Capitalism and its discontents

December 9, 2014

anti-capitalist protest

Two observations kept intruding on me as I read Deirdre McCloskey’s magisterial take-down of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The first is how fortunate we are.  Americans today stand on the crest of that colossal upsurge of wealth McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment, which has made us 900 times richer than our forebears in 1800.  This is unprecedented in human history – and it doesn’t even account for qualitative improvements, like streaming video on a wall-sized, high-def TV or my ability to communicate through this blog.

The second is that most people seem to feel the opposite of fortunate.  They are unhappy, they are disgusted with the system that has placed all that wealth at their feet, they want more, they want less, they want different.  From the airless heights of the French intelligentsia, where Picketty hovers effortlessly, to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where mobs are burning down neighborhood stores, everyone is in a mood of repudiation, everyone condemns, attacks, secedes.

This too is unprecedented in history.  Malcontents in the much poorer societies of the past rarely blamed the system.  They never proposed alternatives, probably because they were unable to conceive of any.  Spartacus aimed to lead his army of escaped slaves out of the Roman Empire.  He had no interest in establishing a Freedmen’s Socialist Republic.  The great peasant revolts of the Middle Ages were spasms of violence and destruction.  The peasants craved revenge, not a new order.  Wat Tyler, closest thing to a political radical in the period, became enraged during negotiations, attacked the Mayor of London with a dagger, and was cut down by the king’s men.

Anger drove the underclass to insurrection – but pure negation isn’t much of a program.  Once the spasm was spent, the rebels had nowhere to go, and they were exterminated in every instance.

The possibility of revolution – of an alternate system, conceived in somebody’s head, imposed on the real world – appeared at a fraught moment in time:  the intersection of Enlightenment faith in the rational reordering of society with Romantic contempt for human life in the pursuit of noble ideals.  By 1848, Marx could write that the “specter of communism” haunted Europe.  The substance of the apparition was mostly dreamed up by Marx himself, but in 1917 it materialized in Russia and began a career of devouring humanity that is not quite over yet.

Communism wasn’t the only phantom at the capitalist feast.  Fascism, National Socialism, anarchism, syndicalism:  all shared a visceral loathing of “bourgeois” existence and the wish to replace it with a more heroic alternative.  The poor and the working classes did not participate in this system-making, any more than had the slaves or the serfs before them.  Inventing anti-capitalist systems was a bourgeois sport.

Marx came from a rabbinical family.  Lenin’s people belonged to the bureaucratic elite.  Mussolini’s father was a well-educated blacksmith, his mother a teacher.  Hitler rose out of the Austrian petite bourgeoisie, Stalin out of the Georgian equivalent.  Mao was the son of a wealthy farmer.  The same was true of Pol Pot, who studied radio electronics in Paris.  These were not the wretched and exploited, desperate for any alternative to their miserable lives.  They were all creatures of the Great Enrichment.

The most implacable enemies of capitalism were the pampered children of capitalism.  It would be a kindness to say that they turned against the system only because they were for a wonderful, if imaginary, ideal of society.  But we know this to be false.  In this late hour of our late age, we know revolution to be a fever dream.  The specter of communism, as an alternative system, was exorcised in 1989 and 1991.  By then, all other alternatives lay in the dust, defeated.  Capitalism has stood unconquered and unchallenged, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty, since 1991.

Yet the feeling of revulsion has, if anything, intensified.  The attacks and repudiations have multiplied.  Capitalism has lifted much of the human race from its ancestral misery, but it is above all to be condemned by its chief beneficiaries as a moral abomination.  Thomas Picketty tells us so.  Barack Obama tells us so:

So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed… this increased inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people… The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years… The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups:  poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races.

All those who wish to return to 1970 – or 1950, or 1920 – raise your hands.  There have always been people who romanticize the snows of yesteryear, but this strikes me as a new pathological reflex.  Something about capitalism nauseates a large class of thinkers, commentators, politicians, academics, artists, writers, moviemakers, and entertainers who participate in the system and know perfectly well that there are no alternatives.

The question is what.

Capitalism has been accused of ruthlessness and inequality, but all systems that preceded it were far more ruthless and unequal.  Greed is also a red herring.  I imagine that Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a runaway best-seller, has made a fortune for its author, who now stands in the same unequal relationship to other economics professors as do corporate CEOs to their employees.  Is Thomas Picketty a greedy man if he chooses to keep his money?  Is he a blood-sucking speculator if he invests it in the stock market?

Anti-capitalism sometimes resembles the anti-Semitism that has been so often associated with it:  a hatred of people who succeed when right opinion holds they shouldn’t.

But I want to put forward another possibility – one that is rarely considered.  Modern capitalism, properly understood, is a matrix of practical and ethical rules that place the burden of the future, with all its terrors and uncertainties, squarely on the shoulders of the individual.  To be a capitalist means to have internalized the “bourgeois virtues” McCloskey believes were responsible for the Industrial Revolution.  The effect is personal responsibility over future risk.

Capitalism in practice isn’t the implementation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Its towering figures are far from Christ-like:  they might be rampant nerds like Bill Gates, or visionary jerks like Steve Jobs.  But all who are in, big and small, stand on their own two feet.

Capitalism – together with its twin sister, liberal democracy – means childhood’s end.  We stand, for better or worse, as adults, liberated from the tutelage of priests and emperors, lords and kings.  Our actions have consequences.  We are now players in the cosmic drama and have achieved what is sometimes called “human dignity.”

Predictably, it was the old elites, the churchmen and the courtiers, who first drew up the charges against the capitalist class later accepted by Marx and Picketty:  that they were greedy, that they put on airs, that lending money was an activity best left to lesser beings like the Jews.  The rise of the capitalist was experienced by the old regime as a monstrous violation of the natural order, children suddenly running the household.  Here was the source of the gag reflex.

This infirmity has taken two distinct forms in the modern era.  The anti-capitalist movements of the last century raged against social rules and conventions, and despised the bourgeois for his self-restraint.  They craved the right to settle scores, the freedom of the assassin.  “We can’t expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism:  speculators must be shot on the spot,” Lenin ordered.  Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” followed the Al Capone template.  Behind the romance of revolution lurked the grim impulses of violent criminals.

The dominant critique of capitalism today, however, is an updated version of the courtier’s complaint.  It asserts that the human race is not yet out of its infancy, and must be protected from its own decisions.  The new protectors are experts and bureaucrats who act on scientific principles.  The future is revealed to them alone.  They are the adults in the room, and they are able to see, at a glance, that capitalism is a screen for swindlers who profit from the innocence of the people.

President Obama began his administration with a plea that we “set aside childish things,” and the burden of adulthood in a nation of troubled minors has been felt in every word and deed of his since.  He does not believe that we stand on our own two feet.  He does not believe that we will figure out how the broken bargain of capitalism has “hurt” so many of us.  He’s certain that future risk will destroy us unless he intervenes with a firm parental hand – for example, by checking up on our credit card bills and seeing off the bad company we keep.

He is not alone.  The pope, for one, agrees with him.  Thomas Picketty and so many others agree.  If they are right, both capitalism and democracy are doomed.  If they are wrong – and, almost certainly, they are – then we had better hope that their callow gestures of disgust and theater of repudiation don’t wreck the Great Enrichment, and induce a self-fulfilling disaster.

Campus Zeitgeist, then and now

December 8, 2014

In 1965:

naked students


campus rape protest

Cause and effect?  Neo-Victorianism?  Who knows?

The curious case of the feminist fainting couch

November 12, 2014

fainting victorian lady

My wife was a French major, but she’s forged a career as a high-level engineer and manager in a famous tech company.  She bore and raised three children, and put up with me, while out-competing males in one of the most male-dominated industries.  I always thought of her as my ideal for humanity, but if I were into women’s causes I would consider her a heroine of feminism.  However graciously, she pushed and shoved her way into a man’s world.

Not so.  From the scattered signals I get – admittedly, as a self-identified member of the “guy” construct – women’s advocates aren’t interested in success stories.  They don’t much care for female winners and trail-blazers.  In fact, they seem altogether bored by working women.

The portrait of womanhood that emerges from the effusions of their professional advocates is of a frail, genteel, terrified creature, forever shocked by encounters with the indecent urges of male sexuality.  Attend college, you get date rape.  Step into the street, you are deafened by the wolfish howls of men.  Get online – trolls call you unspeakable names.  The workplace?  Ground zero for an epidemic of disgusting male behavior.

What’s a liberated woman to do?  The next stage of feminism may well be the fainting couch, or even the fainting room, where Victorian ladies were expected to withdraw while getting over those annoying spells of female hysteria.  Life is too crude, too naked, too sexual – we’ve even come to call sex “gender,” as if reproduction were a grammatical exercise – for the more spiritual half of humankind.

Here is a “trigger warning” in an MIT survey to students on the subject of sexual assault:

Some of the questions in this survey use explicit language, including anatomical names of body parts… This survey also asks about sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence which may be upsetting.  Resources for support will be available on every page of the survey, should you need them.

Apparently, even reading that the body has parts and sexual assault occurs can induce a swoon.

If women are sheep, then who is the shepherd?  Who rescues the eternal victim?  I have no clue.  Not her “partner,” certainly.  That Victorian standard has been allowed to lapse.  The government?  Come on.  That’s where you drown in testosterone.   Feminist organizations?  They are the ones leading the frantic chorus of “Be afraid – be very afraid…”

Here, though, is the wretched truth:  the sexual nightmare described by the advocacy groups actually exists.  Male fighters for the Islamic caliphate regularly rape, brutalize, and enslave female captives.  They recently kidnapped, tortured, and murdered a woman in Iraq for the sin of promoting women’s rights.  On occasion, some of these practices have been exported to the democratic West.  Muslim men in Rotherham, England, for example, raped and prostituted 1,400 underage girls during a span of 15 years.

A naïve observer, an analyst from Mars, might conclude that these horrors have inspired the note of panic in the feminist world-view, and that the men responsible for them must be the natural targets of feminist outrage.

Not so.  There has been mostly silence.  Women’s advocates seem profoundly indifferent to the atrocities perpetrated against women in the Middle East, much preferring to troll for date rape in Cambridge.  Concerning Rotherham, the omerta-like silence was so deep that the male abusers continued to abuse, undisturbed, for many years.

Dwelling on such subjects doesn’t make you a favorite of the women’s movement.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali defied her patriarchal culture, and has campaigned relentlessly against the mistreatment and mutilation of women in Muslim lands.  Religious zealots murdered her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, and have threatened to murder her.  In a logical universe, such an assertive female would be a leader among those who advocate women’s causes.

Not so.  Hirsi Ali is invariably described not as “brave” or “uncompromising” but as “controversial” – meaning she’s upsetting.  She talks about Islam and body parts.  Tender spirits who become exposed to her are expected to dash off to the fainting couch and wanly clasp to their bosoms “resources for support.”

Not controversial, somehow:  that college administrator who imagined the ultra-clever kids at MIT would be horrified to learn sexual assault is a thing.

Does any of this matter?  Only if morality matters – and it’s the peculiar contention of this blog that it does.

Morality presents the individual with rough-and-ready signposts to the good life.  Human beings prefer purpose to drift.  We demand that our personal story have a theme, a clear direction:  that we inch toward some ideal.  For guys, it’s easy.  Get a job, get a woman, play it straight with both – bingo.  You’re one of the good ones.

Young women, as they look to the future, confront a trackless jungle of contradictory moral imperatives.  Should they mate, or avoid rape?  Marry, or embrace freedom?  Go for the big family, or the big career?  The signs point in every direction.  The good life is nowhere to be found.

Anyone who thinks women are faint-hearted and easily shocked hasn’t met my wife or daughter.  But if they were, what earthly good is served by constantly proclaiming that men are terrifying predators – and that women should withdraw and beg for “support” from a safe distance, rather than engage and compete?  That feels like the opposite direction from equality:  from happiness, too.

To accomplish anything in life, to exist as a moral agent, even the most fragile Neo-Victorian feminist will have to rise from her couch and walk smack into the world as it really is.

Freedom and community

September 19, 2014


Two powerful impulses propel the modern soul.  One is the wish for an ever-expanding circle of personal freedom.  The other is a craving for authentic community among like-minded persons.

Immediately, trouble arises.  We walk the earth twitching with tension, bent under the weight of a terrible contradiction.  My ideal dispensation would make of life a canvas of infinite possibility and experimentation, over which I am supreme, an artist-tyrant, attended all the while by friends and neighbors whose behavior I have scripted to careful specifications.  I must be free – all others, authentic.

I suppose most people today would shrink from using the term “artist-tyrant.”  And of course, realistically speaking, they are right to do so.  As a rule they only crave a little adventure, nothing more:  a temporary release from the rigors of social existence.  A week at a nudist beach, say.  Or a grotesque tattoo.  Or milder still, the loud public embrace of one of those moralistic causes, like gay marriage, that absorb our neo-Victorian minds.

The difficulty is that these tiny assertions of freedom take place in an empty theater.  I crave applause.  In the way of all humanity, I require validation, which can be delivered only by a community working under shared rules, but everybody else is at that nudist beach alongside with me.  We are all together, but nobody’s there.

Most of us would also probably deny wishing to script the human race into a supporting cast or approving audience to the exercise of our freedom.  We just ask for a little companionship.  We love freedom, but hate loneliness.  But this resembles the argument of the cheating husband who demands that his wife remain faithful.  It’s morally false.

So let me make the point very plainly.  Freedom and community are not rights to be claimed, or virtues to be internalized, or even conditions to be achieved, whether by luck or willed effort.  They are problems to be wrestled with, painfully, at every level of human existence, from the personal to the cosmic.

Freedom is a problem because it’s empty.  It must be filled with something.  To be sure, I can decide to fill it with community.  But what exactly does this mean, and how does one go about it?  The path to community, it turns out, is twisted and steep – mortal mistakes are possible along the way.

The problem with community is that it can’t be produced or tailored on demand.  It can only evolve on its own terms, over time.

From a certain perspective, the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be viewed as the political and economic liberation of hundreds of millions, who nevertheless felt lost, cheated, and enraged by their new condition in life.  Many abandoned the old faiths and ideals, without having a clue about what to put in their place.  Such people, whose numbers were legion in Europe, hungered after a messianic future or an invented past:  hence the cult of authenticity preached by Martin Heidegger and his intellectual brood.  Authenticity condemned liberal democracy, capitalism, industrial life – the present order, with all its confusions and compromises – to oblivion.  It justified nihilism now for the promise of community, maybe later.

Given the temper of the times, it was probably inevitable that these existential cravings would assume political form.  The mass movements of the last century failed to reconcile the tension between freedom and community, but were highly successful in identifying culprits.  For the proletarian, it was the kulak and the bourgeoisie.  For members of the Aryan race, it was the Jew and the gypsy.  Happiness was possible only after the extermination of these selfish troublemakers.

Fraternity, converted into political action, invariably ends in holocaust.  This remains as true in our day as it was during the horrors of the twentieth century:  President Obama, who seems to think that mere passage of time has lifted the human race above such irrationalities, is perpetually shocked by events.   Today a seeker after an invented Islamic caliphate (offspring of Heidegger rather than Muhammad) must begin his quest with the elimination of troublemaking groups:  Yazidis, Shias, Christians.

It is sometimes maintained that mass movements represent a flight away from freedom, to a more childish and obedient state.  I can imagine a different motivation.  The mass movement offers freedom of a peculiar kind:  that of the criminal.  It holds the faithful together by a powerful bond:  the knowledge of having spilled rivers of innocent blood.

The new millennium has stumbled on a new manner to organize community:  the (mostly) virtual network.  These are freely chosen, egalitarian, and clustered around an object of true interest – computer games, say, or some political predilection.  One joins the network at will, participates as much or as little as desired, and departs without penalty.  Networks lack the intrinsic virulence of the mass movement.  None has ever built an extermination camp.  Yet they, too, in their own way, are problematic.

The problem with networks lies precisely in their openness, in the extraordinary degree of freedom allowed to participants.  There are no headmen, no fuehrer principles, no hierarchies or ruling castes – but also no rules, no plans, no programs, not even the outline of an ideology to guide positive action.  The network grows up and blows up at the speed of light.  Only a powerfully persuasive shared point of reference can keep it together:  almost always, this has meant being against.

The community that sprang up around the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page in opposition to the Mubarak regime in Egypt demonstrated the power and the problems of networked action.  The page, managed on inclusive and interactive principles by a few individuals – notably Wael Ghonim – mobilized hundreds of thousands to participate in the street revolt of January 2011.  An authentic loathing of the regime held this network together.  Members lacked a shared ideology or program, but were united against the status quo. Once Mubarak, object of their loathing, was shoved offstage, neither the site, nor any of its members, nor Ghonim, had any positive contributions to make regarding the future of Egypt.  Power devolved first to an old-fashioned mass movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and later to the same institution that had produced Mubarak – the military.

Eternal negation is the price of online authenticity.  To retain the (short) attention of participants, the political network, much like the mass movement, will end up slouching toward nihilism.

Entry into a network is easy.  All I need is an opinion and a cell phone.  I can cash in my freedom to oppose this or that – capitalism, say, or President Obama, or a dictator like Mubarak, or a semi-dictator like Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.  But the path to community, I repeat, is torturous and often painful.  At the end of the day, much more than opposition is demanded.

Initiation into a traditional community was never comfortable, never easy.  Terror and pain guarded the gates to adulthood.  Many reasons have been given to explain the harsh ceremonies of traditional societies, but the simplest answer works best for me:  the higher the cost of entry, the greater the value of membership.

The same principle holds true for contemporary life.  Something must be yielded before something can be gained.  In this regard, the oath administered to new US citizens, which requires that they “renounce and abjure” past allegiances and “protect and defend” the Constitution against all enemies, is a true rite of passage.  The Europeans have struggled to develop a similar process.  At one time, the Dutch asked immigrants to watch a video showing naked women and same-sex lovers, to test their Netherlandish tolerance.

The English, having absent-mindedly become “British,” can’t articulate what that means or what the penalty should be for renouncing and abjuring – witness the panic around the vote for Scottish independence.  Today twice as many supposedly “British” Muslims fight for the Islamic caliphate than for the British armed forces.  These are not immigrants but the children of immigrants:  young people lost to crime and violence on that twisted road to community, beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.

Far more than nationalism, religion aims at communion in the depths, and exacts an entry toll proportionate to that ambition.  I can exercise my freedom and “convert” to a faith, join a congregation.  But what am I saying when I use those words?  Conversion, properly understood, means revelation:  it’s less a question of switching teams than of being shown a new cosmic order that demands a new mode of life.  The experience is always traumatic.  Personality cracks like fractured bone and must be painfully reorganized, so that the convert emerges a stranger to his original self, confused and disoriented, a newborn.

The agony endured is every bit as physical as it is spiritual.  St. Paul “fell to the ground” and became temporarily blinded by his revelation on the road to Damascus.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James records cases of conversion attended by “unconsciousness, convulsions, visions, involuntary vocal utterances, and suffocation.”  Community at the cosmic level can’t be achieved simply by knocking on the door of the right fraternity house.  Something – sometimes everything – must be yielded, if something is to be gained.

In a sense, such transformations are a consequence of personal freedom and choice:  but that’s not how it feels.  The convert feels chosen by a higher power.  The path to spiritual community appears to run through what James termed “self-surrender.”  The abiding paradox of personal freedom is that it often achieves the most complete individual regeneration by forsaking the individual’s will and its desires.  My freedom to alter my life in some wished-for direction becomes more potent the less I concern myself with my life and plans and directions.

I think this paradox throws light on our present condition – on our conflicted hunger for more freedom and more authentic community.  Freedom, on the moral plane, is not about personal achievement or private satisfaction.  The pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson well understood, is identical to the practice of virtue:  insofar as I possess human dignity it is because I freely choose to act in ways that benefit my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my church, my town, even my country, no less than myself.

Sartre said that hell is other people.  Granted that French philosophers, like children with disabilities, should be treated in special ways – but that is still a remarkably obtuse and wrongheaded judgment.  Authentic community is other people.  There is nothing else that can stand in their place.  Personal freedom is the basic unit of moral information in my interaction with others.  And it may well be that, at the psychological level, we as a species have been selected to feel satisfaction in the exercise of generosity and justice toward the people around us, and to be penalized with tension and unease when we allow our private cravings to consume our freedom of action.

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

June 9, 2014

I have just published a book dealing with some of the themes that are discussed in this blog.  The title is The Revolt of the Public, the subtitle is The Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, and the link to Amazon is below.

I hope readers of Vulgar Morality will find it down their alley…

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

Buy from Amazon

The great adventure

November 1, 2011

Most people I know feel endlessly fascinated by the lives of others, yet consider their own existence to be little more than drudgery and toil.  This is a peculiar but universal trait of our species.  We are obsessed with what others do – and how they do it, and why.  Television, with its reality shows and crime documentaries, profits greatly thereby.  YouTube pretty much exists to meet this need.

Other lives hum with the background music of drama and adventure, while ours, alas, plod on in the cadence of dull prose.

It doesn’t matter if the lives are fictional so long as they are “not me” – in fact, as Hollywood and the book publishing industry know, falsehood may actually enhance our interest.  The most intriguing person who never lived may well have been R. R. Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment.  At least I think so.  Objectively speaking, it sounds pathological to weep over a naked lie:  instead, it’s all too human.

I don’t know why we find other people so fascinating.  Mostly they aren’t, at least not any more than we ourselves are.  We probably succumb to a combination of empathy and fear.  We are hardwired to connect emotionally to the inner lives of others, and to predict their behavior relative to our own survival.  People also learn largely by example, so all the peeping, gossiping, and story-telling may have a didactic purpose.

I have no problem with snooping into my neighbor’s business as a sort of hobby, an idle sport:  but I want to argue, against the odds, on behalf of my own life and yours.

There’s nothing strange about the feeling of drudgery.  Life, all the proverbs and commercials tell us, is short – but the day is long.  Duty and necessity fill up most of the hours.  We yearn to find meaning, to impose a grand theme, uniquely ours, on the passing of time, but instead we feel like that feather in Forrest Gump, blown here and there by external forces.  Helplessness and boredom turn us against our own life’s tale.

I have lived long enough to understand how tactical and moment-driven, and therefore mistaken, this perspective is.

Human life is a range of possibilities derived from the circumstances of birth.  Some encounter hardship and suffering.  Some are privileged and pleasurable – the existential equivalent of a stroll in the park.  But all entail choices, and the consequences are unknowable in advance.  I may drop out of college and become Steve Jobs or the dishwasher at Chili’s.  I may marry the girl of my dreams and experience a nightmare or joy to old age.

Every life is a mystery even to itself.  My life is a mystery to me.  I make choices and things happen which force yet more choices on me.  The connections seem unclear.  Causes and effects are nebulous.  Hamlet called death the undiscovered kingdom, but that description pertains to the living future as well.

Each of us is Columbus, sailing into the unknown.  All of us must discover the world anew.  The keepers of culture and tradition labor to keep our lives bounded, but each of them is an individual, each has made a choice and internalized, in a personal and subjective way, a set values and moral directives meant to guide a community, an entire civilization.  The most timid and hidebound human being is a discoverer of continents.

If we embraced a sense of adventure commensurate with the uncertainty of the future, I suppose we would all drop dead from excitement.  However, a bit of buzz in the bloodstream about the surprises which lie ahead is justified at every age.  Kids must stare down monsters in the shadows.  The young must bump into and stumble around an alien world crowded with adults.  The middle-aged – likeliest to forget life’s adventure – share decades with spouses in uncertain intimacy, raise children with yet-untold stories, navigate careers with unknown destinations.

For the old, death permeates all calculations:  every action is taken with a mysterious final reckoning in mind.

The doors to adventure stand open, even to the end.  The worth of a life, the measure of the man, is his relation to the adventure which happened to be his lot.  None is important in itself.  None is insignificant either.  This is not a matter of egalitarian principle but of mathematical complexity.  Abraham Lincoln and Jonas Salk may have had the power to free or to heal, but their achievements rested on an infinite number of obscure circumstances caused by anonymous individuals.  The latter are the wings of the butterfly which bring about the hurricane.

Greatness depends on smallness:  no human life is so mean or deprived that its adventure isn’t big with consequences.

Here I might be accused of playing the glad game, portraying the world in a Panglossian light.  Some lives, it might be argued, are too brief to matter.  They add nothing to the store of our experience.  Others are contemptible.  Others still are vicious, morally depraved.  What is the worth of their adventure?  Wouldn’t we be better off if these hadn’t taken place?

Excitement about tomorrow, too, may be proper for a well fed, well educated, well-to-do character – for me:  maybe not for the Alzheimer’s patient, though, or the mother of a dying infant in Somalia.  To endow the latter with the emotional life of the former, my accuser might claim, can only be the product of bourgeois romanticism.

But I am not playing the glad game.  This is not a glad season of my life.  I’ve lost people close to me, family members and neighbors – and it is precisely their loss, the pain of it, but also the appalling arbitrariness, which led me to wonder why we fail to value the story of our own lives.

When I say adventure I don’t mean a Disney World ride.  An adventure is a test.  Most of the time, we fail.  That is the way of the world.  The excitement I feel arises in the determination to endure, even advance, in the face of failure.  I would not judge the suffering Somali mother by the same standards I judge myself, but every moment she maintains her integrity is a triumph, even if she falls apart the next.  The adventure is a test of truth:  when truth is lived, we are redeemed.

Adventure makes a single demand:  that we become worthy of it.  Once we perceive life in these terms, we must engage in a struggle to measure up.  Most of the time (I repeat) we will fail.  The contemptible and vicious fail systematically.  They deny the adventure.  They are unworthy of the lives they were given.  Their fall into the abyss serves as a terrifying reminder of the stakes for which we are playing.

The last temptation is to escape into falsehood.  If I’m consumed by the drudgery and triviality of my days, I may deny who I am.  I will then lie to myself about myself, and to all around me about my place in the world.  This is a form of suicide.  I disintegrate into a shifting shadow, a specter of deluded vanity, visible only to those in the same condition as me.  My ruling emotion will resemble a criminal’s:  fear of being exposed.  My unforgiving enemy will be the truth.

I expect most people lie to themselves in moments of weakness.  I have done so often enough.  But when I think of the people I love who are now gone forever, I don’t want to lie to myself about them, I don’t want to falsify or prettify their stories:  I want to honor their truth as I understand it.  My life’s adventure is bound with theirs, and the whole crew of us, living and dead, belong with the sweeping self-willed trajectory of the human spirit, a cosmic migration to a strange land.

We may deny ourselves in fear and weakness, like St. Peter, before the cock crows, but can’t escape the truth in the light of day.  We are headed somewhere unknown, at an uncertain pace, for mysterious reasons – and we might as well enjoy the ride.

Deep thought

August 27, 2011

“At some level, we accept that the future is unpredictable, but we do not know how much of that unpredictability could be eliminated simply by thinking through the possibilities more carefully, and how much is inherently random in the way that a roll of the dice is random.”

Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious


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