Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Moral Vacancy

I am 68 now, and it has taken my life this far before I could begin to extricate myself from the subtle propaganda that I was raised with. I could get through the easy stuff; the soap ads and the political propaganda, but it's been the meaning of life stuff which has taken so long. 

I've been fooled by our crass oligarchy disguised as democracy, and I've been fooled by the self-promotion which arrogates good fortune to a kind of self-congratulation. Sure, I've spent plenty of social capital to keep myself happy and comfortable, but at least I've held back from dedicating my life to meaningless pleasure. Not that I don't enjoy plenty of meaningless pleasure. But making money in and of itself has never been a meaningful primary pursuit for me. Which already made me weird in college.

I discover lately that I've come 'round to a kind of Buddhist worldview, but I didn't get there by any sort of belief system. Really, I arrived by way of rational thought and science. Take the impermanence and detachment, the primacy of mind with matter, but maybe leave behind the self-soul identity as that which perdures. But can one have a moral compass without that?

As with most everything else that I've pretty randomly made the object of my pursuits, I lost interest in hard science while preparing to re-enter college as a physics major. My first acquaintance with quantum principles blew my mind. For quite a while.

But I worked things out to my satisfaction, drawing on other disciplines I'd pursued, which included Chinese classical literature and an intellectual study of education along with some practice in those fields. It didn't hurt that I have enough facility with understanding how things work that I could make my living during various interstices by fixing houses and computers. Keep myself going by fixing cars and boats and motorcycles. Bicycles are the best.

There has always been some point of disciplinary elaboration where I lose interest. Like reading a bad novel where the narrative course is already obvious. But here I am with valuable things to tell and no way to tell them. I could have dedicated more time to learning to write. 

I confessed in here lately that I can't purchase plastic bags, and as I recall I felt like apologizing for that. Like there's something weird about me. But if you too calculate morals according to aggregate harm, as in what difference does it make if I use plastic bags - it's the system that has to change! - then I might suggest that you have fallen into the trap of rationalism as a kind of religion. Yet another maneuver toward religion as exculpatory exercise. Rational materialism is probably not amoral so much as it is immoral. 

If you have to understand immediately why doing the right thing is going to move the world toward being right, then you have already excused yourself from acting morally. It doesn't matter if acting morally makes no difference. It may only matter as karma. And I say that works in almost precisely the way that DNA works across the eons. What really works is well beneath or beyond our understanding.

Now I calculate (!!) the meaning of that kind of rationalism in such things as our certainty that money is a neutral medium of exchange, without political or moral valence. Or that technology moves in an inevitable and amoral arc. Or that procedural adversarial usage for the law is the only way to arrive at justice. Or that free speech is so all-encompassing in its importance that it includes both hate speech and outright lying. Or especially that youthful startup culture both has no moral valence, and that the cleverness that drives it is of a piece with the inevitable direction of the technology which is generally its pursuit.

Who knows? I might be espousing Buddhist values without realizing it. If so, then I'm a Buddhist with angst, which is likely a contradiction in terms. Living beyond illusion is hard to teach. Wanting to teach the dharma must be like being in love, which, in Buddhist terms, means to reveal a lack in yourself as measured by the pain of love lost.

Anyhow, I'm inspired somewhat by the reasonably reliable moral compass of David Brooks as rehearsed in his opinion piece about the actual guilt of we liberal elites in the arise of MAGA. Even embedded as Brooks must be in the neoliberal so-called rules-based global order (at least by virtue of being embedded in its publicity organ, the NYT), he does manage to see beyond the rigidities of any such ideological regime. 

Heck, I trust the Times to fact check and report on activities which threaten the order in which they exist. But I don't expect radical journalism, for which I go elsewhere. And I am grateful on a daily basis that that elsewhere is not yet blocked off to me. Nor do I expect to suffer any consequences for my perusals. In those ways America is already great.

But, as Brooks obliquely points out in his longer essay in the Atlantic, our American sanctions against the free speech which must be truly protected have been outsourced to angry unwashed mobs, which assemble themselves in age-invisible online hoards which can and do cause actual damage to freethinkers everywhere. He doesn't think the startup culture which created the forum is as guilty as are the rest of us for allowing our cultural institutions to go fallow; those places and practices where moral behavior is instructed and nurtured. But I think he's missing something. 

When they are effective, these dying institutions help us to internalize practices which are valid regardless of their practical efficacy. Somewhere inside each of us we still know that if there were any formality left to airline travel it would never have become so unpleasant. But we hardly know how to navigate all the differing cultural and behavioral norms for formality. And so we throw up our hands? And our laziness becomes the self-indulgence of pyjama behavior in company.

Each of us now aspires, if you are of a certain age, to bedhead casual with flip-flops where the markers of class are more subtle, perhaps, while remaining unmistakably still there. Our lowest common denominator will always rule! It's right there in our DNA.

Anyhow, I do still participate in the performance art of sorting recyclables, eschewing plastic containers as much as possible - which isn't really very much at all - and nodding and making eye-contact with the down and out, even though I have no money for them. At least I tell them so and don't pretend they don't exist.

But there I go, patting myself on the back. I haven't earned that. I drive a car and consume my share of plastic and live in a house that is far too big for my needs. 

But I do also remain busy espousing a worldview, for lack of a better term, which is not quite so brutal as the evident one we mostly endure. But there is scant company here. People have their certainties, which exclude almost everything that I'm certain about. People at least act as though they are certain that the physical world is amoral, and that humanity is mostly defined by an intelligence which means to apply our agency to that world (that's what AI means too. Just remove morals altogether, which should make the techie bedheads very rich and happy). 

People mostly believe that while evolution progresses according to random happenstance, human progress occurs because of human agency. That we are somehow the solution for random happenstance. I mean, how's that working for Hawaii right now? So, we attach morality to agency, as though our agency on the world makes it better, and that before we acted the world was somehow deficient.

Well, it was deficient in relation to our wants. And making it better creates more wants until the economy inevitably takes over and we rather disappear as living human beings (again, perhaps, in Buddhist terms). 

Anyhow, I do think that it's yet another contradiction in terms to both say that agency shall improve things while practicing a kind of rational materialism as a codpiece over rampant collective desire.And then we call our decisions about our agency the results of some kind of moral thinking. The evident amorality of our approach to decision-making tends more quickly to immorality than it does to the good. Being practical always seems to prevail over being good.

In his Atlantic essay, David Brooks is absolutely right to harken back to better definitions for humanity, as put forward by the like of Martin Luther King and many others who talk about character and empathy and compassion as the true definers of human leadership.

Our trouble is that we don't believe that these higher qualities have anything to do with human agency. I surely don't mean to boast my moral qualities when I recite my weirdness. I want simply to suggest that little things are important, even if they can't make any difference. Dressing up to go out in public is a part of civility. Working in your pajamas is not something to celebrate. Neither is automated online ordering (which I also can't avoid, since all the local places no longer exist, which means that over intelligent fucks with too much social capital take over any and all local decision making, as world-class techno-imperialists).

We are destroying the social context which is the only way that humans can live as humans. Being a local franchisee for some over automated business where the surveilled humans must act as robots is not the same as owning your own. Our form of capitalism has metastasized.

Text messaging wrecks my day, and nobody reads my letter-length emails, and it makes me mad as hell. But it's not like I'm going to do anything about it. I can't do anything about it, except to keep writing overlong emails. It makes me mad as hell that job applicants get no response. It makes me mad as hell that service outfits which I require are as internally disorganized as is our wider world. And nothing makes me madder than the American so-called health-care system except for the American so-called health-care insurance system. 

But that doesn't mean that I'm going to insist on "socialized medicine." That dialog serves the purpose of diverting attention from those things that we can do immediately. Like true pricing for healthcare which is not negotiable by powerful insurance companies and doesn't burden the uninsured and gig-bound working class with bankruptcy by way of inflated and outrageous prices and hell-spawn collection outfits. Your insurance company letting you know what you would have paid without them is a form of terrorism.

As any good Marxist/socialist-leaning thinker knows, we'll get there eventually inevitably in precisely the same way that any good scientific thinker believes in the inevitability of progress. Because we keep figuring shit out. Which means figuring out how to have agency over nature. Which is raw throwback to early Abrahamic religion. Which is purest fantasy promulgated by ruby robed and bejeweled religious nobility.

Our modern religiorationalist nobility is riding hyper-luxurious lifeboats in the cesspool where the rest of us swim. No wonder we can't be civil. So many of us are drowning.

Shall modest kindness win out in the end? I don't think that will happen any more than I think that technology will take us to a better world. I think the motives of the tech startup kidlets matter, and their motives seem universally to be a kind of greed which is whitewashed by youthful excitement and the largely symbolic Ivy-league rhetoric of do-gooderism. There is really nothing very good about callow cleverness which finds new and faster ways to make tons of money. Maybe even especially when they claim to be motivated by making things better. 

By very definition, youth is not educated. That's what school is (used to be) for. And it takes time. Nobody is brilliant enough to drop out, although I have plenty of sympathy for those who decide that they can learn better on their own. But that's also a failing about what education means. As Brooks affirms, our schools are no longer even allowed to cultivate morality. The Ivies celebrate cleverness in any form. Which makes a direct line of descent toward evil leaders. The virtue you internalize from a good education now is that you deserve your good luck. Which is to say that there is no virtue in schooling anymore. 

Because we shy from judging difference, we arrive at anything goes. 

It is hard work indeed to be the kind of woke which doesn't judge according to degrees of wokeness. We must determine to be each other's teachers, which also means to allow ourselves to be taught as well. I'm still cultivating my pronouns. It's not going so well. So, I'm sure not going to get angry at others who mangle theirs.  

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