Sunday, November 16, 2014

On the Death of Michael Brown

The only way to think of Michael Brown’s death as a tragedy is to studiously ignore the tragedy of the American present and the American past.  

The killing of a young black man in a small city in middle America rarely makes national headlines, and I suspect that the only reason we know Michael Brown’s name is because of social media and the loud protests following his shooting. But it is a tragic fact that young black men in this nation are routinely detained by police at the slightest pretext (or no pretext at all), far more likely to be killed by police, and even more likely to be incarcerated in our massive prison system that is mostly populated by non-Caucasians. These facts represent but a few symptoms of our peculiar culture, where every problem foreign or domestic is almost always addressed though coercion and violence. Witness a near constant state of warfare lasting six decades, a bizarre idolatry of firearms that costs 30,000 lives a year, and an increasingly aggressive style of highly militarized law enforcement that when given a choice between the safety of officers and the safety of the public they are supposed to protect and serve almost always chooses the former. Needless to say, it is predominantly communities of color that bear the brunt of this more bellicose policing. Add to all this the effects of the social violence generated by persistently segregated communities, schools, and opportunities, and witness a body politic torn asunder. We can see these effects most acutely in the very city that surrounds us, which was turned over to a racial minority historically barred from political power to govern in the midst of its era of economic decline. Anyone aware of this country’s long, tragic history of race relations—the genocide of whole peoples, the coerced “immigration” of slaves, a civil war fought over slavery, the terror of the Klan, Jim Crow, etc.—cannot possibly be surprised at the cheapness of non-Caucasian lives and livelihoods on our streets and in our cities. In an age of a superfluity of information, ignorance is no excuse.  In fact, it is unforgivable.

But all of these tragedies are compounded a thousand fold by the persistent denial of racism’s persistence, and racism persists because we hide it out of sight both geographically and psychologically. Historically, the term “ghetto” denoted the place where a society’s majority consigned those arbitrarily prejudged to be inferior, undesirable, unwanted, inconvenient. So segregated from our modern ghettos of inner cities, rural cell blocks, and distant reservations, the majority far more easily forgets the burden that race places on some while remaining blithely unaware of the ways in which their own race privileges them. For example, I’m a white man who lives in a majority black city, but despite my minority status I’m far less likely to be subject to state violence or coercion—the statistics prove it. The different hues of different skins plays favorites, colors lives, and shapes destinies.

Of course on the long perspective race relations in this country have improved, but no one can deny that racism still exists. Congratulate yourselves on electing a black man as president, but never forget the hysterical vitriol he has faced as a consequence of his race. Praise your generation for being far more tolerant than my own, but recall that we still live in a nation where football fans privilege the plainly racist mascot of their team over the sensibilities of the peoples practically extinguished by our ancestors. Treasure your friends of color, but ask yourself perhaps the most pertinent question on this topic: why don’t they live near you, or you near them?  And always bear in mind the sobering thought that in the world they live in they could well be the next Michael Brown.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Academe Contra Logic

Every professor decries the lack of "critical thinking" skills in their students yet collectively they cannot settle on a rigorous definition of what the term means. Therefore they continue to complain and very few of them teach these purportedly essential skills. And for good reason! Classrooms of students schooled in elementary logic would routinely embarrass their professors!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

This Is Your Society on Austerity

This is your society on austerity. Cash-starved on the promise of a bounty that never comes, every public good weakens and begins to dissipate. Eager physicians step forward with a certain cure--privatize! But they are fakes and charlatans, and to place public goods into private hands is to let poison into the blood for certain. Society is kept alive only so long as its energy can be leached off and consumed by its pretend benefactors. Every limb is methodically cut off in the name of the cure, the blood is slowly drained away, every vital organ harvested one by one until the body politic dies, and then the flesh is eaten and the marrow sucked dry, leaving behind nothing more than a skeleton that rings hollow as noble savages wander dazed in the cage of its bones.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What College Is For

From my friend Chris Nagel:

"I think often about what college is for. If it is not a gateway to professional career and prestige—which it never really was, especially not for students like ours at CSU Stanislaus—, and not a means of increasing individual wealth, then what? In brief, if all the (mainly crude) economic justifications for higher education are not true, what could be a good reason to go to college?

"I reject the citizenship rationale, because not only do very few of my students aspire to this in any meaningful way, but it is not clear what citizenship would mean, and whether developing citizenship would be good for students (unlike the economic rationale).

"I think I can say honestly that I believe the following.

"College education is the best way to learn to understand how knowledge, information, and power work at the level at which they work to control the world. What college educators can do is explain how knowledge functions as a shape of power, how knowledge shapes social institutions and practices, and how it shapes us. The practical use of understanding all this is to be able grasp how the people who own knowledge use it, and what they do to manufacture reality with it.

"Yes, there are people who own knowledge and information. These are not your teachers, but the people who, ultimately, determine what your teachers teach. They are not researchers at Stanford or Cal Tech. Instead, they are the owners of knowledge, information, and power in our society. For instance, the research professor at an R1 institution must get funding for research, and competes to get it, from those who have a vested interest in that research—the funding agencies, which are government and corporations. They own the products of that research. They literally own it. They control to a great degree whether the researcher can publish the research, profit from it, make changes to it, develop it along new lines, or anything else. In grant contracts, this is laid out specifically: who owns and controls this new knowledge. The Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, Monsanto, Dow, and Chevron use this knowledge to maintain and increase their power. This is not power wielded repressively on us, not power that coerces us by threats of violence. This is power wielded by controlling the shape of the world, the shape of reality—and by controlling reality, the people who own knowledge shape everything that anyone can do in the world.

"Knowing how this happens means you are more free, because you understand what your own choices and actions in life mean, and what they don’t mean; what you can and can’t do; and what could matter and might not matter about what you do. Knowing how knowledge, information, and power are distributed, and how the owners of them build the world we live in, makes it possible to consider strategic options for living in that world."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Oldest Problem

The problem is as old as Plato, for whom the only blameworthy ignorance is not knowing what one doesn't know. And given the hyper-rich social media of the present day ignorance spreads much more quickly and at such a high volume from so many different sources that people tend to cluster around "facts" already congenial to their own world views and prejudices, rather than subjecting them to critical scrutiny. In such an environment strong convictions trump wisdom, resulting in the manic stupidity we witness at the highest levels of our public discourse. And the situation is barely better among our higher educators, I'm afraid. The future looks very dark.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On the Fetishization of Debt

What's peculiar about debt-obsessed politicians is that they think that society exists for the sake of a balanced budget, and not the other way around. They think that if the only way to balance the budget is to destroy society, then so be it. But no one really lives this way. Budgets are meant to address the necessities in life so we can flourish in freedom. No one would stop heating their home for the sake of erasing their debt; they would seek a new stream of revenue for paying for this necessity. Those who think otherwise are fetishizing over a mere economic abstraction.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fifteen Lessons from Sandy Hook

1. Some gun people think that if you don’t know the difference between a clip and a magazine you’re not qualified to speak on the issue. They are wrong. The average person knows everything they need to know about guns: guns are by their nature potentially deadly and in the wrong hands can inflict ghastly damage on the human body.

2.  Some gun people claim that because any object is potentially deadly all objects are potentially equally deadly. This is prima facie false. 

3. Some gun people claim that because stricter regulation will not eliminate all gun deaths, no stricter gun regulation is warranted. By this logic all laws and regulations should be taken off the books, since no law is 100% effective. This is the perfectionist fallacy.

4. Some gun people think that being permanently armed is the best protection against random violence. The two armed and trained Las Vegas cops recently shot dead while eating their lunch is but the latest testament against this claim.

5. Some gun people claim that an armed citizenry is the best bulwark against governmental tyranny. But I would claim that if they are depending on an armed but unorganized citizenry to protect against tyranny they’ve already waited too long to react. If the U.S. military sides with the government, these citizens will be quickly obliterated by far more sophisticated weaponry. Preventing tyranny is most effective when it is still in its infancy. Rampant gun ownership and political freedom are not coextensive.

6. Some gun people justify their position by making references to fevered conspiracy theories, “false flag operations,” etc. These conspiracies only serve to distract us from real social and political crises that are right in front of us in plain sight: the evisceration of the middle class, the wholesale corruption of our political system by big money, legislative paralysis, criminal wars and their attendant profiteering, decreased civil rights, increased surveillance of citizens, deteriorating due process, indefinite detention, torture, etc. Reality is frightening enough without making up more things of which to be afraid.

7. Some gun people think that 30,000 gun deaths a year is the price that must be paid to secure their constitutional right to bear arms. But there is no individual right to bear arms embedded in the second amendment. The Supreme Court has erred, as it has in the past. Until some future court corrects this error, 30,000 Americans a year will continue to pay for it with their lives.

8. Even if there was an individual right to bear arms embedded in the second amendment, no right in the Bill of Rights is absolute. It is hard to imagine any right, however legitimate, being “worth” 30,000 deaths per year.

9. These are the best arguments the NRA has; everything else is slogans, falsehoods, expressions of desire, selective citations of evidence, fear mongering, etc.

10. To talk about guns in the U.S. is to talk about race. For every victim of a high profile mass white-on-white shooting, hundreds die and are wounded by gunfire in the inner city. This is why people of color favor more gun control than do whites, by a significant margin.

11. While thinking of countries that have struggled with the politically primitive rule of men with guns, I discovered the bitter irony that the U.S. is using its freedoms to abandon the more advanced concept of the rule of law to revert to this primitive political condition.

12. This primitive political condition was called the state of nature, the state of war, the war of all against all by people like Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes, all foundational thinkers to our way of governance. All would wonder at the absurdity of a culture that would willfully dispense with one of the primary functions of society: to protect citizens from arbitrary violence.

13. Guns make every one of our individual and social pathologies potentially more deadly. Sexually frustrated? Shoot women. Short tempered? Shoot your wife. Don’t like your grade? Shoot your teacher. Having a bad day? Grab your gun from the closet and eat it. Stressed at work and mad at the boss? Shoot him. Afraid of black people? Stand your ground and shoot first. Incompetent parent? Leave your loaded gun on the coffee table and let your five year-old shoot your three year-old. Stupid? Bring your gun to a party and play Russian roulette. Paranoid schizophrenic? Go buy a gun from WalMart and take aim at the voices in your head. Politically deluded? Assassinate two cops eating lunch. Low self-esteem? Get together with your friends and bring your long guns into a family restaurant. Confused as to which are the bad guys with guns and which the good guys with guns? Shoot. Shoot.

14. Nothing will change. If the slaughter of twenty first-graders in their classrooms cannot prompt a reform of our gun laws, nothing will. Perhaps if a gunman went to Congress and dispatched 20 politicians, maybe. But still only maybe. 

15. The elites love that we love our guns, and are happy to let us have them. Having already taken the country from us, they allow us our guns and then play us off against our own government, the only instrument powerful enough to allow us the possibility of reclaiming from them what is ours—“we the people.” From the perspective of the elites, guns are actually pacifiers that allow some people the illusion of political agency. These people only worry about government “gun grabbers” and remain blind to the fact that the elites have grabbed well nigh everything else, as if nothing else—a decent job, health, affordable education, a future for their children—is as precious as having the ability to deliver death at a distance. This is no agency at all, or if it is it’s an agency for losers, losers who don’t even know that the war they spoil to fight is already over and they have been defeated, like those Japanese soldiers who fought on for years after their country’s surrender. To give them their due, at least these soldiers could take aim at their perceived enemy targets. But how do you shoot a multinational corporation? How does one take aim at capital? It is precisely this quandary that makes the American cult of the gun so absurd, so pathetic, so pointless, and so tragic.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Confirmation of an Ancient Thesis

The good book famously teaches that one cannot serve both God and Mammon. Christ himself drove the moneychangers out of the temple, understanding that one could not look to God while consumed with a desire to overfill one's pockets. Before that, Plato very explicitly cautioned that the appetitive types be kept very far away from the levers of political power, understanding that this ever-grasping class would steer the ship of state onto the reef of ruin. All of the ancient sages we claim to venerate have always warned us of overvaluing the "goods of the world," understanding the lust for things to lead to vice, sin, decadence, and social decay. Now, over two millennia later, we've given over whole societies, perhaps even the whole globe, to such types. And not just to the farmers, merchants, and craftsmen of Plato's day. No, we long ago gave our well-being over to bankers and financiers who can move vast sums of money across the globe at the stroke of a key, producing nothing but vast profits for themselves while producing not a single good or service for society. Given our present state of affairs, there is no need to revise the ancient thesis. Indeed, our horrified eyes pronounce the thesis confirmed.

Monday, January 20, 2014

So Obvious It Requires No Further Explanation

The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. Again, comrades over there, take the lesson from your own experience. Not only did you not grudge, but you gloried in the promotion of the great generals who gained their promotion by leading their army to victory. So it is with us. We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.

― Theodore Roosevelt

Saturday, January 4, 2014

John Tomich (1960-2013)

No one is ready for this. At this point in our lives, many of us have eulogized grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, but no one expects this—to come together to mourn and remember someone who should still be walking among us, here, in middle life. No one can be ready for this. Even today I suspect that many of us have still not reckoned with the sudden reality of this enormous absence in our lives. For many of us, our minds are still struggling to catch up with our broken hearts.

A week ago today my old friend Pete called me late to ask about some disquieting messages on his Facebook feed, and after rushing to my computer to see for myself I felt my heart go faint with vertigo. Within the hour, after several frenzied messages and phone calls, another old friend, Jane, called to confirm the worst. “He’s gone, John is gone,” she said with a catch in her throat, and in that instant I felt my heart plunge deeply into the pit of my stomach. After a moment of stunned silence and a couple confused, whispered exclamations of disbelief, we both agreed that we each had to go cry for a while, and we promised each other we would talk later.

I sat with tears running down my cheeks, and watched my screen for a while to see how we start to grieve in this age of the internet—and what I saw was a beautiful thing. I saw that since the time the world had started to steadily pull our lives in different directions, John’s had spread and intertwined and had its wonderful effect on other constellations of neighbors, colleagues, and friends, most of whom were unknown to me. As the pixilated messages of shock and sorrow, memory and condolence continued to slowly accumulate, I started to see them as a confirmation crystalizing right there in front of me, a confirmation of John’s exceptional qualities as a person and friend. His warm reach was long and embraced many, and many beyond me were devastated by this loss. This made me think of the only passage in western philosophy that almost always moves me to tears, the account of Socrates draining off the last of the deadly hemlock, and the reaction of his friends:
And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself, for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion (Plato, Phaedo, 116d).
After posting this tribute I went to bed, my face covered and tears flowing, awash in the collective calamity of our loss of our friend John, our husband John, our father John, our son John, our brother John, our kin John.

Every day since last Thursday I returned to read John’s page, and every night, alone with my thoughts, I would ruminate about what these testimonials and sentiments said about his life. These recalled to me John’s wide-ranging, curious, sharp, and playful mind, his articulate insights about the larger world, his love of tinkering with technology or any mechanical problem, his amazing photographic eye, his boundless passion for every genre of music under the sun, his shirt-off-his-back generosity, the boisterous wit of his conversation, and the warmth of his company over food and drink. But even while weeping silently in the dark over the loss of our friend, every night without fail I found myself smiling through my tears at his relentless sense of humor. Let’s be honest: no one can think about John for very long without smiling or laughing out loud, even now. We all have our “John stories,” and to tell them all would take many happy hours, if not days. The thing I’ll remember most vividly about John is his unrestrained and joyful guffaw that came from straight from his belly. There was never anything false or pretend about it, and it was impossible to resist. In John was an insatiable lust for life that found its expression in laughter, and it is his laughter that I will always keep with me.

Of course John’s family knows all of this better than any of us, because no matter how long any of us have known John, or how well any of us think we know him, his family know him at a higher magnitude of intimacy. I know that the words I am about to speak might not reach them in their sorrow, but I find I must speak them anyhow. An old friend of mine from Duquesne wrote me the following last week:
Life is full, especially the lives of those who impact us deeply. This is obviously true in life, but this fullness cannot be emptied, even in death. We need to find new ways to let their lives be full, and continue to fill us, and to pass this fullness on to others, and to share with them and fill them with the joy of a life well-lived, so that our loved one’s life remains, in a very real sense, a life well-lived. 
To Sarah, and Anton, and Stella: I know you realize that John’s life, though not nearly long enough, was well-lived and full—well-lived and full because you helped to fill it with your love and your own lives, and because his life and yours combined and flourished in love, filling you all. John’s life is still full even today because all of us are here to celebrate this fullness despite our sorrow. It’s okay to weep in your laughter and smile through your tears; I suspect that it is within this weird, paradoxical tension that we can continue to feel John most closely, even in his absence, so the life he lived can continue to fill us throughout our lives, and we can share the well-lived joy of his life until the end of our days. In this, your husband, your father, our friend, will remain. In us.