Sunday, June 26, 2011

Absolute Poverty, Relative Affluence, and the American Way of life - Part Two

The density of this topic lies outside my range of comfort to discuss with full confidence. Consequently, we need to unpack this important challenge to our lifestyle slowly. First, a few facts:

·  At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.Source 1
·  The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.Source 3
·  According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”Source 4
·  Infectious diseases continue to blight the lives of the poor across the world. An estimated 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, with 3 million deaths in 2004. Every year there are 350–500 million cases of malaria, with 1 million fatalities: Africa accounts for 90 percent of malarial deaths and African children account for over 80 percent of malaria victims worldwide.Source 9
·  Water problems affect half of humanity:
  • Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.
  • Almost two in three people lacking access to clean water survive on less than $2 a day, with one in three living on less than $1 a day.
  • More than 660 million people without sanitation live on less than $2 a day, and more than 385 million on less than $1 a day.
  • Access to piped water into the household averages about 85% for the wealthiest 20% of the population, compared with 25% for the poorest 20%.
  • Some 1.8 million child deaths each year as a result of diarrhea. The estimated cost of several oral rehydration therapy packets, designed to stop death from diarrhea averages out to about 3 dollars.
  • The loss of 443 million school days each year from water-related illness.
· This is even scarier -  Consider the global priorities in spending in 1998
Global Priority
$U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States
Ice cream in Europe
Perfumes in Europe and the United States
Pet foods in Europe and the United States
Business entertainment in Japan
Cigarettes in Europe
Alcoholic drinks in Europe
Narcotics drugs in the world
Military spending in the world
And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:
Global Priority
$U.S. Billions
Basic education for all
Water and sanitation for all
Reproductive health for all women
Basic health and nutrition

If you can handle a more extensive and embarrassing list of similar facts look at this website:

I know this comes off as a Sally Struthers commercial that mugs your emotions to save an Ethiopian child. I know there is a sense of guilt pervading these facts, but sometimes we can benefit from looking reality in its face.

In this light, let’s consider Singer’s claims again:

Singer attempts to create the simplest argument so as not to get bogged down in dense philosophy. First, as a moral stance, Singer assumes that we can agree that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and health care are bad. Easy enough. Second, he assumes that given the relative affluence of the Western world, we can do something to rectify this situation and still live comfortable lives. This, importantly, is not a moral claim, it is a factual claim that we can help, and again, we can easily accept this fact. The third assumption is a moral claim, and therefore, the most contentious assumption:

"If we could prevent something harmful or bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, then it is our obligation (in other words we ought, morally) to do it."

Now, let’s apply it to the example he gives. Most people, if they were traveling in Africa and saw a small child, or even an adult dying of thirst, would give them a case of water, despite the fact that now they need to buy new water which will cost 15 dollars. However, those same people, most likely, will not donate 15 dollars to UNICEF through the mail for the same cause. Singer concludes that this distinction, though instinctual in some ways, is morally wrong. He goes on further to conclude that not only must we save the lives of these children, but if we don’t, we’ve transgressed our moral code. It’s important to realize that Singer doesn’t see this as an option to give charity or not, but as an obligation.  

I think we can all agree that Singer’s claim engenders a strange sense of ambivalence in us. On the one hand, we respect the simplicity and ambitiousness of Singer’s claim. Ending poverty, saving millions of lives, stopping death from diseases that we’ve all but eradicated in our modern world, but on the other hand, for numerous reasons, intuitively, something feels wrong with the claim that I cant buy my little baby girl a nice dress, or go on a vacation, or to the movies, or buy coffee, or get a nice house. I made this money. I feel entitled to spend it how I want to. I worked hard for my paycheck why shouldn’t I get to enjoy it?

To begin, we can pinpoint two basic questions. First, can we conceive of any differences that morally matter, between seeing a child dying of thirst and just knowing that children die of thirst each day in other countries? Second, how do we reconcile these conflicting intuitions of our right to enjoy our lives, our right to basic autonomy, with our perceived obligation to help others, of justice? In other words, how do we balance our duties with our rights?
In this post, I hope to unpack the first question i.e. can we differentiate between our obligations to the poor which we can see, to the poor of our cities, and the poor of the rest of the world. (An aside: even if we could distinguish between the two, it doesn’t seem like we spend much of our money, effort, or time, helping the poor of our city. We leave it to the government, and forget about it, but again, that's a different topic.)

At first glance, the two cases seem significantly different. We can pinpoint approximately four possible differences between seeing a child drowning, or dying of thirst and UNICEF asking for money that might explain our different reactions to each case. It’s important to note that finding a difference between the cases does not necessarily distinguish, morally, between the cases.
            The first and most obvious difference is one of physical proximity. In the case of the drowning child we see the child, we experience his or her pain, but in the second case, all we experience is an envelope and the abstract concept of a dying child in Africa. Again, this is a difference, but it’s easy to see how it’s a non-significant difference. All this distinction proves is that it is easier for us to feel empathy or sympathy for that which we can see. It might explain why we feel less motivated to help in the abstract case, but it provides no intellectual basis for a moral distinction. The fact that you don’t happen to see the child is arbitrary. You could simply get on a plane and see first hand the devastation, or watch TV, so this cant be a significant distinguishing factor.
            Others, explained that a possible significant difference lies in the source of knowledge in each case. In the case of seeing the drowning child, I, with my own eyes see the emergency and can be certain of it, but in the case of the envelope, who knows if I can trust UNICEF. In some ways, this is a fair, but rather petty claim. It is largely technical, and not actually a distinguishing conceptual factor because we could counter that true, you cant be sure at first, but do some fact checking and you will see that UNICEF actually gives out donations to dying children. So again, we are left stuck.
The next possible distinction draws from the field of social psychology. In social psychology there is a group of concepts that grapple with the question of why people act different, in terms of responsibility or effort, when in groups as opposed to when they are alone. Specifically, social psychologists focus on three similar concepts: diffusion of responsibility, social loafing, and the bystander effect. For our purposes, these concepts all explain in different ways that when in groups we tend not to act as proactively, but instead assume that someone else can or will help. Consequently, in our case, when we see a drowning child, we know we must save him/her because no one else is around, but in the case of the envelope, millions of people receive the same letter. Again, I don’t think we actually need to elaborate as to why this doesn’t morally distinguish between the cases. Rather, it simply explains our lack of motivation. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive in the least bit.
There are other distinctions raised, but none of them rise to the level of significance, besides one that touches upon a whole host of another set of complexities. Some claim that Singer’s case is manipulative. Don’t think of the case in terms of a child, but think of it terms of a person who lost all their money due to a series of bad life choices. Perhaps, they never cared to assert themselves in school, then they began to steal, or to deal drugs, and now, even though they dropped drugs, they live in squalor in real absolute poverty. Should we help them, even though, in some ways, their situation is their fault? Not every case is as simple as children dying, and even then, there are larger implications than just giving children water including questions of overpopulation, or does the aid we provide, in the long run, solve the problems we set out to solve? These are good points, ones I hope to flesh out in a later post, but this opinion does not essentially argue with Singer. They agree that we should help, but we should help with more caution and efficiency. (Do you help a heroin addict by giving them charity? McNulty would.)
Besides this more practical question, we have yet to discuss the tension but our rights and our duties. I hope to tackle these issues in the next post. What we have seen is that there is little room to morally distinguish between saving a drowning child and giving money to UNICEF to do that job for us, but that still leaves a lot of question that demand exploration.

Thanks for reading,
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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Absolute Poverty, Relative Affluence, and the American Way of Life

Up till now we’ve dealt largely, in various forms, with questions that attempt to describe what’s wrong, or what’s missing, or what’s eating at our generation. First, we attempted to establish the simple fact that we feel a loss, an emptiness in our generation, and then described what exactly that is. We’ve seen authors and cultural commentators describe the corrosive effects of technology, or the overreliance on technology that leads to narcissism, superficial identities, and escapism. We’ve attempted to begin the conversation about an apparent generational apathy in regards to the endless list of universal ills plaguing our planet, but got sidetracked by the question of art and politics. We’ve wondered how we could all love such a desperately political TV show without feeling any need to react in a certain way. We discussed the nature of art and politics, though we left that conversation unfinished, and finally, we digressed into the Genius of Terrence Malick, but even that digression touches upon a different type of generational apathy: religious apathy, a topic for another day.

Today, I would like to begin the conversation on a topic that I believe holds some of the keys to the essential questions of our generation i.e. the question of distributive justice and affluence and poverty, but first a small but frightening tangent.

Report after report, and investigative journalistic book after investigative journalistic book, fights hard to make us aware of the mess of both our mental states and our psychological/psychiatric system. Marcia Angell, writing for the New York Review of Books begins:

"It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness, at least as judged by the increase in the numbers treated for it. The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children, well ahead of physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, for which the federal programs were created."

Frightening indeed. For those who either care about the state of the mental health profession, or for whatever reason feel attached to the effects of psychoactive drugs, Angell’s articles, as well as a similar article by Louis Menand in the New Yorker earlier this year, are required reading. They are not for the light of heart, or for those who place their trust in anti-depressants, and some of the possible conclusions are frightening, a topic I hope to discuss at a different time. Here are the links:

Suffice to say that we appear to be a generation who has become increasingly reliant on our technological toys to navigate our day, on our psychiatric medicine to make that day more tolerable, to stem off the tide of unhappiness, or of anxiety, and a culture that knows more about pop culture than politics, and possibly, a culture that in an unprecedented manner cares more about itself than it does about the world. While these alarmist claims are just that, alarmist, in some sense they ring true, and I hope to begin to flesh them out today.

But let’s move on to the main topic of today, a topic I believe that touches upon the core of many of these issues, the topic of distributive justice and affluence and poverty. Peter Singer, the famous ethical philosopher of our day, has done more than any other thinker of our time to bring this issue to the forefront of our cultural mind. While the topic can get dense due to many of the philosophical underpinnings, the questions need not partake of that complexity. The basic question that Singer poses, time and time again in his prolific writings, is what is the obligation of affluent people and nations to the millions upon millions of people who live in absolute poverty. Singer and other in his footsteps (we must sacrifice complete accuracy in our sources for the sake of brevity. Though this story comes from Peter Unger, it raises the same questions as Peter Singer) essentially all ask
the same question through simple stories:

"The Envelope. In your mailbox, there's something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in your trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100."

How would you judge this person and their actions?

Most people, when asked this question, Unger found, would respond that it would be nice if they gave 100 dollars, but in no sense is a person obligated to give 100 dollars, but why do we feel this way? Unger then gives a different story to contrast to this one.

"The (Vintage) Sedan. Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention and money, you've restored to mint condition. In particular, you're pleased by the auto's fine leather seating. One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound's confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound so as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he
survives but loses the wounded leg."

How would you react to this story?

Most people, when given this story judge the person as morally reprehensible as opposed to the previous story, despite the fact that the damage done in the first story involves death, as opposed to monetary damage to the savior involved. From this and similar stories, Both Unger and Singer conclude our intuitions, our morally judgments are severally skewed. Something is deeply wrong in the way we think about our obligations.

Singer concludes from these thought experiments, and our strange intuitions, that we need a more truthful guiding principle of life:
"If we could prevent something harmful or bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, then it is our obligation (in other words we ought, morally) to do it."

At first glance, I find it hard to disagree with this ostensibly innocuous statement, but once we realize what it might require of us, we feel challenged at the core of our lifestyles.

Despite it’s purposeful ambiguity (what exactly does something harmful or bad entail, and how exactly do we define, do we operationalize “comparable moral importance?”), the question is very basic, and deeply challenging to our American/Western/Modern way of life. The repercussions would reverberate throughout every aspect of our life. Though most of us do not live in extreme affluence, we certainly do not live in absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is a non-relative state of poverty where the essentials, of shelter, food, and clothing are not met in a way that could allow a human life to continue living.

The basic question, put in much simpler terms that these ethical philosophers ask about our way of life is, given the globalization of knowledge, and given the fact that we know that thousands of children die each day from a lack of water, a problem that can be solved with a measly 5 dollar donation to Unicef, or to any other Aid providers, or that people in America’s ghetto’s die at a much younger age than those in suburbia or metropolises, how do we justify to ourselves that Venti starbucks coffee that cost six dollars when we could easily make coffee in our homes, how do we justify spending twenty dollars on a 3-d movie, on a sweater we don’t actually need, on a hardcover book that costs 30 dollars, on an exorbitant dinner, a ridiculously lavish vacation, a wedding that requires a second mortgage etc. the list goes on and on and on, when children are actually dying in Africa, and all over the world from a simple lack of water, from a lack vaccines that are readily available to be given out? What right, they ask, do we have to live lives of relative opulence when such a large part of our world dies everyday from absolute poverty? In what sense is this different than finding a child, in Africa, starving, drowning in a pool of water and you not stopping your car, despite seeing the child, to save him?

In other words, what right do you have to live lives of accumulation, accumulation of mostly stuff we don’t actually need when that money, or time, or effort, could be spent on saving the lives of countless children and adults in poverty stricken countries?

In some sense, this is a very old question, but it represents a particularly poignant attack on the Western capitalistic mindset of valuing personal autonomy and liberty above all else. I made this money, why should I be obligated to help someone 10,000 miles away? And if you did begin to think that Singer and Unger’s claim hold credence, then in the most extreme way, the way we live would need to be dramatically altered. Our society, a consumer, capitalistic society, one that thrives on our selfish drive to attain more objects, to get richer, would be challenged to the core by these questions (maybe we should spend more time, effort, and money helping other people on a global level, maybe we could lower our standards of what we expect in life, smaller homes, less amenities, less luxurious outings...) and yet, intuitively, though we might be bothered by this question we feel there must be a justification of our lifestyles.

I only meant this as an introduction into a dense topic that has occupied philosophers for over 40 years now, but I don’t think we need yet get into the complexities of philosophy or politics to realize the basic question. We are privileged, whether that privilege arises from circumstance or our personal talents, we cannot deny our privileged status. Most of the people you know, even if they are struggling with money, and in these harsh economic times we know so many unfortunate situations in which people struggle to just get by, do not struggle in the way that those in Absolute poverty struggle. There is no threat of malnutrition or starvation from a lack of clean water or food. For most people we know, a struggle with money will require accepting a new, possibly lower standard of life, not death.

The basic question then to explore is how can we justify the way we live, not just the single choices we make everyday, those also, but the way our society lives when so much of the world crumbles around us? Do we agree with Singer and Unger’s claim’s, and if so, why not? Why aren’t we morally obligated to save as many dying people in Africa and other places around the world as we can? If we do agree with Singer and Unger on some level, what does that require of us, simply to give more, and more efficient charity, or a remake of our lifestyle?

This discussion raises many question I hope to discuss in future posts, but for now, I hope to have time to mull them over, because I do not know the answers to many of them. What are our obligations to the poor, what does it take for us to live a both happy and ethical lifestyle, can we, in any truthful way say that we “deserve” the money we make, or can we claim those in absolute poverty can make money just like the rest of us? Does the fact that the children dying in Africa, a country 10,000 miles away make any difference? Can we come up with a philosophical basis to back up our intuition that we are not all selfish monsters (myself included, of course?) In a world of genocide, of absolute poverty, of avoidable death from malnutrition, Aids, Malaria, can we really justify our way of lives to ourselves, what are we missing?

Again, this is a simplistic entryway into a much larger topic, but I think the point stands. Some, though I hope not, will take this as an indictment against a person’s particular way of living their life, but instead, it is more of an indictment of a system, a consumerist system that tells us day in and day out that our personal happiness is the main value in life, or the personal happiness of our immediate group of friends and family. This system should be questioned, even attacked, we should demand from this system a coherent justification of it’s principles, not though, from any individual person.

In the next posts, I hope to flesh out these questions, and their philosophical underpinnings in a more coherent way, but for now, I think it's important to sit with these questions. To not immediately react with the sense of how ridiculous they seem, but to give them some credence. Many qualifications and answers have been provided, and the argument rages on, but I think, for me at least, sitting with the question allows for the most true analysis. It hurts me to think of this as preachy, but of all the questions, of all the accusations thrown against our generation, this one cuts the deepest, and I believe it also holds the answers to what type of generation do we want to be...

Thanks for reading,
Joe Talk.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Tree of Life and Art as Experience

“Art leaves us with insights, epiphanies, a climate of elation in which it is easier to breathe in the perennial problems, more possible to live with them according to our individual lights.” “Film as art, and in art as a form of humanism; in a spiritual aristocracy dedicated to the priorities of searching penetrancy and uncompromising effort to express the ineffable.” John Simon, Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films.  

“Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more…In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” - Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation.

 “For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.” – James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.

Someday we'll fall down and weep. And we'll understand it all, all things.

– Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation, laments the fact that most critics attempt to interpret Kafka through an intellectual framework, be that Freudian, feminist, religious, mystical, or existential. None, though, simply experience Kafka’s stories. Instead, they try to use their intellectual faculties to uncover hidden secrets, hidden prophecies forecasting doom, or the path to redemption, when instead of interpreting they should simply let a Kafka story wash over them. Art, she contends, began in its purest form as part of rituals, as experiential in nature. But, with the advent of the more intellectual societies, art began its long history with interpretation.

The same could be claimed for the Terrence Malick’s new film, the Tree of Life. In fact, in some unexpected way Malick’s films use many Kafkaesque styles, though with clearly different content. The movie confounds interpretation, similar to Kafka, by inviting emotional engagement instead. It’s hard then to talk about the film, to critique it, to even offer a synopsis (Take a look at the Wikipedia page; the attempted summary is bafflingly spare, and childish. Try to find another summary in a different review. They will all differ in important ways. Again, like Kafka.) What then can we hope to gain from a discussion of this movie? As Sontag points out, we can instead focus on the style, on how Malick creates his experience, which also allows us to highlight the genius of this movie.
The movie begins with a quote from the book of Job. After all of his friends fail to comfort Job for the evil that has befallen him, Job, left alone and desolate, is confronted by God who emerges out of the whirlwind to ask, in poetic form, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

For generations commentators, of all religious or not religious stripes have argued over the meaning of God’s answer, or what kind of answer this is at all. God clearly does not directly answer Job, or validate any theory of theodicy. God takes away everything a man could have, besides his life, plagues him with pain, shame, and embarrassment, and answers his cries of why with a cryptic poem describing creation, and sublime images of nature. One on level then, it appears that this movie attempts to recreate the Job’s question, or God’s answer in some manner.
In the movie, a boy drowns while playing with his friends, and a brother dies of unknown causes.

In a sense, Malick, magically, presents the sublime experience of God’s answer to Job from out of the whirlwind. By now, famously, or notoriously, Malick presents over 20 straight minutes of planet earth type footage in an attempt to depict the moment of the big bang, through evolution, until the creation of the human being. To some, twenty minutes, of planet earth with no commentary, with just music in the background sounds as much fun as a surgical procedure, to others though, it can be as powerful if not more of a path towards feeling awe at the immensity of existence. Many commentators believe that God’s answer to Job lay not in a specific intellectual idea, but in the experience of the enormity of existence, of the sublime, of something daunting, and horrific, and terrifying because of how small it makes you feel at the same time that it offers comfort that something larger than you exists:

16 - Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
17 - Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
18 - Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.
19 - Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof,
            - Book of Job, Chapter 38.

From there, the beginnings of what looks like a flame flickers and turns into images of life, as we hear a voiceover, in a hushed tone that tells us:
The nuns taught us there is two ways through life –
the way of nature and the way of grace.
You have to choose which one you follow.
Grace doesn't try to please itself.
Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.
 Accepts insults and injuries.
Nature only wants to please itself.
Get others to please it too.
Likes to lord it over them.
To have its own way.
It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.
And love is smiling through all things.
The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

Can you remember the last time a movie began with a poem, a poem written specifically for the movie, not a quoted poem?
What is the last piece of culture, of art, whether a book, a movie, a TV show, that engages in an earnest struggle with the essential questions of religious, and spiritual life. We take it for granted that either religion is obsolete, or so private as to not warrant discussion, that religion morphs into a personal preference like a favorite TV show or band instead of something we choose or think through. Americans believe in God more than any other country, but religion has been moved to the privatized world of whispers. Though Malick offers no new theology or answers, he lets experience the timeless nature of these questions.

This is a deeply religious movie, but not in the sense of the passion of Christ, it is not dogmatic in the least bit, even if it grounds itself in a Christian family, or uses Christian symbols. It doesn’t provide answers, it doesn’t attempt to, but it provides a spectrum of different experiences in an attempt to grapple with the mystery of existence, of why anything exists at all, of why there is something instead of nothing.

Guide us, to the end of time – Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life.

Let’s get one thing straight. According to our current standards of entertainment you will be bored by this movie, it will make you itch to leave, you will find yourself checking your phone often, but a part of you will feel something, something different than you’ve felt at a movie in a long time, something bordering on what some might call a religious emotion while others might define it as the sublime, but whatever it is it’s purely experiential.
But somehow, this time around, the boredom felt healthy, as if we need a dose boredom from time to time to take us off our perch of intellectualization.
So much of our sense of enjoyment depends on our expectations. If you come to a poem expecting car crashes and explosions you will be bored and disappointed.
Part of what frustrates the crowd is that the movie flaunts our expectations and demand we create new ones. It demands we participate in the movie, and not simply sit passively and let the movie do all of the heavy lifting.  The best type of art demands some sacrifice on our part, whether serious time commitment, serious attention, serious attempts at analysis, or serious ability to open ourselves up to an alternate view, an alternate method of seeing, of experiencing. It wont make it easy for us because it knows that the more effort we put in the more we will get from the piece. The more we take part in it, the more it will take part of us.
Look. All of this is preferential, and can come off as highly pretentious, and doesnt necessarily matter in the larger scheme of things, but it is exhilarating to see the avant garde - to see what movies can do – Avatar, let's call it out, was not a good movie, in terms of content, at least.  Stylistically it was gorgeous, it was the next step in the technology of cinematography blah blah blah, but as a story, everyone knew it was derivative, lame, and downright boring for the most part, but even when genius fails you can still sense the genius of it all, and make no mistake, Cameron, in his own niche is a genius, a visionary, though a weak writer and storyteller. Malick, though, can write and see.

Though the movie makes no attempt to follow a linear plot, it still evokes a sense of narrative, a sense of the sweep of life, of the mundane and holy mixed together. It portrays emotions through images, or small snippets of hushed internal conversation or prayers, and in the domestic dramas of everyday life, and through this the movies heightens our experience of every emotion and situation. The rage of a father hits harder, the frustration of a child harsher, the fear reaches down further than we thought possible, the love moves us to tears. We cannot help it. We simply respond without thinking.
Because if you realize, when you try to intellectually explain the movie, when you expand on its theme, you realize these themes are well worn, some might say unoriginal, in terms of content, it’s hard to say Malick shines with creativity. Malick does not seem interested in giving answers to the questions of existence, of explaining necessarily, what comes before that recurring flicker of light, or fleshing out the answers of theodicy. Rather, he seems interested in evoking these questions, in letting us, even in the postmodern 21st century experiences these basic questions, sublime feelings, and elemental connections in life.
Even disregarding the specific content, which you cant actually do, but for explanation sake let’s run with it, Malick’s techniques push the medium forward into what movies can accomplish. Instead of simply telling stories, he shows that movies can serve as wordless poetry, as imagistic poetry in which flashes of images, and snippets of conversations cohere to create something poetically transcendent. In that sense, its goals and means are poetic in nature.
The movie mugs your emotions, in a good way. It pulls out visceral feels, basic, though not necessary animalistic, more elemental, or just call the deep, or hidden, yes, hidden, hidden feelings without warning, without earning it, it shoves you into the realm of experience at the same time that it challenges your intellect to make sense of it. It brilliantly draws out your intellect, an intellect now desperate to leave and/or figure out this movie, an intellect using its regular tools of logic, of expectations of plot, of coherency, of rational transitions, of excitement.
Even the artsy films we go to, even the Banksy movie that messes with out minds, it does so in an intellectualized manner, in the manner of the postmodern writers who, contrary to Malick, uses their genius to draw out your intellect, not your emotions, or your heart, or you experiential side. Postmodern books thrive on teasing the intellectual side, on forcing them the reader to notice that hey, I, the author, am a person just like you, these characters came from my head, then I put to paper with pen, mostly so I could make money, at the same time they try to tease you with a human story. They tease your heart, while satiating the intellect, with well-drawn characters that get the carpet pulled out from under them. The 4th wall shattered, perpetually, until even our avant garde learned that people need the illusion, even if we say we dont, we do, we really do. In some ways this draws us to memoirs. In memoirs we need not worry about betraying our intellect, as much. In memoirs we dont expect a real fourth wall, we can trust you, and hence, while satifsying the intellect we can past the guards of cynicism and apathy into your hearts, the same basic heart and desires everyone else has. To be loved by something larger than yourself. Even an atheist can recognize that feeling, that desire, even Freud recognized its existence. He explained it differently, he explained this oceanic effect as some long for a reunion with a mother, which is fine, neither are provable, but Freud at least recognized that oceanic feeling, that basic universal need, exists, that it pulls, that we cannot easily neglect it.


It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.
The experience of life consists of the experience which the spirit has of itself in matter and as matter, in mind and as mind, in emotion, as emotion, etc.
We are separated from God on two sides; the Fall separates us from Him, the Tree of Life separates Him from us.

We are sinful not only because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. The state in which we are is sinful, irrespective of guilt.
 - Franz Kafka

In an unexpected manner Malick makes use of Kafkaesque techniques. Kafka invites mountains of interpretations and analysis because his stories are so elusive, so cryptic, and yet so emotionally engaging. They tease you with the impression of meaning, of deep meaning, but provide no outlet for one coherent interpretation. One of his ingenious techniques to accomplish this effect was his use of weighted words, word that bloom in your mind with associations, endless associations, as if certain core words were the most essential of our language, the word most often thought about, or used - we know these words to for our age, self, happiness, family, wealth, actualization, passion, love, love, love, anxiety - the words that define a generation, but imagine living in an older generation, a generation of a tradition lost, and writing modern stories with an old language, a thought-dead language: sacred, tradition, obligations, Law, God, ritual etc, which trigger experiences you knew rationally did not point to anything larger, to something better, but experiences that feel that way regardless. He draws them right out of you and leaves you cold, with nowhere to go intellectually, we receive no grace, just the tease of transcendence.
In that sense, Malick uses a similar technique but in an completely opposite manner, teasing the intellect and flooding the heart with a pastiche of images, hands through grass, drinking from a hose, a mother's hug, a child's, running in fields, flowing water, roiling water, angry waters, lapping waters, and earth, a child hand's patting the earth, the earth dug up, associations of death, of a father's hand on his infants feet, on boys taking a babble bath, of boys fighting, peer pressuring, doing stupid, but endearing things, tormented things, the real pains of childhoods captured in movie form.
The stuff of poetics, of universal images that perfectly capture a moment, though go unnoticed by most.
 One worries at his ability to succeed in this. 

Movies as religious exploration, as a poetic encapsulation of the entirety of life through a pastiche of images, snatches of whispered conversations, prayers, and mutterings of the soul, and movies as experiential in nature, as a conduit into the sublime in life.
This great evil. Where does it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might've known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed to this night?
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.
The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.
            - Terrence Malick.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace

Yesterday, I saw the critically acclaimed movie, The Tree of Life, a film written and directed by the elusive Terence Malick. I hope to post about the movie when I can, but in the interim, the movie inspired me to write this poem, which I wanted to share.

Sometimes I see a person walking
Towards me or away, I cannot tell.
Frozen with delight, this mundane puzzle
resolves itself with mere shards of time.
But in that instant of uncertainty,
In that moment of weightless doubt
Time ceases its ceaseless march, as
Transcendence slips its frightened feet
Into  the cloth of my being. Stay forever,
I plead. Then, intellect, like the immature, childish, cold uncle
Who shatters the dreams of Santa, of fairies, of wrestling
And god, shoos away these pesky vestiges
Of an atavistic life with one sweep of reason’s brush.
And I, helpless against these rapacious mistresses
Continue on, without thought, towards the grocery store.

thanks for reading. 
Super JoeTalk.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Wire, Art, and Politics - Part Two

Yesterday’s post, to my slight dismay, conflated numerous issues that demand separation. The piece attempted to delve into the question, or serve as an example, of a perceived generational apathy or stagnation through an exploration of how we react to art, specifically the Wire. However, in phrasing the question in the form of why art does not elicit more of a practical reaction, we began to tread on knotty, complex issues of art, its purpose, the different forms of artistic mediums, and their relationships to politics, complications that diverts attention away from the essential question. The essential question still stands as are we doing enough to solve the numerous issues in the world? Is our generation unique not for its passion, or sense of ideals and values, but for it’s narcissism or apathy? That question I hope to explore through the prism of Peter Singer’s, a famous philosopher, writings on poverty and affluence.
However, now that we brought up the issue I believe it worthy to try to tease out, or sketch out, some of the different possible theories of the relationship between art and politics. Besides an area of general interest, I trust that this exploration will provide some clues as to our more essential question. Beginning this conversation presents a daunting task. First, define art, then, define politics, then describe what you mean to say when you say interaction etc. etc. I do not think I can define either art, or politics, in a holistic way, I do not think anyone really believes they can. Many try, but holes from exceptions abound, and others, cognizant of the impossibility, create a running definition for the purpose of arguments, or theories, so for our purposes, let’s refer to art in the common usage, without the need to draw fine distinctions or provide conceptual foundations (we will not, necessarily, explore the question if advertisements, or propaganda counts as art). Politics though, we will limit to the realm of practical action for the betterment of a situation.
To begin the conversation, despite the crudeness of these delineations, I like to think in terms of types, or groups, or camps of thought in this regard. On one extreme of the spectrum lies the group that believes that art and artists have no need for fealty to politics, in fact, art lies outside of the realm of politics. Let us call this group the art for art’s sake group (Fun little fact: MGM’s slogan that circles their roaring lion is the latin phrase Ars Gratia Artis, which roughly translate into art for art’s sake.) At the other extreme stands a group of thinkers who espouse the opinion that not only should art dirty itself in the mud of politics, but it must. Apolitical art cannot exist.
Those who espouse the mantra art for art’s sake do so for varied reasons. Consequently the phrase takes on different meaning dependent on context, or whom you ask. For many, ironically, art for art’s sake represented a political battle cry for freedom against the tyranny of censorship, or the tyranny of propaganda. Art need not conform to the standards of your government, and art need not serve the greater good in propounding the propaganda of the times. Art lives free, above politics, beyond politics. In fact, the moment politics attempt to stick its grimy hands into the realm of art, the moment we place limitations on expression is the moment we realize the slippery slope of cultural repression. According to this version, the separation of art from politics does not stem from anything inherent in the content of art, but in the exigencies of the time. Art’s content can still draw from the well of politics, and can still attempt didactics as long as the artist remains in complete, unhindered, control of their vision and creation.
To some extent, we can easily sympathize and understand these sentiments. As a society, we cannot tolerate censorship of artistic vision. Censorship denies expression, which we view as one of the essential rights of a human being, not only an essentially right, but the ability to express is an essential part of what makes us human. To limit that, to put guidelines on what can or cannot be expressed smacks of fascism.
For others, art for art’s sake served not so much as a way to distinguish artists, to free them, but this slogan served as pithy way of explaining their understanding of what art is, its scope, their manifesto of art. Art needs no justification or purpose; it serves as its own justification and purpose. Many artists and critics echo these sentiments. (I must admit I found these quotes from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.)
James A. McNeill Whistler, the painter explains that, “People have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental or moral state.... Alas! Ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned. She has nought in common with such practices.... Purposing in no way to better others, .. having no desire to teach.... Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music!... To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano” a picture, but

Théophile Gautier, a French poet and literary critic writes that, “Only those things that are altogether useless can be truly beautiful; anything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and the needs of man are base and disgusting, as his nature is weak and poor”

 From Walter Pater, a famed critic, “Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality of your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments' sake”

For these artists and thinkers, they do not simply believe that we must separate art from politics, but that by definition they cannot mingle. Once they do, art loses its status as art, and turns into something dirtier, propaganda maybe, or a political tract, but not art. Art is that medium which taps into or expresses ideas and experiences that other mediums cannot. Art is no handmaiden to philosophy, or politics, it serves no other king besides itself.
In a different vein, some artists will contend that exactly the qualities that make them artists: perceptivity, attention to the ambiguity of life, the ambivalence of every moment, the complexity of all situations, the competing narratives in struggles, the arbitrariness of life, these factors that allow them to explore existence in all its horrific beauty, often precludes them from making politics. Imagine a sensitive author forced to decide to bomb Hiroshima or not. For artists, that breed of people blessed with a curse of an overabundance of empathy, politics and its need for concrete dehumanizing decisions do not mesh.
Sontag, in an acceptance speech writes:
"The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the "intellectual ambassador," the human rights activist --- those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.
One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another."

In a sense, for Sontag, literature, or art, function aboves politics. (Sontag, in her most famous piece, Against Interpretation argues for art as pure experience, but let's leave that be for now.)
Somewhere in between these two trails of thoughts lies the opinion of David Grossman. Grossman, not one to shy away from political writing, or to separate his art from politics, still writes about the need for art to sometimes transcend politics to keep our humanity intact. Art, often, must take part in politics, and other times, it should frolic freely, delighted in its playful ways, but sometimes, it must stake its claim as the enemy of politics, and political language. Grossman explains: (I apologize for the length of the quote. It’s a gorgeous speech that demands a complete perusal.)
"I write. I relieve myself of one of the dubious and distinctive capacities created by the state of war in which I live — the capacity to be an enemy and an enemy only. I do my best not to shield myself from the just claims and sufferings of my enemy. Nor from the tragedy and entanglement of his own life. Nor from his errors or crimes or from the knowledge of what I myself am doing to him. Nor, finally, from the surprising similarities I find between him and me.

All of a sudden I am not condemned to this absolute, fallacious and suffocating dichotomy — this inhumane choice to “be victim or aggressor,” without having any third, more humane alternative. When I write, I can be a human being whose parts have natural and vital passages between them; a human who is able to feel close to his enemies’ sufferings and to acknowledge his just claims without relinquishing a grain of his own identity.

I write. I give intimate private names to an external and foreign world. In a sense, I make it mine. In a sense, I return from feeling exiled and foreign to feeling at home. By doing so, I am already making a small change in what appeared to me earlier as unchangeable. Also, when I describe the impermeable arbitrariness that signs my destiny — arbitrariness at the hands of a human being, or arbitrariness at the hands of fate — I suddenly discover new nuances, subtleties. I discover that the mere act of writing about arbitrariness allows me to feel a freedom of movement in relation to it. That by merely facing up to arbitrariness I am granted freedom — maybe the only freedom a man may have against any arbitrariness: the freedom to put your tragedy into your own words. The freedom to express yourself differently, innovatively, before that which threatens to chain and bind one to arbitrariness and its limited, fossilizing definitions."
I find it hard to even comment on these words.
At first glance this topics stays in the realm of interesting to those who care about the motivations and purposes of art, but I hope to discuss why it might have more real world value to everyone else, as well as the other side of the argument in the next post.
Thanks for reading
Here are some links to some gorgeous speeches, and writing on this topic.
Sontag’s seminal Against Interpretation  -
Lastly, some will contend that the question of art and politics is inane, because art cannot effect politics. We must give up on that pipe dream regarding the power of our expressions. See this article for an interesting application of this sentiment -

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Wire, Art, and Politics.

In the last post, we began a discussion of apathy. I believe we can take a unique glance at this question through exploring the artistry and politics of the Wire.

Did you ever think that people, most likely, teenagers, or young adults, passed around the Catcher in the Rye as if contraband, as if enemy propaganda?  Nowadays, we find it comical that such a tame book would arouse such ire and disgust. As a teenager,  I liked to imagine that people, once upon a time, did pass the book around, from hand to hand, hidden in a dark alcove of the school, retrieved from a brown paper bag, the book growing more and more tattered with each read, almost as if it were pornography before the age of the Internet. The mystique around this book that gave a voice to a generation, that set the dividing lines between the old and the new, gives off this aura. The book's actually history differs, but the myth of words that can move the masses with sentences that need not fall back on the clichés of self actualization, or on paragraphs that teach you the secret to the best you, rings truer. Can you imagine that at the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet, the Rite of Spring, in which the play calls for a sacrifice of a virgin to their gods, that people actually rioted because of music, of classical music! Because of the jarring nature of the music, civilized people uprooted chairs, flung them across the room, and trampled on the grounds beneath, causing the conductor to flee and hide. I cannot fathom a piece of art today ever eliciting such a visceral reaction, such a need for a physically violent response. I can imagine the art, mainly the Wire, but I underestimate our societies ability to respond in kind.

What has changed? Why don’t we watch the Wire, cringe, cry, and ultimately vow to help? How do we watch season 4 without feeling compelled to change something, our choices, our jobs, our goals, and our involvement in the school system? How can we cry as Randy gets lost in the system because of Herc’s self centered nature, but not feel moved past tears or empathy? What keeps the Wire in the realm of entertainment, and out of the realm of moral indignation, or an ethical call to arms? We still ask this outdated question on college application essays, and the likes, in the form of what piece of art changed your life, or moved you in an irrevocable way, but the lie can only be swallowed for so long. The Wire, we would think, would change the disconnect between art and politics we experience in today’s world. (Can you imagine Picasso’s Guernica creating the same effect on the people of today as it did in its time?) We could say that on some level, we realize, that come on, this is just TV, but so much of the draw of the Wire is that it transcends TV as it morphs in a gritty, realistic, portrayal of the lost cities of America, the America we love, the America in whose glory we bask in, and in whose luxury we partake in, endlessly.

When we reminisce on the brilliance of the Wire we tend to focus on the characters that feel more human than people we know. We focus on the mess that is Mcnutty, on his talented detective skills juxtaposed to his dreadful life skills, we recall the tragic sadness, but ultimate partial redemption of Bubbles, of Kima’s badass grit, of Landsman’s, crude, but ultimately bleeding heart, of the brotherly love and competition between Stringer and Avon, of Bodies’s self-awareness that comes too late, of the naïve innocence of Wallace, caught between his moral sense and his fealty to his larger family, or better yet, his need for his larger family. We watch Youtube videos that gather the best of moments, the moments of intense drama and humor, Omar’s poetry, who gets shot when, Omar’s courtroom scene, Wee-Bey’s fish…We don’t though, reminisce on how much the gorgeous, vivid, beautifully human characters serve as part of the scathing critique on the war on drugs, or on the disparity between the affluent and the poverty stricken, or the heavy-handedly message of the cyclical nature of these ghetto’s. While Simon is no novice at the art of subtlety and complexity, he chooses to sacrifice these tools on the altar of his unflagging political positions. But to what avail?

And don't get Simon wrong. He is no art for art's sake purist. He is a journalist at heart, with a ferocious agenda and political positions(he is not shy, but this interview is scathing... The war on drugs, as fought now, will not work (Think of Bunny’s perfect speech about alcohol and paper bags, think of the horror, but success of Hamsterdam), and likely, has done more harm than good. Bureaucracies suck the soul of out our hardest working policemen, trapping them in a net of overly formalistic requirements that ultimately requires the sacrifice of ideals to the idol of job progression; unbridled capitalism destroys the traditionally American run, unionized businesses; politics, though our only hope for widespread change, inevitably, curdles the best of intentions, and corrupts the best of people; the school system buckles under the immense pressure to stay fiscally viable while attempting to balance the ideals of education, and most police, we find out, care more about their personal advancement than the truth, than justice(Juke the stat’s, that’s all that matters.) While people grow in this show, think of Namond, of Carver, of Prez, institutions do not. Institutions chug along, like the trains McNulty and Bunk drink next to, with careless disregard for the damage they leave behind.

 Great literature, we think, allows the characters to speak for themselves. The stance of the author, some say, deserves no place in his writing. It is said that Chekhov, when asked why he chooses such a cold style towards his characters and their plight, responded that it is not for the author to grab feelings out of the reader, to emotionally mug them with little subtlety. The colder, more distant the author from the characters, the more their stories and personalities will grab us, Chehkov believed, but Simon steers clear of this adage. His fingerprints are found strewn across every storyline. While we praise the ambiguity of characters, of the lack of any clear cut moral heroes, we fail to realize the uniformity, the clear lack of ambiguity in regards to questions of politics. But why do we forget that, and if we do remember it, why doesn’t it move us to any sort of action, perhaps to a desire to learn more about inner city youth, about the war on drugs, about politics, about our school systems, about the integrity of journalism, about the ideals of cops, but it simply doesn’t. We feel special, attuned to a different wavelength because we looooved the wire, “It’s so gritty, and real, and hard hitting.” Simon pulls no punch, and really cares about the plight of his city, of his characters, but do we? Should we? Great art demands a response, not in a sense of obligation, but because you cannot help but respond. It shakes you awake, forever, hopefully unable fall back into the sleep of ignorance, but this simply does not happen anymore.

I do not believe in the possibility, but more importantly, in the desirability to attempt to remove literature from the realm of opinion, of moral judgment, and of a fiery sense of the life worth living, of how we can retain our humanity when so many factors work to suppress that same humanity. Whether you respect, or agree with, or merely tolerate, or even hate the politics and opinions of this show, you cannot disagree with its power of bringing these issues out from the ethereal realm of out there, of theory, into the dirty world of action. Few shows attempt to hold up a camera to our crumbling cities, and not to flinch, without a nod to the audience’s need for heroes and bad guys(although, the antihero, and the villain we end up rooting for was not created, or even perfected by the Wire,) for closure and justice. Few shows retain the courage to not only tell the story, masterfully, but to pursue a political agenda. Ironically, for such a complex approach to character, the show lacks subtlety in its political message, but screw subtlety when the issues demand our immediate responses and attention.  In a sense, we chafe at these strange bedfellows, art and politics, because we live in an age where art, whether in content, or in its reception, we hope, transcends the transient tragedies of time, not mires in them. But can we afford to continue this trend? Should not the New York Times moves us to the same extent as the Wire? If we care so much about the fictional characters working the corner, or working the beat, then why do we simply look to the show to give us, whether entertainment, catharsis, an excuse for our laziness, or a nice pat on the back that we get it. Why do we not hope to devote our time to solving such glaring tears in the fabric of our world? 

     Sadly, this teenage sentiment of read this, watch this, listen to this, it will change your life wanes as we age and mature. Not many books, or pieces of any art types, nowadays, change the directions of our lives, in fact, in the last ten years I cannot think of one book that en masse, participated in a cultural sea change the way the Jungle, or the Feminine Mystique, or the Catcher in the Rye did, or reaching farther back Notes of a Native Son, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and of course a Communist Manifesto. For that matter, I cannot think of a single form of artistic expression that could wield such power.  They can heighten awareness, provide enjoyment, open our eyes to beauty and pain in the world, but not many move us to political, or societal action, and who knows if they should. A country swayed by a book is either a precarious country, or repressed country. But in some sense, our inability to feel compelled to action by a novel, or even the Wire, speaks less to the weakness of the art, and more to the hardened apathy and unearned cynicism of our time, maybe.

       In a sense, to fall back on ready made answers to this basic question would require little to no thought or effort, but it rarely provides insight. Someone truly smart once commented that it is infinitely easier to care about people in the abstract, when you do not have to see them, when you don’t have to touch them, or smell them, or put yourself in a position of vulnerability. Crying on your couch at the unfairness of inner city life requires no reciprocation or sacrifice; in fact it reinforces our certainty of our inherent sensitivity and goodness without ever needing to get our hands dirty. Alternatively, we might take comfort in the fact that we cannot hide the creatures of habit we are. We want to change, but change, a change that requires sacrifice lies way too outside the range of normal behavior.  

I believe we shy away from the political ferocity not only because it demands much more, but because it’s simple. When we watch the Wire, we really need to pay attention, to catch the nuances of a smile of prop Joe’s, a smirk of Omar’s – ambiguous signs that allow us to fill these characters with the mysteries of our imagination, but come the political polemic and we are face to face with simple assertions that challenge our ways of life. It’s almost impossible to see Dukie morphing into a young Bubble’s without your heart breaking, but we suppress the challenge this imagine presents to our sense of us as good people. If nothing else, Simon’s show is a battle cry, that comes out as a whimper to unite to solve real life issues, not just to enjoy an inside view of a community that eats itself up from the inside. We tend to think that the Wire exists in a post-moral state, one in which the lines between cops and robbers is not only blurred, but often inverted, but the Wire shines with moral vision and clarity, we cannot separate this fact from the genius of this show. In a time where cleverness, irony, and cynicism reign in the world of art, a show devoted to morals, to actual judgments on society, on institutions, on characters, though rarely explicit, stands at the avant garde not simply for its stylistic and narrative ingenuity, and neither for it’s devotion to each character, but for its ability to take a stand, politically, to throw itself into the dirty ring of politics and public policy, and to level accusations, at those who watch the show are we really going to watch a city fall in upon itself while stand idly by, congratulating ourselves for our sensitivity to the great artistry that is the Wire.

If this comes off as screed, as self-righteous, pretentious, sanctimonious, judgmental claptrap, then I can only say I include myself in the group who failed to respond to the Wire, who failed to take courage from the Wire and act on my morals.

The Wire, though, in some ways, contributes to our stultification, to our inability to turn empathy into action because so much of the show belabors the point that we cannot win under the current bureaucratic system. The higher you climb up the ladder of the bureaucracy the more likely corruption will follow you around, begging to be let in, and the more likely you will need to sacrifice your ideals to get ahead. A sense of futility, of fate permeates throughout the Wire, leaving us to feel helpless, a small mass of outraged viewers who know enough by now not to attempt to fight the institution, because we will always lose. In that sense, the Wire’s fealty to the situation of today, in many parts of our country, provides little hope for future rehabilitation, or little incentive to even try. While at the same time the show attempts to tackle genuine issues, with true human empathy, it still indulges in the invisible, but pervasive cynicism that tells us why try, when we know we will ultimately fail. In a world were bureaucracies reign, where most victories are pyrrhic, why fight in the first place? You cannot fight the system, you can only hope to change it, wholesale, but how do we do that?

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Lost Generation

Now that we've wrapped up the effects of technology on society in a nice neat little bow[1], I hope to on move to a different sort of topic. Though they might seem disconnected at first, these new topics all fall under the umbrella of exploring an ostensible generational apathy.  In a world that increasingly veers towards the valorization of individualized choice, where morals belongs in the realms of how we treat others, but not necessarily in how we choose to live our life, it becomes harder to speak about certain issues. This development, though, this hands-off approach, one that we will need to define and develop, demands investigation.

Many thinkers lament the malaise of our generation, a generation that doesn’t vote, that oozes apathy towards civic duty, an American generation embroiled in three wars that probably couldn’t name any of the generals in any of the wars, a generation caught up in an economic crisis of which they don’t understand how we got there in the first place, a generation that sees poverty, malaria, and aids ravage third world countries but does little to even become knowledgeable about this issues, a generation more excited to watch bravo then read a newspaper etc. etc. etc.  It’s hard not to take these accusations personally. Every generation takes pride in what they’ve accomplished or at least attempted to accomplish, but when people look at us they see nothing but apathy.
How did we get here? 

The charges leveled against us demand a response, but first an analysis of what exactly the charge entails.  We must define what we mean when we talk about apathy, because like all loaded words, it carries along with it a history, a history of associations that often are unintended. Apathy often carries along with it a denotation of narcissism. A person does not care or feel towards other people or larger causes, because, we assume they are self-centered. Books frequently come out, supported by studies, either debunking or buttressing the claim of our generation as the narcissistic generation. I find this view unsubstantiated, experientially, but more importantly, unhelpful intellectually. I find it simplistic, almost moralistic, to just explain that many of the ills of our society, the malaise, the cynicism, the apathy, stem from a less repressed narcissism. Some, believe we've grown into this narcissism, that the culture breeds narcissism, while others believe the culture indulges narcissism, and narcissism that always remains dormant, but only now has it been given the key to break out of it's jail. I think the discussion of narcissism leads us down an unhelpful road, but it must remain part of the larger discussion of the change from one era to the next, because we cannot be naive enough to think something hasnt changed, fundamentally. 

These introductory words can sound confusing, allusive at best, so before we delve into this topic, I again turn to the words of a much smarter person than myself, Tony Judt. Judt, an intellectual historian who wrote the seminal work on postwar Europe just recently passed away. Before he died, he penned a sort of manifesto entitled Ill Fares the Land about the state of politics that despite your leanings, left or right, illumines the stagnant state of American politics today, but also serves as an example of the general helplessness or apathy, depending on your view, people experience today. Here's Judt's opening words:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.
And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of “capitalism” and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of “socialism.” By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the “left–right” distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.

On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one’s distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.
For thirty years students have been complaining to me that “it was easy for you”: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. “We” (the children of the Eighties, the Nineties, the “Aughts”) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us—just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”
If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?
This is an ironic reversal of the attitudes of an earlier age. Back in the era of self-assured radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the 1960s was that of overweening confidence: we knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed; if the left is to recover its fortunes, some modesty will be in order. All the same, you must be able to name a problem if you wish to solve it.
Let's name that problem. 
Thank's for reading,