My apologies

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One thing we’ve learned from the current crop of leaders: there is no value in a public apology. We’ve learned this just as the need for such apologies is on the rise. Not because we’ve changed our standards, but because, as my dear wife has noted, we’ve started, in some places, and a few cases, to apply the standards we always pretended to have.  In some places. And precious few cases.

Some cases require no apologies, because those involved are such irredeemable shitbags that there is no need to read. We know their apologies are lies.

But what about the other cases, where we are unsure: is it even possible to publicly apologize? And why bother, when a lie or brutish contempt seems, pragmatically speaking, to accomplish more? Those who have decided for you need no apology, and those that have decided against you will discount whatever you say.

Out of habit or honour, or miscalculation, people continue to apologize. And our response is, as usual, more interesting than the thing itself.

I’ve been quite taken with the arrival of what seems to be a new genre, or set of micro-genres: apology analyses. They flourish every time an apology is issued. The text of the apology is scoured, edited, dissected. In some cases this is quite literal:  the apology is edited, re-written, sections crossed out and critiqued in a digital red pen. The apology analysis is often entitled: “There I fixed it for you”. This whimsical pedantry is supposed to be funny and critical at the same time, the author/editor denigrating the apologist while improving thier work. In another version, slightly more serious, we are treated to a list of things the apology should have done (X should have mentioned the victims by name, have not made it about him/herself, etc etc). But in both, the analyst takes the role of a teacher—the last authority the internet will recognize—correcting the work of a bad student.

Apology analysis takes several forms, some better, some worse, but all share the belief that there is a proper way to apologize. I doubt this.

What would a good apology look like? A perfect apology, one that followed all the rules the correctors are correcting for, would look like a lie. I mean, it probably would be a lie, something crafted by a bunch of PR pricks (in this case outsourced: the corrective cloud). It would properly acknowledge the wrongdoing, recognize the other, the rules, express regret not about intention, but action, propose restitution, insinuate the need for growth which did not exploit the wronged party, and would be 100% bullshit.

So, how to apologize? And how to evaluate them, without cultivating a better breed of liars?

Complaint 5/7: the Distraction Distraction

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Dear Blog,

I apologize for have been away so long. It’s been hours, and much has changed. I am older, and have one less beer in the fridge.

The world is in a political frenzy, and our already overburdened rhetoric is collapsing. Critical moves that were (maybe) once helpful now seem to make things worse. Perhaps because sometimes the problems are obvious, and cleverness adds an unneeded layer. Or, perhaps the opposite is true, and our panicked attempts to elevate ourselves by our minds alone—to feel like we ‘get it’—lead to stupid simplifications. Maybe neither. I don’t know.

But I do know one pseudo-critical move has got to go: “It’s a distraction”.

It goes like this.

“While you were freaking out about baby-jails, the Republicans pushed through a bill which lets you eat a poor person’s face!”

Or

“Guys, while you were losing your shit over Trump’s tweets, the Supreme Court made religion mandatory!”

The authors of these critical nuggets know two things: what everyone is upset about; and, what really matters. Sometimes (rarely) they manage to get these two things right.

But there is a third thing “it’s a distraction” requires: a belief in a plan, or agency, or thought. And, again, sometimes this is true.

Every critique has its day, and yes, a leader like Obama was capable of giving with one hand while taking with the other. Here the “It’s a distraction” critique looks something like this:

“While the President was petting kittens on a rainbow flag, he deported 100 children”

“While Congress sang songs in praise of peace, it pulled out of a landmine treaty”

And so on. Here the ‘distraction’ is something nice, and the message of the critique is ‘leaders are not nice.’ This is usually true, an easy bet. With a competent emperor, you always have to watch both of their hands, because they sing love songs while picking your pocket.

But the same move, in the present context, doesn’t work. I rarely appeal to my own experience, but, dear readers, I was relentlessly bullied as a child (surprise!). And I learned a few things. One of them is this: a shitty thing is not a distraction from another shitty thing. If a bully tries to distract you, it will be with fake kindness, false friendship, or something of that sort

Now, my point is not to reduce the present surge of global ethno-nationalist lunacy to schoolyard dynamics. I’m not trying to say you can read the violent symptoms of neoliberal economics through child psychology. But I am trying to say that when you’re punched in the arm, it’s not to distract you from the soon-coming knee to the balls. With an incompetent emperor, you also have to watch both of their hands–but only because they’re flailing.

There’s a moral element, too: its rude to tell someone who’s upset that they’re worried about the wrong thing. As a general rule, you shouldn’t tell people what to desire, or what to be upset about. Yes, mass concern is often annoying. There is something in many of us that wants to poke a cruel finger into its swollen belly. But this kind of resentment’s not a good look, nor a great ground for insight. And while there’s nothing wrong with playing the mouse and trying to sort out where the elephant’s foot is coming down next, it’s foolish to think the rampaging pachyderm is putting any thought into it.

Complaint 4/7: Edting

 

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I once kept a diary, and each entry began something like “I am sorry for not having written. A lot has happened since … [last date of entry]”. Now that I keep this blog—much as one keeps a corpse in a basement freezer—I feel like beginning each entry in the same fashion. But because I am now no longer a teenager, but a half-finished person-husk, to write “a lot has happened since” would be a lie.

There have been no entries lately because I’ve been editing papers. Editing is the worst part of writing, and perhaps the most necessary. Necessary not merely because it makes the paper better (supposedly) and more readable (certainly) but because through editing a paper again and again the thoughts you have accumulated can slowly adhere to the paper’s flimsy body, giving it a shape it probably doesn’t deserve. Like the cross-section of an old tree can record the rhythms and catastrophes of a forest through the thickness and darkness of its rings, editing fleshes out a paper with the layers of bullshit dredged up by the writer. A well edited paper is like a cross-section cut out of a large, dried out, well layered turd.

Often a first draft is like a satisfying shit. And you are tempted to flush it out: to get it away, sink it into the unknown depths of the sewage system, or send it to a journal. This is the joy of a blog: the moment I am done writing this, I will click send, and flush it onto the internet. But with a paper, this is not allowed. You must fish it out of the toilet and sift it for signs of sickness. And then, dear one, once the healthy sections have been identified, you must eat them.

I have been told that some people eat shit and like it. I do not. Instead, I hover around the toilet bowl, putting it off at all costs, sniffing, nibbling, never taking a full bite until the day is almost over, and then showing in mouthfuls as fast as possible. Now and then I convince myself it’s better to re-write the whole thing, flush the toilet, and try to adjust my diet until I’ve achieved the right consistency. I’ve been told by better writers (read: all writers) that consistency is important.

But, dear ones, there is no replacement for it, the day is ending, and so I am off to the toilet once again.

 

 

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Buber’s I and Thou begins differentiating between the I-It and the I-You, which can be partly mapped onto third person and second person relationships, or talking-about and talking-to. One might be inclined to think that there should be a ‘another’ word, one that corresponds to the first person. There isn’t.

Let’s say we begin on the upper floor of language, the third person, or the I-It. Here things are talked-about, signs function as Peircean thirds, in that an interpretant connects a sign to an object, language operates like a network, comparing, contrasting, connecting, interpreting, networking, mediating. 

We decend one level to the second floor, closer to the foundation, the I-You, or second person. Here relationships have two terms: me and you, nothing else or no one else determines the relationship. There is no network, no comparison, no positioning, no mediation. What lies beneath?

What differentiates Buber from many other thinkers with a similar ‘mystical’ tone is that (after Daniel at least) there is no ‘first person’ floor, no I-I, no mystical unifying ecstacy.[1] As is well known, the ‘first person’, or I, is always linked to an object, and the object determines the contours, or composition, of the I.[2] The I-You floor is the ground floor.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing below, just no ‘I’: in the basement of Buber’s house, there are no individuals, there are only firsts, affects, relations with only a single term: circulating feelings thoughts, and sensations.

[1] Wolfson, Unity, 423

[2] “For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.”

Complaint 3/7: Calisthenics, or, unneeded movement.

Me: Didn’t we get into the academy so we wouldn’t have to like sports?

Colleague: I think we went to grad school for different reasons.

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Dear ones,

All of my friends and colleagues have turned traitor and now exercise–and my blood is filling up with fat. Driven by fear and peer pressure, I have decided, once again, to  ‘work out’. I will not pay for a gym membership. Not because it is immoral—although I suspect it is—but because I won’t actually go. I once bought a membership and went twice, meaning that I ended up paying seventy-five dollars an hour to engage in meaningless lifting.

This leaves yoga. Yoga works  because it is absolutely humiliating. The humiliation reminds me of all the things I enjoy, without, of course, being enjoyable. More importantly, in a Yoga class, there is a Person with a Voice who will pass judgment if you get up and leave part way through. And after about 10 minutes, I so very much want to leave. After 20 minutes, I feel like I’ve been tear gassed.

Have you ever been tear gassed, dear ones? Tear gas, in the right dosage, convinces your body, your blood and muscles, lungs and brain, that you are going to die. Not in the future, but Right Now. Calling this effluvium ‘tear gas’ was a bit of PR brilliance. Yoga is more or less the same for me, but despite being convinced that I’m done for, I don’t try to run.

I remain, because the Voice’s disapproval is more terrifying than the fact that my flimsy body is convinced it will die after spending more than 3.5 second in whatever scoliotic variation of downward dog I can muster. Dear ones, you think I’m joking, but I really do panic, every time.

So, I have developed a strategy. It is not as good as my old strategy, which was to never exercise, or the strategy I developed after that, which was to end each session with a beer and a burger, but it is the strategy I can now afford: I turn my panic, which wants to run, into a paralyzing fear. Only fear can stop me from fleeing when, as it always does, The Voice say something like this:

“This is good place to relax, and breath into your body”

But I cannot. I cannot because I am in pain, because my muscles are burning, because a woman twice my age is gracefully sliding through the same pose, while a man twice my size is grunting with sweaty self-appreciation in the corner. I cannot because I am weak, and should not be here.

But the doctors have spoken, the cholesterol is mounting, and the Voice must not see me falter. So I stay there, quivering, squinting through sweat at a clock that does not move, cultivating my fear.

Complaint 2/7: the Darwin Awards

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Dear ones,

For those of you lucky enough to not know: the Darwin Awards are ‘awards’ granted to people who “eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.” The ‘official’ awards are a product of the early internet, now kept alive by a failed microbiologist. But people use ‘Darwin Award’ as a figure of speech, for any death brought about by stupidity or recklessness.

The Darwin Awards appeal to a slightly above average intellect. The sort of person who unironically reads reason.com, or talks about having a ‘rational conversation’ when someone gets upset. The dude bro who calls things he doesn’t like ‘fallacies’, and considers his point made by a few words of Latin that he doesn’t really understand. Mensa. Anything to do with Mensa. Mensa and the Darwin Awards are two angels perpetually getting married in a mediocre heaven, and the service is given by that guy on the subway who interrupts your reading to tell you about a literature class that changed his life—even though he never bothered to take another.

The Darwin Awards are the unneeded dessert at all-you-can-eat Mandarin buffet of life’s real dangers and suffering. Setting aside that we are seeking satisfaction in accidents that are far more likely to befall the poor and desperate, or that taking delight in ‘exotic’ deaths is plainly racist, the Standard Award looks at a death which follows an (admittedly) dim-witted risk, and asks: Who would do such a thing? Who would stand on top of a moving car in a field? Who would build a Molotov cocktail after seeing one on TV? Who? What kind of an idiot?

The question is rhetorical, but, dear ones, I have a real answer. Me. Not current, exhausted, neurotic and cowardly me, but me in my teens and 20s. Me, all my friends, and most of their friends, and most people I enjoy talking to. All of us have more than once been brought within a few inches of a Darwin Award by a few drinks and a bad idea, or even just one night without sleep.

Perhaps the award dispensers are shamefully attracted by alternate versions of their youth where their stupidities killed them, and they no longer need to work a full time-job. Perhaps this is some kind of inverted desire: to risk death not for glory or Mel Gibson, but because It would be amazing for Once to not have to Worry about the fact that we live in a terrifying world of plate glass and moving cars, high walkways, subway cars and electric wires. The cost of abandoning our worry might be death, but I think we’re all jealous of those who go through life without it.

When one of these free spirits takes a hit, we are envious. And so, out of a spirit of revenge, we ensure they’re granted a posthumous award, handed to them by a gloating tired windbag, who probably cheated on his Mensa application.

Complaint 1/7: The Email Chain

 

 

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In an effort to begin writing, I will be posting a series of small, unedited complaints. After that, I hope to return to dead-blogging the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Dear ones,

As I’ve aged, the pleasure I take in trauma has translated into taking on too much work—a genteel form of suffering that befits my station, but leaves me thoroughly uninspired. Worse: too much work leads to breathless prose, and the internet has already saturated the world with the moist wheezing of insecure people with no time for themselves.

And so, I have decided to guard my summer writing time as if it were a loose lipped drunk in witness protection, hiding it from the authorities and well-meaning neighbours. The summer is attacked on both sides by committees and class prep. Both necessary, both bloated and intent on stealing from me what little energy I have. As is well known, the advance attack is made via the email. What is perhaps less well known is that the mid-west has augmented the attack with the Midwestern Email Chain.

The chain drags behind the email, and each link is forged out of a freakishly positive ejaculation. It goes like this. I write an email to a group, saying “I have left some old crackers and a sock in the break-room, please feel free to use them in your presentation to the provost tomorrow,” and click send. Within the hour, one of the members of the group will reply to everyone (this is key: everyone must be involved) saying something like:

“Great work, Dustin! Thank you so much! The world wouldn’t be the same without you!”

Within 15-20 minutes, another link is added:

“I love mouldy socks, this is amazing! Really proud to be part of the team!”

And then another:

“Socks are the BEST! Really reminds me of my undergrad! Thanks!!!!!!”

…,

“Oh.My.God. I love this!”

And so on. There is no harm in this–it can even be mildly touching. It is, however, a problem when you have not authored the first email, when you are a recipient of it, and, say, three or four links in a quickly building chain. It is especially a problem when you are clearly expected to participate, and yet have inherited an absolute allergy to effusiveness from your father.

Dear ones, I cannot do it: I cannot publicly say ‘good job’. I cannot join this community of praise and relentless affirmation. Taciturn dickishness is my birthright, and I cannot betray it. So, instead, I resentfully diagnose: what is behind this chain? Why is it public? Why do otherwise elegant people write with one hand trained by habit to hit Shift+1 after every sentence?

The best answer I have is stolen from a friend: all communication occurs against a background of hostility. To push back against this assumption, we have exclamations of praise and wonder. Each email translates, roughly, into:

“I do not hate you. I wish you no harm.”

And this is a good thing. I do not want to be hated, not here, and not by these people. But I cannot reciprocate, because my vanity will not allow me, and my time is running out.