Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Fact About The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein # 6

In 1824, Klaus Wittgenstein - Ludwig's great-grandfather - patented a game called Purris, to be played in honor of the mirthful Jewish holiday Purim. In the game two people hit decorative rubber balls meant to represent Haman - the Babylonian bureaucrat traditionally demonized in Purim celebrations - with a pair of broad mallets. The game became quickly popular in fashionable Jewish circles.

A fallen British aristocrat, Archibald Ten, was holidaying in Austria when he met with the young Klaus Wittgenstein. After a couple rousing rounds of Purris, Ten realized that the young Jew had invented a "most smashing pass-time," as he wrote in his biography. The two spent the next weekend secularizing the rules, and when Ten left for England again, he popularized the new sport - redubbed Tennis.

The invention made the Wittgensteins' fortune. Strangely, Ludwig was loathe to admit the very existence of the game. Whenever he was invited to play, he would look dumbly around and say, unconvincingly "Did somebody say something? I couldn't hear them. How odd."

In a rare journal entry, half-obscured by a wine-stain, Wittgenstein explains: "Oh, the wretchedness of having a body. Exploited for profit, no less! If I could just be the tennis ball, a perfect sphere, my meaning postulated by the whack of the racket, rather than this imperfect, lump of flesh. That is the mystery, that is the real genius. And yet who understands!"

In the last weeks of his life, crippled from the pain of his prostrate cancer, Wittgenstein sent a note to Russell, asking him out for a game of tennis. The older philosopher came to Wittgenstein's cottage a week later, but it was too late, Ludwig was too weak to rise from his pallet. He died having never played the game in his life

Quote of the day!

From this in the Times:

“It’s all the things that a car represents in this country,” Mr. Orci said. “That’s a story of stepping into adulthood, stepping into responsibility, possibly a gateway to sex. That is a story — with or without a giant robot.”

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I won the lottery!

I got told this morning that I won the lottery. Wowee! They just asked me for some personal details and to tell them how I feel as a winner. I sent them this e-mail:


How do I feel as a winner? Just great. I was telling Ronnie, he’s my best friend, see, how I knew my luck would change – this was only yesterday – and he didn’t believe me, he said, that “Well, looks like someone in your condition better not be lucky or unlucky anymore just put your whole fate into God’s good hands and know that whatever He wants for you is something good in the end, if you’re heart is right with him” because you see Ronnie is like that sometimes, all religious, and he thinks I’m liable to die, and he might be right. So I must admit my luck hasn’t done me much good up until now. But I guess my luck did change.

I’m in the hospital in Hicksville and I was actually going to have to leave this morning because I didn’t have the insurance, I was worried cause they didn’t reattach the toe right, and so it looks kinda sore and it was hurting yesterday but now it doesn’t hurt, it’s just numb, which worries me – and well, now I can stay here until I get better, now that I’m a winner. And that’s a real blessing.

I was telling Ronnie, I called him up when I heard the news, but he couldn’t understand me too well both because a) I was really excited and talk fast and b) my tongue, well, it still feels a little weird, being a donation tongue, a transplant, after the accident, see, and I can’t talk normally with it ever, and can’t talk real well now. Anyway, I was telling Ronnie that all of this was Karma or whatever you call it. That all the bad things that had happened to me over the past three days – you know, the bees, finding that porno of Cyndi with her sister and those two black guys, the accident which nobody can much understand how it happened, even the police and the doctors, and on top of that having Cyndi’s brother come in here and try to strangle me because she’s spreading rumors, well – all of it gets made up for in the big scheme of things because now I’m a winner.

So like I said, I feel pretty great. Once I get better I’m gonna ride down to Marshalltown with Ronnie, that’s where my son lives, and I haven’t seen him in a couple years, on account of me and his mother not being on good terms, and his sickness on top of that, and he’s going to look up at me with his big eyes and say ‘Daddy?’ and I’ll say ‘Yeah, son, Daddy’s back, and he can support you now like a good man’ and he’ll try to lift his arms to give me a hug, but he can’t, on account of his muscles are now all eating themselves up or something, but I’ll hug the little kid – not as hard as I did last time, when I broke his ribs, which was the reason why his mother (who’s called Cindy, and is a different person from Cyndi) thinks I am a bad father, and may not even be the boy’s real father, she told me that one night when she was real drunk – and he’ll look up at me and love me. And I’ll love him right back. And he might go back to being called John Jr. in school (John’s my name, but you knew that) and not Roland. Which is a queer’s name. So everything’s gonna go alright in my life from here on out.

And it’s all because of the UK Lottery. God bless.

John Handermeyer Sr."

Keep you updated on whether they e-mail back!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sophistication / Alienation

(Image from unasthetic, found on digg.)

So, to get the basic outline of my mood, add up these two pieces of media: I've been reading George Saunders' new book, In Persuasion Nation, and listening to some Joanna Newsom.

And let's just illustrate the mood: I was walking through the supermarket last night, and all the products lined up looked like little soldiers, and I kept on thinking that there was something horrible wrong and empty about a supermarket at night. Maybe something horribly wrong when you were alone, friendless, and poor - like I was - trying to find solace in food, in consumption, in buying. There was a hint that the supermarket, or whatever grim force had organized it, was actually responsible for my feeling lonely. And thus I imagined a horrible conspiracy mustered against me and against every other sensitive person: to somehow rob their souls of this bright essential thing, to feed our loneliness and despair so that we would buy more, only because when we bought more, we needed to work more. And so work itself became this grim fuel for an engine grand and sinister. This vision! it came to me suddenly! as if the curtain hiding it from my sight was just ripped away! And America was no longer America anymore, but one huge strip mall, the roads clogged arteries leading to depression and loneliness, the houses no longer comfortable, but cages, our diseased heart beating only so we could lurch further into - into what? Some inexpressible doom. And me! How little I seemed next to it! And I have the pride and conceit to think that my little sadness can break it.

Now, the other side of this feeling, which may be particularly modern, is that at the same time as I was drawing this rather apocalyptic vision of capitalism I knew that I was just in a bad mood, that this discontent was somehow contingent and temporary. Which didn't make the feeling any better. It was like Don Quixote saw his windmills, wanted with all his heart to fight them, but also knew, knew with the better force of his reason, that they were windmills after all, and that he was a faker, for all his bravery.

Maybe I'm being too hard on myself. My discontent is actually built on some pretty solid ground, I think. It's obvious, frankly, that our society is sick. And the precise source of that sickness may be a mystery, but it is fair to say that our materialistic tendencies are exploited in the extreme, while the spiritual and artistic fruits of our lives are left to rot.

The problem a young sophisticate faces when he turns and faces his culture with disgust is this: Do you turn away from the world, just because it seems for a moment wrong? That world is filled with plenty of people, people who may need help, and turning away from them in favor of Joanna Newsom albums and masturbation just seems a little bit solipsistic. But on the other hand, isn't it just pure ego to think that I, a wet-liberal sophisticate, just because I have some refined taste and political pretensions, actually have a duty to change the world? That those other people need my help? Because they don't have as good taste as me.

Beneath that, I whine to myself. I want someone - preferably the girl I'm interested in in a romantic way - to come and fix me. But, sad for me and sad for every single male sophisticate from the Song of Songs to the Counting Crows - the girl has her own life. And then, the cycle continues: I cannot even feel this selfish need wholeheartedly, I know it will pass, I know it is selfish, I know it is fake.

This wider cycle continues on. A cycle of alienation, disgust, and separation. And yet what is one to do?

Now, normally I really like supermarkets. I find there to be such a joy in looking at the fields of broad bright color of the food, and to know that you can have it, eat it - have you ever stopped to think the sheer bounty that you can find at your local supermarket? Foods of every sort, chocolate, ice creams, pizzas, peaches anything you want! Normally I can control myself from feeling alienated. I can look at everything pretty judiciously and gently. But what makes the floodgates of my ego fall down, and lead to this - to mopey sadness? To this mixture of pride and alienation? To this tangle of despair and ego? Because whatever it is, I think that more of us feel this confused feeling - only it's hard to name, hard to express.

And so this is how we register our discontent. This is how we rebel. The rebellion of an ingrown toenail.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Fact About The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein # 5

Wittgenstein was on a walk along the Cambridge river one afternoon with his friend Ben Richards. Wittgenstein had just been to the movies, and as always, he was upset about something, and giving Richards a long lecture. It was early afternoon, and as the pair passed a pub, Richards mentioned he was hungry and hadn't eaten breakfast, but Wittgenstein ignored him. As the hike went on, Richards found himself getting increasingly hungry. Finally he sat down on a rock, dizzy, saying, "Ludwig, I simply cannot listen to you anymore: I am too hungry." Wittgenstein continued to lecture him. Finally, Richards snapped. "Stop it!" he yelled. "I am simply starving."

Wittgentsein looked him in the eyes and said, tersely: "You are not starving," and continued talking, walking further down the river. Desperate, Richards told Wittgenstein: "I need to eat."

The philosopher laughed. "Oh," he said. "I knew you were hungry. But you never said you wanted to eat. There was that nice pub a ways back there. You should have simply said something...."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Study: Meditation Alters The Structure of the Brain

The WSJ reports (three years ago!) that a study shows meditation has a profound effect on brain activity. Which is cool.

"In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness."

Via digg.

On Living Conciously

Comic by Bill Kliban!

The outline of our lives is largely up to chance: we are who we are roughly because of the fickle facts of where we were born, who our friends and family are, where we got into college, what job we happen to fall into – we can do little to influence these factors, and thus we have little command over the greater shape of our selves. It is very appealing to call this broad outline our real self, though, because if we do so we are left with a pretty solid self. I am, for instance, a young graduate of Grinnell College interested in writing, living in Boulder.

But the downside of this perspective is that it leaves the larger part of ourselves – our happiness, our dreams – up to chance. Either we accept this chance, or we convince ourselves that we can with brute force of personality alter the outline of our lives – which seems as much folly as whipping the ocean – or, alternatively, we can identify a different part of our lives on which to base our selves.

This rough outline, for all of its explanatory ease, does not account the real beauty and joy of life. It’s a commonplace piece of wisdom that the rich are not necessarily happy, that the old are not necessarily wise. The real insight of this cliché is that the happiness and wisdom a life can afford comes from more subtle, smaller things than the usual markers of human success. And over these small things – the fine details within the broad outline of a life, those details that can actually make us happy – we have a great deal of control. This is a comfort.


We are faced with a series of small choices throughout our days, and these small choices can make up a texture that can make the difference between and fulfilled life and a disappointed one, between joy and loneliness, between art and artifice.

But I’m getting too abstract. That’s the danger when we’re talking about philosophy: since we want to explain some essential thing we must abstract away from the embarrassing contingency of our personal experience. But it’s that embarrassing personal experience which forms the edifice of the thought in the mind of the thinker. If it is removed too hastily, the kind of philosophy I’m trying to do here – a conscious, judicious searching for a better way of living – can be confused with another sort of philosophy, one that is intent to stare into an unsolvable Gordian-belly-button of abstraction. Whatever we think about, be it physics or logic or medicine or epistemology, must, in the end – even if we know not how – return to answer the question of how we live our lives.

So let’s get a little specific. I have just got off work, I am sitting on a chair at home, and I have a chunk of free time: I have a decision to make. Let’s make my decision easy: I can either watch TV or read a book. If I read a book (let’s say, for the sake of my argument, that it’s a really good book) I might feel a little richer; if I watch TV (Dancing With The Stars is on) I will gain nothing. But watching TV is easy. And reading a book – God. I deserve some rest today. Who wants to read a book?

We are faced with those small, drastic decisions every day: Should we go out for a run in the morning, or sleep in? Should we see our friends today, or play a video-game? Should we write a letter, or check our e-mail? These examples might not illuminate the crisis nearly as well as I’d like them too, so let me put it into a nutshell before we go any further. What we’re talking about is the choice between an easy-going and a strenuous life.


We do not recognize our ability to make these small choices because they are so small they seem insignificant in the rush of our larger daily decisions. The majority of the mental heavy-lifting for these small questions, then, is done underneath the surface of our consciousnesses. But when we bring these choices into the full light of our awareness, we can better see their outcomes.

The easy-going option is one that seems best in the short term. The strenuous option is one which takes more effort, but may be more rewarding.

The problem isn’t that the easy-going option is bad, and the strenuous option good. If that were the case, our lives would be significantly easier, and we would simply chose the good over the bad as easily as we would chose to eat a ripe peach over a rotten one. The problem is that both the easy-going option and the strenuous one can be goods, but they are goods of very different qualities and outcomes. What we have to do is weight the costs and the benefits against one another.

The easy-going options are just so easy. We are not helped by our culture which is so tailored to fulfill our present desires. With a minimum of effort, we can turn on our TV, eat some chips, play a video game, drink a beer. And these things are immediately and definitely pleasurable. Why the hell would you go for a run, or read a book of philosophy, or meditate, or pray, or any of these things that are so damned hard?

Because a lot of times, the strenuous option can provide more pleasure in the long run. If we chose to write a letter instead of watching a TV show, we may not get such a strong immediate sense of satisfaction, but our friendship with whoever we’re writing a letter to might be strengthened.

Even if we do not choose the strenuous option always – and why should we? – thinking consciously about these small decisions can make our lives better. When we are conscious over our inner life, when we take command of the way we think instead of reflexively falling back on the easiest course of action, we can better craft the world we live in.

Which is to say that the strenuous option is always the best. It is only that we face a difficulty of perspective between near and far things, and the easy-going option seems, more often than not, unnaturally better than the strenuous option. It takes a conscious act of thought to correct this skewed perception.


This choice between the strenuous and the easy-going option falls into much starker relief when we think of our perceptions. Although the examples above were all decisions about actions, the more common decision we are forced to make is not between one action or another, but between one way of seeing the world or another. We have a choice between whether to view a personal slight as an insufferable affront against our ego, or to laugh at it. We have a choice about whether we walk to work in the morning we think about work, or whether we recognize the beauty to the early morning light. We make these sort of tiny decisions about interpretation of perception en masse thousands of times a day. So the power of being conscious about your perceptions is massive.

And it is thus how we can make a work of art out of our lives. We discover that the fine texture of our days are dependant upon us. Rather than being a still observer to our lives, meant to watch the overall progress only sleepily, we discover we are largely our own authors. And we have then a responsibility to ourselves to live beautifully, much as an artist has a responsibility to consciously craft the flow of a story, or the arrangement of a painting.

If we live our lives unconsciously, for the most part, we will have the same problem with our lives as faces bad art: the problem with the bulk of high-school poetry, is that the poet has simply taken their feelings for granted and placed them on paper, without the least sort of consideration. A mindful life makes us considerate of our very feelings. And, instead of living in a world wherein our feelings and perceptions are largely out of our control, it gives us, little individuals that we are, the ability to craft our feelings and perceptions. And while we have little direct control over the broader course of our life, over these small things we are small kings.

It is not as easy to live consciously as I’ve made it out to be. If our minds are instruments of joy, we have to practice them regularly. Now, it’s far from my purview as an essayist to tell you how to get this practice. I can only point in a general direction. Since the way we make art is much like how we can make our own lives artistically, an artistic life – from arranging flowers to writing stories – no matter if it is done good or bad, can help develop this critical sense. One can pray, or sing, or run. I myself find great solace in meditation.

But the choice of practice, much like the painter’s choice of brush, is purely instrumental. As long as it works, it doesn’t really matter what it is. As long as we practice.

A Fact About The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein # 4

In early December 1941, Wittgenstein saw the cartoon short, All This And Rabbit Stew; he left the cinema in a state of desperate shock. He wrote in his diary that night: "If philosophy does not laugh, then what does it do?" He composed a short essay, which was never published, denouncing the cartoon.

But two months later he had a change of heart and wrote: "A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes." He became obsessed with Merrie Melody shorts, especially All This And Rabbit Stew, and by the time of his death was one of the largest private collectors of early Bugs Bunny memorabilia.

In 1943, Wittgenstein invited Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, and some promising students up to his large Cambridge office, where he told them he was to share a great discovery. The guests sat rapt at attention, while Wittgenstein stood before them, silent, for fifteen minutes, gnawing on some carrots with obvious distaste. He then pulled out a portable projector from behind a coat-rack, and showed All This And Rabbit Stew. When the film was finished, he left without a word.

As Wittgenstein was dying, he had a projector set up in his cottage, and would watch the film at least once a day. He was found dead as the credits of All This And Rabbit Stew were rolling, on April 29th, 1951. A sheet of loose paper sat in his lap, with drawings of rabbits and ducks filling almost every bit of white space. Scrawled in the lower corner - perhaps the last words Wittgenstein ever wrote - was this: "I have finally understood! That RASCALLY RABBIT!"

Friday, June 15, 2007

A fact about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein # 3

"Of all the animals," Wittgenstein wrote to his sister Helene from the Western Front, "surely the moth is the most perfect. I disdain the company of the other soldiers. God, they are less than vermin! But when a friendly moth flutters by my night-lamp, my heart warms. I put down my book and regard it's beautiful movements. When one alights on me, I cannot forget its touch for hours. Oh, it is the only thing that can ease this loneliness!"

Wittgenstein was obsessed with moths for the rest of his life: Soon after leaving the military in 1919 he proposed a method of telegraphic communication based on the fluttering of moth antennae, based on his view that moths had psychic powers. He wrote an unpublished monograph in 1923 encouraging the rearing of moths to cure depression. The first edition of The Philosophical Investigations was even dedicated to Actias luna, the Luna Moth, or, as Wittgenstein dubbed it, the "Queen of Language". This dedication has been expunged from the book's subsequent editions.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A fact about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein #2

For a period of two days when he was lurking around Cambridge in 1929, Ludwig Wittgenstein, author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, wore nothing but a set of two-toned leather shoes. When asked by a young student to explain his nakedness, Wittgenstein hit him over the head with a copy of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, which he was studying at the time: "The beauty of a circle is not that it has no beginning but that it has no end!" he screamed. He wasn't seen again for a week and a half.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Style.

Ben Weyl, that enterprising young scamp, has a good post up on Strunk and White's Elements of Style, the book that every self-respecting writer needs to read so they can make themselves feel bad about their various grammatical insufficiencies.

Now, towards the end of the post, Ben wonders why writing on the Blogospehere is so damned sloppy. My practical answer is that there is so little time between writing and publication in the blogosphere it discourages editing. With much writing, a writer has time to leave a piece in a drawer for a day or two - or an hour or two - and then return to it with a fresh mind to add new ideas and prune the old ones - in other words, to edit. It's hard to write well without taking this time.

With the Blogosphere, you can just slam out some words in ten minutes and then hit 'Publish Post" and there you are: You're a blogger.

The annals of blogging contain a huge number of sloppy fuck-ups. Check out the interminable Lee Siegel, who coined the term 'blogofacisim'. He argued that blogging was an essentially idiotic way to communicate, but then made a huge fool of himself when he was caught ghost-writing self-congratulatory comments for his blog posts. It was like he got caught masturbating. After preaching against the horrors of masturbation. Actually, he was caught masturbating.

Or, check out The New Republic's resident crazy-guy-with-too-much-power, and his grammatically challenged rants on the New Blog Order. And my alma mater.

Now, I'm super-guilty of being a bit, say, rough around the edges with these posts sometimes. Just ask my dad, who as the only reader of this blog sends me a weekly digest of all my grammatical stuff-ups.

But aha! there is hope: While blogging might tends towards sloppiness, I think with restraint it remains a wonderful tool to communicate. It lets people like me assume a pulpit of possibility - and even if our readerships never expand beyond our families and our close friends, we are still engaged in the act of writing. And that act of writing and editing, of setting out our thoughts into a more less wispy form, helps us think better. At least I think so.

And the great thing about blogging: you can do it even if you're not wearing pants.

A fact about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

One night Wittgenstein broke into Bertrand Russell's estate, made himself a cup of tea, and sat in Russell's bedroom, watching the older philosopher sleep. When Russell woke up in the morning, he noticed the young eccentric and let out a shocked yelp. Wittgenstein calmly asked Russell if he'd ever watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and if he had, did it make him think of how philosophy should be practiced? Russell blinked a couple times and asked, "Ludwig, can't this wait until I've gotten out of bed?" Wittgenstein was confused: "Well, you wouldn't be in bed then, would you?"

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Grinnell College, in the news!

Renowned internet blowhard, Marty Peretz takes a dig at my alma mater for having Angela Davis as our commencement speaker. Well, at least we're in good company.

If it makes any difference, she sucked. Really bad. But not enough for me to want to hang my head in shame. Not at all.

Thanks Andrew!

R.I.P. Richard Rorty

One of my favorite contemporary philosophers, Richard Rorty, has shuffled off this mortal coil Friday.

Soon I'll post something more substantial on this, but for now - work!

Monday, June 11, 2007

A view into the essential conflict of a political junkie, as seen through my belief that John Edwards really actually cares about me, personally

A political junkie is, in his heart, a conflicted beast. The conflict is this: he is interested in politics because in essence he is an idealist, and believes that his participation in politics can positively change the world; and yet, as his knowledge of politics deepens, he realizes that politics itself is a dirty, hypocritical business - he becomes the very opposite of an idealist, a cynic.

It is surprising that we continue to be surprised by the hypocrisy of elected office, even now that such hypocrisy has become a tired cliche. If we found an idealist's ideal politician, someone pure of heart, with his constituents' best interests in mind, articulate and intelligent, and everything else good and decent, we would disbelieve that he existed in the same way we'd disbelieve evidence of a unicorn or the Feejee Mermaid.

The political junkie - one who does not burn out - must feed on this conflict. They must, if they are to survive, find pleasure in dashing their newborn ideals against the cobblestones of reality. The same way it feels really good to gnaw on a canker-sore. Of course, when politics actually becomes a profession, ideals have nothing to do with it at all. It's all about power. But for the armchair political junkie, the most power we have is... well, it isn't much: we can vote. Maybe even in a primary; and if we're lucky - in a primary that matters. So we must feed off of this conflict between the idealism of what we think politics could be, and our cynicism at what it actually is. We may find a politician who our idealistic hearts can fall in love with, but then we find out more and more about him - and realize he's just like everybody else. And that realization is what keeps us going.

So I say what I say now with a sort of baited breath: I think John Edwards is on to something. Maybe.

The issue around which his entire campaign is mustered is poverty. Our country is one increasingly divided between rich and poor. One in which the basic opportunities of advancement are denied to a vast unwashed swath of people - not because they're especially stupid or lazy, but because they had the bad luck to get hurt and not have medical insurance, or they just fell out of work and couldn't fall back in. The problem is so deep, so old, that it seems incredibly boring, and I feel a flush of mawkishness writing it out like it was news.

The lack of a social safety net, a lack of some basic protection against the twists and turns of fortune, makes the American Life one of worry and fatigue for many. Look at me: a recent college grad, in so much debt it hurts like bad arthritis, having to pay health insurance out of my own pocket, working what would be affectionately called a 'dead-end job'. My perch on the great tree of the American Dream is very precarious, indeed. One bad wind will knock me off.

I'd have a much more interesting blog if that happened, that's for sure.

That Edwards dare take on poverty as his key issue is courageous, especially given how much cawing there is about crap like 'morality' and 'terrorism'. It's an issue - one of the rare issues - that actually matters.

Of all the candidates, Edwards the only one with a certain amount of sustainable vim and vigor. Hilary - I don't know about her. I can't understand her appeal at all, apart from being part of the Establishment (feel free, at this point in the blog post, to make doom noises). And I think that Obama, while he can be a wonderful speaker, will inevitably disappoint his supporters. We expect so much from him, that when he fails to deliver, we feel as if we've been cheated, that the Obama we thought we knew was just a fake, another poor political fake. Obama has all the personality of a Messiah. Messiahs, if you've ever noticed, aren't exactly the sort of people you want over your house for some steak and beer.

So Edwards. Sure. He has the Brylcreemey stench of politician around him. But watch. He might just get up there and blow us all away. He might be something more than a basic politician - he might be earnest. And if he's not earnest, he'll at least pretend to be earnest in a very well crafted way.

And in the end, that's all that matters to a political junkie.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A couple very weird modern things all jumbling themselves up in a very modern way that makes me, a sensitive young modern, concerned.

That's Brendan Mackie up there. No, not me, the other one.

One of the things that happens to you if you're on Facebook long enough is that you become friends - almost inevitably - with people who share your name. Now, I don't know if you're meant to develop any sort of special connection with these people, but I still find it odd to think that somewhere out there in the big confusion of the world, there's another Brendan Mackie bumbling around, and he goes to Wilmington College and likes "Photography, Physical Fitness, School."

We don't learn much about each other from these profiles, that's for sure. The guy plays beer pong, and frankly seems a bit boring. But whatever, he has my name.

But here's the scary thing: Brendan Mackie - the other Brendan Mackie - is going to Iraq.

He posted pictures of his going away party. For me the whole war seems to me to be a small blip on the radar screen of my world. I skip over the articles about Iraq in the newspaper - because they're all the same: Iraq is broken, things are horrible, we can't do anything. Since there's so much suffering over there, to let your mind actually embrace that suffering, and understand it, you have to give the suffering a lot of thought and energy. And I don't have enough thought and energy for that. I barely have enough thought and energy to keep up the basic offices of Western hygiene.

But Brendan Mackie - the other one, the one who like Emo music and all the Law and Order series - he's going to get to know the war first hand. And that's scary. I know it doesn't make any difference who the soldiers' names are, but it makes the war seem a little bit closer to home. I feel like I should do something: e-mail him, say hi, tell him I will think of him, tell him not to get killed. But what would that do? I'm seriously asking: what would it do?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Modern Nostalgia

So, I woke up this morning from fruitless dreams and turned to my computer, the modern's version of the morning newspaper. I was drawn over the initial cup of coffee to Facebook because I had a mysterious friend request. And I sat there, sipping coffee, staring into this person's face, trying to rack my memory for where our paths might have crossed.

The name sounded familiar. But I just couldn't connect name and face to anything that might have happened to me. And then, in a flash of understanding, in one of those moments in which all the elements of a problem arrange themselves and stop looking like a problem at all, I realized it. Facebook says it best: "You went to high school with this person."

Now, to understand how strange this is to me, maybe you need to know a little bit of my history. I moved around a lot - I spent the first chunk of education in Oregon, then had some middle school in Chicago, and split my high-schooling between Oxford, England and Canberra, Australia. I have never kept in good touch with my old friends. I think of them sometimes, but for the most part I recollect only a mass of faceless people and a feeling that I cannot name. And I know that feeling and those people used to mean the world to me. And now... they could, if I remembered just a little less harder, be nothing.

But this Facebook picture is like a small tear in a fabric that's been covering all these memories of high school - and out of the tear peeks a glint of light, of understanding. I page through the faces of her friends... and about one in ten are people whose names I barely remember - but who I begin to remember, people who are not exactly strangers, but who nonetheless I just do not know. Each little picture is a person. I think: would they remember me? were they my friend? my enemy? what? And the picture remains silent. But with each face, the little tear in the fabric that's been covering my memories grows a bit bigger.

But the bedrock of memory beneath the fabric is never completely revealed. All I get are little glimpses of it. Those glimpses grow bigger as I think more: I begin to be able to remember old friends' names, maybe a flash of a gesture, a voice; but in the end, that forgetful fabric recovers these bursts of understanding, and I am left staring at a lineup of strangers once again.

But why do I even want to remember high school? High school sucked. I sucked in high school. I don't want to go back to high school - mostly, in high school, I thought about how much I hated everything and everyone and wanted to leave. So why, this morning, looking at the faces of people who make me remember that suffering, am I feeling like I have just solved a puzzle about myself?

This nostalgia is a way of communing with my past, of going back to the disused altar of my memory and worshiping again the dead gods whose names I barely remember and can hardly pronounce. It is a solipsistic worship - I worship a past who no one else remembers, with prayers no one else will intone. And then end result: a couple new friends on my Facebook profile, and the glimmer of a feeling that I might - if I tried hard enough - look back at the past and understand the changes that passed over me, make worthwhile all of the dim memories. Maybe I will send an e-mail to an old friend and figure out where they are, and what they're doing. Who knows, maybe, sometime in life - we'll have a coffee together.

But not yet. I click 'Add to friend' - a small benediction.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Sam Throwback.

To see what the hubub is about, check out: Senator Sam Brownback's op-ed against evolution.

I was browsing around the web and I found this little nugget of wisdom:

"In our sound bite political culture, it is rare to hear any nuanced arguments. During the first Republican presidential debates, I was asked whether I believed in the theory of evolution. I answered no. I think it would be helpful to explain my position in more clarity and detail, giving the issue the seriousness it demands.

The heart of the issue is that we simply cannot drive a wedge between observable truth and shit I just assume to be true because it's part of my culture, or I just made it up. I have no doubt that these two classes of truth can coexist without contradiction. The scientific method looks at observable evidence, posits theories which attempt to explain that evidence, and then tests those theories, believing in any individual theory only provisionally. The shit I just make up is cool, like flying robots. These two truths deal with very different questions, but can not - and must not - contradict each other. Because that would just make me look stupid.

When asked if I believed in evolution, if what you meant was: Do you believe that natural selection over long periods of time leads to the rise of new species - I would agree. But I took this view, when actually believed as a higher truth than the assumed truths of my culture, will inevitably lead to an orgy of gay sex and margaritas, and I think we should not, under any circumstances do any such thing at this present time, given the current evidence. Unfortunately, the scientific orthodoxy thinks evolution means just that: gay sex and margaritas. Science should not, must not, answer these grave questions of morality. Only my imagination can answer them. And only in my imagination can I have a pony with wings who talks to me.

I am happy to let the facts stand for themselves - the facts as I IMAGINE them to be. Using my imagination thus allows me to live in a bubble of my own design - one in which every human being is an essentially worthwhile and purposeful entity, who must follow the strict laws that my imagination impinges on them. Only this way can we go further in our quest for knowledge.

While no stone must be left unturned in the search for meaning, we must leave one stone unturned: and that stone is the one under which exists any evidence that might contradict whatever beliefs I happen to hold, like the belief that all of existence is the creation of an god in whose image we are created in; or that I can, if I spend enough money, ride on a dinosaur. Aspects of science which bolster these irrefutable truths are welcome. Those which do not are probably written by gay men and will give you AIDS if you think about them too much.

We must use the reason God gave us, not to question our assumed beliefs, but rather to make them seem more believable to us. Because if we dare question our morality, we might revise our morality, which would be scary.

Without hesitation, I will continue to believe what I believed in the past."

A Dissection of Senator Sam Brownback's Argument Against Evolution

To see what the hubub is about, check out: Senator Sam Brownback's op-ed against evolution.

Even though Senator Brownback's argument against evolution may make us chuckle, it actually has a genuine argument in there. The question is: what's so terribly wrong about it?

Brownback's argument boils down to this: our understanding of the world comes from two sources, science and faith. Science answers questions about observable reality. Those questions which science cannot answer - moral and cosmological questions fall into this category - are answered by faith. The problem comes when science or faith overstep their bounds and try to answer the questions that belong to the other domain. For instance, science should not answer questions about origins of the universe because human perception cannot simply reach that far, and it is a question best answered by our faith - which can reach that far, because it is inspired by God.

There are two fatal problems with this argument. The first is that the argument is essentially a gerrymandered one, one that comes up with an acceptable outcome (for Senator Brownback) only in this current time and place. The lines of the two domains of science and faith are simply not as clear-cut as Senator Brownback makes them out to be. Galileo was persecuted as a heretic in the 17th century for daring to use the scientific method to deny the scriptural truth of the cosmological order. Back then, in Senator Brownback's thinking, Galileo would indeed be attempting to answer questions beyond his ken. But I don't see Senator Brownback writing any op-eds about NASA now, do you? The argument simply allows Senator Brownback to believe in the many fruits of the scientific method like refrigeration, airplanes, modern medicine, computers and the like, while tossing out those scientific insights which might force him to uncomfortably revise his beliefs in an anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian higher power.

The second fatal problem is that scientific truth and the truth of faith come to their truths in essentially different ways. The staying power of the scientific canon of belief is that, while we laymen accept the verdict of The Scientists with a certain faith, the canon is constantly shifting. The individual truths of science are always subject to revision should they turn out wrong. A hundred and fifty years ago, the scientific consensus considered burning the result of objects losing a flammable substance called phlogiston - the more phlogiston a thing had, the more flammable it was. These days, we understand burning to be the result of oxidation. And nobody (or very few people) shed a tear for phlogiston. Scientific truth, so claimed, is never held immune to revision. We may, in a hundred and fifty more years, find that our views of reality have been similarly revised - our great-grandchildren will laugh: "Oh, the Theory Of Gravity. What hokum!"

Religious truth - faith - is immune to such revision. Senator Brownback states quite clearly that he refuses to revise this particular truth: that "man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order." But the selection of such privileged,unrevisable faith-based truths seems completely arbitrary. To say that 'faith' should constrain science in its' particular domain seems to be about the same as when a little kid, tired of being beaten up by his older brother on a long car ride, draws an imaginary line down the middle of the back seat and says, with conviction: You cannot cross this line. If the scientific method does, indeed, come up with insights into moral or cosmological questions, it is not hubris to accept those insights.

I do not think that spirituality should be divorced from the American conversation, only that this particular argument for spirituality's centrality to our understanding of the world is unconvincing. It is my belief that spirituality does not help us answer any question about reality at all. Rather it can, when properly conceived, allow us to take a step outside of our worldly discourse. And that this may help us deal with more fine-grained questions. I hold a radically anti-religious and anti-anthropomorphic spirituality which, since this my damned blog, I can explain in more depth later.

It is refreshing, of course, to hear a reasoned argument from a politician, and for that, I commend Senator Brownback. Only, the man needs to get over his damned dogma if he's ever going to start thinking straight.