We might as well try: what’s life?

22 07 2012

Is life good?

Is it something to be desired, a good in and of itself, something to be drawn out as long as possible?

I don’t know.

Yes, yesterday I noted that every killing lead to a smaller world, which, given my world-centric views, could reasonably be taken to be a bad thing. And it is. But I don’t think death itself is a bad thing, and if death itself isn’t a bad thing, then life itself may not be a good thing.

Not that life is a bad thing; it’s simply life and death are neither good nor bad, but part of the necessary conditions (biology, mortality) of our existence—conditions which themselves are, well, to repurpose a quote from a mad German, beyond good and evil. We enter the world through birth and exit through death, and neither the entrance nor the exit is a moral issue. We have no say in our births and that we die is inevitable; it is difficult to argue the morality of matters utterly beyond one’s control.

I didn’t always think this way; I once thought that my life was bad, and my ongoing existence both a symbol of my moral failure to and proof of the need to end it. I purchased days against weeks, weeks against months, months against years—until the years piled up and the credit ran out and spent from the running and loathing I lay myself out and whispered, finally, enough.

Funnily enough, the ending wasn’t the end. I claim no mastery over the moment; it was, simply, a moment, a leaf blown this way rather than that, life, not death. I picked the leaf up, that’s all; I would have picked that leaf up, regardless.

Did I “choose” life? No. I recognized it, recognized it as mine, and said, Well then. Enough.

Would killing myself have been a lessening? I didn’t see it that way, then, but, yes, I guess it would have been—not for me, but for those around me, who cared about me. My world prior to the turning had already been lessened; my suicide would simply have capped off the decades-long hollowing out of my world.

So now I live. I don’t think it’s good that I live or bad that I would have died, but I also don’t think that it’s bad that I live or good that I would have died. I take my life as a given—not a gift, but something simply there—and recognizing it as such, try to do something more with it.

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What are words for?

6 08 2011

A few words about words:

Privilege. I have used this word, and will continue to do so in the context of “privileges and liberties” and “privileges and/versus rights” and “privileged information”.

I have also used in terms of “skin privilege”, as in I, as a white chick, have skin privilege: I don’t have to think about skin color/race because, through no effort of my own, I have, in this country, the default skin color.  There are things I don’t have to worry about because I’m white.

The term, in other words, can do some real work; unfortunately, it can also do some real damage.

What was meant at one point to lead to greater understanding now gets in the way of that understanding. It has become a term of opprobrium, an insult to be hurled at anyone who hasn’t had the worst of everything and therefore can contribute nothing to understanding anything.

It shuts people down, and, as a general matter, I don’t see the point of that.

I do see the point of trying to prod folk into critical (self-)reflection, to encourage people to be mind-ful of what in their lives was unearned and, perhaps, to then gain some perspective on what was earned. It’s not about individuals versus structures, but about individuals within structures, how individuals move structures and structures move individuals and the multivarious ontological and practical implications.

Good times.

Wielders of the privilege weapon, however, too often try to guilt the individual for the existence of the structure itself, that someone who’s rich is responsible for the class system, that the individual man is responsible for patriarchy or each straight person wholly owns heteronormativity (yet another word which should be confined to the academy), or that ablism is the fault of every person who’s able-bodied and ageism, each and every young whippersnapper out there.

How is this helpful to anyone? What role does such shaming have in creating a more thoughtful people or a more equal society?

The ends may not justify the means, but they should inform them.

Triggered/trigger-warning: This is not a term I’ve used, although I have some sympathy for those who do.

There are some topics which are known to set off intense reactions in those who read or hear them; knowing this, some people choose to offer a warning before diving into those topics. That’s a decent thing to do.

Now, perhaps I don’t do this because I’m not decent—entirely possible—or maybe it’s because I don’t know what’s going to set people off. And because I don’t know where to set the line I prefer not to set one at all.

I’m going to write what I write, and while (with some notable exceptions) I don’t intend to offend, I know I’m going to, regardless. If I worry too much about that offense, I may end up not writing, and I’d rather write and offend (and apologize, if necessary) than not-write so as to not-offend.

I don’t know if that’s better or worse than those who append a TW before a topic; it’s a choice and a preference, nothing more.

Swearing: You may have noticed I do not restrain myself in this area.

The best argument I’ve heard against swearing (thank you, Ms. G, my high school English teacher) was that it wasn’t creative (although, with all respect to Ms. G, I have heard some mighty creative curse constructions). Even that, however, was not and has not been enough to stop me from littering my blog and speech with blue words.

Now, if I give a formal presentation, I don’t swear. If I prepare an article for publication, I don’t swear. Professional situations? Ixnay on the ursecay.  I try very hard not to swear around little kids (let ’em learn these words from the older kids, the way I did), or, for that matter, around people who I know are offended by swearing—especially if I’m a guest.

But this blog ain’t a formal presentation: it’s a cyber-conversation, and in conversation, I tend to lay down the low language.

I’m not proud of this, and I periodically try to clean it up—but more for aesthetics than morality.

Goddess forbid I’d let morality get in the way of my rampages. . . .





I didn’t want to do it

7 06 2011

I do not fucking want to write about Anthony Weiner—but here I am, writing about Anthony fucking Weiner.

He’s an idiot, and by this I mean: he’s an idiot.

Not a criminal, not a pedophile, not a man so vile he must be hounded out of Congress.

No, he’s a horny guy with poor horny-impulse control who as a high-profile warrior in our current political wars had to have known that taking him out (temporarily or permanently) would be a sweet, sweet success to combatants on the other side.

I do feel bad for his wife, but as I am not his wife, how his wife responds to him is really up to her. Not to me, not to anyone else.

I am not one of the recipients of his tweet-pics, and in no way have had any sort of relationship with him; how those women or the people who do have some sort of relationship with him is up to those women and others.

I am not (currently) one of his constituents, but if I were, I wouldn’t be demanding his resignation and, come the next election, if I thought he were the strongest candidate, I would vote for him.

And I think, really, his political future is up to him and his constituents, and whether they think his legal-but-idiotic actions indicate something political significant about his character or not may be one of the factors they consider in deciding whether or not to vote for him. That’s how it should be.

I may have mentioned once or twice or thirty times before that I care about policy. Policy policy policy. Shitty husband? Don’t care. Shitty mother? Don’t care. Asshole to your staff, kinda care, but I’ll take the asshole with the right (which is to say, left) legislative agenda over the sweetie with an authoritarian agenda. I might prefer that sweetie as a friend or neighbor, but as representative? No.

Nor would I in any way be shocked by a right-wing counterpart who cut her voting cards in a way exactly as I do. I’m irritated by do-as-I-legislate-not-as-I-do politicians, but I completely understand why a conservative voter might hold her nose and vote for the cheater/closet-case/hypocrite to prevent a non-conservative from winning.

I don’t have a whole lot of patience for those who excuse their side for engaging in the same behavior that they criticize in the other side, but even there, I get the rationale: My team is always right. (It’s a principle, I guess, albeit one rather absent of, er, principle, but tribalism has its role in both politics and sports.)

I’ve not-written an essay beginning with the phrase “Morality is ruining politics” for over a decade, but I actually do have a highly moral approach to politics: it is a morality based in the purpose of politics itself, which is to say, one rooted in the notion of the public good.

No, I won’t try to write that essay, here; instead, I’ll simply note that I take a compartmentalized as opposed to holistic approach to political character, that is, that I assign different moralities to different spheres of life. Yeah, this can lead to behavior at, say, work, which might appall one’s friends—compartmentalization my increase complication—and one line that could connect these different spheres is to strive, pace Aristotle, for excellence in each field, with the recognition that such excellence varies across those fields.

Virtue ethics folk tend toward holism: if you’re a wretch at home there’s likely spillover in other areas of life, perhaps to the point where moral failing in one sphere might disqualify you from participation in other spheres.

The problem with this approach is twofold: one, the evidence doesn’t support this (i.e., there’s plenty of evidence that bad people can do good things) and two, this assertion of one’s goodness can lead one to justify one’s actions on the basis of that goodness (or, good people can do bad things and excuse the badness of the act on the basis of the goodness of the person—a variation of the Euthyphro dilemma).

The virtue approach is particularly dangerous when comingled with power, to the point that one may rationalize truly horrific actions (see the history of abusive medical experimentation in the US, for example): Because we’re good what we do couldn’t possible be bad.

The compartmentalization approach isn’t perfect, either, and can lead to Gingrinchian rationalizations along the lines of I cheated on my wife because I loved America so much—although, on reflection, he’s actually engaging in a kind of reverse political-virtue ethics, to wit, I’m so good in politics you must forgive me for my private life.

Anyway, you can cover for political misdeeds using compartmentalized political language (my political convictions made me do it), but I also believe, in a way that I can’t quite articulate here, that the risks of unchecked abuse are lower with a narrow political morality than a wider all-encompassing morality.

In any case, I also think that the compartmentalized political morality approach works far better in a pluralistic society than in a more unitary one. We, the American people, do not share one comprehensive view of morality: we disagree not only on approach (comprehensive vs. compartmentalized—or, as I put in a long-ago post, the Legos-vs-coins approach) but on substance.  In short, the more points on which we demand agreement before we can work with one another, the less likely we’ll actually be able to work together.

And I think politics is a sphere for getting work done.

So if I ever move to Anthony Weiner’s district, my question to him will be: Are you getting work done?

If he is, and if I like the work, then what he does after work is really not my concern.





Break like the wind

19 05 2011

Not a fan of Lars von Trier.

I should say up front that I haven’t actually seen a von Trier film in its entirety: I’ve seen chunks of Dancer in the Dark and bits of Breaking the Waves but, for the most part, I have been quite content to let his Dogma pass me by.

I’m not quite sure why, oh, hell, I know exactly why—because I don’t care to spend 90 or 120 or 150 minutes watching women get the shit beaten out of them physically, sexually, emotionally, and/or intellectually. I know, he’s supposed to very artistic in his assaults, and perhaps he’s even making some kind of point about the status of women, but point or not, I don’t want to watch it.

(I consider this a bit of a failing on my part, actually, that I am unwilling to sit through movies which make me uncomfortable or set me off, but, well, let me hold off on why I think so.)

Still, as a non-connoisseur of his works, I admit that I may be missing something wonderful and sly, and that people who love his work might have terrific reasons for doing so. I even have a bit of admiration for that whole Dogma thing—not because I sign on to worth of its strictures, but because the attempt to place limits on oneself in service to art is a worthy practice.

Calling oneself a Nazi in service to art is, however, puzzling.

I’m with The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody when he argues that

it should not be troubling to anyone that he claims to understand Hitler; it’s the job of artists to attempt to understand and enter into imaginative sympathy even with monsters; what makes artists artists is their ability to illuminate the darkest regions of the soul.

I don’t think you have to be a Nietzschean (although it might help) to see that art has its own morality, one which does not and perhaps even should not have much to do with ethical or political norms.
Still, it is perhaps unsurprising that when a man-of-the-movies opines at a film festival press conference on sympathies which, um, heavily intersect with history and politics, that there might be some complications:

But, anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out I’m really a Nazi, because my family was German, Hartmann, which also gave me some kind of pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. But I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.

He continues the ramble (you can read it at the link, above) with asides about Israel (“a pain in the ass”) and  Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier and a thumbs-up for Albert Speer, only to have it all end (more or less) with him saying “Okay, I’m a Nazi.”

The Cannes Film Festival booted von Trier, although his film Melancholia remains. That seems about right.

Yes, even with my the-artists-must-be-free schtick (and even as I accept that von Trier might be less artist than huckster—but that’s another conversation), that they ought to have the freedom to create even the most outrageous art, that doesn’t mean they get a free (ahem) pass to say whatever they want wherever they want without consequence. Slap, and be slapped in turn.

And given the Cannes Film Festival’s own history—it was created as an explicit counterpoint to the fascist-overrun Venice Film Festival—it is unsurprising that organizers would take a dim view of anyone claiming sympathy with Nazis, even if done so (half?)-jokingly and without any apparent forethought.

Maybe he thought he was being clever and provocative, maybe he panicked as a stray thought managed to find its way into words and he had no way of reining it back in. Maybe he did mean it. Maybe he’s just a prick.

I tend to go with a combination of clever/provocative and panicked. He did apologize, which suggests either cravenness and/or abashedness; again, I go with the combo option.

I also think the fest organizers’ actions ought to be the end of it. Certainly, some moviegoers might want to avoid his films as a result or some actors might not take a call from him—if you can’t get past the man to experience the work—but there’s no ipso facto reason to avoid his films.

None of this is to excuse von Trier, bumbling offender though he may be, nor is it an excuse for Woody Allen or Mel Gibson or Roman Polanski. Again, if you can’t get past the man—I can’t, really, with Gibson—then it makes sense to avoid the work, but I don’t know that this is so much a moral position as an aesthetic one.

And that you like the work of  von Trier, Gibson, Allen, or Polanski doesn’t make you a Nazi, a violent and anti-Semitic misogynist, a schmuck, or a rapist, nor does appreciation for their work signal acceptance of their behavior. And please, if you do love the work of people who’ve done or said wretched things, don’t feel like you have to minimize said wretchedness (“it wasn’t ‘rape’ rape”) in order to justify that love.

Have the courage of your artistic convictions.





I am iron man

17 02 2010

Or straw man—the same thing, really.

This post’s edition of hay*-covered solemnities concerns that which threatens to bring down/is significantly degrading/has already brought down Western Civilization, aka, all that is Good and Holy in the world: Relativism.

Mind you, the crusade against relativism isn’t confined to the autocratic right; Good Liberals are also apt to say, before observing that what’s okey-dokey in one society might not fly in another, that of course they’re not advocating relativism, but. . . .

I’m not a particularly Good Liberal, tho’ I don’t have anything against them. In fact, the imaginary Good Liberal brings forth exactly the point that needs to be made about relativism: that there is a difference between recognition and advocacy.

I am one of those who merely recognizes relativism (as well as its aliases-slash-cousins social constructivism, anti-foundationalism, and epistemological nihilism), as opposed to those who advocate on its behalf. (I don’t know many people outside of  first-year grad students who are advocates, but I’ll get to that in moment.)

First, recognition. I mean this plainly, which is to say, I relativism as a condition of our (post)modern existence. There is no singular rule, no singular god, no singular absolute standard against which to measure ourselves. There is no transcendent rule, no natural law, no universal order of human life.

There is no inherent meaning. There is no essential good and bad.

But this does not mean that no rule is possible, no standards may exist, and no judgments of good and bad are allowed. It simply means that any questions of judgment cannot be thrown back to an absolute or transcendent marker.

It simply means that questions of meaning have no necessary relationship to capital-T-Truth.

It simply means that capital-T-Truth may not much matter.

To recognize all of this is not to say this is good or bad. As the saying goes, It is what it is.

Those who think this is bad tend to mourn the loss in culture of an overarching purpose/underlying order; some try to figure out how to live with this, some blame those of us who point out the fractures for causing them, some deny any fractures exist, likening them to surface cracks distracting us from a deeper unity.

Perhaps they’re right, the denialists. I have no way of knowing.

And I’m fine with that.

Some might think this makes me an advocate of relativism, but it simply means that I refuse to take epistemological sides. I look through time and space and see so many ways of living, so many ways of being, and instead of choosing one over the other, shrug and note that outside of a way of being, I can’t say that one is absolutely or transcendentally better than the other.

Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t have my own preferences or that I can’t judge. It does mean that I have to lay out the terms of that judgment, terms which have no final grounding in any sort of metaphysic. Terms which can be rejected, in other words.

It’s not as if I’m completely at sea. I live in a particular time and place, and can call upon the values and concepts of this time and place—this way of being—in order to make my arguments and interrogations. But I have no ultimate trump card, nothing to throw on the table to say, absolutely and finally, Ha! I win. Instead, any wins are provisional, subject to override and undertow, and thus in need of constant defense and elaboration.

Nothing can be taken for granted.

That’s my starting point—nothing can be taken for granted—and while I understand that life might be easier if I could, epistemologically, take a few things for granted, that’s not something I choose. Instead, I choose the nothing.

But this doesn’t make me an advocate for nothing and, to be fair, I don’t think most advocates for relativism choose nothing, either. Even Nietzsche, who’s sometimes held up as the grandee of nothing, recognizes rather than advocates nothing. His great challenge is, Precisely what will we do with all this nothing? Now that God is dead, what?

What he did advocate, an embrace of the life of the Overman, repelled many, but the advocacy for the Uber-life is but one response to the condition of nothingness, not its apotheosis.

Anyway, I snarked earlier that only the eager young joyfully embrace relativism (and no, I’m not just talking about an earlier version of me), but this isn’t quite right, either. Rather, there are those who, in the name of its corporate-friendly version, diversity, admonish that it’s not acceptable to judge those from other cultures or with other ways.

If this is what people choose, well, it must be okay.

No.

Not that one might can’t say ‘Whatever’ to the choices of others, but that one must say this. In a sense, this type of advocate implicitly accepts the charge from the absolutists, et. al.: absent something eternal and outside of ourselves, we can make no judgments.

Again, the crucial point is not that no standards may exist, but that no standard must exist.

There is another dimension, of course, which adds some urgency to these issues, which is the consideration of power. It’s too late (cursed that 9-5 job!) for me even to finish the exegesis on relativism, much less sketch out the implications of power, so allow me the upshot when I say that such a consideration argues in favor of setting standards.

But that’s another post.

*I know hay isn’t the same thing as straw, but gimme a break: I’m not in Wisconsin anymore, and my audience is muuuuuch more sophisticated than those persnickety rural types who insist upon dunning us sophisticates with their petty knowledge of, oh, farming and plants and nature and everything. Honestly.





They’re clouding up the images of my perfect day

27 07 2009

Two things.

One, I don’t much like how much morality infects politics. The rules, the norms, the players, the goals, are not the same.

Yes, I’ve read Foucault (oy, have I read Foucault), and I don’t think he’s in the main wrong about the creative repression of power in all spheres of life. That said, the  circulations of power are distinct, and even amidst such power moves, there are phenomenon which manage to corral meanings to themselves counter or even indifferent to dominant narrative. Thus, morality and politics each generates its own terms of existence.

Geek-speak out of the way, I am therefore bumfuzzled by my reaction to the question of whether a legal market in solid organs (kidneys, mainly, tho’ perhaps also partial livers) ought to be set up.

I have long opposed organ sales, oppose the sale of blood and plasma, and give the hairy eyeball to the sale of human eggs and sperm. (I’m also not crazy about the patenting of biological material, nor of whole creatures, as, for example, genetically engineered mice.)

But is this due to a general skepticism toward capitalism, a critique which begins in the sale of a person’s labor and which can, by logic, extend to the sale of a person’s parts? If so, the opposition is grounded in the ontological claims of socialism and would therefore be, politically speaking, acceptable.

(Never mind that the ontological claims of any political or economic theory are likely to be shot through with moralisms. That’s another post.)

No, my problem is that while I am generally skeptical of capitalism, I think my opposition to the sale in body parts can be—dammit!—traced to an unspecified moral unease.

Even this wouldn’t be problematic were I not also—or at least, until very recently—adamantly opposed to legislation to legalize organ sales.

You see the problem: impermissible moral/political comingling!

I have a wide anarchistic streak (which at various points runs parallel to various libertarian arguments), but I also don’t trust capitalist-markets to protect and promote the basic conditions of existence necessary to a human life.

But what of a regulated market? Or even a socialist market? Could such a regulated social market perhaps avoid the problems associated with the current system (organ shortages, black market sales, exploitation of organ sellers) without amplifying or otherwise legitimizing the horrors of those black market sales?

(There’s also the question of whether those (as a class) in need of an organ in any way deserve or have rights to organs—but, again, another post.)

I’d still be leery of even a well-run regulated social market (which could be configured in a variety of ways), but the leer would be merely moral; as a political matter, I don’t know that I could oppose it.

Dammit. My biases are clashing. I hate that.

Two. On the uselessness of most political and social commentary.

(I know, given what I just wrote, this is rich.)

I was laying in bed this morning listening to NPR and a promo aired about US policy and China and India and . . . *click*

Like it fucking matters, I thought. This group says jump UP and that one DOWN and then SIDEWAYS and DIAGONALLY and then someone suggests perhaps we should discuss this in terms of diving rather than jumping and everyone goes Oooh, how contrarian or revisionist or just plain crackers.

The Chinese & Indian leadership will do what it will do and the people will do what they will do and we’ll all occasionally look at one another and say So that’s what’s going on and be utterly and completely wrong—or maybe even utterly and completely right—and we’ll never know, one way or the other.

It’s not that I think political analysis or political action is useless—my heretical side has not yet overtaken its orthodox counterpart—but that for it to be of any use, it must be specific, oriented in a particular direction, and always always always aware of its own limits.

Natural scientists work off the null hypothesis, and statisticians build error into their calculations. Politics is a hell of a lot more complicated and unstable than physics (except, perhaps, in its quantum form, and even then. . . ), but pundits are a hell of a lot more arrogant than physicists in describing their reality.

Oh, christ, I’m about to go off on a digression on scientism and the misguided adoption of physical models of knowledge by the social sciences and the wretched belief that to understand is to control, but, y’know, it’s late and I’d really just wrap this all up.

So a shortcut: By all means, try to understand. By all means, share that understanding. But fer the love of pete, don’t think this means anything beyond the understanding itself.

But I don’t suppose one gets to be a pundit by regularly declaring, ‘But I could be missing something. . . .’





No more words

24 07 2009

I think I shocked my bioethics students tonight: A number of them visibly started when I referred to the process of selective reduction as ‘killing’ fetuses.

No one said anything one way or the other, and the discussion (on multiple births) continued on its merry way.

Why would I do that, talk about killing, I mean? There’s a perfectly fine term for the procedure whereby the number of fetuses in a woman’s uterus is reduced to a more manageable (for her, and for the remaining fetuses) number, so no need to bring up the distasteful associations of ‘killing.’

Except, of course, that’s what happens during a selective reduction: After examination and evaluation of the fetuses, a needle is slid through the woman’s abdominal wall and into the heart of the fetus. A potassium chloride solution is then injected into its heart, and the fetus dies, after which it is reabsorbed into the surrounding tissue.

It is not, strictly speaking, an abortion, which involves the evacuation of the uterus.

And the situation is utterly unlike that of an abortion. When a woman gets an abortion, it’s because she does not want to be pregnant, does not want to be a mother. When a woman undergoes selective reduction, it is precisely because she wants to continue the pregnancy, because she wants to be a mother.

How awful, I said, to be in that situation: She has to kill her potential offspring in order to save her potential offspring.

I understand why people want to refer to this as selective reduction, especially those who perform and undergo the procedure. About the only thing worse than the situation itself is not having this as an option.

And the term itself is accurate enough: fetuses are selected and the number is reduced.

Still, I think it’s a form of moral cowardice for those of us who support the ability of women to decide on this option not to speak honestly about what’s involved, i.e., killing.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts on abortion the necessity of recognizing that abortion involves killing—not as a means of decrying the so-called tragedy of abortion—but as a recognition of the morality of the decision to abort, and, most importantly, of the moral capabilities of the woman who makes the decision.

We’re not a bunch of weak sisters who must be shielded from the consequences of our own actions. We may be sad or relieved or numb or any number of other emotions, and our feelings about it may change over time, but we can handle it. Really.

I’ve become even more adamant about avoiding euphemisms since Chelsea’s death. I killed my cat, I kept saying to myself, and told C. over beer and whiskey.

C., thankfully, did not correct me, but another friend admonished me when I told her I ‘mercy-killed’ Chelsea. Don’t say that, she said. You put her to sleep.

My friend was trying to be kind, but, no, I did not put her to sleep. I lay her on the table and put one hand on her chest and another on her ears and talked to her as the vet shaved her leg, soothed her as she cried a bit as he slid the needle in, felt one, maybe two breaths, then watched as her eyes dilated and she stilled.

I didn’t need the vet to tell me she was gone.

She wasn’t sleeping. No, Chelsea sleeping was curled up, tail nestled along her body or wrapped around her nose. Chelsea sleeping was her face tucked into her paws or her head twisted upside down, her body corkscrewed.

Chelsea sleeping was her soft purr into my ear as she propped herself on my shoulder or beside my pillow, her breath steady puffs in, out, in, out.

No, I know what I did to my beloved kitty, and it wasn’t putting her to sleep.