The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.
The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.
There have been big headlines this week about an Internet phenomenon called Bitcoin. Bitcoin is an open source peer-to-peer virtual money system, unsupported by any government or bank or underground vault stacked with gold bars. It works on the basis of simplicity and transparency, and is backed only by the fact of its own existence. The surprising news about Bitcoin is that people are using it and it works: the peer-to-peer system manages to provide complete transactions without any of the presumed requirements for a currency platform.
Bitcoin is an experiment, obviously, in applied economics, created by ambitious techies. The existence of an extra-governmental open source currency system suggests a new way to define our relationship with governments. In this sense, it's an extraordinarily exciting idea, and certainly an idea with a big future. Does the open communication of the Internet age offer us a new capability to rethink the role, shape and substance of money in our lives?
This is an appealing idea for an age in which economics often seems like an evil science, rife with hidden hazards, drenched in corruption, besotted by noisy and near-hysterical political debate. The clean simplicity of an alternative digital currency system seems to present the eventual possibility of a global financial system reboot. The idea should catch the attention of both conservative libertarians concerned with the power of central government and progressive liberals concerned with economic justice and corporate/Wall Street corruption -- and to anybody, really, who isn't happy with the questionable economic systems and practices (remember 2008, anyone?) that still define the status quo today.
The media coverage of Bitcoin, unfortunately, has been inane. As Bitcoin experiences its first blush of fame -- it is expanding greatly as we speak -- it is being confronted by a gigantic barrage of negative media coverage, based mainly on the fact that a few people seem to have made instant profits by trading on Bitcoin, while others have lost their investment or may lose it soon, and by the ridiculous fact that the Winkelvii are involved. As if any of this mattered.
By evaluating Bitcoin as a get-rich-quick scheme (which it was never meant to be), the media can dismiss the experiment with a laugh and avoid the responsibility to take it seriously. (This is a familiar pattern in the tech field, since this was how major media outlets treated the entire Internet/World Wide Web communications revolution during the first dot-com era: they hyped it as a get-rich-quick scheme, then damned it when it failed to deliver on those terms.)
I am ignoring the inane media coverage and following Bitcoin with great interest, because I have long wished for more public experimentation with alternative economic systems. Why is there so little public awareness of the possibility of alternative economics? We live in an era of (hopefully) positive change, but our culture freaks out at the very thought of changing the basic principles of our economic structure. Hell, we're suddenly managing to accept gay marriage, which is great -- and yet the topic of alternative economics is still absolutely taboo. Our thinking about money is stuck in the dark ages.
On Monday, March 25th, I'll be schlepping out to Massapequa Park on the Long Island Railroad with some of my kids in tow, off to Bubbe and Zayde's for Passover. We'll have a great time -- games, food, talk -- and then at some point during the ritual Pesach dinner there will come the moment when I'll whisper to whoever is sitting next to me (probably my sister Sharon, because everybody else is tired of hearing me complain). Here's what I'll say, what I say every year: "I really don't like this part."
I'm talking about the celebration of the ten plagues, which apparently God inflicted upon the families of the Egyptian ruling class in order to help Moses and the Jews escape to Israel. There's a whole lot of weird ritual at this point. We recite the list in unison, dipping our fingers into red Manischevitz wine (grape juice for the kids), flinging the drippings onto our plates as we recite. Yes, we do this, and it always brings uncomfortable laughter. Here's the top ten list, straight from Exodus and the Haggaddah:
I've been trying to develop a theory on this blog -- a theory that I'm finding difficult to explain because the basic idea is so obvious that it barely merits the lofty term 'theory'. And yet it must be a theory, because its implications are important, and stand in surprising contrast to the way we tend to think about global conflicts.
I'm talking about the idea, previously described here in blog posts titled What Militarism Does To Our Brains and The Trauma Theory, that the primary cause of current and future war on our planet is current and past war. War is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, a feedback monster.
I'm still on my Jacques Derrida kick! I've spent a week surfing his works and reading the exciting biography Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters (as recommended to me by a commenter to last weekend's Derrida post).
I now realize how ridiculous it is that I've never studied Derrida or the other deconstructionists and poststructuralists before, since they cover many of the same themes I've been long obsessed with: ethics, language, personal identity, political activism. I now find Derrida deftly reaching the same kinds of conclusions I have been groping towards (but, I'm sure, with much less finesse and skill) in these pages. In short, I feel like I've been a deconstructionist/post-structuralist all my life, but I didn't know it until now.
Years ago, I used to think about oranges, and wonder what I could do about the fact that sometimes an orange just doesn't taste as good as an orange should taste. What is the essence of an orange? How is it possible that something could be an orange but not contain or present the essence of an orange? The more I explored this question, the more new questions it raised. Is an orange called an orange because its color is orange, or is the color orange named after the fruit? If the former, then what would we possibly call the color if the fruit didn't exist? If the latter, then what is the meaning of the blood orange, which has a tart ultra-orange-y taste, but is a lurid red?
The taste of an orange is just as distinct as the color, but as every orange-eater knows, you sometimes pop a slice from a newly peeled orb into your mouth and feel instantly disappointed. All too often an orange tastes like nothing -- flat, fibrous, chewy, watery nothing. Well, way back when I was a kid, I sometimes used to lick a spoon (disgusting, I know, but I was just a kid) and stick it into the jar of Tang orange drink powder that my Mom kept around the house for me. Now that was the essence of orange.
(Interestingly, I never really cared much to drink Tang, which tasted like Kool-Aid and didn't have much tang at all, but I liked to lick the spoon. I would ostentatiously guzzle a glass of Tang in front of my family every now and then to make sure we kept the kitchen well-stocked, but a glass of Tang really never tasted very good, although it was cool that the Apollo astronauts drank it).
I went through a weird sequence of emotions when I spotted a new history book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. First, I felt a flash of excitement: this will be the book that will help me to understand this unimaginable episode in history.
But, I quickly realized, I've already read (and blogged about) two thick books that told the horrific story of Mao's manufactured famine: Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter and Mao: the Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I already know the facts. What am I expecting a third book about the same subject to tell me that I don't already know? Did I think I would find new answers to my questions? Was I hoping for Yang Jisheng to come up with a happy ending?
Well ... some truths are so hard to comprehend that it takes three heavy books to pound them into our heads. The truth of what happened in the Chinese countryside between 1958 and 1962 probably falls into this category. The tragedy began as "The Great Leap Forward", an optimistic and progressive experiment in farm collectivization, invented by Mao and eagerly championed by countless government leaders and regional cadres. The ambitious government program quickly descended into a sadistic holocaust, destroying between thirty and thirty-six million lives, before a few sane politicians managed to break through Mao's grip and force an end to the madness. The level of cruelty, illogic and wastefulness that fed this debacle for four painful years is difficult to grasp, and the results are hard to picture. Here's a typical description from Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine:
An epiphany (from the ancient Greek epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Generally the term is used to describe breakthrough scientific, religious or philosophical discoveries, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Epiphanies are studied by psychologists and other scholars, particularly those attempting to study the process of innovation.
Epiphanies are relatively rare occurrences and generally follow a process of significant thought about a problem. -- Wikipedia
In the comments following last weekend's blog post about militarism, I mentioned that I believe we'll see world peace in our lifetimes. Yes, real world peace -- not perfect, but enduring. And soon. And, yes, on planet Earth.
Why would I believe such a thing? Well, I guess any person's degree of optimism or pessimism must be rooted in that person's life experience, and I have observed many examples of sudden positive change since I was born. Here's one example that may appear trivial in light of the horrors of war, but it does provide a real illustration of the kind of rapid, sweeping cultural change I'm talking about.
If you care about gun violence in the United States of America, I think you need to also care about militarism in the USA. We're not going to solve the domestic problem until we solve the global one.
It can't be a coincidence that the most weaponed-up nation in the world also suffers regular epidemics of gun violence in schools, colleges, movie theaters, shopping malls, parking lots. We're talking about gun control and getting nowhere, and this is because we're not discussing the root cause. Domestic gun violence and militarism are co-dependents. They enable each other.
A militaristic sensibility permeates our culture, and this is enthusiastically supported by our federal government. How many people do you know who sincerely believe the United States of America is currently at risk of totalitarian invasion or violent civil war? And how many people do you know who are employed by the US military, or are directly or indirectly supported by it? Militarism permeates our lives, at many levels, in many ways.
Militarism permeates our brains. We soak in it. The current debate in the USA over gun control should be about how Americans co-exist in cities and towns and neighborhoods and communities. Gun control is, or should be, a domestic issue. It's really not about war.
And yet, the popular arguments against gun control often rely on military scenarios -- mainly, the "Red Dawn" scenario in which honest
Romney-voting American citizens are forced to take their Bushmasters and Tec-9s to the streets to fend off swarms of would-be tyrants. It's all too easy to mock these apocalyptic scenarios ... but, unfortunately the hyper-charged ethnic, financial and economic tensions between the USA and various other nations around the world makes these scenarios appear all too normal.
No word has been thrown around more during the USA presidential election of 2012 than "jobs". The single greatest failure of the Obama administration, according to Mitt Romney and his supporters, is the unemployment rate. More jobs, we are told, will save the economy, and Mitt Romney has pledged to create 12 million new ones. Here's a typical Romney quote about working women and day care.
“I wanted to increase the work requirement,” said Romney. “I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’”
It's so easy to tangle Mitt Romney up in his own words that there's often no sport in it. This quote caused Romney some problems because of the arrogance it expressed towards mothers who might wish to raise their children rather than put them in day care. But there's more to examine here. The final phrase of the quote -- "the dignity of work" -- is revealing in ways that go beyond gender.
The sacred ideal of the full-time job is one of the major themes of the Plutocrat/Randian wing of the Republican party, and, beyond that, of American culture as a whole. This comes out often in our current debates: the coddling of "job creators", the singular obsession with unemployment rates, the idea that health insurance is best managed by employers rather than by the federal government. This idea that we are better off trusting our employers than we are trusting the federal government is an idea that most of us who actually depend on full-time jobs for our livelihood can only laugh at.
The free job market, according to the Plutocrats, assures excellence through the profit motive, through natural selection. Unlike the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency of the so-called nanny state economy, an economy rooted solely in free enterprise and capitalist self-interest will invigorate and inspire us all. But what about the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency we all see inside the free job market?
One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology -- a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter. But Veselka doesn't write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest -- the kind that's personal.
Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.
Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book's narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be "the self-immolation heard round the world". It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced "The Protester" as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.
How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?
Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes ...