Friday, September 26, 2008

I am trying to avoid attacking Palin or McCain's person, which I'm obviously not very good at. So, I'll let the subjects speak for themselves without any unnecessary commentary. For your viewing enjoyment:

It continues:

I want everyone in our country to see this. I want everyone to watch and listen to both of these candidates. If on November 5th they have been elected to lead this country, I am going to pull my hair out. While it is unimaginable that we will elect a black man to the highest office, it is becoming increasingly unfathomable that we will elect the McCain/Palin ticket. I don't know, but I fear for our future.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Etymythology of Hope

Hope is defined as: “Expectation of something desired; desire combined with expectation; feeling of trust or confidence; expectation (without implication of desire, or of a thing not desired); prospect.” It is recorded first in Old English from which it metastasizes through other Northern European languages1. The idea is traced back further to Elpis, the personification of hope, the last of the evils in Pandora’s jar2 to be unleashed upon the world. This story, through which we can trace the Christian creation myth, began with a plea from Prometheus for a back entrance to Olympus, which Athena granted. He then proceeded to take a coal from the chariot of the sun and, stealing away, gave fire to mankind. Zeus was outraged, so to exact revenge he ordered Hephaestus to fashion the most beautiful woman ever created out of clay, which Hermes delivered to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. However, Epimetheus, having been forewarned to never take gifts from the Olympian gods, declined. In a fury, Zeus chained Prometheus naked to a pillar in the Caucausian mountains where he was subjected to the unremitting torment of a vulture feasting on his liver during the day, and as it regrew during the night he was subjected to the elements. In fear that he might experience a similar fate, Epimetheus married Pandora who was “as foolish, mischievous, and idle as she was beautiful.” Not soon after she, being afflicted with a curious temperament as well, opened a forbidden jar which contained all of the evils of the world such as: “Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, and Passion.” Freed from the jar, these evils afflicted mankind leaving behind only the “delusive Hope…whom Prometheus had also shut in the jar, [which] discouraged [humanity] by her lies from a general suicide.”3
The mythology is interesting for a couple of initial points. First, man is punished by the gods for one of the most primitive uses of technology. Have we told these stories from the beginning because of an innate fear of technology? If so, is the irrational belief that technology is evil an enthymeme in all discourse on progress? How do we contextualize anarcho-primitivism and industrial/post-industrial culture vis-à-vis the politics of resistance?

The second point that I want to briefly touch on is that the gods, or really only one particularly jealous and vengeful one in this story, punish man’s acceptance of technology by providing him with a woman of unsurpassed beauty who is afflicted with curiosity, laziness, and a proclivity for getting in trouble? Is this an early variation on the Madonna/whore complex and if so, have we held this forever? What does it say about us as a culture that we continue to tell these stories about women?

Both of these points raise a large number of questions that are better left for another time. What I am most interested in is the final scourge of humanity in Pandora’s box: Hope. It is interesting that the Greeks placed Elpis, the personification of Hope, in a jar with the world’s other evils, but does Elpis translate as hope or something else?4 As it turns out, it does not seem to matter too much. The OED defines expectation as, “1. The action of waiting; the action or state of waiting for or awaiting “something”. Now with only a mixture of sense;” and, “2. Expectant waiting.”5

What is missing from both definitions is any agency in the future events. Here is where context is important: we never speak of being hopeful for something over which we have agency; that is to say, we never have hope for something to occur that we ourselves can accomplish. It is nonsensical to say that we hope for something that we know we can achieve; we simply enact whatever we desire. However, if we do not have the power to do so, or the future is ambiguous enough that we might not have the power, then we hope. For instance, we hope that the Cubs do well in the playoffs; we hope that we get a job or promotion; we hope that a pregnant woman’s baby is born alive. What we do not hope for is a bologna sandwich. Provided we have the necessary components of the sandwich, we get up, walk to the kitchen, make the sandwich, and then return to the living room where we resume watching the Cubs game and hoping for a miracle. We hope for a good life constituted of love, shelter, minimal hardship, etc. What exactly we have agency over is a bit contentious and we experience hope for that which is in doubt, but only because of that doubt. It is the dubious nature of agency that makes hope aptly described as delusive. This is also why it is such a powerful rhetorical tool for politicians in trying times. They are playing on our unquestioned and perhaps unacknowledged feelings of powerlessness by offering hope; i.e., they are offering to affect a future outcome over which we have no direct agency.

Make no mistake my friends: Hope is the enemy of man. It seems counterintuitive, but there is mounting evidence that those who accept that which they have agency over are healthier and happier than those who are hopeful, those that dream of a future that is better than the present. This is not to say that the prisoner sentenced to life without parole or the colostomy patient are without hope, it might simply be that they are hopeful for other things (cigarettes, good weather, etc.). It may be the case that hope, like fear, is essential to the human condition. If this is the case, then it is yet another of our innate aspects that should be guarded against. We are constantly at odds with ourselves, our more primitive brain functions seeking to undermine the order established by the higher brain.

Hope, Elpis, daughter of Nyx the primordial goddess of night, is a demon that creates a vicarious world, a world of dreams that we stumble through praying or waiting expectantly for the best. Instead of living meekly in a world contingent upon the blessings of fate or the good will of others, I propose we accept the Serenity Prayer, which works just as well without religion or appeal to higher authority:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

If we accept this as a mantra and we live nec spe, nec metu, then we will begin down the path to being conscientious citizens of the world, which is in and of itself an act of resistance.8

1. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971
2. As noted in the Pandora wiki article, the early references were to a jar and not a box.
3. Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths 38g-j
4. The definition of the word elpis has been the subject of much debate with some scholars translating it as “expectation.” Again, see the Pandora wiki article for a synopsis on this debate.
5. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 19718.
6. NYtimes article here.
7. Also, see The Whitehall studies where the relative health of British civil servants is examined.
8. I've been using a Mac all day and there seems to be formatting issues, user error issues, etc. I want to throw this goddamned thing out the window. If you've made it this far, thanks for the patience.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Of Cultural Critics and Straw Men

I was going to begin this blog, which is ultimately a response to that bastion of reason and intellect, Camille Paglia, by commenting on the ambiguous nature of cultural critics, political pundits, and the like who seem to manufacture their professional existence with metanarratives, simulacra, shadows and rhetoric. I was already weary as I began typing ; I watch CNN and Fox news obsessively; I read blogs and newspapers, everyday checking polls and reading analysis of whatever is reverberating around the insipid echo chamber of American Politics; and frankly, a diatribe about those who exist in the ephemeral world of infotainment seemed pretty useless. They know what they are propagating and we should know what they are doing. Unfortunately, I suspect that is not the case. Fact, reason, and critical analysis, (nevermind accountability) are absent from mainstream discourse. This is evident in the way that the Republican party uses the strategy of combining The Big Lie with volume and repetition. Al Gore invented the internet? John McCain had a black (gasp!) child out of wedlock? Mainstream discourse has devolved to the point where Swift Boating has become part of our political lexicon.

I have many friends who do not know where to go to become informed citizens. Actually, I don't really know where to go. We can collect information from as many sources as possible but we still never know how much is true. That is why it is important that we propagate critical analysis. We need to be able to assess statements for their bullshit factor. Watching as much CNN and Fox as I do, I am amazed by how much of their commentary is biased, self-reflexive, or flat out wrong. Even at their best, "journalists" commit the symmetry of sin fallacy: they endeavor to seem unbiased, so they must manufacture counterbalancing stories. As responsible citizens we must rigorously unearth enthymemes, presuppositions, and address weasel words, logical fallacies, and the like. We must recognize the limits of language and tread carefully when dealing with those things that we would much rather pass over in silence.

Speaking of things that would be better passed over in silence, Camille Paglia's take on the Sarah Palin phenomenon came across my RSS reader this morning. I am generally ambivalent about people such as Paglia. On the one hand I enjoy their inflammatory or provocative ideas even if they are bit silly, and on the other hand I tend to think that our cultural narratives are insipid or strident enough without intellectual shock jocks further exacerbating The Great Cult of Unreason. Still, I was feeling quite ready for some silliness this morning (too mush yerba mate tea, I think...), so I readily got into the article.

The first blip on my radar was when Paglia stated that she supported Obama because he represented "new generation of leadership with fresh ideas and an expansive, cosmopolitan vision." Now, before I proceed any further, I should say that I like Obama. He is mas o menos the type of candidate that I appreciate. He doesn't seem to be running from the label of liberal, which has become a dirty word, at least prior to our current economic collapse. However, are his fresh ideas? Is his vision expansive and cosmopolitan? Or is he merely the left wing of the current political establishment? His support of FISA, offshore drilling, unconditional support of Israel, among other things make me wary. I immediately wonder why Paglia isn't writing about Cynthia McKinney? That probably is a line of thought best left for another day...

The second blip on my radar, which elicited a skinnying of the eyes, was when she first heard Palin speak she compared it to "a boxing match or a quarter of hard-hitting football" and then even more obtusely, to a Star Wars light saber battle (and, to get even wierder, linked to a Youtube video of The Phantom Menace). I couldn't help but feel I was reading Stephen King's embarassingly inept column for Entertainment Weekly where he tried desperately to seem hip and relevant. Moreover, I saw the same press conference and I had a completely different reaction. I knew nothing of Palin. If I hadn't been told, I wouldn't have known that she was a governor. My only thoughts were: shit, she's attractive; and, damn, that's a politically savvy move. At no point did I think I was watching gritty heavy weight politics. I thought that it was an intelligent way for the McCain camp to mitigate a post-convention bounce. It merely confirmed my belief that there are no battleground states, but instead the battleground is the news cycle and the media narrative. It also confirmed that the Right is far better than the left in this battleground. It is a piece of ground that I am not sure one can win without sacrificing one's integrity (I guess it's not sacrifice if you don't start off with any.)

Paglia then goes on to reference Palin as a transgender, hybrid that "was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before...In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment." Let's unpack this nonsense. What were these male and female qualities that she was demonstrating? Did I miss the part where she flashed the camera her penis and then inserted into her own vagina? Paglia seems a worldly enough person, so I am surprised at her surprise. Maybe she should meet more strong, independent women? And if she is referring to being on a national stage, the dearth of strong, independent women should not come as a surprise to anyone. I am still taken aback when I see women in any sort of position of power, so really the bar is set pretty low. To continue unpacking, the reference to Madonna seems like another attempt to reference pop culture relevancy. I don't mean to dismiss what Madonna did for feminism 20 years ago, but is that the best Paglia can come up with? Finally, her reference to ramming "pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment" seems to evoke images of sexual violence against people who are seeking to advocate for victims of such crimes. I know the type of feminists that she is referring to. The majority of my experience with them has ended badly, but I still see their point. When women make 70 cents on the dollar, when 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted (and these are only reported figures), then I'm not sure that condescendingly dismissing an establishment that seeks to advocate for a class of people who are routinely marginalized and violently oppressed as victim-mongering is the best tack.

Paglia continues with statements that are no longer blips on a radar, but are now a full-blown assault on reason. She compares Palin to Reagan as "someone who pays lip service to religious piety without being in the least wedded to it." This despite being an evangelical, believing in creationism, and being skeptical about man's part in climate change. Paglia goes on to say that "I don't see her arrival as portending the end of civil liberties or life as we know it." This is despite Palin's many abuses of political power ranging from taking a per diem for working at home, to the obnoxiously dubbed "troopergate," to her politics of deception w/r/t the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, and finally, right in line w/Paglia's diminishing of women as victims, Palin is tied to the charging of rape victims for the rape kits.

Paglia goes on to sing the praises of frontier women that represent "far bolder and hardier [women] than today's pampered, petulant bourgeois feminists, always looking to blame their complaints about life on someone else." Now, isn't this really a problem not with feminists or non-frontier women, but w/our culture in general? Doesn't this attitude begin w/corporations that poison the environment and are never held accountable? Maybe if we stop handing out government subsidies and we make corporations apply that same can-do attitude that we demand of the proletariat, then maybe we will see the change Paglia hopes for. Maybe we will see bolder and hardier corporations that will promote a better culture where men and women will believe that their hard work will be rewarded and that there is justice. And finally, this comes the day after the U.S. government agreed to float an 85 billion dollar rescue loan to AIG.

Finally, Paglia decides to take Dems to task for making abortion a wedge issue. She claims that for the left it is an "obsessive idée fixe of the post-1960s women's movement." Now, is this a result of Roe v Wade being constantly under atttack? Is it a result of religious based opposition to family planning and sex education in schools? She commits an act of intellectual dishonesty by never addressing the issue, instead committing a bait and switch where she points to an apparent logical inconsistency with the left being both pro-choice and anti-death penalty. "I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty. Surely it is the guilty rather than the innocent who deserve execution?" This is another ridiculous sentence that requires some unpacking. First, it is a rare Dem who supports abortion (although I count myself as a outspoken supporter of abortion). Most people are uncomfortable w/abortion, but they support a woman's right to choose. This is an important distinction. I think in a perfect world, people would prefer that the woman never gets pregnant in the first place. And finally, she inappropriately combines the right to choose w/the opposition to the death penalty w/o ever going into any details about that opposition. Plenty of people ideally don't have a problem w/the death penalty as much as they are uncomfortable w/the disproportionate number of people on death row who are minorities and/or come from poor backgrounds. If there was an equitable distribution of capital punishment, then maybe it would be different. Or maybe it wouldn't because a woman's right to choose what she does w/her body is not analogous to choices that the state makes w/r/t its citizens' bodies. She ends w/an appeal to emotion that frankly doesn't deserve a response as I am not going to deal w/the problem of guilt, innocence, or who deserves execution.

I thought that reading the Paglia article would be good for a laugh and maybe a snarky conversation w/my prissy, victim-mongering friends over beers. Instead, I'm left feeling the same emptiness I feel when I spend hours watching CNN and Fox. The steady diet of nothing leaves me disillusioned w/the world and angry at myself for wasting so much of my time. Thanks Paglia for nothing.