Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Free-Thinking or Treason?

Robert G. Ingersoll was a famous free-thinker  (photo: Mathew Brady, Levin Corbin Handy)
It is extremely uncomfortable to take unpopular positions and say things that others don’t want to hear.  If you consider yourself a liberal you have a self-conception that's predicated upon a concern for victims and a desire to provide for those who have less than yourself. If you're a conservative you might view yourself as someone whose brand of humanism encourages the notion of self-reliance. Less government is better than more since it forces people to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. Less government and less regulation also make individualism more possible. Whichever side of the fence you stand on, eventually you establish a comfort zone in which you exercise your values. The problem comes when you find yourself inadvertently questioning some of the positions that might have been at the heart of your own program. You might hate Bill O’Reilly’s politics, but find his verbal suggestiveness with women a far cry from more extreme forms of abuse which are ubiquitous in the media and the academic or corporate worlds--and literally any situation where the cocktail of power and sexuality is brewed. If you're a conservative you might find yourself cast adrift in the no man’s land of health care legislation. You dislike big government, but you can’t abide lessening Medicaid benefits that mean that people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder might not be able to afford life saving mediations for diabetes, heart disease or cancer. As either a liberal or conservative crossing the literal or metaphoric aisle,  you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of being regarded as a heretic in the world of like-minded people in which you generally operate. When society is polarized, as it currently is, divagations from the party line tend to be viewed as a form of treason. The lone voice in the crowd, that of the free-thinker, is something that few on either side of the political spectrum want to hear.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Kind of Post That Requires a Centerfold

Relativity and quantum mechanics revolutionized physics and one of the problems for the casual observer is that their truths are not easily verifiable to the naked eye. In one way of another experience is deceptive. People pay lip service to the unconscious or subconscious as it’s sometimes called, but few people really believe such an entity exists. One of the jokes about the unconscious concerns its exact location. Is it a lower or higher brain activity or somewhere in between? It’s a little reminiscent of the argument concerning consciousness and whether it’s a physical property of the brain or whether, as dualists since Descartes have argued, its something separate. Though some scientists like Richard Dawkins might bridle at this, the same can be said about God, whose existence is denied by agnostics and atheists on the basis of the fact that it can’t be proven. In any case, the ultimate subject from an eschatological or teleological point of view is really what is the final nature of things. Lucretius wrote a famous poem, De rerum natura which deals with the nature of reality and of course there’s Plato’s metaphor of the cave where the ideal forms of human existence are only shadows on the wall. The theory of Dark Energy posits that space will become darker and darker as the universe continues to expand and objects drift further from each other. The more that occurs and empirical observation is pushed to the wayside, the more faith will come into play.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Joys of Embarrassment

"An Embarrassing Proposal" by Antoine Watteau
As you journey through life, you’ll undoubtedly come across numerous untoward circumstances that you wish hadn’t happened. After the initial disappointment about the fact of them occurring, you'll generally go through the stage of rationalization in which you attempt to regard them as learning experiences. You may even take the attitude that someday, your trials and tribulations will help a fellow sufferer, who's going through say a similar problem. But someday you're going to hit your head up against a brick wall. Something is going to happen for which there are no inadvertent rewards. It will be one of those sick demonic pieces of bad luck that levels you. Your house will be flattened in a tornado or you will suffer some flesh eating illness that leaves you literally less of a person. Oh sure there are all kinds of people who’ve lost everything and who you’ll hear about on some born again broadcasting network testifying about platforms for revelation. But they're them are you're you and this one will be the knockout punch that has the fighter out cold. You will be decked. You won't be able to get up. During the Great Depression there were many people who suffered this way. Some jumped out of office buildings when the stock market crashed and others who had lost businesses never regained the confidence and wherewithal to make a comeback. Not everyone who gets knocked down stands up again. You’ve seen people like this who, to quote Tennessee Williams, are dependent "on the kindness of strangers.” And despite the kudos that must go out to those with exceptional spirit, it will be nice to know that there are real live people, who are not living advertisements for exceptionality and whose names won’t be used to endorse this or that rehab, detox, ointment or program of human potentiality maximization. It will be good to see the bar lowered and know that you're not the only one who has taken a huge belly flop, that you're not the only one for whom life has become, for want of a better word, simply an embarrassment.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Counter-Reformation on Campus

You have the Reformation which might be called the state of gender politics especially as it relates to campus life and the Counter-Reformation, a movement which has been ignited by authors like Camille Paglia. Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender and Feminism and Laura Kipnis in her recent book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Come to Campus. If the Reformation was an attempt to rid the church of hypocrisy, then the attempts to litigate sexuality have derived from excesses that genuinely infected campus life. No one doubts, for instance, that professors have had a long history of exercising their droit de seigneur with impressionable young women or men, depending on the sexual inclinations of the parties involved. Now comes the Counter-Reformation with its hopes to reform the church itself. Isn’t it comparable to those authors who don’t want to throw the baby, that is to say the biological drives which constitute human sexuality, out with the bathwater. The Reformation is represented by statutes like Affirmative Consent, which turns sex between adults on a University of California campus into a legal matter that could ultimately require the services of attorneys. Remember another trendy tome, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics? Though this might be good for expanding the purview and incomes of matrimonial lawyers, it’s not likely to have an salubrious effect on instinct, which is increasingly becoming politicized and scrutinized, as if Big Brother or Mother were indeed watching. Counter-Reformationists are a little like conservationists dealing with protected lands. Society insures that nature preserves will not be destroyed by developers, but what about the pre-conscious world of the animal known as man or woman?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Austin Journal: Two-Stepping

photograph by Hallie Cohen
Here is a saying placed above the counter at a very good Austin gelato place, Dolce Neve: "We do it in front of everyone." And here is another one decorating the porch of a charming gingerbread sized house in the parking lot in back of the Veracruz All Natural Food Truck which has great tacos: "No zealots allowed." It's not that there are city ordinances regarding the content of homilies but both reflect a liberal spirit that can be almost edgy at times. After all Austin is the home of SXSW and The University of Texas and the writing as they say is on the wall in terms of a burgeoning sensibility in which both ideas and maxims are tested. New York, LA and Boston are all liberal albeit larger university towns but there's something about Austin that places old verities in new  contexts, stretching and shifting paradigms along the way. Oh and on Saturday night if you want to do some good ole fashioned two-stepping to a live honky tonk band, hit the The White Horse in East Austin.