You’ve expressed concern on site and off, respectively, about not second-guessing yourself and doing the universe in a day. I’m not sure what the first phrase means, but I understand the second. A good writer always says himself. As a result, I’ve shed many idiomatic phrases and concept clichés over the years. And now I often don’t know what they mean. Of course, clichés were originally metaphors — like shed — and their meanings were refreshingly unsettling then. Their multivalent ambiguities invited the mind to more consciousness. But soon these new usages became habituated, and then their novelty expired. But that doesn’t matter too much. Most speech is meant to produce alignments in people, not excitations of understanding. Think of political speech. “If we start moving forward together, we can get progress going again! So why not move together today? Why not now!!!”
Consider even poetry in this regard. Poetry is supposed to radically access humans to reality. I was reading a certain poet by chance a while back. Unfortunately, I can’t recall his name, but I seem to recollect that he was 19th century British. Regardless, he was famous in his day, and obviously he’s still remembered. As for his poetry? His poems were fluently written versifications of contemporary clichés. His lines were beautiful vacuities elegantly expressing the emotional concepts in fashion then. Glug! And yet notice that my “glug” isn’t for that particular era’s content only, but for the content of any era that poetizes the emotional ideology of its times. Our contemporary paradigms of poetry are as nauseating as the laureate-led Victorians’. But whereas at least the Victorians were rigorous versifiers, our poetry is liberated from such refining constraints— Pardon! I mean oppressive restraints. Nonetheless, I’d characterize “our” poetry — not mine — as barf of the heart garnished with recollections of old resentments still unforgotten.
More fortunately and even immortally as is your current concern with being in print — permanence is scary, isn’t it? Yet I’m into immortality: anything less is shorter — your latest post, if shorter, is also as fit as it is fine. And you’ve overcome your writer’s remorse. Good! Don’t be fooled by length. Humans are apparently hard-wired for size. As a result, immense verse action epics and vast oleocene narrative poems have been written in unextenuated bulk over the centuries. And then Edgar Poe had the romantic audacity to claim poetry is a short art form. Then in the way that opera isn’t music, epic isn’t poetry. In other words, poems are lyrical. And now, since most people take their poetry with music, these contemporary lyrics produce songs rarely longer than several minutes in duration.
I’ve written about the sonata form to the same effect. That great three- and four-movement form inspired, guided, and compelled unprecedented world excellence in instrumental music: in symphonies, in concertos, and in chamber works. But the form is too big for piano music. The immediate and obvious objection, “But what about Beethoven’s 32!” is easily accommodated. Just observe how many of Beethoven’s “sonatas” aren’t sonatas but great shorter pieces packaged as “sonatas,” sometimes with filler movements, sometimes with just two movements when he didn’t even bother to affect the fashion.
In other words, for our purposes here — and everywhere else as well — the correct length of anything is its content. Content done optimally. Content done thoroughly, effectively, efficiently, elegantly, and well. In writing, say your say, and then sign off. Or, if you wish to be less polite or more robust, something else. People will thank you for your pertinence.
And now, on to my own daily problems. Yesterday I was brushing my cat — the Cat — for the third time that day. That meant an unusual and even unique thoroughness — with extra luxuriation for the cat. I’ve been concerned recently with hairballs between his front legs — or, actually, pills like those on woolen sweaters, only much bigger. Some had to be cut off. To my surprise, he found that activity quite congenial. He even purred at times while the scissors nipped and snipped and gnawed and sawed and snapped.
It was during the third brushing that I apparently made the same mistake that I’ve made before. While I’m brushing the cat, I always talk to him — just as a masseuse will keep up a comforting flow of chatter. It’s soothes the customer in their exposed and passive position. Well, along the way of such babbling patter, sometimes I’ll slip into thinking. It’s a thing I regularly do with effortless unconsciousness. And, as I realized afterwards, of course, I’d stopped talking. And I’m a vigorous brusher. Swedish method. That means the cat now thought I was attacking rather than brushing him. He reciprocated my vigor by laying open the side of my right index finger with an inch-long cut. And he did it neatly with just one claw extended.
Actually, I don’t mean a cut. I mean a contusion. A contusion sounds Latin rather than Saxon, and therefore more serious, even medical. Therefore it’s victimization-capable. In contrast, a cut isn’t dramatic enough for our consumer-safe days. Such days are comfortably bored and spiritually in search of vitality usually taken as a placebo. Real vitality always has an element of danger to it: it’s alive and it can die or kill you.
The good news is, however, I can still type.
Meanwhile, with my right hand staunching itself with a tissue, I chased the cat around, forcefully and forthrightly rebuking him up the stairs, whereupon I lobbed the brush at him left-handed. I made my point! And now we’re back in our usual happy or at least symbiotic accord. Actually, if you’ve had cats, you’ll know that they show approximately no memory for or even initial awareness of remorse. Big dogs are so much better at the sort of civil consciousness that sustains the sophistication of shame and guilt. Culture and love are impossible without them. By that I mean that love is an abundance of fun in its justified and studied superiority to guilt and shame.
So, yes, we’ve all got problems. But as psychologists and biologists and surprisingly only a very few philosophers — Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dewey, me — have long since centrally observed, if life weren’t seriously irritating, humans wouldn’t think about it. And if the universe weren’t a pain, no one would invent philosophy or physics. We’d all be unconscious and as happy as plants. But so what?
And now, since I’m not bleeding on my white keyboard, let’s start. I’ve got lots of good stuff this week. And if “stuff” sounds inelegant, think of the demotic word “blog”! What does blog rhyme with? Grog?
1. As you’ll recall, I recently acquired a volume of Foucault’s papers. As I started reading around in it, I was immediately reminded of the assessment I’d made of Foucault years ago when I read a number of his books. Foucault is typically thought to be a radical thinker: radical in general as a fundamental and dangerous thinker, and radical in particular as a devastating exposer of the social institutions and sexual mores of capitalism.
You’ll run into him in your advanced political courses, if not directly, then indirectly. Like Nietzsche, he’s around, and he’s current. But Nietzsche will always be around and be current.
But Foucault is actually a high-level drudge trying to conceptually capitalize a power ecology out of Nietzsche’s philosophy. With French systematicity and Gallic rationalitis, Foucault Cartesianizes Nietzsche, then sociologically refutes him with socialist sensitivity. But anyone could inform Foucault that Nietzsche isn’t systematizable. Furthermore, the biological world view at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy isn’t systematizable, either. The life world as we have it isn’t a system. It’s a miracle or an exudate. However, since I dislike the ethics and the aesthetics of those two life views, I take vitality the third way: Life is an opportunity of the universe. Of course, determining what the universe is constitutes a significant part of that living opportunity.
Consider, now, just one point from this Foucault volume. In fact, it’s the first point made in the work.
The first paragraph on the first page of the first volume under the heading “Series Preface,” presumably written by the editor, begins:
Michel Foucault provides a splendid definition of work: “That which is susceptible of introducing a significant difference in the field of knowledge, at the cost of a certain difficulty for the author and the reader, with, however, the eventual recompense of a certain pleasure, that is to say of access to another figure of truth.”
If that’s a “splendid” definition of work, then bums and junkies are right. Anything beats work! And if that’s specifically a definition of intellectual work, then I should have gone into accounting and law as my father urged me. Even auditing would be more fun. Anything would be more fun!
And so, now, instead of this rigorous bilge academese, let’s attempt a specification of work that’s as attractive as it is apt.
“Work is what makes the world more.”
I’m willing to work for that.
As Emerson, Whitman, and I could suddenly say in a conversational accord, “More makes us happy! — Hey, Henry, another pitcher! — He’s always so sullen around people. Well, he probably doesn’t work enough.”
2. In your previous post, you referred to a discussion we had last spring semester after class that concerned “freedom of religion” laws.
And now you associate those laws with the slippery slope.
Of course, the slippery slope argument says this: once you start doing something, even if it’s only 1% of that something, the logical flood gates have opened and, as in a flume, you’ll be irreversibly washed down to the saws.
There are two problem with the slippery slope. One is with its logic, the other with humanity and the universe.
Consider the logic. The argument’s logic is linear: X or not X. There’s no inbetween. If you slip, you’ll slide, and if you slide, you’ll ride till you’ve died. And yet children survive the travails of learning to walk, and with toughened knees go hiking with delight. Go logicize that with linear logic!
As for humanity and the universe, everything humans do is on a slope. Consider punishment. The slippery slope argument proves — Proof? What is that? — that if you spank a child or shame her, the next thing you know, you’ll be an axe murderer or a gas chamber operator. That’s possible. Remember Lizzie Borden? Or did she get it backwards? But what if you don’t enforce your rules with punishments? And notice that punishments necessarily consist of applications of pain. Your rules — and you — will fall into contempt. And then you’ll be attacked by those you protected from the “violence” of correction. There’s your Lizzie Borden.
For our readers, let’s revisit our after-class conversation with an example that illustrates the present religion situation. It was, in fact, our own example back then, or close to it. You live in some city. In this city there’s a deli called Moe’s. It’s the best deli in town. You go there and ask for a ham sandwich on rye. Moe politely offers you corned beef instead. No, you want ham. Moe gently declines to provide you with ham. Why don’t you try Tony’s down the street, he suggests. They have ham. Yes, but Moe’s is the best deli in town, you radiantly reply. Moe is appropriately pleased and even flattered. And now you want a Moe’s ham sandwich. Moe is a polite and astute businessman. And so almost apologetically he points to a Star of David. And you’re a polite and considerate citizen. And so almost apologetically you pull out your pocket Constitution and point to the interstate commerce clause. Moe says, Interstate commerce! Oy, who would get off the interstate for this city?
Of course, as de Tocqueville said in so many words, the Supreme Court will. Not even the Kitty Kat Lounge is too inconsequential for it.
In our present and ongoing religious contention, we have Christian bakers who don’t wish to bake wedding cakes for happy hand-holding same-sex couples. These bakers’ religion is as much opposed to homosexuality as Moe’s religion is to pork.
And notice here in a contemporary cultural aside the reaction of the media and the people. Of the Jewish deli situation, the media and the people will say, “That’s discrimination against Jews!” And of the situation with the bakery, the media and the people will say, “That’s discrimination against gays!”
I wonder how many of my students would notice a slight logic problem in that last paragraph. And I wonder how many could explain that power logic isn’t a deductive inference, and yet it isn’t a randomness of insanity, but the potency of actualization. Foucault apparently couldn’t.
Of course, you could always say that the bakers won’t cut the cake and lick the spatula, so what’s their problem?
In the past, the refusal to serve select restaurant customers was a matter of systematic racial discrimination. The courts dealt with that through the interstate commerce clause and the 14th Amendments and such. According to those cases, anything less than perfectly equal economic access could disrupt and even destroy the entire American economy. This delicate situation includes someone not being served a sandwich in the middle of a county somewhere in a state most Americans couldn’t locate on an unlabeled map. Or even on a labelled map.
But here’s the present religion problem.
Let’s say the court rulings banning denial of service on the basis of race are applied to this issue. The result? There could be no religion-based discrimination in public. That sounds good, right? Now change one word. “There could be no religion-based choice in public.” Religion would then be reduced to a private and personal practice of conscience exercised and expressed nowhere in public. In this situation, a church or a synagogue would remain private — that is, private property. But a place of business — and business is the original source of private as in privacy — would now be public. Private property is now public property — social property — moral property. And what’s called the freedom of the practice of religion would in fact be the state enforcement of public secularity. The result is virtually the same state atheism that the communist regimes of the 20th century enforced by law. Such public secularity is the goal of the ACLU. But just as freedom of conscience isn’t freedom of speech — not even kings care what you think if it stays in your head — so freedom of conscience also isn’t freedom of religious practice.
The Supreme Court can see that.
3. Now consider the subject of trust to which you directed my consideration.
The following paragraph must be read not only in its entirety, it must be understood in its entirety, too. Otherwise it’ll just result in the usual paired dispositions of loud cynicism and its anodyne, solicitous hope. And both are so unproductive in their impassioned displays of inner sloth.
The appropriate starting maxim here is “Trust no one, deal with everyone.” This is analogically the equivalent of what Newton started his physics with, whereby he created the first universal natural knowledge: “A thing in a vacuum moves in a straight line forever.” Of course, that never happens because there’s no vacuum anywhere; and forever, if it exists, isn’t straight. But as a modeled approximation of an unattainable asymptote, it led Newton to his eponymous mechanics. Without it, we’d still be cheering on the circular orbits of the Aristotelian gods. It’s not that the Greeks didn’t observe things well. If anything, Aristotle saw the surface of the world too well, then logicized it. Science is something else: call it an in-sight of measured imagination. For details of what that means, take a philosophy of science class, or glance at Reality 101. Meanwhile, you can’t go through life trusting no one or, for that matter, dealing with everyone. You trust some people. You must. And some people, however advantageous to deal with them would be, are pariahs to your pride. They’re your untouchables. You do not touch them.
Alright, who do you trust?
The obvious answer is people that you’ve had enough experience with to constitute a goodly sample of pertinent experience. Of course dire circumstances can be extremely revealing. But they shouldn’t be cultivated as a test of character — unless you’re selecting candidates to be commandos, diplomats, or philosophers.
So, do I trust Trump?
I don’t have enough pertinent experience of him as politician and president to render such a judgement.
Now, remember the caveat — the consumer thought warning — above?
I don’t distrust Trump, either. Bertrand Russell’s love of the “law” of the excluded middle notwithstanding, neither “X nor not X” may be the case. It certainly is here. Indeed, in human affairs, it’s usually the case even unto the atomicity of the innermost facts. And that’s because facts, like atoms, deliquesce into constituents between words that shimmer.
Therefore you won’t see me shackling myself to the Trump train. But then, of course, I’ve enjoyed a love of trains ever since my earliest memories. I traveled Europe for almost a half a year on trains. In fact, you won’t see me shackle myself to any train, inside or out. Both are bad ways to engage in train love.
As for Trump trying to be Reaganesque, I’m confident that Trump long ago judged himself successful in the concept and the project of himself. Therefore he doesn’t try to be anyone. I don’t. And that includes himself. Human copies are always imitations and, like imitation flavors, they’re artificial, and leave a bad aftertaste. Indeed, they taste bad all the way through. I must observe, however, that I’ve sampled fast food that has deceptively decent flavors at first taste. I surmise that these flavors are meant to induce consumers to eat fast so that they can avoid the true tastes of the inferior over-processed foodstuffs used, tastes which come out the more the food mass is chewed. Regardless, to be artificially flavored would be a distasteful way to savor yourself for the duration or eternity. Eternity is dubious in every dimension. But eternity can do yeoman work as a moral heuristic. Now can be a long time.
As for your professed trust of Sanders, not only are all politicians actors as they must be. But whereas actors only act when they’re on stage or on camera, politicians act whenever there’s a citizen in sight. Since you’re a citizen, I wouldn’t assume that you’ve ever seen anything but the Bernie Sanders Show. It might be a good show. It might be a heartfelt show. It might be the truest show of the season. But it’s still a show. Showmanship is a part of the job description of politicians and statesmen. And successful diplomats should be given Tony awards!
4. You’re surprised that the two parties, Republican and Democrat, “can’t agree on whether Russia violated our sovereignty.” Let’s say that that putative subject is a simple one-fact matter of a simple single event with a simple single purpose. Of course, none of these conditions is likely. But let’s stipulate them as in an Einsteinian mind experiment. But as I read The Federalist #10 and human nature, even if these two parties did agree on these simple facts, they’d disagree on their interpretation, which of course would color the facts. And if they couldn’t disagree on interpretation, they’d disagree on the facts just to disagree, thereby pro-actively distinguishing themselves and exercising their will to power musculatures. Children do this all the time over such trivialities as cookie size and trinket coolness. Adults, who are more sophisticated, do this with personal wealth and clothing labels.
Meanwhile, while I wait for history to catch up with the present Russian imbroglio and get some Rankean archive access, let’s look at the VENONA decrypts. You probably know about these. The Soviet residencies in America sent radio messages to Moscow Centre during and after WWII in super-encyphered code by way of the one pad system. That encryption system is the only method I’ve ever read about that’s considered theoretically unbreakable and has been so proven in practice. That is, if it’s used correctly. For purposes of economy, the Soviets failed in this. But, then, the Soviets never were very good at economics. Therefore the encryption was breakable, and much of the code, worked on for decade by the NSAs, has been decoded.
Through VENONA, America was able to unequivocally identify Donald Maclean as a Soviet mole. Under directions from Centre, Maclean along with Burgess fled to Russia before he could be arrested and, in his current duress, blab. As a result, Philby came under suspicion — just as Philby had feared he would. Whereupon Philby was promptly expelled from America. The Brits didn’t handle the matter quite so well as we did back then.
One of the results of VENONA, as I gather from my reading, is due to a slip. Julius Rosenberg was once referred to by his real name rather than his codename in one of these messages. That Rosenberg was guilty as charged of atomic treason is now apparently indisputable and not disputed — except, I presume, by the usual hobbyists and cranks. You know the type: Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare; they’ve got Bigfoot alive and well in Area 51; all TV programming must be approved by Bohemian Grove. It’s an interesting display of humanity in the play of history that Friedman — “Purple” — got his start “decrypting” Shakespeare for a millionaire nut.
With almost equal if not quite as certain certainty, ALES has been identified as Alger Hiss. But disregard Hiss. With the exception of those Soviet lapses, Rosenberg’s guilt could have remained unsettled forever. Why? Rosenberg, who knew, lied for his life. His friends, who knew, lied for loyalty. The USSR and its stooges, who knew, lied for opportunism and belief. And the republican civil society free market West lacked indisputable legal evidence to the contrary. In such a case, what does constitute indisputable evidence? A signed confession? “Forged.” A voice-taped confession? “Actor-faked.” Churchill’s most famous war speech was faked on radio by an actor. A video confession? “His eyes are glazed.” But when you catch the enemy on his own secure grounds confidentially discussing an incriminating matter with the confidence of everyday business, that’s persuasive.
But now compare a simple matter of fact — someone stealing secrets — to a complex issue of states: of states playing ongoing power games with each other. You shouldn’t assume that you’ll ever know what’s going on. Jefferson scoffed at the idea that the truths of nations appear in newspapers. Unless you’re there, Jefferson said, you won’t know what’s going on. Well, you say, at least you’ll know if you are there. True. But that assumes that there’s one and only one there, and that you’re always there at all pertinent time, and that you’re always perceiving everything, including what passes unsaid in the players’ minds. If the variable truth — Truth? What is that? — of quantum mechanics sounds strange, it shouldn’t. It’s the stuff of which history consists: observation-dependent non-invariant reality. Reality? What is that? See Reality 101 on reality. Also see it on that recently retired concept, truth.
And now consider this “Russian influence and communication” matter from the perspective of the so-called “Mitrokhin Archive.” According to that KGB archival source, Russian-Soviet interference in American presidential elections during the Cold War was commonplace whenever it suited the Kremlin. Of course. As for pre-inauguration back channel conversations between presidents-elect and Russia, that was done by no less an American hero that JFK and his inner circle. In case you’re interested in pursuing the subject, the presentation I’ve read is by Christopher Andrew, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive (Basic Books, 1999). According to what I teach in my critical thinking course, this is a credible source.
5. You talk in your post about a prevalence of present fear. You’re aware, as you show, that cities were burning starting with Watts in 1965. I’ve had students who live in such places, and they tell me about them. Some of them — like Newark — have never recovered. Of course, excess fear is numbing and incapacitating. But no fear can easily lead to complacency, which is another kind of numbness: an incapacitating contentedness. In contrast to both, a little fear can be useful, and not only as a stimulus. If you know how, you can convert the energy of fear into the energy of action.
And now here’s a present generator of fear I direct your observations to: What do you think about Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks directed to or at Ballistic Kim?
6. Finally, consider a small point with reference to trust. I have in front of me a souvenir book from the Biltmore Estate. You know that place: the largest residence ever built in America. A Biltmore grandkid intentionally built as a baronial estate. Huh? In America? That’s not quite republican, even if America’s a free country. Or as I always tell my son, it’s a free country if you can afford it. In this booklet there’s a full-page color picture of the Billiard Room. You know the type: the wood paneling, the leather chairs, the heavy-legged tables. Impressive. Well, on the billiards table there are four balls. And they’re all the same color.
Who do you trust?
And the Biltmore property, operated by descendants of the Commodore, is a legal trust.
Should we trust that?
Are trusts trustworthy?
Who should we trust?