Monday, January 23, 2017

Liberal narcissism

I put it to you that you are quite likely to meet people who hold these two opinions:

  1. Donald Trump is a evil manipulator who distorts truth in ways that his opponents cannot counter and who fooled millions of people into voting against their own interests.
  2. Donald Trump is a contemptible moron who can't understand certain basic truths.
I trust you see the problem. They manage this trick because neither of these beliefs is really about Trump. 

As others have pointed out before me, imagining our opponents to be evil elevates us. If I'm engaged in a fight against the Turquoise Party that makes me a political partisan. If I imagine the Turquoise Party to be secretly neo-fascists that makes me a brave defender of civilization against the dark forces of evil.

At the same time, however, it's unsettling to consider that I might be wrong. If I'm willing to be honest, I know that this is a very real possibility. Anyone who has been paying attention will know that they have often been wrong about politics and people. If you are heavily invested in a political battle, however, you have to dismiss such thoughts. You can't direct vitriol against someone who might turn out to be right in the end. And so they have to be contemptible morons.

Okay, I hear some say, but this sort of human failing knows no favourites. All political views are going to be subject to this. And now you will expect me to give examples of conservatives or libertarians doing the same. I could. I have no doubt that such examples exist. That said, I think there is a huge difference in degree here. There is something inherent in contemporary liberalism that makes this much more prevalent. What exactly it is I cannot say just yet.

What we can say is that a lot of liberals see the mere existence of opposing views as an existential threat.

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Irony can mean many things. The irony I mean here is a way of living a role without fully investing in it. "I'll be an X but do so with an ironic reserve so that some of the virtue associated with this role will rub off on me but keep enough distance so that others can't hold me accountable."

Here's an example of what I mean. I received a lovely gift this Christmas, beard oil and beard conditioner. Both are products of Sussex Beard Oil Merchants. In theory beard oil does stuff for your beard and the skin underneath it. I've never noticed any difference myself. Beard maintenance for me means shampooing it daily and getting it trimmed once a month.

The primary benefit of the stuff for me is the smell. It puts good, manly smells in your beard and your beard is right under your nose. Good smells are good. That's all the justification you need. No one apologizes for eating food that tastes good or looking at women who who look good.

It's also a manly smell and that is hard to come by. Most male after shave and colognes smell decidedly girly. They're also way to strong. A good after shave should go on relatively strong and fade quickly to leave a faint smell that a woman should not be able to smell until after she's started kissing you. A good beard oil should do the same.

On that count, Sussex Beard oil delivers. I like the product and have nothing but good to say about it. Except the label. I'm going to complain about the label. On the side of the bottle, it tells you how to apply the stuff. There are five steps, four of which are sincere and one of which is ironic. This is the ironic step:
Step 3: Stop, close your eyes, breathe in deep and picture yourself running through the forrest knocking down trees or catching fish with your bare hands from a stream.
Sussex Beard Oil Merchants are called that because they are located in Sussex, New Brunswick, a province whose early economy was built on the lumber trade. A lumberjack is a good manly role model. Why the irony? There are two possibilities and I suspect both are at work here. The first is a desire to maintain a distance on traditional manly role models as if testosterone was a kind of moral poison. The second is a feeling of inadequacy—most of the men who buy these products have never cut down so much as a Christmas tree and fear they couldn't if called upon. At the same time, however, manliness is a desirable and admirable that they want to be associated with it without being held accountable to any standards associated with it.

Why not just be men? Actually work with wood and maybe even figure out how to catch fish. You can catch brook trout with your bare hands by the way. It's more fun with a fly rod.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.
Did he really said that? There are roughly 3.5 million places on he Internet where someone attributes that quote to Martin Luther King Jr. On the other hand, I've yet to find anyone who gives a source for it.

Is it unfair to ask, on this Martin Luther King Day, if the quote is terribly profound? As is the case with Mother Teresa's remark about giving "until it hurts", we repeat this quote and we claim to believe it but we live our lives in a way that directly contradicts that claim.

I think that is no way to find happiness. I think we could correct the quote by having it read something like,
Those who are searching for happiness often forget that you cannot find happiness for yourself without also seeking happiness for others. 
You are not going to get something you don't pursue. What the famous quote says about liberty is also true of happiness, it is something to be taken not given.
Virtue is its own reward. We can say this and miss the point. Virtue is hard work; no one would pursue it if it wasn't worth having. If you spend your life in misery pursuing things you don't want thinking that you'll be rewarded for this, you'll end up miserable. And you'll deserve to be.

You'll also be a barrier to the happiness of others.
A sensible human once said, "If people knew how much ill-feeling unselfishness occasions, it would not be so often recommended from the pulpit"; and again, "She's the sort of woman who lives for others—you can always tell the others by their hunted expression." CS Lewis
Anything you deny yourself you will also tend to deny to others as well. No matter how well-meaning you try to be, you won't believe they are legitimately entitled to pursue happiness either.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

On not taking people you care about seriously

I think one of the keys to happiness is learning how to stop taking seriously people who don't deserve to be taken seriously. Some of these people will be very near to you.

The problem is that everyone pushes values at you all the time. That's inevitable and fair. You, after all, are pushing values at them all the time. You don't have to set out to preach at them. The mere fact that you live out your core values will cause you to project them. There have been times when I knew people objected to my beliefs and so I kept them to myself so as to not place stress on our relationship. It didn't work; the consistency of my habits and my daily choices gave away my beliefs.

I also quickly learned that there was a double standard. They felt free to pronounce on their values and got offended when I expressed mine. On the other hand, they chose to get offended at my quietly living mine. Any conservative with liberal family and friends will know what I'm talking about.

I realized that the only choice was to stop taking them seriously. To continue to treat their opinions as worthy of respect was only going to cause unhappiness for me and them. But I immediately ran into a trap for acting in a way that showed I didn't take them seriously was a) going to offend them and b) was contradictory for my wanting them to know that I didn't take them seriously was proof that I did want to take them seriously.

In the end, I've found myself behaving a little like the character of Thomas More in Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons.  I go to great lengths to shield my real values from these people. It works ... to a point. It works enough, however, to make for much more happiness in my life.

The people involved sense that I don't share their values and they could probably figure out that I don't take them seriously—that I don't even bother to try and figure out what they believe or why anymore—if they thought about it. For the most part, though, they don't take that second step. I am aware that should they ever, as More's persecutors did, force the issue, that would be the end of any relationship between us. I am particularly aware of this threat since the last election for, while I do not admire Trump, I can't take seriously the notion that he is a dangerous threat who must be stopped. I have simply been avoiding family members and friends who do think he represents some sort of existential threat (to the limited extent that they can be credited with actually "thinking" about these issues). And I am perfectly willing to keep avoiding them for as long as it takes; if that turns out to be for the rest of my or their lives, I'm willing to do that.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Learning from Jane Austen

There’s a lot of tribalism and romanticism in the water these days. By tribalism I mean the idea that loyalty to one’s side comes first and arguments come later, and when they do, they must be bent to fit the needs of one’s side. By romanticism, I mean the primacy of feelings over facts.

I understand the point Goldberg wants to make here. He’s wrong though. Wrong about a technical point that only geeks would care about. So let’s go with that.

The primacy of feelings over facts was a feature of some aspects of Romanticism but it was more a feature of something that immediately preceded Romanticism. Sentimentalism, sometimes called “sensibility”, regarded feeling as special way to view the world, an alternative to rationalism, that would give a better understanding of reality. It’s been back in vogue a bit lately in academic circles. Romanticism, whatever that means (and it has many meanings), came as a response to sentimentalism.

Whatever the history and correct use of labels, sentimentalism has returned in a big way to popular culture and that is what Goldberg is right about. We want, as he ably discusses, our feelings validated. We want to be told that the prism we see the world through is a morally superior way to see things.

One way we might respond is to look at the different responses that the first round of sentimentalism engendered to see if we can learn something. Outside of the various kinds of Romanticism, the most famous response was Jane Austen’s. Her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, dealt with the issue directly but all her novels feature at least one character who causes trouble for herself and others because she takes her feelings as authoritative.

The most important thing is to work on ourselves so that we don’t become that person. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, so we become less like that person than we currently are.

There are, I think, two key lessons from Austen that we would all do well to begin applying to our lives. The first of these comes from William Deresiewicz:

Being a good person is more important than being a fun person*.

Probably the best novel to see this is Mansfield Park where it comes out strongly in the contrast between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price.

The second lesson is my own:

Learning is more important than being vindicated.

The best novel to see this is Austen’s most famous, Pride and Prejudice. The pride in that novel is primarily Mr. Darcy’s and that has been much discussed here and elsewhere. But what is Elizabeth Bennet’s failing. Well, prejudice obviously but not in our sense of the word wherein prejudice has come to mean something like racism. It originally meant simply to pre-judge something. And why would we do that? Well, there are a number of reasons but one way to make certain you are prejudiced is to seek vindication over learning. Both Darcy and Elizabeth suffer from pride and prejudice but Darcy is better at overcoming his need to feel vindicated than Elizabeth.

If we're going to restart this blog, let's make a point of emphasizing being a good person and learning. (To return to Goldberg's point, the search for vindication often leads to tribalism and our attenpts at being a fun person tend to lead to sentimentalism.)

* I'm quoting from a podcast interview he did at the Art of Manliness.