Archive for January, 2008
“out in the main square with a pile of wood around my ankles…”
Posted by sirach39 in Res Publica on January 31, 2008
Global warming?Â Academics are to blame!Â At least that’s what Mark Pedelty wants us to consider, at least insofar as we academics travel a lot.Â Some evidence:
Ian Roberts and Fiona Godlee published an editorial in the British Medical Journal on the “carbon footprint of medical conferences.” They determined that flights destined for the annual conferences of the European Respiratory Society and the American Thoracic Society put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than do 110,000 Chadians or 11,000 Indians in an entire year. The problem does not end with medical researchers. Scholars of all stripes travel to meet, greet, and, in one of our more ironic roles, preach the gospel of sustainability.
At the instigation of this article, my colleagues on the Metanexus Academic Board are talking over–virtually–the value of getting together to talk things over actually.Â Although everyone wants to “go green,” not everyone wants to make sacrifices to do it.Â AndÂ for a group of people who think it’s imperativeÂ to engage in a global dialogue in an effort to get at something like “the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person,” “sacrificing” face-to-face encounters feels pretty much likeÂ throwing in the towel.Â No virtual encounter can substitute adequately.
Take the example of Second Life, supposedly the next big thing in virtual community where “avatars” (virtual you’s) have “enriching” encounters.Â Turns out, though, the Second Life world Â is becoming deserted:
Ever since BusinessWeek ran a breathless cover story titled “My Virtual Life” more than a year ago, reporters have been heralding Second Life as the here-and-now incarnation of the fictional Metaverse that Neal Stephenson conjured up 15 years ago in Snow Crash. (Wired created a 12-page “Travel Guide” last fall.) Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t justify the excitement.
Second Life partisans claim meteoric growth, with the number of “residents,” or avatars created, surpassing 7 million in June. There’s no question that more and more people are trying Second Life, but that figure turns out to be wildly misleading. For starters, many people make more than one avatar. According to Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, the number of avatars created by distinct individuals was closer to 4 million. Of those, only about 1 million had logged on in the previous 30 days (the standard measure of Internet traffic), and barely a third of that total had bothered to drop by in the previous week. Most of those who did were from Europe or Asia, leaving a little more than 100,000 Americans per week to be targeted by US marketers.
Then there’s the question of what people do when they get there. Once you put in several hours flailing around learning how to function in Second Life, there isn’t much to do. That may explain why more than 85 percent of the avatars created have been abandoned. Linden’s in-world traffic tally, which factors in both the number of visitors and time spent, shows that the big draws for those who do return are free money and kinky sex. On a random day in June, the most popular location was Money Island (where Linden dollars, the official currency, are given away gratis), with a score of 136,000. Sexy Beach, one of several regions that offer virtual sex shops, dancing, and no-strings hookups, came in at 133,000. The Sears store on IBM’s Innovation Island had a traffic score of 281; Coke’s Virtual Thirst pavilion, a mere 27. And even when corporate destinations actually draw people, the PR can be less than ideal. Last winter, CNET’s in-world correspondent was conducting a live interview with Anshe Chung, an avatar said to have earned more than $1 million on virtual real estate deals, when Chung was assaulted by flying penises in a griefer attack [a “griefer” is anÂ in-world resident intending to vandalize an event].
Anyway, the virtual world–at least that version of the virtual world–doesn’t hold much appeal.Â I am one of those who spent “several hours flailing around”Â and sawÂ no one and nothing of interest.Â Â I have enough trouble with my “first life.”Â IÂ don’tÂ need the hassles ofÂ Second Life.Â Â No way I see holding a Metanexus Academic Board meeting in SecondÂ Life in an attempt to decrease our carbon footprint (althoughÂ I wouldn’t mind finding out what sort of avatars some of my colleagues would come up with…).Â Â Â Â
But on the other hand, academics might be the cause, not so much of global warming, but of global warming catastrophism.Â So opines Alexander Cockburn, who has been branded a “blasphemer” for writing: “While the worldâ€™s climate is on a warming trend, there is zero evidence that the rise in CO2 levels has anthropogenic origins.”Â He particulary castigates the politicalÂ left (of which he is a proud yet melancholy member) for becoming,Â in their obsession with the idea that humans areÂ generating catastrophic climate change,Â useful idiots for the evil forces of global capitalism.Â How so?Â He writes:
For reasons I find very hard to fathom, the environmental left movement has bought very heavily into the fantasy about anthropogenic global warming and the fantasy that humans can prevent or turn back the warming cycle.
This turn to climate catastrophism is tied into the decline of the left, and the decline of the leftâ€™s optimistic vision of altering the economic nature of things through a political programme. The left has bought into environmental catastrophism because it thinks that if it can persuade the world that there is indeed a catastrophe, then somehow the emergency response will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice.
This is a fantasy. In truth, environmental catastrophism will, in fact it already has, play into the hands of sinister-as-always corporate interests.
As Cockburn sees it, climate catastrophism is just one example of an ever-intensifying “politics of fear.” On the right, for instance, obsession with global terrorism leverages people’s fears in unsavory ways.Â None of that does us any good.
But either way, we academics are apparently bad news.Â Either we’re wreaking havoc on our planet by holding international conferences on, say “Transsomatechnics: Theories and Practices of Transgender Embodiment” or whatever; or we are wreaking havoc on our political life by working up “Chicken Little” catastrophism about the environment; or–worst of all–we hypocritically hold an internationalÂ conference on global climate change.
And, as Cockburn notes, even to bring up the discussion at this level is risky business.Â He writes that he sometimes feels like he’s “out in the main square with a pile of wood around (his) ankles.”Â Sometimes I know how he feels….
A light-hearted look at melancholy…
Posted by sirach39 in Health, Life itself, Wisdom on January 22, 2008
That’s just what you won’t get with Eric G. Wilson’s essay, “In Praise of Melancholy,” published in a recent edition of The Chronicle Review.Â This essay is adapted from Wilson’s new book, Against Happiness, which, for his sake, I suppose I hope does not sell.Â Unfortunately–for him, I guess–I think it might do fairly well, especially with the readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education.Â The essay begins like this:
Ours are ominous times. We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Within decades we could face major oceanic flooding. We are close to annihilating hundreds of exquisite animal species. Soon our forests will be as bland as pavement. Moreover, we now find ourselves on the verge of a new cold war.
But there is another threat, perhaps as dangerous: We are eradicating a major cultural force, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are annihilating melancholia.
How should we take this warning?Â Fires, floods, deforestation, extinction, wars cold and hot–none of this is as bad as the loss of a particular mood?Â Is this a proposition only an academic can love?
The first question that arises, though, is whether melancholyÂ really is an endangered species.Â Do the rise of “happiness studies” and the ever-increasing variety and sales of antidepressants signal the end of sadness (i.e., are they really working?) or is that testimony to melancholy’s ineradicability?Â I don’t see any reason to be other than very optimistic about the future of pessimism.
But is melancholy even all its cracked up to be by Wilson?Â As you would expect from someone “against happiness,” the argument Wilson offers is overwrought and overstated, although it has touches of insight and poetry about it as well.Â Wilson has no interest in looking at the bright side of happiness.Â To be fair, he does try to offer qualifications to his thesis:Â he is not against genuine joy (which would seem to come only after long-suffering), he is not romanticizing clinical depression, he is not against a spiritual tranquility that might come from a life of meditating on the ills of the world, nor is he against any bliss that might follow from helping or serving others.Â But your basic everyday “happiness” is suspect, in that, according to Wilson, it stems from a perverse idea that sadness or the “blues” is an aberrant and unacceptable condition.
One reason Wilson might be saying the things he says about happiness is that he’s forgotten Aristotle’s teaching on the subject.Â In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines happiness, or rather at this stage defines its role in a full human life:
Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else….
Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. [ch. 7]
[H]appiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue…. [ch. 13]
Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world…. 
According to Aristotle, happiness (rightly understood) is the end of every human action, or to put it another way, whatever we do we do for the sake of happiness.Â Why else would we do it?Â To make ourselves miserable?Â Well, okay, sometimes we do things we are fairly sure will make us miserable…sort of.Â In fact, we have this perverted sense of what makes us “happy,” and it is this sort of thing our better selves tell us will not make us happy even though we go ahead and do it anywayÂ (you have to add a little St. Paul to your Aristotle…).Â But when we are being about as good (authentic) as we can be, we will act for the sake of genuine happiness, and unhappiness will be a sign we have more work to do.
Wilson worries that an “obsession with happiness” will make us less, not more, authentic, but he can only write this because he has an un-Aristotelian (in other words, a very attenuated) view of happiness.Â
Now, instead of opposing Wilson to Aristotle, let’s join them for the sake of an argument.Â Suppose the sort of experience Wilson intends by “joy” (as opposed to happiness) is just what Aristotle means when he uses the word “happiness.”Â Both would agree that we could be wrong about what would make us genuinely happy/joyful.Â We could, for instance, mistake a drug-induced stupor for joy, conformity for authenticity, pleasantness for beauty.Â If we can clear up the mistunderstanding between Wilson and Aristotle, then Wilson can be seen to be offering an Aristotelian warning against misunderstanding true human happiness.Â It is a warning against self-satisfaction with manufactured solutions to the great difficulties with which life presents us.
When we, with apparent happiness, grab hard onto one ideology or another, this world suddenly seems to take on a static coherence, a rigid division between right and wrong. The world in this way becomes uninteresting, dead. But when we allow our melancholy mood to bloom in our hearts, this universe, formerly inanimate, comes suddenly to life. Finite rules dissolve before infinite possibilities. Happiness to us is no longer viable. We want something more: joy. Melancholia galvanizes us, shocks us to life.
Melancholia pushes against the easy “either/or” of the status quo. It thrives in unexplored middle ground between oppositions, in the “both/and.” It fosters fresh insights into relationships between oppositions, especially that great polarity life and death. It encourages new ways of conceiving and naming the mysterious connections between antinomies. It returns us to innocence, to the ability to play in the potential without being constrained to the actual. Such respites from causality refresh our relationship to the world, grant us beautiful vistas, energize our hearts and our minds.Â
In this way of looking at things, Wilson is saying that (phony) happiness is whitewash over a melancholy which, if allowed to breathe, would lead us towards a more genuine and authentic happiness.Â We tend to apply the whitewash for basically one reason:Â fear.
Most hide behind a smile because they are afraid of facing the world’s complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties. If we stay safely ensconced behind our painted grins, then we won’t have to encounter the insecurities attendant upon dwelling in possibility, those anxious moments when one doesn’t know this from that, when one could suddenly become almost anything at all. Even though this anxiety, usually over death, is in the end exhilarating, a call to be creative, it is in the beginning rather horrifying, a feeling of hovering in an unpredictable abyss. Most of us habitually flee from that state of mind, try to lose ourselves in distraction and good cheer. We don inauthenticity as a mask, a disguise to protect us from the abyss.
Wilson argues that we should stand resolute before the abyss and embrace the melancholy it produces (let the abyss stare into us, as Nietzsche might put it).Â We should recognize that wholeness eludes us.
We are forever incomplete, fragments of some ungraspable whole. Our unfinished natures â€” we are never pure actualities but always vague potentials â€” make life a constant struggle, a bout with the persistent unknown. But this extension into the abyss is also our salvation. To be only a fragment is always to strive for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent. That striving is always an act of freedom, of choosing one road instead of another. Though this labor is arduous â€” it requires constant attention to our mysterious and shifting interiors â€” it is also ecstatic, an almost infinite sounding of the exquisite riddles of Being.
To be against happiness is to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is a call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence.
I think there is wisdom here, but there is also a need of a counter-warning.Â Â The wisdom in melancholy is the ever-present reminder of the brokenness of life and of a fundamental dissatisfaction it produces.Â The counter-warning is required to remind us that obsession with fragmentation can be as insidious as obsession with store-bought happiness.Â To return to the allusion to Nietzsche above, let’s hear the whole aphorism:
Anyone who fights with monsters should make sure that he does not in the process become a monster himself. And when you look for a long time into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. (Beyond Good and Evil, 146)
A stubborn insistence at remaining fragmented, a stubbornÂ demand forÂ “deconstructing” all that allows of deconstruction solely for the sake of staving off any attempt at wholeness can, alas,Â easily become monstrous.Â Wallowing in forced or feigned melancholy because the world can often be cruel and inhospitable is as problematic as phony “happiness.”Â Wilson sees melancholy as a potential goad to creativity and action, just as “deconstruction” can release creative readings and emancipate suppressed potentials.Â And so they can be.Â But they can be temptations, too.
I can’t help offering an aside here about the relationship between melancholy and transdisciplinary work, the quest for wholeness, and wisdom in university life.Â I think that when one reflects on one’s education, one cannot help but feel melancholic, that one has been confronted with the myriad of fragments of knowledge without more than a passing glimpse (if one were lucky) at the elusive and transcendent whole.Â Perhaps it is this experience of melancholy that drives efforts at, for instance, the constructive engagement of science and religion.Â And perhaps it is my sensing a too-easily won satisfaction that drives my criticisms of a good deal of the work being done in the science and religion movement.Â But just as melancholy is kept alive by the hopes of wholeness, the critical eye applied to transdisciplinary programs is at the service of the very aims of those programs.Â Melancholy really is not “against happiness;” it is driven by a foretaste of it.Â Transdisciplinary work is not “against disciplinarity;” it is driven by a foretaste, a wonder and a hope that through and beyond disciplinary knowledge,Â wisdom and wholeness might be possible.
Anyway, before this whole thing brings you down, let’s remember that Wilson is a professor of English.Â He’s a scholar.Â He spends a lot of time in his study, I’m sure.Â Maybe we (he and I, both) should read a little bit of that masterwork of misery, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is, with all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostics, and Several Cures of It. In Three Partitions. With their several Sections, Members and Subsections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically Opened and Cut Up, particularly Part 1, Section 2, Member 3, Subsection 15:Â “Love of Learning, or overmuch Study. With a Digression of the Misery of Scholars, and why the Muses are Melancholy”:
[H]ard students are commonly troubled with gowts, catarrhes, rheums, cachexia, bradypepsia, bad eyes, stone, and collick, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by over-much sitting: they are most part lean, dry, ill-coloured, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives; and all through immoderate pains, and extraordinary studies.
Wilson and I get the blues because it is an occupational hazard.
Â I am going for a walk.
Who’s crying next?
Posted by sirach39 in Life itself on January 16, 2008
Crying has been featured prominently in the news the past week or so.Â First, there was the “crying” of Sen. Clinton.Â Okay, she didn’t really cry, despite what most of the headlines declared.Â She welled up with emotion.Â And then she won a primary in New Hampshire that 24 hours before polls showed she’d lose by double-digits.
Just after this, the Dallas Cowboys lost a playoff game to the New York Giants, a game they were 7 1/2 point favorites to win.Â And then, wide receiver Terrell Owens cried.
Both of these criers have in common the fact that they, of all people, are the sort some would say most definitely should not cry–an extraordinarily giftedÂ tough guy professional football player and a woman running to become what used to be called “the most powerful man in the world.”
Opposing patterns are developingÂ here:Â cry first, win later….lose first, cry later.Â And it would have to be the first pattern for Sen. Clinton, wouldn’t it?Â Suppose she had lost first, then cried.Â That would have been bad for the campaign.Â Crying first “humanized” her, as the news put it, and it probably got her a few more votes than she might have gotten otherwise.Â Crying later would have made her out to be a poor sport or just plain weak.Â
I hate to use the G-word here, but does gender does seem to have something to do with this?Â I say this without judgment:Â I have known women who have cried to get out of a speeding ticket (and other tough spots) successfully.Â I don’t know any men who have succeeded with the same strategy…but hold on a moment:Â Obviously, had T.O. cried first he would not then have expected to win a football game (he would only have looked pathetically weak).Â However, after T.O. cried he did get a victory of sorts:Â the savagely critical sports talk radio around Philly, for instance,Â actually found a nice word to say about T.O.Â Unthinkable!Â But his crying seemed to “humanize” him.Â “Maybe he doesn’t just wreck football teams…maybe there is something decent in him….”
Okay, in both cases there were suspicions voiced from some quarters that the crying was feigned (crocodile tears).Â You can look at the video of Sen. Clinton and T.O. and decide for yourself.Â I happen to think it was genuine emotion in both cases.
Crying is starting to look like a good thing, public relations-wise, but only if crying comes before the judgment of othersÂ (“Should I vote for her?” “Do I like him?”) and is (or seems) sincere.Â So, keep an eye on the news to see who will be crying next…and keep an eye on your reactions, too.
Meanwhile, gender-schmender, I cry almost all the time.Â Or at least I could if I weren’t on a strict hanky budget.Â Here are some up-to-the-minute reasons:
- A father threw his 4 children off a bridge to their deaths because he was in a bad mood.
- A mother killed her 4 daughters because they were “possessed.”
- Another car bomb just went off in Beirut.
- Major League Baseball is under federal scrutiny.
- We are still fighting about the Galileo affair.
Well, I could go on and on and on and on….you get the idea.
Last night on the season debut of American Idol, one contestant was Temptress Browne, a sixteen year old girl large enough to play middle linebacker (which she does!).Â Â SheÂ said she came to the Philadelphia auditions “for her mother,” a morbidly obese and seriously unhealthy woman who accompanied her.Â Dear Temptress is seriously untalented, singing-wise, but it is clear she loves her mom and her mom loves her.Â Temptress cried and cried when the judges turned her down.Â Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul held a group hug for the poor girl, and even the villainous Simon Cowell accompanied the unsuccessful constestant back to her mom.Â My wife and I watched together, and one of us–I am not saying who–bawled like a baby, it was so touching.Â
Meanwhile, some Canadians are debating whether it was okay to laugh at them.Â A forum entry ran as follows:
Pathetic American Idol Contestants
Is it wrong to laugh at them?
Just saw a GINORMOUS (translation: massively obese) 16yo girl try to sing for the judges, all so she could win to help her MORBIDLY OBESE mother.
The audition was absolutely terrible, and I can’t help but laugh!
Am I an evil person? Do people like this deserve to be laughed at? If you are going to go on national TV with no talent, and try to win a singing competition, why should we laugh at you?
So a survey was launched:Â “Is it wrong to laugh at really bad American Idol auditions?”Â Â At last count the results were that 38.89% of respondents thought “No, there really are pathetic excuses for auditions.”Â 50% thought, “No, they wanted to stand in the spotlight, so they have to suffer the consequences.”Â 11.11% opined that, “Yes [it is wrong because], nobody deserves to be laughed at.”Â No one selected the choice:Â “Yes [it is wrong], they are giving their best.”
But what are we laughing at?Â I laugh (’til I cry, sometimes) at some of the miserable performances–they can be just awful!Â Even wonderfully so!Â Sometimes I laugh…but it is a nervous laughter…at some of the really bad contestants who don’t seem to know they are bad.Â I certainly laugh at the “I just want to be on tv for 15 seconds” acts, which are meant to be funny (at least I hope they are).Â We might even laugh at someone’s name:Â “Temptress” is just a funny name!Â However, if we are laughing at Temptress or her mom because of their obesity, say, or even just because they failed at some wild idea they had, then we may have a problem.Â What would make that funny?
But we’re not talking about laughter; we’re talking about tears.Â “Jesus wept” [John 11:35] is famously the shortest sentence in the New Testament.Â Why did he cry?Â His friend, whom he loved, Lazarus, had died.Â The tears were produced from the intensity of the relationship.Â Why did Sen. Clinton cry?Â Who knows a person’s heart?Â But it seems to me she welled up just at the moment when she was thinking about her country and about the opportunities it gave her, an intense relationship between a person and her country, her home.Â Why did Terrell Owens cry?Â Well, at (tear-streaked) face value, he was crying for his quarterback, who was once again taking it on the chin for losing (all by himself??) a playoff game.Â Another intense relationship (too bad one couldn’t have developed here in Philly, but that’s another story…), between T.O. and those with whom he works, shares a mission, engages in mutual striving to be excellent, to be victorious.Â Their fates are in each other’s hands (quitel literally, in the case of a quarterback and a wide receiver).Â Why would one cry while watching a game show?Â Because for a brief moment there was evidence of something more important than a game show right in the middle of a self-important game show.Â A mother’s love?Â The pain of a fading dream?Â Intimations of mortality and loss?
Looking around the world these days, there are plenty of reasons to shed a tear.Â But the tears are signs of a deep, transcendent connection to a reality that makes possible but gets hidden by all the superficial nonsense we get caught up in every day.
Wish I could have said this better, but no use crying of spilled milk.
Rapidly produced, just as rapidly forgotten.
Posted by sirach39 in Res Publica on January 10, 2008
It is possible thatÂ Russell Jacoby has me dead to rights.Â In his IMHO column in the Chronicle Review, dated January 11, 2008 (“Big Brains, Small Impact“), Jacoby reflects on the 20 years since the publication of his book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.Â In sum, despite sometimes fair criticism, Jacoby stands by his thesis that professionalization and academization have marginalized younger intellectuals, making the rise of any “public intellectual” next to impossible.
I think his analysis has some merit, but there have been “public intellectuals” since Mumford and Wilson who have also held academic posts.Â Richard Rorty, Tariq Ramadan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida (all right, those French guys can be difficult…), Richard Dawkins, Karen Armstrong, Jurgen Habermas (okay, also sometimes difficult), Noam Chomsky…didn’t Prospect Magazine ask us our opinion about the most important public intellectuals (more than 100 of them) back in 2005?Â
Anyway, in this piece Jacoby offers this wry analysis of the much ballyhooed preponderance of leftists in academia:
Yet let us accept, for the moment, the argument that humanities departments house more leftists than Home Depot or the police department. Shouldn’t this be something that conservatives celebrate, not decry? Doesn’t this mean that the system works elegantly, not poorly? Are these professors the successors to the last generation of intellectuals? If so, society has successfully insulated them. They inhabit a protected environment where they can neither harm each other nor reach outsiders. As academic intellectuals subvert paradigms and deconstruct narratives in campus symposia, conservatives take over the nation. Brilliant!
More painful are his observations concerning the blogosphere:
[…] the Internet has altered cultural realities. Writers â€” including professors â€” can escape censorious editors and referees by establishing their own blogs. The Internet gives anyone an electronic pulpit. All ideas are game. The old-fashioned intellectual writing a book or an essay may be as outdated as a horse and buggy. […]
In the United States, however, blogs are not so much about challenging an authoritarian state [as in, say, China or Myanmar] as about adding to the cacophony. Blogs may be more like private journals with megaphones than reasoned contributions to public life.
The Internet provides instant communication and quick access to vast resources, but has it altered the quality or content of intellectual discussions? Too many voices may cancel each other out. […] Ortega y Gasset’s fear almost a century ago of the “revolt of the masses” needs an update. We face a revolt of the writers. Today everyone is a blogger, but where are the readers? […] On the Internet, articles, blog posts, and comments on blog posts pour forth, but who can keep up with them? And while everything is preserved (or “archived”), has anyone ever looked at last year’s blogs? Rapidly produced, they are just as rapidly forgotten.Â
Ouch!Â Unless, of course, bloggers (like myself) do not have pretensions to posterity…or even punditry.Â Some of us are just trying to start some conversations, even small conversations that while somewhat rapidly produced do take a little more effort than your average cocktail party banter.Â Nothing wrong with that.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Posted by sirach39 in Res Publica, Wisdom on January 3, 2008
That’s just the kind of question Frank Furedi tells us we’re asking too much but not asking well-enough.Â It seems we have gotten scared witless by the specters of global warming and jihadism–so much so that we cannot focus on much more widely significant problems like the potential for a global recession, which would affect millions of people, or our plague of urban violence, lousy schools, and abandoned kids, which affects a whole region, or even just the problem of potholes or snow removal or any other demands of communal life.Â Furedi writes at Spiked:
One consequence of Western societiesâ€™ obsessive preoccupation with the apocalypse-to-come is that less and less creative energy is devoted to confronting the all too important problems that exist in the here and now.
And all this worst-case-scenarios-thinking is leveraged by officer seekers in a politics of fear.Â
Public figures appear to have lost the capacity to reassure or lead people. Instead, they frequently opt for evoking frightening futuristic scenarios where the line between fiction and reality become unclear. In every respect, the sensibility that underpins public debate today can be described as a â€˜crisis of nerveâ€™.Â Â
Furedi gets to the essence of the problem whenÂ he notes:
This crisis over the future coexists with a powerful sense of disorientation about the status and worth of the human species itself. Increasingly, humanity is represented as the biggest problem on the planet, rather than as the harbinger of a better future.
Thinking that humanity is the worst that could happen (i.e., forgetting what it means to be human)Â really is the worst that could happen!Â Furedi is right when he warns:Â
Worst-case thinking, the principal legacy of 2007, will most likely thrive in the years ahead. That is unless we can rediscover a sense of purpose in what it means to be human.
This forgetting can take the form of using, say, eco-piety, as an excuse for not dealing with the harsh, concrete problems of life that actually have one’s name on themÂ and about which we might actually do something constructive, but which lack the Hollywood-style apocalyptic pizzazz.Â And a good number of those problems are (uh-oh, here it comes…) moral problems which require we deal with ourselves and not just with everything “out there,” so to speak.
Â What’s this?Â Sermonizing?Â Don’t take it from me…take it from Brendan O’Neill, whose recent complaint at Spiked features this lead-in:
I am avowedly atheist. But listening to [an ecumenical array of] bishops’ drab, eco-pious Christmas sermons, I couldnâ€™t help thinking: â€˜Bring back God!â€™
His problem, being an atheist notwithstanding, is that Christians (in this case) have taken all the seriousness out of the argument with atheists of man and his nature.Â I.e.,Â as evidenced by their prominent leaders, ChristiansÂ haveÂ lost the idea of what it means to be human!
Christians and atheists may have spent much of the past 200 years at each otherâ€™s throats, but they inhabited the same moral plane. Theirs was literally a struggle for the soul of humanity. Today, by contrast, Christian leaders have abandoned questions of morality and free will. They now view people as little more than waste managers, â€˜caretakersâ€™, eco-binmen, whose job is to sweep up after themselves and keep the planet in good nick. Instead of remaking the world in anybodyâ€™s image â€“ whether it be Godâ€™s, manâ€™s, Buddhaâ€™s or L Ron Hubbardâ€™s â€“ man must simply adapt to his surroundings like an amoeba; indeed, he must minimise as much as possible his impact on the planet. Old Christians taught us that â€˜the Kingdom of God is within youâ€™ (4), which was their flawed way of saying that man is a sovereign being, free and morally responsible. Today Christians say: â€˜You are merely guests in the Warehouse of Resources. So be quiet, donâ€™t get any ideas above your station, and please shut the door when you leave.â€™
For O’Neill, today’s “New Atheists” are no better:
If yesterdayâ€™s Christians and atheists inhabited the same moral plane, fighting tooth and nail over the purpose of mankind, todayâ€™s eco-Christians and New Atheists inhabit the same amoral plane, bickering with each other but also frequently agreeing that man is a bit of a shit.Â
O’Neill is dead on except that being a “bit of shit” is actually too high a view of man for eco-Christians and New Atheists, as we now know that poop is necessary for life.Â We are supposed to be not even that good!
Clearly, we’re losing the thread….