Identity and Agency

Sounds heavy doesn’t it?  You wouldn’t know, just by looking at the title, that this is going to be a critique of hyperindividualism. [1]

Let’s start with this exchange.

Empathetic Elder:

(EE) Thank you for sharing that account with me.  I know exactly how you feel.

Unimpressed Young Person

(UYP) You can’t possibly know how I feel.   You are not me.

Empathy as Identity

I want to come around, eventually, to a consideration of whether the Unimpressed Young Person (UYP) is correct, but let’s begin by looking at her standards, and particularly, what those standards are good for.  The general context of this interchange is “empathy,”  I started thinking about it this morning when I read Molly Worthen’s piece in the New York Times.

The UYP has a rejection of the EE in mind and I am sure what she said accomplished that, but considered as a standard for empathy, it doesn’t hold up very well.  “You will be able to know how I am feeling when you achieve complete identity with me—when you are me.  As long as you are only yourself, you will fail.”  That is the standard she is using.  It isn’t ridiculous.  Logical implications flow from it.  Behavior consistent with it can be predicted.  It is, however, completely useless.

“Being me” as the standard for “feeling what I feel” or even “knowing what I feel” is useless because it doesn’t help us understand anything.  But buried in that casual rejection of empathy is a lot of ideology—probably unconsidered ideology—that I would like to consider.

This young woman may think of herself as a glowing coal of consciousness, but she is, in fact, part of a category.  She is part of many overlapping sets of categories, every one of which has affected and is still affecting her experiences.  She could be a Uygher, an older sister, a talented athlete, and a suspicious solitary person with no friends.  That means that she shares the consciousness that is shared among all Uyghers, all older sisters, etc.  

In addition to that, she may be a teenager or a woman with two kids and two jobs, or have been twice-married and  twice divorced.  So she shares the consciousness that is common to all those settings.  And there are more ways of approaching it.

This establishes that “how I feel” can readily be interpreted as “how people in my situation” feel.  “How I feel” is, in that way of interpreting it, the common property of many other people in one or more of those settings.  

And beyond that, there are the cultural prescriptions that her culture has taught her about individuality and sociability.  Some people are taught to expect that their experiences are like those of others; others to expect all their experiences to be unique.  UYP is obviously one of those.  That explains her rebuke to EE, but it doesn’t bear at all on whether her experiences actually are unique.

There is, again, the question of what interpretation helps us understand our experiences so that “our” encompasses both the individual and the social experiences.  So if the “identity” standard is badly skewed to the “all experiences are unique experiences” side of the scale, anything like empathy is going to fail.  That seems like a great loss to me.

Empathy as Agency

There is, however, another way of looking at the kind of interpersonal contact of which empathy is an instance.  I have called that kind “agency.”  Agency is about what we do.

Here’s an example that I have run across recently.  It is from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.  The situation from which I have rescued this example is impossibly complex, but we don’t need very much of it to illustrate the kind of empathy I am talking about when I consider agency. [2]

Erasmus is in space, rescuing a small nuclear reactor which will be needed to supply the oxygen he and his friends will need to survive long enough to accomplish their mission.  Erasmus has had to go out of communication range [3] so deciding together what to do is no longer available.  At that point, what I am calling an empathy of action or agency, shows up.  Here is what it sounds like to Erasmus.

The key to it all: what were my friends thinking? What were they saying right now over that wireless…? I’d heard Arsibalt’s voice saying that the nuke was in the wrong plane. They’d probably watched me drifting away, with mounting anxiety, and debated whether to send out a rescue team.

But they hadn’t. Lio had given no such order. Not only that, they had fought off the temptation to switch on the long-range wireless. 

If it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have been able to read their minds, nor they mine. But my fraas [brothers] had been raised, trained, by Orolo. They had figured out—probably sooner than I had—that in forty-five minutes the nuke would reappear on the other side of Arbre. 

Just as important, they were relying on me—entrusting me with their lives—to figure out the same thing and to act accordingly.

There is no way place this clip into an adequate context—especially that they had been tutored in common by Orolo—but the bold lines show what I mean by agency and by empathy.  Erasmus’s friends have figured out a life-saving solution, but it won’t work unless they trust him to have figured it out as well.  They are going to do something that will work only if he figures it out and does the right thing.

Under other circumstances, Erasmus says, he “would not have been able to read their minds,” but these circumstances are special.  These young men are products of the same discipline, students of the same tutor, and lifelong colleagues.  Those are the circumstances that make cooperation without communication possible.


You might not know it from this account, but I believe both kinds of empathy are important.  Emotional empathy is possible—in fact, it is common—when we understand that we have had many common experiences and that “I know how you feel” is correct in that general sense.  It is only demanding that “understanding” means being the other person that it fails.  Unfortunately, that is more and more the standard that is used.

The empathy based on a common understanding of actions to be taken is even more common.  Every good work group knows how to anticipate how things will seem to others and to take that into account in choosing their own actions.  Every good sports team works the same way.  This kind of empathy is as necessary as the other.  It is the centripetal force that draws us together when otherwise, we would spin away as solitary entities.

[1]  You would know, probably, that it is an essay written by someone who prizes abstract nouns; probably by someone who has had a lot of education.  Why else would you prefer abstract nouns?

[2]  It is a shame that the adjective form, “agential” is not more familiar.  It would be so convenient to say that we were talking about emotional empathy and now we are talking about agential empathy.

[3]  They could reach him by long range communications, but that would signal to the enemy that they were there.

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Victory Lapse

I am hoping that title will arouse your curiosity.  I know it will only make my kids roll their eyes.  “Oh no.” they will say, internally, and then to each other, “Dad’s at it again.”

For everyone else, let me explain what the “it” in “Dad’s at it again,” refers to.  In 1975-76, I got involved in a project to celebrate the country’s bicentennial by running 1,776 miles between the 4th of July in ’75 and the 4th of July in ’76. [1]  So I did that.  I played quite a few of the little mind games you play if you are going to run that many hours in a non-competitive setting and one of them was the “victory lap.”

We lived, at the time on “New Faculty Circle,” a part of Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.  The circle was half a mile and, just to pad the mileage a little, I developed the habit of running that extra half mile from my house on around the circle and back to my house again.  This is Sean Connery at 90, my new goal.

I called that lap “a victory lap,” partly just to have something uplifting to call it and partly to recognize the experience that I felt different—better—running that extra lap.  It seemed that the tiredness didn’t bother me the way it had in the last “real” mile and if I had blisters, they didn’t bother me as much, and so on.

The last half mile—the victory lap—was, in other words, qualitatively different.  It felt different.

At about that time, I began dividing my life into 20 year blocks, imagining that I would live into my 80s, as my parents did.  So…like a mile race, four laps.  [2]  Twenty years each.

And that meant that, when I hit 80, I would have “finished the race.”  And assuming that I would keep on living, at least for a little while, I could call each year thereafter, a “victory lap.”  The race was over.  I won (finished).  And now, before the beer and pizza started, a slow celebratory victory lap.  That worked really well at first, but I am coming up on 83 and it isn’t working that well anymore.  There are two problems.  The first is that “the end of the race” (2017) is getting to seem distant.  Cloudy.  The second is that I never ever did more than two victory laps around New Faculty Circle and the “laps” don’t seem to have any meaning anymore.

The laps have lapsed.  So to speak.

So now we come to the need for a new spatial metaphor.  I want it to do for me what the old “victory lap” metaphor did back when it was fresh.  Here’s my current idea.  Let’s imagine that I am going to live to be 90.  That would be in 2027, which once looked like a science fiction date to me. Now I have calendars that go that far.

Would that work?  I’d have to admit that it has liabilities, but I’m kind of attracted to it.  For one thing, it changes the time horizon.  I stop celebrating the first 80 years (I finished! WooHoo!) and start to think about what I want to get done “before I die.”  Except that “before I die” doesn’t serve very well as a horizon.  It does not draw a border anywhere and I am at a place where I find borders instructive and helpful.  “Until I am 90” is much better in the “horizon department.”

It also cues another race-related memory for me.  Most of the road races I have run have been 10K races. [4]  And I remember noticing the place in the race where I stop worrying whether I will have enough juice left to finish and start paying attention to adjusting my pace so that I will have only a little left at the finish line.  That shift was never something I decided; it was something I noticed.  And Michael Caine at 87.

The 90 year focus would have that kind of advantage for me and, frankly, it would serve me just as well if I were to die at 88 as it would at 90.  I remember reading that a prominent miler said that you run the first two laps to gauge the competition, the third to get yourself in the proper position in the field…and the fourth because you have to run another lap before you can quit.  Using the 90 year marker, I could think of myself as putting myself in the proper place in the field.  Except, of course, in aging, as opposed to racing, the opponents are not other runners.  They are those few things that are still in your control and that will make all the difference in how you finish the race.  Intention, discipline, good manners, compassion, and the willingness to make hard decisions when necessary.

The one serious problem is that the 90 year marker is a fiction.  The 80 year marker was a fact.  The 80 did not retain the clarity I needed to continue to use it.  The 90 might not ever seem certain enough—“real” enough—to be of any use to me.

I do know how to find out, though.

[1]  Or maybe it was ’76 to ’77.  I could look it up, but I really don’t care any more.

[2]  They also corresponded, roughly, to my marriages if you make the third lap a little longer and the fourth a little shorter.

[3]  The Latin version would be lapsus est, “I have slipped (or glided or slid or sunk or fallen, or declined or gone to ruin) from the Latin verb, labi, meaning all those things.

[4]  The longer ones were, frankly, exercises in just finishing.


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Living without stories of our own

There are some things novelist Neal Stephenson just does better than anyone else.  This post is about two of them.  The first is that he builds these thick amazingly dense alternative worlds—worlds with their own history and people and languages.  In support of that I am going to give you a one-step-as-a-time introduction to what a “mobe” is.

I am going to give you the first line of this passage (“So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes…”) and then just take you step by step through the other words that are required.  These are not particularly important words, but they are, as you see, interlinked.  Each one requires the next one.

[a wheeled passenger vehicle used extramuros] [extramuros: the world outside the walls of the Math; the Saecular world.] [Math: a relatively small community of avout] [Avout: A person sworn to the Cartasian Discipline and  therefore dwelling in the Mathic, rather than the Saecular world] [Cartasian Discipline: The set of rules  prescribed by Saunt Cartas] [Saunt: A title bestowed on great thinkers, thought to be a contraction of “Savant.”]  

The second of the great gifts of Neal Stephenson is that no matter how far away he gets from “our time and our place” (or even our planet), what he has to say about people and the habits and agreements that bind them into societies are amazingly insightful.  I won’t go on about that because the next section illustrates it.  The next section is the reason I wrote this essay.  I put the contrasting poles of the argument in bold font.

Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story had been driven into the concents… All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Saeculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part? We avout had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn’t always move fast enough for people like Jesry, it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story. [1]

So…what is this?  This is speculation by Fraa Erasmus.  He has lived in a Math—like a monk—since he was 10.  He was “collected,” as they say and has received a superb education since then.  But now he is on a mission and the mission has taken him back to the Saecular world and it seems strange to him.

These people are the victims of “the Powers that Be.”  The “powers that be,” as Erasmus thinks of them, are “the people who had made the system.”  They were jealous of story—of the power of story.  “If their employees came home,” Erasmus says, “with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something has gone wrong.”

That is a stark assessment and it might be wrong.  Erasmus is 19 and has lived the life of the separated scholarly world for a long time.  On the other hand, he does give this as the other side of the coin in the second passage in bold font.

We avout had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn’t always move fast enough for people like Jesry, it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story

The “it” in “had it ready made” refers to a sense of being part of an adventure.  The project is “learning new things.”  As part of that project, you could tell “where you were and what you were doing.”  It is the very opposite of “having all the story bled out of you.”

So Erasmus is reflecting on the difference between his world and—to be candid—our world.  What is “our world” like as Erasmus sees it?  Here are three points.  The first is the nature of the jobs we do and about them, Erasmus says pretty much what Karl Marx said.  The jobs have been “rationalized,” not from the standpoint of the person doing the job, but from the standpoint of the organization. [2]  There is a sense to the division of labor and the repetitive nature of work, but is not a sense made at the individual level.  It is not “sensible” to people.

The worker who is living his or her life like this has no sense of being “part of a story.”  The story could be told at the level of the market or at the level of the organization, but not at the level of the individual..

The second point is that people really can’t live with knowing what story they are part of and what part they play.  This is taken care of, in Erasmus’s view in that stories are provided for them.  There are two kinds us such stories.  There are “fake stories that had been made up to motivate them” and there are the general categories of “sports and religion.”  If I had been making the list, I would have put politics in there, too.  Particularly the toxic current version often called “identity politics.”

In Erasmus’s view, the first kind are provided by “the powers that be.” [4]  They are stories that are completely controlled and that have no genuine place in the lives of the people who are asked to invest in them.  The “sports and religion” stories are allowed by the elites but are fantasies so far as locating and confirming the role played by individual people.

The third point is that these stories, as intense as they are sometimes, are small.  They are not stories larger than you; stories of which you are a part.  No, these are all small intense bursts of story—the Cubs finally won the Series!—that take up your time and give you stimulation without meaning.

To clarify that last point, let’s look again at Erasmus’s characterization of the meaningful life the avout live in the Mathic world.

We avout had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn’t always move fast enough for people like Jesry, it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story.

People like Erasmus were “part of the project”  This project continues to move.  Not as fast as you would like (Jesry is a genius friend of Erasmus) but still it moves.  And the nature of your participation in this project is such that you can tell where you are and what kind of contribution you are making to it.  As poor as the avout are and as separated as they are from the (Saecular) world of overconsumption and hyperactivity, still they have this.  There is a huge project stretching over many centuries and they are part of this during their own lifetimes.

It is that, down at the root, that Erasmus contrasts with having no story of your own to tell.  I think he is right.

[1]  Anathem, page 434-435

[2]  The organization, in a society responsive to the needs of the market, also plays the role it must play.  Erasmus might not have known that, but Marx did.

[3]  It might be worth saying that Erasmus has no notion at all of how the elites of the Saecular World actually work.  Stephenson very wisely gives Erasmus an inexact and ambiguous way of speaking about then because he knows nothing.  But Stephenson knows that Erasmus is about to find out a great deal about it.

[4]  To “make progress,” I would say, without specifying just yow “progress” is different from “change.”

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Racism, Non-Racism, and Anti-Racism

Do you remember “the non-aligned nations.” [1]  We used to hear about them all the time.  We don’t hear that designation anymore although we still hear about the nations.  Why is that?

You wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers of the Cold War era, but there is a lot of infrastructure in the notion of “non-aligned nations.”  It presupposes a division of the world between two dominant powers—“us” and “them.”  The truly significant thing about these powers which had not yet been assimilated into one of the two big blocks…was that they had not yet been assimilated.  That was what one needed to know about them.

Many times, especially when you are asked to make a choice where there are really only two options, getting to be the one to name the options is a significant advantage.  In my many years of teaching American government, I had to deal with abortion as a public policy issue.  Some of those years were before Roe v. Wade (1973) and some after.

For a question as fraught as that one, it does very little good to try to say that one side is right and the other wrong.  What I tried to do was to show the underlying structure of the two camps.  As a rule, they called them selves the Pro-Life group and the Pro-Choice group, so I would go through the motions of setting up as “debate.”  Who will represent the pro-life position?  And who the anti-life position.  Silence ensued.  No one wanted to represent the anti-life position.

Then I did the same for pro-choice and anti-choice.  Who would like to represent the anti-choice position?

So we have two strongly held positions, each without any opponents at all.  What to do?  Well, it is obvious that the crucial decision is how the question is to be put.  Is the “does the woman get to choose what to do” dimension of the complex of issues going to be in the center, displacing other possible foci, or will the “save the life of the fetus at all costs” dimension be put there?  The argument proceeded, usually, but now it was about something sensible, which is whether this value more important than that value.

It is not, any longer, an argument about what I called “position”—the pro or con part of the argument.  It was now an argument about salience.  Which of these two incompatible foci should be put in the center and made the issue? [2]

A lot of people in Portland, where I live, are reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Anti-Racist.  They are gathering in groups to “discuss” the book and someone in each group will be called upon to “lead the discussion.”  That sounds like a fruitless job to me and I very much hope that I will not be called on to do it.

This prospect puts me very much in mind of the “non-aligned nations” problem.  Non-alignment was a problem, remember because “you really should be involved.”  In a similar way, the strategy of Kendi’s  book is to force a choice—given the common salience of the question—between being a racist and being an anti-racist.  Given, in other words, that “race” is what we are talking about, participants are left with pro- and con- positions only.  This is exactly the dilemma of participants who, once “life” is established as the salient topic, are forced into being pro-life or anti-life.

Two things will follow upon the use of this strategy.  I’m not “seeing into the future.”  I’m just remembering all the times it has worked out like this in the past.

The first is the powerful implication that we ought not be talking about something else.  We ought not be talking about poverty, for instance, or about education or about social mobility or about humane safety nets.  No…we should be talking about race.  Where does this go?  People who want to talk about something else are only “trying to be non-racists” and by the terms of the discussion, there are no non-racists, only pro-racists and anti-racists.  These people are, in other words, trying to be something you really can’t be within the terms of this discussion.  

And that is the first thing wrong with the terms of the discussion.

The second is that the balance metaphor, upon which democracies normally rely, doesn’t work.  I know that sounds bad, but think about it for a minute.  If you have a scale of evaluation with only one pole—evil racism—then you want to get as far away from that pole as you can.  The crucial question—the question that does NOT come up in this way of organizing the discussion—is this: “How far is too far?”

If there is not an answer to that question, democracy has been left behind.  Democracy is a system defined by its procedures—notably, fair, free, and competitive elections—and although they can be subverted to some extent and circumvented to some extent, the notion of “too far” remains.

Think of it this way.  Even if there were a war against racism and even if the anti-racists won the war, will there not have to be a treaty afterwards?  And with whom will that treaty be negotiated?  Think about it.  The hatred that drives racism is not going to go away and when the war is over there will still be racists to deal with and that means the question of how far one may go in pursuing a virtue—or, as in antiracism, avoiding a vice—will still be there.

That’s the second thing wrong with the terms of the discussion.

Since I began this essay, I have been introduced to the term “pernicious polarization.” [3]  Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer argue in their paper (see the link in Thomas B. Edsall’s August 26 column in the New York Times) that as the commitment to democratic procedures, like fair elections, wanes and as the commitment to partisan goals grows, there is a point at which they cross.  The achievement of the goals by any means now trumps the democratic process and democracy dies.  It becomes necrotic.  And it is the polarization that has killed it.  That is why the levels of polarization we have recently achieved run the risk of killing the democracy we have long prized.

The commitment to anti-racism, if it is not constrained by the other values that democracy would impose on it, becomes only another part of the pernicious polarization.

Are the ranchers and the cowpokes going to be friends?  Are the Sharks and the Jets going to make nice with each other.  I’ve got an idea.  Let’s not find out.

[1]  India, notably, got sick and tired of being called “unaligned” on the grounds that they had India’s interests in mind.

[2]  It turned out that one of the submerged elements of the issue was more important than anyone thought it would be.  Federalism.  Just how much can the national government prevent state majorities from pursuing their goals, the Supreme Court’s decision notwithstanding?

[3]  The adjective pernicious is worth a careful look.  The Greek root—it is taken up into Latin as well— is nekrosis, “a becoming dead,” from nekros, dead body.”

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Chico and the Man


A lot of attention is being paid these days to racial and ethnic slurs.  I’d be happier about that if I thought it was helping the situation, rather than just being a justification for complaining about it.

But in this present context, volatile as it is, an exchange came back to me from 1974.  Itwas from a show called Chico and the Man.  “The Man” was a cranky old man (Ed Brown) played by Jack Albertson.  Chico was an ambitious young Hispanic (Mexican for TV purposes in the 1970s) man played by Freddie Prinze.

They meet at Ed’s garage when Chico rides his bike up to the place  He looking for work.  Ed turns him down without much thought.  “Get out of here and take your flies with you.”  There is nothing remarkable at all in that.  The cranky bigoted old man is right out of central casting.

What was really remarkable, and the reason I have remembered it all these years is what Chico says as he leaves.  He gets back on his bike.  He says something that sounds like acceptance of the old man’s decision (it isn’t) and as he pedals away, he turns around on the seat and makes a “come with me” gesture and says, “Come on, flies.”

I liked him from that moment.  It wasn’t a good show, even for the 70s, but that presence of mind and lack of resentment conquered the old man after an episode or two.  It conquered me immediately.

I’m not making that one exchange on an old TV show a model for any kind of approach to today’s racial and ethnic issues.  But it did take me by surprise and I admired it.  Also…it worked. 


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Looking back on the Democratic Convention

I am so glad it is over!  Ever since I claimed the right to vote for the candidate who seemed best to me [1] I have voted for Democrats for President and I will this time, too.  I will say, though, that I liked Joe Biden better before the convention than after.

I am not naive about these things.  Conventions—even virtual conventions—should be about achieving certain outcomes for the party and for the ticket.  To do that, you aim the right message at the right target.  I get that.  I am not a target.  I get that.  I’d say 80% of the messaging was aimed either at suburban women, who defected disproportionately to Trump in 2016, or to racial and ethnic minorities, from whom Obama-level turnout will be needed.  I get that.

Still.  It was too much for me.  If I had to summarize the whole pitch, I would name it MR. ROGERS FOR PRESIDENT. [2]

I understand that there is also a party platform.  I will read it carefully.  I will try, as I read it, to remind myself that it is an aspirational document.  I know the goals stated will be genuine, but I know something else about goals.  Genuine though each goal is, each one enters a vicious and heartbreaking process of triage when President Biden and his advisors look at what is actually possible.

And the means of achieving these goals are even worse.  The means that should be used and that will be used are the ones that at the time and in the situation, will be most likely to achieve the goals.  We have no idea—THEY have no idea—what those are at the moment.  So promising to use a particular means is even dicier that promising to achieve a particular goal.

So as I read the platform, I will read it as a fan, cheering “my team” on and hoping they “win the game,”  But I will be critical of each and every goal statement because they are competitors with each other.  President Obama wanted, for instance, a banking regulation bill and a healthcare bill.  When it care right down to it, he couldn’t have both.  That’s not his fault.  That’s just triage.  I will try to keep that in mind as I read the platform.

I will say that “Build Back Better” is an inspired slogan.

Biden urged President Trump to stop lying to the American people.  I think that’s a great idea.  Unlikely, but easy to approve.  The rationale was that “they can take it,” meaning that we, the American people can bear up under the weight of the truth; we don’t need to be lied to.

Well…I am no fan of being lied to, but I am not sure how much truth the American people are prepared to hear during a campaign season.  If I thought the American public as a whole were ready to hear the truth—I don’t—I would urge politicians I care about not to promise things they can’t deliver.  There is very little, for instance, that the Biden/Harris ticket can do about the wealth-creation process inherent in capitalism.  It’s a game and it rewards players who play it well and punishes players who play it poorly. [3]

Most of that game is beyond the reach of any administration.  So “telling the truth” does not include promising to reform the economy in ways no presidency can achieve absent a prolonged national crisis, and I’m not at all sure the COVID-19 crisis is enough.  It includes a progressive tax policy, thoughtful incentives for international trade, and minimum wage support.  It does not include restoring the former strength of the labor unions.  It does not include substituting American-made goods for imported goods that are better and cheaper.

The difference between wealth-creation, which is largely a market function, and wealth distribution, which is open to the deployment of a national consensus is a big difference.  I know the campaign season is not the time to talk about using the tax system to rebalance the distribution of incomes, but that is the part of the process government can affect and our hopes for a fairer and more equal (not the same thing) society are based on that role that only government can play.

I like it that the campaign, particularly Biden’s and Harris’s speeches, went way out in saying what goals they were going to aspire to.  When they shifted over to what they were going to promise to do—to actually accomplish—I think they went way to far and I stopped listening seriously.

On my own behalf, let me say again a) that I know I am not the target audience, and b) that I will read the platform carefully.  The convention speeches are no my only source of information.

Finally, I know it is important to set up character attacks on Donald Trump.  To do that, you have to show that the Democrats who are running for office are not like him.  Even so, the persistent drumbeat of empathy and grief and family and personal values finally got to me.  It was so Oprah.  There was not enough resolution to do what the country needs, not enough for me, at least.

I am entirely committed to the Democratic party as the bearer of my hopes for the country.  Even should the Republicans succeed in rescuing their party from the people who kidnapped it and are holding it for ransom, I will still prefer the perspective of the Democrats.

But really, could we talk about how the govern the country?  Just a little?

[1]  The crisis for me was 1960, when I was strongly attracted to John F. Kennedy and wound up voting for R. Milhous Nixon.  During the campaign I never so much as heard a conversation that included the possibility of voting for a Democrat and a Catholic and as I entered it polls, I said, “Maybe they know something I don’t.”  That was the last time and, although it was 60 years ago, it still embarrasses me.

[2]  I am a big fan of Mr. Rogers.  He did what he did superbly well, but a big part of his success what preventing others from using him for other purposes.

[3]  And/or cheat in any of the approved ways, such as paying no taxes.  So although it is a game, it is a rigged game.

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Boredom: A Sermon to Myself

Since this is a sermon and since I come from a tradition where sermons are, nominally at least, based on texts, I have a text to offer.  This comes from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and it is said to be a saying by a very wise man named Orolo. [1]

Boredom is a mask frustration wears.

Intriguing, isn’t it?  I misread it the first several times because I am more accustomed to wise sayings that would say “the mask.”  Boredom is “the mask,” not “a mask.”  The saying as it actually occurs is a good deal more complicated.  “Frustration,” it says, may wear any number of masks, of which one is “boredom.”

Why would frustration wear a mask?  Is boredom a more acceptable face that frustration?  Who is to be fooled by the mask you wear?   Those questions are where my mind went the first time I read the saying and where it goes still.

Aviva UK Athletics Preparation Camp Training Session

ULSAN, SOUTH KOREA – AUGUST 20: Holly Bleasdale of Great Britain and Northern Ireland trains at the Ulsan Sports Complex during the Aviva GB&NI Team Preparation Camp on August 20, 2011 in Ulsan, South Korea. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

To get at this, I would like to push a little at the word “frustration.”  Lately, it has been treated as if it were a feeling.  It used to mean “failing at something,” especially being prevented from achieving something.  That seems to me a more useful meaning.  It is about actions taken.  You tried to do something and you were prevented from doing it successfully.  As in this pole vault.

It is understandable that this “being prevented, this “frustration” would come to be associated in the language with certain feelings.  It is also understandable that the feelings would come to be called “frustration” and the failure would be said to “cause” the feelings.

And, in fact, that is the way the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), the one that came bundled with my computer, puts it: “the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something.”  Here frustration is a feeling.

But the NOAD also gives, as a second meaning, the one I like better: “an event or circumstance that causes one to have a feeling of frustration.  They offer the example, “the inherent frustrations of assembly line work.”  Here frustration is an event. [2] 

I much prefer this second usage.  “Each time I tried, I was frustrated.”  But the second definition presents an additional problem in the context of today’s sermon, which is that this experience you have “causes” the feeling you have.  I get really uncomfortable when I hear that experience A causes feeling B.  I don’t mind hearing that it can or that it did, but that it “does” is troublesome.

You know yourself that sometimes failing at something inclines you to feel one way and sometimes another, so it is hard to agree that a given experience does, in fact, cause a certain feeling, don’t you think?

oroloSo let’s return to Orolo’s axiom, considering frustration as an event; it is the failure to achieve something you were trying to achieve.  Does that help us see why boredom would be a less harmful way to cover the effects of that frustration?

Not really.  It would be easier for me to picture anger as the immediate response.  And, after repeated frustrations, maybe sadness.  Those are emotions that keep the link with your efforts and their failure.  This is someone’s idea of what Fra Erasmus, the narrator of the story, looked like.

But “boredom” doesn’t do that.  Accepting boredom destroys your link to the project that organized your efforts.  You can say, if you are bored, that you are waiting for the interest to come back, but if interest is a function of intention (frustrated or not) that’t not going to do it.

Calling boredom a mask, suggests that it covers what is real.  I think that is true in the sense that the story the mask tells obscures the reality, but it is not true in the sense that it does not help to hold the reality in place.  If this kind of boredom is a mask, it is a mask the affects what it covers.  Imagine a mask that reconfigures your face.  That is the kind of mask boredom is.

What to do.

If this is a sermon—and both the reliance on a text and the exegesis of the text suggest that it is—then perhaps I ought to close with some practical suggestions.  I have three.

First, be willing to catch yourself at it.  Boredom is a display (hence “mask”) intended to deceive others, but if you let it have its way, you will be deceived as well.  If you are willing to catch yourself putting on the mask, it will be instantly clear to you that there is a reality you are just about to cover up and it would be a good start to find out what it is.

Second, use the frustration as a chance to assess the viability of the project.  When youorolo 2 are entirely taken up with the strategy and tactics of achieving a particular goal, it is hard to consider at the same time whether it is a viable goal. Persistent frustration of your efforts (failure to achieve the goal) is an excellent time to consider whether is a good goal for you to have.  A retreat into boredom will not do that for you.  A frustration that leads to reconsideration can be helpful.

Finally, boredom is passive.  If you doubt that, or if you are principally a visual learner, I suggest that you google “boredom” and select [images].  All the pictures that search will call up are pictures of people not doing anything.  Anything you can do to move from passive to active is going to help and what you can do right now is to be hyper-alert for the opportunity to act.  I have thought of this in two ways.  The first is a becalmed sailboat where the pilot is alert from moment to moment for the slightest breeze to which he can respond.  The second is a car with all-wheel drive where the car chooses (senses) which wheel has the best traction and sends the power to that one.

Even in the sailboat example, there is something you can do now.  You can maintain a vigilance that will alert you to even the slightest breeze.  You can’t make the wind blow, but it costs a good deal to be sensitively aware that it might begin to blow.  There is a reason they say that “attention” is something you can “pay.”

End of sermon.

Anathem is a rich and challenging book.  In selecting one minuscule sliver of this tome, I know I have not done it justice.  And it isn’t a book for everyone, but every time I re-read it, I like it more.

[1]  Orolo is a monk, for all practical purposes, but philosophy serves the function in this world that religion would serve in a world of monasteries.  Orolo belongs to the “mathic” world, the world of learning, not the religious world of faith or the secular world of power.  Mathic as a name for that world falls easily into English because mathēmatikos, the Greek word which serves at the vehicle to bring the notion into English means “inclined to learn.”

[2]  The example “frustrations of assembly line work” tilts in the direction of the things you would like to do or are trying to do and at which you fail because of the assembly line.

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Viral Falsehoods

The English language—no, the American language—has a “don’t fence me in” style. In the soil of the American language, any word can become invasive. I remember thinking, when I first heard the expression “a fun party,” that it had happened so fast. [1]

This morning’s example is political, but I’m not concerned about the politics today. It’s just the words.

In the New York Times for August 15, Davey Alba wrote this sentence. “Here are three false rumors about Ms. Harris that continue circulating widely online.”

Not only is that a perfectly good sentence, but I might almost call it conservative. I am thinking of his choice of “widely” rather than “with blinding speed” or some such hyperbolic description.

Virus 1Then the headline writers took over and we got this: Debunking Three Viral Falsehoods about Kamala Harris. Note that these are “viral falsehoods.” [2] The falsehoods are viral. And I thought, as I once thought about the fun party, “Wow! That happened fast.”

What was once an analogy to how quickly they spread is now a comment on their nature. Just sitting there in the petri dish, this falsehood is viral. If it never spread to anything ever, it would still be that kind of falsehood. It is viral.

I think that process is: a) deplorable, b) fully American, and c) a real loss to clear communication.

[1] There are some who will maintain that I have no right to complain. I make up words as I find a need for them, but I do it only when there is a need and I never ever accept money for performing that service. I routinely use “maleficiary,” for instance, to contrast with beneficiary. And why not? For any given public policy, some are advantaged and some are unadvantaged. And still others are disadvantaged. You see how helpful that is?
[2] Viral in the sense of “become suddenly widely popular through internet sharing” is attested by 1999, originally in reference to marketing and based on the similarity of the effect to the spread of a computer virus.” That’s from etymonline,.com. The computer virus is, of course, a reference to an actual virus, a parasite that “circulates widely,” to borrow Davey Alba’s cautious phrasing, and quickly.

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“Slightly soiled, but but very much alive.”

I was reading along happily in the science section of the New York Times when I came across this paragraph (below) and especially the clause, “slightly soiled, but very much alive.”

Seems harmless, doesn’t it? Except that I had just been reading Ross Douthat’s columns about the beginnings of real Republican resistance to the Trump presidency. These Republicans apparently want the Republican party to survive the experience of having been swallowed and return to being a voice for the conservative notion of sanity and prudence.

And I’ve also been reading about a number of Jesus’ parables, some of which appear toBug 1 have been allegorized on the spot, especially by Mark and Matthew. You hear a suggestive phrase and it blossoms almost immediately into an allegory where each part of the story represents some identifiable part of the real world.

So put those three backgrounds together and if you think about it for a very short time, you might guess what is about to happen. Here is the whole paragraph by Times Science writer Katherine J. Wu.

…Usually, that’s it.“Not today.” After getting swallowed by a frog, this plucky little insect can scuttle down the amphibian’s gut and force it to poop — emerging slightly soiled, but very much alive.

So in this little allegory, which assembled itself without any intention on my part, the frog is Donald Trump. Trump has swallowed the Republican party and usually, “that’s it.” The “plucky little insect,” (the Republican party) however, has found a way to make it quickly to the launch pad and force the frog—the scientist studying this speculates that the insect tickles the sphincter—to poop him out safe and sound. “Slightly soiled,” as Ms. Wu says, but “very much alive.”

A much more useful allegory would suggest just what the bug does to achieve this effect. The gastric juices of the frog are potent and whatever the bug does needs to be done quickly. There are two things that needs to be done. The first is to navigate to the other end of the frog. This requires some use of the bug’s legs, so it is apparently something like “swimming.” The other is to irritate—you only call it “tickling” if you are in the mood for it—the sphincter so it loosens up and allows…um…egress.

Lining this crude little allegory up with the present world, we can see problems right away. First of all, the bug (the party) needs to want to swim and needs to know where to swim. It seems unlikely to me that there is a visible exit sign to help them. And “swimming” is not just a flailing about of the legs. It is the purposeful coordination of the legs so as to cause propulsion.

Nothing I have heard from the Republicans for awhile suggests that kind of coordination.

The second trick is to irritate (tickle) the sphincter. This isn’t like jumping out the end of a sewer pipe. There is an active closure mechanism—something like a locked door—that needs to be solved. I hope it doesn’t require tickling. The Trump administration hasn’t been tickled by much since the inauguration. My hope is that the scientists will eventually broaden “tickle” to “irritate,” which is a great deal easier if Donald Trump is the frog.

That really concludes the allegory, but parties are in this respect unlike these marvelous bugs. When they “emerge soiled” they really need to do something about it before the next election. I have heard people say they will hold their noses and vote Republican, but this is an extreme provocation and one wonders just how long these noses can be held.

No, I think the party needs to come to some understanding of just how it got that soiled; how to prevent it in the future; and how to get cleaned up right now.

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Retreat, Hell…

In 1952, a movie about the Korean War was released with the riveting name, Retreat, Virus vicious 1Hell! Or, more properly, “Retreat? Hell…” The rest of the line in “We’re just attacking in another direction.”

For a military force that is entirely surrounded, the distinction between “attacking” and “defending” is largely a matter of attitude, but in war, it is probably a very useful attitude.  It seems that President Trump feels that he is at war.

Here is a paragraph from Heather Cox Richardson’s blog, “Letters from an American” on August 3.

Yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the advisor to the White House on the coronavirus pandemic, warned we are entering a “new phase” of the disease as it is “extraordinarily widespread.” Today, Trump accused Birx of crumbling under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s criticism of her usually upbeat presentations about the crisis. “So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combatting the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics. In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!”

Dr. Birx begins by noting what everyone who has been paying attention already knows. In the U. S., the pandemic is bad and getting worse. Her boss, unfortunately, does not fall into the category of those who are paying attention.

I have just one small point to make today and then I think I will feel better. The point is that Dr. Birx is talking about an event in the world that causes her concern. President Trump is talking, with a single exception, about only conflict and enemies and his weapon is only disparagement.

And the stable genius of the President’s tactic is that his allegations are so offensive and so mistaken that it is very tempting to turn our attention to them. Saying that he is right about, say, Nancy Pelosi, and saying that he is wrong about her or even that he shouldn’t be using language like that about the Speaker of the House, all play the game the President has offered. None of them are about the virus.

Here is what the President said.

Dr. Birx is “crumbling under criticism.” It is hard to say anything good about “crumbling under criticism.” Dr. Birx should have stayed strong under criticism, I guess, by refusing to acknowledge what the rest of the world knows to be true.

virus vicious 2Dr. Birx was criticized by Crazy Nancy Pelosi.” Speaker Pelosi is one of the least crazy people on the American political scene. She is inconvenient at times and she is quite forceful. She would be crazy not to be.

The basis of Speaker Pelosi’s criticism is, according to the President, that Dr.Birx “was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combatting the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics.”

The China Virus? Really? “Very good job?” Really?

And Dr. Birx’ final collapse: “In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!”

“Taking the bait” here must refer to Dr. Birx’ acknowledgement of the mortality numbers of the virus in the U. S. It must mean that she did not refute them. But the President’s criticism has nothing to do with the virus or the deaths. It has to do with whether “Deborah” fell for the trick “Nancy” was playing on her.

All this works with some people, I guess. Imagine how angry and alienated you would have to be to read a paragraph like that and feel that something true and important had been said.

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