Swimming in Individualism

Individualism is the air we breathe. It surrounds us like the water that fish swim in, inescapably. If you have grown up in North America in anything other than abject poverty, being against individualism is like being against breathing.

Like many other demonic inventions, invidiualism offers us the world at the price of our souls. It informs us that we can be truly great as long as we’re willing to sever many of our ties to our own humanity

Individualism is one of the most gripping stories to come along in a long time. If it were a book, it would be a massively successful bestseller. About as credible as a Dan Brown novel, individualism is the fiction we are forcefed from our earliest memory. It is the collective delusion that, as we grow and mature, we should progressively eliminate any and all dependencies on others.

As I started to write these very words on my Apple laptop, the lights in my apartment flickered and then extinguished. The emergency lights in my apartment hallway didn’t even come on, and I pondered the bewildering web of men and women I’m dependent upon to provide me with electricity. I am able to labour under the illusion that I am living a life dependent on nobody other than me until one of the hundreds—if not thousands—of people standing between me and functional electricity make a mistake. Those people are invisible, abstracted from the story I am writing about my life—at least until something goes wrong.

So, individualism is always a fiction, not a real thing in itself. The real world is interdependent, individualism always an ignorance or a lie. Now all we need is a new story that will help us see all of this.

Love in the Age of “Like”

Jonathan Franzen contemplates technology, “liking,” and love in an excellent essay for the New York Times that was adapted from a college commencement speech. Some choice bits:

[O]ur technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving…

But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.

…There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

I quoted more of the cranky parts, but he gets really good as he reflects more deeply on love in the second half of the essay. Go read Franzen’s essay.

Hitler is the Devil

The home of the film provocateur has expelled one of their own for crossing the only impermissible line. Or, Lars von Trier, the provocative Danish filmmaker, has been kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival for saying “I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a bit,” and “I’m a Nazi.” The interview (which cuts off just before the “I’m a Nazi” remark) is here:

Von Trier seems to be—I have never actually seen any of his films—a filmmaker who trades primarily in shock value. My unfamiliarity with his body of work means that I cannot substantiate my assumption that his work is style over substance, but someone going around making comments like that strengthens the assumption. His comments came at a press conference where he was asked about his German roots. His actual reply:

I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi because my family was German, which also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things absolutely. I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy. I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. I’m not for the 2nd World War. I’m not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier. That was also a joke. I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. How can I get out of this sentence? [pause] OK I’m a Nazi.

Again, von Trier appears to be playing the provocateur. There are very few taboos in our world, but Hitler, the Holocaust, and Nazi Germany have their orthodoxies. Von Trier decided to play with this dogma, but the inquisitors of tolerance found it intolerable, kicking him out of the festival. It’s the structure of orthodoxy, heresy, and excommunication that interests me here.

What I see operable here is what I dub the sacral vacuum: the cultural removal of divine good and evil (in the Western past, the Christian God and the Devil, respectively) will only result in other things rushing in to take their place. It’s hard to name God’s replacement in broader culture—there are too many—but Hitler has surely become our Devil. To question his infernal status is to question pretty much the only belief we have in common, which we find threatening enough to expel von Trier from Cannes.

Von Trier the heretic has been excommunicated, and now we can once again rest assured in that we’re agreed in knowing how to name (past) evil. But Hitler is not the devil, nor was he unalloyed evil. Allowing him to occupy that space in our public life dulls our ability to name evil in the present, as our inattention to the genocides in places like East Timor, Darfur, and the Congo reveals.

We all worship a god and fear a devil of some sort, whether they look like traditional religion or not. Belief and religion are unavoidable, and the only open question is what shape they will take. I worship God the Father of Jesus Christ, who welcomes and forgives the Hitlers, von Triers and Matt Wiebes of this world. This scandalous grace bursts open the ordinary orthodox/heretic continuum, troubling easy dogmas and pieties. This is one of many reasons I find the good news about Jesus Christ so compelling.

Democracy & Responsibility (to Love)

It’s election season in Canada, which means it’s time to decide which distant oligarch is slightly less distasteful to us in the charade that many believe to be democracy. When Winston Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried,”[ref]Decontextualized quotations fascinate me. In its context, Churchill is obviously defending democracy against its detractors, softening this frequently deployed quote as folk wisdom with the qualifiers it has been said and from time to time. The original quote more fully reads: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” See the Winston Churchill Wikiquote page.[/ref] I hear him differently than most, who assume that it’s appropriate to describe the system of governance that we live under as democracy.

I instead mentally paraphrase Churchill’s oft-misued quote as “We have this form of government that’s definitely better than oppressive and/or totalitarian regimes, but it falls incredibly short of the classic democratic ideal.” If you aren’t hearing bitching and moaning about our form of government as “chaotic” or “disruptive” or “unworkable,” then it isn’t democracy.[ref]The first canonical attempt at democracy in Athens was routinely called that, and it only included land-owning males as “the people.”[/ref] True democracy is rule by the people, and not just the people you would expect to be capable of having a say. Democracy is the breathtaking ideal that everyone, no matter their race, gender, religious affiliation, or other definable characteristic, would have full and equal say in their governance. This is ennobling to everyone, but terrifying for the rich and powerful, who would then have their privileged place of power and influence threatened by so much unworthy rabble.

True democracy is therefore always deemed “impractical” and systems that subvert actual democracy are suggested in order to make democracy “workable” and “practical.” The dark genius behind all these attempts is that they contain some features that resemble democracy, and appropriate the name democracy to this only minimally realized system.

Of course the feature that deserves the most notice is representative democracy. This is the system our Social Studies classes taught us to equate with the word democracy. Instead of having direct say in our governance, we are instead allowed to elect a representative to speak for us in some governing body. In a five-year election cycle, this effectively gives us one day out of 1,826 to exercise our democratic rights, leaving the elected representatives to play power games for most of the remaining 1,825 days.[ref]They do have to pretend like they’re doing no such thing, especially in election season.[/ref]

None of this is to advocate for a withdrawal from politics proper. Quite the contrary, we all need to rouse from the slumber of believing that voting once every 5 years is being “politically responsible.” We must be engaged in our communities, believing that we have a right to have a say in how we are governed even though the system doesn’t reflect that reality. Politics, after all, is too important to leave to the professionals.

Finally, as a Christian, I find it doubly distressing that so many of my brothers and sisters buy into the “vote responsibly” bullshit flung about during election season. We worship a failed political revolutionary executed as a state criminal. They would have painted “terrorist” on the sign above Jesus’ head if they used today’s language, for he relativized everything about power and authority in the name of the kingdom of God. If we walked around saying we only obeyed “the nation of God” like he did, folks would start getting mighty suspicious.

It was precisely this politically subversive language that got early Christians in hot water. In calling Jesus Lord, they were saying that Caesar was not. They held themselves under the law of Christ, which is to say under the law of love for God and neighbour, which led them to political acts such as the rescue of infants left exposed to die and care for widows and orphans. The law of love in God’s kingdom always seeks out those ignored and abused by the “legitimate” powers of the day.

This is what God’s politics looks like: love, especially the seemingly irresponsible love of the poor and the marginalized. Voting for one chump or another every few years is all fine and well, but it has nearly nothing to do with responsibility. Unless political responsibility takes on the face of our neighbour, it means nothing at all.

On the Virtues of Smoking

Because smoking is almost universally denigrated and I am a hopeless contrarian,[ref]Social anathemas like smoking instinctually make me look for ways to defend them. A similar impulse animated my CFL post.[/ref] I will extol the virtues of smoking tobacco.[ref]The health problems associated with smoking are many and obvious and, lest anyone should think otherwise, I am not advocating that anyone reading this picks up the habit. Nor am I trying to improve the lot of large tobacco corporations, who cannot be relocated to their special place in hell soon enough. Finally, mass-manufactured cigarettes are the ass-end of tobacco—much as Budweiser and its ilk can only be called “beer”—and can only technically and begrudgingly be included in this list.[/ref] [ref]Because you’re naturally wondering: I smoked cigarettes from the age of 16-19, after which I quit. I’ve been smoking hookah and pipe tobacco semi-regularly for the past four years.[/ref] Long footnoted qualifications aside, I want to draw some attention to a few virtues of smoking to contrast with its obvious vices.

The first virtue is that it gives one the regular opportunity to stop and think. In a relentlessly driving world that hardly ever pauses to catch its breath, smoking provides the regular opportunity to break from whatever you’re doing, change your scenery and, well, pause. Pause and reflect, perhaps, or maybe pause and think about nothing for a while. In any case, it’s a pause, which is virtue enough in and of itself.

And, in an increasingly isolated—if supposedly more “connected”—culture, smoking promotes sociality. Whether it’s the shared ritual of the hookah or the simple act of asking a colleague to join you for a smoke break, smoking is at its best a shared activity. I have few fond memories of my teenage years, but flirting with coworkers on snuck smoke breaks is one of them.

Smoking also give rhythm to life, introducing a cadence to your day, a way of marking time in a world where we march inexorably towards 24 hour everything. A way to start the day and end the day; to cap off a meal or making love, smoking gives structure to the time in our lives. It’s precisely the sudden absence of well-worn routine that makes quitting smoking so difficult for addicts who face much more than chemical withdrawal.

Finally, smoking can also be an aesthetic delight, especially the further one gets from mass-market cigarettes. Exploring the different varieties of tobacco and modes of smoking it can produce a lifetime of experimentation and enjoyment. And few things can compete with the simple pleasure of blowing a series of perfect smoke rings.

As already (foot)noted, none of this diminishes the fact that smoking comes with profound health risks, not only for yourself, but for those around you. Smoking can—and does—kill, and should not be blithely approached as just another hobby. But, particularly if one embraces the non-inhaling modes of tobacco smoking such as pipe or cigar, smoking has its virtues.

Notebooks & Pocket Computers

Picture it: a creative-type person named Alice pulls out her (paper) notebook to jot down an idea or make a quick sketch. She stopped in mid-conversation, saying “Just a minute Bob, I have a thought I need to save for later.” This move would be easy, short, and unobtrusive, taking place while Bob takes another sip of his coffee.

Now, instead, picture Alice making the same interruption, only she pulls pulls out her pocket computer (iPhone, Blackberry, etc). She has to navigate her OS, open her note-taking app of choice, and then proceed to peck away at her tiny keyboard or touch screen. Not only is it a laborious process, it seems more socially disruptive.

There are a few interesting things to explore in the contrast between the two modes of note-taking. The obvious thing to note is that pocket computers don’t yet have any consensus on socially-acceptable use, whereas notebooks are old, well-understood technology.[ref]We have always had to adapt social norms to new technology, but the current pace of innovation makes this nearly impossible.[/ref] A fair point, but right now I’m focused on the real differences between pocket computers and notebooks.

Let’s return to Alice the pocket computer-user as she records a thought. It will take her several moments merely to reach the point of being ready to record. As she does so, other things will vie for her attention (like email unread counts and voicemail indicators). Even if Alice doesn’t act on these notifications, not acting was itself an action that required her to momentarily forget about Bob, instead positioning herself mentally in relationship to whatever scenario these indicators may signify. She also might decide that one of these scenarios is urgent, further removing her from her conversation with Bob. Both he and the thought she set out to record in the first place are forgotten.

The other party—Bob, in our hypothetical example—is at this point much more likely to pull out his own cell phone or pocket computer during the conversational lull, getting caught up in email, SMS or the social network of the moment. Alice and Bob are at this point no longer present to each other, having been caught up in the tyranny of always being connected to the thrumming flow of the urgent and generally unimportant. The most precious gift we have to offer one another—particularly in an age of “virtual community”—is our physical presence, yet pocket computers routinely aid us in discarding and seizing back this gift.

The above is of course a worst case scenario. And yet, if you are a user of a pocket computer or have any friends with one, does something like the above happen with regularity? If it only happens one time out of five, is that acceptable?

I am now, as in many cases, reminded of Wendell Berry’s respect for the Amish in their insistence that all new technology must be evaluated through the question of “how will this impact our community?” Pocket computers, when used indiscriminately and outside of agreed-upon social norms[ref]As already mentioned, these social norms don’t exist and may never come to be, as pocket computers are obsoleted in the face of some other new technology.[/ref], can definitely be harmful to the possibility of being present to one another in community.

I began this essay because I’ve had many “I need to write about that”-type thoughts recently, but when I sat down today to write, I couldn’t recall any of them. I then thought, “I need to start recording those thoughts as they occur on my iPhone,” but picturing myself doing so made me look like a douchebag, as the kids say these days. I next asked myself “Why would I look that way?” and you’ve now read my essay to answer that question. Having done so, I’ve realised that I need a notebook.[ref]My wife bought me one after reading an early draft of this essay. I have yet to use it, hypocrite that I am.[/ref]