28 September 2014

Commonplace: Analects 1.1

學而時習之、不亦說乎。 有朋自遠方來、不亦樂乎。人不知而不慍、不亦君子乎。
1.1 The Master said: "To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure? When friends come from distant places, is this not joy? To remain unsoured when his talents are unrecognized, is this not a noble man?” *
Confucius is now known with such respect that his name is a byword for wisdom in the West, and in China he has achieved the distinction of being called the "Ultimate Sage and First Teacher." Confucius was not truly appreciated in his own lifetime.  He was never forced to drink hemlock or anything, so perhaps Socrates has the greater claim on our sympathy, but Confucius never found the success he sought.  Though he always spoke of the correct method of governance, and he gathered a significant number of disciples, he was perhaps too troublesome to employ.  By his own account he could be contrary and defiant, and often spoke truth to power, and these are not traits that endear themselves to many rulers.  Ames and Rosemont describe his practical influence as "marginal," while Waley notes that Confucius' highest rank never seems to have been greater than shih-shih, the "Leader of the Knights" - not a high post.  To put it bluntly, Confucius was, at best, middle management.

Unhappy with his advancement, he tried taking his services beyond his home state of Lu.  At the time of his birth, China was no longer a great mass of dozens of different small states controlled by a single emperor, as in the time of the Zhou dynasty (an era he would come to revere).  Fourteen states had swallowed up all the others, and each was looking for an advantage.  Confucius must have thought that one of these rivals would welcome his teachings, and so he traveled to Ch'i, Wei, Ch'ên, Ts'ai, and K'uang.   But he never found success, and was kept from returning to Lu for some years.  While it was common at the time to offer services to different rulers, as Wilkinson tells us, it didn't earn Confucius any favors back home.  It was only the influence of some of his disciples, who were in Lu's bureaucracy, that enabled him to come home from his exile and settle down to a quiet life.

This failure has always been something that was hard for later fans to accept.  Depictions of Confucius over time kept giving him more and more impressive regalia and titles, with many late portrayals showing him wearing kingly robes and seated on a throne (though chairs only arrived in China a full thousand years after the master's death).  The embarrassing 2010 movie version presented a long-running popular theory in which Confucius' wisdom and leadership led to his promotion as a high adviser to Lu's king, where he defeats all obstacles, and where only his betrayal by a villain yields an unjust expulsion from his post.**

But however unfortunate and unfair it may be, Confucius was not a success in his own lifetime.  It is entirely possible that being a font of immense wisdom and unimpeachable learning has nothing to do with actually being a good leader.

Confucius had, instead, the consolation of philosophy.***  And in today's passage, we find what Grier calls the "fusion of his theory and practice."  This selection encapsulates many of the topics that would dominate Confucian thought: how to live a good life in evil times; what the true pleasures of the world can be; and the path to resisting adversity.

Eno points out that there are three precepts here, each with their own force, building to a "punchline."  We can find wisdom in each, in turn.  There is also danger: as happens so often with Confucius, the complexities of his thought could easily be reduced to fridge-magnet-grade pablum.

In the first place, we are reminded that an educated and talented man may find pleasure in cultivation and teaching, for its own sake.  Confucius says, "To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure?"

Anyone who has become proficient in a skill knows the pleasure of practicing that skill and passing it on.  Noel Burch described four stages to becoming competent at anything: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious incompetence.  And once we have reached the third stage, when we do something well and know that we do it well, it becomes a pleasure of itself.

Hsieh Liang-tso, a tenth-century Confucian, says that this precept means one's life should be one of constant practice of the correct behavior, of all sorts.  When you have learned how to stand properly and with reverence, that one should always stand properly, he says.  In this, then, we can imagine trying to teach a conscious or unconscious competence in all aspects of life.  Zhou Xi agrees, writing, "Learning never ceases, like a bird repeatedly flaps its wings. When one has learned and then continually practices it, then what one has learned becomes familiar and there is pleasure in one's heart."

Perhaps we are reminded of stories of those who have spent their lives in pursuit of competence in all things, practicing their learning at every moment like a bird flapping its wings.  Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong writes of observing his master, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, during their first moment of meeting:
As I watched he walked directly to the altar, and with a great deal of care, began to rearrange some flowers that were standing on the altar in a tall vase. ... I came to realize that because he was a Zen master and gave one hundred percent of himself to rearranging those flowers, as he did to everything, in that moment he was actually rearranging my mind.
What a pleasure to do things well!

Confucius says, further, "When friends come from distant places, is this not joy?" Hsieh expands this with the admonishment that "friends" should be a broad idea.  "Exploring among the ancients," Hsieh says, "for those who were 'first to discover this common element in my heart,' and researching among people today, those whom you believe are not so different from you, all are friends."

In the final precept, Confucius wryly ties together the neat little lesson with a self-referential comment: "To remain unsoured when his talents are unrecognized, is this not a noble man?"**** he asks.  The implications of these three teachings in a row are clear:  I am a man of learning and a valuable teacher, I have many people who are my friends and follow my words, and yet I am unappreciated.

Confucius is now one of the most well-known sages of history, so it's hard to feel very sorry for the way he went unrecognized.  But consider that for every genius who was recognized only after his death, there might be ten who are never recognized at all.  Scholarship and friendship may take us much of the way, but many people lack what may be the decisive element: sheer blind luck.  Your work must appeal to the right people at the right time, and you need to have the opportunity to take your shot.  I have known geniuses, and not all of them were successes in life.

And if you fail, and are left without material reward or recognition, then?  Well, then, Confucius teaches, we must not become embittered.  Even if you do not find the success you deserve, it will do no good to become resentful - to become "soured."

This is not just moral advice, it is practical.  To be sure, this is not particularly easy.  Zhou Xi describes the experience of avoiding resentment as "disagreeable and hard," which in the hugely restrained language of the ancients is something like "oh my god this sucks I just can't even."  But what is the advantage of becoming angry or resentful?  Is it likely to improve your prospects, by making you better at your work or by drawing others' positive attention?  Certainly not.  We might find help in growing ambition to improve, but resentment is unlikely to bring you happiness or success.  After all, as Yin Dun wrote,  "Learning lies in oneself. Whether one is appreciated or not lies with others. Why should there be any resentment?

Hsieh suggests that these three precepts are the heart of Confucian practice.  We must know how to treat ourselves, learning and enjoying practice; we must know how to treat others, embracing our allies of past and future; and we must not resent adversity.  Hsieh quotes Confucius' student Yen-tzu speaking of the ideal sage "living on a bowlful of rice and a ladleful of water, and not allowing this to affect his joy."

This, then, is the ideal to which we should strive.

* In this first entry of my commonplace book, I have taken advantage of the commentaries of Endymion Wilkinson in his Manual of Chinese History, the comments of Nicholas Gier on the Muller text, the traditional commentary of Zhou Xi and Hsieh Liang-tso, and the commentary of Arthur Waley, Robert Eno, Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, and A.C. Muller in their respective translations of The Analects.  Chinese transliteration remains however I found it, since I don't know any Chinese (yet).

** The Confucius of this film is oddly martial and contemporary, leading wars and decrying the evils of slavery.  Seriously, don't watch the movie.  Even Chinese people weren't that fond of it... during its opening weeks, so many more people went to see Avatar that the Chinese government started leaning on theatre owners to help Confucius out by pulling the decadent corruption of the West from their screens.  Honestly, folks, it's okay to admit that our heroes weren't good at everything.  Needing our role models to be perfect says more about our own inability to think critically than anything else.  Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, Martin Luther was an anti-Semite, and Confucius wasn't a very good administrator.

*** He didn't need quite so much consolation as Boethius, though, who wrote a book of the same name while waiting for his execution.  On the other hand, the foundation of Boethius' consolation was his absolute assurance that "God, the Creator, presideth over His work."  Confucius lacked the comfort of that particular a priori truth.

**** The word here translated as "noble man," and elsewhere as "gentleman" or "worthy man," is actually junzi, a word that meant something like "son of a king" in Confucius' time.  He used it to mean any person of worth, no matter their rank.  It was quite an egalitarian and revolutionary concept at the time - more on that in later episodes!

26 September 2014

Commonplace Wisdom

I've decided to start putting together a sort of commonplace book, beginning with The Analects of Confucius.  That seems an appropriate beginning, especially since Sunday is the anniversary of his birthday in 551 B.C.E. (as best anyone knows, anyway).  But why a commonplace book?  Why not just study the wisdom in every bit of The Analects?

The Analects is one of the most intelligent things ever written.  It is a deep and abiding analysis of what makes a good state.  The the values which it pursues in its elegant proverbs of virtue ethics and consequentialism are mostly the same ones I hold.  But I have neither the background nor the intellect to appreciate every bit of it - and I just plain think Confucius was wrong about some things.  After all, when the Master wrote that "He who has no rank in a state does not discuss his policies," he wrote in a time well before the modern idea of the informed and equal citizenry came about.

The idea to begin assembling a commonplace book with large selections came to me as I slowly made my way through Endymion Wilkinson's Manual of Chinese History, a book which humbles me in many ways.  It was through this method that many of the ancient wisdom books, The Analects included, probably came about.  His students set down all of the things they remembered or retained, and other things were added over the course of centuries.  It's a lot like the Bible, in fact - and it's just as difficult to pretend every last word is useful to you.

This difficulty is why one of the most fascinating things about Christian Bible study groups is how creative they can become when they get to the lesser-known verses or more strange ones. At one Baptist Bible study group I attended in Clearwater, they were going through the whole text, section by section. They skipped nothing, even the most tedious “begat” sections, out of the belief that a divinely-inspired book would have no cruft. It was a marvel to watch when they had moved beyond Genesis (which was interesting and had numerous great folk stories) and Leviticus (which was boring but had lots of moral commands) and into the books like Numbers.

Numbers begins like nothing so much as The Iliad, with a catalogue of men and armies, before moving on into bizarre commands that now seem hard to justify. There are interesting moments, of course, like the command to keep the Passover, or God’s angry fire-smiting of complainers, or the falling of manna. But if you’re taking each verse, you can’t skip to the highlights. So what do you do with passages like Numbers 5:17-23, the “law of jealousies?”

In this passage, we are told that if a guy suspects his wife of cheating, he can take her and a special offering to a priest, who will “take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water.” The priest will say special words (“The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot”), write the woman’s name in a special book, and blot the name with the “bitter water.” If she was cheating, then she’ll get terribly sick and “the woman shall be curse among her people,” but “[i]f the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.”

It’s hedge magic. Specifically, it’s a spell to tell for certain if someone’s wife has been cheating on them. If the wife has been unfaithful, the sympathetic connection of the woman’s name and her health will make her become sick, thanks to the god’s power.

It is really, really hard to read this sort of thing and find serious insight in it. But some Bible studies, including the one I attended, dutifully tackled every single one of these odd verses, considering them enlightened communication straight from the deity to their ears. In these sorts of instances, unfortunately, it proved to be really difficult. It was ultimately possible, as I recall, to consider that this spell was a moral lesson about how infidelity will taint your whole life… but it was quite a stretch.

Part of the problem is that the collecting process of the Bible has broken down.  The Bible, as with most similar books, came about over many years.  Numerous books and verses were collected or discarded, as people kept the parts they found beautiful or important or relevant.  This dialogue over the ages was slowed as all the oral parts became ossified in text, and frozen more as different "versions" were set down in print.  Now there's still some slow adaptation and change, of course.  There are still new translations, that change the ideas subtly.  And there are bizarre things like the Conservative Bible Project, which makes the Bible more in line with American conservative political beliefs.  But there aren't that many people doing the Jefferson Bible thing, intentionally abandoning whole chunks.  For most people, they make do by ignoring some pieces, but if you refuse to do that, then you're in a rough spot.

So it is that I decided to begin working on assembling the things I had found most helpful to improving myself and my life, beginning with The Analects.  There's a certain kind of hubris to it, I admit, since I'm daring to pass judgment on what is "useful" from one of the greatest and deepest things ever written.  But ultimately I don't think it's unreasonable: I don't know Chinese, and read it in translation, so those sayings based entirely on culture and puns are much less useful.  I also have the advantage of 2,500 more years of scientific advancement... it's not all that surprising that someone who has the benefit of the Enlightenment might have a leg up on even the greatest sage of a bygone era.

Someday, I will move on from the Master to Montesquieu or Montaigne or Mencius or Marcus Aurelius.  But for the time being, I'm going to start assembling my own commonplace book from the works of Confucius.  It should be a fun journey.

23 September 2014

Stay alive... the alternative doesn't have a lot going for it.

There tend to be two kinds of transhumanists: those who resent their life as it is, and those who cherish it.  This has become obvious as transhumanism becomes more and more mainstream.  Transhumanists believe that it is inevitable and desirable for mankind to exceed the limitations on life and ability imposed by the human body, living longer and doing more than biology would normally allow.  Of this group, some seek to surpass a prison of flesh - “to leave all of this meat behind,” as one anonymous Redditor put it.  A greater number simply resent that they have such limited choices.  They want the option to live forever, to see ultraviolet, and to touch magnetic fields.  As science fiction writer David Zindell said, “To be what you want to be: isn't this the essence of being human?”

Transhumanism is breaking out all over.  People like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel, ultra-wealthy technophiles, have been pouring money into research designed to extend the human lifespan and human capability; the current cover story of New York is a profile of Martine Rothblatt, another prominent transhumanist; and one of the most widely-read works of fanfiction ever written is a huge novel-length work called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky which leans heavily on impassioned denunciations of the concept of death (“[S]omeday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won't tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they're old enough to bear it; and when they learn they'll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed!”)

I’m a bit of a transhumanist myself, at least in the sense that I would happily live forever if it became an option.  But not everyone is won over by the increasing prominence of this perspective.

Indeed, in response to the rise of breathless and near-Messianic denunciations of human limitation there has arisen a group firmly in opposition.  This view is exemplified by Ezekiel J. Emmanuel’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75."
I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.
I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.
The article is brave and bold, and Emmanuel makes a variety of persuasive points in favor of a 75-year lifespan.  Some transhumanists sneer at opposition, referring to those who favor a natural limit on life as “deathists,” who only pledge loyalty to a limited life out of some sort of irrational Stockholm syndrome. This is seldom true, however, and Emmanuel takes care to present evidence and argument to support his perspective.  On several matters, however, I think he is badly mistaken.

Emmanuel argues that 75 is a good time to die.  He has several reasons:
  • Even though people can and do live much longer, an increasing number of older people are subject to greater and greater restrictions on their quality of life.  Death is preferable to a long physical decline.
  • Those people who remain healthy will still generally find that they are less able to contribute to society, as “creativity, productivity, and originality are pretty much gone” after the age of 75 for the “vast, vast majority of us.”
  • Your continued presence after age 75 will be oppressive for your children, who will be unable to be truly independent and find their own way, who will probably be burdened with caring for you, and who will have to watch you decay away from the vital person of your prime.
  • More money should be going to research Alzheimer’s and other late-stage ills, rather than prolonging crippled lives.
  • An expected end date for one’s life grants clarity and purpose to one’s life.
Emmanuel’s plan is that he will begin refusing most medical care as he nears the age of 75, avoiding any treatment that is curative and embracing only palliative care to make himself more comfortable.  He hopes for a pneumonia or infection to carry him away, quickly and quietly.  He is not trying to convince anyone else to die at 75, and doesn't even consider it the ideal for most people.  But he is quietly and seemingly genuinely happy to have the end to his life fixed on the calendar for 2032.

There is a poignant beauty to many of the arguments here.  Refusing to continue to consume resources and become a burden can be seen as a courageous act, and I very much support the decision to set the bounds and terms of your life.  However, there are serious problems here.

Many of the arguments, for example, are based entirely on a decline in physical and mental ability.  Emmanuel correctly points out that researchers’ efforts at ameliorating late-life illnesses have been less successful than their work at avoiding swiftly fatal diseases - while the lives of the elderly are better, on average, than those of a generation before, we simply have a greater number of people who are living long enough to get sick.

To put it another way, imagine we’re talking about a new robot they can install in cars.  These robots make cars run better, even when those cars are very old.  But they’re really good at avoiding accidents.  There are fewer and fewer accidents every year, as our robot cars get smarter and smarter.  This means that more and more cars survive to get very old… and even though we've advanced our ability to maintain a car after 200,000 or 300,000 miles, we’re still not that great at it.  And so an increasing number of cars chug along, belching black smoke or grinding their worn gears.  We've saved them from sudden accidents, but only so that they will decay on the road before our eyes.

This is a reasonable concern, but it’s a very separate issue.  Emmanuel has conflated two very different issues.  On the one hand, he speaks about a timely death at what he considers a reasonable age, but he’s also talking about choosing to die with dignity rather than slowly decline.  And these are two very different things.

We might be reminded of the Sibyl from Greek mythology, blessed with immortality but not youth.  T.S. Eliot quoted from The Satyricon about her at the beginning of The Wasteland:  "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die."  And assuredly, I don’t think anyone considers this to be their goal.  At a certain point, physical and mental misery might prompt anyone to choose death, instead.  As disease ravages your mind or your body, and if there is no reasonable hope of cure, but only the prospect of suffering, we might justly decide that nothingness is preferable.

However, this is true for people of any age.  I am not urging suicide lightly - in the overwhelming majority of cases it is a permanent solution to temporary problem, and if you feel drawn to it please speak to someone (you can just pick up the phone and talk to a kind, helpful stranger at 1-800-273-8255).  But if you advocate for euthanasia and a death with dignity, it doesn't matter whether or not you’re 75 or 105.  What matters is that your suffering is too great to be borne.

Emmanuel plans to die in 2032, eighteen years from now, regardless of whether or not he is still at his peak physical or mental health.  His choice is unconnected and cannot be motivated by a concern over his quality of life, which is quite a separate issue.  His reasoning works to argue for an option for euthanasia, not death at 75 irrespective of health.

The author himself appears aware of the large flaw in his logic, but unwilling to confront it.  He writes that while many people are disabled by age, “[t]hat still leaves many, many elderly people who have escaped physical and mental disability. If we are among the lucky ones, then why stop at 75? Why not live as long as possible?”

His answer?  Confusedly, he argues that even when we don’t experience mental disability with age, we still experience a natural mental decline in most cases, as “our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older.”  This is, naturally, simply the same argument.  Yes, there might be a point at which our mental functioning is too low to have a good quality of life, without significant hope of improvement from later therapies or technology.  But this may occur at any age.  Being unable to think of new ideas or being creative or being productive for society is not a sine qua non of a fulfilling life, or a life that gives back more than it receives.

When he admits this flaw in his argument, as well, he simply turns yet again to a new argument, suggesting that too long a life can harm our children.  Before addressing this, we should pause to note that bringing up a new argument does not suffice to fix serious flaws in your previous line of thought.  He asks himself why he might want to die early, and says that he doesn't want to experience a painful physical decline.  And if he’s healthy?  Well, he doesn't want to experience a mental decline.  And if he’s sharp?  Well, he doesn't want to stop being productive.  And if we think being productive/creative is not necessary to a happy and full life, or if he’s still productive?  Well… the children might be unhappy!

Anyway, note that medical and technological solutions could address literally every one of his concerns so far.  If we develop a way to selectively dissolve plaques accumulating in the brain, and eliminate Alzheimer’s, for example, then it would be unwise to having already committed via self-neglect, as Emmanuel planned, based on the assumption that Alzheimer’s would make your life not worth living.

Those solutions might not arrive in our lifetime - or maybe even never at all, although that strains my credulity.  But just presuming that these issues of senescence won’t be solved, or that you will probably develop one of them, is a pretty flimsy reason to die one minute before you must.

Emmanuel does present a few arguments that truly do present valid reasons why one might wish to die at 75, regardless of health or well-being.

He states that “[w]hen parents live to 75, children have had the joys of a rich relationship with their parents, but also have enough time for their own lives, out of their parents’ shadows.”  And I have to admit, I can see some merit to that argument, though naturally I do not want either of my parents to die.  But if I had children, I can see myself growing old and wanting them to come into their own.

The thing is, I’m not sure that’s (a) always the case or (b) sufficient reason for anyone to die.  I know that my father has been proud as I grew to be a man, and I can imagine the same thing.  I can imagine a future world, in fact, where it was considered odd that anyone ever thought in terms of primacy, of a “head of the household” or the like.  Our society and families have developed around this natural progression from one generation to a next, but if the nature of our lives changed, I think our self-images and society would have little trouble in adapting.

But let us say that this was an insoluble problem, and many people went almost all their lives feeling overshadowed by their parents.  I just can’t think of how that then leads to the conclusion that the parents should kill themselves with neglect, to get themselves out of the way.  That actually seems kind of twisted to me, a self-imposed martyrdom that would leave an even bigger burden of guilt.

How about this: move to Florida, instead.  Go to The Villages and start a new life of delighted retirement, and vacate the area so that your children can live without shadow.  If it’s really so important that your children escape “pressure to conform to parental expectations and demands,” then go play shuffleboard, far away.  This also has the advantage of probably delaying diseases of senescence, too, since an active life among like-minded people has repeatedly been shown to keep you alert and high-functioning.

This solution would also address another of Emmanuel’s reasons, since he argues that he wants to preserve the memory of himself as a vital and strapping fellow, not a decayed old thing.  “We wish our children to remember us in our prime. Active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving. Not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive, constantly asking ‘What did she say?’ We want to be remembered as independent, not experienced as burdens.”

If this is really a serious worry, then go to Florida.  Heck, if you really want to make sure you’re remembered well, cut off all contact with your family after 75.  But I think that hypothetical illustrates that this is really vanity.  We may not want to be remembered for our last stages, but we remain ourselves even as we grow to a great age, and produce a richer overall picture.  Siddhartha Gautama’s parents secluded him as a child so he would not have to witness old age or illness, but those things are also a part of life, as he would later note when he became the Buddha and spoke of the transcendent value of such a passage in the Patala Sutta:
Whoever can't endure them
once they've arisen —
painful bodily feelings
that could kill living beings —
who trembles at their touch,
who cries & wails,
a weakling with no resilience:
he hasn't risen up
out of the bottomless chasm
or even gained
a foothold.
Whoever endures them
once they've arisen —
painful bodily feelings
that could kill living beings —
who doesn't tremble at their touch:
he's risen up
out of the bottomless chasm,
his foothold is gained.
Lastly, Emmanuel argues for one further benefit of a planned finale:
Its specificity forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world. The deadline also forces each of us to ask whether our consumption is worth our contribution.  ... For me, 18 more years with which to wade through these questions is preferable to years of trying to hang on to every additional day and forget the psychic pain they bring up, while enduring the physical pain of an elongated dying process.
While this mindfulness is valuable, death seems like a heavy price to pay for it.  Why not, instead, strive for it all your life… including well past 75, if you can manage it?  There are entire traditions devoted to cultivating mindfulness during one's life, practicing the art of active living and full experiences.  Pick up one of the large stack of Thich Nhat Hanh's books available at every bookstore, and see if that works better for you than a death sentence.

Given the remarkable progress of technology, and its increasingly rapid growth, it seems like a fairly good bet that most of what ails you will be cured or mitigated, as long as you survive long enough to see it happen.  There are no certainties, and indeed, even my generation probably doesn't have great odds of routinely living past a century.  Nor should this stop us from taking Horace's advice, for "dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero" ("while we're talking, jealous time has fled: seize the day, trusting little in tomorrow").  But there's no good reason not to keep fighting for happiness every second that you can, hoping for a bright future.  The best justifications Emmanuel offers don't hold up to scrutiny.

The words of research Ralph Merkle occur to me in this regard.  He was discussing cryonics, the practice of freezing a recently-dead person in the hopes of later reviving them, but they work perfectly well when thinking about squeezing every wonderful moment of happiness and life from our time on the planet:  "Cryonics is an experiment. So far the control group isn't doing very well."

20 September 2014

What Claire Underwood Makes Us Ask About Feminism

It’s not very timely, but I’d like to talk about Claire Underwood, a character from Netflix’s series House of Cards.  If you have not seen the first and second seasons of that show, this post will contain many spoilers for you.

So stop here if you intend to watch House of Cards, since the surprising plot twists are part of what make it such a compelling piece of programming.

For the rest of us, let’s take a moment to remember that Claire Underwood is a terrible person.  People of all ethical persuasions can probably agree on this fact.  Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic gave a good partial summary of Claire’s misdeeds in an article about her:

  • She illegally cancels the health insurance of a former employee to deprive her of the medicine her fetus needs, using the maneuver as leverage in making her wrongful-termination lawsuit go away. Claire says, "I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required."
  • She knows and does not object to the fact that her husband is sleeping with a 22-year-old reporter, partly in order to wield psychological control over her; she is fine with his plan to destroy the young reporter; and the show strongly implies that she looks the other way when her husband murders the reporter.
  • An ambitious female assistant to the president is fired when Claire disingenuously implies to the first lady that she is having an affair with the president.
  • Claire pretends to befriend the first lady and manipulates her into going to marriage counseling in order to facilitate her husband's downfall as president.
  • While working on an anti-sexual assault bill, Claire pressures another woman who was raped by the same general—and who struggles with suicidal thoughts—to come forward, insisting the political payoff will be worth the significant personal sacrifice. But later, after the younger woman comes forward and suffers, it turns out that continuing to push the bill would have a political cost for Claire, at which point she opportunistically drops the legislation.

Friedersdorf is musing on Claire as a feminist icon, a discussion that was widespread at one point.  He thinks that she should definitely not be celebrated as a feminist, punning on a famous Gloria Steinem quote to declare, “Women need Claire as a feminist ally like a fish needs a wood-chopper.”  He admits that she undertakes a variety of actions that gesture towards feminism, listing her fearless public outing of her rapist, her bold ownership of her choice to have an abortion, and her fight for reforms to stop sexual assault in the military.  But to Friedersdorf, her motivation disqualifies her. "The fact that observers are willing to forgive her numerous monstrous acts and still credit her as a strong feminist is a statement about “our inclination toward power worship and ignoring abuses,” Friedersdorf says.  He’s an eloquent defender of libertarianism, and rightly points out that our society is often far too quick to forgive her sort of ruthless immorality.  Uncompromising people are easy to admire, as the wisest person in Braveheart once said, but as Friedersdorf points out,
But America is in deep trouble if the prevailing reaction to a ruthless, self-serving, power-hungry sociopath is to assess her political effectiveness, see if her policy positions accord with ours, and only then decide whether to reject her or, if she is "a winner," to embrace her as long as she stays one. Every moral judgment would quickly becomes suspect. 
This is a good point, but I think it’s orthogonal to a more interesting thought: to what extent is general virtue complementary or necessary to more specific moral movements?  Can you be an evil feminist and still be a “true” feminist?

It’s not as simple a question as it appears.  We know this because there are at least two replies that are immediately obvious to one kind of person or another:

Yes, you can be a strong woman working towards the elimination of discrimination and misogyny as a central goal, while otherwise following a less reputable moral path.


No, a feminist cannot separate the pursuit of a general moral good (however they define it) from the specific pursuit of equal rights and equal opportunity.

Maybe only one of those appeals to you.  I find merit in both arguments, though.  And as is so often the case, I think that this is really just one more argument about definitions.

I’m going to pull out the dictionary, as tiresome as that might be, only to illustrate that it provides two somewhat conflicting definitions of the term.  Merriam-Webster gives us two primary definitions, saying that feminism is either “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” or “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.”  I’m sure you see the distinction, and the problem.  It’s the same conflict found in my answers above: whether or not you think that one can be a villainous feminist - a ruthless Claire Underwood - depends largely on whether you believe that feminism strives towards larger principles of universal equality.

To avoid a false dilemma here, let me say that I think that the two alternative views are not the only possible interpretation, and they don’t even fully contradict each other.  For the most part, it’s possible to believe feminism to be both the advocacy of women’s rights and interests and the advocacy of equal rights and interests.  This is especially true when women are so generally disadvantaged that there is no practical difference, as is usually the case.  When women are always getting screwed over, working for equality is always going to amount to helping women.

Usually, we can be content to leave the distinction to philosophers, at least in this era.  When women are politically, economically, and socially equal to men, we can all fly to the Great Sky-Agora with our jetpacks, links up our brains to Brainomax, and hash out the issue of whether or not feminism means advocating for women or for equality.

So for the time being, conflict is evident only when it comes to “evil” feminists - people who personify the ideal of the strong, bold woman who is unafraid to assert her own power and who solves her own problems.  Claire Underwood doesn’t allow her husband to avenge her rape - she does it herself in a live interview.  And in the same interview, she deals with an intrusive journalist’s questions about children by taking positive ownership of her reproductive choices, scorning the insinuation that she should be somehow ashamed.  Claire advances her interests and her goals for her non-profit, and isn’t afraid to occasionally use her husband as a pawn, the same way he has used her.

In short, Claire is definitely a badass symbol of some key feminist ideas, and a fierce advocate for herself and her gender… while also being remarkably evil.  And whether or not you give her credit for being a feminist hero (or a feminist at all) depends on whether or not you think she is betraying the larger moral source of feminism’s moral authority.

There's no right answer here, just like there's no one correct definition of feminism.  Or at least, I wouldn't be the guy to make those sorts of pronouncements.  Not even the most well-intentioned dude should be purporting to define feminism.  But it's something to be aware of, and yet another lesson (as if we needed another) in how accurately defining the problem usually is half of solving it.