Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Revisiting the Endlessly Changing Horizon

Nevada is the Asiatic Steppe of the North American continent. Vast expanses of open space bring different arms of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains together under one enormous sky. It's a barren place, and cows, horses, and crows seem to be more common than people (cars and trucks excepted) on the long ribbon of concrete stretching out across the valley floor: I-93. The land was shaped by meteors and mega-fauna, by volcanic heat and by colliding ocean plates, jutting limestone thousands of feet into the heavens. You could lose yourself in yourself, in a place like this.

As the long day came to a close--beginning at 4:30 in Lake Havasu, Arizona and cruising 487 miles north to Wells, a tiny town in the Silver State--my trainer and I found ourselves racing an ominous, snow-filled anvil cloud to our destination. It was cresting over a mountain, blowing directly across our path.

"Looks like we might be in for some weather," said my trainer.
"It's a race! Actually, I think we might win this one. We're only twenty miles out." We had been cruising at a steady 65 MPH since Los Vegas, and I was in a good mood.
He nodded, and smiled. The former green beret didn't usually smile. He must have been in a good mood too.

Two years ago, I wrote about the spiritual benefits of truck-driving, in the context of the sentiments of the late Christopher McCandles. Since then I have: fallen in love, worked in carpentry, climbed out of heartbreak, worked in marketing with Microsoft, re-immersed myself in socio-political debates, quit my job with Microsoft, and--finally--returned to the road. It's been an eventful and instructive two years, but now here I am, in the snow-crusted mountain-heart of the country. I love it. 

Out of this enjoyment, I want to return to the theme of my previous short essay, not to brag about how awesome my job is (I suspect most people would not enjoy it), nor to self-indulgently reflect for the sake of reflection. My choices were the results of ideas that others had written down as distillations of their own experiences. These ideas, and my subsequent choices, have not so much "enriched" or "improved" my life, so much as they have impelled me into a completely new dimension. By that, I mean living with a standard for prioritizing what comes first, and how low I may be willing to go in order to pursue a life in accordance with this radical re-orientation of where "true north" is. Few people desire such a radical re-arrangement of life, but for those who feel something vague telling them that something is wrong for them in their lives, but cannot put into words exactly what that is, I hope my thoughts may be helpful.

First off, why on earth would such a re-orientation be desirable? The answer is that our values are mostly inherited, as is our standard of what "normal" is. We did not choose them, and a few of us more arrogant types may look back in history, or even have the gall to study philosophy and look for themselves, and declare that the life they have inherited is not the best life they can live. Consider, as an example, the expectations and goals of the middle-class, white suburbanite. For me, this inherited end-state included the following: 
  • suburban house
  • two cars
  • dog and/or cat
  • white-collar, $85,000+/year job
  • wife, maybe kids
  • retirement
  • be liked
Overarching all of this was an aesthetic, one of non-threatening respectability and monetary success (defined among upper-middle-class suburban whites as monetary over-achievement). More than anything else, security and stability. This was the life laid out for me, by my parents, but not only my parents. My schools, my sports teams, my churches, my martial arts instructors, and nearly everyone else I came into contact with all modeled and advocated this culture of stability, suburban sophistication and domestication. Not only that, bu all other ways of living--including those who earned too much as well as earning too little--were criticized, dissociated from, and even mocked.

One of the things you see while driving across the country is the incredible number of people living in small towns, spattered across the landscape. These people, when you talk to them, do not seem any more depressed, anxious, or jaded in their manner than those living the authorized lifestyle. Some seem bored, certainly, but the majority seem more psychologically healthy than your average hipster or basic bitch. The important revelation here is not the virtues of small-town life, but the viability of lifestyles other than the one I was raised with.

What is so bad about the suburban, white-collar culture?

McCandles started the point adequately enough:
"[T]hey are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future."

Further elaboration is needed here. For starters, "the adventurous spirit" is imprecise, and as a result may sound untrue to the careless reader. But it is close enough to the truth to be worth taking seriously, and that truth is the search for purpose. The white-collar world of security, conformity, and conservation are all designed as efficient means to achieve some purpose (usually family), but have become so universalized for our global, consumer culture that two things have happened. First, it has become wrapped up in an ethic of consumption--TV, clothing fads, sports gear, computer games--that people often begin to feel like they're on a treadmill. There is no purpose in consumption, except as a means of sustenance to some other end. What do we do when consumption is the end? Consume more, to escape from the emptiness of purpose, mostly. Secondly, this suburban culture has become so global, so universal, and ubiquitous that some of us can derive no sense of accomplishment from achieving it, or even of purpose in striving for it. In other words, it can be a recipe for mediocrity, for banality, purposelessness, and lifelessness.

Our jobs are broken down into component parts that require little to no skill, and it is impossible for us to take them particularly seriously. Our friendships consist of a broad network of shallow connections, full of superficial smiles without the mutual trust necessary to really speak our minds about things that matter to us. How many friends do you have who you could, without external prompting, have a conversation with about the difficult parts of your childhood, parts that seem to still impact your thinking and behavior today? Our houses are gaudy, far larger than necessary, especially given the little time we spend there, and yet we buy them anyways, going into debt for decades... because it's respectable. We crave the respect of friends who don't care about us, sell our lives and our souls to buy that respect by showing how successful, how good, how not-a-fuck-up we are, and go to school to work a high-paying job to make that happen, both of which requires us to reshape our values and our morals to better fit in to this factory-warranty life.

Many people feel this but carry on. They know that other people live in all kinds of fantastic, exotic ways, but they never really contemplate themselves setting out for a new horizon, one with a brighter sunset and starry skies than their own. They've been conditioned all their lives to view their family's way, their school's way, their society's way, as the way. Nothing short of a nagging compulsion will pull them out, and compulsions, as we all know, are "dangerous," "irrational" things.

If the emptiness of suburbia, as I have portrayed it, speaks to you, and you feel the need for adventure in your life, but the compulsive, "irrational" nature of the thought makes you hesitate, I want to remind you that conservative patience is no inherent virtue. The whole of white suburbia, more or less, is waiting for Godot right now, waiting for that sense of purpose to waltz in and provide for them the accomplishment, the deep relationships, the purpose, that their current life has yet to provide. They aren't coming. Such things are bought with risk, with pain, with boredom, loneliness, and fear, and the culture we inherited is purpose-built to shield us from these things. It denies us the dangers, and by extension, denies us the character, the competence, confidence, and stories of adventure that come only from risk.

This is the danger of stagnation, and the reward of pursuing the endlessly changing horizon. If you feel the desire, buy a bus-ticket to a faraway place, pack your bags and go. Don't leave yourself an out. Don't explain yourself to friends and relatives, who will try every delaying and discouraging tactic they know to protect you from yourself. The day will come where you wake up in your mid-40's and you will be in one of two places. You will either be confident, possessed of your accomplishments and sense of who you are, surrounded by a small number of deeply trustworthy friends who you love. Or you will realize that you've "made it," and have a BMW in your garage, but live under the gnawing tyranny of insecurity, self-doubt, dangerous questions about what your life is about (which you've pushed to the side out of fear, and by extension, barred yourself from all interesting conversation about things that truly matter), and surrounded by an enormous circle of Christmas-card acquaintances. There, you may look back and realize that the opportunity to test yourself, to find out what you're truly made of, is mostly diminished, and that sports cars, cigarettes, and extramarital affairs are a poor way to make up for lost time.

Of course it is never too late to answer the call, at least until you die. But the sooner you do it, the longer you will live with the benefits of having gone out on your own. The longer you wait, the greater the chances are that you will never get these, or worse, construct a delusional facade, precariously covering over a well of regret and uncertainty.

Or perhaps adventure isn't even your thing, but something else is missing in your life. The true point is that those who have laid the path of life before you may well not know what they are doing, or else might know what they're doing and do it for their interests and not yours. It is better, and more beautiful, and more purposeful to live your life of your own accord, even if it is all a mistake, because then it will at least be truly your mistake. Nothing is worse than living on the advice and urgings of others, only to find out that your life has been nothing but someone else's mistake. The converse is true if you succeed (and you are more likely to, with the virtues and confidence of someone who has failed enough to make it on their own). Success built solely on the backs of others, with no thought, no risk, no great leap of your own, will always carry nagging self-doubt and latent uncertainty. Success from great risk is not accomplished alone either; on the contrary, it builds--demands--the deepest of relationships. It does give true confidence, a true sense of purpose, and is the road to improvement, ever nearer to (though never quite reaching) perfection.

So as you learn, and think about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true. If, in your thoughtful inquiries, you hear the call of the wild, go off on a vision quest. If you feel compelled to start a business, or become sculptor, or take up truck-driving, go do it. Let the impulse of great emotional purpose drive you. It's all that ever drove great people anyways.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Media HugBox: A Collegiate Demonstration

Several weeks ago, curiosity brought me to read the most recent weekly paper of my former employer, The Watchdog. Inside, I found an article by one Ghina Mubin which argued that while what the murderers of Charlie Hebdo did was deplorable, a portion of the blame lay squarely on the shoulders of the content creators of the French publication. The heart of the Op/Ed--if one could say it had a center somewhere in the meandering path of assertions--read as follows:

"What the Charlie Hebdo magazine did was extremely inappropriate. France should not have been OK with publishing the images. Muslims see the prophet as a living example of how they should live. Frankly, even drawing the prophet isn’t OK. By portraying him in a negative way people could get a different image of who the prophet is,  and be even more confused on what the religion contains, Islamophobia is prevalent in the modern day world. When the cartoon was published, Charlie Hebdo encouraged ignorance and bigotry towards Islam. Shooting people is completely wrong and the shooters should be apprehended, but we must fix the causes and address the motives of these criminals.  We should learn from tragedies like this.
It’s not a surprise that the cartoon was published in France. France has been popular in the media for their secular campaigns such as trying to ban women from wearing the veil. This totally violates the right to practice whatever beliefs they hold. Lately, people have been using this tragedy to justify this propagandic “freedom of speech.” This is the same propaganda the Nazis used during World War II to make the citizens believe they were doing right. Freedom of speech and hate are two different topics; mixing the two together creates tension. The gray area in between is where people start to argue. To me, this sounds more like “freedom to hate”  or “freedom to be prejudiced” which sounds like a trigger to more violence, hate crimes and conflict. If France doesn’t acknowledge the “right to practice your religion,” then how can they be responsible to determine “freedom of speech” versus hate."

Behold, your tax-dollars at work, incubating the future of our great nation.

Initially, I was actually less appalled by the author's conclusions than by the almost satirically poor structure of the argument (if only slightly), and the reflection of this on the paper as a whole. As a point of reference and comparison, I remember that the very first piece I wrote as a member of The Watchdog staff was heavily vetted and fact-checked before being published, and the Editor in Chief had strongly suggested that I changed a word so as to soften the impact on Bellevue College's "diverse student body." I forget which word was the offending one, but the paper went so far as to add a disclaimer to the bottom of my article when I declined to make the change, redundantly distancing itself from what were mostly just statements of fact. This is a step noticeably missing in Ms. Mubin's train of mostly fact-free opinions.  Her journalistic failings, however great or maybe because of their grandiosity, were shorter in stature than its' entertainment value was tall, and so I did the only ethical and moral thing: I shared it for the enjoyment of my friends and acquaintances.

Additional comments edited out (This was the complete and total extent of my communication with Tockey on the subject; my views are my own, and do not reflect his, so please don't fire him)
Among the entertained acquaintances was Brian Tockey, whose name is not redacted because he is a writer and editor for the star publication of this post. He is also among a small number of contributors for whom I have tremendous respect, both for his intelligence and his writing abilities. Although I am proudly no longer a student at Bellevue College, the suggestion stuck with me for a few days. Ultimately--motivated equally by boredom and by the sheer will to exercise my right to join the conversation in the paper that I was paying for with my taxes--I decided to write a response. The paper states in its' print version that it will publish all letters to the editor, and under such a promise of inclusion, how could I resist, especially after personal send-off letters like these?

So here is the Letter to the Editor, in full:

"Unlike the Fatwa against author Salmon Rushdie in 1989, or the murder of Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has received an avalanche of publicity and outcry from the public at large. The majority of this outcry has been leveled at the violence carried out by Muslims against the secular publication, and a wonderfully large portion of that anger coming from the Islamic community itself. But there is another outcry aimed against the satirical editorial; the cartoons, this group says, incite the violence.
Among the latter group, I’m unsurprised to see The Watchdog staff in their editorial from January 27th. They are a professional group of media students, after all, and the media has placed itself mostly in the company of the censors, refusing—in this age of visual journalism—to show exactly which cartoons were causing this crises, all the while publically pondering if they had “gone too far this time.” Exactly like the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon riots and murders from a decade ago, and exactly like the Salmon Rushdie affair. 
I am pleasantly surprised to see that Ghina Mubin personally opposes shooting people (a view not shared by Mohammed, who himself had many poets like Abu Afak and others who mocked him killed). But the issue at hand is not the moral quandaries of murder, nor is this letter addressed to Ms. Mubin. It has rather to do with the subject of freedom of speech, which Ghina correctly points out sometimes includes “freedom to hate.” How else could a tolerant, liberal school like Bellevue College permit, let alone support, an ideology that preaches that homosexuals are transgressors and abominations? Or that unbelievers are to be fought until they willingly submit to a peaceful, second-class citizenship? I am no theologian, but I have read the Quran. For myself, the explicit calls to hatred, condemnation, and violence towards unbelievers should be a far greater outrage against our finely tuned moral sensitivities than any cartoon imaginable. 
The experience of being hated, for gays, Muslims, atheists like myself, or anyone else, is a subjective one. Two years ago, for example, BC’s own Yoshiko Harden talked to students about how calling a black person “articulate” was actually a racial micro-aggression, regardless of the intent of the speaker or the most obvious meaning of the sentence. In a world where a simple compliment can be racist, a cartoon can be “Islamophobic,” and—one can’t ignore the corollary—a religious text can be homophobic and sexist, freedom of speech and freedom of religion both necessarily imply a freedom to hate. And why shouldn’t it? I happen to hate rapists and murderers myself, and reserve the right to say so. 
As Ghina’s failure to research reminds us, Nazi-style censorship—not free speech—is the first step towards tyranny. To the Watchdog staff, I wish to remind you that freedom of speech and of the press is the platform on which you stand. Tread carefully when undermining yourself."
"Why," you may ask, "are you publishing this on your own blog? Why not wait for the paper to post it like a normal person? They do promise to publish all letters to the editor, after all." True, and if their promise (unfortunately only verifiable in person or print, not digitally) were kept, than this post would not exist, or at least not in this lengthened form. But--and I'm sure you will be shocked and surprised by this--they appear to be dragging their feet on actually following through. And to clarify what feet-dragging looks like here, I submitted the above on February 12. One cycle passing would be understandable enough. Space fills up in an Op/Ed section; I know, I used to organize and edit them. Two,  however, shows either incompetence or put-on forgetfulness, perhaps motivated by political disagreement, but more likely motivated by fear. Who knows for sure. But the most important character trait for a news story or an Op/Ed is timing. Writing a mediocre piece at the cusp of the subject's relevance is far better than writing a masterpiece well after it has died down. The Watchdog staff's failure to grasp this would be just as condemning as their understanding, so I won't bother speculating. I'm not waiting anymore in any case.

One final observation: in the extraordinary lag-time between my submission of the letter and its non-publication, another headline related to violence and Islam came, this time in the reverse form from the usual. Three Muslims were shot to death by an atheist man in Chapel Hill, NC. Here, if there ever was one, is the perfect "man-bites-dog" story the media so craves. How did The Watchdog choose to cover it? See if you can guess the direction they take before you read it. In case you need a hint, here's a star quote:

"Movies such as “American Sniper” are promoting this type of bigotry and hate towards Muslims."

Indeed. Anyone who watched the film knows it's basically pro-atheist propaganda too.


*Update: Within several hours of posting this, Aaron did get back to me with the intent to publish my letter. I informed him that I had already published it elsewhere (here), and would completely understand if The Watchdog chooses not to publish it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Diversity Delirium

"Ferguson Day 6" (Wikimedia)
Forbes began an article on the benefits of diversity in the workplace with a line from author Steven Covey: "Strength lies in differences, not in similarities." This is certainly true when differences function as compliments, like having a full array of skills on a football team rather than a whole line-up of quarterbacks. But is this true when differences exist for their own sake? Diversity is "critical" and "essential," says Ms. Walter of Forbes, because it breeds innovation. That it certainly does, but that's not all it breeds. Methinks in our exuberance we have forgotten why diversity is valuable.

1859 was a great year for diversity, being the year that John Stuart Mill published his famous essay On Liberty. His defense of free expression was, at its core, a defense of diversity. But it was full of rhetoric and metaphors about battlefields and war. His imagining of "diversity" was not a rainbow of opinions about government, wealth-distribution, and foreign policy all sitting around a campfire singing kum ba ya. Diversity meant bloody combat between ideas, often to the death. His philosophical purpose in opposing censorship within his polemic was simply to even the playing field so that the strongest argument would more consistently crush the weaker ones. This has been a wonderful innovation for humanity because before Mill's proposal to throw ideas into the meat-grinding melee of public debate, the ideas were attached to tribes of real human beings. Differences--"diversity"--meant war. Now the ideas could die instead of us, so long as we were willing to accept the winning idea. In other words, diversity is valuable in a Darwinian sense; it speeds up the process of evolution by turning up the speed of natural selection (not a pleasant process for the ill-adapted and the weak). But if ideas are tested instead of humans, and we allow our beliefs to go through the furnace of natural selection, it means that, other factors notwithstanding, we don't have to, and we get peace and better knowledge in exchange for our wisdom.

Unfortunately, our feel-good friends on the left have forgotten that diversity is a fundamentally bloody affair, and in their forgetfulness, have replaced ideas with people again in the glorious gladiatorial bloodbath that is evolution. Instead of diversity of thought, it is diversity of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and culture that they're striving for. This has happened because, in a truly acrobatic feat of logical inversion, diversity has become associated with peace.

The logic goes more or less like this: diversity is good (assumption), but more importantly, racism and cultural bigotry (like "Islamophobia") are bad, and diversity fights against bigotry by getting people used to being around other. This works because racism and bigotry, which are prevalent problems in our society (assumption), is caused by unfamiliarity and fear (assumption).

In this way, diversity becomes a path to happy and cooperative coexistence, a view that is held with religious zeal, and in the name of this view, heretics are publicly crucified. If only their assumptions were true...

Thinking that diversity itself is the goal, rather than a means to the goal, they make matters even worse and insist that people not change from their religion and culture of ethnic heritage. As I've written before, freezing people in their natural cultural state and proactively treating them differently is all that multiculturalism is. What would happen to their beloved diversity if we rejected "inferior" cultures and religions? Here begins the unraveling of Mill's vicarious conflict of ideas, and the return of conflict between actual people.

There is one way that this utopian rainbow-world can work, of course. We can refuse to take our own views seriously. You know, the ones that have been personally entwined with us through race, gender, religion, and whatever other identity-marker that can be concocted for the fetishization of diversity for diversity's sake. The conflicts between people then become mere "differences" of no significance or importance. So all cultures are equally valid; all religions are equally true, and atheism is just another religion. Morality, values, even truth are subjective. Nothing really matters, except for nothing mattering (for diversity). But even if this nihilism could be universally enforced--a prospect that I shall generously call "highly unlikely," particularly when certain religions are involved--then the value of diversity in the pursuit of higher experience and productivity becomes a moot point anyways. Why care about diversity if all values and cultures are equally valid?

What's wrong with war, for example? What's wrong with exclusion and hatred? Aren't those just a different but equal value? Or are we playing fast and loose with circular reasoning, and not thinking things through?

To be fair, there is a kind of enjoyment in the raw experience of variety. I suspect that this is what most college students are referring to when they talk about the "experience of diversity," particularly in their first few years or in their tax-funded party-trips abroad. Different food, different clothing, different languages, different customs, different architecture, different geography; all of these things are exhilarating because they are new. But in these moments of exhilaration, we aren't sitting down to haggle over how to deal with the Middle East, or tackle the root causes of poverty, or even make a business decision or finish a team project. More often than not, differences in values and culture create conflict in these circumstances, obstructing rather than assisting the creation of a better final product or decision. This is not to say that we cannot be inspired by other cultures; to the contrary, we should actively seek them out, and traveling has always been considered a vital part of the classical education for this reason. But inspiration from another culture is an acknowledgment of value that the culture contributes, not value for mere existence. This is, by definition, at the expense of some other culture, at the very least by exclusive act of discreet selection. Taking the best of all cultures and rejecting the worst is precisely the goal of Mill's combative vision, and the antithesis of universally respectful multiculturalism (you often see this laid bare in charges of "cultural appropriation" from the acrobatic abstracticians of academia). Acceptance of another culture's ideas is not so much "diversity" as a victory on the etherial battlefield of ideas. "Diversity" means there's still two or more conflicting values or beliefs, engaged with each other or staring each other down over the innumerable corpses of previous ideas that didn't quite make it.

In short, Diversity + Proximity = War. This we cannot change; what we can change is what kind of war we want it to be: one of ideas, or one of guns.

This thesis has matched my own observation at College, where the Associated Student Government was a balkanized archipelago of various identity interest-groups, often distrustful of each other, however held together in solidarity by the promise of school money and perks in return for playing nice with other children. It also matches recent research on the subject, and follows the observations not only journalists with the honesty of retirement, but of virtually every thinking statesman and intellectual prior to John Stuart Mill.

And here's the thing: war is okay, so long as the soldiers getting systematically dismembered and disassembled are the ethereal kind, rather than the corporal. It's even good; it makes us wiser, mentally agile and smarter, and does this very quickly, all with no cost to us but our emotional connection to bad ideas. But "diversity" is coming to be accepted as good for its own sake, in pursuit of a multicultural utopia of acceptance. Today's diversity-advocates tie people to what makes them different and locks them there, making conflicts between ideas necessarily into conflicts between people and arguments that were once causes for mere disagreement and debate into causes for violence. Resentment and distrust are building between religions, races, and cultures, and the priests of multiculturalism can't see it, partially because most Americans have been extraordinarily gracious in pretending not to really care about their own values in mixed company. But the predictable repetition of events like the Ferguson riots and the murders of the writers at Charlie Hebdo force ordinary citizens into an awkward position: the academia-media-government Leviathan is fanatically insisting that diversity is a great strength, while reality is saying the opposite with gunshots and fire. The double-think can only last so long.

The way I see it, we basically have four options:

1. We can reject "multiculturalism" and re-learn the functional kind of diversity under the lost guidance of JSM.
2. We can reject diversity and enforce a culture of nihilism.
3. We can reject proximity and join sides with the various racial and religious nationalists.
4. We can go to war.

I'd personally love to go with option one, but progressivism seems dead set on the path towards either nihilism or war in pursuit of a non-existent option five (universal peace, prosperity, fairness, wealth, and fulfillment to all people and otherkin). At this rate, they might manage both in our lifetimes, but you can be sure they'll be the last to know.

"Getting it Wrong" (Wikimedia)