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August 2019

Cynicism and Modesty

"But I gotta tell you, I just think to look across this room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich and complicated and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not a good writer. Because that means I'm going to be performing for a faceless audience instead of trying to have a conversation with a person." -David Foster Wallace

Political and religious thinking have different incentive structures. I think this is one of the things that Jordan Peterson struggles with when people ask him if he believes in God. It is certainly one of the reasons my close friends and relatives don't think I actually believe in God. They think I have identified that the incentive structure of religious thinking is preferable for personal well-being, and so have adopted aspects of it, but that this is distinct from real faith. I am not sure if such a distinction is real, but in any case, I think I have both. 

So what are the different incentive structures? I think that in a religious worldview, particularly a monotheistic one, the greatest peril in any given situation is peril to one's own soul. That is, in any interaction with another human being, the worst possible outcome is that I would transgress against the other person in a way that imperils my relationship with God. Non-Western monotheistic faiths share this quality: Jainism in particular seems obsessed (in a good way I think) with not transgressing against other living things. 

Political thinking, as I'm going to define it, is when transcendent importance is projected onto decidedly earthbound ideas. In this setup, positions on history and political matters have the greatest moral import. For example, opposition to universal healthcare provided by the state may be seen as an immoral act. But the implications of projecting morality onto politics are profound, and require further corruptions in the line of reasoning. Understanding the provision of healthcare requires education, familiarity with various policy matters and a level of intellectual engagement that is rare. Because it is difficult to judge a person's worth based on their education or understanding of complex ideas, it is easier to perform a slight of hand: ''No one really opposes universal healthcare, they are simply protecting an economic interest they know to be against the public good," or "they don't want universal right's provided because they don't believe group ____ deserves access to such a right."

There is a lot of evidence that these two attitudes are held by some people, but to project it onto millions of voters relies on a knowledge of other people's minds that we do not have. But the risks of misjudging another person's character differ wildly depending on your view of the world. If the goal of your life is the maintenance of your soul, judging the morality of others with limited information is a profound risk. If, on the other hand, the only outcome worth investing in is a political outcome (say the passage of universal healthcare), judging other people is not only acceptable, but possibly a necessary prerequisite to political success. Political victory, in turn, is the locus of moral progress, and therefore justifies all the defamation that was required.

This logic circles the drain, and is how we arrived in a place where no one believes anyone who disagrees with them acts in good faith. Most voters (the ones I talk to anyway), will concede that there may be regular Americans who love their fellow-man, want the best for them and simply are wrong-headed about a particular issue. However, there is a nearly universal belief in America that the politicians and media representatives working for the other side are bad actors acting in bad faith. Here are just two examples of the universal bad faith presumption in print: left and right.

This assumption also animates conversations regarding the coarsening of discourse and culture more generally. In perhaps the most famous and well-written defense of internet douchebaggery, Tom Scocca wrote that snarkiness, the abrasive and insulting tone that characterized young writers on the internet, was in fact a reaction to a worse phenomenon, "smarm." In Scocca's view, rules of decorum and tone, which grow out of the idea that people should be treated as if they are acting in good faith, amount to a series of norms that are consistently abused by the worst actors to hide their real aim.

Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.

So appeals to decorum or civil discourse are not sincere defenses of respectful engagement. They are last ditch efforts by the obviously corrupt, deployed when intellectual defenses of a position are ridiculed by a majority or have actually been proven objectively false. 

It's not that Scocca is wrong, he's surely correct that any universal commitment to decency protects the most fowl more than those who would act decently with or without the rule. However, he underestimates the cost to the rest of us of wading down into the shit. Scocca seems to imagine that if we accepted that our leaders and adversaries were the monsters the evidence shows they are, we could get down to the business of defeating and replacing them. As far as I can tell, disenchantment does not have this activating impact. In fact, it makes people depressed, disengaged and more likely to justify their own selfish behavior by believing it is no doubt minuscule in comparison to the moral depravity of those who really run the society.

Scocca and others have insisted that the corruption of the ruling class does not amount to an indictment of all humanity, but rather suggests that meritocratic capitalism selects for a brutality and aggression that correlates with moral turpitude. This may be true, but it is also true that when people stop believing that their leaders are capable of good, they internalize the same belief about themselves. 

Scocca also accused the practitioners of smarm of "faux-maturity," but I think his position has the same characteristic. It is difficult and troubling to believe that George W. Bush might be a decent guy and a good family man, but also made a decision that got nearly a million people killed. Far easier to believe he knew about 9/11 in advance and killed Iraqis for oil. If our story is Star Wars, all we have to do is find Luke and fight the Empire.

The more complex and troubling reality, what I see as actual reality, implies that personal moral virtue and political efficacy have little or nothing to do with each other. If Scocca were saying that we need to abandon the idea that our leaders should be invested with remarkable morality, my interest would be piqued. He is not saying this. He is saying we've chosen the wrong heroes.

If you believe in God, you would never expect human beings to qualify for a word like "hero," in the first place. This is why religious conservatives are counter-intuatively (to secular liberals) permissive regarding the exposure of sexual indiscretions and other moral shortcomings on the part of public figures. To be a Christian is to already know that every person has a dark heart, and a sexuality that is possessed of violence and selfishness. In this framework, a person's moral rehabilitation is a private or family matter, and public humiliation hardly makes success more likely. 

I think I have lived a life that makes it particularly easy for me to invest faith in other people, even people with whom I strongly disagree. First of all, despite my religious convictions, many of the most outstanding moral individuals I know are secular liberals. My definition of morality in this context is something like personal discipline, an ability to honor commitments, consideration towards others, self-sacrifice and a sublimation of personal needs and desires. Needless to say, people who embody these characteristics (in my experience) appear along all points of the political spectrum, making it difficult to draw moral conclusions about political coalitions. 

This possible contradiction became even more complicated while living abroad. In Syria, before the war, I encountered the most profound examples of hospitality and openness I had ever encountered anywhere on earth. In most cases, this exemplary human behavior was coming from an individual who believed reprehensible things about homosexuals and Jews. So what do you do when someone who can and has given you the shirt off their back also thinks the Israelis should be driven into the sea? In my case, you hope such a person is never in a position to make foreign policy, but you don't damn their soul in your own heart. They are a person, placed in time and space, and in many important ways, they are succeeding at drawing decency out of a difficult situation. 

I don't know what this experience implies about how we should engage with politics. I imagine those who disagree with me would say, our willingness to judge other people's motives should have some relationship to their power. In other words, a Syrian farmer can be let off the hook for being a homophobe, but Republican elected officials who sleep with rent boys and vote against gay rights should be named and shamed for the hypocrites they are. Again, as a religious person, I can't accept this framework. Money and political power to not make one's journey away from hypocrisy and towards morality any easier. Perhaps they make it harder. While I understand the particular outrage created by a morally indecent person who wants to preside over the personal behavior of others, aren't we guilty of the same thing when we focus on the sins of the powerful and famous instead of our own?

I must admit, when I read opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post, my instinct certainly is to accuse the authors of being crypto-communists or eugenicists, but I know that they are not these things. What I really mean is that the ideas they endorse may lead to those outcomes. Don't they know that? Aren't they responsible and modest enough to worry about encouraging those instincts? They are not responsible enough. None of us are. But what I also know, is that if real eugenics or communism come to America, many of the people who paved the way will change course and join me in fighting it. I believe the same thing in reverse. Can anyone doubt that if Trump refuses to leave office, at least some gun-wielding Tea party members will be the tip of the spear in re-establishing our democracy? 

I would really like to spend my time passing judgement, and even more to delude myself that cultivating a sense of moral superiority was in itself a righteous act. The problem is, the only person I truly know to be a sinner is me. 


Mistakes Were Made

A few years ago, I was traveling in Qatar with a friend who is both Arab-American and Muslim. In the back of a cab, we witnessed a man, apparently a Qatari, hit a central-Asian man with some kind of cane. The spectacle led to a conversation about racism in the Arab world, and particularly in Qatar and the Emirates where imported laborers outnumber locals by significant margins. I made an offhand remark about how I would love to see a coalition of Pakistani and Filipino laborers seize an Emirate or part of Qatar from the local bullies that employ them. Both the cab driver and my companion were annoyed, apparently feeling it was pretty rich for an American to be judgmental of a racist incident playing out in a different part of the world. 

I want to be fair in this description, but here is what I surmised to be their position. Basically, Europeans are responsible for a disproportionate share of violence and calamity in world history, culminating with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps the single worst institution of all-time. As such, Europeans and therefore Americans, are uniquely compromised by the long-shadow of their racist past, and with the United States still struggling to extinguish racism, we had no right to judge racist outbursts in other, less inherently problematic cultural contexts. 

Perceiving their worldview as outlined above, I began to describe my historical understanding of Arab and specifically Muslim-Arab involvement in the slave trade, which predated European involvement by about 11 centuries. Perhaps I am the exact age where this stopped being taught after I left university, but when I was in school we learned about a robust, Arab-led Mediterranean slave-trade predominately targeting East-Africans. This trade also involved the participation of a number of local African slaver tribes that targeted their enemies and facilitated their capture and transfer to Arab merchants. Several centuries before European involvement, millions of Africans had already died as slaves, first in transit across the Sahara, and later in Turkish salt-mines in the desert itself. It was this earlier Arab slave-trade that created some of the infrastructure that would be used so horrifically by Europeans hundreds of years later. I do not believe this history proves anything about the nature of Arabs or Islam. I think it proves that history is ugly, that slavery was an institution embraced universally until recently, and that Muslim civilization was closer to Africa than Europe, and therefore had the first crack at violently dominating and exploiting the continent. 

My friend and the cab driver were outraged by this version of history, saying I had surely read it on storm-front or in some crackpot history book. It's all on Wikipedia. That being said, I became aware during the conversation that I was making my conversation partners deeply upset. My American attitude was: confront your history. You can't really change until you do. But this is a process that was already fully underway by the time I was born, and therefore the only way I knew to look at history. In my lifetime, history and confronting history were the same thing. I was encountering for the first time an individual asserting that an untarnished version of history was an insult to their identity, an identity they saw as inextricably linked to that history. 

So, I stopped pushing the point. Here were two men who did not seem racist and who were good people (in the case of my friend I knew this). In their minds, both their Arab and Islamic heritage contributed to that goodness. They understood Islam as opposed to both slavery and racism generally. Their Islam is universalist and emancipatory. These are beautiful qualities for a believer to identify in their faith, and they certainly have scriptural basis. Is it really important for me to remind such men that slavery is also justified in nearly every Abrahamic text, and that universalist readings of scripture are perhaps modern inventions? If they are not actively practicing bigotry, in other words, is it actually important that they acknowledge the bigotry of their forebears?

For most of my life I would've answered the above question with an emphatic yes, but as American culture collapses in on itself, I question my earlier certainty. I think condemning our past selves is now such an endemic part of Western historiography, it's impossible to separate it from the history itself. Perhaps we can take an example from elsewhere to get at what I think is happening. 

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael has a joke where he tells the audience that their grandfathers probably beat their grandmothers. The audience groans and he jokingly concedes, "Im sure, not your grandma." The trick is one Carmichael often pulls in his comedy, and seems executed more for his own pleasure than for laughs. He wants to see a crowd full of people subvert their own personal histories in real time. He wants to see them struggle to resist the evidence, and then slowly accept an inevitable conclusion: they have loved people who were evil. I think the joke is an outrage, not only because he grossly overstates the ubiquity of spousal abuse two generations ago, but because it's logic is pure nihilism: "the people in this room believe they are standing on solid ground, I'm going to pull out the carpet and show them we are suspended in vacuum." Carmichael is preferable to some cultural subversives in that he does not pretend he's doing the audience a service, which would be the more common instinct. 

And it was a similar evil maneuver I was trying to pull on my friend in that Doha taxi. He believed he was the latest incarnation of a moral lineage with a proud history. Showing him he was wrong seemed unlikely to make him better, only to discourage his religious mission to be a good person. Some people, including religious and political conservatives, have said that this ability to self-evaluate and self-criticize is a vital element of what makes the West unique and important in human history and accounts for our ultimate rejection of slavery. It seems now, to move forward, we may have to rekindle our empathy for our past. 


Nihilism On The March

"Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul." - Toni Morrison

 

In The Big Lebowski, Walter Sobchak, a convert to Judaism, says the following to The Dude when they are confronted outside a bowling ally by a group of armed Germans describing themselves as nihilists: ''Nihilists! ..Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos." Walter is a lovable but reliably unwise character. Nevertheless, I think he might've been on to something here. Sobchak is saying that believing in something, even a bad thing, is superior to not believing in anything. Maybe it's like, we see an abusive parent, and imagine that the child's life would be infinitely improved by this person's absence. But are we right? Part of our assumption might be that another figure of care and authority would step into place, not that the child would be released to the wild, where feral, he/she would lose language and a number of other capacities that we think of as essential to our humanity. 

And it's nihilism that makes me hate our current president and resent his religious supporters. To be more charitable, maybe these voters preferred a transparent nihilist to the shady world of Clintons and Bushes, where leaders claimed to embrace traditional versions of honor and decency, but privately partied with Jeffrey Epstein (I know the Bushes are not accused of this, but they have their own weird friends). This new conclusion, that the elite is necessarily vile and rapacious as a result of the incentive structure of our meritocracy, is now explicitly stated by the left and the right

Even if this is the bargain though, to say that they all are surely nihilists, and one we understand as such is safer than a wolf in sheep's clothing, I think this proposition is deeply un-Christian. I don't remember the chapter and verse about sin in the name of making a point. I don't remember Jesus, when confronted about spreading lies, saying, "have you seen what the Roman media says???" Christianity only has value if it is a bulwark, hopefully THE bulwark in the West, against nihilism. If we repeat theology while embracing the zero-sum calculations of the material world and it's rationally justified politics, I'm sorry, but we are not meaningfully Christian. 

To this point, I have not mentioned this week's shootings. To be honest, they paralyze my desire to write or express myself about anything. Communication is aspirational, relying on the hope that dialogue might make things better. Most of the time I feel like expressing myself can have a salutary impact, but in the wake of the shootings life does not feel that way. 

In some ways, I regret the Beto post. Even though I thought it was funny and I enjoyed writing it, it channeled the hateful tone of the internet that also defines our President's rhetoric. I decided to do a sort of solo-blog as opposed to continuing my podcast or tweeting, because I thought I could remain more measured in this format. I'll again channel Marianne Williamson, I want to put some good vibes on to the internet, and fight the dark energies that have intruded. 

I can't add anything sensible to the broader conversation about the President's tone and gun violence. He will never see a connection between his own words and violence because he doesn't see connections between anything. That is what nihilism is and that is his connection to the shooters. This nihilism, and the white identity violence that acts as its political cover, is on the march. A conclusion that the transcendent is gone or inaccessible, and that our ugly, earthly desires, often at the cost of others, are all we should aspire to is an increasingly common belief. I can't calculate the cost of the spread of this worldview, or parse the difference between "encouraging" and "inciting" an attack. I will only say that nihilism has a cost, and it's measured in human lives. 


The Politics of Love and Hate

Marianne Williamson is a person who believes lots of things I don't believe. For starters, she is an anti-depressant skeptic and I am very thankful for the SSRI I am on. But beyond the specifics of her New-Agey worldview, I do appreciate that she injects something more full-blooded into the Democratic debates. When Williamson openly eschewed a policy conversation for a rambling argument about how only the "politics of love" could defeat "the politics of hate," Vox was so offended by the lack of technocracy that they jumped into furious action

Some of the criticisms are fair, but let me try to say what I think Williamson gets right, and how this fits into a broader critique of the metrics we use in our politics. Williamson is observing, I think correctly, that something wicked has infiltrated our politics. It is hard to define, it is hard to source, and so countering it might have to take on similarly obscure language about "the good."

I know this is all annoyingly vague, so let me give a concrete example of where I think this could impact politics. I can't really see any technocratic justification for paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. I don't believe it would have the intended impact. I think it would have the perverse consequence of allowing the State to say it had "made amends."  Finally, the logistics of deciding who qualifies are themselves extremely complex. That being said, I am sort of disgusted that these rational complaints are the first place my mind goes when considering a topic with such profound moral implications. 

What's incontrovertible is that a debt is owed. There is a great weight on the soul of America, and I'm not sure time alone is enough to remove its downward pressure. Our society needs to find a way to communicate love and care to a people we viciously abused for hundreds of years, and right now we are failing to deliver the message. If a policy can communicate some of that care, does it matter how many people it moves into the middle class or how much it closes the wealth gap? 

I'm honestly not sure, and I'm not sure politics is the realm where such expressions of care should take place. That being said, Williamson was the only one on stage even considering things at this level, and that I support.