Better Skills

As political slogans go, “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” is in many respects… suboptimal. Yet I do think that it represents mainstream Democrats’ vision in an authentic way. They agree with the Republicans that all of life should be a ruthless competition, for all eternity. They agree that the individual should be responsible for every decision and outcome, as a matter of principle. The difference is that the Democrats want to set things up to slightly decrease the chances that you will irrevocably screw up, whereas the Republicans want to leave losers to die. Hence Democrats come up with a plan whereby people are forced to buy health insurance, while the Republicans openly muse about how maybe having a preexisting condition means that you are a bad person who deserves to die. On the job front, Democrats want to help people become more competitive on the job front, while Republicans think colleges should be burned to the ground.

What we’re dealing with here, fundamentally, is two different strategies for bringing the job market into equilibrium and restoring America’s global competitiveness. The Democrats are dangling the prospect of short-term advantage for particularly industrious individuals, but the end logic of their plan is to commodify those in-demand job skills, converting ever more occupations into disposable cheap labor. Democrats are opening up the possibility of economic survival to more people, but not really increasing the number of slots available. The Republican strategy, by contrast, appears to be to let the dying communities just die — not to drive up wages for those left behind, but apparently out of a sheer desire to make sure that the losers lose.

It’s as though the Democrats are Chigurh from No Country for Old Men: you’re most likely going to die, but you do have the option of a coin toss. The Republicans don’t offer the coin toss. Which one is better? The Democrats, obviously! But if you were someone in a dying community that had been starved for jobs for a generation, the kind of place where everyone leaves if they can, would you bother getting up in the morning to pull the lever for that option?

Summer: Phase 2

The transition from the independent Shimer College to the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College entails a switch from semesters to quarters — meaning that my summer break is approximately a month longer than usual. Between my work on Neoliberalism’s Demons (which is nearly complete at this point) and my faculty seminar on “The Verbal Art of Plato” (which will be taking place at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., next week), I have done about as much as I could realistically expect to do in an average summer. Early August would normally be the time when my thoughts would turn more toward classes, faculty meetings, etc., but this year that stuff won’t be happening until September.

I suppose that I could have expanded my work to fill the time available, but instead I have effectively pulled a Cool Hand Luke and cleared out a space of freedom for myself. I’d like to use this time for something very different from what I’ve been doing recently, to get some rest and work out some different parts of my brain. I’ve thought of various reading projects, but what most appeals to me right now is finally getting a start on learning to read biblical Hebrew. I haven’t done a new language since Italian, and Hebrew is of course very different from the European languages I’ve tackled so far — fulfilling my variety criterion. I bought all the necessary books the summer before I started at Shimer, but never got much further than starting to memorize the alphabet. I could make it through at least a good chunk of the grammar book in August, and since my classes don’t start until noon for the fall term, I could likely spend an hour or so most mornings finishing up the grammar and starting to stumble through Genesis. People recommended that I learn Hebrew as a way to warm up for Arabic, and if I keep at it semi-consistently over the next academic year, maybe I could get a start on classical Arabic next summer. And with whatever time is left over, I could do some undirected reading and/or rewatch Star Trek for the hundredth time.

What do you think? What would you do if you had a block of time like this? What would you consider a change of pace or recharging type of activity?

On “National X Days”: An ontological investigation

The era of social media has seen a remarkable proliferation of “National Days” dedicated to particular themes. Today, for instance, I learned from Twitter that it is #NationalFriedChickenDay. I enjoy fried chicken as much as the next guy, and so I understand, to some extent, the impulse to take some time out to focus our attention on its unique virtues. Yet why should precisely today be set aside for the purpose of reflection on fried chicken, not only for a chicken-loving individual but for the entire nation?

The designation of a “National Day” certainly indicates some level of official authorization. The clear implication is that we are not dealing with a merely local phenomenon like a hypothetical “Taco Tuesday,” observed only in a particular school cafeteria, with no expectation that anyone outside the immediate community should be expected to serve, or indeed even to think about, tacos on that or any other Thursday. In the case of “Taco Tuesday,” the source of the designation is clear: either the cafeteria staff or their superiors. Yet who has the power to declare the “National Days” known to social media? The President? Congress? Much as I would like to envision them plotting out a calendar of National Days rather than plotting to abandon the poor and sick to death, I doubt that there is a presidential declaration that today is National Fried Chicken Day. Is it some kind of industry trade group? Some guy at KFC?

What is interesting to me is how incurious we are about this question of authorization. We might ask about it, but it is always rhetorical and sarcastic. Though I am a prime candidate to do so given that I am wasting my time writing this post, even I am not going to waste my time searching for the source of National Fried Chicken Day. The very fact that it is trending on social media — especially in the form of a literal hashtag, as with #NationalChickenDay — is enough to make it “a thing,” or better, a meme.

Is it “really” National Fried Chicken Day? The question makes about as much sense as asking whether Kermit drinking tea is “really” a meme. Yes, it is as real as any meme is. This is not to say there are no limits. The series of foreboding images with the caption “I would like to add you to my professional network on Linkedin” (Killer Bob from Twin Peaks, etc.) that I posted a few weeks ago is not “really” a meme, because no one else joined in. Nor would it “really” be National Ontological Investigation Day if I simply declared it to be so. It would have to reach a critical mass, sufficient for the algorithm to pick up on it and create the self-reinforcing cycle of trending.

And so when we ask who decides it’s National Fried Chicken Day, there is a sense in which we all do, insofar as we entertain the idea once it is presented to us. There is a deeper sense in which no one decides, because the “decision” on whether a given National Day has reached critical mass to be distributed further is a function of the impersonal algorithm. Coming from another angle: presumably industry trade groups and fan clubs have declared such National Days from time immemorial, so to that extent there is probably someone out there with an investment in the topic who has declared the day. Yet who decided that such days should be taken seriously, that they should at the very least be presented as fodder for our cynical social media riffs? In other words, who decided that we should be fed a serving of meaningless bullshit every day? I don’t know exactly who, but they probably are determinate individuals with names and faces that are knowable. They decided that a good way to make money would be to get us talking about #NationalFriedChickenDay, and I bet they’re millionaires.

Packing up my mind

A few days ago on Facebook, Jason Read compared packing up your house with creating a systematic philosophy: when you start up, everything is so perfectly organized, but by the end you’re throwing things wherever they will fit. We just moved this weekend — my entire library is pictured above, in cube form — and I have been thinking a lot about that analogy. It seems to me to work on a lot of levels.

Most notably, the point of packing up your house is not to have a final account of your belongings. In other words, the goal of packing is to make it easier for you to get somewhere else. There is something satisfying about imagining everything in its perfect and predestined place, but aside from the intrinsic appeal of organization, the real goal there is to make unpacking easier, almost effortless — or in other words, that you will have developed concepts that can effectively guide action.

After a certain point, of course, an excess of systematicity can become a problem: it slows you down on both ends, as you misguidedly dwell on the packing process and then waste time explaining the beautiful seamless rationale to those assisting you. Similarly, on the philosophical level, too all-encompassing an account can be paralyzing. Take Hegel, for example — if you read his work and ask, “What do I do now?” the answer is mostly, “Keep reading harder to make sure you get how everything fits together.” The same problem doesn’t arise with something simpler and more rough-and-ready like existentialism, where it doesn’t take long before you can start thinking about your life in terms of the basic concepts. (Similarly, in theology, Karl Barth’s vast system can easily become an end in itself, while Paul Tillich’s more broad-strokes approach is much easier to apply — something I find myself doing a lot despite not being much of a Tillich “fan.”)

Obviously simplicity isn’t an unalloyed good — existentialism might be more like jumbling everything together into boxes and sorting it out when you get there, which is a suitable approach for the dorm rooms of those who most enjoy existentialism but less helpful for a more fully-developed adult household.

I could probably extend this metaphor sooner, but the more systematically I develop it, the less room there will be for others to riff on it.

The principle of contradiction

If you believe that you have caught your enemy in a contradiction, you are mistaken. At best, you have misjudged their real priorities and goals. At worst, you have fallen for a deliberate smokescreen, designed to confuse and distract you. In a political struggle, there are no “meta” statements — all claims and arguments, including and especially seemingly descriptive statements about goals and priorities, are moves in the game. Take the example of a hard-nosed, zero-sum negotiation: when someone claims something is non-negotiable and later gives way on it, that does not show that they are illogical hypocrites. It shows that they were trying to bluff you. It gives you more information to win out in the negotiation going forward (or tells you you’ve already won).

I have long been a critic of liberal hypocrisy attacks: they say they care about the deficit, but they favor huge unfunded tax cuts; they say they favor gun rights, but don’t stand up for black gun owners; they say they’re pro-life, but abandon millions to die without medical treatment. In reality, liberals should be familiar with the gambit of embracing a seemingly abstract principle while secretly wanting more specific results — see the rhetoric of “diversity,” for instance, which clearly means a particular kind of diversity (racial, gender, sexuality, etc.) and definitely does not mean other kinds (a rich panoply of Nazis, flat-earthers, etc.). Everyone tries to “launder” their particular goals through empty slogans that have broader appeal. The right is willing to call out the smokescreen for what it is — “they say they want diversity, but only their kind of diversity!” — whereas the liberal weirdly insists on holding them to the principle that has just been revealed to be a lie.

And that’s because liberals are mistaken in the most fundamental way: they have not simply misjudged their enemy’s priorities or strategies, they have misjudged the very situation in which they find themselves. They think they are dealing with a debate partner rather than an enemy. I can see the appeal of a world in which there were only debate partners and no enemies, but we do not live in that world. There really are enemies, and they can’t be defeated by tattling to some non-existent judge about how they’re not playing by the rules.

First as tragedy, then as farce

From Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy:

In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal “naive” ones, has represented for us this demotion of appearance to the level of mere appearance, the primitive process of the naive artist and of Apollinian culture. In his Transfiguration the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples, shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the “mere appearance” here is the reflection of eternal contradition, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance–a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here was have presented, in the most sublime artistic symbolism, that Apollinian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus; and intuitively we comprehend their necessary interdependence.