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

Monday, February 27, 2017

Survival Of The Fittest–Limiting Belief And Conviction (A Stoic Primer)

Evolutionary biology teaches that the most adaptable organisms are those that survive best and longest.  Cockroaches have lived basically unchanged for over 300 million years because they do not care what they eat or where they live.  They survive well in all climates, indoors or out, rain or shine.

Raccoons have been around for only a fraction of that,  perhaps 25 million years, but have survived for the same reason – adaptability.   While not as strong, aggressive, or dominant as other animals, their intelligence, tactile sensitivity, agile paws, and  omnivorous habits have given them an evolutionary leg up.

Alex Hardin had always been considered indecisive.  When asked what kind of food he liked, he always said, “Whatever” and meant it.  Pork, lamb, fish, hummus were all the same to him. 

It wasn’t that he lacked taste.  On the contrary, Alex had a fine palate, could always identify the wild berries in the coulis, the earth spices in the truffle sauce, and the back-terroir flintiness of certain Oregon pinots.  It’s just that he didn’t care.  Put more carefully, he placed no particular value on cuisine.  Food had its interesting variations and subtleties, but it was still fodder – basic sustenance.

It was no surprise that it was of little difference to him whether his vegetables were organic, locally-produced, or farm-grown.  He was just as happy with tomatoes and pears grown in Argentina or Chile than those grown around the corner. He was indifferent to the living conditions of poultry, farmed fish, or pigs.  He was happy enough to eat oysters while they were plentiful, but knew that with the increased population pressures on the Bay, their numbers would eventually dwindle.  This was not a matter of concern, only fact.

Mountains or sea? Alex was indifferent.  Both were pleasant changes of pace from life in the city. Progressive or conservative? Either one.  Politics were cyclical, political movements ebbed and flowed, nothing in the world ever really changed, so ‘conviction’ was irrelevant.

Blonde or brunette? Leggy or full-figured? Aquiline or pert nose? Although I doubt he ever thought of himself in this way, Alex was a proto-feminist.  He loved all women not because the way they looked but for the unique, special, one-of-a-kind sexual responsiveness which was as stamped and patented as any original.

Similarly, although Alex was never concerned with labels – it was enough that everyone else was obsessed for him – he would best be described as a Stoic.  Play the cards you are dealt, limit desire, figure out what’s what before it is too late, and let the world take its course.  Or a Hindu.  The world is only an illusion; so choice – let alone convictions – are meaningless.

Evolutionary biology and Greek and Hindu philosophy coincide nicely.  Don’t be picky.
When he was a child, his parents thought he was wishy-washy.  How could anyone with so few preferences and so few conviction ever survive in the real world.  The tried to get him to declare his preferences.  Few children liked broccoli and most liked ice cream.  What was Alex’s demurral all about?  Neither his mother or father could ever have been called indecisive.  Their careers in law demanded just the opposite.  If cases were not decided on truth, they were adjudicated based on strong, logical, well-argued convictions.

The Hardins, who had never read Epictetus or Seneca the Younger, could not have possibly recognized what was to become their son’s Stoic bent, nor would they have appreciated and encouraged it if they had.  The world is made up of winners and losers and nothing in between.  There are no successful fence-sitters in today’s America.

Instead the Hardins wondered what they had done wrong.  How could two such decisive, purposeful people have given birth to such a…..Here, words failed them. ‘Spineless’ was far too cruel.  ‘Wishy-washy’ was closer to Alex’s bland comings and goings.  ‘Indecisive’ gave him too much credit for rational analysis.  However he turned out the way he did – whether faulty genes, inadvertently negligent upbringing (the Salvadoran maid), or some unexplained psycho-physiological anomaly in his brain, their son was a loser.

Alex was nothing of the sort.  Not only did he have discriminating taste, a very logical mind, and a decisive management style, but he used those talents to his advantage.  He was well-respected in his field and in his community.

Women were intrigued by him.  His elusiveness was a challenge.  Unlike men whose sexual interests are basic and simple, women want to know men, what makes them tick, and to figure out who they are.  There is too much risk in emotional choice.

Whatever the reason, Alex was in his element.  Since he was happy with all women, he entertained them all.  He was unconcerned that most of  them soon gave up because of his ‘lack of commitment’ or unwillingness to share his feelings.

Colleagues and acquaintances were frustrated by his lack of commitment.  He demurred on the most important election of the last two hundred years, said his progressive friends about the Trump rise to power.  How could he have?! He saw both sides on Israel, Iran, Syria, Brexit, immigration and taxes.  He had no religious affiliation, appreciated all religions but was quick to point out their faults.

Alex, however, saw nothing but hysteria.  It seemed as though there were nothing but belief in America unfortunately expressed as righteousness, moral indignation, anger, and hostility.  It wasn’t only that the most strident and intolerant interest groups had no coherent, rational, evidence-based foundation for their protest, but such collective emotionality was directed at others.  While true belief may be the result of individual search and personal conclusions, it rarely is.  It seems to need resistance to firm up and aggressive push-back to consolidate.

Beliefs alone are not so much the problem; it is the militancy which results from those beliefs that causes trouble.

Alex found it harder and harder to live well.  As much as his innate Stoicism gave him a strong defense against irritability, bad humor, and scratchy dissatisfaction with everything, he as not totally immune.  It is hard to ignore a racket.

If it weren’t for the noise and bad music, he might have enjoyed the show.  True believers do have a comic side – the manic, hyper-passionate, revivalist fervor of those for whom pollution is not just an environmental hazard but an assault on dignity, community, and personal value.  For whom lagging black, gay, and women’s rights is an insult.  Protests, demonstrations, and marches are St. Vitus’ dances, circus side shows, and vaudeville acts.  Where is the equanimity?

Except for the most disciplined Greek Stoic of 2000 years ago or the most hermetic Hindu ascetic in the Himalayas, few people can be unaffected by the loud off-key brass, the howling, the obsession, and the lamentations.

Alex, however, had a good bit of the old school in him enough to inoculate or at least partially protect him from the hysteria.  It wasn’t that difficult, after all, to pull the plug current events, heed his mother’s advice to avoid religion and politics over dinner, and to read Conrad.

There are few people like Alex Hardin.  Most cannot withstand the incessant pressure to choose and have given in to preference. It take a lot more to hold on to the conviction that conviction doesn’t matter, than to embrace collective purpose.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Moral Superiority–It Starts With Self-Esteem And Ends In Irrational Divisiveness

Citing a recent study by Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay who suggest that it is Americans’ overweening sense of moral superiority that has contributed to our divisiveness, The Federalist’s A.D.P. Efferson says:
“Most people believe they are just, virtuous, and moral...These beliefs demand scientific attention for several reasons. For one, in contrast to other domains of positive self-belief, they likely contribute to the severity of human conflict. When opposing sides are convinced of their own righteousness, escalation of violence is more probable, and the odds of resolution are ominously low.”
So why is it that we as a people are so self-righteous? 
Anyone, regardless of personal estimation, can jettison reason in believing in his or her lofty moral station. The authors attribute the almost universal findings of moral superiority to participants’ strong sense of personal virtue accompanied by an irrational view of how moral others are in comparison.
Yet, how do people get this way? If they have no exaggerated feeling about their own rectitude, then why are they so quick to accuse others of moral dereliction? How is it that we are so quick to judge on sentimental, often irrational criteria?

Self-esteem, say the authors, is not a good reason; yet it is hard to dismiss the insistence on ‘feeling good about yourself’ hammered home during the seven years of primary school has no impact.  If children are trained to believe that there is no difference among them, that abilities are simply personal markers with no universal value, and that worth  is less a function of intelligence, intellect, insight, and discipline, then of course they will have a tendency to overvalue their personal judgments, opinions, and conclusions.

This philosophy not only creates an unrealistic view of human society which, progressive educators’ convictions to the contrary, is competitive, ambitious, purposeful, and demanding.  Only those students with native intelligence who are encouraged, guided, and applauded by teachers can prosper in it.

As importantly, students with less intellectual promise and native ability who are given the same goals as brighter students – academic excellence, curiosity, intellectual discipline, and all-around performance – can more fully realize the only potential that counts, navigating in increasingly complex and demanding world.

Be that as it may, children are not educated this way, and move from one grade to the next with idealistic notions about their promise, potential, and personal value.

What to expect, then, when children who have never been asked to think logically, deductively, and conclusively enter adulthood? Of course they make irrational judgments about politics, economics, social, and international issues and rely on those aspects of their personality which have been singled out as worthwhile whether or not they have anything to to with rational analysis.

          Immanuel Kant

Without the moorings of disciplined logic, conclusions can be based on anything. It is no wonder why positions on contentious issues are formed on the basis of subjective criteria.  Religious fundamentalists need go no further than the Bible for guidance on social issues or evolution.  Convictions on immigration need have nothing to do with cost-benefit analysis, statistics on crime, unemployment, and welfare dependency.

Once a person has made up his mind about a particular issue, then it is only logical to dismiss those who believe otherwise.  Conversations between two individuals, schooled in the same anti-intellectual environment, encouraged only to follow their instincts, can only be intolerant, inconclusive, and angry.

The culture of self-esteem is even more pernicious because of its influence on group behavior. It is very understandable that young men and women taught to get in touch with their feelings, to value their emotions, and to value their personal commitments no matter how determined, can join protests with others schooled in the same educational environment. 

Worse yet, the self-esteem culture engenders an easy, idealistic solidarity in which logical conclusions have no place.  Statistics have no place for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, or The Women’s March on Washington.  It not only feels good to express your own special, passionate convictions; but it feels really good to express them with others who share them.

All this, of course, happens within the big tent of American Exceptionalism.  Ever since the earliest days of the Republic, we have felt better than anyone else.  Perhaps because of our geographic isolation, our economic enterprise, our victory in the World Wars, our Westward expansion, our rapid industrialization and our Protestant values we cannot possibly think otherwise.

In recent years our exceptionalism has come under scrutiny and attack.  Fewer Europeans and Asians can ignore our internal social chaos, our failed military adventurism, and our uncertain foreign policy.  Yet, we persist in the notion that we are the greatest country on earth.  President Trump has vowed to ‘Make America Great Again’; but everyone knows that it is already great and he is only going to make it greater.  We have not shaken off the persistent belief that we are God’s anointed people.

Demographic factors have also made uniformity and social cohesion impossible.  We are a more ethnically and racially diverse country than we ever were.  The European migrations of the late 1900s were relatively uniform – Irish and Italians on the East Coast and Chinese on the West.  Now we have to deal with hundreds of ethnic groups and sub-groups.   They add their own measure of particular moral codes and social mores – few, like ours, based on any rational basis.

As importantly such ethnic diversity fuels the irrational, self-righteous judgment of the poorly-schooled.  More minorities? More minorities to suspect and hate.

Last but not least of considerations concerning moral superiority is human nature – an innate, unchanging, ineluctable force which is aggressive, self-interested, territorial, expansionist, and defiant.  It is hard enough to be generous to family and friends let alone the millions of Americans and would-be Americans trying to take our place.

No one, then, should be surprised either at American moral superiority or the divisiveness which it encourages.

Besides, interview most Frenchmen and they will hardly hesitate to claim their cultural, if not moral superiority.  France after all gave the world democracy, high art, literature, and thought.   India has a five thousand year history, a sophisticated philosophical cosmology, and a highly-evolved social system.  It is no wonder that traditional Indians look at American culture as shoddy and unremarkable.   Few countries can be called humble.

The Federalist article refers to Arthur Brooks in this paragraph:
We will never understand we have common moral objectives, however, if we don’t first humble ourselves to accept that perhaps we are not morally superior, and perhaps we may have something to learn from listening to someone who thinks differently than we do.
As has been argued above, this is very unlikely to happen.  Self-esteem; a distorted interpretation of democracy favoring uniformity over distinction and excellence; American exceptionalism; demographics, and human nature all militate against humility, tolerance, and mutual respect.
If it feels like we are in a broken blender, we are.  We should have figured out how to create the republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers, but we haven’t.  Far from a nation conceived in liberty but devoted to community to one of uncontrolled individualism and hostile separatism. 

Our moral superiority may at last be eroding.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Finding A Safe Space–Refuge From Political Hysteria

By now everyone gets it.  Donald Trump has won the 2016 election and is now President. Democracy, once again, has prevailed.

Yet although the people have spoken, and the will of the electoral majority known millions of people find the results impossible to swallow. How could a misogynist, racist, homophobic, xenophobe possibly be President of the United States?

Not only has a clear signal been given that liberal policies and programs are to be rolled back if not discredited, but the Left, rather than organize to reformulate them, make them more acceptable to the majority - 'diversity' and 'inclusivity' still have relevance and traction - and form a loyal opposition, have decided to dig their heels in and do their best to topple the new president.

Be that as it may, America is plumb tuckered.  The Left may manage more protests against the new president’s executive orders, Cabinet appointments, and public statements of policy; and the Right will certainly continue its militant support of Trump and his initiatives; but we are all tired, exasperated, and just plain exhausted.

‘Too soon old, too late schmart”, goes the old Yiddish adage.  After a certain point, politics, political conviction, and even political philosophy mean little. More insightful bits about the human condition, the meaning of life, and the certainty of death can be found in Shakespeare, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Bible than any parsing of Donald Trump.

A close friend contended that friendship can only be realized between those of similar political philosophy.  There is no way, he said, that a believer in the assumptive and absolute power of the markets and free enterprise can have anything in common with one who believes in the restorative and redemptive power of government and the inevitable progress of human society.

“What’s the point,  he said, “in pursuing a relationship whose very foundation is questionable?”
Not only is the nation divided by political loyalties; but individuals are at odds as never before on the basis of political philosophy.

Dogfights are common.  Those who champion individualism, free speech, and universal respect for Christian values will continue to scrap, bark and bite against those advocates for secularism, moral relativism, and the primacy of civil codes.

It would be all well and good if the contention stopped there – a legitimate disagreement over the foundations of morality, their social application, and relevance to the institution of state.  Plenty of room for disagreement, concordance, and mutual respect.

Contention, of course, does not and cannot stop there. Liberals have invested not only their political convictions in the recent election, but their moral and ethical values.  Conservatives have not simply voted for a man who represented free enterprise, traditional social values, and a muscular patriotic international posture, but one who was of the same political faith.

Under these conditions it is understandable that the electoral campaign is not over.  Although the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell stated the obvious – losers go home and winner set policy – Hillary supporters who have invested far more of themselves than simple political preference are still hurting.  While Donald Trump is in the White House, complaisance is tantamount to moral dereliction.

Winners – the 60 million voters who endorsed Donald Trump - are gloating.  They were right all along.  The moral corruption, political ineptness, and arrogant secularism of the Obama
Administration was bound to collapse on itself.  To the victors go the spoils, and the new President is appointing a cabinet and White House advisers who will dismantle the old and reconstruct the new.
All of which leads to endless, repetitive, contentious conversation. Both winners and losers cannot seem to move on and turn the page

Too many personal values have been invested in the election.  Political preferences are easily tossed out after an election; but philosophical values are far more anchored.  It is not so easy to admit that a new era of individualism and the rejection of the old social parameters of race, gender, and ethnicity is actually here. 

Even with the brouhaha over hanging chads and allegations of a rigged election, it was much easier to relax - either happy or resigned - after George Bush’s defeat of Al Gore than it is now. Although the philosophical lines were well enough drawn between the two candidates, their differences were still doctrinal, not personal.  It is far harder - impossible in fact - for liberals to accept a man whom they consider misogynist, homophobic, sexist, and xenophobic – an incarnation of all they despise.

For the Right, Trump is no less than a personal savior – an incarnated prophet who will restore God-given individual rights, Biblical respect, and historic nationalism.

So what to do now? Relax, let bygones be bygones?  Gracefully accept defeat, withdraw, consolidate as the patriotic opposition? Rejoice in victory but take no prisoners or scorch Democratic earth?
Hardly.  Those who voted for Hillary Clinton because of deep philosophical commitment – a progressive woman who stood for gender, race, and ethnicity rights and all that was morally superior or ascendant – cannot possibly lie back and let que sera sera.  It is a matter of principle.

Those who knew that elitist government interventionism was now dead and buried or at least moribund have a right to cheer if not to gloat.  It has been eight years at least that conservative individualists have suffered at what they consider an arrogant liberal majority.  It feels good to have a president in the White House who is committed to roll back the progressive agenda.

It has been a month since the Inauguration, enough time for liberals to get over their defeat, as surprising and unexpected as it was; to have licked their wounds clean; to have restored backbone and courage; and to have moved on to participate in the loyal opposition.  Much of the rest of America has tired of their protests and demonstrations; and wonder how long it will be before they too run out of steam, accept the inevitable, look to resolve the personal issues which have led to such public association, and, as Mitch McConnell said, go home.

It is also time for conservatives to stop the gloating, holier-than-thou sanctimony and ‘I told you so’ arrogance.

In other words we all need a break.  We need quiet sanctuaries and refuge.  Our minds were made up long ago.  There  is no reason whatsoever to continue the political wars.  To convene, strategize, and attack the opposition, yes.  To reassert the ad hominem accusations against the President and his family, no.

A close friend of mine, a former news junkie, recently pulled the plug.  He no longer reads the NYT, the WSJ, and WAPO every morning.  Except for a desultory listen to the BBC World Service, he is now free from politics. He no longer surfs the minor channels either.  He has retreated into his own world – one which is no less political but what he says is far more essential – Plotinus, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre.

Millennials, older Americans, and young adults are all feeling the same pressure.  They are swamped by information, hysterical opinions, and apocalyptic claims.

“What is behind all this fol-de-rol?”, my friend asked.

The common ground – the playing field where liberals and conservatives can meet – is philosophy.  Not what Trump says or does, but what his actions mean in the wider context of history.  How classic liberalism and radical conservatism can possibly co-exist.  Whether a belief in social progress or in the sanctity of the individual one can find a level playing field.

“Get a life”, said Herman Baker, a regular at the local Starbucks at 5:30 am opening time, “and mine is growing short”.  Seventy-five, reasonably healthy, but seeing the end of the tunnel, Herman said he had no more patience for nonsense.  It wasn’t so much that he had heard it all before, but that ‘it’ was becoming more and more pointless.

Herman was no victim in need of refuge from abuse.  He was as determined and forthright in his views as anyone; and as competent as anyone in his defense of them.  He needed no safe space – a protected enclave – but simply a quiet place, a secular chapel, where to contemplate.

The election and its aftermath have unintentionally provided us with a new perspective.  There are those who not only cannot give up gracefully but who have vowed to fight to the end; but there are others who have learned from this most divisive and contentious of seasons to let go.  If we needed anything to encourage us to focus on life and things to come it was the election of 2016.