"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Trump Or Not Trump - The Profound Religious And Secular Beliefs That Determine How We Vote

When the noise and static are removed from political debate; when the reasons for true belief are exposed; and when one’s character is finally, once and for all, exposed, there is no place to hide.  A conservative conviction in the ineluctability of human nature, the circular, repetitive course of history, the impossibility of progress, and the denial of any secular utopia underlies every political choice.

Small government? A belief in a God-given soul and the freedom to explore its nature and reunite with the divine.  Social conservatism? A respect for Biblical injunction, the God-inspired Bill of Rights, Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the principles of the Enlightenment.  Family values? Rooted in American exceptionalism, New England, Westward Expansion, prairie homesteads, and faith.  Militant nationalism? Pride and patriotism based on the unique combination of Puritan rectitude, Yankee ingenuity, immigrant ambition, and liberal democracy.

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A progressive conviction on the perfectibility of Man, the inevitability of progress, the existence of a secular utopia, and the freedom from religion similarly underlie their political choices.  Government intervention in otherwise private affairs? A belief in collectivism, communitarianism, and social mobilization to right ills and to expunge counter-revolutionary influences.  Secularism? A conviction that while religion plays an important role in human affairs, history has shown it to be exploitive, manipulative, and enslaving; and only secular union and the concerted activism of the many can overcome the historical chains that bind.

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Everything follows from these convictions.  Every social issue determined by them.  Abortion is not simply a question of pro-life or pro-choice but a fundamental conflict between a profoundly religious, moral belief about the sanctity of a God-given life and man’s responsibility to preserve and protect it; and an equally profound conviction in the fundamental integrity of a rights-based community and the importance of safeguarding its independence from retrograde forces.   Gay rights are similarly not a question of civil right and wrong, but a clash of convictions – one, derived from Biblical injunctions against homosexuality and strengthened by a socio-economic and cultural belief in the importance of a two-parent, heterosexual union; and the other founded on principle of the sanctity of identity.

Rights are collective, and collective bargaining – in this case the LGBTQ community – must be protected against parochial beliefs.  War, in the conservative mind, is not an aberration, but a perpetual expression of human nature; unfortunate but unavoidable in a Darwinian struggle for supremacy.  Peace in the progressive mind is not only possible but preferable, necessary, and achievable – a means to an ultimately perfect end.

it is no surprise that progressives are more activist.  Anyone who believes in the primacy of human nature and the unavoidable consequences of its aggressive, territorial, defensive, and self-interested character cannot help but accept life as it comes – without surprises, quite predictable; and while messy and unpleasant at times, inevitable.  Protest is nonsensical at best.

Those who believe that positive change is possible – that a better world awaits if only a concerted action can be mounted in its favor – cannot help but be on the front lines.  Diffidence is not acceptable, and the more that anti-democratic forces are arrayed in opposition, the more activism is a moral imperative.

The academic, intellectual wing of both movements, conservative and progressive, look at social, economic, and cultural issues through this philosophical lens.  They understand what moves them and why the ends that they promote are the right ones.  They, each in their turn, rely on Tertullian, 2 Kings, Lacan, Derrida, and Paul of Tarsus for inspiration, context, and purpose.  The other 99 percent – those who sense the importance of fundamental beliefs but little beyond– are content to work as soldiers in movement they barely understand.  They march for or against an issue more for identity, recognition, and self-esteem than they do to effect policy.

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Most of those who demonstrate against the One Percent have no idea of the complex system of economics and finance which governs individual and community choices, benefits, and opportunities.  Wall Street is an enemy, a demonic, preying force of anti-libertarian greed.  Those who demand racial equality never consider the socio-economic and cultural determinants of poverty and social immobility.  The glass ceiling for women is no more than an iconic image of frustration at the demands of capitalism.  Pro-choice demonstrators have never reviewed both Early Church and more recent Vatican pronouncements on the nature of human life; nor been willing to accept that abortion is not simply a question of civil rights but moral obligation.

The landscapers of the Washington Mall have little time to re-sod, reseed, or repair the grounds because demonstrations from the Left are so common.  There are marches for women’s solidarity, for the inalienable right of children to remain with their parents, against racism and homophobia, against income inequality, and for world peace.  These progressive airings, however, have few specific goals or objectives.  There is no Vietnam War to end; no back-of-the-bus discrimination to eliminate.  Whatever one makes of the Sixties, their activists had focus, purpose, and will.  Today’s demonstrators by comparison march for ideals, most of them unattainable and idealistic at best.

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has been said that today’s American political environment is the most contentious, divisive, and impossibly confrontational of any in history.  This of course is an exaggeration.  Not only have past political campaigns been far dirtier than any in recent years, but the mudslinging from Left and Right has been the rule rather than the exception.  While some observers point to one moment or other in 20th century political debate that belies these venal expectations, they are but superficial conventions.  Kennedy and Humphrey treated each other with respect and proper demeanor in their 1960 primary debates, but the political climate then was as rancorous and disruptive as any.  It was just hidden behind a front of civility.

The true divisions in political philosophy and the first real exposure of the significant divides in American culture came a few years later in the LBJ-Goldwater presidential contest.  Although Johnson won by a landslide, for the first time a conservative political agenda and philosophy were presented to the electorate; and for the first time in decades, radical populist conservatism had legitimacy, and had its most eloquent expression in Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley.   During those years, a new Republican conservative credo was enunciated.  At its simplest is was patriotism, a strong military, a restoration of family values, small government, and ambitious individualism.

Looked back on, it was a much simpler even na├»ve day.  None of the principals could have envisaged the ragged democracy of today when identity politics and social issues so fray the country.
The legacy of Reagan and Buckley are but mirages in today’s militant populism.  Donald Trump shares little with them; and few people – unlike then – appreciate the intellectual underpinnings of the conservative movement.  Today’s conservatives are fighting quite different battles and take sides easily and without much aforethought.

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Similarly today’s progressives are a far cry from FDR and his social imperatives, quite time-bound and temporal (The Great Depression), but still expressive of a strong political philosophy.  They are more emotional, anti-intellectual, and politically needy than those of the days of Gompers, Roosevelt, and the true progressives of the labor movement.  They have been hijacked by the very groups they have championed and are hostage to radical feminism and modern socialism.  Emotionalism, passion, and identity have replaced logical analysis, rational judgement, and specific goals.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sexual Healing–Liaisons, Love, And D.H.Lawrence

Whenever blue teardrops are fallin'
And my emotional stability is leaving me
There is something I can do
I can get on the telephone and call you up baby
And honey I know you'll be there to relieve me
The love you give to me will free me
If you don't know the thing you're dealing
Ohh I can tell you, darling, that it's sexual healing…(Marvin Gaye)
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Nothing particularly new here – sexual intimacy is the quickest, easiest, most accessible, and cheapest way to relieve suffering, restore self-esteem, and give a boost to an otherwise pedestrian life; a drug as powerful, as temporary, and less addictive than heroin.  Who would not choose to spend an hour with a lover in even the worst of places to escape the ordinary, the responsible, and the persistently moral?

Of course no drug comes without side effects and sequelae.  The natural tendency is to return to incidents of temporary pleasure even if they bind and reproduce themselves without conscious will.  There is no way that a man can forget a woman’s suppleness, desire, and ecstasy without wanting more.  He is as dependent on his lover’s passion and intimacy as a drug addict is on narcotics, as needful, as demanding, and as slavish.

Not all sex of course.  Marital sex, particularly that of long duration, quickly loses its healing powers whatsoever.  Beyond a certain age and longevity, sex becomes routine and expected; but new lovers, new venues, new demands are part and parcel of rejuvenation and a restoration or reaffirmation of sexual identity and esteem.

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D.H. Lawrence understood the power of sexual union better than most; and felt that a coming together of parallel, equally matched wills could be an epiphany – at once a rejection of the expected and the bourgeois and a discovery of the unique character of sexual nature.  Sex transcended class and position.  Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper lover had little in common except sexual union – a liberating, completing, and totally satisfying release and coming together.  Even though they doubted continuance – a doubt that was ultimately realized – they persisted.  They could not stay away.  No social mores or conventions could hold them.  Even a doomed sexual union was better than none at all; or worse, an unsatisfactory one.

Lawrence’s characters in Women in Love were modern before their time and suffered because of it.  Gudrun, Rupert, Gerald, and Ursula all sought sexual complementarity – a balance of wills – but could never find it.  Throughout the novel they are testing each other, probing character and principle, but seeking only complete sexual union.  If Lawrence is right about anything – and he was very right about placing sexual dynamics at the core of maturity – he understood how difficult if not impossible it is to achieve ‘coming together’ – a physical event but a philosophical promise.  All his characters hope for union and for complementarity but are hopelessly siloed.   Only Connie and Mellors come close.

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Madame Bovary sought similar sexual license, a liberation from a routine marriage and an essay into sexual realities which could never be even considered within the confines of church-sanctioned matrimony.  Emma Bovary is a selfish, amoral and cruel woman whose sexual and feminist demands, however worthy, are her undoing.  She cannot untangle character from sexuality.

Henry Miller exalted sex, but for its own sake.  His characters were liberating but narrowly conceived.  Kate and Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew) were perhaps most sexually fulfilled literary couple and certainly the forerunners of Lawrence.  There is no question of male or female dominance, but a matching of sexual will.  If Kate submits to Petruchio’s maleness and authority, it is because she wants to – to be free from sexual antagonism, proto-Freudian combat with her father, and jealous competition with her sister.  Union with Petruchio is indeed sexual healing of the most substantial sort.

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There are women who dismiss men’s sexual dalliances with younger women out of hand – laughable attempts to recover lost youth, optimism, and vigor.  How silly men are, they claim, so adolescent, fanciful, and immature.  Yet they have no idea of the transformative power of sex with such women. 
Antony, one of the triumvirate of Rome, brilliant military general, and charismatic leader, gives all away for his love of Cleopatra, a woman of savvy and means who has bedded Julius Caesar and Pompey, whose ambitions have no bounds, and who has never been bested.  She is the younger woman, the unattainable feminine ideal, the embodiment of sexual presence and the seductive allure of the East.  He is well aware of the risks he is taken; but this, undoubtedly the last love of his life and perhaps his best, cannot be denied.  Cleopatra will full all his unfulfilled expectations.

Coleman Silk, the main character in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain explains his affair with a woman thirty years his junior, this way – “Granted, she is not my first love; and granted she is not my best love; but she surely is my last love”, and that has to count for something. Youthful rejuvenation is not silly nor a caricature of men over the hill, still immature and fanciful; but an important reality.  What man in his later years would refuse the opportunity to love a young woman?  To have the sex he thought over and done with? To both remember youth and to relive it?

If there was ever sexual healing it is between an older man and a younger woman.

‘Make-up sex’ became popular thanks to George Costanza and Seinfeld.  The best sex was an act of contrition – and like the prayers said after confession, never truly believed.  Marital squabbles and fights would continue, make-up sex would become an almost expected part of the routine; but it never would amount to anything but a Band-Aid and far from sexual healing.

At the finale of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf George and Martha, bloodied and beaten after having been ‘flayed to the marrow’ realize that they, even in very perverse ways, love each other.  As the curtain falls, they make their way off to bed…or so believers in sexual healing would expect.  There is nothing in the play, however, to lead one to  assume that an alcohol-fueled resolution would be the final one; and that sexual reconciliation would even be possible.  Albee might be philosophically hopeful for sexual and emotional union, but he has prepared George and Martha and us for failure.

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Sexual healing of course comes in many sizes and need not be the existential experience of Shakespeare or Albee.  A simple rendezvous, a Parisian cinq-a-sept, can do wonders for boredom and irritability.  So much is wrapped up in the sexual act – will, dominance and submission, performance, expectation, romance and desire – that even at its most cartoonish it satisfies.

The ultimate irony of life is that God created men with a time-limited sexual drive, libido, and physical competence but condemned them to think about sex until their dying day.  If there is any other aspect of life more important, more durable, and more resistant to sexual fantasy, it has has yet to be found.

Sex is as common as ragweed in the late summer – unremarkable, extant, expected, and nothing special – and like the weed causes bouts of sneezing and runny eyes.  Only in some special cases does it rise above allergy.  Lawrence, Albee, and Shakespeare knew that it could but rarely.  Sexual healing – an epiphany of sexual union which has lasting effects on character and self-awareness – occurs only in certain few, ill-defined cases. Perhaps it takes predilection – wanting more than sexual release – but such desire and melodramatic romance never result in anything but sweet kisses and good-byes.  Perhaps it takes will and struggle – an innate sense of human natural determinism.  One must prevail; and in the attempt a worthy opponent shows herself.

In any case, no truer words were said or sung than those of Marvin Gaye.
And when I get that feeling
I want sexual healing
Sexual healing is good for me
Makes me feel so fine, it's such a rush
Helps to relieve the mind, and it's good for us

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Fallacy Of Uniqueness And The Cult Of Specialness

Roberta Hopkins had been told since infancy that she was special; but as her parents realized that she was nothing of the kind – not particularly bright or talented, never very athletic, socially unskilled and worst of all unattractive.

Her parents, like any other, had hoped for a special child, one endowed with more gifts than they had, and perhaps gifted with a unique ability that would distinguish her from her peers; and it was with disappointment that they came to realize that Roberta was  anything but. 

Roberta was born in an age of inclusivity and specialness, an educational and social philosophy which insisted that every child must have something unique about them, and that this uniqueness was a gift to be nurtured.  Every child in Roberta’s kindergarten class wore a necklace, each a different color, made with different beads, shells, or nuts, but all of the same length.  Attached to each was their photograph and beneath it the words, “I am special”. This program worked well in kindergarten and a few months into first grade, but by Christmas students had quickly realized that coloring inside the lines was not the equivalent to drawing birds and tigers, never making a mistake in long division, and winning all the races on field day.  By second grade, cliques began to form according to students’ own system of classification.  Pretty girls whispered and conspired with pretty girls.  By fourth grade, not only were cliques formed – the pretty, the male, the socialite, the genius, and the superstar – but anti-cliques.  The ugly, uncoordinated, socially inept, and the dumb were relegated, kept far from the perimeter of the in-crowd, isolated in home room, the cafeteria, and the playground.  No amount of teacher discipline, no mandated policy of zero tolerance for bullying or antisocial behavior, no amount of encouragement, support, and love could change the social environment.  No matter what anyone did, the natural tendency of children to self-sort, to group according to ability and preference, and to alienate those who fell short of the mark prevailed.  School administrators never admitted defeat, but privately they had to acknowledge what they saw in the halls.

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Roberta’s parents at first thought they had an ally in the principal and teachers and Vance Elementary School.  Their philosophy of militant inclusivity was bound to keep the worst offenses at bay and to enable their unfortunately mediocre and talentless child to make it to the next level. 

“You are special”, her parents told her, “and we love you very much”.  She heard the same encouraging words from her parents’ friends and their pastor as well as from her teachers.  Although all of them knew that they were perpetrating a hoax that eventually would out, they persisted.  It seemed the right thing to do.

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By the fifth grade, Roberta was having none of it.  She was intelligent and aware enough to realize that she could never match up in any category.  No matter how diverse the inclusivity chart on the classroom wall was, she belonged nowhere.  She couldn’t sing even the simplest song, or win at beanbag toss, or get picked as a substitute extra in the school play.  She realized that she had been sold a bill of goods.

Of course no one is completely a blank slate.  Roberta never forgot to feed the dog or complained about picking up her room.  She liked practical jokes and easily imagined herself a princess or a ballerina.  Her stubbornness could easily be an expression of will and determination, and her pickiness could well be a sign of maturing discernment in food and fashion.  It all depended how you looked at it; and unfortunately the educators at Vance Elementary had to draw the line somewhere, stop at X number of diverse categories, and select those categories which would include most children.

Fortunately Roberta had pluck, another overlooked talent, and the early years of hoax had no lasting damage.  On the contrary, she turned this period of nonsense, into resolve – not necessarily to find something she was good at, but to play well the bad cards she had been dealt.

In fact Roberta had one singular talent – she recognized deception for what it was.  She watched her classmates who had bought the bill of goods sold by their parents and their teachers, become discouraged when they were turned down at the most mediocre schools, failed every screen test, were cut from athletic squads in the first week, ended up with the least desirable boys, married badly, shuffled along a predictable career, and came home to boast about nothing.

Of course there were those boys and girls who did excel at math, science, art, dance, sports, and sociability – the bell curve was always to be trusted – but they too learned that the deception ran deep.  When all was said and done, they still ate at the same trough, lost their memory and their wits like everyone else, ran afoul of the law or the church, and found that friendship – based as it was on the same deceptive philosophy of deception and inclusivity they had learned at Vance – was disappointing as everything else.

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A colleague, a young lawyer recently graduated from Michigan and come to settle in Washington, had heard of a new, unassuming, and unpublicized restaurant in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood of the city.  It apparently defied expectations – it is not easy to manage a startup in a marginal slum, find employees willing to work there, to source quality food at low prices, and to keep up the routine of purchase, preparation, presentation, and security without faltering – and the lawyer and his wife felt good about their choice.  They would be among the select few outsiders who joined locals at the restaurant.  The chef/owner felt an obligation to the community to keep prices modest and food within the range of residents’ palate and hoped to create a unique eating experience.

As they walked into the restaurant, the lawyer and his wife were surprised and in fact nonplussed by what they saw.  Everyone at table was just like them – lawyers, most certainly; lobbyists, bankers and brokers, and architects.  They dressed the same – casual, no-tuck plaid shirts, jeans, and designer T-shirts.  The chatter was familiar, the tone and ambience no different from anywhere in Northwest.  The wine glasses, the silver, the fresh flowers, and the young servers were exactly the same.

It was an epiphany.  The lawyer knew finally that he was not unique; and that he had been as thoroughly and and as similarly conditioned as anyone else.  If such a mundane, superficial choice could have turned out to be so pedestrian and predictable, what did it say about everything else?  He had made it out of the Vance School – or its replicant in Seattle or Austin – but it never left him.

We all have been sold a bill of goods whether through programs of inclusivity and multiple intelligences or by our very middle class parents who were closer to the American Dream than we ever were and bought that particular ethos.  We would like to think we are different, but know that we are not.

A neighbor of Roberta’s, a boy of religious parents, had been taught that he was unique because God gave him a soul unlike any other; and that his only responsibility in life was to rejoin that soul with its maker.  He went for years assuming that if his soul had been God-given, it was indeed special; but no explanation had ever been given by his parents or his pastor.  As he grew older he felt that although he had a divine soul, it mattered little.  It did not describe him in any particularly unique way that could be discerned and admired by others.  He was as confused about God, sex, women, and life in general as those who rejected the idea of divinity; and soon he realized that he too had been tricked. 

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The son of a New Brighton alderman had grown up with no religion or any sense of innate uniqueness.  Instead his father raised him in an ultra-progressive environment within which the individual was nothing and the community was everything.  Belonging mattered, contributing mattered even more.  The world relied on concerned, committed believers like himself.  He, his parents told him, had been gifted with a particularly finely-tuned sense of righteousness and right action, and he would be a leader in a world movement for change.

One day – not unlike the young lawyer – the alderman’s son looked at his fellow marchers on the Mall protesting against injustice, inequality, and discrimination.  How could it be? he asked himself.  They were all exactly the same – same background, same demeanor, same well-heeled engagement, even the same dress.  He and they were all clones.  Not only was individuality a fiction, but a vain one.  Each marcher distinguished himself only from non-marchers, the uninformed or politically ignorant – never from his fellow demonstrators.  The need for collectivity trumped individuality without anyone being aware of it.

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Even genetics confers no real individuality or uniqueness.  Although each or our DNA strands are unlike none other and contain bits and pieces of long-forgotten ancestors and forbears combined randomly to create us, such genetic uniqueness is quickly overcome by nurture.  Sooner or later we become just as conforming, complaisant, accepting, and satisfied as the next person on the bench regardless of Great Uncle Harry’s murders or Great Great Grandmother Esther’s lewdness and prostitution.

Hamlet had the right idea, reflecting on the uniformity and ultimate eventuality of death as he held up the skull of Yorick.  He of all people, prince of Denmark, heir to the throne, descended from a long line of noblemen and aristocrats, should have felt unique and indispensable; but he was uncertain, troubled, and indecisive.  He, like everyone else before and after him, had been sold a bill of goods.

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Shakespeare understood that the wheel of history revolves in perpetuum always with the same predictable events.  It is so because we are all the same, propelled by the same human nature in all of us – self-interested, self-protective, aggressive, territorial, and ambitious.  It didn’t matter to him that history repeated itself, because the way it did was always fascinating.  His kings all behaved in the same way but with a twist – one more determined than another or more poetic or more evil but all acting out the same drama.

Uniqueness doesn’t matter.  Realizing that it doesn’t matter is what counts.