How To Choose Your Political Belief, Part II: Choosing Your Beliefs in a Hurry

At 10am, you manage to open a bleary eye. A man in business attire stands at the foot of your bed. You have no memory of this man, or of the past 36 or so hours of your life. He introduces himself as your campaign manager. He explains that last night, in a stupor, you filed the paperwork to run for the state senate.

“You are due at the Palladium in one hour to give your kick-off speech,” he tells you.

“But I don’t even have any political beliefs!”

“Well, you’d better hurry up and get some.”

You’ve got both eyes open now, and your brain is whirling. The situation is urgent; you must find beliefs.

Fortunately, you happen upon this list of the pros and cons of every major political belief, which enables you to settle on some in a hurry:

Mainstream Political Beliefs: For & Against

Conservatism: 

Good – likes the old traditions, skeptical of disastrous utopian schemes

Bad – some of the old traditions are very racist, perfectly fine with disastrous capitalist schemes. Insufficently opposed to the prospect of nuclear holocaust. Plus actually kind of bloodthirsty a lot of the time.

Neoconservatism: 

Good – uses the word “democracy” a lot

Bad – believes democracy is best instituted via drone

Fascism: 

Good – snappy uniforms, well-coordinated marches

Bad – state-worship, proclivity for death camps

Marxism (generic): 

Good – insightful analysis of capitalism’s fundamental instability and the alienation of the worker

Bad – theory is largely a bunch of unfalsifiable horse manure, all the Marxists are really mean

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“To me it seemed elementary that a belief in Marx should be accompanied by a belief in, say, Cézanne; and that the development of art since Cézanne should interest the completely revolutionary mind as much as the development of socialist theory since Proudhon. I wanted to discuss, not only Sorel and Lenin, but also Picasso and Joyce. But no one saw the connection. Each isolated on his separated prong denied the relevance of the force animating the other prongs. No one could see that it was the same force that was transforming the whole of reality-of our interpretation of reality I ought rather to say. To me it seemed just as important to destroy the established bourgeois ideals in literature, painting and architechture as it was to destroy the established bourgeois ideals in economics.” – Herbert Read, Anarchy and Order, p. 76-77.

The Hapless Man

An attempt at a definition of my personal idea of “haplessness,” which underpins a lot of my children’s books (and will be especially at the center of my planned volume The Boy Who Ruined Everything and the scholarly monograph Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Haplessness)

The hapless man is not a helpless man. The helpless person is buffeted about by fate without control. The hapless man authors his own misfortunes, even though ultimately he is equally doomed. This impossible marriage of fate and responsibility is, in fact, the paradox of the hapless man: the hapless man continually creates his own circumstances, even though they could not be otherwise.

The hapless man is trying his best. But the hapless man is an incorrigible fuck-up. He is earnest, his intentions are pure. But intent cannot exonerate the hapless man, because ultimately it is the hapless man’s own choices that have led to the disastrous consequences. The hapless man should have known better. He has the intelligence and wherewithal to succeed. But he blunders. It is not “hard to stay mad at” the hapless man. The hapless man is very easy to stay mad at, because he has agency.

Enough with the generalizations! Who are these few and hapless?

To conjure the hapless man in an instant, recall Gilligan. Ever eager, ever pure, Gilligan could not help but cause disaster on the island. Every time a raft was constructed, Gilligan would sink it. Every time a treasure was found, Gilligan would lose it. Every time a radio was built, Gilligan would break it. And all of these acts were Gilligan’s fault, even though Gilligan could not help it. Nobody thinks Gilligan is mentally deficient, not in a way that makes being furious at him unjustified.

Another hapless man: Charles Bovary. The sad, oblivious doctor loves his wife dearly, makes every attempt to please her, but fails. And even though he means well and tries hard, he is still completely at fault. Bovary’s efforts to make his wife happy become pathetic, and she is right not to love him.

In real life, the purest example of haplessness is a man named James Polehinke. Polehinke was the pilot on Comair Flight 5191, which crashed on takeoff after Polehinke accidentally went down the wrong runway, leaving no survivors except Polehinke himself. For this, poor Polehinke has achieved a haplessness more terrible than any known prior instance.

The Polehinke incident is a perfect example because Polehinke was completely responsible for the easily-avoidable error. It was the tiniest mistake, with the most tragic of consequences. He fits the profile ideally, because it is hard to know how to forgive him. He acted grossly negligently, yet on a scale completely disproportionate to the outcome.

Polehinke’s haplessness compounded after the incident. While he was being sued by the victim’s families, Polehinke’s lawyer (without consulting Polehinke) put forward an offensive legal theory suggesting that contributory negligence by the passengers caused the accident. (The idea being that they should have known better than to fly with Polehinke.) Poor Polehinke became even more despised, for now not only causing the accident, but seeming to blame his own victims. A spiraling hapless infinitude.

Importantly, the hapless man is a good man. Wile E. Coyote appears hapless, but is not. The coyote tries and fails, it’s true, but with malevolent intent. So, too, with every other cartoon villain. They never succeed, but their failures contain some meaning: they fail because they are evil. For the hapless man, there is no such story. The hapless man is an absurd man, his failures contain no justice.

How about the “Woody Allen Character”? Is he hapless? No, for the Woody Allen character is a liar. The Woody Allen Character feigns haplessness. He gains all of the advantages of the non-hapless man (material success, the seduction of beautiful women), while concurrently receiving the sympathy that is the hapless man’s only comfort. The Woody Allen Character wants to appear as hapless and humble as possible, while in fact being as conceited and successful as possible. The Woody Allen Character is a sinister impersonation of a hapless man.

Can there be hapless women? There can. But for some reason, the failures of men seem typically to reach a unique depth of destructiveness. When men fail, they accidentally cut off their toes with a lawnmower, or destroy an entire planet, or try to untie their shoe and end up gouging out an eye. Haplessness also seems to come about often when men try to live up to the social expectation that they, as men, are supposed to be in charge. In this way, the tragedy of haplessness could be mitigated by the elimination of patriarchy.

The most unfortunate man on earth is not the one who suffers the most misfortune. That man can curse the Gods, and comfort himself with the knowledge that nothing was his fault. The hapless man can curse nobody but himself; everything is his fault. His clumsiness has caused catastrophe, and he is despised.

My sympathies are ever and always with the hapless man. I love him dearly, because God knows he tries. And the poor fool must struggle every day, pressing the wrong button or scandalizing the vicar. What most people do on occassion, the hapless man is destined to repeat forever, living in an eternal “Oh, shit” moment.

When things take a turn for the Chaplinesque, look for the hapless man.

Dream Diary: Sex Pistols/Melanie

I had been appointed interim drummer for the Sex Pistols. I was dreadful. I ruined every show. I refused to play with drumsticks, would only play with brushes. I insisted that this added “complexity” to their sound.

* * * *

John Cage, Jr. had spent his entire life creating the Melanie. He had never done anything else. I described the Melanie to people this way: It was a metal box, about two feet wide, three feet long, and one foot deep. The outside was a dull brushed tin (though that, too, had its secrets), but when you opened the door of the Melanie, you saw a small cluster of coloured plastic triangles arranged into a star on a bright white surface. When you flipped one of the triangles, they would begin to clatter, producing more triangles seemingly from nowhere, erupting and cascading like a thousand Jacob’s Ladders. They grew in every direction, forming an array of three-dimensional geometries in every colour. Mountains grew and disappeared, arising as much as two feet out of the Melanie. All of the shapes could be flipped in order to cause the Melanie to make still more shapes, or return to its original formation. And all of this was only half of the Melanie’s function (so we thought.) For if you rotated the background, the other side of the Melanie contained a massive, intricate diorama full of wooden figurines that lived their own independent lives. But this half was so detailed and endless that it cannot be described.

John Cage, Jr. had intended the Melanie to be the most precious object in the world. It was.

I do not know how the Melanie came into my possession. But most of my time was spent staring at it, showing it off to others, and then guarding it from their jealousy. Eventually, my brother and I decided the Melanie was not safe in the city, and took it to the beach. That was where we discovered the secret of its xylophone.

The metal exterior of the Melanie was divided into hundreds of small sections, and each section was a note on a xylophone. Deceived by the Melanie’s dull appearance, my brother and I had never thought to strike the segments. But when we did, each emitted a note of such perfect beauty that we could hardly breathe. One did not need skill to play the Melanie; every sequence and combination of notes produced a harmonious perfection.

Unable to contain himself now that we knew the full extent of the object’s magic, my brother shot me in the head and ran away with the Melanie.

How I Think About Morality

Note: This is an extremely simplistic rumination, and probably idiotically ignores a large amount of philosophy that has said roughly the same thing with greater depth and coherence. For this I apologize. I am only trying to work out my own ideas in order to guide myself through a universe I find confusing.  

Almost nothing bothers me more than casual relativism. What I mean by this is the everyday perspective, which I commonly hear, that “Morality is a private matter, no morality is better than any other, so we cannot/should not judge one another’s moralities.” Now, wait: before you deem me tiresome (since nearly everybody who grouses about this is a crotchety white man), note that this does not bother me for the usual set of (conservative) reasons: I am not some fusty Allan Bloom type lamenting the decline of the civilized virtues. I am not in a state of scandalized horror at our children’s anything-goes multiculturalism. Rather, this outlook bothers me largely because it is not relativistic enough. This is because the statement “We should not judge others’ moralities” is itself a normative, universal judgment. According to whom can we not judge? Only according to a subjective principle. If we make the claim “Morality is necessarily subjective, and we should not impose our beliefs on others” the second half of the statement abandons the relativist framework completely, by positing a moral principle that all people are supposed to adhere to. The same applies to the variant “We cannot judge others’ moralities.” Of course I can; I can judge them by my own private, subjective morality. It’s very easy!

“Alright,” comes the reply. “Of course you can. But why should anyone treat your perspective as carrying weight? Isn’t your claim just as legitimate as the claim of ISIS or Sarah Palin?” First, it’s important to note that, if made, this is a huge concession. If I’m entitled to my morality, then I’m entitled to regard ISIS and Sarah Palin as monstrous. You’re equally entitled to disagree, but you don’t have any grounds for saying my subjective morality shouldn’t judge, other than by appealing to your own subjective morality, which I have no reason to give weight to, because it is no less subjective than my own morality.

But okay, say I’d like to persuade people; I want not only to be able to hold a subjective moral code, but to find some way to discuss whether it is best. Surely, if we are complete relativists, moral argument is impossible, because in arguing with people who do not share my values, I have nothing to appeal to.

I don’t think this is the case. I think even if we grant that our moralities are personal and conflicting, we need not abandon moral argumentation. Let me illustrate why I think this with an analogy:

A series of friends are on a meandering hike through the forest. They don’t have anywhere they’re particularly trying to go, but they would like to have the best time possible (with differing notions about what that means). At various points, they come to forking paths and have to make a decision as to where to go. There are signs as to what might lie down each path (some have apples, some have thorns and snakes, some have pleasing floral scents), but obviously there is no “best” path. There are just a series of possibilities, and a group of people who each have varied preferences.

Granting that there is no “right” path, just a series of preferences, must we believe that this group of people is incapable of debating which path to go down, or that the idea of “better” and “worse” paths is meaningless? I don’t think so. If some people prefer scented paths, and some people prefer ones with delicious fruit, they can nevertheless negotiate among their subjective values in order to reach some kind of consensus. They might even decide to split up. Nothing mandates that they stay together, other than those same individual preferences. Of course it would be silly for someone to say “No, I have found the objectively correct path,” but it would be equally silly for someone to say “There is no such thing as a better or worse path, all paths are equal, discussion is impossible.” After all, some paths are probably going to be universally agreed to be undesirable, such as the path filled with venomous snakes. There are points at which all preferences are held in common (universal morality), points at which they can be debated (relative but negotiable morality), and points where debate is futile (irreconcilable relative morality).

But what of the points where we are irreconcilable? What of the person who disagrees about the path of snakes? What about Todd, the boy who loves snakes?

“Todd,” we say. “These are venomous snakes.”

“I don’t care. I love venom.”

“Todd, come on. We’re not going to choose the path where we just get bitten over and over by venomous snakes.”

The debate is going nowhere. So what do we do about Todd? Well, we might decide to drag Todd with us, because he’s obviously either joking or ill. Or we might decide to let Todd go and get bitten by snakes. Fuck him.

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On Returning Home to Find That An Attractive Church Has Been Demolished and Replaced with a Wal-Mart

I generally avoid Florida, for the usual reasons. However kind it may have been in raising me, the state and I have long passed the point of being useful to one another. Forever shall I feel caressed by the mneumonic remnant of its gentle palms, but I have no desire to spend any more of my life scorched and salty in the parking lots of various Paneras.

Occasionally, though, I do return home, disregarding all the common warnings about how doing so is impossible. And on my most recent visit, I was overcome with the sort of indescribable feeling that can only come when one discovers that an attractive church has been demolished and replaced with a Walmart. 

Of the four corners at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and Beneva Road, three had already been strip-malled long before. But on the fourth stood the Rivers Edge Community Church, which despite being multiple miles from the edge of any river, was a humble and appealing place of worship. In its place is now a “Walmart Neighborhood Market,” a green-splashed cube with the gall to feign heartland community-spiritedness and Main Street affability. In a sane world, reactions to it would range from guffaws to suicides. Instead, as far as I can tell, its opening (and the vanishing of the site’s prior occupant) has been met with indifference and bouts of shopping.

This is perhaps a problem of historylessness. Florida really grew up at the wrong time, during the era of ill-advised architecture and the heedless unfurling of highways. The instinct to preserve may be met with a justifiable “Preserve what?” The Rivers Edge Community Church, while I call it attractive, was not an overlooked gem. Its main charm came from its shadiness; it had some very good trees and a well-kept lawn. It was also built in the type of 1960’s architecture that is more airy than aggressive, with the light and natural feel that redeems “Sarasota school” design from its regrettable Brutalist slippages.

But it was not precious, because very little that is manmade in Florida is precious. We did have a precious building when I was young; the John Ringling Towers, a rambling, storied hotel from Sarasota’s years as a circus town. I remember the fascination I felt as a little boy looking up at the building’s looming empty carcass, with all its precarious balconies and mismatched arches, all its garish pseudo-Spanish eccentricity. It invaded my dreams for years. They flattened the place, though, offering lame efficiency justifications that I still refuse to accept.

This is partially a story, then, of my abstract sadness at the lack of a preservationist temperament, and of places worth preserving to begin with. But there is a far deeper outrage. I am not a religious man (although I am), but I have never quite felt so strong a sense of sacrilege. I mean to say, well, it’s hard to imagine a more literal case of tearing down God’s house and erecting a temple to Mammon. Even as a parable, it would be too heavy-handed. I mean, Joni Mitchell wasn’t exactly unsubtle, but this is ridiculous.

In reply, I’m sure all of the familiar laissez-faire justifications would be trotted out. The church got a good deal, a valuable patch of property was put to its optimal use, and the shoppers seem content. Who are you to impose your judgment about the people’s good over that of the people themselves? What’s your problem, Stalin?

And I’m powerless there. I know all of these arguments back-to-front; people get in my face with them every time capitalism devours something I treasure and I issue some faint lament. Replying is hard, because to persuade someone, I’d have to convince them to join in my most heartfelt nonrational feelings. I can’t help but feel that a church is a beautiful thing, and a Walmart is an ugly one, and that the argument should simply end there. Such positions are not reasoned to, they are axiomatic products of one’s inner disposition. If others don’t share my disposition, that is hard to alter, although they could at least grant me my right to sigh.

To state this differently, and more strongly, I feel as if defenders of a pure free market approach are missing a piece of their brains. Every evaluation occurs on a single axis: whether the parties have engaged in mutually agreed commercial exchange. (What’s strange to me is that while radical libertarianism is a fringe position in the United States, the public rhetoric around a Walmart-versus-church question seems to assume the complete validity of the libertarians’ reduction of all value judgments to questions of market efficiency.) But to me, that’s one trifling matter amid a vast matrix of assessment critera. And to foreground it so thoroughly means abandoning so much that is important to life. There ends up being no room in the acceptable debate for discussions over what kind of city we are dreaming of building. Even if we find ourselves steadily producing someplace unsightly and uncomfortable and dispiriting and formless, we have eliminated the vocabulary with which we could deliberate on a way to reverse course.

One of the reasons I’m fairly certain that defenders of church-eating capitalism are wrong is that they do not understand why anyone could disagree with them. They do not know what I mean when I say that a Walmart is an ugly, alienating, lifeless place. They do not understand why some people think concrete and trees create discernably different experiences from one another. They do not see why praying together and shopping together do not produce the same kind of community-feeling, or what the difference is between a neighborhood market and a national chain store with the words “neighborhood market” emblazoned on it. And so while I am capable of understanding their perspective, they do not truly understand mine. And what this means is that they do not know the full value of what is at stake, and are therefore unaware of what they destroy. If I am deaf, and somebody eliminates music, no matter how much I might try, I will not grasp the true nature of what has been lost. You’ll demolish a church, put up a Walmart, and won’t even know why some are horrified. (Though I am sure they have identified some culprits: political liberalism and an irrational sentimentalism.) I do think this feeling is essentially spiritual, or of a similar quality. The same way I have never understood what people mean by God, nobody understands what I mean by “beautiful.” Our rapacious atheistic capitalism assumes that neither God nor beauty exist, hence Sarasota’s new Walmart Neighborhood Market.

How to Choose your Political Belief, Part I: Marxism

After much consideration, I recently decided to do away with all of my prejudices, which were proving an inconvenience and a barrier to clear thought. Over a spring afternoon, I made a careful list of all of those things I strongly believed, but had no evidence whatsoever for. I then stopped believing those things. Realizing that I often talk out of my ass, I resolved henceforth to talk only out of my mouth.

The result, I am pleased to report, has been both enjoyable and illuminating. I am now rigorously empirical. When a new idea comes along, instead of greeting it with an “Ugh,” I give it a “Hmm” and contemplate it with care. In this way, I only believe things that I ought to believe, and none of the things I oughtn’t.

As part of this prejudice-cleansing process, I have decided to entertain all possible political ideologies. While I cannot escape an innate socialistic temperament, I have no party allegiances or thoughtless emotion-driven favoritisms. Instead, whenever I encounter a political viewpoint, I interrogate it ruthlessly, and determine whether I should adopt it as my own. If I believe the ideas will lead to civilizational ruin and mass slaughter, then I discard them. If I believe they will produce a blissful paradise of eternal beauty and repose, then I embrace them and proselytize them to the masses.

Now, the difficult thing about all of this is that there are many, many types of politics. Fortunately, most of them expose their foolishness with dependable regularity. Over the course of a single day of browsing the news, I have been able to firmly reject Marxism, Mainstream Liberalism, and American Conservatism (and also managed to salvage a bit of useful truth from their catastrophic intellectual wreckages.) I shall today confine myself to a discussion of the first.

Marxism

Marxism is a stout and sturdy set of beliefs, a hearty potato broth of a philosophy. It wears overalls as it hammers in rivets and rises up and hangs the banner of proletarianism from the palace spires. All richly enticing stuff. And so I thought, because my natural inclinations are to spew weepy truisms about the universal brotherhood of humankind, that Marxist socialism might play my tune.

Alas. No matter how much I might wish for the triumph of the international egalitarian ethos, I found that I could not believe in Marxism. Witness the following advertisement for a new Marxist magazine, put out a few days ago by undoubtedly well-meaning people:

The crisis of capitalism has been a crisis of its opposition. We stand in the rubble of the post-Left… Where are the rough beasts whose birth we await? … Salvage is a new publication in which we hope to pose these questions, if not – yet – to answer them. It will be by and for all those who despise the rule of capital, inequality and oppression – but who cannot stomach any more the bad faith in which the opponents of that system have come to live and breathe. We abjure the typical and grotesque left chimera of sentimentalism, moralism and bullshit. We despise the bad dialectic of defensiveness and self-aggrandisement. We do not despair, but we are despair-curious. Across literary form and theoretical loyalty, obsessed with politics, economics, art and the (post)(anti)human, Salvage declares for austere revolutionary pessimism. Salvage-Marxism embraces the Socialist rococo… Salvage is not the foundation of a future Left. It may be a time-capsule for one…Salvage is not a tool of agitation, however devoutly we hope for the situation to become agitated.

I winced at nearly each word of this passage. Let’s comb through a few of the minor issues:

  • “Austere revolutionary pessimism” does not do much to disown the image of the gulag and the guillotine that so unfortunately dog the radical left. Personally I am not austere; I am floral. I can already feel the austere glares I will be given when these despair-curious dialecticians are deciding whom to purge.
  • Secondly, not a single word of this makes any sense. What does it mean to be both posthuman and antihuman? Are they inhuman? I like humans. Salvage would therefore not appear to be the magazine for me. Or perhaps it would. Who knows?
  • Worrying, too, is the disdain for “sentimentalism.” I confess to being mushy. If I like the left, it is because of old-fashioned bleeding-heartism. I dare to believe in a world of hugs. If I am to believe this advertisement, this makes me grotesque.
  • Ah, but perhaps these bullet-points are being a little too kind to Salvage, by parsing it with care. In fact, the main problem is that, for a political magazine, I have no idea what kind of society these people want, but to the extent I can figure it out, it sounds both pretentious and terrifying.
  • As a final note, if ever I find myself slipping into this kind of prose, please slip me a cyanide tablet.

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Dream Diary: Beach Ball

“Please,” I said to the owner of the diner. “He’s my friend. And he’s wearing a suit this time.”

“I told you,” he replied, sympathetic but unyielding. “Harry Nilsson is not allowed in my restaurant.” Harry, standing outside the window, made puppy-dog eyes.

“It’s not 2009 anymore,” I protested. “And he has a beautiful singing voice.”

“Give me your cell phone,” said the restaurateur. I obliged. “There, see. Pending criminal charges. I don’t care how turquoise his shirt is, he’s going to beat it.”

For hours, I sat alone at the counter, commiserating with the chef over the death of my friend.

* * * *

I had a beach ball between my legs, and the fitness instructor was telling me to squeeze it as hard as possible. I told him I couldn’t do it. “It’s easy,” he replied. “Just imagine it’s the head of a Supreme Court Justice.”

* * * *

In the hallway, Emma Goldman managed to swindle me out of $1.2 million worth of colourful handicrafts, which I had been appointed to look after. I wasn’t upset about that, but when she questioned my ethics as a documentary filmmaker, the situation became intolerable. Nobody in the dormitory of the screenwriters’ camp would make eye contact with me after that.

* * * *

Biggie and I were robbing a bank, along with a small boy. We went in carrying a cardboard box filled with dollar-bills, and told the bank manager we wanted that much “times two.” But when we came out, the boy realized we had only two boxes on the cart.

“Where’s the third box?” he shouted. “This is just our first box, plus another!”

“That’s right,” replied a nearby security guard, with a satisfied smile. “Your original box was 1. Times two is 2. Two boxes.”

“No, we meant you give us two times the number of boxes that we already had. We’ve got one. Multiplied by two is two. So you give us two boxes and we already have one which makes three! THREE BOXES!”

“Sorry, kid. You asked for two boxes, and you’re leaving with two boxes. You got exactly what you asked.”

The child swore. But there was no time to return and argue, for the police had showed up and begun shooting, riddling the child with separate holes for each of his profanities. Biggie and I made it to the SUV, but we could not save the child, who had tarried too long counting boxes.

In the car, it became clear that Biggie was bleeding profusely from a bullet-wound. “Would you like to go home, or perhaps to a hospital?” I asked him sweetly. “Hospital,” he gurgled.

When we arrived at the hospital, a parade of nurses came out and carried me in with an elaborate musical welcome-routine, leaving Biggie in the car moaning.

“No, no,” I insisted feebly. “I am not the patient!”

“Of course. Do not worry. You must see the hospital director.”

They brought me into the director’s office. He began to prod me.

“Any recent aches? Pains? Troubles? Woes? Can I fix you up with any medicine?” I told him that I needed nothing, but that I had a dying friend. He was entirely uninterested.

“Hang on a minute!” I exclaimed. “This is because I am WHITE, isn’t it?”

The director paused.

“Yes.”

They were, however, kind enough to give me a complimentary miniature top hat to place on Biggie’s corpse.