What if the universe is an untold joke and the extinction of humanity is the snap of a twig in the woods where only humans have the sense to notice it?
Meanwhile, adults who morally deplore the “innovative vices” of the young didn’t create any dangerous fun of their own when they were young. Instead, they settled for the permitted excitements of occasional naughtiness. And now they have nothing to be jealous of. But they’re eager to show you their “crazy” pictures, right?
And, I might note, as a lover of words I would never attempt to peruse the world, but as a lover of the world I most certainly do pursue it.
Consider now three verbal events recently detected by my Long Range Language Radar: LRX2.
- In an introductory volume to the “Congressional” Medal of Honor, the author, A. Mikaelian, notes how the Medal came to have an air of “sanctity” about it in the 20th century. Sanctity — as in “the sanctity of life” — means divine or holy. This is the same period when the nation-sacred monuments were built on the Mall and beyond. Think of the Jefferson Monument. Soldiers could throw themselves on grenades and be immortally entered on the Roll Call of America for sacrificing themselves on the altar of Freedom!
As any anthropologist could tell you: all of the ingredients for a sacrifice religion are there. Except the haruspices. And those are probably the TV anchors. What a contrast the Iron Cross provides: a military medal awarded for sustained battlefield prowess, not a single beserker spontaneity. During my residence in Germany, I knew Germans who were still indignant about the outcome of WWII. It was a war in which noble warriors were defeated — no, not defeated, just beaten — by shop keepers and jitterbuggers. Something had seriously gone wrong with reality! On the other hand, maybe Anglo-American sentimentality is a secret weapon.
Questions: Does Mikaelian know what he’s saying? Or is he just reciting an idiomatic thought? If the latter, is his recitation a rote unconsciousness? Has he ever had a talk with his words?
- In a reprint of Russell Kirk’s popular handbook to the Republic, The American Cause, written for Regnery at the height of the Cold War, Kirk says of Marx, “Marx hated many things; but most of all he hated capitalism….” As you know from taking my political course and reading The Communist Manifesto, that isn’t even close to what Marx thought about capitalism let alone true.
Questions: Are we to assume that Kirk didn’t read the Manifesto? Or, that having read it, that he didn’t understand that transparently written and conceptually lucid short book? Or shall we assume that Kirk fully understood Marx’s unprecedented love for capitalism, but that he decided that it was unwise for Americans to know this? For the coming good-and-evil economic Armageddon, was a frightful regimentation a better motivational ethic to sustain America through the Cold War? That’s what Marx thought about the workers in the coming cataclysm. In 1848. What did Kirk think in 1956? And even when he was alive, could we know? And if he knew, would he tell us?
- At the end of finals week, I was using a restroom off the lecture halls. Above the twin sinks an instructional poster had been hung. It was one of an occasional series of informative restroom postings including “The Daily Urinal” or whatever that irregular “newspaper” was called. Remember those? This poster described how to wash your hands. When I went back a few days later to make a copy of it, it was gone — removed by the janitors, presumably, now that the semester was over. But I can recall it well enough.
- Get your paper towels ready.
- Run the hot water until it is warm.
- Place some soap on your hands.
- Lather and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.
- Rinse your hands thoroughly.
- Dry your hands with the paper towels.
- Open the door with the paper towels covering your hands.
- Dispose of the paper towels.
Questions: How can we know what the author of this “personal sanitation safety advisory” thought? Or what the people who caused it to be posted for college students thought about such students? Did they think? Or did they just recite idea words in their minds that they’d received from somewhere else? From where?
I’ll come back to this amazing piece of college anthropology later. And I’ll provide the public answers to the private questions.
Now let’s begin with your ending. “We crave progress, but we fear change.” Marx would love that remark. He’d say it displays the historical contradiction at the heart of capitalism — a contradiction which he celebrated and cherished for being the logic engine of human liberation. Think about it. Progress is change. Of course, progress a special kind of change: change with secular direction and desirable results. And notice that that that “secular” is both an economics metric and a religious measure.
The incessant change of progress — this “restlessness of modern man” — was first sighted around 1800 in Europe. But it has always been strongest in America. Indeed, until recently, Americans were so energetically restless, they were thought by the rest of the civilized world to be disagreeably agitated. Perhaps, people thought, these yanks had a new world moral malaria, or perhaps the republican ague. Americans’ famous oral agitation — not loquacity: gum chewing — was deemed an unmistakable sign of America’s ontic uncouthness and rustic rudeness.
Of course, what Americans have is not the chill of a disease, but the fever of progress.
And now as the rest of the world converts to cultural Americanism — or just quits trying to resist it — they complain less and less about the energy and the naturalness, and they evermore celebrate the power and the plentitude.
In other words, what humans now fear is not change, but the absence of change. That might be the single most dramatic advance in human sensibility since consciousness became aware of itself. We humans don’t love static and placid security now. We love drive and we crave acceleration! To slow down is excruciating — like being in a car on a highway deaccelerating for a traffic jam. And then there are the full-stop delays. Not motion sickness: motionless malaise. But this cultural velocity isn’t just some hours on an interstate. It’s history on the highway! Furthermore, we’re continually preparing ourselves — and being prepared — for change. For example, even as the newest phone is purchased today, consumers are reading what the next generation will be like — and even possibly how much they’ll save by buying it!
And now that I’ve referred to the p-thing — no, this isn’t gender studies or anything resentful — let’s talk about the phone. The Phone. The Ubiquitous and All-Connected One. And let’s paraphrase Dylan, but with a profitable upgrade. After all, Dylan enjoys the capitalist monopolies of his reconfigured copyrights. Yes, Bob, the weather it is a-changin’, but the climate ain’t. And Marx, who was a great meteorologist, was a lousy weatherman.
Nietzsche derided the English in the 1880s for having their breakfast served with newspapers. In other words, a mass production technology of information stuffed dawn-fresh dream-cleaned minds with the tittle and bilge of crown interests and market calculators. For post-newspaper sensibilities, as an alternative to chewing newsprint for mind-cud at breakfast, consider a sports equivalent. You get dressed and all ready for the playing field. And then, instead of stretching and exercising, you gobble a dozen donuts down.
The problem with phones is not their captivating technology but their user captivation. For over two centuries, a succession of inexpensive and amazing knowledge technologies have distracted humans with ready information and glib interpretations from the autonomy of thought: theirs. Consider the list: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, computers, and now phones. And let’s not forget paperback books — books as inexpensive as they are portable. Every one of these media is amazing in its inexpensive high grade information capabilities. The problem is most people don’t use them to access significant information upon which to better think and then be more themselves. They use them as entertainments and diversions upon which not to think and to avoid themselves. Rupert Murdock, founder of News Corp., said of his global news empire, “I’m in the entertainment business.” Such public honesty is a rarity to be cherished. Equally rare is the forthrightness of Phillip Knight of Nike who said in an interview, ‘At some point I realized I wasn’t selling shoes by way of prestigious images. I realized I was selling prestigious images, and that if you bought one from me, I tossed in a pair of shoes.’
Now I’ll tell you what my primary concern with phones is. Phones are what TVs once were. They’re inexpensive motion generators that draw and hold the survival eye of humans. Whatever moves might be alive. “Attention! Food. Sex. Death.” Observe people in a room with a TV going. They can’t keep their eyes from being drawn to the screen regardless of what they might be saying or doing. The civic good news is that this isn’t a new immoral idiocy, but just a fact of evolution gone electric. Only a Buddha wouldn’t notice a TV without any effort. I still glance occasionally. But just to check!
Meanwhile, even a TV in every home had at least the benefit of their own limitations: TVs were location-specific and time-restricted. But phones have no respect for either time or place. That’s why I don’t want one. I don’t want something that inconsiderate in my pants.
Far more than TVs ever did, these portable motion generators distract humans from their self-time. Phones both enable and induce humans to avoid being with themselves. You can call your time with yourself thinking. Or introspection. Or your personal time just hanging with yourself in the emotion soul of your source identity with or without reference to the cosmos. Today there are electronic detox camps the whole point of which is to be with yourself without electronics for a week. Patients are sustained by understanding counsellors and natural settings. Imagine the electronic cold turkey attacks that clutch people’s endorphin-addicted hearts the first day. There they are. With themselves. “Who is this stranger? Me! OMG! What am I going to say?!” The hand automatically reaches for the back pocket. But the hypo — I mean the information injection system — I mean the world text distractor — isn’t there. The phone void of your flaccid pants grins vacuously back at you. You’re alone with yourself. And there’s nobody there! And you just paid a small fortune and burned a week of vacation for your soul — I mean your phone — to be sequestered! Withdrawal sweats start surging. You desperately look around. Everyone else is twitching and shaking, too. Oh! But wait! You could trade symptom stories as you comfort each other on your re-entry to reality. You could even exchange personal intimations of your inner self without media intervention. Tête-à-tête. Personal. Cosmic. Alive. I’m alive!!! No pictures. Only vitality.
This almost sounds like the early Marx of The 1844 Manuscripts talking about the alienation of the workers. But this is the alienation of the producers — of affluent consumers with beach vacations and retirement funds in the bag, or college students hoping to get theirs before the rheumatism and the senility set in — or the next market “correction” that mysteriously doesn’t self-correct even with massive help.
Questions: In a society of mass production, for the good of the markets shouldn’t the citizens be mass consumers? For homogenous commodity production, shouldn’t the citizens be homogenous commodity humans? Is the existentialism of identity just a sentimental schmoozing of the universe for those not yet quite weaned off of desert religions?
You tell me you have excellent conversations. Excellent! Of course, we professors don’t overhear such exchanges. And if we do, we don’t have the Homeland Security clearance to tell you that we do. The truth will always be [redacted].
Meanwhile, here’s what we professors do publicly know about the average student’s language use. And the average student is average on a very vertically compressed bell curve.
We professors know that the average American student can’t write. How do we know that? We read their formal papers and lesser assignments.
We professors know that the average American student can’t read. By that we mean they can’t read significant texts with concept comprehension and world wonder. How do we know that? We grade their information retention and cosmic astonishment on exams.
We professors know that the average American student can’t memorize things — or won’t. How do we know that? We probe their memories with little quizzes and big classroom questions.
But forget about all of that. You can read about it in Reality 101.
What matters to me here is speech.
We professors know that the average American student can’t speak in public with confidence or persuasion. How do we know? We try to get students to speak in class with fortitude and effect!
You might object, “But in my contemporary peer conversations, the students I know are articulate.” Great! Let’s be democratic — and even liberal — and dope ourselves with endorphin hopes and say that all American students are dormitory-articulate. Great! Russians in the USSR were voluble and articulate, too— at night in their flats after closing the blinds and passing around a gallon of vodka. My concern here is not with private conversation, but with public speech. There are many times in my classes when I’m certain students know the answer to a question or at least some insightful point about the subject I’m discussing, but they won’t risk speaking in public.
Some people are shy. Okay.
Some people are reticent. Cool.
Some people are speechless. I’m often speechless in America. Fine.
And some people get flustered. In grad school I had an asthma-like condition. Just before speaking I’d deeply inhale — and my lungs would get stuck! With great effort I could squeeze out small squeaks of air across my vocal chords. These would generate a strained series of squawking sounds that could just pass for academic sentences. This dreadful condition only occurred at guest presentations when we grad students were supposed to impress visiting professors — and the department chairman — with our impressive questions. The chairman always took attendance. But fortunately I have a pre-Platonic post-Freudian explanation and excuse. If I love words, then my logo-erotic incapacitation was the result of forced speech. Forced speech is forced labor for captive intellectuals. And therefore it wasn’t my fault. Not even Kant with his Prussian-Euclidean categorical imperative believed in mandatory love!
The correlation of this forum of forced speech and my language incapacitation hasn’t escaped me. For a couple of years as a teen-ager I had migraines on Saturdays right at noon just before the traditional family lunch of hamburgers. I suppose it was the hamburgers. In the bathroom as I lathered my hands thoroughly before the meal, what colorful and aromatic auras! What totally head-nuked afternoons. No one ever noticed my Buddha-like withdrawal to my bedroom and my complete immobility as I sat like a statue at my desk till dinner. They must have thought I was studying all day. Oi, such a student!
So, now then, my problem is not with the public speech exceptions above — shyness and such. My problem is that most students most of the time don’t want to talk in public at all! I don’t care that they speak prodigiously in private. We’re talking about politics and the public domain. I’m now interested in public speech. And most students cannot and will not speak in public. And here now is the answer to those earlier questions. What people think in private isn’t important in politics, only what they say. Thus there’s no freedom of conscience in the Bill of Rights. It isn’t needed and it isn’t irrelevant. Notice Hamilton’s great remarks about his inner self near the end of The Federalist #1.
Now here’s the problem: How can you have a republic when the public won’t speak in public?
I’ve noticed in my classes and afterwards that well-educated religious practitioners can speak confidently in public. They’ve been trained to witness their beliefs. Those beliefs may be the tenderest significations of their innermost selves. And their audiences might be done-it-been-there buzz-off busy sophisticates. I listen. I discuss. I analyze. I empathize. I understand.
But what about the student citizens without religion? I suspect they’ve undergone a different drill. They’ve been trained in K-12 and other nodes of knowledge not to speak their beliefs in public. They’ve been taught that their opinions might differ from other people, and therefore they might result in an embarrassment of disagreement. Someone’s feelings about being different might be hurt by your diversity. Shhhh!
Let’s consult Dr. Marx again on the global markets’ transformation of humanity into a world populace of product-adjunct homogenization. Contrary to received opinion, most people vote regularly — at the ballot box of the cash register. And every vote gets counted with very little fraud and very little miscounting. Meanwhile, politics is demoticly scorned as a dirty business of unclean lies. But what if everyone thought that? Including those with discipline and integrity who would be young statesmen of America?
I’ll now recount for you a little conversation to which I recently was privy. It’s been heavily redacted. And the speakers have been assigned cover names not even the NSA can track or the FBI can hack. Probably. But regardless of the redaction, the concept of the conversation is clear.
Recorded on [redacted] at [redacted]. Redacted by [redacted].
Dr. Democrat: It doesn’t matter that 90% of the students in college aren’t reading. What matters is that the top 10% aren’t reading either. Those are the leaders.
Prof. Republican: I’m more inclined to think the leadership of humanity is the top 5%.
Dr. Democrat: The followers will follow the leaders wherever the leaders lead. But if the leaders don’t know where they’re going—
Prof. Republican: Meaning they aren’t leading, but only moving around at the front, which looks merely like me-first opportunism—
Dr. Democrat: They’ll soon be in the back—
Prof. Republican: Or pushed aside—
Dr. Democrat: And no one will get anywhere.
Prof. Republican: Nope.
Now, do you see the big blank space right after that? That’s where the redaction was redacted.
The problem with cultural democracy is, by definition, that the best — the best effort, the best sensibility, the best taste — is always in the minority. Therefore it’s always numerically ready to be overwhelmed by the crowds of the uniformed, the lazy, the tasteless, the envious, and the resentful. J. S. Mill confronted just that problem with his polite if bland prose. Compare Nietzsche who was rather more artful: “Untermenschen immer nicht über sollen sein! Nein!”
In his communitarian ethics of utilitarianism, Mill granted better taste more votes in the forum of prescriptive taste and public morality. And he also granted the more intelligent voters more votes in the political parliament of his practical proposals. You might say, “What an aristocratic swine! One man, five votes! Oink!” But Mill was what we’d call a social democrat today — if with strong libertarian tendencies. Of course I know that’s contradictory! Everyone knows that the 19th century “bourgeois” Mill wasn’t consistent. Meanwhile, there’s the more logically rigorous 20th century. There’s Bertrand Russell with his strict logic cosmos. (See Reality 101.) And then there’s Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pot & Co. with their strict history logic. How many people did Mill’s inconsistency kill? Compare that with the freedom precision of liberation logic. “Freedom precision, comrades! Onwards! Don’t be a bourgeois schmuck! Kill for progress!” A conceptual muddle indeed might be the catallaxy of logic. Though, you know, it is nice to be conceptually conscious if you’re a philosopher. (See my Republic on an aristocracy of accomplishment.)
Now let’s return to the beginning for our end. Remember those sudsy directions posted in the restroom? Think what’s required for some well-intentioned staff to believe that college students — persons who are legal adults in almost all ways — don’t know how to wash their hands.
Remember von Hayek from earlier this semester? Remember what he said in his 1956 Introduction to his Road to Serfdom? Not a sudden revolution like 1917 Russia which everyone can see, but the creeping erosion of republican sensibility — of republican confidence — of republican can-do — as in England that most people can’t see: that’s what really worried von Hayek. Of course, this is precisely the Fabian program of the famous Webb twins as well as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. I’m reading Wells’ The Rights of Man just now. He seems to have tired of historical creep in 1940, and started looking for a lurch. Hitler and Hirohito must have nudged him. Well, America and Russia certainly then provided a lurch for Europe, didn’t they?
Even if a metastatic socialism isn’t the culture-oncologic cause of that silly hygiene-for-hands poster, I can imagine a student-induced reason for such administrative nanniness. Solicitous administrators can hear the public silence of undemonstrative and therefore presumably ineffective students. Such administrators might justifiably be motivated to considerately assist such un-self-reliant students. Thus the graduation requirement at this college of four writing or writing-amplified courses. And hundreds of other colleges and universities in the United States have similar requirements. Do students know how to wash their hands? Maybe not. On average they can’t write a coherent significant sentence on demand.
The von Hayek problem then is this: Such students will come to expect instructions for everything before they do anything because there are instructions everywhere for everything. Except for safely getting illegally drunk. But there are posters on how to have appropriate sex. The power question then becomes: who will own the instructions and the forums of their postings? Marx said no one would own anything after a total dictatorship for a brief transitional period. Lenin rigorously followed Marx’s instructions by beginning at the beginning of the first step. Very logical.
In hindsight, I regret not having gone into the stalls to do my anthropological duty. Who knows? An equivalent poster might have had been mounted there as well.
And given our Kantian constructive consciousness, who knows what may have been posted above the urinals? I might not have noticed. I often solve Descartes’ mind-body problem by thinking while unconsciously letting nature run its course.
Those posters might have contained the additional categorically imperative instruction: “Make sure you don’t perform any of these steps out of order!”