistle of a specific kind of judgementalism. Hear the whistle blow:

Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Republicans think poor people are to blame for their own poverty (their bad behavior is just another symptom of their insufficiency). Republicans do not believe in “socio-economic” forces*. They only believe in individual moral agency (or the lack thereof). When Republicans hear an expression like “structural poverty”, they also hear an excuse being offered. When Republicans hear “over 400 years of institutional racism”, they also hear responsibility being lifted from an immoral, undeserving agent. This is the politics of sin wherein true believers, without reflection, project their own private internal truths onto others. They feel that what is true for themselves must be true for others. In this “world view”, causality is not a problem. Sins are certain and their effects inevitable.

It is to this stance of self-certainty that David Brooks panders. None of us are without judgement but we are all free to adopt a stance toward our own judgements. The person with relativist inclinations will make an effort to periodically doubt her own certainties, employ critical thinking and engage her empathy in an effort to improve her understanding of other people. The audience to whom David Brooks is whistling seeks the reassuring certitude of fundamental grounds. David Brooks is often labeled a “conservative intellectual”. This label, in his case, is also an oxymoron because you cannot exercise your intellect by staying in one certain place. David Brooks and his fans are too timid to tolerate the critical examination of their own cherished and parochial judgements.

*Republicans have decided to believe in the “market” because they have mythologized it; they have anthropomorphized and then deified the “market” by endowing it first with sentience and agency and then, ironically enough, with transcendent judgement.

Dog Whistle, Part 2

These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Earlier this month, David Brooks wrote a column entitled “The Cost of Relativism”. Clearly, in his view, relativism is a dirty word. He accuses “relativism” of causing poverty but he only defines it as “nonjudgementalism”. Where does one find this “nonjudgementalism”? Who among us is non-judgemental? I would argue that all human beings who can function in their own society are judgmental. Each of us can function only when we can judge what behavior is “right” and what behavior is “wrong” for the kind of people “we” believe we are.

Let’s take for an example a stranger who appears at our front door. This situation calls for all kinds of “judgementalism”. Our visitor is a youngish, white male wearing a porkpie hat and pegged jeans. We have never seen him before, he is a perfect stranger.

First of all, we really don’t want to be surprised by the coming interaction, so we draw on the store of knowledge we have acquired directly about what “we” are like and what “they” (strangers) can be like. We then tap into our store of assumptions and feelings about strangers that we have learned from parents and peers. We need to judge whether our visitor is one of “us”. Based on what we can see, we judge that this stranger on our doorstep is probably American, probably talks like an American and probably will behave as most Americans do in this Seattle neighborhood of ours. We make some preliminary judgements based on gender and race. Because of his hat and garb, we sort through what we know and/or believe about “hipsters”. We whittle our general notion of potential male behavior down to this most specific example. We then begin to choose the “right” behavior that we judge this perfectly pegged stranger might be expecting from us.

New and even more complicated judgements are required if we are to enter into a closer relationship with this hipster. What if, for example, he is answering an ad we have placed for a business partner. Why is he is interested in our business? What are his motives? How might his motives be related to his own personal history, where he grew up and how he grew up? This perfect stranger could become the perfect business partner so perhaps we ought to suspend judgement on his slightly off-putting headdress. We don’t want to be hasty; we want to take his measure and figure out “where he is coming from”. Part of learning how to behave is learning how to juggle our judgements, when to suspend them, when to modify them and when to act on them.

This kind of mundane, daily behavior is simply the “cultural relativism” of anthropology writ small.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment celebrated the ability of human beings to think for themselves. Once unleashed, the power of critical thinking dissolved our devotion to a single “true” church and its pre-ordained world. The Enlightenment (in all its philosophical diversity) allowed us to harness hope to our own critical thinking. That is: If we can think, we can also imagine a better reality than the one we inhabit. Anthropology began as a quest to find out if an “other” might, in fact, inhabit a better world or at least give us some pointers about other ways to be human. Cultural relativism as a stance articulated by Western anthropologists suggests (simply) that in order to understand the “other” we need to suspend some of our judgements and try to understand another culture in its own terms. How do these “others” configure their environment? Order their social lives? What are their motives for why they act so differently? What does it mean to them to be “human”? Adopting this stance entails trying to experience human cultural diversity without (insofar as possible) jumping to conclusions based on our own parochial judgements. Why in hell is he wearing that porkpie hat?

This “relativism” I have described is a stance which allows us to hold our judgements lightly and to get over ourselves just enough to unleash the imaginative ability required to see strange people (the “others”) as fellow sufferers; as humans like us.

Ultimately, it is this basic imaginative ability that threatens David Brooks and the people to whom he is whistling. More to come.

David Brooks Blows the Dog Whistle

I guess I should thank David Brooks for providing the kick start I needed to start posting again. Click here to link to his latest exercise in vapidity, “The Cost of Relativism”. Click here to enjoy Charlie Pierce’s take down.

Not to improve on Pierce’s response but I am compelled to amplify .

I will give David Brooks credit that he has a view of the poor that has at least caught up to the nineteenth century. Prior to the Enlightenment, kings and paupers occupied the social ranks where God put them. After the French revolution, it started to occur to Europeans that poverty was possibly a political and economic outcome. This dawning awareness did not entirely displace God and morality. There remained lingering questions as to whether the poor “deserved” their condition because of private moral flaws (laziness or improvidence). Brooks does perceive that there is a societal problem:

We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

What has caused these deplorable feed back loops? In Brook’s update of nineteenth century thought, poor people now inhabit communities without “norms”. They are still morally lacking (and therefore still somewhat complicit in their own state of poverty) but now, they are also victims. The norms they need to rise above their current condition have been “destroyed” by an outside force:

These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

This is dog whistle punditry. Just as the terms “law and order” and “states rights” are smoke signals to fearful white Republicans, Brook’s “relativism” is meant to fall nicely into the ears of the true believer.

Who are the vectors of this plague? and, what, exactly, is “non-judgementalism”?