The Deadly Virtues

“C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”

-Pierre Bosquet

Oh, but it was magnificent. I wish you could have seen it. Let me describe it to you.

Behold a group of men (they were all men), boldly united in singular commitment to an ambitious cause. Their purpose was clear, their focus complete. They were not afraid of hard work; on the contrary, they were ready to put everything they had into the task before them. They were prepared to make sacrifices, to set aside family time and even sleep to achieve their tasks. They believed deeply in themselves, and in the inevitability of their success. Theirs was a boundless optimism, a reverence for the power of the individual. Men of will, they believed in the power of heroic effort. They believed in the power of will itself. They believed in the transformative power of belief itself. They were ready, and being ready, they committed themselves to the task at hand. The work began.

And after several weeks of glorious striving, the project crumbled in the most abject and embarrassing form of failure.

No really, they shit the bed. Complete humiliation. A failed project, a furious customer, a million dollar contract now hanging by the slenderest of threads, the air thick with recrimination and despair.

How did this happen? How did an effort so deeply infused with all that we normally deem potent virtues end in the most pathetic form of ignominy? These, dear reader, are the wages of optimism. I’m happy to say that this wasn’t a project in which I was closely involved, and to protect the innocent and guilty alike, I’ll share no details, but to sketch the outlines should be sufficient. In the simplest terms the men that I described took on an ambitious technical project on which the fate of a significant business transaction depended. And they blew it in the worst imaginable way. They could not have done otherwise. The effort was doomed from the start, and it was doomed by the very virtues they possessed. Let’s consider each in turn.

First, confidence. Each of these men was a successful professional with an excellent track record. They’d all achieved difficult things before. They’d all failed before too, but that wasn’t any fun to think about. Each of them could think of at least one comparable, hail-Mary effort from somewhere in his past, and if he’d done it once, he could do it again. And given that, why waste any serious time on estimation or risk assessment? To look closely at the feasibility of the project, to identify potential points of failure, was just negative. Men of prowess don’t have to think about things like that. It only muddies the waters.

Which feeds into the second deadly virtue, which is heroism. Each man understood that something would probably go sideways at some point – they weren’t fools. But what can’t be achieved through the heroic power of an individual? If they hit an obstacle, they’d power through it. And just as importantly, they’d be rewarded for doing so. Their heroism would be celebrated. It might hurt, it might take a couple of late nights, some clever thinking, but they’d be showing the group what they could do. They’d be a man. Their deeds would be sung. Hell, think about it the right way, and it would almost be a shame if something didn’t go wrong. Who wants a layup? Any risk or friction lurking in the project plan was just an opportunity to strut their best stuff. Why in the world would you let that hold you back?

Taking these things together, an optimistic outlook only seemed to make sense. Sure, the project looked difficult from the outside, but there was a path to success. That path required a long series of improbable things to come together perfectly, but that’s okay! It’s a path! It could happen! I get this too, I really do. I won’t say what conversations I was personally part of surrounding this specific item (not a lot, truthfully), but I’ve been part of many others. Time and again I’ve seen an exasperated executive say, “Guys, yes or no. Is it possible to get this project done?” To which some young underling (occasionally it’s been a young me) says, truthfully, that there is. Because the underling has been asked a yes or no question, he is not free to add, “Yes, it is possible, in the sense that getting hit with a meteor in the center of your forehead at exactly 2:17pm on your 57th birthday is possible, just not really way up there in terms of probability.” But that’s okay, that’s not what the executive wanted to know. And neither did the men undertaking this project. There was a way to be successful. There was a path that could be conceived in the mind of a very confident and cheerful man, and that was enough. Probability is complicated. Optimism is simple. Simple things feel good. This was enough.

So what went wrong in the end? I mean, pretty much everything. Confident in their ability to execute, the men started working without really defining the work to be done. The client, aware of this, encountered no barrier to adding new work to the mix. No one really knew which piece of work needed to be done in which order, and at any rate this project was about individual effort, so the men worked at cross-purposes for a long time before discovering that their tasks didn’t align. Several high-risk elements had never been identified as such, so when the risks became live issues affecting the project, no mitigation strategies were in place. There had only ever been a plan A, no plan B had been contemplated. And plan A, if we’re honest, was pretty loosely defined. The client, as  a result, found meaningful status excruciatingly difficult to get. The client got frustrated. Then the client began to get scared, which is worse. Pressure mounted. Deadlines began to flicker by, goals unmet.

At last the time for real heroism had come, and that’s when things really got bad. The hero, striving mightily, pushing forward against all odds, had no way of admitting that he couldn’t succeed. He worked all night, he worked all day, trying to find something to throw at the problem that could achieve the necessary breakthrough. Valiantly, he never abandoned hope. And because he did not abandon hope, neither did the team. Meaning, the team continued to tell the client that the deadline would be met.

And in due course, the deadline came. The deadline passed. The hero had nothing. The team had nothing. The project was weeks behind plan with no path for recovery and no revised delivery date for the client.

Okay, so what do we learn? Let me be clear about something. Deadlines are part of business. They’re part of life. And they’re part of client delivery whether we like it or not. You’ll be handed challenging projects and they’ll have money riding on them and that’s life in the big city.  My point here is not that you can’t get difficult things done. But as I’ve said before, difficult things get done by difficult people. The first step to success on a tough project is the moment when a savvy, pessimistic leader pulls the team together and says, “People, we’re probably screwed here. We need to get some realistic options on the table. Let’s start with a list of everything that can go wrong.”

See, two things define my career, as I look back on it. One is an exceptional record of getting things done. My track record on complex delivery is one of the best around, and such success as I’ve had has had everything to do with that. The second defining thing is that in every organization I’ve been part of, there’s been a profound reluctance to move me into the higher levels of leadership. Difficult things get done by difficult people, and the conversations I find most important are the conversations most people least enjoy. In the totally of my career, what I have is a winning record. I will never have the seductive sheen of doomed, heroic virtue.

I mean, I guess I could try. I’m just not optimistic about it.

The Better Baboon

I’ve been thinking a lot about stress lately. Which is good. That’s a positive shift from my more typical pattern, which tends to involve experiencing a lot of stress without giving much analytical thought to it at all. I don’t recommend this, in part because it’s exactly what most of us are doing most of the time, and we can see how well that’s been working out for all of us. Being stressed out about stress itself at least has a nifty metacognitive ring to it.

To a certain degree this is a continuation of the thread I was taking up in my last post, looking at the brain and its functions as they apply to the ways in which we conduct ourselves. The stress thing is another fascinating angle. The basic idea, as I’m coming to understand it (with all necessary apologies for gross oversimplification and undoubtedly sloppy, layman’s interpretation) is that the action of stress on our brains and bodies is a critical evolutionary feature. It’s been strongly selected for over millions of years, and the basic mechanics of the stress response in a human brain aren’t so different from those you’ll find in the brain of any mammal. And there are good reasons for this: the changes brought on in the brain and body by acute stress are all very useful things if you’re suddenly being attacked by a lion. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, the classic “fight or flight” response is activated, energy levels surge. You scamper away, the lion is frustrated, you pass on your genetic information to the next generation, and so on. So far, so good.

The tricky bit for humans is that in very recent times (at least in evolutionary terms) our brains have evolved a bag of tricks foreign to your average wildebeest. Specifically, while we and the wildebeest tend to respond in similar ways to the lion, nothing that we know about wildebeest psychology suggests that they spend a lot of time ruminating about lions when they’re not actually dealing with one. I’m no zoologist here, but my admittedly superficial survey of the literature doesn’t seem to suggest that wildebeests posses particularly rich imaginative lives at all. We do, and that’s a problem.

The problem, in other words, is we have the ability to imagine stressful situations whether or not we’re actually in them. We can play our current reality forward in various ways that haven’t actually happened and may never, but would really, really suck if they did. We can think about this, and we can get stressed out by it. And we do this all the time.

Now somewhere in here there’s probably a totally uninteresting discussion to be had around what exactly constitutes “real” stress. I can imagine a reading of that last paragraph that would take it to imply that most of our stressors are imaginary, or that I’m critiquing the behavior of stressed-out people. I’m not. I happen to think that my own stressors are perfectly real. My only point is that not many of the entries in my finely curated list of things to think about at 3am actually represent things that are happening, in real life, at any given moment. But the fact (and boy, is it ever a fact) that they exist as real-world potentialities is more than good enough for me. You’ve come to the wrong shop, dear reader, for a Bobby McFerrin retrospective.

Anyway, point is, we have zis power (pace Madeline Kahn), and our good old mammalian brains haven’t had a lot of time (again, in evolutionary terms) to keep up with it. The things that happen in our brains and bodies when we see a lion at the watering hole, and the things that happen when we think about the possibility of seeing a lion at the watering hole tomorrow, aren’t terribly different. And while seeing the lion in real life is a pretty finite deal with a fixed duration (one outcome or the other), there’s no upper limit on how often you can ponder the lion. Thus, in the minds of humans, chronic stress is born. Swap out the lion for the infinite anxieties of modern life, and away we go.

Where all of this really gets interesting is when we start to dig into what’s going on in the rest of the brain when we’re gearing up to run from a real, imagined or purely metaphorical predator. Turns out, a lot of it’s not good. Short term memory formation goes straight to shit. Cognition just tanks across the board. We make bad decisions, we make them poorly, and then (and this is important) we do so again. A unique feature human behavior under stress is that we tend to reuse the same lousy strategies again and again. We get stuck, very easily, in cognitive and behavioral ruts. We need to make a change – may even know that we need to make a change – but we don’t. We circle the drain.

What I find myself reflecting on, considering all of this, is my beloved business world. Particularly, I find myself thinking a lot about leadership, and how much of the business leadership I’ve witnessed over the last quarter century has missed these dynamics completely. It’s almost something of a corporate truism that “strong” leaders should create stress among their teams. There’s a suspicion of leaders who don’t. Why, after all, would a relaxed employee give their all? You want those people at least a little stressed out, all the time. You want to see it in their eyes. Makes you feel more sure that they’re getting something done. And yet, as we’re discussing, the established science is pretty well in on this one: a stressed out team will not perform at a higher level. It will, not to put too fine a point on it, fuck things up. People will not remember what you just told them to do. They will not stop doing that thing you just corrected them on. They will not make good, rational, data-driven decisions. They will not do these things, because neurologically, at least beyond a certain point, they no longer can.

I perceive two deadly sins here, and I’m working on purging my own leadership style of both. First is the sort of depressing reality that (and for this as for much of the discussion, I must again tip the ol’ chapeau to Robert Sapolsky of Stanford), one of the ways a stressed out primate can make itself feel better is to beat up on a lower-status primate. Most of us know intuitively that the best parts of ourselves don’t tend to come out under sustained stress; very much the opposite. Everyone whose ever been part of a hierarchical organization knows that shit rolls downhill. That’s problematic enough for a troop of baboons, but with my own team I’m striving (not always fruitfully) for a slightly higher level of interaction. None of us are perfect, but the people that work for me deserve better than a stressed-out alpha baboon.

Second, is the loathed tendency, so common and so destructive, for leaders to confuse motion with progress. Difficult problems are difficult. No one wants to deal with that nonsense. Getting a bunch of underlings with fair-to-middling communication skills into a room and trying to forensically reconstruct the nature of today’s train wreck is hard, unrewarding work and no one enjoys it. Accepting that the path forward will usually involve a half-dozen miserable trade offs resulting in, at best, a least-bad option, is a sobering, humbling task. How much more rewarding to simply clap your hands, bark a few inchoate orders and watch everyone scramble into action. Create a task force, designate a war room, order in a few lunches and demand results. How could it not work?

It never works. Never has. But boy, does it feel good to stand at the doorway and watch so many people working so hard on your order. The fact that no one, including you, has any idea what your order actually was is secondary. You, the leader, feel good. For a minute.

Until about 3am.

Epictetus vs. the Brain

Somehow or another I had stumbled across an interesting, philosophy-oriented blog, in which a writer (her name, as well as the blog, are lost to me now) was teeing up an interesting critique of Epictetus. The gist, so far as I was able to get it in the short time that I had, was that the core Stoic idea of emotional control was deeply flawed, in that it rested on an essentially inaccurate idea of the mind. In a nutshell, the Stoics argued in various ways that our rational minds can, and indeed should, be trained to take mastery over our passions. The Stoics valued (as many since have valued) the ideal of a dispassionate, rational mind, holding emotional reactions at bay in the service of virtue. The woman I was reading was setting out to argue that this model rested on a false premise, namely the idea that the rational mind operates independently of emotion, when in fact the two are entwined in a highly interactive way. Our deliberate process of thought can be used to affect our emotional reactions, but the opposite is equally true: our emotions are just as apt to shape what passes for reason in our higher, cortical brains.

I was into all this, and settled down to read, but a child suddenly had a desperate need to show me something newly created in Minecraft, which simply couldn’t wait. Also he was hungry, which was odd because a piece of bread had appeared in the middle of the carpet, waiting to be stepped on, which made me somewhat urgently concerned to understand what might or might not have been spread on its downward-facing side, prior to whatever unhappy accident had brought it there. Meanwhile, something in the kitchen had begun to beep ominously, and just then the other child came running through, inexplicably naked. From somewhere in the house, a crash…

And just like that, though I never finished the article, the author’s argument was proven true, as my reason surrendered to my emotional brain without even putting up a fight.

I really did lose track of the article, this to my shame because I’d love to cite it here. But I’ve been enjoying this whole line of thinking. As I’ve written about before and elsewhere, a key tenet of my basic, philosophical pessimism is the recognition that our own processes of thought are far less coherent, linear and rational that we like to imagine. Nor is any of this speculative – the brain science has been in for decades. Now I’m not a neurobiologist, and am thus dependent for all this on people who are, but as I think I’ve mentioned before the work of Professor Robert Sapolsky at Stanford is a fantastic resource. Though caveats abound, as with any field of human knowledge, we have a pretty good picture of what different parts of the brain do, and how those parts of the brain interact. It’s not a complete picture – that’s not how science works and there’s always more to learn. But we pretty much know what parts of the brain are activated when we’re working through a logical process of thought, and we pretty much know how those parts of the brain interact with the bits responsible for emotion, fear, memory, and so on. The punch line is that they interact a lot. None of us are ever really capable of a making a purely rational decision. We operate within a complex structure of biases, mental shortcuts, flawed interpretations, and emotive responses, all skewed further by whatever happens to be going on with us at the time. We do the best we can, but it’s rarely all that good.

Which is all okay, provided that it’s something we recognize. The interesting thing is that generally speaking, it isn’t.

Nowhere is this more true than in the business world where I spend most of my time. The pervasive mythology (I participate in it) is that we’re rational men and women, always striving to make good decisions based on solid data. Now usually, this isn’t even true at the level of superficial appearances. Your average corporate conference room is exactly the pheromonal stew of testosterone, ego, and the subtler aromas of human fear that you’ve probably always imagined it would be. The rationality is usually grafted on after decisions have been made, not before, by clever people skilled in rationalizing a process that more often than not was far more deeply rooted in some senior executive’s troubled relationship with his father. I should know – as a consultant I’ve made good money doing this, for some very heavy senior teams. It’s not always easy. You need a certain intellectual nimbleness with just the right dash of mercenary amorality.

The whole thing takes on a little more pathos when the team at hand is actually trying to make a good decision. The sad part here is that not much changes, except that all the cognitive dissonance has to be worked through in real time. What you want to be able to do is say is something like, “Hey guys, it’s going to be hard to make a decision here, because there’s a certain amount of emotion around this. We don’t need to put that aside, but let’s acknowledge that it’s there as we work this through.”

Yeah, right. That’s not what we do. But before we just chalk this behavior up to another case of masculine corporate malfeasance (and it is that, at least in part), I would argue that this isn’t generally what any of us do. Tracing all the complex connections between our emotional lives and daily decision making is hard. It’s not even possible in any comprehensive sense. In the most literal, axonal, synaptic way, it isn’t what we’re wired for.

When I talk about the virtue of pessimism, much of what I’m arguing boils down to the virtues of an emotional life rooted in low expectations. The pessimist, as I’ve said many times before, has the luxury of being pleasantly surprised. I don’t think much of my own ability to act rationally. That doesn’t let me off the hook for trying, but nor do I need to consider my own acts of crazy to be wild, worrying aberrations (at least, not up to a point). A lot of that is just what my weird, non-optimal, evolutionary layer cake of a brain is going to do, because it isn’t built to do anything else. It’s a wonder that I can handle as much as I can. There are some positives here. Take the bread on the carpet, for example: just bread, as it turned out, no peanut butter. That’s a win, provided you’re ready to take what you can get.

Side note: is Epictetus really pronounced, “epic-teat-us?” That seems to be the consensus but I think it takes something away from the philosophical dignity of the whole thing. Oh well.

The Silence of the Wrens

The dog and I are essentially indifferent to each other, an engagement which suits us both. Still, a walk is a walk, and as I set out toward the wood line the dog rouses itself and follows a bit behind. It has nothing better to do. Later it runs ahead. I make no claim on the dog’s time nor it on mine, and am content for it to do as it pleases.

The walk itself follows a mile or so of well-kept trails that wend around my father’s property in Michigan. They aren’t trodden often enough to be dirt, but the old man careens around them from time to time on his riding mower, keeping the local grasses neatly cropped and the main trails clear. There are other trails too, ones that I’ve learned through two decades of visiting, that aren’t so neatly kept, but still discernible if you know where to look. The indifferent dog and I know how.

I proceed in a roughly counter-clockwise loop, and the first leg leads by my father’s meditation hut. He built it a few years back, and I installed a durable tile floor which seems to have stood the test of time. As we approach, a deer breaks off to my left and goes galumphing away with a ridiculous crashing of branches. It occurs to me that an animal, biologically selected over millions of years to evade predation, might be expected to show a bit more grace, but that’s where I’m not an evolutionary biologist. The incompetent deer stops a couple hundred feet away and peers back at me, ears like satellite dishes tuned in my direction. The dog and I are not interested. We continue.

The forest is deciduous and dense. I don’t know many of the trees. The literary thing would be to name a few of the species, making me sound woodsy and soulful. But that’s where I’m not a botanist (or woodsy, or soulful). I know that there are maples because people talk about them, and I think there’s probably something like a birch. But they’re very tall, and very lovely, and they give shade. The sunlight that makes it through is green and does dapply sorts of things. I think about walking meditation, which I’ve been taught how to do, and acknowledge that that’s not what I’m doing. I’m okay with that.

From the hut the trail rises up a small, gentle hill (in family lore this is known as the Mountain), at the top of which is a bench. My stepmom’s mother passed away last year, this was her property and she was very fond of this particular place. The family brought her ashes up here, and there’s a small stone marker. I can see the appeal. I suppose it was a pleasant spot from which to survey her domain. There’s no particular view of the domain, but then again she couldn’t see. This strikes me as the sort of graceful symmetry that the universe doesn’t serve up often enough.  Wasps, on the other hand, have lately nested under the bench. This strikes me as being typical of the universe, and I move on.

I notice that I have lost the indifferent dog. I hadn’t noticed its departure.

The path curves gracefully through a long loop, and I detour at an obscure junction. Around a squat pine, a secondary path curves off to the south. It isn’t really a path so much as a slightly different pattern of undergrowth, spotted with ferns. This path is mostly in my mind, a function of ancestral memory. It leads through a sparser section of conifers, and terminates at a disused orchard. Now the story, likely apocryphal, is that years ago someone tried to plant Christmas trees here, but mistakes were made and the wrong species was chosen (a mixup between Norway pine and Norway spruce is plausible). In any case the result was an orchard full of towering, 60-foot pine trees suggesting nothing whatever of yuletide. No one did anything with the trees (what would you do?), and the orchard is a remarkable and ghostly place – long, perfectly straight rows of tall, perfectly straight trees, swaying gently in the perpetual breeze. The color palette changes here from rich green to grays and browns, the thick carpet of pine needles underfoot working with limited light to keep growth to a minimum. It’s a blend of spooky and peaceful, and it’s the first place that my sons always want to come when we visit.

The orchard is also, technically, part of another property, though this has never been much of an issue. Still, today I opt to walk east along its periphery, following an old access road long given over to nature. Down the end of this is, I know, a small sandy depression, bordered by a dune, which often has a bit of murky pond at the bottom. Now that’s an odd place, having felt a little funny to me when I’d been there before. I thought to check it out again and test that impression, but this proves difficult, the path being more and more heavily overgrown as I approach. The final stretch passed through a break in the trees (thus the growth), and I start to get hot in the sun. Some sort of energetic fly, attracted to my sweat, starts to belabor the area just behind my ear. Realizing that the mystery of murky hollow isn’t going to be accessed without traversing a couple hundred yards of sunny tick habitat, with the full attention of my new insect admirers, I surrender and turn back.

The final loop winds down through shrubs and past my father’s grape vines, and by the time I return I’m officially too warm, but feeling good. At the boundary of the forest is a bird house with a removable top, in which some wrens are nesting with babies. The fate of the babies is a preoccupation around the house. They’re doing fine, to my eyes, but it seems that mommy and daddy wren spend a lot of time away from the nest, and everyone gets anxious about this. It all just sounds like modern parenting to me, but that’s where I’m not an ornithologist. Still, as I approach I can see adult birds coming and going, and I hear a shrill, abrasive squawking from inside that I assume is a sign of life. I’m encouraged.

Inside, my youngest is dancing to videos, my oldest is designing ships on my computer, and there’s homemade wine for later. I towel off, get cool, and observe the indifferent dog napping on a sofa.

And in this manner I, even I, once in a very great while and probably not often enough, take vacation.



The Lance and the Chamber Pot

It’s difficult, lately, for any given week’s news cycle to stand out as having been particularly grotesque. In fact I’m not even sure that this week’s news was that far above the grotesquery baseline. But it caught my attention. Not because it revealed anything terribly new about the state of the modern world, but because it shed a bit of much-needed light on the absurdity, in the existential sense, of my own position. More specifically, it illuminated the patent absurdity of my politics. Politics which I am in no way about to abandon. Let me try to explain.

My intellectual idol is a man I’ve never met. His name is Joshua Foa Dienstag, he’s a current professor of political science at UCLA, and his book, simply entitled Pessimism, is a kind of personal bible for me. I could (and undoubtedly will) talk about it at length, but in the simplest possible terms he provides a gorgeous definition and defense of philosophical pessimism. You get your usual suspects – your Schopenhauer, your Nietzsche – but also quite a bit on lesser-known guys (Giacomo Leopardi will never be the household name that he ought to be), as well as a long, fascinating section on Cervantes. Dienstag unpacks Don Quixote as a thoroughly pessimistic exploration of the doomed collision between romantic idealism and the actual world of human beings (a premise that I’m probably oversimplifying horribly). It’s worth your time, all of it, but it’s the man from La Mancha that I’m feeling lately. I’m starting to wonder, seriously, whether I don’t need to go get a chamber pot for a helmet and start looking for a windmill. Get it over with, as it were.

What I’m talking about is the goddamn American culture war, which is a historic feat of monumental idiocy to rival any that has come before, and I am absolutely including the First World War in that evaluative formula. One of the world’s truly great (if wildly imperfect) empires is in the process of devouring itself from the inside out, and it’s far too late to stop it. I’ll state that straight off: this post won’t end with any hopeful prescription, so don’t expect it. We’re pretty much fucked on this one, guys. What follows, rather, will be a short and bitter tirade on the contours of the disaster, nothing more.

So what was in the news? There were three items, each of which is familiar enough as to require little explanation from me. First, of course, was the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein. Now, you may argue, and you’d have a point, that this is actually a hopeful sign. Epstein, after all, was arrested eleven years ago on similar charges and basically skated. And I do salute, earnestly, the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York for reeling the asshole back in. That was brave, and necessary, and nothing about the case looks good for him or any of the people in his depraved orbit. But the fervent hope of so many, the hope that Epstein’s obvious and well-documented tie-ins to President Trump will somehow blow back meaningfully on the current administration, will almost certainly be dashed. The very real possibility of our president being a child rapist has aroused not even a murmur among the party faithful. It is, in fact, assumed. It’s been priced in, and everyone’s basically cool with it.

Okay, that’s probably a little bit of an exaggeration. Nobody’s cool with it per se. It’s just that for Trump’s base, it isn’t very important next to the thing that really matters, which is Trump’s ability to torment the liberal enemy. Nothing Trump can possibly do is more important than that. In fact, it’s the other way around. Trump’s various depravities may be icky in the abstract, but you’ve got to admit, they get the job done (the job, of course, being the arousal of liberal ire). There’s no question, at this point, of whether Trump will ever finally land on a transgression that offends his base. His transgressions have become the point.

Which goes to the second item: the continuing, heartrending accounts of misery emerging from immigrant detention centers along our Southern border. It’s more or less the same thing going on. I’m sure that here and there you can find a diehard racist vile enough to viscerally enjoy the suffering of non-white children. I don’t doubt that a handful of those guys exist. But I don’t believe (and it’s not necessary to believe) that this is half the American electorate. It’s just that this is war. There is collateral damage in war. You don’t, goes the thinking, have to enjoy children suffering in a detention center anymore than you enjoy children being accidentally incinerated in a drone strike somewhere. But through that lens, it’s more or less the same thing. It’s worth it if it gets the other side (that’s you, by the way, most of my dear readers; the other side is you) upset, which it does. It’s a grim tactic, but it’s a tactic. And in that sense, it’s just more of the same old thing.

No, the interesting item is the third one, which is Trump administration’s most recent court challenge to the Affordable Care Act. I won’t dig into the technicalities of the latest go-round but suffice to say that the current challenge doesn’t even have that much support in conservative circles. A fair number of politicians on the right have come to the realization that actually unwinding the ACA would be far more pain than it’s worth. Far better to have it there, complain about it, run against it symbolically, but never actually repeal it. It’s a tried and true formula after all – it’s worked for most federal programs, for decades. It’s a comfortable detente that everyone should be able to get behind, right?

Wrong. Trump, somehow, gets the deeper gestalt, and there’s a cynical fringe around him that gets it too. They perceive the same thing that those other guys do: they’re perfectly aware that repealing the ACA would have the same net effect that refusing to expand Medicare has had in deep-red states like Tennessee. Namely, they’re aware that the people most deeply hurt will be the lower end of the middle class, and the aging, working poor. In other words, the Republican base.

And that’s the point.

I know, right? Why would they deliberately devastate their own base? Surely this is political suicide! Except that it’ll totally work. It already has.

Simple question: who switched political sides in Tennessee when poor, diabetic meemaw lost her last foot? Simple answer: nobody. We return to our theme from the the Bojo post. The base doesn’t understand what the fuck is going on. All you have to do is tell them it was the bad guys (remember, that’s you). They don’t know. They don’t have the cognitive equipment. You don’t even have to make an argument, because they can’t process arguments. That was dealt with years ago, by depriving their communities of appropriate education and keeping enough of them in poverty that just keeping their heads above water was guaranteed to keep them out of the library. It makes perfect sense for the right to hurt their own base. It’s easier than hurting the left wing base. Those kids get angry, they protest and make noise. The base on the right cheers, and the ones who don’t die make the cause that much stronger.

See, that’s the power of a good culture war. You don’t have to prove a goddamn thing, not with that powerful combination of ignorance and confirmation bias on your side. You can do anything you want, so long as you feed the narrative. And the narrative gets stronger every day.

It does for you too, dear reader. Because admit it, the deplorables are only getting that much more deplorable. I mean, look at them – cheering over child abuse, gleefully voting for their own degeneration. What’s left to relate to? What common ground? There is none. You just get more frightened, more disgusted. As do they.

So back to me and my windmill. What am I gonna do? What force am I supposed to martial against that kind of tide? Sitting around with my heavyweight book citations and my words. I stand by what I said a few posts back, that the culture war can’t be won. It can be lost, though, gradually, and by both sides. Which isn’t exactly a hope. It’s just the only conceivable denouement, somewhere down a long and bitter road. And a guy who uses words like “denouement” isn’t going to change that one bit.

The Sweet Science Returns

I punched a girl the other day. But it’s okay – she liked it. I’ve actually punched two different girls in the space of a week. It’s been that kind of week.

Simmer down, guys. I’ve been boxing, and starting to do a little bit of very light-contact sparring, in preparation for hopefully getting into some not-so-light-contact sparring later in the year. I didn’t really “punch” either girl, to be fair. I mean, I did, but lightly, and quite carefully. And both girls punched back, effectively. In fact it would be more accurate to admit that most of what I did was try to hit them, without a whole lot of success. I would also be doing better to drop the girl thing entirely and describe them both as grown-ass women, which they very much are, and each with many years of experience under their (in one case black) belts.  To be clear, this is the only kind of person, of any gender variant, that one hits, and only with their explicit permission and only in a safe sparring environment. I don’t really feel like I should have to say that at this point, but there it is, if you needed it. I also used the singular they deliberately because I was being inclusive, so bite me. It’s 2019, people.

Now I’ve boxed for a long time, and been a fan much longer. I love mixed martial arts too, and I’ve done my share of kickboxing and a bit (just a bit) of jiu jitsu. I more or less know my way around a tussle, but I’m not a tough guy. If real training teaches you anything, it’s exactly how not to be a tough guy. Your average, putative tough guy is anything but. It’s generally understood in the fight world that your actual prowess is in inverse proportion to how much you talk about it. And that guy in the garish American Fighter tee shirt? Yeah.

No, my take on my own ability is defined by a well-informed humility; I suffer no Dunning Kruger effect when it comes to pugilistic self-assessment. The list of people who could kick my ass is long and not particularly distinguished. My cardio is, frankly, crap. My knees are shot, my shoulders are fragile, and the clock is ticking on both of my elbows (holding mitts for powerful hitters, which I’ve done a lot of, takes a rude toll on the old tendons). The hand speed has fallen off too; I can see the opportunity, but getting my glove there in time is a different matter. And there’s the little matter of me being on the downslope of my forties. What this means is that all I’ve got left is craft, and my craft is okay. It’s perfectly adequate to the sort of shenanigans I’ve been up to lately, but there are limits. I’ve got work to do if I’m going to put all this to use again with the big guys, but that’s pretty much my plan.

But this is worth pausing on for a minute. Because that work itself? It’s awful. Just the training, just the work, is some of the most intense misery you can hope to experience, even if you’re young. I’ve been getting back into that sort of training and conditioning lately and it’s brutal. I get nervous before going to conditioning class, even knowing that nobody’s going to lay a hand on me in anger. I know what I’m in for, and it sucks. And I’m doing this, sucking it up and enduring it, in hopes of earning the dubious privilege of getting the living shit kicked out of me by someone who knows how. So why?

You know what? I don’t know. Fuck it.

People have started to spill ink on this subject and I guess it’s interesting. Jonathan Gottschall covered this about as well as it needs to be covered. His book is worth a read, at least from the standpoint of background cultural analysis. He did a decent job of describing his relationship with fight competition, but that’s his deal. I got what he was saying but my deal isn’t quite the same. The urge to violent expression, particularly among men, is one of behavioral biology’s great, unending jazz riffs, on which male primates are forever improvising in their own, highly personal ways. For myself, what can I tell you? I have my reasons for my interpretation, but I’d add nothing novel to the canon by dredging them up. It’s enough for me to know and acknowledge two things: I like to fight, and more importantly, I deeply love the grind of hard training.

Now personally, I like to fight in controlled, reasonably safe environments. I’m not running around the street trying to start nonsense. I generally like the people I end up fighting, and I tend to like them more when we’re done. I don’t like taking crazy risks. To plenty of guys, these preferences are ridiculous and soft, bereft of honor. Which is okay with me. Those aren’t usually guys that I’m trying very hard to impress. They don’t train at my gym. Like I said above, they tend not to train at all.

But truthfully, sparring has always been secondary for me. It’s important in its own weird way but not fundamental. It’s the training for the fight that matters much more. Training has never been a means to an end for me. It’s the end in itself, and it has been from very early on. That faint tightening of nausea, the dropping of sweat, the magic that happens when a coach calls out ten more seconds of an exercise and I think, there is no way I can possibly last that long. And then I do. And then I do more.

Who knows how long I’ve really got with all of this. Some catastrophic injury is out there lurking, and there’s little I can do but accept that and try to train as intelligently as I can. Eventually I’ll have to rethink all of this. But there’s a quote attributed to Jack Dempsey, great heavyweight champion and native son of Colorado, which says, “A champion is somebody who gets up when he can’t.” And that’s basically it. We’re not talking about somebody who gets up when it’s hard, or when she doesn’t feel like it. We’re talking about somebody who gets up when she can’t. I end up sharing that quote a lot but I don’t know how often it hits home. At a certain point it becomes the same for all of this, a case of the old, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” You get it or you don’t, and if you don’t get it, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not missing anything that you wouldn’t want to miss anyway.

But you are definitely, definitely missing it.

The Capitoline Sow

It appears likely, in the coming weeks, barring some kind of divine intervention or, perhaps (only) slightly more plausibly, an act of public depravity significantly greater than any he’s accomplished before, that Boris Johnson will become prime minister of the UK.

Hail Britannia.

It’s not that I’m exactly happy about this, because as hard as I try I don’t think even I can summon that much schadenfreude. But I confess to a certain grim satisfaction in watching our cousins across the pond surrender any remaining claim to moral ascendency in the political field. To be clear, the appointment of Boris Johnson to Downing Street marks no change in the direction of British politics; it’s little more than the eruption of a boil that’s been rising on the British body politic for years. It’s surprising that it hasn’t happened before now. It was always going to go this way and, very soon, it will.

Meaning, of course, that two great nations of the English-speaking world will soon be headed by two curiously similar men: both of them effortfully blond, deliberately ridiculous, and comprehensively amoral. All of this has been said before – there’s very little to add to the literature of Trump and Bojo bashing at this stage. But there’s something fascinating about the curious similarities between the two. What will it mean, exactly, when these two stand astride the Atlantic, anointed the saviors of their people? What are we to make of them, the Romulus and Remus of this dead new Rome, their pursed lips yearning lecherously toward the desiccated teats of a three-legged sow?

That was a bit much. Forgive me, I haven’t had much time to write lately, These things build up. Let’s move on.

I’ve been getting an earful lately, from Jenn, about clowning, shamanism, and trickster mythology. It’s a subject dear to her (she’s done important academic work on it) and she feels that it’s good for me. Now it’s not my area at all; I know about as much as any lay person does, understanding that lots of cultures have had various myths dealing with some sort of cosmic trouble-maker, often offering variously encoded messages about truth, death, justice and social order. And it is interesting, when you look at it, that a native American Coyote myth and a Norse story about the god Loki should share common threads. Again, I don’t pretend to know a lot about it. But if we’re willing to accept as possible the idea that something in our shared humanity does tend to make room for the recurring figure of a powerful transgressor, it becomes hard not to put that lens on Trump and Bojo.

Consider: both men are serial liars, and both are supported by a “base” that knows this. Neither man is considered particularly truthful even by his supporters. Nor does either man offer much in dignity, presence, or the solemnity of leadership. Instead they are each shambolic figures, ridiculous in dress and presentation. And each is a more-or-less open lecher, flaunting conventional behavior and elevating course libidinal need to an art form. Again, this has all been said before, and it’s getting tedious, but it’s important. Trump and Bojo are popular with their supporters not because they demonstrate personal and political strength, but because they do not. The fact that they’ve become figures of fun and mockery all over the world is precisely what endears them to their followers, who see their own humiliation reflected in the abuse heaped on their leaders. This makes the followers angry, but in the same moment they thrill to it. The followers do this because unlike themselves, these men they hail do, in fact, have power.  Neither Trump nor Bojo is capable of meaningful policy, but that doesn’t matter. Both men transgress norms. They abuse and debase. Above all, they offend.

It’s not possible to overstate the importance of this last point, because generally speaking the supporters of Trump and Bojo don’t understand policy anyway (or else they do, and are possessed of a particularly nasty strain of raw cynicism; I think this is a minority perspective but we shouldn’t discount it). What they do understand is offense, and they understand that the people who are offended are people that they themselves very deeply dislike. This is enough.

We live in cultural bubbles in this country, as I’ve touched on before. We tend to know and like and spend our time with people like us. That means that if we’re affluent and educated, it’s very likely that everyone we know will be affluent and educated too. So we don’t think about certain things. For most of us, basic concepts of inductive and deductive reasoning were drilled into us so long ago and so thoroughly that they’re just basic mechanisms of cognition. We don’t often think about what it means to go through life without those mechanisms, or about the fact that millions of people do exactly this.

If it sounds like I’m just laying out some kind of elite condescension here, I probably am, but that’s not the intent. What I’m getting at is that it helps to know and love a few adults in your life who don’t have a complete high school education. It helps, because it makes tangible the fact that there are a great number of people who don’t understand how knowledge comes into being. More than this, most of these same people don’t have any idea that knowledge needs a means of coming into being at all. Knowledge is essentially mysterious. Without a process of reason, all information exists in a kind of undifferentiated field, neither true nor untrue, until it collides with some aspect of your lived experience. You can only correlate first order effects. But even there, since you can’t really examine those effects in any meaningful way, you can’t really curate or differentiate them. Your direct lived experience, and something you saw on YouTube, aren’t coherently different.

So you do what you can do, which is to react emotionally. You perceive that you lack, and you perceive that others have. And you generally understand that the people who have what you don’t are forever going red in the face over Trump’s antics, or Bojo’s. And this seems good to you. All you can do is feel, and the way Trump and Bojo makes you feel is nice. They seem to like you. And your enemies seem to hate them. It’s enough.

Does this correlate to the trickster myth? Does the trickster play on anger, emotional vanity and resentment? I need to know more – I’m out of my depth. But I’m interested in the idea. But coming back to our new rulers, I do perceive one difference between them, and it touches on exactly this. Trump works well as a trickster literally, because a trick is precisely what he’s been up to (though whether he knows this or not is anyone’s guess). The trick is straightforward. You see I, myself, am exactly what Trump’s most diehard supporters hate. I’m an affluent (even if I don’t always feel like it) technology guy. I have a certain kind of haircut. I drive a certain kind of car. I’m fit, occasionally self-satisfied, and I like wine more than beer. I read philosophy texts and have an obnoxious blog. I have excellent health insurance. In other words, I am the absolute enemy of Trump’s base (as least as far as Trump’s base are concerned – I don’t believe that any American is my enemy). And yet who benefits from nearly everything the current administration does? Why, I do. My taxes go down, my refunds go up, business is booming – I’m the guy this is all being done for. Me, the bad guy. I’m soaking it all up. Put simply, it’s a bait and switch, and I’m walking away with the bait. The red counties of rural Tennessee most decidedly are not. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not happy about that. But I can see it for what it is. I can see when someone is getting played. I don’t think it’s me.

Now Bojo, on the other hand, seems to lack Trump’s panache in this department (and when you lack Trump’s panache, well…). It’s hard to see Boris Johnson as anything but an economic suicide bomber, benefitting exactly no one. As has been amply documented, he was never, originally, interested in Brexit at all, until it became a vehicle for his own inchoate ambitions. Nor does he have even the remotest plan for that to do once in office. There’s little evidence that Bojo can see anything at all beyond the chance to grab the brass ring of the prime ministership, or that he has even the rudiments of an idea about what to do once he gets there, beyond ordering a sandwich and chasing the maid. A hard Brexit doesn’t benefit Britain’s posh elites or working classes, and there won’t be much else he can do. It’s hard to see the trick, and harder still to imagine that he’s gotten a trick together. We’ll see.

It’s a grim season all around, politically. I couldn’t be less impressed with the opposition either, whose collective, multilingual earnestness seems jaggedly at odds with the scrambled utopian visions on offer. It is, as our cousins would say, rather shabby of me to take snarky delight in their national humiliation. But comparing national humiliations is about all we have to do to pass the time nowadays. Perhaps it’ll be a bonding thing. We should try. I’ll make a standing offer of pints to my British friends, present and future, so we can talk it over.

I’ll pay, too. I know you can’t.

Of Bottles and Babies

I met a remarkable young man the other day. Small guy, really, but with an outsized impact. I happen to be looking at a bottle of Glenfiddich as I write this and he’s about the same size.  Fighting trim at five pounds, ten ounces, he showed up a little early but you can’t blame him. He was ready to go. And when you’re ready to go, you’re ready to go. 

With that tautology I welcome Ian Nuri, my very first nephew, to what’s left of the world. Now, I already have extraordinary nieces so I’m not saying anything particularly except that, you know, me being a father of sons, and an older brother to four other men, I feel that the collective family unit was ready for a new penis. And hey, I know, I know. History and all that stuff. You’re not wrong. And I do happen to know some amazing little girls of great and perplexing power. But little boys are a grave and heroic species, and if you think there’s the slightest exaggeration in me saying that I’ve dedicated my life to the several arts of raising them, permit me to set you straight. My sons are, in every respect, the center of my life. They’re the best and most peculiar young men I know, and the project of helping, in a curious and often not-very-powerful way, to navigate the project of their becoming is my goddamn odyssey. 

And friends, I will fail. Probably already have. I want to talk about that. 

As I’ve said many times before, I am a pessimist. Not merely in disposition, but in philosophy. That means that the only thing I accept as truly knowable about my life in this world is that it will end, as will everyone’s. Anything else is hope and conjecture. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with hope and conjecture, but I try not to take them any more seriously than they deserve, which is not very. But here’s the thing: none of this is bad. You’ve got a span of life, and unpredictable death, and no possibility of not screwing it up. At a certain point, this is okay. It means you can afford to let yourself breathe. 

Pessimistic parenting is counter-intuitive to a lot of people but it shouldn’t be. And I get it – I’m sympathetic. You want to do everything right. Of course you do. This amazing beastie that represents everything possible in the world, and to which you are biologically hardwired by a million years of ruthless natural selection, has dropped into your lap and you’re ready to move mountains for her. You want to move mountains for her, in the desperate (and doomed) hope that she will someday notice and understand. It’s not necessarily a hope that she’ll understand the effort that you put in (that’s your problem), so much as a hope that she’ll understand what that effort says about her. You want to burn the nine worlds for her, not so that she’ll appreciate you, but so that she’ll understand that she was worth every spark of the burning. Believe me, I get that. You want the kid to know about him or herself what you were never able to know about yourself

So you try, and that’s okay. Where it all gets tricky is when you fall into the trap of believing that you can make it all work. You convince yourself that you can get it right, get the kid right, get the world right, and that’s the moment when it all goes to shit. Perfection, as always, as in every other part of your life, remains out of reach. You can’t perfect any of those things, and in so doing you miss what you can do. You often miss what you need to do. And that’s the sin against the Holy Ghost, if you ask me. I don’t pretend to know how to do parenting correctly, but I’ve seen enough to have a pretty good idea of how to do it wrong. Doing it wrong begins with trying to do it all right, blowing it (as blow it you must), so that your kids grow up amidst the broken architecture of failed endeavor. You end up giving them a constant sense of their own childhoods as the place where it all went wrong, leaving them unsure of their own role in what was, in the end, the unraveling of your cunning schemes. This is the domain of the neurotic parent, the faintly-vibrating father, the hollow-eyed mom.  Their reach ever exceeding their grasp, the panic grows and curdles. This is how you end up at a Waldorf school, in debt to your eyeballs, parsing your child’s allergies with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar and waiting, lip quivering, for the next terrifying crisis (a lost shoe, a mysterious bruise) to drop. And drop it does. 

I’m not a perfect parent, by any means. But I do think I’ve brought something important to the game. Me, I knew from the jump that I wasn’t going to be a perfect parent, and I was right. Structurally, economically, I’ve been piss poor, but that didn’t surprise anybody. What I’ve tried to do instead was to chart a course through which, and within which, I could always communicate three things to my kids:

  1. Daddy, like all grownups, is imperfect, but his effort and commitment are not. Not a lot of what happens in your life will depend on anything that you inherently are, but nearly everything will hang on what you do, and how hard you’re willing to do it. 
  2. You, my kids, are human beings. Not objects, accessories, projects, or toys.  What you think will always matter. When what you think is weird, which will happen from time to time, we’ll have that conversation. But you were never meant to be seen and not heard, and I’ll never tell you who you’re supposed to be. I won’t even pretend to know. 
  3. We will have discipline in our house, but that’s not to keep you in line. We don’t do order for the sake of order. We have discipline so that you can maximize your agency as human beings. We’ll learn a certain amount of discipline so that you don’t wind up in thrall to all the things you weren’t disciplined about when it mattered.  And I’ll try not to ask for any discipline from you that I don’t demonstrate myself. 

And that’s about it. Do I do these things flawlessly? I do not. But I orient myself around them and I try. And the beauty of my kids getting older is that the dialog that surrounds the effort gets richer every year. They surprise me. They surprise me even though I never really pretended to know what kind of people they would turn into in the first place. They’re stronger and stranger than I’d imagined, sometimes more thoughtful than I’d expected and sometimes less. And they’re not ideal. They can be real shits, just like me. But they’re authentic, fully autonomous little people, and they have questions. 

So the arrival of little scotch-bottle Ian is a real event, even more-so (for me) than it would have been a few years ago. My sense is clearer now that this is, in fact, the advent of a wholly new individual. That fact feels more immediate, having seen what the decade ahead looks like up close. He’ll be lovely, and he’ll be crazy, and my brother will mess it up a little and I’ll probably help, and through all of that a young man will emerge and go screw things up on his own, and all of that is wonderful. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s not. Only he’s perfect, and only for now. But for now, he gets to be.

Reading Rainbow

I think I need to do a better job of actually getting things written in the absence of inspiration. I tend to believe that this is important. Even if you see her regularly, you can’t trust the muse to be around every time you need to get something done. And I don’t see her regularly at all. I have ex-wives that I see more often, a fact that frames up my existence rather neatly.

Anyway, in light of that I’m going to push myself to be a little more diligent on the blog than I’ve been, accepting that I’m not going to have anything particularly great to to work though every single time I have an opportunity to write. It’ll be good for me, and the only one who suffers, dear reader, is you. Apologies for that, but we all have our little crosses to bear. Reading this blog, apparently, is yours.

Point being that while I haven’t been writing, these last couple of weeks, I’ve been getting some pretty decent reading done. Travel helps, as I can at least plan on having a few uninterrupted hours crammed into a middle seat, wherein there’s little to do but read. And If i’m Honest I actually don’t like to write on planes. I can’t do much to stop the people sitting behind and to the side of me from reading over my shoulder, which would be okay (it’s public work, after all) except that they’re reading it in draft. It’s the lowest ebb of pointless intellectual vanity to worry about a complete stranger watching me revise an awkwardly-phrased idea, but there you go.

However, one thing that people do actually ask me for, at least occasionally, is a rundown of what I’m reading. Which is flattering, as it’s a question that I tend to ask of people I actually like, and probably the last question I would ever ask of anyone I genuinely can’t stand. So following, and in no particular order, are notes on a few key bits of 2019 spring reading. There’s no coherent project going on here – just me grabbing things that interest me (or being gifted them by perceptive friends) and running with it. Proceed at your own risk.

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, Chris Wickham

I’m a history guy no matter what, and have always found the overall period of late antiquity to be massively interesting. Besides, anything touching on the decline of empire seems topical nowadays. The actual historical details presented here defy easy historical allegory, but Wickham gives a hell of a survey not just of the decline of the Western Roman empire (though he does that with admirable clarity) but of the long Roman hangover that persisted throughout the Western world for centuries to follow. It’s a good refresher on the idea (again, topical) that empires don’t exactly fall, so much as they’re simultaneously dismantled and rebuilt, often one institution and tradition at a time. This process always looks more coherent in retrospect than it ever does in the moment. In the moment, the Roman empire had fallen long before any but the most keen-eyed observers recognized that it had. We assume that the fall of America is yet to be marked; we shouldn’t be surprised if we’ve already quietly missed it.

The Empire and the Five Kings , Bernard Henri-Levy

The overlap between Henri-Levy and Wickham was coincidental, but they’re marvelously complementary volumes. This one came to me by the unusually fervent recommendation of my step-father, which I trusted enough to order the book while he was still describing it to me. Now, I have to state at the outset that I’m not deeply familiar with BHL or his work, so I went in a bit blind. What I found, doing so, was a wickedly astute geopolitical analysis written in the kind of poetic language that only a prominent French public intellectual would even attempt in print. More, it’s the work of a French public intellectual who rejects rote anti-Americanism, which I didn’t even realize (again, I acknowledge my ignorance) was possible. The gist of the work is Henri-Levy’s lamentation of America’s withdrawal from the geopolitical stage (an event that he rightly associates with Barak Obama first, Trump second), leaving that stage open to the resurgent “kingdoms” of Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and radical Islam. It’s vividly argued, with kick-in-the-nuts intensity, and I set it down feeling more comfortable in my own innately hawkish political skin than I have in a long time. Anyone prepared to describe Recep Tayyip Erdogan as, “The troll beneath the bridge to hell” is welcome at my table.

Wittgenstein’s Poker , David Edmonds and John Eidinow

This fucking book. This is one of those things so well done and so comprehensively good that you just hate it even as you devour the damn thing and then hate it some more because you can’t stop talking about it. And then you love it because you don’t have any choice. Which makes you hate it more.

Jenn gave this one to me, and for her sins she heard way more about it over the next couple of weeks than she’d ever bargained for. The synopsis doesn’t really tell you much; it’s nominally “about” the first and last meeting between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper at Cambridge in 1946, a brief encounter that ended with Wittgenstein brandishing a fireplace poker in what might or might not have been a threatening manner. But the event itself is a small, central point around which the rest of the story (and it really works out to be a story, and a compelling one) crystalizes. Riffing on the central theme, the authors weave biography, history, social and cultural commentary, and a remarkably coherent pursuit of several major threads in the analytical tradition of Western philosophy into a stupidly satisfying narrative. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that no one really knows, definitively, what happened with the poker incident, but I came away with a far better understanding of the whole philosophical domain that shaped these two rather awful men that I’d had going in. There’s a whole pedagogical implication here that’s worth thinking about, but at the same time, it’s a book you can happily enjoy while drinking. Maybe that is the pedagogical implication.

The Second Mountain , David Brooks

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know what? I can read what I want, okay? He’s a conservative columnist for the New York Times, after all. That, like, doesn’t even count.

Anyway, America’s most dour moral philosopher is back, and I took the bait. I’m not sure if there happen to be a lot of books out right now by middle aged men either in or emerging from crisis, or if there always have been and I’m just noticing them because I’m a middle aged man emerging from crisis myself. Having been through a divorce (feel you, fam) and a period of messy spiritual awakening (it happens), Brooks has put together a perspective on what it means to fall from the first half of your life, and dig more meaningfully into the second. It’s the kind of book that’s either wide-ranging or all over the place, depending on how much of it you agree with. I’m kind of in the middle on that one.

Nah, seriously, I don’t agree with everything ol’ DLB has ever said but I admire the guy and would crack a bottle of cabernet with him, and everybody’s just going to have to deal with that. I won’t go down the usual route and say that he’s not a “real” conservative. I think he is a real conservative, with a conservative’s reverence for institutions and tradition, and with a deep wariness of transformative change. As a political pessimist, I’m with him on a lot of that. The guys running around Washington nowadays calling themselves conservatives are anything but. Trump and his ilk are wild-eyed radicals with enormous faith in the most deeply flawed of humans – the exact opposite of conservatism. That said, I have my critiques, and where Brooks’ book is weakest is when it strives to break away from the personal and run right up the middle of the whole thousand-points-of-light message of redemptive social change through private initiative, which has aged about as well as everything else from 1992 has.

Put another way, when Brooks is writing about his own experience and those of other people going through the wilderness years of a jack-knifed existence, he’s got a lot to say. His sections on marriage, intimacy and religion were, for me, worthy of both reading and reflection. But his final prescription for it all falls back to age-old political doggerel. It’s not government or the state that can redeem us, but individual initiative at the community level, led by brave folks picking up all the slack that the state has left untended. I’ll probably pick up that argument in more detail in a later post, but it reads as an unsatisfying return, late in an otherwise decent game, to a somewhat tired set of talking points. Actually I will pick it up again. This is worth discussing.

But, enough of all that. I’ll get back to my own unreasoned opinions in the days to come. It was also my birthday this week, bringing me one year closer to death, so look for some further rumination on mortality sooner than later. It had better be sooner, if I’m going to get to it at all.

Blast Radius Redux

So did I tell you the one where I was locked in a closet with a school secretary and a delivery boy during an active shooter drill?

It’s actually not the set up for a really awkward, dystopian romcom, and the fact that I haven’t got it in me to write the setup for a romcom of any kind is probably one of the basic problems of my personality. It’s just a thing that actually happened earlier this year, when I was picking up a kid for a dental appointment and had the bad luck and worse timing to arrive at school in time for a lockdown exercise. And they’re thorough about that kind of thing nowadays, so if you’re there, and not (presumably) armed in any obvious way, you, the delivery boy and the staff are all going in the closet together. To address the only question anybody wanted to ask me at the time, no one ended up making out. But more to the point, nothing about it felt particularly exceptional at all. Nor, I suppose, was it. The banality of social disintegration can’t really be overstated.

Point being that lockdown drills, actual lockdowns, perimeter lockdowns, security alerts, delayed release, actual closures under threat and the whole dire apparatus have become the background noise of my children’s lives and, by extension, my own. Like most parents I have to pick up the phone when a call comes in from the school, but I confess that at this point the little thrill of worry that used to greet every call from a 554 prefix is already fading into a twitch of annoyance. I still pick up, but there are a few seconds’ delay when it’s an automated call (as opposed to the nurse, who is human). At that point I hang on only long enough to know whether one of my kid’s schools has been hit, and whether I have to do anything differently around getting them home. Then I get back to my meeting.

That could be read as exaggeration, me being performatively blasé or macabre for effect. But you have to understand that these calls some in almost every week. And those are just the real events, not all shootings by any means, but all the credible threats and weird characters and whatever the hell else goes on. This is not at all counting the drills and practice runs that the kids go through. Which means that the kids are getting the message loud and clear: hunting children has become the go-to gesture of disaffection for our culture, and the grownups aren’t going to do anything about it.

I touched on similar things a few weeks ago in my Blast Radius post, drawing a parallel between the state of mortal anxiety that my own kids are asked to navigate, and the similar state of mortal anxiety that characterized my own childhood in the late years of the Cold War. So I was interested to read Joe Pinsker’s excellent article in the Atlantic this week drawing a similar comparison. I’d been thinking originally of the global threats that my kids have to contemplate, with a broad media consensus that the world will shortly burn, and they with it. But the school shooting phenomenon sits right alongside the promise of a broiled planet, giving the threat of immanent death a more hands-on, intimate aspect. I imagine that for the kids, it’s all part of a continuum.

I say I imagine, because the kids don’t really talk to me about it. Nor do I remember talking about the nuclear threat with my own parents, now that I think of it. I’m certainly available to talk about it, and the kids know that, but they don’t want to. I’m not sure that I want to. Because you’re supposed to have something to say, and there is nothing to say. Colorado is ground zero for school shootings. As of this year, it’s actually become a tourist destination for the well-armed mentally ill. If you want to shoot children, and an awful lot of people do, this is the place. So I’m supposed to say what, exactly? Offer them what?

I have a philosophy, not merely an attitude, of pessimism, and part of that for me is the willingness to call an intractable problem an intractable problem. We haven’t got a path on this right now. Our culture war has become too important, and children are only one entry in the ledger of collateral damage that we’re collectively willing to accept.

I said “we,” not “they.”

Every issue that bears on schools shootings – guns, mental health access, health care, schools themselves – breaks down along political lines, and nothing on that front is going to move right now. The reason (and I understand how crazy this is going to sound, but try to stick with me for a minute) is that our culture is locked in a moment of irrational optimism. Until we, we give that up, we can’t fix this.

It works like this. I live in a purple state. Politically, I have eclectic views. But because of those things I don’t live in a political bubble. I have friends very much on the right and friends very much on the left, and nearly all of them are lost in a fantasy of transformative change. Specifically, they believe that somehow, by means yet to be discovered, the other half of the country can be gotten rid of, or at the very least neutralized. And when this happens, they believe, they can finally have the society that they want. That’s optimism, wild, corrosive, and lethal. And we’ve hung the entire world on it.

It takes optimism to believe in that kind of transformation, because no act of dour reason will ever get you there. You’ve got to have a mystical belief in the eventual rightness of your cause, and in the power of that rightness to move the engines of history. For that matter, you’ve got to believe that history has engines to be moved. And you’ve got to be so fervent in all these beliefs that you’ll risk everything you are and have in its service.

I’m a conscientious objector to the culture war, partly because I love people on both sides, but mostly because I don’t believe in victory for either. The future of Western culture, if there is one, doesn’t lie in the ascendency of the righteous, whoever the fuck they are. It lies in the grimy and profoundly unsatisfying work of learning, somehow, to live together with someone whose views you find abhorrent, but with whom to have to work. It means lots and lots of dull, quotidian compromises and a few really difficult ones. It means a world in which no one is happy and no one necessarily wins, but out of which a few least-bad options can be hammered out. Understand, I’m not trying to offer up an alternative utopia here. I don’t dream of some harmony of man. I dream of endless acrimony, but it’s an acrimony anchored in healthy despair. The necessary despair of ever winning the war, and of ever getting it right. The future I dream of will basically suck. But it’s a future.

Look, I know how badly all this plays. There’s nothing exciting about the idea that we live in a badly fractured and totally bifurcated culture, and that none of this is going to change and that the only hope is give up our ambitions of anything better and start working with what we have. But that’s what we’ve got, and it’s going to take some pretty aggressive Pol Pot shit to make it any other way. The good news is that I don’t think either side has got the grapes, for now. But the reality is that my vision isn’t going to sell. Pessimism never outsells optimism. Resignation never outsells transformative vision. Despair never outsells even if the most destructive forms of hope. I don’t think you can sell despair at all. You just have to get there organically, on your own. If there’s a thread of hope, it’s that eventually most of us do. Whether there’s time for that is another question.

There are no good things about school shootings, but one of the least-bad things is that by and large they haven’t yet taken on an explicitly political cast. They will. But until then we can live still live in harmony in the supply closet. Until the shooter finds us, anyway.