The war on Christmas, sewage, and buildings made out of time

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I do my best to avoid learning from my students, but this week I slipped, and accidentally figured out why people fear the war on Christmas. Christmas always seemed impregnable to me: heavily padded on both sides with weeks of defensive shopping and singing, the day itself full of gifts and drinks, seemingly invincible. But I was wrong: because Christmas belongs to a calendar, and the calendar is on life support.

Teaching Americans the Jewish calendar—any religious calendar—is difficult: students don’t ‘get it’—why it matters, why people have fought so viciously over it, why people warp their lives to accommodate the moon, or events that didn’t happen. Received teaching wisdom goes something like this:

Americans live in the Christian world, and the Christian sense of time, like a fish lives in water. Time actually begins with the birth of Jesus: we start counting years when he’s born, and before he appears, time actually goes backward. BC, AD, these notions are so much a part of the American psyche, that they cannot see anything else. Therefore, to teach them another calendar, you must first break them of the habit of seeing Christian time as ‘natural’

This sounds good, but isn’t true. It is true that calendars govern a community, deciding its rhythms, controlling how it breathes. But it is not true that Americans live by a Christian calendar. Here, in the land of the free, there is no calendar at all. As Marx should have said: Capital cannot abide a calendar. Here, every day is more-or-less the same as any other: the pace might slow on the weekend, but Saturday and Sunday are pretty much indistinguishable from weekdays; some things might be closed on Easter (which is, I believe, the only ‘serious’ holiday left) but nothing is ever allowed to grow too inconvenient.

And inconvenience is the mark of a holiday. Abraham Heschel taught me that holidays are like buildings, buildings made out of time. And Israel taught me that these buildings are a pain in the ass.  A holiday is like a structure whose bricks are hours and events. And this building is always inconveniently located.

When I moved to Israel, my plumbing backed up, and sewage flooded back into the kitchen. The landlord and repairman suggested that I stop flushing toilet paper, and take comfort in the fact that the sewage was my own. I am difficult to comfort even when not treading shit-water, and replied as you would expect. After exhausting the few Hebrew curse words I knew, I switched to English ones, and after we had both implied some pretty horrid things about the other’s paternity, it was decided that the plumbing would be repaired, and the sapling, which had taken root in the pipes, removed.   But not now. Why? Because it was August, and to think that work could be done before the holidays were over was ‘crazy’. I pointed out that the holidays were weeks away. They again pointed out that I was ‘crazy’. And they were right. If the work was unfinished before the holidays began, nothing could be done: because a real holiday is unmovable as stone.

And so, when my wife-to-be arrived in Jerusalem, I lifted her bags over the tube that carried our shit into an open sewer grate, the lid half-propped onto a bright orange PVC pipe for all to see. This exposed shit pipe, the embarrassment it bought me, and the danger it posed for my neighbours, taught me the true meaning of the holidays.

There is nothing of that here in the States: holidays are to be enjoyed. And once you have decided that holidays are to be enjoyed, they are done for. Because holidays—while occasionally enjoyable—are frustrating; if, in the name of pleasure, you subtract the irritating elements from a holiday, it will shrink to a fine point, until all that is left is the blind insistence that this is to be enjoyed. And then, the only really enjoyable thing left, the logical move, is to skip it. So I propose that future holidays should be celebrated with sanctimonious social media posts, advertising the pleasure we take in non-participation.

‘This year, I’m just spending time at home with my introverted cat and a mild social anxiety disorder that I’ve managed to make a fetish out of, drowning in nostalgia and illicit carbohydrates’, until the calendars fall, and all the days are exactly the same.

 

 

 

 

 

The Conspiracy Conspiracy 1/2

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Dear Creatures,

I read the Atlantic so I can rage at things on paper rather than a screen, to bring variety into my otherwise dull life. Montreal Lemmy sees me yell at a black plastic screen for most of the day, and I think it’s important that he also sees me yell at dead trees. These dead trees are more or less his only exposure to nature, and we can all agree that nature is important.

In addition to its now usual ‘Yes or No’ article (“Can Satire Save the Republic?”, “Can North Korea Be Stopped?”, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—no, no, and no again) with the subtly entitled “How America Lost its Mind”,  the Atlantic has taken on conspiracy theory, a topic near to my heart.

Growing up around leftists and artists, worried about CIA coups and military experiments since public school (thanks to Neil Aberle, z’’l) I was exposed to conspiracies at a tender age.  Conspiracies, but not conspiracy theory: much of the Gwynn Dyer and Chomsky overlapped with the real world, and they traded more in specifics, and less in overarching narratives.

It was when I moved to Texas that I got a straight shot of the real thing. A dear friend of mine—who was no fool—was riddled with conspiracy theories, as was one of the department’s sharper professors. Their thinking was afflicted with full bore, non-falsifiable, impregnable to evidence, conspiracy theory. For them, the world was run by dark forces, demonic families who were relentlessly particular and yet globalist, powers that played with water and the air, pharmaceuticals, the banking system, who started wars, were behind 9/11, JFK, the elections, were prepared to deal with overpopulation by culling the herd, and so on.

What mystified me was that these two were incredibly intelligent: they spoke several languages, read texts with sensitivity, and knew far more history than I did (which is not difficult). And yet they seemed buried in this muck—and while open to challenge in theory, no amount of evidence, argument, or yelling, could dislodge this nonsense. They were stubborn, not like rocks, but water: alternately absorbing and ignoring, flowing around counter-positions, all the particulars open to change, but the general paranoid flow was unstoppable. I knew something was wrong, but my usual diagnoses weren’t working. These people were neither stupid nor cynical, philosophy of science meant nothing to them, they had no need to hew to the standards of normal conversation, and yet I didn’t want to dismiss either of them.

It felt ‘important’ that I figure out what the hell was going on. And so, with the help of Erik Davis and countless pints of discounted beer, I developed a series half baked ideas. These ideas are hardly ready to be read by others, but after reading this Atlantic article I am now motivated by my irritation to drag them, premature but hopefully not stillborn, onto this blog.

This post will consist of me yelling at the Atlantic, because I am lazy, and it is easier to kick down someone else’s barn than build your own. My next post will consists preliminary thoughts, or guesses, about how we should actually deal with conspiracy, because it’s easier to imagine what a barn would look like than it is to do any work. And I do loathe work. 

the article

The article, which like this blog-post, is far too long, makes three basic claims. They are interesting, if only because they are made so often, and are wrong.

  1. Conspiracy theory is distinctly American (individualism gone wild)
  2. Conspiracy theory is driven by Enlightenment inspired relativism (criticism gone wild)
  3. Conspiracy theory is currently driven by the Internet (communication gone wild)

Individualism Gone Wild

American exceptionalism takes many forms, but the most common in my circles is the belief that America is singularly crazy, or fucked up. This critique cloaks a compliment, because the reason for America’s especial fucked-up-ness is a kind of ‘individualism’—which we can all solemnly agree has ‘gone too far,’ but has glorious roots, roots that smell of cowboys, new beginnings, and space exploration.

How anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in the mid-west can consider this place overly-individualist is beyond me. All the men wear cargo- or sweatpants, and have  the same haircut:  the sides and back are 1 cm long, with the top extending an additional half centimeter, to ensure distinction from a mere worker’s crew-cut. All the shirts are T-shirts with things written on them in sloppy American Gothic fonts. All the jeans sag. The chief danger in living here (other than being murdered) is that you can be soothed into falsely assuming you’re maintaining your style, because of the chasm between your dress and theirs. But the chasm narrows to a gap, which thins to a line, and one day you wake up in a sports Jersey, too polite to scream.

So, the exceptionalist hypothesis, that America  individualism leads to conspiracy theory, is ungrounded.  But it is remains true that in comparison with, say, Canada or Germany, the States has an awful lot of conspiracy per square inch.

To explain this, Anderson’s Atlantic article makes a cultural argument: America is the place of freedom, but freedom run amok. This, by the by, is one of the Atlantic’s more detestable leitmotifs: current problems are explicable by too much freedom, too much democracy, etc. That an American publication can write this without shame is perhaps more illustrative of the real problem.

Anderson writes (as many have before):

               The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will.

To my ears, this sounds like the ‘self-critique’ of a drunk who’s knocked over your drink,  “I’m sorry—I just party too hard”.  More importantly, this self-congratulation-as-critique uses a psychological or cultural explanation where a material one is needed. Anderson almost gets this, a few pages later:

 [O]ur drift toward credulity, toward doing our own thing, toward denying facts and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality, has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less developed country.

You don’t need to be a Marxist to see that this is putting the cart before the horse: conspiracy theories haven’t ‘turned’ the States into a ‘less developed’ country; the order is reversed. Here’s a wild hypothesis: as economic inequality increases, conspiracy follows.  It’s not the American penchant to “do your own thing” that’s at issue, but the belief that they can no longer do anything at all. I haven’t been many places, but I’ve noticed that when people feel trapped, conspiracy theory becomes common currency. In Canada, where most people pretty comfortable, conspiracy is the refuge of the stoner and the under-sexed. In the Middle East, it was standard practice. That America is closer to the Mid-East than it is to Canada has nothing to do with a derring-do attitude, and probably more to do with rising inequality, and the fact that, right or wrong, many Americans feel trapped.

Criticism Gone Wild

This point is an extension of the first: American individualism led American professors to spout social construction, which in turn has brought us here. The error, as a properly American error, is traced to the Founding Fathers: Jefferson and company provided too much freedom, in particular, freedom to follow your own individual path; this individualism leads to a breakdown of collective norms; Foucault and other theorists step into the breach, offering relativism and social constructivism as the new truth to replace old social norms; the new wine bursts the old wine-skins, and a space is opened for an anything-goes conspiracy theory. In short: once Foucault, Baudrillard, Peter Berger [yes, he seriously blames Peter Berger], have had their way with the American people, Conspiracy Theory pops out its wooden head.

Key to this argument is the claim that Enlightenment has two halves: on one side an individualist impulse (Sapere aude), on the other a slowly developing scientific machine. America has tilted towards the pleasures of individual skeptical relativism, and as a result, the scientific edifice is collapsing. Proper Enlightenment is about balancing the two halves. I will be forgiven for thinking that this is an Enlightenment where the machine is the Truth, and critique an accessory.

Here the article indulges in one of my favourite rhetorical moves: ‘no one is talking about x,’ which is the slightly more respectable cousin of ‘you’re not allowed to talk about x’:

Neither side has noticed, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been on the same team.

Neither side may have ‘noticed’, but it seems like I read about little fucking else these days. I cannot count the number of histrionic articles that have blamed critical theory for the rise of Trump, the alt-right, climate change denial, and so on. My more leftist friends will note (correctly) that none of these articles bother with a material analysis, and that the deep pockets of oil producers have facilitated more global warming stupidity than literature professors have.

But that kind of analysis takes work, and so I’m not going to do it. I’m happy to just point out that none of these ‘American postmodernism leads to darkness’ pieces bother to compare the situation here with anywhere else. If French critical theory leads to conspiracy, then one would expect the hotbed of conspiracy to be France, no? That this is not the case does not deter: “[P]ostmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists” have enabled “gun-rights hysteria, black-helicopter conspiracism, climate-change denial, and more.” I would suggest that there is a relationship between conspiracy theory and critical theory, but it is not one of causation.

But it is nice to think so, because then we have a cure: get Enlightenment back into balance, push back on the individual freedoms, and strengthen the scientific machine. Neil de-Grasse Tyson, David Frum, and Jordan Peterson, acting in concert, can destroy the evil that Peter Berger has uleashed. And we can do it all without addressing any economic or political concerns, all the repair done on the level of ‘culture’, and in the way we love best: restricting critique.

Conspiracy Theory is Communication Gone Wild

No, it isn’t. Conspiracy theory is older than the internet, and wider than America. The internet has many costs, from the middle class to my free-time, but most internet-explanations are shallow, and dissipate with the slightest comparative analysis. The Atlantic article has many virtues, in particular, it gestures towards the link between certain forms of religiosity and conspiracy, and does end with a call to engage conspiracy in the public square, but this reads as an afterthought. It is blinded by both American myth and the banal desire to blame everything on the latest communication technology. The stupidity of Fox News and CNN is not conspiracy theory, even where they drink from the same glass. The fear of freemasons, illuminatus, and the denial of modernity, are all much older than the internet.  Many contemporary conspiracies, and the communities that sustain them, have their roots in anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is slightly older than Google.  Note that articles which claim that ‘the internet has engendered conspiracy theory’ or entrenchment, while often presenting interesting data about how such conspiracies are distributed now, fail to show that the distribution and depth of such theorizing reaches any deeper than, say, the belief that ‘Jews control international finance’ reached in the 30s. In other words, the claim that this is new has yet to grapple with the old.

Summary of Complaints

Creatures, I am sorry for going on and on. Clearly, in taking a break from writing, I have lost what little grasp I had on concision. My next will be much shorter.

What’s the chief issue here? The problem with this analysis, and the many like it, is that they view conspiracy as a disease that must be extirpated, root and branch.

If this is the problem, the solution writes itself: eliminate the conditions under which conspiracy is created. And the easiest conditions to identify are skepticism, intellectual freedom, and forms of communication. But, what if conspiracy is best not treated as something to be uprooted? What if it has a certain value, or is perhaps just incomplete?

What if the conspiracy theorist who has misused Enlightenment is more your friend than someone who wants to clamp down on the conditions of Enlightenment?

 

return to form

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Dear ones,

I’m back at my weekly writing. My ill-deserved break began with the birth of a human grub, who has done his very best to demolish what traces of a writing routine I’ve managed to build. We’ve taken to calling Montreal Lemmy on account of his lower lip, and habit of speaking in monosyllabic grunts (a habit he shares with the real Montreal Lemmy, a man I met at a racetrack outside of Toronto).  Lemmy is glaring at me right now, as I bounce him like an angry metronome. Maybe not a metronome: an little bomb about to explode, ending tonight’s writing. I write under threat of his upcoming explosion. His feelings are narrow, but deep: what they lack in variety they make up for in intensity. An upcoming poo bothers him more than a century of genocides and political atrocities affects me.

There is a genre of snarky parental writing I will do my best to avoid. I can see the reason for it—tiredness, boredom, and emotional fatigue, confronted with legions of petty and authoritarian advice givers, is fertile ground for an exhausted satire, wit that can barely lift itself out of bed, but can still crack a joke. I will likely give in to it now and then, but I aim for something worse: instead of reaction, I’m going for straight-up totalitarianism–I plan to use this little bastard as permission to make claims I have no right to make. Consider the next few weeks a series of ‘hot takes,’ unjustified extrapolations and groundless claims, with all my cheques backed by this howling little creature.

I suspect that, other than keeping him alive, there is very little I can do for him. Despite the fact that the daycare I visited discussed their ‘education plan’ with me—for a fucking one year old—and despite the fact that I have dedicated a large chunk of my life to education, I am not a ‘believer’ in education.  In America, Education and Religion are both asked to restore and redeem lost souls—the right day camp in conjunction with Mozart in the womb, and your crooked DNA is aligned with the angels. Sounds like nonsense to me.

I suspect that, more than anything else, kids just copy the people around them. This was illustrated last week in Jerusalem, where a man approached me at the bar and insisted that I was Jesus. I claimed otherwise, and, adding insult to injury, would not let him sit with us (experience has taught me not to drink with messiahs or disciples). I smelled that the line separating me from the anti-Christ was thin, and didn’t want to see the transition. He resentfully walked past us into the bar, and as one would expect of a man looking for worship in a place of drink, was quickly escorted out. Things grew aggressive, but the bartenders and a patron restrained him without much violence. They were remarkable, speaking gently to him as he howled in broken Hebrew and Russian, calling alternately for God, Jesus, and his Mother. It was an odd display of Jewish-Muslim solidarity (the patron was Muslim, the bartenders Jews) as they tried, insistently, to treat him like a human in pain.

The police showed up and all this changed: guns were drawn and the air went cold and hostile. A gaggle of 3 and 4 year-old children formed around us, and so I stepped into my role as ‘New Father’. I tried my best to distract them, thinking ‘it’s not good for kids to see too much violence’ or some other sanctimonious beer-fueled nonsense. The problem being that I only know about four things you can do with kids that age, because a 3 year old is a storm, and there is not a lot you can do with a storm, other than tie things down and make the occasional sacrifice.

In any case I was clowning with a few little kids–trying to keep their eyes on me and off the violence–when the sad apostle spat right in a cop’s face. Clearly not one to miss a moment, one adorable and tiny girl followed suit: she spat right in my face,and broke into sweet laughter. She and the others knew that this was the Best Thing, and there was nothing I could do to convince them otherwise. It was not done in the same spirit, but it was the same spit. Perhaps with less chance of Hepatitis.

I suspect that I will be similarly inept at parenting, and that there’s not a lot I can do to help this little monster. If he sees anger, he’ll be angry. If he sees spit, he’ll spit. But I can use him to legitimate an entirely undeserved authority for myself. And, with any luck, he’ll learn to do that too.

 

in which Baby goes to class

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Dearest reader: I have been to a birthing class. A birthing class is a thing you go to when you, your partner, or someone close to you (in the case of one disturbed attendee, a daughter) are about to give birth. Heavy on ideology, low on information, we went because that’s what people do in movies. The teacher asked what had brought us there, and in the spirit of openness, I answered honestly.  I have never seen pupils tighten in contempt before.

A birth class is what happens when an administrator decides to systematically distribute bad advice to terrified people. If you come within 100 kilometers of a birth, people give advice. Like athletes who let their underwear rot to preserve a winning streak, child birth is replete with superstition, hysteria, and pep talks. People are not afraid to contradict themselves in the space of a single sentence, and garbled coincidentia oppositorum is the norm. Even the most drug addled mystic has nothing on the shit spewed by people when they discover you are about to have a child.

A birth class is a terrible thing: there are several competing ideologies, and all of them are stupid. You are made aware that all births are wonderful, but natural ones are more wonderful. Science is trotted out: did you know that a baby born under the influence of painkillers will not immediately clasp the mother’s tit? No, you did not. Now that you know, do you care? I propose that you shouldn’t. The goal is to keep the little fucker alive long enough that the first few moments of its life will, on balance, fade into meaninglessness. Worst case scenario, the first hour of life will be trotted out during some Robert Bly or Carl Jung inspired weekend, an attempt to avoid midlife crisis, re-enchanting the world with a shoddy and embarrassing ritual (one hopefully soon forgotten in shame). Did you know that you can give birth in your own bathtub? I’ve been told that the blood and shit drenched water looks like a shark attack, and is a pleasure to clean. Did you know that the birth class lasts four days, when the ‘keep the creature alive’ class only one?  This seems deliciously American. I know that it’s easy for me to say, but I am far more worried about the period after we leave the hospital then the time spent surrounded by medical professionals and wondrous machines. The only machine at home is the oven, and I am not about to go full Baba Yaga. Not yet.

But, dear reader, worse than the ideology, worse than the forced exposure to other people’s fears when you are doing your very best to suppress your own, and worse than sitting in a hospital basement, is the way people talk about babies. I know almost nothing about babies, but I now know this:  never use the definite or indefinite article when referring to ** baby.

You might be inclined to speak about baby the way you speak about other things, and say “don’t let the baby drink bourbon”—no. This is wrong. The proper way is “don’t let baby drink whisky”. You might be inclined to say “never let a baby play with a table saw”—again, no. The proper way to say it, is: “never let baby play with a table saw”.

This is the one thing I learned: “the” and “a” have no place next to “baby”.

This is not to accommodate those who’ve made the odd decision to keep their child’s gender secret. And, yes, this still happens: despite the fact that few North American children enter the world without first being scanned, pictured, and analyzed by a series of devices and professionals, despite the fact that doctors know more about this unborn creature’s body than I know about my own, many parents don’t know the gender. Intentionally.

They like to keep it a surprise, like a fortune cookie, or one of those Christmas ‘crackers’. But instead of wisdom and lottery numbers, or a plastic toy, it’s full of genitals. Imagine the bizarre thinking that wants to scan a child for every possible disease, but passes over the pudenda. Who wants to be surprised by a child’s genitalia? The answer, dear reader, is ‘more people than you would think’.

But this is not the reason the word ‘baby’ cannot take an article. I think the real desire is to develop an object so magical that it’s neither a proper noun, nor part of a group.

Yahweh is not ‘a god,’ or ‘the god,’ but ‘God’; this unnamed and over-scanned creature is not ‘a baby,’ or ‘the baby,’ but ‘Baby’.

Await it in fear and trembling, and do not ask about its genitals.

 

 

OF WIT AND HUMOUR, Part 3: Humorous nature

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Here the Earl continues the critique of the previous section. Having claimed that the philosophers of self interest are betrayed by their genre—if they sincerely believed that humans acted solely out of self-interest, they would not write their books, but instead exploit this fact—he moves from their writing to the concept of nature. The Earl rarely goes point for point in his arguments: he thinks in pictures and systems. Always delighted and delightful, he cannot pin down a principle to be used in an argument, because principles change into their opposite.

If there is a guiding principle, it is complexity and variation: there is no “Alphabet of Ideas” [Leibniz] where each thought can be broken down into a set number of parts. “

YOU have heard it (my Friend!) as a common Saying, that Interest governs the World. But, I believe, whoever looks narrowly into the Affairs of it, will find, that Passion, Humour, Caprice, Zeal, Faction, and a thousand other Springs, which are counter to Self-Interest, have as considerable a part in the Movements of this Machine. There are more Wheels and Counter-Poises in this Engine than are easily imagin’d. ’Tis of too complex a kind, to fall under one simple View, or be explain’d thus briefly in a word or two. The Studiers of this Mechanism must have a very partial Eye, to overlook all other Motions besides those of the lowest and narrowest compass. [72]

The Earl does not try to save kindness, or decency, from the clutches of Hobbes and the “lower Genius” descendants of the atomists. His argument is actually simpler: the world is complex, not simply in its arrangement, but in the parts and forces that make it up. A simple theory is a bad theory, because it does not do justice to nature: “Modern Projectors, I know, wou’d willingly rid their hands of these natural Materials; and wou’d fain build after amore uniform way”. There is a naïve and mildly intoxicated perspectivalism at play: no one perspective can catch the machine. Any pretense to see the whole mechanism is not philosophy, but projection–meaning not a film projector, but one who plans, schemes, forecasts, or throw something forward.

More hucksters than hacks, simplification of nature—a concept with “so little meaning”—costs them dearly. The attempt to draw a firm line between Nature and Civil Society (as if the first is automatic, and the latter “a kind of Invention, and Creature of Art”) is doomed. This sort of bifurcation requires that we ‘exit nature’, into some kind of social contract, but with a such a uniform picture of nature, the tools required to exit it will never be available.

 Simply put: the social contract is a kind of promise, but it is a promise made in the state of nature. So, either promises are binding in the state of nature (which means there is something already social there) or, they are not, and are stuck there. “A Man is oblig’d to keep his Word. Why? Because he has given his Word to keep it.” In other words: there are obligations, even in nature—here I see shades of Mendelssohn: the political and moral are not imposed by a sovereign fiat, but tended to, and you cannot grown something without a seed; we never begin at the beginning—and civil society is just a further development of a natural form, what Shaftesbury calls “herding”, or forming groups.

What does this have to do with comedy? Humour is one mechanism among many for the development of a civil society: it is not a social product, or social corrective, but rather a primitive force, or building block.  It is found in both nature and civil society

As a basic force, it is neither good nor evil: the Earl does not value in this way. Instead, he sets the machine turning, and follows it.  The desire for fellowship can lead to conspiracy or “cantonizing”—the need for fellowship can turn into war, a situation that manufactures closeness. Despite being a defense of humour, the essay does not present humour as a good, or value, but an overlooked element of the machine.