The phone rings. It’s Madeline. She’s left her white t-shirt and bobby socks in the dryer. The same white t-shirt and bobby socks that I washed for her at eleven o’clock last night, when she informed me, in a panic, that she needed them for the dress rehearsal of her high school musical today.
Monday, November 15, 2010
The phone rings. It’s Madeline. She’s left her white t-shirt and bobby socks in the dryer. The same white t-shirt and bobby socks that I washed for her at eleven o’clock last night, when she informed me, in a panic, that she needed them for the dress rehearsal of her high school musical today.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
(To be continued...)
Friday, October 15, 2010
Day 4 – Further Insults
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Day 0 - The Last Supper
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Several things I have read lately (plus one movie), all fantastic, converge around a central idea: the thrust of 20th century art was to blur the distinction between art and everything else. The details of each are a bit beside the point, but here's the list:
- Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film by Banksy, a graffiti artist most famous for a series of images he painted on the wall between Israel and Gaza, but also renowned for inserting his own work onto the wall of the Tate Modern.
- Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book about the California artist Robert Irwin, who began at some point creating installations that were as much about ordinary life as anything else. Lately he's been doing landscape design as well.
- Alex Ross's article about John Cage in this week's New Yorker. The piece speaks in particular about a Cage composition that is 4 minutes of silence.
- Andrei Condrescu, The Posthuman Dada Guide. Rules on how to be Dada, except that to be Dada is to reject rules.
This idea leads me to a question for which I have no answer. How is politics art? What way might there be of handling ourselves, making decisions, and the like would result in a process that was aesthetically pleasing. Failing that, isn't there a way of doing things that is not nauseating? Every time I hit upon what passes for "debate," I'm only a degree or two of separation from somebody saying something at best stupid and at worst noxious. Surely there is another way, and given that other models have failed, why not art?
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.
Ten days is certainly a very short time in which to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there. Continuity of the practice in seclusion is the secret of this technique's success. Rules and regulations have been developed keeping this practical aspect in mind.
Students must declare themselves willing to comply fully and for the duration of the course with the teacher's guidance and instructions; that is, to observe the discipline and to meditate exactly as the teacher asks, without ignoring any part of the instructions, nor adding anything to them. This acceptance should be one of discrimination and understanding, not blind submission. Only with an attitude of trust can a student work diligently and thoroughly. Such confidence in the teacher and the technique is essential for success in meditation.
A student will have to stay for the entire period of the course. The other rules should also be carefully read and considered. Only those who feel that they can honestly and scrupulously follow the discipline should apply for admission.
People with serious mental disorders have occasionally come to Vipassana courses with the unrealistic expectation that the technique will cure or alleviate their mental problems. Unstable interpersonal relationships and a history of various treatments can be additional factors which make it difficult for such people to benefit from, or even complete, a ten-day course.
Dress should be simple, modest, and comfortable. Tight, transparent, revealing, or otherwise striking clothing (such as shorts, short skirts, tights and leggings, sleeveless or skimpy tops) should not be worn. Sunbathing and partial nudity are not permitted. This is important in order to minimize distraction to others.
All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation. It is important that throughout the course there be no physical contact whatsoever between persons of the same or opposite sex. Take great care that your actions do not disturb anyone. Take no notice of distractions caused by others.
No outside communications is allowed before the course ends. This includes letters, phone calls and visitors. Cell phones, pagers, and other electronic devices must be deposited with the management until the course ends. No reading or writing materials should be brought to the course. Students should not distract themselves by taking notes. The restriction on reading and writing is to emphasize the strictly practical nature of this meditation.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
I was reading Ted Burke's insightful thoughts on Franzen, and it occurred to me that Franzen is not the only novelist I haven't been reading. Chabon's fiction, Nathan Englander, Jonathan S-something Foer, Nicole Krauss, David Foster Wallace, Jane Smiley,Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galken, Annie Proulx -- I haven't read any of them. I've only read a few candidates for Great American Novel at all. The ones that I have read and enjoyed are not really comparable to one another: Middlesex, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Man, and Jazz.
Even making the lists bores me.
I like big social novels of ideas, I really do, and I would like to read most of the authors on that list (just not Foer. If I am ever locked up in interrogation, the way to make me crack would be to dangle a copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in front of me). I just think the whole enterprise of setting out to write a great American novel -- or worse, The Great American Novel -- is at heart empty in the same way I find nationalism empty.
I'm repeating a sentiment offered here, but I think my critique is a little different. Laura Miller thinks the practice is old and tired. I think the practice was never all that interesting to begin with, but sadly seems to linger in the imagination of many of the folks who have been christened as the next generation by the likes of Granta or The New Yorker.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
There are a lot of clichés of American politics. The best writing (Joan Didion on California) upends these the tired topographical truisms, which are as dull a feature of current political discourse as, well, the rest of it.
At a certain level, politics is aesthetic and irrational, and the terrain that plays the greatest role in shaping my own is surreal. Literally. I could write at great length about the beauty of Virginia, but I think it's senseless to try to translate the Blue Ridge or the Tidewater flats into some meaning. My psyche, on the other hand, bends time and space, and in the resulting bleak dreamscapes I think I can make out something of how I think.
Seattle is one of my favorite cities, but in my dreams it is a dark place, its streets rising ominously and its rain a bit more sinister than the real deal. I think I must be recalling a couple of moments of terror I felt in the city when, biking downhill in the rain, I realized my breaks were not working, and I had to choose between wiping out now, wiping out later (only much faster) , and hoping to make it to the uphill. Seattle is a dilemma. In my dreams it is also a frequent setting for elaborate, probably fruitless plans spun in coffeeshops. More optimistically, it can be the scene for a kind of pan-out -- I've never dreamed about the sweeping vista of Mt. Rainier, Cascades, Mt. Baker, Olympics, all looming over the Puget Sound, but I often feel the breathless sense of release I used to get in Seattle when I'd make it to some high point on a clear day, the sense that one could take in a wondrous whole.
North Carolina's Outer Banks also tend to loom in my dreams as an expanse of dooms lowering to the ocean. I have an entire genre of nightmares, each relying on my different position in this world for its particular plot twist. Sometimes I am on the top floor of a house and the ocean surrounds everything, almost peaceful if not for the implication of loneliness and devastation. Sometimes I am right where the shore meets the water when I realize I am facing a gigantic wall of water. Sometimes I am father away, trying to rescue something. Various people have told me the best way to handle the fear in such dreams would be to enter the water, but this has only happened once: in my one view of a benevolent ocean, I could breathe underwater and play with friends as the wave rushed overhead, and the feeling was half jacuzzi, half surfing.
I want a politics of optimism. I want not to be ruled by fear. How I get from these fairly raw emotions to particular policies is, of course, always chancy, and often my reactions are prior to any sort of reasoning whatsoever. Tell me we are caught in a great wave of history, and I will recoil. Tell me to shoot at something, and I will assume it has as much effect as shooting at a tsunami. Tell me to overcome my own anxieties and limitations, to leap in or rise up, and I am likely to sign on. But mostly I would love to see again a politics that accepts how surreal at root so much politics is.
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
My previous post is very boring. Not only are lists boring, but within moments of posting this one I had echoing in my head the speech the Jack Black character makes about some list that combines standards with a few curves thrown in just to make you seem slightly original. Polythene Pam, you expose me.
I was born in Heidelberg in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Beatles (after Abbey Road and just before Let it Be). I was unaware of the extent of the tragedy of John Lennon's death, even after my pacifist elementary school teacher had us all study the lyrics to "Imagine." I liked the song just fine, but a ten-year old boy's interest tend toward (I can't honestly remember what... I think Blondie). I didn't listen to the Beatles until my buddy Chip brought over the White Album. I remember him with a big grin on his face mouthing "Bang bang, shoot shoot" on "Happiness is a Warm Gun." We were sitting in an odd part of my old house, a narrow sort of wing off of the living room which featured mostly bookshelves, my parents' record player, and a smallish bar. For months thereafter I listened to cassettes of Sgt Pepper and Rubber Soul and Revolver, and discovered to my delight that my parents (whose collection was otherwise disappointing) had a copy of Abbey Road.
Probably my peculiar sense of the passage of time, of decades and of eras, has as much to do with those months as with anything else. It turns out, according to Billboard, that the number one song of 1970 was "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."
A small coda: a little before I latched on to the small, sad youth culture of John Hughes movies, the Violent Femmes, and others unimpressed with Morning in America, and it may have been a matter of months, I was at a dance somewhere. "Hard Days Night" came on, and I danced, leaping up and down alone. It gave me a way to make it through to college, a little bubble to ride out adolescence. Thinking of it now, it's not the same as nostalgia. It was a tool, and that tool gave me a particular sense of history, one that skewed some things and clarified others. It was very interesting to me, yet now seems banal in the telling, a lot like my list.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Rolling Stone magazine has a list of hundred greatest Beatles songs. Here's my top ten (based on the songs I most want to hear at any given moment):
1. Norwegian Wood
2. Got to Get You into My Life
3. Across the Universe
4. Hard Day's Night
5. Polythene Pam
6. You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
7. Get Back
8. Day in the Life
9. She Came in through the Bathroom Window
10. Helter Skelter
The songs that came closest to making the list were "Come Together," "Blackbird," "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," and "Getting Better." Rounding out my top twenty would be a couple of more Abbey Road tunes ("Here Comes the Sun," and "Her Majesty"), "Help," "In My Life," "Eleanor Rigby," "Rocky Raccoon," and "Day Tripper."
Here's my favorite cover.
Monday, August 30, 2010
I have been treating, somewhat nostalgically, the sixties and seventies as a time of greater acceptance of progressive ideas, and wondering what happened. Keif and Dawn suggest a slightly different approach to history, one in which patterns, coincidences, and commonalities play a greater role.
Indeed, this approach has already born fruit. There is a longstanding tradition of mocking liberals for being fruity, overly earnest, self-righteous, self-serving and humorless. Here's Henry James, writing in 1886:
Since the Civil War much of her occupation was gone; for before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether , in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.
I would have thought that it would be hard to take the piss out of an abolitionist, but apparently it's cake.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Some time ago on the Fray, Gregor tried to get me and others excited about what he saw as a paradox at the core of democracy: in general, different election methods can give widely different outcomes, and some of the ones that seem most fair can in certain circumstances lead to ludicrous results. His post is here. See also Concorcet's Paradox. If a fair election is a theoretical impossibility, and a "free and fair election" is the minimal requirement of democracy, what's left?
I thought then, and I think now, that voting has as much to do with rituals of power as with fairness. Failure to vote is an issue less because your vote is likely to affect the outcome, but because it's a kind of ritual impropriety, a poo-pooing of politics, like insulting the bride at a wedding.
Turns out democracy has a lot of problems tucked into its elaborate mythologies. The guy who writes about them most lucidly is Raymond Guess, whose History and Illusion in Politics is a handy primer of bogosity. Voting is but a small bud in an elaborate bong. Why in the hell did I ever think the contract theory of government made sense? What kind of contract is this -- I'm part of the contract from birth, and if I decide I don't like it, I can go to jail. Does tolerance make sense? What is a human right?
Guess writes with incredible clarity on these and other matters. I had been wondering how it was that institutions that I felt were the cornerstones of our democracy have been tumbling so easily. Part of the reason is that most of us never understood what they were doing in the first place.
Friday, August 27, 2010
It didn't at first. I'm a sap, and I enjoy a good song and dance number. As premises go, the show seemed no more stupid than Fame. But as I have followed it on Hulu this summer, I have gotten annoyed.
- There's some point when the condescending plotlines about the unseen depths and tribulations of various minorities seem racist. More so when the challenges pale in comparison to the tenderness the show displays to the merely unpopular.
- The characters are supposed to be charming, but they lead fundamentally sad lives. So sad that the highpoint will be high school glee club.
- I agree with Sue about the hair.
- Anytime they put on cowboy hats, I want to shoot them.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
I tried to clean up our blogroll a bit. If there's anything that should be added or modified, please post in comments.
Chabon, Michael. Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, 2009 Quoted passages are on pages 200-203.
The seventies have always been prone to more ridicule than their twentieth-century cousin-decades, without anyone giving sufficient notice to the fact that it was the seventies themselves that originated the teasing (Annie Hall, Nashville, "You're So Vain"). At the time I remember dancing on the tops of tables in the schoolroom to "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever." It was like dressing up (I'm a little younger than Chabon). The Bicentennial was the same way. I went as Uncle Sam to see the D.C. fireworks. Of course I looked ridiculous. To get at Chabon's point here, compare You're So Vain (1972) to I've Never Been to Me (1982 -- actually written earlier, but nobody cared until 1982). Carly Simon is smiling, even now. Charlene Duncan makes paradise sound like the DMV. It required no retrospection for the occupants of the zone now understood as the seventies to acknowledge the goofiness in all their pieties and solipsisms, and it is a mark of our own naivete (at the least) to suppose that a straightfaced young tax attorney going out on a Saturday night in 1974 wearing platform boots, glitter mascara, and his hair combed up into a two-foot Isro, for example, did not realize that he looked pretty silly. I remember grown-ups doing all sorts of non-silly things in the decade, of course, but those are not the things that became the seventies in memory, the notion that everybody became so self-absorbed that they let the country go to hell while they were tripping over their wingtips. It's just that looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not an inevitable result of the taking of risks. Saturday Night Live. Apocalypse Now. Fear of Flying. Free To Be You and Me. All had moments of intense silliness. The sense of liberation that resulted from such risk-taking, however conventionalized or routinized it became, was felt for a little while to be well worth the price in foolishness. It is amazing to me the number of people who will make total idiots of themselves out of fear of looking like an idiot.
We are crippled in so many ways today by the desire to avoid fashion mistakes, to elude ridicule -- a desire that leads at one extreme to the smiling elisions of political candidates and on the other to the awful tyranny of cool -- that this willingness is hard for us to sympathize with or understand. I don't agree with any of that. "Smiling elisions" were as rampant in the seventies as in any other decade, as was the "tyranny of cool," and while I think there is a general reluctance to see things from the point of view of a different person, I'm not sure the seventies the greatest victim of this near-universal solipsism. But I do agree that there is a humorlessness about the hilarity that people find in the decade. In this age of Gawker.com, we have forgotten the seventies spirit of mockery that smirks at the pretensions and fatuities of others in a way that originates with and encompasses ourselves. I've been watching reruns of Saturday Night Live, and this statement describes the humor. Steve Martin's humor depends on the idea that he is a bit of an ass. Ditto Bill Murray's lounge singer. Gilda Radner is more earnest, but the central conceit of her characters is that they are fundamentally silly, and she is brilliant for her full embrace of the lunacy.
Atom for atom, we are made of exactly the same stuff as all the stars and galaxies. I love this essay. It's about Voyager and the seventies. It's called, "Like, Cosmic," and in it Chabon meditates on the recording that is traveling with the Voyager spacecraft beyond the limits of our solar system. It includes whale songs, Brandenburg concertos, heartbeats. It's an attempt to marry science and Crunchy Granola Suite. And it hits the fundamental paradox of the seventies, one that continues to shape the way I see the world -- the tension between the constantly repeated "You are special," and the equally true "You are just like everybody, everything else." That is one of the cosmic, Warlock worthy facts that I learned in the seventies. Chabon's a sci-fi guy. I identify with him, but I imagine he's even more on Keifus's wavelength. Actually, let's see if Keif has found him already. Yup!. If you drop the S in cosmic, you arrive at the understanding that vanity, pomposity, and foolishness are at once communal and individual, like stardust. Million year old carbon. Joni Mitchell, baby! And, while we are on the subject, Blue (1971) and So Far (1974) may be my favorite albums of all time, and saddled me with the illusion that the failure of romantic love is the key to all genesis, as long as you manage to maintain some kind of sense of humor.
I'm skipping ahead a bit now... I might as well say that this essay comes from a collection titled Manhood for Amateurs. Every essay in it was a revelation to me, an account of what had been happening by somebody who found a language that I had been longing for.
What happened in the seventies was that, as at no other time before or since in our history, Americans -- especially American women -- were, for better or worse, free. I'm not sure "free" is the right word here. "More free?" "Relatively free?". Liberated, we cast aside the laws and limitations of the old familiar system to sail like Voyager out into the interstellar medium beyond. You can see it on the album covers of every band of meaty bohunks from Cleveland or Sheffield -- the Raspberries, the Sweet, Aerosmith -- who ever appeared with their hair piled high atop their heads and their masculinity fully, if amusingly, intact. One of the things that shocks me about the original Saturday Night Lives is their totally casual sexism. Carrie Fisher has written about the same attitude on the set of Star Wars, but I can't find the essay. So I don't want to go overboard here. But Chabon's book is largely about how it has been to be male for those of us whose mothers were the first generation of readers of Ms. magazine. We've been trying to figure out how to be sons, fathers, and so forth. And Chabon and I are both aware that we've inherited a lot of the bad of the seventies as well -- Chabon in public, and I in private, cringe at innumerable instances of either direct misogyny or idiotic attempts to avoid sexism in ways that just wind up being both sexist and idiotic. I make no claims to have moved beyond, or learned, or grown.
But look: playfulness is also a legacy of the decade, a kind of playfulness that we thought could resonate The personal was a mantra of seventies feminism, but the spirit of the age, embodied perfectly in the interstellar voyage of Ann Druyan's amorous EEG, might be The personal is universal, or The personal is fucking cosmic, baby! And so now, I find, I am an amateur man. I have, as a legacy of my boyhood, more ways of being male than my father had (You want evidence? Consider the lifetime count of diapers changed. august: about 2 a day for two years, so call it 730. Father of august (and august's brother): 0.) I don't know that this makes me a better person, or wiser, or anything else, except that it has meant that I have had more to figure out, more choice and also more confusion. Part of the equipment I have brought to handle those rolls is a sense of humor. Fatherhood is zany. In my version, it's a lot like Bill Murray's lounge singer, or a Chevy Chase pratfall, or a scene from Star Wars, or a muppet.
Originally I was going to say more about politics and political memory, and about the ways false claims about the seventies support political myths now, but it's hard to follow up on the muppets. One of the most amazing things about Season 1 of Saturday Night Live is how unfunny the muppets were. Also: Franco is not as dead as I would like him to be.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
I guess having a personal rivalry is a common experience. At least, it shows up often enough in sitcom plots to make me think I'm not alone. In this case, I mean the kind of rivalry where party of the first part is in deep competition with party of the second part, and party of the second part is unaware of party of the first part, or even of the existence of parties. So it is with Jonathan Franzen, who has never heard of me.
I learned of Franzen from my adviser in college, who claimed to have been Franzen's adviser (though I have never fact-checked the claim). Franzen had been a favorite student, a kid with interesting things to say, and he was on the verge of finishing a novel. Well, this Franzen fellow was filling a role I had scripted for myself, and I was nonplussed to find his literary VW parked in my space. The Twenty-Seventh City appeared a bit later, and I did not read it. Nor did I become a novelist, nor a man of letters in any respect save what is evidenced in the archives of this blog.
I must have had other rivals in my lifetime, but I have forgotten about them. This Franzen fellow, though, will simply not go away. He won the National Book Award. He got in a spat with Oprah. Now he's on the cover of Time. I'll freely admit that a Time cover is not what it once was, but still. It's getting to the point where I feel I should read something he wrote.
On another note, the adviser introduced me to Rilke, so he retains a fond-ish place in my memory despite the Franzen mess, but I try not to think about college much, precisely because I felt so adult at the time, but when I examine my memories, it turns out I was more childish then than at any other point in my life, except perhaps, occasionally, online.
Monday, March 29, 2010
The Attorney General for Washington State, Rob McKenna, has enrolled the state in the lawsuit against the recent health-care overall effort. The state's Democratic establishment is, to somewhat understate things, hopping mad. (It's not shaping up to be a good first quarter for Governor Gregoire. The Attorney General isn't the only other elected official who's not being cooperative.)
Attorney General McKenna was on PBS yesterday, explaining his position. Of course, he was asked if he's against the reforms. This is to be expected, given that he's an elected Republican. In fact, Democratic fund-raising e-mails are thick on the ground, using McKenna's "rebellion" to soliciting funds. Admirably, the Attorney General refused to be baited, and calmly, if emphatically, explained that he felt that the Federal government calling for an individual mandate for citizens to purchase something from a private company on pain of penalty was simply outside of the powers that they had been granted in the Constitution. All in all it was very interesting, and it indirectly undermined a major Republican talking point - during one part of is argument Attorney General McKenna basically said that part of the reason that the individual mandate was unconstitutional was that it wasn't part of a government takeover of the health care system.
This argument makes perfect sense to me, even though I lack the Constitutional scholarship to evaluate its accuracy. But what I applaud the Attorney General for is not allowing himself to be pushed into the idea that a laudable goal should be allowed to trump the law. We all understand that it's possible to do something perfectly reprehensible while adhering to the letter, and possibly even the intent of the law. The flip side of this is that things that may be perfectly just, moral, ethical and necessary may be patently illegal.
The whole point behind the rule of law is that the rules are the important part - even if they become an impediment, there are rules and procedures for changing them other than the whim of rulers, or even the public at large. Our tolerance for bending or breaking the law when we feel that's warranted or required can lead us to some very bad places, all in the name of the greater good. So as much as the slog that was enacting health care got on my nerves (Is it just me, or can Democrats barely lead a horse to water?), if they have to through it again to get it right, so be it.
So fight on, Mister Attorney General. I don't know that I'm in your camp, but I applaud you for standing up for the rules.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
What really disturbs me about the Tebows, and about many other people who think of themselves as religious, is their facile confidence that when things work out well for them, it was God's idea all along. As though other people don't suffer calamities in almost exactly the same circumstances -- or, worse, as though when other people suffer such calamities, that was God's plan, too. And there are plenty of new-age liberals with the same attitude: "Your cancer is back? Oh, dear -- it must be wrong with your spirituality." People seem unable to accept the world's frightful indifference[...].Mr. Saletan takes exception to the ease with which many people chalk up the myriad good and bad things that happen in the world to God's plan or correct or faulty spirituality. Fair enough. But this isn't a "facile confidence," it's a central tenet of their faith. Evangelical Christians and new-age liberals alike eschew a belief in "the world's frightful indifference," not because they can't accept it, but because they won't accept it. Their beliefs tell them that it's a patently false idea. One thing that I've noticed about many people's approach to not only faith, but it seems knowledge in general, is that we have an easier time understanding why people don't believe in the things that we believe in, as opposed to the fact that they believe in things that we don't. (In this regard, the supernatural and man-made global warming are in the same boat.) In another example, in this BBC Radio documentary about child sacrifice in Uganda, when the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity refers to consulting with Witch Doctors as "nonsense," Tim Whewell immediately assumes that he dismisses the whole idea of the spirit world, thinking it "made up." Instead, what the Minister is referring to is the idea that one should actually pay attention to the desires of Evil Spirits. When Whewell suggests that perhaps the Ugandan government should tell people that spirits don't exist at all, the Minister is scandalized by the idea that the government would disseminate such obvious disinformation. While the British documentarian doesn't seem to have much difficulty with the idea that people out in the bush believe in spirits, he seems genuinely impressed that the educated minister isn't more skeptical.
William Saletan - commenting on "Focus on Your Family"
To a certain degree, it appears that we have come to expect a certain level of agnosticism from other people when it comes to those things that we don't believe ourselves (especially when we think of them as educated), rather than realizing that people with different belief systems are sometimes (if not often) going to have fundamental differences with us in the way they see (and interact with) the world. Someone who honestly believes that life events are directly tied to divine intervention or the practice of spirituality should be expected to behave as if that were true, and should be expected to espouse that if asked. Why do we expect them to express skepticism about such an idea, simply because there is a potential for people who find it preposterous to be in the audience? As I mentioned before, it's not just the supernatural that triggers this - pretty much any strongly held belief, especially those that inspire people to change their behavior (or not, as the case may be) can be suspect. I've come across religious people who seem to have great difficulty with the idea that anyone sincerely believes in the theory of evolution, for example.
Not being an academic, I find that I have to beat the English language about the head and shoulders to express this, but here goes: There seems to be a widespread, but unconscious belief in the idea that our individual worldviews are shaped by a perception of reality that is clear, objective and perhaps more importantly, shared (if not universal). Therefore, if we ourselves don't believe in something, not only must it not be demonstrably real, but others like us (even perhaps everyone else) must suspect to some degree its fundamental unreality. This leads us to the expectation that people are agnostic about, if not actually skeptical of, those things that we ourselves do not believe; and when people strongly profess a belief in things that we consider suspect, insincerity, denial or delusion must be at play. (Whew!)
The general confidence that people have in their own objectivity makes sense. But so does the ability to dial it back, if not turn it off, now and again. Doing so makes it easier to understand why other people see things in the way that they do, and to understand that they genuinely hold to those beliefs, often for different reasons than we ourselves would.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the services the people expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the tax revenues that people are willing to send to the government to finance those services.While I would expect that Director Elmendorf is fundamentally correct, I would offer a slightly different take on his words:
Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf. Entitlement Spending and the Long-Term Budget Outlook.
The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the actual costs of the services the people expect the government to provide, and their impression of the amount of tax revenues available to the government to finance those services.That is to say, that rather than (intentionally or not) being too cheap to pay for the services that they expect (or just as often, deride) from government, the average American can't understand how a pot of money as large as the annual budget of the United States fails to pay for everything they feel needs to be paid for. Therefore, they have trouble understanding why either taxes should be raised or services diminished, and this allows politicians to conscript the old hobgoblins of waste, mismanagement and fraud (a.k.a.: programs that benefit someone else) to rally public anger over funding requests (usually for programs that will benefit someone else).
It's easy to understand why this is the case. Governments routinely deal in amounts that most of us can only imagine, and even that not very well - even if we can imagine quite a lot. For most of us, the concept of one billion dollars is more of an abstraction than a fabulous amount of money. If one heads down to the Sodo (South Downtown) area of Seattle and looks at the two stadiums that stand there, it can be hard to really wrap one's brain around the idea that several hundreds of millions of dollars went into those structures. Somewhere along the line, just as it did when we were children, large numbers quietly fade into "infinity," and we can no longer conceptualize of just how one would go about reducing a number with so many zeroes after it to just plain zero. (Although I'm pretty sure that I could manage to do in a billion dollars, given the chance.)
The game of politics is a large part of the problem. Liberal politicians promise benefits and Conservative politicians promise tax breaks, each with the understanding that when they implement it, it will be an investment that will automagically reap greater rewards than the costs. Aid to the poor will enable them to become taxpayers, and contribute more to the economy than is given to them. Lower tax rates will increase the volume of taxable transactions enough to pay for itself and then some. Both of these articles of faith have their limits, which no-one ever want to test to see if we have reached. But then again, faith only succeeds to the degree that it not subject to tests of proof, and so the myriad failures of such policies to work out the way they were promised through the past are conveniently ignored, chalked up to the viciousness or vacuousness of the opposition or dismissed as lies spread by people somehow brain-damaged enough to have a sincere aversion to wealth and prosperity.
And we, as the overall public, are the rest of the problem. We become attached to entitlements, "sugar cookies," as my friend Curtiss so aptly terms them, and, especially once we start planning our standards of living around them, feel that it would be an unwarranted hardship to do without them. Of course, someone, sooner or later, is going to do without them. The system is unsustainable as it is, and we've started looking around to see who weaker then ourselves can be made to bear the costs, without reaping the benefits. That's unlikely to be a workable plan, and to the degree that politicians advance it, they should be (but likely won't be) roundly punished.
But the ledger must be balanced, and the two sides reconnected. We can either do it for ourselves, or have it done for us. Or should that be to us?