I probably skim 150 to 200 blog posts or articles a day, prompted by RSS and Facebook and Twitter. The headlines usually fly by without leaving a trace, but I skimmed one two weeks ago, then returned to it a few days later to read it in full, and found myself thinking about it ever since. This is a piece by a professor named William Egginton with the unfortunately unfocused title "The Novel and the Origins of Modern Philosophy" that appeared at a site called Berfrois after originally running at Stanford University's Arcade. It'ss about the influence Miguel de Cervantes's satirical masterpiece Don Quixote may have had on Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, which contained the philosopher's great declaration cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").
As I read the short article in full, the idea of considering Cervantes and Descartes together suddenly struck me as an obviously great idea -- and not only because of the coincidence that they both have 9-letter names in which 5 of the letters are in exactly the same place (the pronunciations, however, are entirely different, one name being Spanish and the other French).
I was talking with friends about the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" shopping craze that has become an increasing meme in the United States of America over the past few years. The prevailing opinion among my friends is that this trend represents yet another terrible new turn towards casual violence, selfishness and greed in our craven society, and reports of maniacal frenzies at spots like this Walmart in Moultrie, Georgia seem to bear this interpretation out. One person caught in the Moultrie, Georgia frenzy was quoted expressing disgust about what went down:
On first glance I passed over Your Brain On Love, a Diane Ackerman article on the New York Times psychology blog with a Valentine-ish title that indicated the kind of soft piece I usually skip. But a Facebook recommendation sent me back for a second look, and this time I read further and was excited to find an important, convincing piece about the psychology of love that happens to touch directly on some very difficult and esoteric points about the nature of self that I've been struggling to express on this blog.
Diane Ackerman, whose A Natural History of the Senses I enjoyed years ago, wrote this piece to communicate a fact that isn't widely understood: the emotion we call love has a clear physical and neurobiological presence. This physical presence can be seen clearly on standard brain scans, and the neural signals correlate with verbal surveys of elderly spouses who still gaze with wonder upon their spouses. The fact that love has a strong physical presence in our brains appears to be beyond scientific doubt.
Furthermore, Ackerman explains, the brain regularly changes as a result of the physical affects of loving or being loved. These changes impact every aspect of our conscious and subconscious lives, making each of us deeply dependent, to our very core, to our very sense of self-identity, on our connections with others. Our social selves, it turns out, are the deepest selves we have. Our loved ones provide the basic infrastructure of our minds.
It's not surprising that many techies like Ayn Rand. There is a minimalist clarity to her ethical philosophy, a primal unity of method and structure, that may remind an Objectivist of the intellectual foundation of a great operating system.
I often disagree with my Objectivist friend John from Oklahoma City, but he and I share a common frame of reference because we're both networking professionals: he runs his own firm, and I'm a software consultant. (I'm not an Objectivist, of course, but I am an anti-Objectivist, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about the same problems that Objectivists think about.)
I recently received an insightful email from another reader of my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), Tommaso Delfanti, a race car engineer from Italy. He contacted me to share his thoughts on the effectiveness of my arguments in this book. He also mentioned that he'd become interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy after playing the game Bioshock, which portrays a dystopian world in which Randian heroes (both good and corrupt, including a quasi-Randian figure named Andrew Ryan) compete with various enemies for primacy in their violent world.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- two serious protest movements with urgent messages about the condition of the economy and the purpose of government -- do not currently communicate or collaborate with each other. What a wasted opportunity! Even worse, Tea Partiers and Occupiers often look at each other as opponents -- a ridiculous idea, since we are all protesting the same injustices and mistakes, and we all seek the same basic goals: an honest economy, a smaller government, greater freedom and greater opportunity.
It's time for the Tea Party and Occupy movements to begin working together. Throughout history, protest movements with common goals have benefited from collaboration even when they've disagreed on specific issues. The Tea Party and Occupy movements have a few major differences on principles, but we should not let this obscure the fact that our goals converge more often than they diverge. So why are we at each other's throats? Why isn't there a combined Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party gathering going on in every city in the United States of America right now?
I like to develop and improve my political ideas by talking to as many different people as I can, and I've already tested today's argument on a wide range of friends, co-workers and relatives. I discovered a surprising and encouraging thing: people who do not have much interest in either the Tea Party or Occupy movements are the ones most likely to dismiss the idea that they can work together, to declare that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are opposites.
I took a gang of about twelve family members on a field trip to Occupy Wall Street this Thanksgiving weekend. First, we visited the desolate remains of the famous tent city at Zuccotti Park that was raided by New York City police a week and a half ago.
The Occupy Wall Street leadership (yes, there is leadership -- they just keep away from the spotlight) has abandoned Zuccotti Park to the police. This was a smart decision, because the park itself was never meant to be more than a temporary home, and a territory battle can only be a distraction from the movement's important messages about the economy. So, Zuccotti has been left to a raggedy bunch of drop-by protesters, tourists, homeless people, persistent old-school lefties, sign-carriers, guitar players and sad-looking solo drummers. The police have surrounded the entire plaza with a continuous metal barricade fence, and I led my family through a checkpoint into the center of the concrete plaza. It was nothing like the beautiful, crowded, energetic scene I'd witnessed only two weeks before. We caught a few weak "mic check" attempts that went nowhere, and stopped to listen in on one large sitting session, an outreach/messaging conversation group, but the session barely managed to keep itself going.
A drum-banging protest march finally emerged outside the barricades around 5:45 pm on Friday evening, and my family enjoyed joining it for a noisy stroll around Zuccotti. The six teenagers in our group participated with a healthy mix of irony and enthusiasm, and together we presented three generations of support for the movement. Then we left Zuccotti Park, because I hoped to find better action in the quiet atrium at 60 Wall Street, one of many locations where small, focused groups of protesters have been holding meetings to make decisions about the future direction of the Occupy action.
We found a much more lively scene at 60 Wall than at Zuccotti Park. At least five working groups were meeting this Friday evening. The Occupy discussion groups are fully open, and my gang of tourists was able to feel welcome as we split up to listen in on various working groups. Some forbidding new signs have been put up by the lease-holders of this building, the gargoyle institution Duetsche Bank, warning protesters not to push their luck. But the mood in the atrium appeared to be as friendly and positive on Thanksgiving weekend as it had been the previous time I'd come around, before the police crackdown.
It's a strange and delightful fact that the Occupy movement which began last month on Wall Street was not born on Twitter or Facebook or a blog. Rather, the idea emerged from a dusty print-based medium that almost nobody cares about anymore (or so we thought), a format that dates back to the days of Husker Du and Pagan Kennedy. Occupy Wall Street was born in a zine.
Adbusters was founded in Vancouver, Canada in 1989 by Kalle Lasn, an Estonian-born filmmaker outraged by the insidious and deceptively "warm" television commercials the timber industry was running in the Pacific Northwest to cover its destruction of vast areas of forest. Adbusters began using humor and parody to highlight and combat corporate and consumerist groupthink, and over the past two decades has staged many events and campaigns: TV commercials that mock other commercials, "open source" sneakers resembling existing sneaker brands, a "Buy Nothing Day" to combat holiday shopping mania, fake tickets to place on the windshields of SUVs. The zine became a staple of bookstore magazine shelves in the 1990s, sharing space with other worthy indie publications like Bitch, Giant Robot, Bust, Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, Craphound and Factsheet Five.
Like many other media jammers such as Julian Assange, Kalle Lasn is stronger on vision than on charisma, and likes to keep a low public profile. He occasionally appears on TV, and wrote a book, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, in 1999. Unlike other media organizations with less political conviction, Adbusters appears to be truly opposed to mainstream success, and has resisted the temptaion to dilute its message in search of greater popularity. But the organization's intrinsic hostility to media respectability has sometimes left curious newcomers confused about its program, and has given its opponents an easy opportunity to dismiss the (clearly honest) organization as extremist, Marxist, sympathetic to foreign influences.
I hung around the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan last week for a couple of days. Here are a few things I saw that I liked:
- a quiet meditation circle, just a few steps from noisy Broadway, where about 60 people sat in peaceful contemplation
- a great march that proceeded west on Wall Street, north on Broad Street, up to the Federal Reserve Bank, and back to Wall
- cops that were mostly friendly
- cheerful rapport between protesters and Wall Streeters at work ("join us!" "yeah, whatever")
- well-organized free food for those living in Zuccotti Park
- a vast do-it-yourself protest sign-painting operation
- a few highly active drum/dance circles and horn jams
- various informal information stations where tourists could ask questions
- an open performance spot, where a young girl sang a song and a poet read a poem
- a small group earnestly discussing techniques of non-violent resistance
The best moment for me came Friday night just after dusk, when I began hearing that a general assembly was about to take place somewhere nearby. Curious as to what exactly an #occupywallstreet general assembly would consist of, I asked around and got pointed to a spot in the middle of Zuccotti Park. There seemed to be nothing going on at this exact place, so I hopped up to sit on a wall and wait. A few minutes later a group of people who turned out to be the regular facilitators of each evening's general assembly began to gather around me. I had picked the right place to sit, and was now in the center of the action.
Soon somebody right next to me yelled "Mic check!", and a group of people milling around us yelled back "Mic check!". At this call, others began to melt into the group, and people began to sit down on the park's paved floor. Soon there were about 250 people gathered around. Four of the facilitators sitting next to me stood up and introduced themselves, and one of them explained how the communication in this large group was going to work.
I never expected to find myself defending the work of David Brooks, a recently famous culture critic whose signature work (until now) was Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, a bland, predictable putdown of "the Starbucks lifestyle" designed for the bestseller list. I don't particularly like his hectic, pushy writing style, and I haven't even read his new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. But I did read some articles about it, and noted that the book argues an intriguing proposition: we are constantly influenced by subconscious thoughts and needs that we do not understand well, and most of these subconscious thoughts and needs are group-oriented or collective in nature.
This idea reminds me very much of some of my own recent thoughts about why Carl Jung is more relevant to our times than Ayn Rand. The Social Animal does not sell itself as a Jungian work, but that's what it is (though Brooks's emphasis is scientific where Jung's was mystical). I certainly agree with the book's basic conclusion. It seems that David Brooks may have turned a corner and stumbled upon a truly important and valuable idea.
I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts -- Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One -- but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper's Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country's honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.
This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I've been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled "Pacifism's Coma" and "The Trauma Theory".
But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It's a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I'm sure it's not) and that's why I'm so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.