Crafting an Education

Education. I think it’s appropriate to be at least a little dismayed by your education. I certainly am.

Education should give you the keys to escape your unique prison-maze of the mind. Much of what you endure as “education” will not serve you and will only lead you deeper into the maze. Fortunately, in my education I suffered very little direct indoctrination. The one time I did, in a critical theory class, I didn’t really understand what was happening, just that I needed to quit, and that goes hard with a kid (and at twenty I was very much a kid) who holds it as a core value that ducking any intellectual challenge is weakness and copping out.

I will circle back around to the topic of “important things that we do not generally talk about” again and again. This is one. For me, it might be _the one_, because getting educated practically equates to my purpose in life. It’s taken me almost fifty years to reach some clarity for myself about its value and how to pursue it.

You will read many articles, especially in right-wing media, decrying the worthlessness of liberal arts education, often in connection with the topic of publicly funded higher education. A few of my right-wing friends will concede that we should subsidize STEM education, because it leads to jobs that serve basic human needs, but will argue that we shouldn’t be paying for expensive education in the humanities. I have sympathy for their perspective, but my beef with the humanities, as a computer programmer with a degree in English, with more training in the humanities than in tech, isn’t so much that they don’t train one in practical skill, but that they neglect concerns of artistic craft and fill the void with political rhetoric that bewilders and misdirects. The walls of the maze are concretized by politics. Yes, you need the cooperation of other people to accomplish important social goals, but you do not need ideology. Seek to build a coherent philosophy for yourself, but reject a coherent politics, or sooner or later you will come to an angsty pass where you must choose between your values and your “allies.” Politics is not a substitute for philosophy.

So why do humanities departments neglect craft in favor of rhetoric? To me, this is a very important question. I suspect because craft in the humanities is extremely hard. Linguistics is so hard that after you’ve learned a few different languages and taken apart their grammar (hard), you really need to do a deep, cross-disciplinary study in neurology and information science to be said to tackle it. Writing is hard. Drawing is hard. Critical theory is not just hard; it’s impossible — so impossible that if you scrub the politics and rhetorical word-salad out of it, you’re left with linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. I realized in my senior year of college that I’d made a grave mistake in my chosen course of study when I got up and interrogated my fellow students during class and found that they did not know basic English grammar. (What an asshole thing to do, right?)

The disingenuous value proposition of rhetoric teachers enamored of critical theory is they will teach you to better express yourself. They will do the _opposite._ I don’t really want to argue this admittedly political point. I’ll let Steven Pinker do it for me. Read the first few chapters of The Sense of Style.

So how can education help us free ourselves and what should we be teaching and learning, and where should we seek instruction?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Prison Maze of the Mind

For the last year or so, I’ve had half a dozen preoccupations at the back of my mind that I think are related: education, motivation, the creative process, depression and despair, suicide, and “important things we don’t talk about” in general.

I woke up a few nights ago early in the morning with an insight that connected a few of these topics, but I fell back asleep, and it evaporated, leaving me only with one sentence to hang onto: “We are each trying to escape a unique prison-maze of the mind.” The following night, I read an article on gifted children and despair — one shared on Facebook by Suzy Charnas — and in it an exceptionally intelligent young five-year-old, gripped by suicidal depression, was quoted as saying, “I feel like I’m trapped in a maze.” That helped me recover a bit of the articulated insight that fell apart for me the previous night, something about how when we align ourselves with people who can share the project of escaping our maze, we should recognize their rare value to us. We’re each navigating a route that’s uniquely our own, but others can help point our way, even as they’re going their own. In Little, Big, John Crowley observed “The things that make us happy make us wise.” It’s a pithy quote, famous for a good reason, and one I couldn’t improve upon. As with many great quotes, though, I want to play with it. The things that make us happy are clues to escaping our prison-maze of the mind. Also, though, the things that bring us happiness, and by that I mean more than mere pleasure, also connect us to what is most real and important in a world dominated by counterfeit, misdirection, and illusion.

In my follow-up posts, I’ll try to get more concrete.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Happy liberal New Year!

I have been on Facebook for over ten years now, and my interactions have brought me to a couple points of emphasis in political discussions.

1. Properly defined, as opposed to how it’s commonly misunderstood, liberalism is the fearless pursuit of the truth premised on universal (as opposed to identity-based) human rights. Fear of the truth is reactionary, not liberal. Can you be both a political conservative and a liberal according to this definition? Of course. Some of my friends prefer to qualify “liberal” in this sense with “classical.” Fair enough, I’m increasingly isolated on the field defending “liberalism” this way, but I’m not ready to capitulate.

2. Censorship aids evil, and it does so by indulging stupidity, which I define as self-satisfied ignorance. Stupidity serves evil as a useful tool; it does not serve good as a useful tool. Gandalf the White wasn’t afraid of knowledge; he lamented cruelty and Sauron’s power to counterfeit the truth for evil ends. Censorship disarms intelligent and good people. Logical arguments pierce the veils of both outrage and blandishment. I know this is challenging. Much of what defends itself with the shield of “art” is exploitative and facile. But censorship prevents committed artists from facing up to dishonesty, and therefore being able fulfill their charge.

Very hard facts confront us daily, and the reality of evil is one, but as a philosophical essentialist, I conclude along with more spiritually minded people that Goodness is not ultimately relative and that the mere continuation of our existence — always in legitimate doubt — defies nihilism, and we should celebrate life and freedom and patiently defend them against the confused.

And here’s my well-worn formula for avoiding confusion in political discussion: a liberal appreciates and observes modes of discourse. Politics and art and the search for understanding through logic are separate modes. The political mode is a necessary evil, but don’t deceive yourself:

The political mode is the enemy of the truth.

Chew on that. If your professors have made you think otherwise, they have been trying to indoctrinate you. To pursue the truth, you must lay politics aside and proceed humbly and fearlessly. And expect a lot of failure. Politics is about the negotiation of power; it can be pursued in good faith but it must choose to elevate some facts and downplay others and to draw conclusions from insufficient evidence. (Art is the pursuit of human emotional truth. The objective mode is the search for logical truth. The political mode, as I’ve just observed, is the negotiation of power. The same object of discussion can be approached in different modes. I wish I had clarified this for myself in my teens!)

Reactionaries on the left and right indulge the same literalism and despair. They do not trust God. (And if you cannot engage the idea of God even figuratively, you suffer a big handicap.) “The truth will set you free” is a liberal sentiment. The person who says, “We must never talk about that because it’s inconvenient,” either spiritually or politically inconvenient, lives in a Lovecraftian universe in which God is absent, or at best an impotent flame in the drafty dark, and where “it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

As we enter a new decade, I entreat myself and my friends to have hope, and to voyage far.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Rhetoric | Leave a comment

No Joke

So my friend Mher wanted my review of Joker. The movie has got me thinking and rethinking the definition of art versus propaganda. I’ve long held and still hold that art and politics are separate modes. Art is the explication of an irrational human truth. Politics is about the negotiation of power among interest groups, and it has an agenda. Art has no agenda, though it can be marshaled for political use. Repeat: art has no agenda. A creative product is art to the extent that it approaches human emotional truth. Guillermo del Toro said that art is disobedience, and this strikes me as correct. Insofar as art is received as obedience, either as avoiding political incitement or indulging in it, it fails. If someone tells you what the correct political stance is for an artist, tell them to get lost. I know of at least one famous artist who holds that the best art is political. Nah. The best art is subversive. As a political weapon, it is treacherous — unless your political opponents really are unapologetic liars.

However, the political context _can_ help illuminate art, as a part of the story.

So, Joker, and its context. The movie is popular. People are hungry for the truth, even if it’s unpleasant, and it puts a lot of truth on the screen. My father was director of day mental health at Providence in Portland, serving the chronically mentally ill. I remember going to visit his office, meeting the chain-smoking outpatients, people with odd tics, lucid one minute and disassociating the next. My father was a firm, compassionate figure to them. Their plight stirred his pity and broke his heart. When his staff would bitch about their petty issues, he would come down on them, recalling them to their duty to serve and to appreciation for their sanity. My father confided in me that he would rather die of cancer than undergo the hell that many of his schizophrenic patients suffered. Well, you know what they say about getting what you wish for.

Arthur could have been one of my dad’s patients. Joaquin Phoenix thoroughly convinced me.

In the late seventies, the Carter administration legislated de-institutionalization for a huge number of mentally ill. Many people think that it was Reagan, but no, it was Carter. What the Reagan administration did was pull the funding for treatment and subsidized housing needed to make it work. No doubt the Democrats thought they’d scored a coup: no way our countrymen will put up with armies of muttering psychotics stranded homeless and helpless on the streets of their major cities. The Republicans will suffer for this betrayal. We’re better than that!

No, we weren’t. And no, we aren’t.

The best art speaks loudest in its caesura. The silence between the notes. It sets up the emotional experience. You, the viewer, complete it. Some critics have called Joker cynical and nihilistic. But that’s their experience. I found it moving. The most cogent review I’ve read so far states that Joker is profoundly moral. It tells a dismaying truth, and it relies on you to fill its silences with an internal plea for more kindness and understanding in Arthur’s world. None of the grim violence is gratuitous.

The vast majority of my father’s patients, like most of the mentally ill, were peaceful. But I remember one woman who was committed to the state hospital and to his therapy who had killed both her parents. They had been psychotic and abusive. The inconsistent attention, the arbitrary reward and abuse, warps a kid. Children of psychotic parents tend to become borderlines. Their normative environment is insane, and a personality disorder is their accommodation to it. Arthur’s mother failed to shield him from physical and probably sexual abuse (I didn’t catch all the material shown from her case file). Whether she actually was the mistress of Thomas Wayne was irrelevant ultimately, both to her culpability and Wayne’s failure to engage Arthur with compassion. They both — the “sane” rich man and the troubled mom — allowed him to bear the cost of their moral failure.

Wayne, Arthur, and his mother are all guilty. Joker is not some polemic about how society made Arthur what he is. It’s just a convincing tragedy about a man who is cruelly isolated, and thwarted in his attempts to assert his human dignity through means other than violence. And Arthur has dignity and dreams, for all that he’s a deplorable monster too.

The movie doesn’t seem to have incited the violence that pundits feared it would. Having seen it, I’m not surprised. Maybe it has actually forestalled some violence. A dose of compassion and truth can do that. I’ve engaged people across the political spectrum who take a different view: “No,” they say, “we shouldn’t talk about that issue. It gives comfort to the enemy. It emboldens the heathens or incels. We should hound them and de-platform them.” Maybe. I’m usually not circumspect enough. It’s good to be cautious. But fear gets in the way of kindness and understanding. Only you know what you need. Me, I needed this.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Religion and Endgame

So three things occasion this post: I watched Avengers: Endgame last night, Will Shetterly posted an observation about fandom and its religious nature, and I stumbled upon an article in my feed from a left-ish site about how new studies suggest human beings are not rational (ya think so?).

If there’s one thing I preach, it’s the power of evolutionary logic, especially as applied to human psychology. The perspective that humans are not strictly rational because they are strongly biased toward the preservation of their genes has produced a wealth of insight into our psychology, where all other competing explanations have produced none. (What? None? Yes, none. Just like evolutionary theory has produced billions of insights into the diversity of life, supported by experiment and observation, and all explanations that try to compete have produced none. Yes, none. Or to put it another way, the theory of evolution has passed billions of falsifiable tests. The competition? None. Not one truly falsifiable test that would promote it, even provisionally, over the theory of evolution. Some people are shocked by this and struggle to deny it. But it’s true.)

Those who see in evolution a direct challenge to their religion conflate the modes of religio-aesthetic and objective discourse. I think this is a grave mistake. I put it to a dear lifelong friend: “If I could convince you — and given time I think I could — that evolutionary theory is the best explanation, not ‘true’ in an ultimate sense but the very best explanation, for all the observed phenomena in its domain, would you lose your religious faith?”

He admitted he probably would, or at least that’s how I remember it. Maybe he only conceded that his faith would be shaken.

We humans seek promotion of our genes, but somehow we manage to form societies with people of very different ancestry. So how do we reconcile this fact? It seems a miracle. And that’s what it is. A miracle that we owe to religion, whose space is carved out by evolution. As Slavoj Zizek noted recently (and as I posted here years ago), the great central paradox of Christianity is the self-sacrificing God who himself may become an atheist and holds that potential in an eternal moment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We are in an age of intense crisis of faith. People have lost faith in God, masculinity, and femininity. But these things were not created by human beings and cannot be killed by them. They can only be repressed and denied and projected in negative ways. They are, at heart, products of evolution through deep time, determined as to general form rather than the contents of experience shaped by them. They are potentiated by adaptations that helped our species survive, but paradoxically, we will sacrifice ourselves to affirm them. It is very clear to anyone who studies evolution deeply that there is no meaning — no verifiable teleology — in evolution. It is not a goal-driven process. Yet the process has fixed meaning and hunger for meaning in us all the same. By this fact, that a value-neutral process produces our capacity for meaning, the theory of evolution has actually made many people religious. “Supernatural” does not mean superstitious; it means outside of nature, a realm of ideals, and we find evidence for its preeminence in our hearts.

Blockbuster superhero movies are insanely popular. They reach and inspire people across the major religions. They are, when they connect with their audience, a form of mind technology that allows a lonely tribal animal to extend the reach of its fellowship toward all sentient life. Maybe they are religions in every important sense: they affirm the existence of the archetypes and show their positive representations to emulate, and their negative representations to hold in check. The radiant king and the radiant queen are cold, dead icons apart from the human dramas that fuel their light. To the extent they inspire and move us, they renew our faith in Meaning. People let each other down all the time as representations of the archetypes. Superhero movies that make us cry or cheer remind us that being let down is not always an inevitability.

I’m still trying to tease out whether there is any real difference between an aesthetic and religious mode. Every disappointment my friends have with religion — believers and atheists alike — stems from their ability to see how religion is corrupted by confusion and cynical politics, a conflation of modes, and their inability to see the awe and joy toward which it properly strives.

Anyway, Avengers: Endgame is a good show. If you like superhero movies, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Posted in Evo Psych, Evolution, Fantasy, Philosophy, Religion, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Poisonous Idea

“Every categorical statement is political” — I keep coming back to this proposition by my critical theory professor. It’s such a stupid, poisonous idea. It discounts science, art, and the dialectical process. And I see it has caught on like a plague. In this formulation, every truth becomes an argument against another truth. But that is a twisted way to engage with the world. We need to accept some cognitive dissonance. The partially right is partially wrong and vice versa.

There is a disinterested scientific mode of discourse. There is an artistic mode for exploring irrational human truth. You keep the modes separate much like you follow the rules of a game. Sure you can cheat and make the game political, but cheating is cheating. It is possible not to cheat! There is a dispassionate, dialectical approach to provocation that makes you smarter. This approach makes you stupid.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Polluted Well of Social Media Discourse

These days, I mostly indulge myself with meta-political posts rather than get in the weeds on a specific issue, and when I do get specifically political on Facebook, I see much more clearly now how stupid I’m being. I cannot rationalize taking that hit of sweet, sweet cortisol.

When our current president was elected, I realized that I could not safely feed the beast of angry discourse without polluting the general well. I’m mulling a new idea about social media, that it’s not just the sound-bite meme culture it promotes that has degraded our discourse. Rather, even the posts we labor over have this unintended effect so long as commercial media exists, because commercial media must resort to increasingly debased provocation to get attention.

We should learn something here from Trump. When he complains about “fake news,” he’s not so much creating distrust as tapping into it. This is not the media landscape of the 1930s. We have a real problem with commercial news becoming increasingly unreliable. I invite you to be relentlessly self-critical and alert to strawmen arguments that you find convenient for your outrage. We are being played, as ever, not so much by a conspiracy but as a function of the market and the vulnerabilities in our mental wiring.

I think it’s healthiest both individually and collectively to post on blogs or in private groups, even though it limits your reach. I love engaging with my friends who do thoughtful, provocative wall posts, but I know it’s parasitism. I’m helping them indulge an impulse that may not be psychologically healthy. They bear the brunt of exposure and managing theory of mind about a broad audience of friends. This is different from publishing for mass consumption. I’m convinced that the medium makes it different. I’m still trying to suss out how. As a parasite, I’m not as exposed to my whole friend group and don’t feel the need to manage expectations. This is partially (largely?) a function of how Facebook manages exposure. I engaged a few friends recently on their posts in a way that would have drawn baleful attention on my own wall.

To my friends I engage who are dealing with depression, I suspect that the good feeling I’ve cultivated with you through Facebook discussion imposes an insidious burden on your mental health.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Social Media, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Occam’s Razor and Gillette Razors

Several of my fellow left-leaning friends on Facebook have posted (rhetorically, it seems) the question of why the Gillette commercial has upset so many men, and their consensus appears to be that these men are thin-skinned (the razor puns write themselves) and want to defend bad behavior.

I don’t think so.

The ad does not seem calculated to open a constructive dialog, but rather to sell razors, as you would expect of an ad.

The video presents a strawman construction of the American conservative ideal of masculinity, and is a direct poke in the eye to conservatives. The protests from Gillette that it merely wants to open a constructive dialog on negative social expectations of manhood may or may not be sincere, but the evidence that they are so well intentioned does not fit a parsimonious critique.

The ad opens with the words “toxic masculinity,” a buzzword well associated with the identitarian left. Masculinity and femininity are human capacities each individual expresses in various proportion along a phenotype spectrum anchored by biological sex. “Toxic masculinity” is no more cogent a term than “toxic strength” or “toxic resolve.” A lot of people see it as a bid to pathologize masculinity. It certainly implies a naive association between men and masculinity, when many of their bad behaviors are really feminine in the abstract sense, and vice versa for women.

The ad asks, “Is this the best a man can be?” “The best” is an ideal, so the commercial implies that there is no widely accepted better ideal out there. But of course there is. Even the most literal-minded churchgoing patriarch in this country espouses a better ideal than this strawman.

The ad is in dialog with the shadow projection of a malignant “patriarchy.” I am not a conservative, but even I can see what a poke in the face it is to conservatives.

The social-media soundbite discourse indulges the strawman fallacy to a pathological extent. If you want to get smarter, don’t get sucked in by it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Raising a Human Being

I’m in no position to tell you how to raise your kids, only how my wife and I raised ours. Since our daughter was very small, my wife was determined that she would always feel seen for who she was. I agreed. I taught my daughter all my enthusiasms, but did not cling to any expectations of who she should be. I allowed her to be my teacher.

Our daughter has done very well. In high school she was an accomplished dancer and actress and top student, and she’s now halfway into her first semester at a college that appears to suit her.

There’s nothing more tedious than having someone boast to you about their kids, and that’s not my intention. Even if it were, my daughter’s success would reflect scant credit on me. My wife was far more attentive day-to-day in her care, and even she would agree that through sheer luck our job has been easy.

So I’m not so interested in the question of what I did that was right but what I did that wasn’t wrong, a question that I mulled over this past weekend as we made the five-hour trip to our daughter’s school for parents weekend. Coincidentally, I had started reading a book on my Kindle that touched on the issue of how parents alienate kids from themselves, Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway.

Aside from the occasional gender-political aside that struck me as odd and wrong, I found this book to live up to the hype and the honors it’s received, namely the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards, among others. It’s short, and critics cite this as a flaw, but I found it appropriate. The book explores a strong metaphor that deserves focused attention: namely, a person’s selfhood as a fantasy world that uniquely suits them.

It’s an obvious idea, lying in plain sight. I’ve said many times over the years that I write to create a world I can live in. I’ve been obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons since I was an adolescent, and I’ve been striving to understand and return to the beginner’s mind that I had when I first encountered the game and it set my world, at least briefly, into an ordered beauty I’d scarcely guessed at before.

Rather than a single fantasy world, McGuire posits a fantasy multiverse based on the same Cartesian-landscape graph as the Dungeons & Dragons Outer Planes, with Virtue and Wickedness standing in for Good and Evil, and Nonsense and Logic for Chaos and Law. (I did my own similar exercise in fantasy-multiverse topology here: What World Do You Live In?) Various children can be drawn into fantasy worlds that are sympatico with their personality, and each experience’s their fantasy world as a paradise, notwithstanding that it might be hellish for the natives: one’s fantasy world suits their temperament and aptitudes; it gives them a perfectly tailored sense of purpose and belonging. When children are forced back into the mundane world, they pine for what they’ve lost, but one fantasy-world expatriate masquerading as a mental-health worker has created a boarding school where the children can share their experience of exile and maybe even return to what they invariably consider their true home.

The children share more than just an experience of having lived in a magical world: they also grew up under the shadow of parental expectations. They were not seen for who they were, and so the real world is for them colored by those expectations and the self-alienation they represent. (The fantasy-world metaphor also implies fixation and self-absorption that I would guess the author will further explore in sequels.)

This is one of the truest fantasy books I’ve read in a long time. Exile and alienation from our own ideal world is the condition of every human being. As I said in my post on Jung and the Self, our entire universe is a projection of our unique expression of the human genome. We are all adjacent universes, joined tenuously by our ability to conceptualize shared ideals (in the sense of ultimate, unattainable horizons of abstraction) and form fleeting bridges across the gaps of our experience and essential selves. Our heaven can easily be another’s hell, and the heavy burden of a parent is to strive to see a child for who they are, to love even what we do not really, and ultimately can’t, understand, and not to infect them with what we might need them to be.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Defusing a Bomb with Phenomenology

Here is one of my favorite scenes from John Carpenter’s Dark Star. As I said in my last post, solipsism is identifying the ego with God. If the tech had explained to the bomb the Jungian concept of the Self versus the Ego, maybe this would have gone differently.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment