Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Descent into Madness

Sometimes madness comes upon a man and he is caught completely unaware; other times, cruel fortune allows a man to witness his own descent into lunacy.

I find myself currently in the latter predicament. I can see the last shreds of my sanity slipping away as I fight the ugly, obsessive refrain that keeps popping into my head at all hours of the day and night.

What is this horrific refrain, you might be wondering? Is it some kind of Santeria jingle that makes me want to engage in ritual animal sacrifices? Is it the haunting lyrics of a Siren’s song threatening to crash the tender ship of my soul upon rocky shores (nice metaphor, huh?)?

If you really must know, the refrain that is driving me to the brink of insanity is the music to one of the most vapid, insipid, maudlin songs of my early adolescence. And it’s taking over my mind.

In case you weren’t around, 1977, when I had the misfortune to be entering my teenage years, was the single ugliest year in the entire history of the human race. “What?” you are probably thinking, “uglier than 1968, when both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, when the Vietman War was entering it’s most violent period with the Tet Offensive, and when race riots were breaking out all over the country? Worse than 1348, when the Bubonic Plague broke out killing over one-third of the population of Europe?”

Yes, 1977 was infinitely worse.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter was President, everyone was listening to disco and wearing polyester and bell-bottoms, there was a heroin epidemic in the United States, and Star Wars had completely destroyed the thought-provoking movie industry of the early ‘70s. 1977 was, without a doubt, the low-point of a decade that itself was probably the ultimate low-point in human history.

1977, in case you are interested, was also the year that Dan Hill released the song, “Sometimes When We Touch.” And, not surprisingly, given just how horrific the state of music was at the time, the song eventually reached #3 on the Billboard Charts.

In 1977 I was a naïve Catholic schoolboy about to enter Cathedral Prep Seminary in Queens. I had hopes, dreams, and the prospects for a decent life. In my state of perfect innocence, I was able to suppress “Sometimes When We Touch,” focusing instead on the infinitely less decadent music of The Who. My soul, in short, remained unscathed by that vile song…until now that is.

Early last week—I don’t remember exactly when—I awoke in the middle of the night with that damnable song in my head. I tried, as best I could, to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t get the sounds of Dan Hill’s saccharin voice out of my head.

The song has now impregnated itself in my mind, and every time I think I am free of it, like a “hesitant prize fighter” I keep having to do battle with it, simply to preserve what little is left at this point of my sanity. I long for the “fear in me to subside” but I know that until I exorcise the demons that animate Hill’s song, they’ll be no peace possible for me.

I suppose I could simply try to “close my eyes and hide,” but I’ve come to the realization that the only way to achieve lasting peace for me is to attempt to deconstruct, stanza by stanza, what has to be the worst song ever written.

So, here it goes:


You ask me if I love you
And I choke on my reply
I'd rather hurt you honestly
Than mislead you with a lie

The guy’s crying already and the song hasn’t even begun. What a wimp! What’s going to happen when he has to face a real crisis—death, divorce, a tax audit, a receding hair line, Jennifer Lopez’s next movie?

And does he really think that she’d prefer to be “hurt honestly” than to be misled with a lie? Everyone prefers a pleasant lie to painful honesty. He’s really suffering from some serious delusions here!

And who am I to judge you
On what you say or do?
I'm only just beginning to see the real you

He’s been judging her right from the beginning of the song. He’s already inferred that she is the kind of weak-willed, mamby-pamby, shallow sort of creature that can’t possibly handle the truth. I don’t know about you, but if people thought that of me, I’d be pretty pissed! Maybe she really is completely vacuous. Why else would she stay with such a complete and total loser?

And sometimes when we touch
The honesty's too much
And I have to close my eyes and hide

This is the refrain that keeps popping into my head, like some kind of virulent pestilence. I have so many questions about these lines that there isn’t enough space on all the Blogger sites ever created to do justice to my queries.

Why, for example, is this guy concerned about honesty when he’s engaged in frottage (look it up) with his girlfriend? It could be that he’s a philosopher, but even philosophers put aside their quest for the truth every now and then when other more interesting possibilities present themselves (wink! wink!). This would be one of those rare occasions when I would encourage just about everyone to forget the truth for a little while and focus on the task at hand (so to speak).

And, if he really is concerned about honesty, then why is he closing his eyes and hiding? Shouldn’t his eyes be wide open if he really wants to perceive the truth? So many contradictions!

I wanna hold you til I die
Til we both break down and cry
I wanna hold you till the fear in me subsides

“I wanna hold you till I die”??? Isn’t this a bit extreme? Wouldn’t it be better for him to hold her until she dies. Then he can get on with his life and find another woman who doesn’t make him cry so much.

“Til we both break down and cry”??? Again with the crying! And now they’re both crying (Maybe it would be better if these two just called it a day and tried to find other partners who were more upbeat). Of course, this could just be his fantasy: what guy, after all, doesn’t dream about holding onto his girlfriend and crying with her. Sounds like a hoot to me!

“Till the fear in me subsides”??? What the hell is he so damned afraid of anyway? Never in the entire history of recorded music has a nervous nellie like this been a protagonist in a love song. Did people really make-out to music like this in the 1970s? If they did, it’s no wonder that the birth rate dropped so precipitously at the time. Perhaps the Catholic Church should have been more concerned about the music of Dan Hill in 1977 than it was about the use of birth control. The effects of the two on procreation were probably just about the same.

I could go on like this forever, but then you’d miss the unique pleasure involved in listening to “Sometimes When We Touch” for yourself. Just be warned, however, that, once you hear this song, you will never—and I really mean never—be able to get it out of you head again.

Don’t say that I didn’t warn you!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Just Say 'No'...To Christmas!

There are some traditions in this world that are just so patently offensive, so completely unsavory and repulsive, that, if you are a person with any sort of decent character at all, you just have to spurn them with all the righteous indignation that you are capable of summoning up from the very bowels of your being.

For me, Christmas is one of these traditions.

I know what you’re thinking: how could anyone have anything negative to say about Christmas? It is, after all, supposed to represent the best that humanity has to offer. And occasionally you do, in fact, hear some talk about that little baby in the manger, or about peace, human fellowship, and compassion for those in need. But the original message of Christmas, which I admit is pretty dandy, has gotten completely lost in our contemporary American incarnation of the holiday.

We now begin to celebrate the Christmas season the day after Halloween. Ghouls and goblins quickly give way to manger scenes and plastic Santas for the front yard. The Christmas season has become an excuse for overspent Americans to squander the little funds they have left on crap that they and their families clearly don’t need. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which is nominally the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season, is the largest shopping day of the year, with parents waiting all night long to save a few pennies on some mass produced garbage that they think will show their neglected children that they still care about them.

Christmas has made purchasing power identical with love. The more gifts you buy your children, the more you supposedly are showing that you care about them. Those who can’t afford to buy gifts or simply choose not to are viewed, according to our American ethos, as deficient parents and defective citizens.

One would think that in an economy like ours, which is in deep economic crisis, Americans would reevaluate this need to consume, save their money, and focus on the deeper spiritual values that the season is supposed to have. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. This current holiday season was replete with all the usual stories of insane shoppers shoving, trampling, and pepper-spraying each other in the never-ending quest to get the best bargain. Spending is on the rise again and savings rates are dropping once more. This may be fine and dandy for retailers, but it is disastrous for the long-term economic viability of the average American family.

This year, in his Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI attempted to remind Christians that there is something more to Christmas than the quest to get the latest electronic gadget. “Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season,” he said from his pulpit at St. Peters, “and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.”

These are very beautiful sentiments to be sure, and like Charlie Brown, I too wonder if the true mean of Christmas could ever be restored. But I honestly don’t think that it is possible at this point. The holiday season has become so intrinsically intertwined with materialism and consumption that I doubt that we can ever return to a more innocent time when the season was a celebration of religious faith and family commitment (if there ever even was such a time). It seems to me that Christmas has become so irredeemably corrupted that it’s probably best just to put the entire holiday to rest once and for all.

I can hear the reactions now: “What! Eliminate Christmas! How could anyone even suggest such a horrible thing?”

It’s reactions like these, which I encounter every time I mention my idea of “just saying ‘no’ to Christmas,” that has made me realize that this idea is probably not going to gain any widespred traction any time soon. So, in the interests of reaching some kind of concord with those who simply cannot live without the magic of Christmas, let me propose a slightly less radical idea: just say no to presents at Christmas time. Celebrate the holiday with your family and friends, focus on the religious and social aspects of the season, but eliminate the need to buy any gifts. If Christmas really represents something more than an opportunity for Americans to spend money they don’t have on stuff they don’t need, than this watered-down proposition should make perfect sense.

In fact, the concept of a gift-free Christmas is starting to find supporters. The Canadian Mennonite Church has developed a wonderful site on just this topic called Buy Nothing Christmas that offers some attractive options to the usual Chritmas splurging. Another interesting site, called No Gift Christmas This Year, even has an e-card that you can send to your friends and family informing them that you will be spending time, rather than money, on them this year.

But I know already that, even this idea, is probably too radical for most Americans.

So let me propose a third option: The $100 Christmas. That’s not $100 per person; that’s $100 for everyone you have to buy presents for. The nifty thing about this idea is that you can still show your appreciation for people by giving them something at Christmas time without turning the holidays into a mad buying orgy. Everyone will feel loved and appreciated and no one will go into debt during the holidays. What’s not to like?

Of course, very few Americans would even take this idea seriously (my parents actually yelled at me when I proposed the idea to them a few years back), which substantiates the very point I have been making: Christmas has been irredeemably corrupted by consumerism and the only viable option at this point is to “just say ‘NO.’”

Like any addiction, consumerism is a hard habit to break, especially at a time of year like Christmas when shopping and faith seem to be incestuously intertwined. One day perhaps—and that day is probably not far off—support groups will become available to help people get over their need to spend their hard-earned money at Christmas time. Perhaps there will even be a special pathology recognized in the next issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders called “Christmas shopping mania” and pharmaceutical companies will begin to develop a pill to help us get through this season with our wallets intact.

Until then, however, the burden lies with each of us individually to do all we can to resist the temptations to “buy into” the crass materialism of Christmas. I can’t guarantee that your family members will be happy if you make this commitment, but you probably will find that the entire Christmas season suddenly becomes much less stressful than it’s ever been.

And who knows, you might suddenly discover the true meaning of Christmas that seems to elude most Americans at this time of year:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rabbits Redux

I have causes...more causes than any normal human being should have. But my latest cause has become an obsession.

Now, I can't paint, or write music, or sculpt. I really have no artistic talents at all, per se (I can't even manage to play the kazoo very well). So I am forced by necessity to invent my own art form.

Actually, it's a riff on someone else's art form. A few weeks ago, my artsy brother-in-law, George, insisted that I watch David Lynch's "Rabbits" film. Since George is always right when it comes to what is cool in art, I decided to heed his advice. I found "Rabbits" on Youtube and was completely captivated by it. So I posted it on this site, it disappeared, and I posted it again. In the meanwhile, I began to extend my commentary on this film into the comments section of the post, and tried to expostulate in a style befitting the quirkiness of Lynch's film.

Some of my friends and students have contributed to the dialogue in their own unique styles. My goal now is to make this the ultimate experiential art project. Here's how you can help:

1) Watch the film.

2) Allow it to enter the very marrow of your being.

3) Then comment in your own unique style.

That's all you have to do. It's as easy as rabbit pie!

There are those who might argue that this is a frivolous pursuit for a philosopher. But I disagree. As I get older, I can see more and more that the human condition is fundamentally absurd. No philosopher could possibly express this existential reality as artfully as Lynch did in his film.

Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating just a bit here. But it is an extremely original piece of film-making and I think that it deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.

So enjoy the experience!


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

50 Proposals For Reform

Some people have a few good ideas in life; others have none at all. My colleague, Dr. David McClean, however, is clearly someone with no shortage of interesting ideas about how to make the world we live in a better place.

Recently, David has come up with no fewer than 50 proposals to reform the way Wall Street does business. Describing what inspired him, David writes,

"I decided to take it upon myself to draft 50 proposals / propositions (hereafter “Proposals”) that, taken together, can cause or at least contribute to a series of public conversations and, perhaps, sweeping transformation of not only how Wall Street does business, but also of how it thinks of itself and, maybe, in time, how the country thinks of it. Among the proposals are those that address larger issues that concern the nature of our democracy itself."

Although David acknowledges that both those on the right and left of the political spectrum will probably take issue with some of his ideas, he is to be congratulated for putting his philosophical training into practice to help solve an important social problem.

Perhaps those in the Occupy Wall Street movement will simply dismiss his ideas as not being in keeping with their “horizontal organizational model and anarchic orientation." But that would be a mistake. Good ideas are good ideas, where ever they come from. As a business insider--albeit one with progressive political tendencies--David is in a unique position to offer concrete proposals for reform that would benefit all of us. I strongly encourage everyone to read these proposals carefully.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Yes, But What Does It Mean?

It is sheer brilliance.

I don't know what it means, but it is deeply profound. And, at the same time, incredibly disturbing.

What does it mean? For God's sake, tell me: what does it mean?

Perhaps it doesn't mean anything at all. Then again, perhaps none of THIS means anything at all. Who the hell says it has to?

Now I suddenly get it. But please don't ask me what IT is (I don't think I can explain it in my current state of mind).

Just figure it out for yourself...


Sunday, December 18, 2011

What's Wrong With Dabbling?

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that becoming a world-class expert at anything is not just a matter of having innate genius. To become a great athlete, writer, musician, or even a master criminal, he argues, requires a minimum of ten thousand hours of practice. Even Mozart—who most people mistakenly believe sprung out of his mother’s womb a musical talent—spent much of his early life honing his musical gifts before he wrote his most impressive works.

If someone like Mozart needed ten thousand hours to become an expert in his field, then you can bet your sorry ass that you and I need at least as much time engaged in some consistent and intense sort of practice before we should even think of calling ourselves “experts” in any field of human endeavor.

Ten thousand hours. That’s a hell of a long time to spend focused on anything. Maybe that’s the reason why really talented people have such unbalanced lives: they’re so intent on perfecting their skills that everything else falls by the wayside. Relationships, fun little hobbies, family, the simple pleasures in life…all get tossed aside in the expert’s fanatical quest for perfection in his or her field. Experts also tend to be jerks, because with that ten thousand hours hanging over their heads, how could they possibly find the time to think about social niceties (as a case study, see “The Social Network”)?

If this is what it takes to be an expert, please forgive me, but, for now at least, I prefer to remain a devoted dabbler. There are simply too many fascinating things to explore in this short life of ours for me to have to commit myself exclusively to any one. I suppose that my career might have been more successful if I was able to focus on any one of the jobs I held since I began my professional life: high school teacher, campus minister, director of religious education, director of service-learning, director of international education, director of the first year experience, professor of philosophy and ethics, and now publisher. Perhaps if I had committed myself to any one of these positions—or at least spent Gladwell’s ten thousand hours perfecting my skills at any one of them—I might be renowned in at least one field of human endeavor, instead of “being all over the map,” as one very charming administrator at my college so aptly put it.

I should also confess that, even when it comes to my hobbies, I’ve demonstrated an equally passionate fear of commitment. In my adult life, I spent years at a time studying (not in any particular order of importance) Franciscan spirituality, photography, the Beat Generation, Roman intellectual thought, web design, ecotourism, zoysia propagation, veganism, Eastern religion (including, at one time or another, Zen, Vipassana, Tibetan Buddhism, and Vedanta), the Counterculture, Augustinian eudemonistic theory, 1930s screwball comedies, the Venician art of the cicchetti, Belgian beer production, Buddhist iconography, perennial plant science, abstract and minimalist art, acid-alkaline food combining, the music of Bob Dylan (for four entire years!), communitarian theory, voluntary simplicity, and book design. Whew! It took a lot to get all of that out.

I guess you could say that, if anyone fits the bill of a consummate dabbler, then that would most certainly be me.

Now, Gladwell probably would argue that this lust for pursuing whatever fancy caught my attention throughout the years came at a tragic price: because I never spent enough time perfecting my skills in any one area, I never really developed the mastery required to become an expert at anything. And he’s probably right about that.

But I think that there is an advantage to being a dabbler that Gladwell overlooks. Dabblers often can be proficient enough in so many areas that they can move almost seamlessly from one to another as needed in life or in their careers. Experts can’t do that. If you are an expert, as we’ve seen, it means you probably are inept in most other areas of your life because of the time commitment involved in attaining mastery. That’s no problem if you have a career that pays well, is fairly stable, and brings you long-term happiness. But, if any of these turn out not to be the case, the expert is screwed. He has nowhere else to go.

The dabbler has another advantage that the expert lacks: he may have a perspective on a broad spectrum of human thought and experience that makes him a go-to guy when the experts are puzzled. Many problems that we face in the 21st century are so complex and so interconnected that it often takes someone with the kind of expansive vision that comes from dabbling to see how all the “pieces of the puzzle fit together.” That’s precisely the kind of vision that the expert most decidedly lacks.

So consummate dabbling may not be as much of a problem as some people make it out to be, and it may, in fact, have certain advantages over maniacal specialization.

This position seems to be supported by the philosopher, Plato. In the Republic, Plato maintained that his Philosopher-Kings would only be chosen after the age of 50, when after a lifetime of education and rich experience, they would be in an ideal position to rule the polis—to become political experts, in other words. Plato’s Philosopher-Kings, then, would spend the first fifty years of their lives essentially dabbling. Of course, they’d be studying philosophy intensely, but the educational program that Plato provided for them insured that they’d probably be fairly well versed in just about every other subject imaginable as well. It is precisely this sort of broad training that guaranteed that the Philosopher-Kings would have the wherewithal to govern competently, while their philosophical expertise guaranteed that they’d govern justly.

I’ll be turning 50 myself in a few years (heavy sigh!), but until then, I plan to heed Plato’s advice. I’ll continue to joyously dabble, as I’ve always done, study subjects that interest me at any given time, learn any skills that I think might benefit me or my students, and write about whatever damn well pleases me. If I ever get appointed Philosopher-King, I’ll leave my dabbling behind and grudgingly become an “expert,” if that’s what’s required of me. In the absence of that sort of mandate, I might very well remain an inveterate dabbler for the rest of my life.

Who knows: I might even become the world’s first expert dabbler!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezy

I have only one thing to say today, but it's a mighty important thing, indeed. Here it goes:

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

After that, there's not much else that needs to be said, now is there?

Someone gets in your face, and what do you say to him?

"Easy peasy, lemon squeezy."

Someone cops an attitude or flips out over something stupid? Same thing...

"Easy peasy, lemon squeezy."

It's the perfect expression for reestablishing authority in the face of unreasonable opposition. When the NYPD ousted Occupy Wall Street supporters from Zuccotti Park, instead of cursing out the cops and calling them pawns of the ruling establishment, what would a more useful response have been? It's obvious:

"Easy peasy, lemon squeezy."

The tension would immediately have been diffused, the police would have backed off in panic, and occupiers would still be on Wall Street.

If Jefferson had included this phrase into his Declaration, King George III probably would have been so impressed that he would have granted us independence immediately. If Napoleon had said it to Wellington after Waterloo, defeat would have turned into victory, haute cuisine would have been brought to England in the 19th century, and the free world would have been spared the legacy of overcooked meat and mushy peas.

In his debate with Ronald Regan, Jimmy Carter wanted to respond to Regan's "There you go again" with "Easy peasy, lemon squeezy" but was afraid to appear flippant. And so we had 30 years of free-market economic policies that have taken us to the brink of economic ruin. And all because someone forgot to say...

"Easy peasy, lemon squeezy."

Of course, you have to say it the right way--preferably with a cool Cockney accent and jaunty air of defiance. If you really want to impress, you could include a "love" at the end of the refrain:

"Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, love."

Adding that little flourish will befuddle your opponent even more: he won't know whether you're putting him in his place, making fun of him, or trying to pick him up.

So the next time I'm at a faculty meeting and a colleague tries to thwart one of my brilliant ideas for moving the college into the modern era, rather than getting angry and spewing my usual venom, you know damn well what I'm going to say to him:

Easy peasy lemon squeezy

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Forum - The Final Word

Dr. Peter Fallon, Professor of Media Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago, offers his insights on the Occupy Wall Street forum held at Molloy College in November. As always, Peter's analysis is provocative, thought-provoking, and definitely worth reading. Peter also managed to capture the only footage we have of the event on his trusty flip video camera:

Read Peter Fallon's Blog Post

Monday, December 12, 2011

What's Right With the Right?

If you’ve read anything I’ve written on this blog, you probably realize my political and economic views tend to be slightly left of center. Since I’ve started posting, I’ve constantly made the case for greater income inequality, have tried to shine light on the take-over of the American government by multinational corporations, and have done all I could to support and promote the Occupy Wall Street movement. If these aren’t liberal causes, then I don’t know what is!

And why shouldn’t I be an admirer of a liberal world-view? My father was a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill, which allowed him both to go to school and to get an affordable mortgage for our house. As a member of the UFA (United Fireman’s Association) he was also able, through collective bargaining, to provide more than adequately for my family, to allow my mother to stay at home while I was growing up, and pay for four years of tuition at Fordham University for me. As a graduate student in Belgium, I received an education through the doctoral level, health insurance, and even assistance with tuition—all courtesy of the wonderful Belgian taxpayer. A similar education in the United States would have been quite out of my league economically, so, if I didn’t have the advantage of living in a country that could be considered a bastion of liberalism, I probably would still be a Catholic high school teacher (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I guess you could say, then, that I’m as pinko as they come, and proud of it.

That’s why it may come as something of a surprise to many of my liberal friends that I’ve taken up a secret pastime late at night when no one is watching: I’ve been engaging in serious dialogue with conservatives. And I must confess that I’ve been having a great time doing so.

How did this all come about, you may be wondering? Well, after Zuccotti Park was “cleansed” of the young radicals who had been occupying it, I found myself going to the Occupy Wall Street site to find out what was going on. Noticing how interesting the debates were on the site’s forum, I decided to contribute a post or two of my own. Although I had some nice chats with fellow liberals and leftists, what surprised me was how many self-proclaimed conservatives were regularly on this site. Some of them were clearly just nasty trolls—vicious right-wingers who were there only to disrupt the conversations that supporters of Occupy Wall Street were having amongst themselves. But some of them were sincere, thoughtful people who didn’t really seem at all like the kind of people who hated liberals like me.

So I decided to ask a very simple question of the numerous conservatives who kept coming back evening after evening to the site: why were they there? And I made it my vow to engage any conservative who was seriously interested in having a debate:

What I discovered was that there were basically four groups of conservatives who couldn’t stay away from the Occupy Wall Street site:

1) Rabid Rush Limbaugh-loving, liberal-hating right-wingers, whose brains had been fried from watching Fox News too much. It was no use discussing anything with these people because all they were capable of was name-calling.

2) Dopey evangelicals who seriously believed that Jesus was coming back at any moment and that all liberals were “New York Jews, queers, and filth” who would be left behind when the “Son of Man gathered up the righteous.” These people are even wackier than the Limbaugh crowd and equally incapable of rational thought.

3) Libertarians who believe, as Ronald Regan did, that “government is the problem, not the solution” and who were opposed to Occupy Wall Street because it seemed to them to be little more than another “big government” movement.

4) Self-labeled conservatives who actually are independents. They have problems with the direction our government is taking, but are uneasy with the methods of Occupy Wall Street, the kinds of people attracted to the movement, and the many seemingly radical ideas being proposed by some of these people.

I spent time every night going back and forth with all these folks. I found that, if I could keep my temper and really try to have an honest dialogue, those in the latter two groups were very often quite reasonable people who were on the Occupy Wall Street site because they really cared about the issues facing our country and were interested in debating them.

In fact, I found that, more often than not, if you could get beyond the hostility and platitudes that dominate political debate in our country, common ground could be achieved between those of us on the left and libertarians and conservative-leaning independents. For example, I found myself often agreeing with the libertarians that American government, as it currently exists, is really not all that responsive to the needs of its citizens and that many of our current government programs probably should be reexamined to see if they really are working (we would differ fundamentally though in our analysis of the cause of this problem and in our prescriptions). I also could understand why conservative-leaning independents might be wary of some of the extremist elements that have attached themselves to OWS (although I would maintain that extremist supporters of OWS are a fringe minority).

The point is that I think that it is a mistake to write off conservatives, when many of these individuals could become part of this movement if we just tried to take their concerns a bit more seriously and tried to see what we had in common with them, rather than what drives us apart.

I’m convinced that libertarians in particular have much more in common with Occupy Wall Street supporters than they do with the kind of social conservatives who have taken control of the Republican Party. Libertarians hate big government; we hate big corporations….but aren’t they really the same thing in the end? If we live in a corporatocracy, and our two major political parties are beholden completely to corporate interests, rather than to the interests of the American people, isn’t this possible grounds for some kind of meeting of the minds between libertarians and progressives? After all, do we really want to fight for the expansion of a government that consistently works against the welfare of its own citizens? One that continually fights expansionist wars all around the globe solely to promote the interests of its economic elites?

If liberals really need to have a fight, there will still be plenty of Limbaugh-loving reactionaries and fanatical evangelicals out there to do battle with. But why do battle at all with those whom we might be able to win over as allies if we just made an effort?

As Sun Tzu once profoundly wrote, “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On Human Perfectability (And Other Such Nonsense)

When I was a graduate student at the University of Leuven and had to decide on a period of philosophy in which to focus, there really was no question in my mind that it would be late antiquity. I had always found this period of history—which begins with the death of Alexander the Great and goes until the fall of the Roman Empire in the West—to be one of the most fascinating and underappreciated in European history.

But it was the intellectual thought of the period that really grabbed me. It was during late antiquity that all of the major schools of philosophy—Epicureans, Skeptics, Cynics, Stoics, Peripatetics, and the Neo-Platonists—were engaged in a mighty philosophical battle to determine whose philosophical system would come to dominate. Now, the approaches of all these schools differed dramatically, but they all shared one basic presupposition: that human perfectibility in this life was indeed a possibility.

For a young man in his 20s with more than his own share of emotional baggage, this idea naturally was quite appealing to me. All you had to do, it seemed, was have the right understanding of the nature of reality and live your life according to some well- defined principles and you were set. Happiness, self-realization, moral perfection, the good life—what ever you want to call it—could be yours for the taking. And once you attained this state of ultimate perfection, as exemplified by the great sages of all these traditions, you’d never again have to be bothered by anger, fear, despair, loneliness, anxiety, and the like. You’d essentially be impervious to the vicissitudes of chance and fortune.

It was a sweet dream, but, as I get older, I have begun to realize that this dream is actually more like a dangerous fantasy. And, unfortunately, it’s a fantasy that most Americans buy into to one degree or another. We think that, if we can just change our outlook on life, or get the right kind of job, or marry the right person, or have a bit more money, or find the right religion to belong to, our lives will suddenly become perfect. We would be walking around on a cloud of bliss, never again to know the tortuous pangs of unhappiness.

So, we spend our lives going from therapist to therapist, from medication to medication, from guru to guru, looking for the magic pill that will dispel the inner demons that plague us. But what we find, more often than not, is that we “flee into the desert” hoping to escape our problems, only to find that our problems follow us right into the desert (to paraphrase John Cassian). The desert, of course, is a metaphor for that secret cure that will end our unhappiness. In the early Christian Church, the desert represented escape from the wickedness and temptations of the city. But our own personal desert could be just about anything: it is basically the delusion that we have that everything in life will become just fine, if we can just change ourselves or our outlook on life just a little bit.

St. Augustine, the great Doctor of the Church, saw that this incessant question for perfection was a dangerous tendency that would actually rob one of the little happiness that was possible in this life. As a young man, he flittered from sect to sect trying to find the magic cure for his own misery. In the end, however, he discovered that the very quest for perfection was his greatest sin and that what he really needed to do was just accept his own fallen nature and muddle through life as best he could. The rest, Augustine came to believe, was in the hands of God.

I used to think that Augustine’s approach was insufferably cynical and pessimistic. But now I think that he actually was on to something. If we can just recognize that we’re not perfect and never will be, and try to accept who we actually are, with all our foibles, neuroses, petty character traits, and gross imperfections, we might actually find the modicum of contentment that may, in fact, be quite realizable in this life.

As the great philosopher, Clint Eastwood, once profoundly said…

So I say, start delighting in your own limitations. Your life may not be filled with apple pie and sunshine all the time (Whose life really is?). But you may just find that you are perfectly adequate for the ample challenges involved in living out your day-to-day existence.

And please don’t knock mere adequacy until you’ve given it a good try!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Forum at Molloy College

Here are a few shots from the Occupy Wall Street forum that was held at Molloy College on November 16th. The event probably raised more questions than it resolved, but it definitely got people talking about the issues driving the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Five Funniest Works Ever Written

Every now and then you need to read a really hysterical novel to take your mind off the fact that the world in which we live is basically doomed. None of us individually can do very much about the world financial crisis, climate change, mass species extinction, the genocide in Tibet, or the dubious popularity of Lady Gaga. But we can do what great men and women throughout the ages have done when confronted from the insanity of the human condition: retreat into the world of a seriously funny book.

Here are my personal recommendations for the funniest works of fiction ever written:

5. Tie: The Decameron & The Canterbury Tales - Who says a great work can't be a laugh riot? I was forced to read both these works as a student and couldn't believe just how nasty, crude, vulgar, and tasteless they are (in a nice kind of way).

4. Pride and Prejudice - I know that some people find Jane Austen prissy, but I'm definitely not one of them. I love this book, reread it almost every year, and always laugh out loud when I do (especially when I come to any scene involving Mr. Bennett or Mr. Collins).

3. Catch 22 - See previous post.

2. Tom Jones - Joseph Andrews is also a hoot-and-a-half, but this is definitely Henry Fielding's comic masterwork. Sure its smutty and cynical, but that's what makes it so much fun!

1. A Confederacy of Dunces - Ignatius J. Reilly...That should say it all. If you are a guy between the ages of 35 and 50, you know damn well that this is the funniest work ever written. The rest of you just don't know what you're missing!

“I refuse to 'look up.' Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man's fall, his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.” (John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Catch 22

I'm reading Catch 22 again for the fifth time. In the event that you're not into mid-twentieth century absurdist fiction, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller centers around the lives of a group of World War II fliers, whose job is to bomb targets in Italy. The man character, Yossarian, has decided early in the novel that he has had enough and wants to be grounded. The only problem is that, in order to be grounded, you have to be crazy. Yossarian, whose nerves are shot from the stress of warfare, seems to fit the bill, but there's a catch, of course -- Catch 22:

Yossarian...decided right then and there to go crazy.

"You're wasting your time," Doc Daneeka was forced to tell him.

"Can you ground someone who's crazy?"

"Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy."

"Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger."

"Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him."

"Then ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am."

"They're crazy."

"Then why don't you ground them?"

"Why don't they ask me to ground them?"

"Because they're crazy, that's why."

"Of course they're crazy," Doc Daneeka replied. "I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?"

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"

"He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.

"Can you ground him?"

"I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule."

"Then why doesn't he ask you to?"

"Because he's crazy," Doc Daneeka said. "He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."

"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"

"That's all. Let him ask me."

"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.

"No. Then I can't ground him."

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane then he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

When I first read this book at the age of 20, of course I found it hysterically funny. But a 20 year old foolishly believes that he has ultimate control over his destiny, and this delusion prevented me from understanding just how damned profound this book actually is. Now that I'm a world-weary, middle-aged cynic, I realize that there are Catch 22s at work around me all the time.

For example:

1) You have to keep consuming to keep the economy alive. But if you keep consuming you won't have any savings. If you have no savings, this will mean that you have no disposable income to spend. And, if you have no disposable income to spend, this will seriously hurt the economy.

2) Republicans and Democrats are both responsible for the mess we are in and both parties have sold out to special interests. We should, therefore, vote for politicians running on some other party line to break up the monopoly that these parties have on the political process. But, if you "waste" your vote on a third-party candidate, you are all but ensuring that a candidate you really hate--who by coincidence will either be a Republican or a Democrat--is certain to get elected.

3) It is wrong for the Chinese to adopt a way of life that will cause harm to the planet. But the Chinese are simply adopting the American way of life that we continually argue should be the norm for every country. So every country should do what we do, but, if it did, the planet would die.

4) Of course, the members of Occupy Wall Street have the right to protest. This is America, after all, and Americans are guaranteed the right to freedom of speech and assembly by the United States Constitution. However, if protests are effective, then they create a public nuisance, and therefore must be stopped at all costs.

5) If faculty member X would just stop criticizing the administration and do his own thing, he would no longer be the object of retaliation. But, if faculty member X stops criticizing the administration and does his own thing, he can't be living up to his contractual obligations as a faculty member, and, therefore, has to be "corrected" (i.e., retaliated against)....Ok, this one is a bit personal, but it does seem to fit the theme, doesn't it?

What Joseph Heller understood is that capricious autocrats don't simply want compliance from those they seek to control. They have to break their wills as well. And the best way to do this is to increasingly remove any sort of freedom that individuals have -- especially the freedom to protest or dissent. If no matter what a person does the are going to suffer for it, eventually you have a situation in which people become so neurotic and insecure that simply in order to survive they turn into mindless cogs in the machinery of the bureaucracies in which they serve.

I've always known that Catch 22 was a wonderfully written novel, but only now do I grasp that it also provides a template for understanding the human condition in the 21st century. If you haven't read this book, I'd urge you to pick it up immediately. It may not help you to escape from the Catch 22s at work in your own life, but it will definitely make you realize that to be considered insane in a totally insane world is actually quite an amazing achievement.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

They're Watching

THE MAN says that you are paranoid for thinking that he is spying on you.

But if THE MAN knows that you suspect that he is spying on you, how did THE MAN discover this information in the first place?

By spying on you, of course.

Therefore, your supposed paranoia is technically not paranoia at all (Remember, if you they really are out to get you, then you are not paranoid...just observant.).

So don't ever let THE MAN accuse you of paranoia without first producing evidence of this. And once he produces evidence of this, you know for sure that you are definitely not paranoid. Of course, you still could be obsessive compulsive, depressive, perverse, antisocial, megalomaniacal, and even border-line psychotic....

But you are most assuredly not paranoid.

quod erat demonstrandum.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Life is Suffering

I had the privilege--or the grave misfortune, depending upon how you look at it--to spend six years of my life studying the problem of happiness as part of the research for both my master's thesis and my doctoral dissertation. I explored the most profound ideas of the greatest thinkers of the ancient world on the subject, and almost drove myself insane in the process.

What did I discover as a result of this laborious process, you might ask? Only that everything I really needed to know about happiness, its cause, and the possibility of its attainment could be discovered by watching the following one minute scene from Woody Allen's Love and Death: