Friday, October 9, 2009

Better Choices than Obama for the Peace Prize

I am no great fan of Pres. Obama, but I voted for him, and I'm no great opponent of his either (except maybe of his backing of Geithner). But I was floored and dismayed by the Nobel Peace Prize Committees choice of Obama for the 2009 prize. What great accomplishment or body of work can he point to for the promotion of world peace? Has he ended the War in Iraq yet? Nope. Afghanistan? Nope. Made some important breakthrough in nuclear disarmament? Nope. Help brokered peace in a troubled land using his diplomatic muscles? Nope.

Here's the AP's version of the committee's side
"The Norwegian Nobel Committee countered that it was trying "to promote what he stands for and the positive processes that have started now." It lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama's calls for peace and cooperation, and praised his pledges to reduce the world stock of nuclear arms, ease American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthen the U.S. role in combating climate change.

The peace prize was created partly to encourage ongoing peace efforts but Obama's efforts are at far earlier stages than past winners'. The Nobel committee acknowledged that they may not bear fruit at all.

"He got the prize because he has been able to change the international climate," Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said. "Some people say, and I understand it, isn't it premature? Too early? Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us."

So essentially their rationale is that he has started processes that they approve of even if they are only just begun. Now I strongly object to using the Peace Prize as an encouragement beforehand, rather than a recognition for long work. IF Obama's efforts turn out to be fruitful peacemaking, maybe he will deserve the prize some day, but he does not deserve it yet. Sharon Astyk, one of my heroes and favorite interlocutors makes the point more forcefully over at her blog. I then asked what should the committee have done instead, and here is my own preliminary thoughts on 6 choices the Nobel Peace Prize committee could have made, that would be better than Obama

1) Award No Prize This Year - This has been done many times in the past. 1972, 1955-6, 1948, 1939-43, 1923-24, 1914-16 all lacked a Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes this is because the world was at war and peace was far away, like in 1939-43, or 1914-6. But sometimes like 1948 or 1972 it was simply because no single person or organization stood out as especially worthy. If Obama's fragile, early, tentative record of peacemaking was the best the committee could find, then no award should have been given this year.

2) Give the prize to an organization that has received it before but continued to do good work - The Red Cross/Red Crescent has been awarded the prize 3 times already (in 1917, 1944, and 1963), but they have continued to do go work since 1963, and could certainly be awarded the prize again. Or give it to UNICEF, or Amnesty International, both of whom have received it before but not for decades.

3) The International Olympics Committee - The IOC stands out as one of the great international peacemaking organizations that has never received the prize. They have worked for decades to provide a non-violent venue for international competitions while promoting cooperation, global unity, cultural exchange, and peace.

4)Wendell Berry - If the Nobel committee really wanted to give the prize to an American, Wendell Berry would have been a better choice than Obama. He has a lifetime of influential peacemaking, and has done more on the specific issue of bringing global warming to the American consciousness than Obama. If they really wanted a Black American, even Van Jones would have been a better choice than Obama.

5) Some person or organization actually involved in ending wars - The Conflict in Darfur ended in 2009, and by Feb 1 it was pretty clearly wrapping up. Many groups could have been given the nod for peacemaking in Darfur including UNAMID or Save Darfur Coalition, or even The International Criminal Court. Similarly the Kivu War between Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and the Somalian Civil War, both had real peace makers, and some hope of real progress during 2009, and either could have been given the nod. Or the committee could have looked to the South Ossetian conflict of 2008 between Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, and given the prize to French EU president Bernard Kouchner, for successfully mediating the ceasefire, and brokering the peace.

6) Do something edgier - They could have picked one of the groups working on international water disputes, a topic they've never covered before; or an agriculturalist like Vandana Shiva or Slow Food, which they haven't picked in a long time, or a aboriginal rights groups, or the International Criminal Court, or some journalist (they haven't given it to a journalist since 1935), etc.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tainted Lunch and Moral Compromise

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by guilt at the routine activities of living in America. I eat lunch. I contemplate the horrors of factory farming, of monocropping corn. Perhaps I see the bloody dead native Americans being cleansed from the land in the past in my mind’s eye. Or if, perhaps, there is some chocolate, I reflect on the role of slavery in modern West African chocolate production.

A blogger using the pseudonym VK, puts it this way:

“We mine, we bomb, we pollute, we steal, we kill, we poison and we destroy - Forests, oceans, lakes, mountains, land, the air and our very souls.

Everytime we go to shop, fill up our cars with gas, use any convenience that we associate with modern life. There is a price to be paid, someone will die or has died due to you your consumption. Think of the rivers of blood that have been spilt over land, water, power and oil. And the rivers of blood that will be as we begin our climate descent. Today's consumption and gratification means that someone, somewhere else will suffer and probably die.

Large parts of the world have been built on the backs of slave labour, including America and resource exploitation and the decimation of local/indigenous peoples.

Civilization is inherently brutal and being a 'civilized person' is actually being complicit in mass murder - genocide and ecocide. We deny this reality though, people choose to ignore this reality, absolve themselves of any blame, blame the banksters, the governments, the idiots in charge, anyone but themselves.

When you stone a child, does it matter whether you have thrown a smaller stone? Because this is exactly what we do, on a day to day basis. It is the root cause of the evils that we face in the world, the scars of death and murder, the trail of blood we leave is palpable in our very souls. It rots us from within.

No wonder then that denial is such a wonderful option. Living in our bubble is much better then ever admitting our role in civilization. We are a rapacious and greedy species, with an infinite blood lust. So remember this when you have your next meal, your next dose of medication, the next movie you watch or the next time you surf the web - Your existence has led and will lead to the deaths of many - take a pause and reflect.

Many times at night, this keeps me awake. I drown my sorrows over large amounts of whisky. Their is a madness in this world, one I can not relate too. We all like to think we are better, good, kind, generous. In reality, I am just a cold blooded killer. I don't even know who I've brought suffering too, I just carry on though, as a hypocrite and a charlatan.

So the next time you are happy from consumption or think you are happy? Ask yourself this - what blood price had to be paid to cause that happiness? Suffering brings us a deep connection - to the reality of our world and to ourselves. The unhappiness, the existential torment and emptiness is a sign from the earth - why do you kill me child? Why do you destroy that which bore you, why do you lust for your brother's heart?”

Well, many times at night, for years now, this keeps me awake too. To me, this is the great problem of contemporary moral theory. The good and the terrible are causally intertwined in deep and complex ways. Everything we value is systematically dependent on what we deplore. In a sense, that is even what it means to BE a world, for a set of events to be systematically intertwined, and we could think about this in metaphysical terms if we want, but I like to think of it in day-to-day terms. I had cabbage-cheddar pie and a piece of zucchini brownie for lunch today. And that lunch was morally tainted in many ways (West African slavery, land ownership issues, the treatment of the cows involved in the cheese production, the moral problems of the multinational ag. corporations that raised the feed that the cows ate, etc). So how are we to think about moral compromise in day-to-day situations like this?

A moral system must pass a series of hurdles to be attractive to the modern mind. In “The Morality of Coping” I argue that four main challenges or hurdles have shaped the development of the moralities we see today. Any competent moral system must help encourage children to grow up to be “conventional” or “normal” members of their society, rather than “pre-conventional” or “immature” members – that is it must encourage and enforce normativity. Second, every moral system for a society with division of labor, must find some way to encourage people to become excellent at something the society values – that is it must encourage and enforce valuing excellence above the norm. But excellence is quite close to social eminence. Some moral systems embrace this analogy and picture the good as being essentially the same as the high-class, or the noble. But many moral systems develop the notion that someone can be high-class but still morally objectionable in some way. If so, then the third challenge of morality is to distinguish heroes from monsters; the right high, powerful people, from the wrong high, powerful people. And oddly this winds up being the same challenge as helping us not to be evil.

But it is the fourth challenge of morality that I want to explore here. The fourth challenge of morality is how to cope with the close intertwining of good and ill, right and wrong, valued results and dis-valued results. Moral dilemmas are the simplest manifestation of the problem, because both sides have some real cost, but the phenomenon is more general. How do we cope with the fact that what we want morally, is deeply interconnected with what we do not want, that every choice has a cost?

I think that this challenge is still the primary driver of moral thought today. The main moral theories that are contending with each other for the hearts and minds of Westerners today, distinguish themselves from each other, largely by offering different strategies for meeting this challenge, and no one approach to this challenge has yet emerged as dominant. Until one strategy for resolving this challenge emerges as dominant, there can be no fifth great challenge of morality, rather there will be plenty of lesser challenges of morality, and each approach to meeting the fourth great challenge, will have their own further developments, rather than morality having a more or less unified further line of dialectical development.

I believe that there are four basic strategies that have been offered for coping with the deep interconnection of the valued and disvalued, and that my own approach is a fifth one that has not been explored much yet.

The first strategy is that of Nietzsche and the ancients, don’t even employ the notions of right and wrong, of good and evil; restrict yourself to the notion of good and bad, better and worse, or higher and lower. Now dilemmas are merely a matter of finding a balance between competing goods. If you err a little on the side of generosity this time, then err a little on the side of thrift next time, but there is no need to see either side as “wrong” or “evil.” Dilemmas never really arise, rather we are constantly balancing goods, where no choice is really evil, they are at worst, unbalanced. Nietzsche advocates a fairly extremist vision of the good life, but more recent virtue theorists and Neo-Aristotelians, are making roughly the same intellectual move, albeit less boldly. Here we are never really compromising with evil, because there is no evil to be compromised with, we are merely balancing competing goods. From the point of view of this approach, my lunch is neither evil nor tainted, and guilt is a misguided concept.

The second strategy is to choose only pure rights, pure goods. If an action has some right-making features, and some wrong-making features, then don’t do it! Be as pure as you can. As much as possible do good and avoid evil, rather than seeking to do good by also doing evil. This is the strategy of Kant and Ross and of the human rights movement in general. If a government can accomplish some worthy goal, (say catching criminals) by violating some human right, then they must not do so! In this picture, the wrong is a line which must not be crossed, even to achieve important goods. Since right actions often have bad consequences, and good consequences often require wrong, or at least mixed actions, the strategy of purity has to be extremely anti-consequentialist, valuing or disvaluing actions for reasons divorced from their outcomes. Here there is an evil to be compromised with, and that is a possible choice, but we are refusing to engage in moral compromise. From the point of view of this approach, my lunch is morally wrong, and I need to find something else to eat, no matter how hard it might be to do so.

The third strategy is to think of the choice which is likely to have the best outcome as the right thing to do. The idea is to add up all the valuable outcomes of a choice (and their likelihood) and all the disvalued ones, and decide the overall value of the choice. Utilitarians add up all the values and disvalues to everyone; ethical egoists add up only the values and disvalues to themselves; corporate managers balance the costs and benefits to their stockholders, etc. But the basic adding and balancing of the cost-benefit analysis process works pretty similarly regardless of the precise flavor of Consequentialism used. It is essential to this strategy that the ends justify the means, that is - the likely value or disvalue of outcomes determines what the right thing to do is. A morally costly method can be the right thing if the outcomes are likely to be morally beneficial enough. Here we frequently need to build compromise positions, but we are never really compromising with evil or wrong, because the act of building a good compromise makes that choice the right thing to do. We cannot really compromise with the wrong, because compromise itself is right. From this point of view, I need to eat the morally best lunch I can, but if I have, then I have done nothing wrong.

The fourth strategy is to say that the ends sometimes justify the means, but not always. The idea is that sometimes it is appropriate to do morally costly things to bring about morally valuable outcomes, but that there are limits. In Aquinas’ thought about the doctrine of double effect, for example, it is justified to do evil in the process of doing good, so long as: 1) we intend the good rather than the evil, 2) the good overbalances the evil, 3) the act isn’t inherently wrong, and 4) the good effects do not work directly via the bad effects. But when these requirements are met, the action with regrettable side-effects is nonetheless justified and right. Aquinas is less of a moral purist than Kant, but more of a moral purist than Mill. Similarly, Islam’s strategy of dividing moral actions into the required, recommended, optional, disrecommended and forbidden means that mixed values are sometimes acceptable. An action can be bad but still permissible. Here it is possible to compromise with evil, and this is allowed sometimes, but we need some guidelines to prevent our compromises with evil from leading us down the slippery slope to worse and worse evils. From the point of view of this strategy, I need a moralist to help me decide exactly when my lunch is tainted but still permissible to eat, or so tainted that I shouldn’t eat it at all, and this decision may turn on a lot of complex reasoning.

My strategy is not quite like any of these, and I have not seen it articulated clearly before, although there are some elements similar to it in some earlier pictures. I advocate taking the best wrong action you can do, when right and wrong interconnect (as they usually do). Unlike Nietzsche or the virtue theorists, I think that right and wrong are helpful concepts even now, and even when right action is not possible. Unlike Kant or the purists, I think that consequences matter, that sometimes there is no right option, that ought does not imply can, and that striving for moral purity is a deep mistake. Unlike the Utilitarians and Consequentialists I think that the best option is not necessarily a right option, even if it is the best we can do. Some times all options are wrong, but one is nonetheless best. Likewise, the ends do not justify the means. Unjust means remain unjust, even when they are the best that we can do, because all options from where we are standing are unjust. Sometimes people ought to act unjustly, by acting in the best unjust way still possible for them. Killing enemy civilians in war is unjust; but so is allowing allied civilians to die. When war can be justly prevented, one ought to struggle to do so. When it is no longer justly preventable, find the best unjust option you can; but do not pretend to yourself or others, that the best option becomes just, simply because it is the best you can do. Finally, even the compromises of Aquinas are not quite right. Sometimes the best we can do is to cause good by causing evil, sometimes an inherent evil is the best we can do. And even when the best we can do fits all four of his criteria, sometimes that is not enough to make it justified or right. Morality is the struggle to do the best we can, whether are options are between right and right, right and wrong, or wrong and wrong. But for us, most real choices are choices between wrong, wrong and wrong. Choosing the best wrong is the heart of our morality, coping with a set of bad choices is our fate, and thus an authentic morality is typically a morality of coping. Here we are engaged in constant moral compromise with evil and wrong, but rather than setting any limits before hand, we must simply find the best compromise we can based on our power, our options, and the costs. The process of moral negotiations is the heart of moral decision making. I think this leads to a morality that isn’t exactly like that of deontology, consequentialism, virtue theory, or Catholic or Islamic thought. I haven’t worked the detail out very fully yet, but I call it a morality of coping, and it’s the subject of my long and unfinished work “The Morality of Coping.”

In the morality of coping, many emotions which are typically thought of as negative, like despair, guilt or pain are virtues, or rather can sometimes be traits which help us to function well, rather than mere hindrances or failure states. Guilt itself is part of this matrix of moral negotiations where we try to do the overall best wrong thing we can. If we wallow in our guilt, or are paralyzed by it, we may wind up doing less good than we otherwise could. If we wall off our guilt or tranquilize it successfully somehow then we may wind up doing more evil than we should. Guilt like physical pain, points to problem we should attempt to address, and by its insistent throbbing helps to remind us of problems we haven’t solved yet.
So my take on the situation is that when you eat your tainted lunch, (or participate in any other tainted aspect of our society), you should feel both joy and guilt entwined together. Joy to give you strength, to acknowledge what is good and valuable in the experience despite the taints. Guilt to remind you of the unsolved problems that lie in the causal story of your joyful but tainted lunch. If the guilt brings you to occasional reflection on the big-picture problems of our society, that is fine albeit unpleasant. But if the guilt paralyzes you or makes you unable to do the best you can from within the tainted situation, then it is poorly-functioning guilt, and needs to be eased. If guilt infects everything to the point of strangling the joy like weeds in a garden, then it is poorly functioning guilt and must be weeded. If guilt whispers quietly and lets you live your life without really responding to, or even considering the taints of the situation, then it is also poorly-functioning guilt and needs to be re-empowered. Being awake to the horrors of our world, being willing to face our own role in them and complicity with the roots of the causes of the horrors without blinking, and taking joy, joy, joy in the world anyway despite the horror and guilt, that is the cornerstone of the morality of coping.

Friday, July 3, 2009

100 reasons to be Proud of the USA

It's getting close to July 4th, and time to think about US Patriotism. Now I have a lotta complaints about the US. A lot of complaints. But I do really love my country, and its people. So here is a reprise of an old piece on things to be proud about the US for. These are specifically for contributions to modern life, which one could easily be ambivalent about more wholly ... This list certainly shows many of my biases and agendas, but think about what you would add, subtract or move up or down in the rough subjective rankings.

* * *
On Oct 30, 2006 I was asked by an anonymous Italian, “Can you tell me which are the fundamental contributions of the United States of America to the modern world life?” Whew! That’s a tall order! The United States of America has made a HUGE number of contributions to the modern life of the world.

100 Important contributions to modern life for Americans to be proud of!
(I’m only listing here items that I think are mostly positive, still important today, and clearly developed or led by America or Americans)

1. Rock And Roll
2. Motion Pictures
3. The Marshall Plan for helping to rebuild the world economy after WWII.
4. US innovations in electronics (circuit breakers, integrated circuits, AC transformers, transistors, semi-conductors, microchips, etc)
5. US innovations in consumer electronics (washing machines, dish washers, dryers, electric lights, personal sewing machines, electric razors, electric toasters, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, etc.) [ok maybe I’m getting ambivalent on this one]
6. The development of the modern public school system.
7. US innovations in electronic computing (ENIAC, IBM, the ABC calculator, Apple, etc.)
8. Proportional Representation (used only limitedly in the US, but key to many other world governments, and developed by US politicians in the late 1700s and early 1800s as strategies for allocating seats in congress to the states).
9. Airplanes
10. American private donations to international charities
11. Hand-held cameras (both Kodak and Polaroid)
12. America’s university system, especially for graduate education
13. America’s financial, military, and civilian support of the UN (including both public and private donors)
14. American contributions to medical technology, research and the FDA
15. Oral contraceptives
16. America’s military participation in WWII
17. Jazz
18. Polio vaccination
19. The development of commercial telephones and cell phones
20. Video games
21. The US Space Program
22. Electric trains, trolleys and mass transit (we don’t use ‘em enough ourselves anymore but we pioneered them for other nations)
23. Giving Europeans fleeing WWII a home
24. Decimal coinage
25. American contributions to modern written literature (Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf, Carl Sandberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc.)
26. American contributions to materials technology (nylon, vulcanized rubber, stryofoam, celluloid, bakelite, teflon, tupperware, etc.)
27. American contributions to sound recording technology (Phonographs, records and tape recordings, microphones, etc)
28. Merck’s work to eradicate river blindness
29. American contributions to television technology
30. The Panama Canal
31. American contributions to other genres of music (pop, country& western, classical, etc)
32. American television programming
33. America’s role in the creation and evolution of the internet and web
34. The US constitution, and other legal and political documents
35. The Academy Awards system
36. Arcwelders
37. Artificial sweeteners
38. Contact lenses
39. Modern elevators
40. Scotch tape
41. Photocopiers
42. Fiberglass
43. Submarines
44. Frozen food
45. Helicopters
46. Broadway, and the Broadway musical genre
47. Comic books
48. The Smithsonian
49. Modern vaccination (for less extreme problems than polio)
50. The Kinsey report
51. Westerns as a genre
52. American contributions to dance
53. Magnetic Resonance Imaging
54. Ball point pens
55. Walt Disney
56. American contributions to children’s literature
57. Cash registers and other business machines
58. Wikipedia,,, and American cyberculture
59. Bifocals
60. American contributions to gay culture and gay liberation
61. Role-playing games
62. Bubble gum
63. the Global Positioning System
64. The 5 and dime, and now Dollar Stores
65. The Richter Scale
66. Denim jeans
67. America as a tourist destination for international tourists (#3 in the world)
68. American contributions to science fiction
69. Consumer Reports
70. Safety pins
71. Hip-Hop
72. Synthesizers
73. Peanut Butter
74. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
75. Aldo Leopold and other American contributions to Environmentalism
76. Margaret Sanger’s work with birth-control
77. Other US Museums
78. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Pop Art
79. Rollerblades
80. Chomsky’s Structural Grammar
81. John Kenneth Galbraith and Veblen
82. Einstein’s theories of relativity
83. Feynmann’s Quantum Electrodynamic (QED) theory
84. Deming’s work on Statistical Quality Control
85. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter
86. John Cage
87. Strauss and Howe’s theory of history
88. W. V. O. Quine
89. Joseph Campbell
90. Van Neumann, Conway, and Game Theory
91. Weiner’s theory of Cybernetics
92. American contributions to psychology (Moreno, Erikson, Mead, etc)
93. Cook’s Illustrated
94. Jackson Pollock
95. John Rawl’s theory of justice
96. American contributions to anthropology
97. Nozick’s theories of the minimal state
98. The theology of Neibuhr and Tillich
99. Cesar Chavez
100. Starhawk and the Reclaiming tradition

Important “contributions” that are not entirely positive (IMHO, most of these should be on the top 100 if you value them rather than being more ambivalent as I am).
1. Brand loyalty marketing
2. Car inventions and car culture
3. American contributions to industrial agriculture
4. The atom bomb and nuclear energy
5. American leadership in NATO, G8, OECD and other international political bodies
6. American innovations in advertising
7. Tobacco
8. Levitt and the modern suburb system
9. Chain businesses and franchising
10. Fast food
11. The Cold War
12. American contributions to sports and sports culture
13. Bottling machines and the rise of soft-drinks
14. The Windows operating system
15. American blockbuster writers and the neutering of literature (Clancy, Cook, Crieghton, Follet, Grisham, King, Koontz, Rice, Steele, Tan, etc)
16. Disposable diapers
17. American consumption of imported illegal drugs such as cocaine or heroin
18. Gun technology developments (like silencers, or machine guns)
19. America’s contributions to pornography
20. Burbank and modern plant breeding
21. American developments in the department store
22. Skinner and Behaviorism
23. Other American contributions to fashion, cosmetics and perfume
24. The Great Chicago Strike and May Day
25. The International Landmine treaty of 1998 (and pulling out of it in 2002)

Important contributions that may be no longer entirely “modern.”
1. Cheap Cotton and the Cotton gin
2. Older US Literature (Burroughs, Burroughs, Capote, Chandler, Crane, Cummings, Dickenson, Ellison, Twain, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Frost, Gibran, Ginsberg, Hawthorne, Heinlein, Hemmingway, Kerouac, L’Amour, Longfellow, Melville, Poe, Plath, Puzo, Sinclair, Steinbeck, Whitman, Williams, etc)
3. typewriters
4. Pragmatism: Dewey, James, etc
5. Cowboys
6. Hubble and the Expanding Universe
7. Rogers and Astaire
8. Benjamin Franklin
9. Beatniks
10. Tap dance

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Unemployment and Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Well, I am now good and unemployed. My duties as a professor of philosophy are all over, and I head out to meet a retired philosopher who specialized in Japanese philosophy who only recently moved to town tonight. During my third year review, (which I failed) I wrote and printed a short piece entitled “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Retention in My Position as an Assistant Professor” which consisted of only the following 5 quotes, but I elected not to include it in my 100page+ “retention packet.”

Here are a few things Confucius says about unemployment …
Confucius says “Riches and position are what men desire. If their attainment is to be by departing from the Way, do not have them. Poverty and lowliness are what men hate. If their abandonment is to be had by departing from the Way, do not abandon them ….” (Analects 4:5)
Confucius said, “Ning Wu Tzu was wise when the Way prevailed in the state, but dull witted when the Way did not prevail in the state. His wisdom could be equaled, but his dull-wittedness could not be equaled” (Analects 5:21)

Confucius believed in working, some times one worked for their family, and sometimes one worked for the state or some other employer. Confucius’ own job was mostly training young men who would seek employment, and he has a lot of other subtle things to say about the process (at 10:26, 9:16, or 14:1). But the heart of Confucius’ idea was that good people should be in high office, and offices should be given out meritocratically, not just to the most skilled, but to those with all round virtue. “Raising the Worthy” is the heart of Confucius’ system, his own “Way” and his opponents often think and talk about him in terms of his advocacy of raising the worthy. But Confucius also clearly imagines that taking part in family life is more central than employment (2:21). A virtuous man should be employed when the state is functioning well, but equally SHOULD be unemployed, or rather employed by his family, when the stat is not functioning well, even though this involves poverty or lowliness or dull-wittedness. For Confucius, employment is a good thing, but unemployment is nonetheless sometimes a duty. A job in a state which is not run via the way of virtue, will often put a person in the position of needing to act unvirtuously in order to keep their job, and that is not worth it according to Confucius. Likewise the job can come between a person and their duties to their family, unless the way prevails in the state.

Here are some things the Daodejing says:
“Do not raise the worthy, so that people will not compete
Do not value rare treasures, so that people will not steal
Do not display objects of desire, so that people’s hearts shall not be disturbed/ …”
Daodejing 3

Be apprehensive when receiving favor or disgrace.
Regard trouble as seriously as you regard your own body
What is meant by being apprehensive when receiving favor or disgrace?
Favor is considered inferior. / …
Daodejing 13

The Daodejing has a deeper worry about employment. “Raising the worthy” is already wrong. Raising the worthy leads to competition, and competition leads to problems for the family and state. Rather the sage rules by “emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones” (3). The Daodejing has a profoundly dialectical understanding of employment and unemployment. If the laws are complex, people will become cunning thieves to evade them. If wealth is exalted, people will fight each other and damage the state and themselves to become wealthy. If “merit” is the path to high status, then people will become skilled at faking “merit” in order to be “raised” as being “worthy.” So it is a mistake to encourage either employment of unemployment, “Therefore the sage says: I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.” The way out of the mess is to re-orient one’s understanding so that favor does not seem desirable but dangerous, so that the good and simple life seems attractive. Humility is considered one of the Jewels of the Dao by the Daoists, but it isn’t a duty or burden like it is for Confucius. It is not enough to desire wealth but refuse to seek it, when it cannot be sought honorably, rather even desiring wealth is already a problem.

But as usual, my favorite thinker here is Zhuangzi. In Chapter 4 of the Book of Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi imagines a discussion between Confucius and his favorite disciple Yen Hui. Hui describes how he is going to go about impressing the rich and powerful so that they will employ him and he can improve things. First he plans to encourage the rulers to reform and act better, and Confucius shoots him down and says that their bosses will just overrule and fire or kill them. So Hui imagines that he will dissemble, being outwardly deceptive, but inwardly retaining his integrity. And Confucius shoots him down again, saying that this won’t work, “You are still being guided by your perceptions.” Instead Hui needs to engage in “the fast of the heart.” When Hui has done this and comes back and describes the experience, Confucius is delighted and says

“Perfect! I will tell you. You are capable of entering and roaming free inside his cage [the prospective employer], but do not be excited that you are making a name for yourself. When the words penetrate, sing your native note; when they fail to penetrate, desist. When there are no doors for you, no outlets, treating all abodes as one, you will find your lodgings in whichever is the inevitable, you will be nearly there.” Zhuangzi, chap 4

For Zhuangzi the issue of employment isn’t ultimately about raising the worthy, and merit, or about the dialectic of striving and competition, rather it is about the true emptiness of one’s heart when one takes lodging in the inevitable. One treats “all abodes:” employment and unemployment, rich houses and poor, states where the way prevails, and states where it does not, as one.

It is not only my job that is over. Unemployment is rising in the US like it hasn’t since the Great Depression, and it will continue to do so for some time. Much about our current collapse is already inevitable. Poverty and lowness are coming and we cannot abandon them whether we would like to or not. Our culture has excelled at “displaying objects of desire” and the peoples hearts will be disturbed beyond reckoning as they become more and more unattainable. Humility is certainly a jewel we should seek. But the truth is more than that. It is time for us to “find our lodging in whatever is inevitable.”

A few pages later, Zhuangzi has Confucius give this following wonderful summary

Confucius said: “Under heaven there are two great principles: one is destiny the other is duty. The love of a son for his parents is destiny and cannot be taken away from his heart. For a subject to serve his ruler is duty; there is no escaping this duty anywhere between heaven and earth. These are called two great principles. Therefore, a son finds contentment in serving his parents in all circumstances: this is the perfection of filial piety. A subject finds contentment in serving his ruler in all circumstances: this is the perfection of duty. But to serve one’s own soul so that grief and joy are not overwhelming, to outwardly handle what life throws at you as inevitable and not to be worried by this, this is the perfection of virtue. One who is a subject, or a son, has to do what he has to do. Caught up in the affairs of state, he forgets his own life. He has no time to love life or fear death. Therefore, dear friend, go on your mission!”

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Value of Despair

Here is a reprint of a article I wrote in Nov of 2007, before I had a blog. Parts of it have been reprinted in various places since then. I've been meaning to repost it up here for a while, and someone at The Automatic Earth asked about it, so here it is.


The most optimistic person I have ever encountered admitted yesterday that he is sad and scared. Beth Terry wrote a guest blog today entitled “Caring Without Despairing.” Her solution is to just not think about how big the problems are, but to focus on the little bit she can effect, as she calls it, “selective attention.” Smart people who look at America and our world today feel the emotion of despair, and then have to decide what to do about it.

My position on despair is an odd one. I think that despair is, or at least can be, a good thing. Despair is a virtue, a habit of the correct functioning of the human spirit. Despair is not a meaningless blackness, nor a simple lack of hope, it is a more complex psychological state, and one that has a role to play in the healthy mind, not just in an unhealthy mind. Not all despair is valuable despair, properly functioning despair; just as not all humor, or passion, or resoluteness is valuable. Resoluteness can be a form of courage or stubbornness depending on the situation. In moral talk, we say that resoluteness can be a virtue or a vice depending on the situation. In just the same way, I hold that despair can be a vice, a counter-productive mental or spiritual tendency (as pretty much everyone else holds). But unlike everyone else, I hold that despair can also be a virtue, a productive, helpful, right-functioning mental or spiritual tendency.

Many virtues, called moral virtues, exist as the mean between two extremes, the balancing point between opposite errors. Courage is the classic example. Too much fear of danger and one acts cowardly, and fails to take advantage of manageable risks. Too little fear of danger and one acts foolhardy, and takes risks that ought not to be taken. Fear of danger has a useful role to play in our psyches or spirits, but so does resistance to fear of danger. When these two are in proper balance, and we feel the right amount of fear, and the right amount of resistance to fear, we are experiencing the virtue of courage. Similar things could be said about overeating and undereating, or indeed any appetite, or about anger or many other psychological factors. Anger and fear are not bad things simply; they are proper and healthy adaptations to a world that includes injustice and risk. Injustice ought to make us angry, and risks ought to make us fearful. Just not too angry or fearful. And of course, both emotions would have no useful role left in a world without injustice or risk.

But not every virtue works this way. Physical strength, for example, is a virtue (it helps us to act well in the world), and one that a rational person should want as much of as they could get without giving up some other valuable good. Weightlifting takes time that we could be using for other good things, like community service or enjoying our friendships. But if someone invented a way to become stronger without giving up some other good thing, we should take it. Similar things could be said about intelligence or health or beauty or friendship.

Christian philosophers took this rough position on virtue from the Greeks and Romans, and noted that there was one more category of virtues which they called theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. In the Gnostic Tradition of Valentinius gnosis – that is direct mystical experience or knowledge by acquaintance is also a theological virtue. In the Catholic tradition, the theological virtues are ones which can be developed only by the grace of God, not by any human effort. More importantly they are not the mean between two extremes of vice. You can have insufficient faith, but there is no such thing to the Catholic theologians as having too much faith. Likewise, you can never have too much love. You can love the wrong objects (the sinful act, rather than the sinner who does it), you can have too much passion in your loving, but love itself can never be excessive.

My position is that the opposite of a theological virtue is not a vice, but another competing theological virtue. Love has a valuable role to play in the human psyche, but indifference does too. Indifference is the root of detachment, of accepting the good and the bad alike with equanimity. Indifference is the root of justice, of logic, of many kinds of discursive knowledge. Our science works, in part because we can detach our observations, from what we want to happen. We can observe how things ARE quite apart from how we would LOVE for them to be. Indifference is the heart of accepting reality, just as love is the heart of transforming reality. We are beings of power, but not infinite power, and thus we need love to guide our use of our power, and indifference to tailor our use of power to our limits. I am of the opinion that indifference is the true opposite of love, however some think of hate as the opposite of love. I don’t really know anyway for hate to be a virtue, although closely related ideas like anger, or detesting, can be in the right circumstances.

In a being of infinite knowledge and power, faith, hope, love, and gnosis would be virtues without any opposition. There would be no such thing as too much love, or insufficient indifference. But virtues do not work the same way for humans as they do for unlimited beings. For one thing, a being of infinite power has no virtue of courage at all, because it cannot experience genuine risk. Likewise, it has no virtue of moderation in eating, because it doesn’t need to eat or refrain from eating at all. For humans, courage and moderation in eating are virtues. Likewise, so is indifference, the opposite number of love. The opposite of a theological virtue is, for humans at least, is another virtue in dialectical tension with it. Love and Indifference are both good things, even though they sometimes oppose each other. Heraclitus calls this “opposing coherence.” The two work together in tension to create a more powerful effect like the ends of a bow straining against each other to keep the bowstring taut and propel the arrow more strongly,
or the lawyers arguing against each other to try to produce thoughtful justice.

Similarly, the opposite of faith is doubt, and both are virtues for fallible humans. William James has a great discussion of when and why faith is a virtue, a position that is now called Fideism among epistemologists. Sometimes believing something, despite lack of decisive evidence, makes us more able to act well within the world. Optimism is one of James’s favorite examples, we have little evidence that things are going to be alright, but assuming they are anyway helps some people to cope. But the same point can be made in reverse on skepticism. Sometimes refraining from believing something, when the evidence is undecisive, makes us more able to act well in the world.

Even at the level of theology, faith and doubt are both virtues functioning together. Faith allows us to place trust in an imperfect image of the Divine, say our own faltering picture of what an ideal shepherd or an ideal father would be like. Imperfect images are the best images that humans can conjure up, and our own limitations pervade the image. When I imagine the perfect father, I am likely to frame the image as a human of my own race, rather than of some other race, or say a heron. But my images are flawed. Doubt helps me to see that the Divine is unlikely to be of my race or even human in a normal sense. Perhaps I instead use more glorious images (light, rock of ages, etc), or refrain from images entirely and use conceptions. Still my flaws pervade, and doubt calls on me to refine these images and concepts or to do without image and concept entirely. Faith is the cornerstone of positive theology, of saying flawed but still helpful and beautiful things about the Divine. But doubt is the cornerstone of negative theology, of pointing out the flaws in our formulations, and pushing us to improve our understanding of the Divine. Like my favorite theologian Pseudo-Dionysius, I firmly believe that negative theology and positive theology need to work together, and thus (perhaps unlike him) that faith and doubt are both virtues in dialectical tension, properly working together to push us upward.

In the Gnostic tradition, gnosis or direct experience is a virtue. But the opposite of gnosis is innocence. Not knowing, at least not knowing directly via primary experience, is the root of the possibility of learning or discovery. Innocence allows experience to be a source of wonder, and I know of no better paean to the joint values of innocence and experience than Blake’s famous sets of poems, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

But the hardest of the virtues to understand is despair. I believe that a time of great despair is coming for my people and my generation. That the question of the meaning and value of despair will become more pressing and will not go away soon. And this experience will be hard and bitter, painful even. Further, I think that the research is clear that pain which seems meaningless or counter-productive is experienced as being worse than pain which is perceived as valuable or helpful. If we can find what is good and right about despair, that will simply help us to bear it with far less suffering.

Despair clears the way for the possibility of new hope, of better, more realistic hope. Just as indifferent objectivity clears the way for more realistic love, and doubting skepticism clears the way for more realistic beliefs, (and true Blakean innocence clears the way for more wondrous experiences), so despair clears the way for humbler and more realistic hopes. Despair kills hopes, but only so that other smaller hopes can have a chance to flourish. When we despair properly, we give up an old hope as out of reach of our powers, and we let it go, but we do so, so that we may set our sights on a new hope that is hopefully within the reach of our powers. Proper despair is root of the virtue of humility. It is all about not over-estimating our power in this world. When despair functions properly, its job is to help us let for of a goal that we cannot reach because we have over-estimated our power, even though we badly want to reach this glorious goal.

A despair that left us without anything worth reaching for would be a vice rather than a virtue. And indeed, we may feel like that for a time, while we adjust to the new possibilities that are left over, after we have given up on a long-term goal. But there will always be other, smaller humbler thing that we can reach for instead, after we have despaired of a great hope. No matter how bad things are, or how weak our power is, there are still gradations of better and worse, once we can bear to look carefully. It is always possible to make things a little better, if not for yourself then others. A person dying of a terminal disease, with only a few weeks left to live, who has despaired of survival, can still set lower, smaller goals and work towards them and hope towards them. A society that is addicted to cheap energy and cheap credit which is passing away, and cannot hope to maintain its lifestyle, can still set other humbler goals and try to reach them while watching its lifestyle pass away.

We cannot save our society from the troubles that are coming. It is too late to save the icecaps from melting, the ocean levels from rising. Many of our cities can probably no longer be saved. Our financial system is probably already doomed to collapse soon regardless of what we do. Our way of life cannot be sustained much longer regardless of what we do. In our arrogance, we thought we could spend forever and let the future decide how to pay the bill. We thought that someone later would figure out how to clear up our messes of carbon and methane and debt and oil-dependence. A time of humbling is coming quickly. No one can honestly look at the big picture of where our society and our globe are without feeling despair. Beth Terry can accomplish caring without despairing, only by carefully not-looking, and not-thinking. But “caring without despairing” is the wrong goal! I care, and then I despair. And despair tells me to give up and let go. But despair also tells me to clear a space for new and humbler hopes. I cannot save my society, but perhaps I can save my family, or even my community. And if my strength gives out at that task too, perhaps I can help a few people prepare, or feed themselves, or comfort them in their distress.

A time of black despair is coming, and if you feel like you are drowning in despair be comforted. Despair is a GOOD thing, when it functions properly. Swim in your despair, master it, use it for what it is good for. Use your despair to let go, and set new humbler goals. You are less rich, and less powerful than you think you are, than you are used to being. But you are not without any wealth; you are not without any power. Each breath is riches; each moment is wealth; each choice is power. All work is using our power. Do what work you can, plan, set new goals, and do what good you can. Despair, but do not drown in it, despair to clear a place for humbler goals. Your despair is in reality a valuable friend, helping you to re-prioritize your life, even when doing so is painful and difficult. Despair hurts, but it is a virtue in disguise. The pain of despair is the pain of healing, and adapting to humbler circumstances. All Americans will soon become acquainted with despair. Be assured, despair is a gloomy ally, but it is not in the end your enemy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Eating Our Children: The Story of Saturn and Moloch

8 years ago I did a fair bit of work on the ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, and even presented my work in a couple of public forums (like being a panelist on it at Association for Practical and Professional Ethics Conference, in 2002). One thing that interested me was the extent to which thinking about ESCR, was dominated by the metaphors of warfare, that medical science was fighting a war against disease and the embryos sacrificed to save the lives of others were like the soldiers on the frontlines, laying down their lives so that others back home could live better lives. This basic metaphor was as pervasive as it was fundamentally disingenuous. The “war” against disease can never be won, and isn’t very war-like, and the embryo soldiers are hardly willing warriors choosing to take brave and noble risks for the greater good.

But what would be a better metaphor? In the end, I explored 11-13 other metaphors (depending on the version) and none was really adequate, although looking at several helped to correct the mistakes of each. I compared Embryonic Stem Cell Research to medical treatment, scientific research, abortion, to Nazi hypothermia research on unwilling victims, to recycling the waste products of an industrial process, to anthropological research on human remains, to agricultural growing and harvesting of “germ-lines”, to the killing pigs in insulin production, to Aztec practices of human sacrifice, to killing an innocent in the criminal justice system, and to euthanasia. Some metaphors make Embryonic Stem Cell Research look just, even noble, others make it look troubling. But my goal to explore the many moral nuances of the idea of “sacrifice.”
But the metaphor that was most haunting for me was the myth of Saturn eating his own children.

I wrote
“The ancient world has a couple of myths about gods eating children. Moloch, a Canaanite deity of power, is famous for devouring children as a means of maintaining his power. Saturn or Chronos, a Greco-Roman patriarch of the gods devoured his own children lest someone succeed him as the ruler of the divinities, until his wife tired of the death of her children helps Zeus escape this fate and overthrow him. In each myth, the story is of an old and powerful god eliminating the potential to overthrow them by eliminating the threat of their own children, and indeed by drawing strength from the devouring of their own children. In both cases, the moral of the story is that time marches on, things change, and that one should promote your children in their efforts to truly succeed you, rather than holding them back out of jealousy and the struggle against mortality. Likewise, we disapprove of a teacher who holds their students back from becoming greater than themselves. What does this have to do with ESCR? Well one important moral dimension of ESCR is its aspect as an intergenerational struggle. In stem cell research the very young and poor and powerless are destroyed to increase the wealth, power and health of the very old and already wealthy and powerful. Some of the diseases which might be benefited by stem cell research effect young and old alike, but most of them are health problems of the old, often specifically of the very old. Who benefits economically from stem cell research? Bio-medical researchers primarily, although some bio-medical companies as well. Why are we spending money and lives to push the boundaries of mortality and old age back even farther, rather than on universal health care for the young, or say education? As in war, the young pay the brunt of the price and the old get the bulk of the reward. Also notice that although embryos are not that much like children, the relevant feature for this story is a child’s ability to be a potential adult.

Now we should not over work this intergenerational angle. Certainly, our society does spend a lot of attention and money on education and the care of the young. But the elderly have an extremely disproportionate amount of wealth and political power, and we need to be more careful than usual at looking for hidden agendas, perhaps even hidden agendas the researchers do not consciously realize they have. Likewise embryos are extremely powerless, and we need to be more careful than usual at safeguarding the interests of innocents who also lack power to safeguard their own interests. Whatever else is at stake we should be leery of the prospect of ending one life, and a young powerless, poor one at that, for the sake of merely extending the last few years of an older, richer, more powerful life. As a member of a young, poor, powerless generation, I often feel the frustrating wish that natural processes of death should hurry up in clearing the oldest generation aside, so that my generation will not spend its life choked by the past still lingering in a not quite dead yet state. Death has an important social function to play in aiding the young in displacing the entrenched power of the old. In many generations the old step aside voluntarily, or aid the young in taking the reins of power. But for a variety of comprehensible generational dynamics, this generation of elderly refuses to step aside and instead consumes everything in their path burdening the young in ways that previous generations of elderly people would have found unthinkable examples of impiety. Moloch or Saturn eating their children, gobbling up the potentials of the future in a desperate effort to stay in power a little long and to stave off the reaper a little more, is a parable for our time; from the third rail of Social Security to the elderly’s taste for gas-guzzling cars. The funding of the destruction of embryos for the sake of maybe staving off Alzheimer’s a little longer is just one more example of a deeper social problem.

There are problems with this metaphor, too. Like the image of the medical researchers’ hands being stained with the blood of aborted embryos, the image of Moloch devouring his children is a symbol of our moral intuitions more than a real argument. The motives of the researchers are not as consciously selfish. They hope to benefit many not just themselves, and to help young and old alike. Taken to extremes this argument could turn into a slippery slope opposing all medical research or indeed any attempt to prolong or save life. This argument has a hard time responding to utilitarian arguments about benefits outweighing nonetheless real harms. What it does capture however is the intuition that if human life is valuable, then human death is valuable too. It is the engine of change and renewal and one of the holiest of mysteries. We can fail to do our duty by holding on to life at too great a cost, or with too little attention to intergenerational justice, just as we can fail by spending too little effort in resisting death, especially the death of the innocent or powerless.”

It is hard for me to think of a more obscene and foul image, than that of Saturn devouring his own children. And while this metaphor doesn’t exactly fit Embryonic Stem Cell Research, it is a much closer match for a wide variety of more nakedly over-consumptive policies whereby those currently in power enjoy all they can and try to push the debt burden for this onto future generations. Bush and Paulson, approving the banking bail-outs are Saturn eating their own children, devouring the future to keep the banks alive, in power, and in style for just a little longer. Obama and Geithner are playing exactly the same game – let us have a little more time now, and let the future pay for it. It is not enough to see them as pursuing mistaken policies; they are worse than that. It is not enough to see them as swindlers, enabling con-men allies to rip off the American public; although they are that too. It is not enough to see them as traitors, deliberately undermining the common good of America, for the personal gain of their allies. They are EATING OUR CHILDREN to remain in power a little longer. They are Saturn and Moloch, the great foul child-eaters of antiquity, recast in modern mythologies. They are blasphemies.
And, of course, so are we all a little bit. We know that we are using up the potential of the future, the things that our children will need to survive, much less to live the kind of lives we have lived, or wish for them to live. We know that our society is unsustainable, and we have a variety of intellectual methods for processing this fact. But we need images, and myths, and narrative methods too. We need stories to make sense of what unsustainable really means to us, because we humans are storytelling, storyhearing, storythinking creatures. What are the great old stories about unsustainability? What are the classics of literature that help us to feel the meaning of unsustainability, rather than just intellectualizing it?
We have very few stories like that. Unsustainable societies collapse, and by and large their stories don’t get told or remembered. We have the story of the fall of Troy and the folk who warned against it, but their understanding of the collapse of Troy is much more one of political defeat than of unsustainable society. We have the story of the fall of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian captivity, and the terrible lamentations surrounding that, (including a passage about destroying one’s children at Psalms 137). But again this is cast more in terms of a failed relationship with God, than of the unsustainability of the society.

But in the myth of Saturn eating his own children we catch a glimpse of another narrative of unsustainability. We see the horror and disgust that other societies feel for unsustainable practices. The point of the story of Saturn eating his children is like the point of Orwell’s 1984, it is a dire warning DON’T DO THAT, understand intellectually and emotionally the terrible foulness of doing THAT. It is not a story of an actual unsustainable society, anymore than 1984 is a story of an actual tyrannical dictatorship. But it is a little primal myth, about how people living in fairly stable cultures felt about unsustainable practices, and they felt horror and disgust. Gusto – is of course, the emotion of wanting to joyously consume. Dis-gust is the emotion that makes us not want to consume something. And the thing that it is most important not to consume is our future. The idea of eating our kids should be literally more disgusting than the idea of eating shit, vomit, or old used tampons. It is the most disgusting image that we can conjure with. And disgust is precisely the emotion that advertising wishes most to suppress, the emotion that is most opposed to our current economic system of promoting as high levels of consumption as possible, and the emotion that we need to rediscover and re-awaken. Sometime we can reach dis-gust best by detachment, or self-restraint, or even ethical consideration. But the primal old emotional route of simple raw disgust, must be part of our arsenal too. We need a literature of disgust to help people who want to consume less, to actually succeed emotionally at consuming less. This literature of disgust would be a kind of companion to the literature of the practical guides of how to consume less, which include the dis-gusting strategies of detachment, restraint, ethics, and celebrating a less-is-more lifestyle, but stop short of serious use of raw disgust itself. We need a novel of vomit-stories that disgusts and transcends its disgust to point the way to emotional purging and cleansing, or a movie of transcendent disgust.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Belated April Fool’s Day Post: The Virtue of Silliness

Several years ago I had the opportunity to see a wonderful thoughtful April Fool’s Day sermon by one of my favorite ministers (Rev. Bill Breeden ), on the values of change and surprise and leaving one’s comfortable ruts. In 2007 I was asked to give an April Fool’s day sermon and I imitated several of Rev. Breeden’s playful tricks. Most of that sermon was on a variety of roles that humor plays in religion, and isn’t directly relevant here on this blog. I talked about jokes about religions, and joke religions; about using humors stories in wisdom traditions, like Zen teaching or Mullah Nasruddin jokes, about Buddhist use of humor to deflate egos, of ancient Greek use of humor for social commentary, or Medieval Christmas celebrations of a feast of fools, to help rebalance social relations in the community for the coming year, about Discordeans and Sub-Genii, and Pastafarians. Humor has a lot of important roles in religion, but that isn’t really our topic today. But the end of that sermon was on the transcendent value of silliness in dark times, and that is very relevant to this blog.

Before I get to an excerpt of my writing on silliness, I need to explain a little about Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat was the greatest comic strip of all time, or at least the greatest comic strip in English. I was written and drawn by George Harriman in the US from 1913 to 1944. Its hard to understand for someone from my generation who grew up with the dying leftovers of the comic strip genre, but newspaper comic strips were full on literary art at one point, cutting edge venues of populism and artistic exploration, and genuine cultural commentary. And Harriman was the best of the best. Dali latter admitting that many of the key ideas of Surrealism came from Harriman’s comics, and that the European painters felt that they were hustling to keep up. The best writers and poets of the day swooned over Harriman’s work, we’ll read a bit of E.E. Cummings commentary in a minute. The style of Krazy Kat is a proto-surrealism, with a constantly changing background, numerous use of unconventional page layouts, and lots of whimsy. The dialogue is often in a very thick argot ("A fowl konspirissy — is it pussible?"), but is also often is poetry or near poetry. (“Agathla, centuries aslumber, shivers in its sleep with splenetic splendor, and spreads abroad a seismic spasm with the supreme suavity of a vagabond volcano.”) The “plot” is achingly simple yet bizarre. There are 3 characters, Krazy Kat, whose gender is kept carefully undeclared, Ignatz the Mouse, who is constantly throwing bricks at Krazy or otherwise acting up and disrupting things, and Officer Pupp (a dog) who is constantly trying to arrest Ignatz for law-breaking. But here is the Krazy thing. Krazy Kat is full-on head over heels in love with Ignatz, and refuses to accept the brick throwing as violence. Krazy just thinks that the bricks are Ignatz’s way of showing Krazy that Ignatz loves Krazy right back. So he/she just accepts the bricks, interpreting them as an expression of love. This uhm, love triangle, plays out over and over again in Sunday comics for 30 years, set against the painted desert of Coconino, county Arizona, where the 3 live. Ignatz and Pupp constantly re-enact the cops and robbers struggle, but Krazy just turns every act of violence into an act of love by the alchemy of silliness. And in this bit of silliness is a profound philosophy. E.E. Cummings puts it like this

“The Sensical law of this world is might makes right, the nonsensical law of our heroine [Krazy Kat] is that love conquers all. … But if our hero and our villain don’t and can’t understand our heroine, each of them can and each of them does misunderstand her differently. To our softheaded altruist she is the adorably helpless incarnation of saintliness. To our hardheaded egoist, she is the puzzlingly indestructible embodiment of idiocy. The benevolent overdog sees her as an inspired weakling. The malevolent undermouse views her as born target. Meanwhile Krazy Kat, through this double misunderstanding fulfills her joyous destiny. ”
E.E. Cummings “A Forward to Krazy” in Krazy Kat, 1946.

Alright with that introduction, we are ready for my comments on silliness.

* * *

… So religions have used silliness all across the world, for a variety of legitimate religious and spiritual purposes; as comedy relief, to helping us to be wise, or humble, or remain in right relation with our neighbors. But silliness has never been very popular with religions. Look through lists of religious virtues, and you may find obedience, justice, generosity, compassion, courage, and so on. But you will not find silliness. The Protestant Reformers of the 17th century were pretty staunchly opposed to silliness, for example. The British Puritans banned "games, sports, plays [and] comedies" because they didn't agree with "Christian silence, gravity and sobriety." That is they weren’t serious enough. In Buddhism, lay people are allowed to be silly, but one of the vows of monks and nuns is to give up frivolous talk, ie anything that isn’t aimed at bringing people to enlightenment. Even religions that tolerate silliness well rarely consider it a virtue. Our own hymnal contains beautiful songs and words in praise of peace, and justice, and freedom, and reason, and compassion, and work, of learning, of valuing cultures around the world, of respecting nature, of awe and the spirit of worship. But it contains no praise for silliness. Here we are not an anomaly but, are clearly in the norm.

This is a mistake. The most important spiritual use of silliness is one I haven’t mentioned yet, and one that has become clearer during the 20th century. Silliness is a virtue, and virtue whose time has come.

The 20th century revaluing of silliness has a lot to do with the literary tradition of Absurdism. Absurdism has roots in Kierkegaard’s religious thought, and the brilliance of Krazy Kat, and some other Existentialists, but really comes into its own in the hands of Humanist writers reacting to the horrors of WWII. Here is a story I read somewhere, I can’t find it now, but I think it was in the writing of Polish Nobel Prize Winner Czeslaw Milosz, somewhere. There was a joke shop prior to WWII. It was the kind of place that sold whoopee cushions, and electric handbuzzers. Dribble glasses, fake tits, and bawdy postcards. A sort of Polish Spencer’s gifts. One of their “novelty” products was a pink plastic artificial foreskin, so that Jews could pretend to be gentiles in sex play. And yet WWII was such a bizarre, absurd, silly-yet-deadly-serious conflict, that possession of pink plastic artificial foreskin became all at once a matter of life and death, instead of a casual joke. How do we humans, us survivors, cope with the kind of silly world where artificial pink plastic foreskins are a matter of life and death? We laugh. The world is broken, it is crazy, it is terrible and yet it is silly beyond belief. Silliness is the key to coping with an insane world. This is a theme explored again and again by the Absurdists. It is the heart of Joseph Keller’s Catch-22. It is the heart of Vonnegut’s made-up religion Bokonism, in the novel Cat’s Cradle. It is the recurring theme of the fiction of Douglas Adams.

The story of the 20th century is a story of humanity triumphing over nature, or at least warring with it, and cutting itself more and more away from constant contact with nature. American life is a life of culture, of daily interaction with humanly made things far more than it is a life of constant interaction with nature. The natural order and the divine order recede each year further and further from our daily lives, and the cultural order, the political order, the economic order replace them more and more. And this is NOT healthy, not sane, as WWII and the environmental crises since have clearly shown. The world itself has gone insane, and we have the task of daily coping with the insane world we live in. Silliness is most importantly, a method of coping with an insane world.

This is why religions both conservative and progressive have always been very leery of silliness. It is a spiritual competitor to their programs. The conservative spirituality bids us to be in the world but not of it, and to focus our hopes on the more perfect world that is to come. The progressive spirituality asks us to seriously and earnestly work to heal the world to fix its problems and bring it back to sanity. But silly spirituality bids us to laugh at the insanity of the world and try to enjoy the world despite its manifest brokenness.

Is a deep spiritual silliness then opposed to the social justice values that Unitarian-Univeralists hold dear? Well, yes it is in an important sense, but I want to be very clear about the issue. Pure silliness without any admixture of seriousness, is an uncaring frivolity that is blind to the world around it, and unconcerned with its problems. But not all silliness needs to be pure. Pure seriousness is just as bad, it is a lead weight dragging us down into an abyss of darkness.

The Indigo Girls in their song “Closer to Fine” sing that “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable, and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.” If your spirituality is based around trying to heal our insane world, you will be dragged down into the darkness with its insatiable hunger! No amount of serious work or serious progress will even be enough. No matter how good you are you will never be good enough. The man who seriously hungers for riches will never be rich enough. The earnest progressive do-gooder will never do enough good. No matter how many of the world’s problems you succeed in solving there will be more. Gandhi died believing himself a miserable failure, because he had been unable to prevent the partition of India and Pakistan; we see his many amazing successes, he saw his terrible failures.

The only viable spirituality for the 21st century, is a mixture of seriousness and silliness which values and respects both. It is Ok to work to mend the world, as long as one also takes silly delight in the many humorous bizarre facets of its brokenness. Work cannot be healthy with out play, and this is as true of religious or spiritual work as any other kind. Silliness is a lightness of spirit, a call that is hard to hear, especially in times of serious trouble. Our serious side bids us to work earnestly at mending the troubles of the world, our silly side opposes just this impulse and tells us instead to delight in this world despite its troubles. Serious Offissa Pupp tries to stop Ignatz Mouse from throwing his brick at Krazy Kat. Silly Krazy Kat tries to take delight in having Ignatz the Mouse throwing a brick at her. Serious Offissa Pupp tries to use his might, in the best way he can. Silly Krazy Kat tries to use her love to transform the situation. Progressive Seriousness says might, used rightly, makes right, Progressive Silliness says love conquers all. Seriousness calls us to our power; Silliness calls us to our joy.

We live in an insane, broken world, in a time of great spiritual darkness. The traditional spiritual remedy for spiritual darkness has been enlightenment. But the language of light and dark suggest another natural remedy for spiritual darkness. We can treat it instead with de-light. I wear a lot of black, and have been known to listen to my fair share of goth music. And in many ways this is the heart of the goth message. Dwell in the dark places, and do you best to find beauty there, to find delight. Silliness expresses the same basic spiritual message, in a quite different artistic style. Do you best to take delight, and keep your spirit light, despite the gathering darkness around you. And that is my April Fool’s day message to you, in all its earnest pompousness, repeating the jokes of others instead of making my own. Value silliness as a virtue. It helps us to be wise, and humble, and in right relation with each other, and most importantly helps us to keep out spirits light in a dark world, despite the many bricks that the world throws at us.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Inequality and Underconsumption

Here's a nice quote from Palagummi Sainaith's lecture "The Age of Inequality"

"For two decades now the United Nations Development Program, and other organs of the United Nations have been telling us that an additional expenditure of 60 to 80 billion dollars a year will help the human race sort out all the basic problems of hunger, health, sanitation, education, literacy, and issues like that... and it has never happened, because governments have told us "There's no money. There's just no money. We can't do it. Where's the money going to come from?" But when crisis struck The Suits in Wall Street, governments figured out that they could raise one and a half trillion dollars in seven days."
"Every great Depression, every economic catastrophe, every major economic collapse in history has been preceded by years of absolutely unsustainable levels of inequality."

Now the question of what causes Depressions is a complex and thorny one. Keynesians have several possible theories (Goodwin's profit-wage oscillation model, Minski's credit-interest rate oscillation cycle, etc.) The "real business cycle" model of Kynland and Prescott imagines fluctuations mostly resulting from after effects of technological changes. Older economists often blamed "external" influences like changes in legal frameworks, warfare, labor union activity, etc. Kalecki even argues for a political business cycle theory, that political interference in the business world has a cyclic effect. The Austrian school of economics still holds that all business cycle effects are results of government interference in money supply and interest rates, and Friedman certainly made that line popular among American and British economists too. Marx thought that periodic depressions were a natural part of capitalism, caused by the nature of capitalism itself, but if you ask him exactly why, he gets cagey and has 3 main theories each of which he explores a little but he never really decides which if any are the underlying cause of depressions, or if perhaps all three are: the underconsumption problem, the full employment profit squeeze, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Now I'm a big fan of Strauss-Howe theory, which sees generational dynamics causing 80-100 year cycles in politics and culture. This in turn could easily be an underlying cause of the business cycle of periodic major depressions, ala real business cycles, or other externalist accounts. Or then again, the Strauss-Howe cycles could simply be correlative rather than causative. Or perhaps changes in generational attitude lead to changes in governmental attitudes towards interest rates, money supply and interventionism, which leads to the depressions via the Austrian picture. Even if Strauss and Howe are right, it doesn't really answer this particular question. And of course, I strongly oppose single etiology theories so probably different depressions are caused in different ways and most depressions have many different causal factors.

But today I want to explore the "underconsumption" hypothesis a little more. Marx toys with it, but he is neither the first nor the last to do so, Malthus had already discussed the issue back in 1820, and Foster and Catchings had fairly non-Marxian interpretations of it in the 1920s pre-saging some of Keynes' ideas. The basic "underconsumption" argument goes like this. Suppose that the capitalists are successful in pushing the wages of labor down and the productivity of labor up. This will increase the rate of surplus value and lead to wealthier capitalists. However, eventually the workers dependent on wages will not be able to afford to buy as much, and the aggregate demand (demand in the sense of what can actually be afforded) will go down, leading to a recession or depression. If the upper class are capitalists, and are too successful at impoverishing the rest, then everyone else won't be able to afford to buy the things the capitalist's companies produce, and slowdowns will occur. Too much economic inequality is itself bad for a capitalist economy.

Now this line of thought gets a lot of criticism. Keynes, famously points out that consumer demand is not the only factor in aggregate demand and that it is possible that even though consumer demand is declining, you can prevent a recession by increasing some other part of aggregate demand enough to counter balance it (the 3 main other parts being fixed investment, government spending, and exports net of imports). That's part of the whole rationale for government "stimulus" spending when a recession is looming. But, there are 2 problems with applying this reply to today's situation. First, unless you can permanently increase government spending (as FDR did), or fixed investment, or the export-import balance, that is a temporary solution, you STILL need to get consumer spending back up, and that often requires increasing real wages, and actually clawing some of the wealth back from the wealthiest to the put it in the hands of the consumers. Consider the advice of Simon Johnson, who worked for years at the IMF, and wrote "The Quiet Coup" in the May 2009 issue of the Atlantic. He argues that emerging economies get into trouble because they borrow too much, and then there are deep allainces between the elites of the political class, and elites of the economic class. As things get bad, you get "public-private partnerships" become "crony capitalism" and things get worse until the only way out is to "squeeze the Oligarchs."

The government, in its race to stop the bleeding, will typically need to wipe out some of the national champions—now hemorrhaging cash—and usually restructure a banking system that’s gone badly out of balance. It will, in other words, need to squeeze at least some of its oligarchs.

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large.

So even for a Keynesian, stimulus can't lead to real recovery from a severe recession or a depression, unless you can find the political will to squeeze the oligarchs enough to reverse the economic inequality that led to the collapse in consumer demand in the first place. But, second notice that to even soften the blow of the recession/depression, for a Keynesian, you have to have increases in trade balance, government spending or fixed investment that are enough to counter-balance the decrease in consumer spending. But right now, fixed investment sure isn't increasing much, and the US isn't repairing its trade balance issues much (nor are most other places in the world) and government spending increases are real, but nothing on the order of magnitude of the decreases in consumer wealth or consumer spending. Keynesianism isn't getting us out of the underconsumption problem this time, if indeed it ever really works.

What about Marxian critiques of underconsumption? Marx has 2 main objections. First, the underconsumption problem is often put in ways that make it a pure redundancy, an analytic truth rather than an empirical fact about economies. If we say the economy is declining because people are buying less; the danger is we may have said the same thing twice in 2 different ways, rather than saying one thing which explained another thing. Fair enough, so we need to phrase things in ways that make the inequality issue clearer. The economy is going down, because non-ultra-wealthy people are so much poorer than ultra-wealthy people that they no longer feel they can afford to buy as much, and are cutting back. If we respond to this situation by replying "well then get banks lending again so that non-ultra-wealthy people will trick themselves into feeling wealthy than they really are and buy things they can't really afford some more" we are either evil bastards, or have missed the point of the underconsumption problem. Even if we could get the banks lending again, it would only delay the issue a little. What the underconsumption problem really hypothesizes is that excessive economic inequality is decreasing aggregate demand.

Marx's second criticism is also interesting
When people attempt to give this redundancy an appearance of some deeper meaning by saying that the working class does not receive enough of its own product and that the evil would be dispelled immediately if it received a greater share,i.e., if its wages were increased, all one can say is that crises are invariably preceded by periods in which wages in general rise and the working class receives a relatively greater share of the annual product intended for consumption. From the standpoint of these valiant upholders of 'plain common sense,' such periods should prevent the coming of crises. It would appear, therefore, that capitalist production includes conditions which are independent of good will or bad will. . . " [in Das Kapital vol II, quoted by Franz Mehring in his biography of Karl Marx, p. 404 of the 1935 Covici, Friede edition, tr. Edward Fitzgerald]

Now I don't know if Marx is right "that crises are invariably preceded by periods in which wages in general rise and the working class receives a relatively greater share of the annual product intended for consumption" at the time when he wrote Das Kapital in 1893 (although I doubt it). But that sure isn't true of 20th century financial crises, and it sure isn't true of THIS ONE. Quite to the contrary, real wages have been stagnating, and inequality has been increasing, for decades. And the effect is much clearer when we look at the global picture of inequality, even though it also hold for looking at the recent history of 1st world workers and capitalists. Marx is just wrong.

Another insight that the underconsumption hypothesis can give us on depressions/recessions, is that over-production is the flip side of the underconsumption problem. In a sense, the current global problem is that Germany, China, and Japan all want to keep producing the things they are producing, even though the market signals are telling them to switch to different products. An easier way to see this is to look at Iceland's story. There was a really insightful article on what happened to Iceland in surprising mainstream women's magazine last month, and I can't remember the reference. But the journalist kept digging and eventually suggested that the root of the problem lay in the success of the reforms of Icelands fishing market in the 70s. For centuries Iceland had focused on fishing, and fishing has long been a very non-lucrative field. Then in the 70's Iceland tried a novel new way of regulating fishing, that was well designed to increase profits. And it worked, Iceland became fairly wealthy. And they invested the wealth largely in education. People sent their kids to school, and there was an explosion of highly educated Icelanders. And these Icelanders by and large didn't want to go into fishing, and their parent's agreed don't become a fisherman if you can go on to bigger and better things. But there were all these highly educated Icelanders without many bigger and better things to do or produce. Some turned to the arts, and we got Bjork. But eventually they discovered that high finance was another good way for educated people to spend their time. Iceland had all this excess productive capacity, and it didn't really want to go into more fishing, so it wound up producing complex and ultimately risky and poorly understood financial products. But in a sense, China and Germany have the same problem. All this excess productive capacity looking for something to do that will be worth doing. What is China going to say? Sorry we have enough factories to fulfill world demand go back to your villages and farm some more? It could. But there'd be grumbling, and it doesn't really want to. The American consumer doesn't really want to cut back consumption, even though they know they are over-extended and probably ought to, but equally the German or Chinese producer doesn't really want to cut back production (and thus switch to a crappier job) even though they also know that they ought to. One function of economic crisis is to force changes in consumption and production, despite our resistance to them. But this is true both directions.

I'm not saying that unsustainable levels of economic inequality are a key factor in all recessions and depressions (although Sainaith does), or that unsustainable levels of inequality are the only important factor in this one (it's not). But I do think that along with many other unsustainable practices, our economy has led to unsustainable levels of economic inequality, and these have led to decreases in aggregate demand that Keynesian strategies have not been able to compensate for. I doubt we'll ever get back to a real growth economy, but I also hold that we will not be able to stabilize or move forward until inequality drops to managable levels via a process of "squeezing the oligarchs." If this can be done via the current political system, so be it, if the current crop of politicians cannot find the courage to squeeze the oligarchs (who many of them also depend on and are friends with) in ways that genuinely lead to decreases in economic inequality, then eventually anger will boil over into extra-legal forms of squeezing the oligarchs and things will get even uglier. And economic inequality has 2 faces, the oligarchs are a lot richer than you and I, but you and I are a lot richer than most 3rd worlders. Part of the solution is going to have to be toppling financial racketeers who pretend to be titans (see Max Keiser's brilliant article "Let Them Have Stained carpets, Obama's Marie Antoinette Moment"), but part of the solution is also going to have to be regular 1st worlders living a lot more like 3rd worlders than we do now. And if the 3rd worlders cannot squeeze the 1st worlders any other way, then they will squeeze us with their dying bodies. You can only shoot so many starving desperate people before you start to question the virtue of your own leaders, and the justice of your own priveleges. I don't forsee a world of equality emerging, but given my poor understanding of economics, it looks to me as if there will have to emerge more equality than there is today, like it or not, and that for most of my readers that will feel like being squeezed down.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking about the Whole Education System

Which Australian 80s band performed “Who Can it Be Now?” and “Down Under” (Oh! do you come from the land down under (oh yeah yeah), where women glow and men plunder …)? Ok, Which US President managed to get the first federal progressive tax passed, pushed for the creation of a “League of Nations” and won the Nobel Peace Prize for the creation of the League of Nations in 1919, even though the Senate blocked the US from joining it?
How many of you knew the answer to the first question, but not the second? America has an extremely effective education system, but the system is much broader than simply what you learn in school, indeed schooling is an comparatively minor part of the overall system. Our system excels at aiding Americans in learning pop cultural information, and in developing strong and complex consumer preferences, but is sometimes lackluster at teaching the ability to enjoy poetry, or to make wise investment decisions. Sharon Astyk has, as usual, a good piece on our education system on her blog, but I wanted to respond with a much longer meditation. I believe that we need to see the whole scope of the education-system, especially how it pervades culture beyond formal schooling; we need to think about why some topics are promoted more heavily or effectively than others; we need to think about why some topics are learned more effectively than others when curriculums are in conflict; and lastly we need to think about what we can do.

The Whole Education System
Adults continue to learn new things throughout their life even though they are no longer in school. One common new thing we learn is the “news,” although we learn facts about the entertainments we enjoy, the names and faces of people we have newly met, and occasionally even new job skills. Children learn things outside of school, at least as much and probably more often as they learn things in school. Humans are constantly learning, but we don’t necessarily learn all different topics at an equal rate. Our own talents and interests are part of why we learn some things more thoroughly than other things, but our culture and education-system as a whole are part of the story too. Too often we think of “education-system” as a euphemism for “schooling,” but even in the US which has a lot of schooling comparatively speaking, only about 20% of the population is in school at any given point, and even for them schooling is probably at most ½ of their total education, although perhaps we do learn more while young and working on learning than later on, so I’d estimate that schooling (public schooling, private schooling, home schooling, and higher education) all together is probably only about 10%-15% of our overall education system. Not trivial, but not exactly central either.
The biggest chunk of our education system is the mainstream media and its curriculum of pop culture, TV, Radio, Movies, pop music, magazines, billboards, etc. Advertising is an especially important part of this section of the education system, but non-advertising content is pretty relevant too. The advertising curriculum focuses on getting to consumers to want or even feel that they need certain products, while the non-advertising content caters to entertaining the consumers. Often an attempt is made to blend other goals besides entertainment in with the entertainment, creating infotainment, edutainment, advertainment, etc. In the US, people watch an average of 4 hours of TV a day alone, (and sleep for another 8 hours) so estimating TV at about 25% of the total US education-system is probably about right. If we add in also movies, radio, magazines, newspapers, other forms of advertising, and mainstream media web sites with advertising, we are probably in the 50% range.
Third, we learn by direct observation of the people around us. By meeting them, talking with them, often imitating them. The brilliant educational psychologist Albert Bandura hammered this point home in many ways during his work over the past several decades, and the school of thought he created is typically called Social Cognitive theory, now. Children watch what adults do, they watch what other kids do and whether they get rewarded or punished for it. They chart out possibilities and options by looking at the people around them (or those they are exposed to via the media), in a process we call observational learning. Adults do this too, although we are typically already more set in our ways. Another form of social learning that adults habitually engage in is the opinion-leader effect. On a topic that one perceives as non-controversial one will form an opinion based largely on their media exposure. On a topic that one perceives as controversial, but well within one’s expertise or in an area of particular interest, one will spend the time to sort through the many competing claims and form your own opinion. But on a topic that one perceives as controversial, but not in ones areas of particular expertise or interest, one will seek out a trusted peer who is perceived as being more interested or more expert in the area and chat with them to form an opinion. For example, I’m a philosopher and I form my own opinions on anything I see as related to philosophy, but if I’m trying to decide what new computer to buy, or which blog-provider to put my blog on, I’ll talk with friends and learn what they have to say on the topic before deciding. An “opinion-leader” needs to be perceived as being a peer, and you need to be able to actually interact with them, but they also need to seem especially knowledgeable or passionate about the topic. Again this is a thoroughly social and cognitive form of learning, we are seeking fellow people directly as sources of learning. Peer pressure is another classic social cognitive learning phenomena. Social cognitive learning within the family is central to early development of children prior to school, and is also pretty key during school years, as well. If we add up these various social cognitive learning situations (early childhood learning, peer pressure, observational learning, opinion leadership, networking, informal mentoring, etc.) I suspect we have at least 10% of our overall education-system, albeit a particularly unorganized, unsystematic section of the overall system.
Fourth, we often learn things on the job, or via our work. Workplace learning is more organized than just social cognitive learning, (although of course, all of the sections I’ve mentioned interpenetrate quite a bit). Most jobs have a pretty high repetition rate, one is doing the same sorts of tasks over and over and over. But there is usually some degree of variation and learning involved as well. Work place learning, often includes occasional seminars or training exercises of various kinds, especially at the beginning, or when major changes are about to take place. Jobs are not focused on learning the way that schooling is, but we spend a lot of time on jobs, and there are a lot more people in work than in schools. I think it is probably reasonable to see working life as 10-20% of our education-system.
Fifth, we have issues of leisure life, high culture, and social capital. Now a lot of our leisure activities revolve around mainstream media, or shopping both of which I’ve already mentioned. But what about a bowling league, or boy scouts, or religious education, or visiting museums? I think there are 3 distinct but related things to talk about here. First, not all of culture has been successfully captured by the mainstream media. There is “highbrow” culture that doesn’t really fit in it, and counter-cultures that are actively trying to maintain some distance from it. Museums, symphonies, theatre, and poetry slams are all contexts where learning sometimes takes place, but so are underground newspapers, local bands in bars, pagan festivals, or Amish barnraisings. Secondly, culture contexts outside of the mainstream media, often revolve around small local organizations, of like-minded folk. Bowling leagues, amateur astronomy clubs, churches, a band’s fan club, etc. Sociologists talk about these in terms of “Social Capital” networks of social relationships that provide frameworks for certain kinds of social action. I, for example, learned a LOT from the Boy Scouts while I was growing up, even though most of my “teachers” were volunteers without particular expertise in what they were teaching. Small, organized groups can provide learning situations which are quite a bit richer than unstructured peer groups, or direct one on one relationships, precisely because of the organization or social capital involved. Small organized groups like this were once a far more prominent part of American life (and education) than they are now, but they are still fairly common, and crop up in lots of different ways. Often, culture and social capital are mixed together. My church, for example, is a cultural context at least as much as a hobby, but one that is run mostly by volunteers (with a few professionals) in ways very in line with the social capital model, and local sports leagues are culture as well as small-scale organizations. The third big factor here is the notion of self-directed leisure. Unlike work or school, participation in these kinds of groups is largely voluntary and thus directly intrinsically motivated (more on that later). Now both for my wife and I, this kind of learning through groups that we have done volunteer work for, or interacted with on a leisure basis has been at least as important as our schooling, but I’m not convinced we’re typical and I can’t find any statistics to use to estimate the overall impact of this style of learning, so I’d guess that it probably collectively less than 10% of the US’s overall education system.
Sixth, I think it does occasionally happen that people engage in self-teaching or directed research. Sometimes we go to a library and try to look up information we want, rather than going to a place where someone will teach us something. Sometimes we experiment with various ways of doing things until we find one we like. Libraries, Wikipedia, and basement workshops are part of our education-system too, even though they don’t really function much like the first 5 I’ve mentioned. My guess is that this is the least significant of the sectors I’ve discussed at the moment, maybe only 1-2% (meaning I have maybe 10% left over for error in estimation, or sectors I haven’t thought of). But self-directed education is also quite cheap, and has a lot of potential for the future.
In a sense, what we have are multiple curricula, math class teaches us one set of things, boy scouts another, and hip-hop music a third. Sometimes the curricula, are designed to be coordinated or work together, sometimes they are disparate but not really conflicting, but sometimes they are in more direct conflict. Boy Scouts teaches one set of values, and some Hip Hop music is teaching a very different set of values. Home economics class teaches us thrifty food prep behaviors, and food advertising teaches us to spend as much as possible to make food prep easier. When curricula directly conflict, it is often because there are conflicting agendas underwriting the education system. And these conflicting agendas mean that in practice the task of teaching, and the task of unteaching or anti-teaching are usually united, and teaching is often persuasion by hidden means.

E-ducation and De-ducation
The food advertiser wants to teach you to use pre-packaged foods as short cuts wherever possible, the cooking instructor wants to teach you to make from scratch wherever possible. Some teaching merely tries to convey facts, but usually you are trying to instill values, habits, and styles of thought as well, and that means that you habitually need to try to undo existing habits, values, or styles of thought. Education, comes from the Latin e-duco to lead out or lead upward, to build up or raise, often specifically to raise a child. The Latin has an antonym, de-duco, to lead downward, to subtract or reduce, to lead away or draw away, as a distraction leads away from the real issue. We do sometimes talk of deduction (where premises “lead down” to a conclusion under them), but we don’t usually use it as an antonym for education. So let mean coin the term “deducation” for the process of leading someone away from a particular pieces of knowledge, skill, value, or character trait, just as education is the process of leading someone towards a particular piece of knowledge, value, skill or character trait. Now deducation is not always a bad thing, breaking a bad habit counts. But deducation does often have fairly horrible motivations, the law forbidding teaching literacy to slaves in the old South were deducation policies, for example. Other cases are trickier, many facts are kept secret even in peacetime as matters of national security, and various tricks are used to prevent them from being known, and sometimes this is clearly defensible, and sometimes it is clearly immoral, and sometimes reasonable people disagree.
Our education-system frequently involves deducation as well, and often for reasons that are not entirely commendable. Governments want to keep some things secret, but they also want to be able to spin things that they cannot keep entirely secret, and the boundaries between spin and outright propaganda via conventional mainstream news outlets gets pretty shaky. Businesses likewise frequently wish to shape public discourse in ways that will prevent certain options from being considered or portray positions hostile to theirs in an inferior light. Advertisers want us to desire their products, but they often wish us to not think about certain downsides of the products as well. American’s die because of poor diet hundreds of times more often than they die because of terrorism, but food advertisers have every incentive to prevent us from realizing this, and are skilled at leading people away from serious contemplation of the dangers of poor diet. The creation of doubt and anti-knowledge as a PR technique (often called denialism) was pioneered by cigarette companies who fought a multi-decade battle against the fact that cigarettes are deadly, but has been applied to many other fields since. Our education system is used, and used effectively for PR, propaganda, to tranquilize legitimate fears, and to channel habits, and patterns of thinking into ways that are convenient for those with power over the education system.
And this happens at levels below government and corporate policy as well, and is often to some extent unconscious. For example, a profession earns its wage, by selling its skills. But the monetary value of those skills depends on exactly how rare they are. Thus, in order to keep a profession well paying, and thus high class, and well “professional” you have to limit how many people in the society have access to the skills. Lawyers command good pay BECAUSE legal skills are not particularly common. So any organization of lawyers (and lawyers are well-organized) has a strong incentive to prevent legal skills from being widely taught. There is a reason we teach very little law in public schools. Lawyer have a keen interest in deducation, and really most professions do even if they aren’t very upfront about it. Adam Smith has some interesting and counter-intuitive insights into the economics of education and apprenticeship for example (Wealth of Nation Book1 chap x part II, and Book V chap I part III).
But how does one go about preventing people from learning something? What are the best techniques for deducation? Well, you can simply suppress or forbid knowledge, as for example, our nuclear launch codes are kept tightly secret and any real attempt to inquire into them has terrible consequences. But suppression is a bad tactic in most cases. It makes the target tempting, it clearly shows the value of the knowledge being suppressed, it piques curiosity and motivates us. What is usually more effective, especially if the knowledge is not exactly dangerous, but merely must not become widespread, is to make the knowledge available, but very inconvenient to get. Put institutional barriers in the way of the knowledge or skill, forms, permissions, hoops to jump through. Make it a pain in the ass to learn the skill unless you do so through the carefully controlled channels. Anyone can learn the legal profession, but if you try to do it outside of a law school it takes an awful lot of work. Another common technique for preventing knowledge from becoming widespread is jargon, structure the knowledge so that the uninitiated will have difficulty understanding it even if they do happen to find it. But by far the best technique for preventing people from learning a particular skill, habit, or piece of knowledge is misdirection, get them to learn something else instead. Humans are wired to learn. We love learning, and we learn a lot all during our lives. No matter how bad your education system is, people will learn. But what will they learn? It is sadly easy to direct our learning away from a particular topic by directing it towards a different topic.
And this is the dark secret of entertainment. Americans are exposed to a lot of entertainment largely to prevent us from learning other things that might threaten the interests of the folk who have power over the education system. If we learned too much history, or politics, or economics, or even just cooking skills or legal skills, things would be quite different.

Competing Curricula
So our education system is characterized by disparate and often competing curricula, where different segments of the system are trying to teach children and adults disparate and often directly conflicting things. Should my values be shaped by my church or by heavy metal music? Or perhaps by the church down the road? Should I spend my time working on math or listening to pop songs? Should I store food, or buy as I go?
When people decry the problems of the education system, they usually mean to point out the problems with the schooling system, but the main problem that the schooling system has is that it can’t really compete with the mainstream media and pop culture. Our children are learning fine, they are just learning the curriculum promoted by the mainstream media corporations, far better than the curriculum promoted by public schools.
Consider the conflict between the math problem and the pop song. Which is more interesting? Which is more relevant to the life of the student? Which is better promoted? Which is taught in ways that better conform to our current best theories about educational psychology? I’m a mathematician so I like math, but even I think that pop songs are usually more interesting than math problems. Further, we focus on boring math problems, because those are the ones that are easiest to test over, and teachers incentives are tied to testing far more than to other areas of teaching. The math skill may eventually be useful to the life of the student (and even there we do a bad job, focusing a lot of math skills that were relevant to the life of the 19th century), but the pop song is relevant right now. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and PBS and a few other organizations may occasionally try to promote mathematics as a topic, but not nearly as extensively or expertly as the music industry promotes itself. Indeed, what are the primary motivations for listening to a pop song or doing a math problem. We listen to pop songs for their OWN sake, but we do math problems to get a grade and perhaps a diploma or good job someday. Everything we know about the psychology of learning tells us that intrinsic motivations (doing something for its own sake) are far more powerful and long lasting, than extrinsic motivations (doing something for so other reward). External rewards teach students that a subject is boring, and that they must be rewarded for the effort of doing it, they help motivation a lot over the short run, but absolutely destroy it over medium and long runs. The pop song probably talks about sex, and relationships, and things that the student actually cares about, but the math problem is probably divorced from anything that might be controversial. It is not JUST that pop culture is much better funded and more powerful, pop culture is frequently simply doing a better job of teaching than schooling is.
But the advantages are not all on the pop culture side. Schooling involves a large segment of a child’s time, and frequently can make good use of peer pressure. More importantly, many teachers manifestly care about the student, whereas even student can often tell that pop culture is trying to sell something to them and manipulate them. Some segments of schooling are things that the students can see the relevance of to their own lives. But many chunks of schooling have only dubious relevance, and far worse, schooling systematically transforms intrinsic motivations into extrinsic motivations, thereby killing most student’s love of the subject matters, and the motivation of all but the most ambitious students.

So what should we do?
First, simply be aware that an education system is more than just a schooling system. Think of education as something that happens over a whole life, and in many aspects of life outside of schooling. Think of schooling as one part of a broader whole. This helps to see that there are many, many possible places to make improvements beyond just school policies.
Second, be able to adopt a critical thinking “mental posture.” Some thinkers like to call this a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The idea is to stop and think, and in thinking try to look at the big picture and to identify the agendas of the various factions involved in the picture. If you see an ad, stop and think, and try to place the ad in a broader context, and try to identify the agendas and techniques of the ad. If your teacher lectures at you, stop and think about the content, try to place it in its broader contexts, try to identify the agendas of the teacher and the techniques he or she used. With enough practice this can become almost reflex. It doesn’t have to be an exercise in cynicism, perhaps the message fits in its broader contexts and the agendas in play are one’s you agree with. Criticism can include admiration for one’s goals or techniques as well as identifying worrisome features that might have slipped your notice if you had not taken the extra effort to stop and think. Critical thinking is a form of intellectual self-defense, and helps to prevent you from being manipulated by agents with agendas opposed to your own. There isn’t really very much teaching of critical thinking in our school system (it gets a lot of lip service, but every study ever done on it has found that it gets very little actual teaching), and it is strongly discouraged by the mainstream media. But teaching critical thinking in little chunks is pretty easy to integrate into social learning situations, and even into workplace learning. Ask someone why they think someone else did what they did. Get people to stop and think about the agenda and techniques that others use to advance their agendas.
Third, realize that learning and teaching in amateur contexts still counts. Learn about the things you love, the things you find yourself intrinsically motivated to learn about. Our society values professionalism too much and amateurism too little. There is a place for professionalism, I’m not really trying to insult it as much as say that we have too much and need to back off. Enjoy what you enjoy and let your enthusiasm show in teaching and learning. Our culture is poisoning our education, and our careerism is poisoning our culture so that everything is done for the sake of a career rather than for its own sake or some other sake. Joy is itself transformative of the educational system.
Fourth, we have lost a lot of social capital over the last few decades. Re-build social capital where possible and use these organizations for teaching and learning especially in amateur and non-school contexts. Similarly, seek to be a little extra knowledgeable on the things you care about so that you can act as a good opinion leader for your friends, and seek the educated opinions of your friends on topics that you think they count as good opinion leaders on. Usually it is a mistake to rely on experts, unless you are at least a “half-expert” yourself and can sort through the disagreements between experts adequately. Instead rely on someone you can trust who is at least half-expert and can sort through the issues honestly.
Fifth, think a little about the techniques being used to seduce people away from learning certain topics. It is hard to see your own blind-spots or hang ups, some tricks are used against us precisely because they are likely to work. But occasionally looking at the big picture, and regularly thinking about the context one step up from whatever issue we are working on, helps provide a little protection from misdirection.
Sixth, some techniques just plain work better in education than others. Often we want to tailor the technique to the context, but there are some fair generalities. Involving several senses in learning almost always helps, as does repetition, as does increasing the interactivity of the technique. Tapping into intrinsic motivations always does better in the long run, than tapping into extrinsic ones. I think there are a lot of things we can do besides trying to reform the school system, but trying to reform the school system makes sense too. We put too much emphasis on standardized tests, and this has a lot of negative consequences. Back off on emphasis on standardized testing a little in the school system would help.
Our education system pervades our culture, we cannot put boundaries around it, we certainly cannot confine it do the school system. But that means that improving our educational system is inseparable from improving our culture, and adapting our educational system for the end of growth economics is inseparable from adapting our culture to the end of growth economics. And I think this involves de-emphasizing the great cultural engines of growth economics, mass media, advertising, careers and professionalism, consumption, and social isolation, and re-emphasizing the cultural factors that were more central before growth economics became quite so bloated, social contacts, small organizations, amateurism, enjoyment, and self-directed exploration. Mass media and careerism and advertising are not going to go away, but it is not impossible for them to be taken down a peg or two.