The Other in the Academy

“The theory that a political debate can only be won by silence should sound strange in the mouths of people who toil in the realm of ideas.  Alas, it isn’t strange at all.  I have a friend who compares his academic work today to ‘a mine-clearing operation’:  at any moment, you might step on a hidden sensitivity and blow up.  The once-rowdy American university has become a place of conformism and fear…In a real sense, it was a victory for intellectual openness over the dogmatic impulse and fear of taboo. The whole affair nonetheless felt more like pathology than politics: another psychotic episode in the strange ongoing breakdown of the American mind.”

—Martin Hurried, “The Other at Bard College.” thefifthwave.WordPress.com. October 31, 2017.

The Oldest Treasures From 12 Great Libraries – Atlas Obscura

In the history of writing, bound books as we know them today arrive fairly late, so there are no actual “books” on this list. Instead, this is a wondrous collection of illuminated manuscripts, papyrus scrolls, and clay tablets. Some of these items you can even see in person, if you pay a visit.

—Sarah Laskow. “The Oldest Treasures From 12 Great Libraries.” AtlasObscura.com. October 26, 2017.

The Key to Happiness: Coconuts

“…the key to happiness [is] simple: Abandon your earthly possessions, move to a tropical island, become a nudist, and eat only coconuts.”

—Zoe Bernard,”The Curious Case of August Engelhardt, Leader of a Coconut-Obsessed Cult.” Atlas Obscura. November 30, 2017.

Imagine sitting down in a small room in Germany in 1902 and listening to August Engelhardt’s pitch for happiness. Imagine beginning again in some unspoiled place, warm and living off nature’s bounty. It’s an offer of a clean slate, freedom and abundance. It’s an offer that fuels utopian visions everywhere.

People content with their circumstances in life, read about utopian experiments gone wrong in The New York Times, or after some time with the benefit of historical hindsight, and congratulate themselves. The smug voice in the chorus of our internal dialogue says authoritatively, “I would never fall for such a thing.”

Maybe. But, if you look a little deeper, it seems that we are all part of a larger cult: the religion of modernism, which holds equally strange beliefs, such as: earthly possessions will make us happy, education (indoctrination, if we are being less charitable) is the solution to many of our problems, studies that are unable to be reproduced constitute science, the priesthood of experts who have sage opinions about problems they do not experience and don’t live near should guide society, etc.

The discontents are left with fantasies about the kind of utopian paradise they could create after they win the lottery. Of course, the reality is that winning the lottery increases your chances of some unfortunate end by an order of magnitude. But, no need to worry, this is only a problem for the “winners”, and there are precious few of them. In the meantime, ponder the American Dream, work hard, and hope that your children get a better shake than you did. It happens enough to have some truth to it, just another kind of lottery. Leaving us to wonder, what other lotteries do we all buy into?

Meanwhile, the content, the “middle-class” run the wheel, buying new technology, a new bed, the gym membership, and eventually, there is an empty bank account to go with an empty life. A life’s work thrown out into the dumpster after a polite delay subsequent retirement. Sorry, we had to upgrade our systems old chum, and the thing you used to do is now worthless. Over time, true for everyone, even Shakespeare or the prophets. Religions eventually die too.

We laugh at August Engelhardt. Because to take him seriously we have to ask whether life would be better even with the heat stress, malaria, scorpions, the emaciated body of the hunter gatherer in a place where hunger finds a home. Maybe in the long run it is better.

Can you remember when the last time anyone in your family has experienced famine? Many people in industrial societies, certainly in the United States, do not have anyone within living memory of the experience. Once it is out of living memory, it is as if it becomes inconceivable. Famine? That can’t happen here. Easier to ignore all the evidence to the contrary, such as the fact famine was a regular feature of human life for much of history, and it is often driven by a pattern of collapse in economic systems based on intensive agriculture. War and famine is an inevitable consequences of our modern society, but like St. Augustine, we pray that it won’t happen (to us) yet.

nasa-poster-mars-exploration

But, what of Elon Musk? Isn’t Mars the contemporary equivalent of Papua New Guinea in 1902? He, at least, is honest that it’s going to be tough and will result in the death of many. But, the American Dream might be replaced by another, The Dream of Sol. The belief that it is humanity’s destiny to live out among the stars. It is the Manifest Destiny of our times, and it will be sold, just like the American Dream was sold. Work hard everyone! It’s for the good of humanity!

Mars will start as a cult, then become a religion and/or nation(s). There will be other August Engelhardts that will join and then break away, whether it is seasteading, asteroidsteading or spacesteading, and there is little difference between 3d printed water recycling machines and food pellet generation with “everything the body needs” from eating only coconuts and going nude, beyond one requiring more technological sophistication.

August Engelhardt lives, and his hungry ghost and others like him will haunt us forever. Go to the store and buy a coconut to share, while you still can! After your offering, blast off to Asgardia, if you dare.

Who Cares About The Great American Novel?

“A question from the New York Times’ Bookends, “Where is the great American novel by a woman?,” got an interesting answer from the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid…

[Ursula’s answer, in short:]

But there’s something coy and coercive about the question itself that made me want to charge into the bullring, head down and horns forward. I’d answer it with a question: Where is the great American novel by anybody? And I’d answer that: Who cares?…

…Art is not a horse race. Literature is not the Olympics. The hell with The Great American Novel. We have all the great novels we need right now—and right now some man or woman is writing a new one we won’t know we needed till we read it.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin, “Who Cares About The Great American Novel?Literary Hub. December 6, 2017.

Love Ursula. 

The Problem With Talking, Illustrated Via The Law Enforcement Interview

“You, dear readers, know my advice about talking to the FBI: don’t. If the FBI — or any law enforcement agency — asks to talk to you, say ‘No, I want to talk to my lawyer, I don’t want to talk to you,’ and repeat as necessary. Do not talk to them ‘just to see what they want.’ Do not try to ‘set the facts straight.’ Do not try to outwit them. Do not explain that you have ‘nothing to hide.’

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up…”

—Ken White, “Everybody Lies: FBI Edition.” Popehat.com. December 4, 2017.

The key point is that our communication styles and habitual ways of thinking do not line up well when the focus becomes capital T “Truth”. We’re fallible human beings that frequently do not know the truth about ourselves, the world around us or even the truth about all the relevant context of events in which we take part.

Imagine, for example, the CIA operative that was involved in clandestine operations in South American countries in the 1980’s. Should this person be teaching college-level history courses based on their subject knowledge, particularly because they are acquainted with what was happening “behind the scenes”? Or, does his subjective experience compomise his ability to convey the truth in a more complete way?

I’d argue being involved in something compromises both our ability to explicitly know the truth of it, and there is also always an implicit knowledge informing our understanding that we cannot communicate in an explicit way that makes all communication false on some level. 

In most social circumstances, this ambiguity and imprecision helps us all get along, allowing us to rationalize or interpret things how we wish. But, in the context of a law enforcement interview, this flexibility is how cases are built against people.