Monday, July 30, 2007

An Immoral Philosophy - New York Times

An Immoral Philosophy - New York Times

Now, why should Mr. Bush fear that insuring uninsured children would lead to a further “federalization” of health care, even though nothing like that is actually in either the Senate plan or the House plan? It’s not because he thinks the plans wouldn’t work. It’s because he’s afraid that they would. That is, he fears that voters, having seen how the government can help children, would ask why it can’t do the same for adults.

And there you have the core of Mr. Bush’s philosophy. He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.

This sounds like a caricature, but it isn’t. The truth is that this good-is-bad philosophy has always been at the core of Republican opposition to health care reform. Thus back in 1994, William Kristol warned against passage of the Clinton health care plan “in any form,” because “its success would signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the very moment that such policy is being perceived as a failure in other areas.”

What's the argument, I wonder, on the conservative side--what would a rational reconstruction look like? I wonder if the grand goal is something like this:

In a globalized world, managed by the US, geography is largely irrelevant and nationhood as such undermines efficiency. The major players will not be geographically defined nation-states but multinational corporations, each a virtual nation in itself with its own schools and training programs, security forces, health care schemes and infrastructure, unfettered by national boundaries or government regulations, moving goods, information and labor freely in the interests of maximizing the production of wealth and consumption. The whole earth will be a factory achieving ever higher levels of productivity by exploiting every natural resource and extracting every bit of time and energy from workers. Unrestricted competition and market incentives will insure that everything, and everyone, is used to the utmost--not a drop of oil left in the ground or a seam of coal unmined, not a tree standing outside of theme parks operated by the recreation industry where workers on their down time will consume Nature, providing more work for service sector employees maintaining the parks, taking tickets and operating food concessions and for the manufacturers of ever more elaborate camping, hiking and biking equipment.

The whole earth will be an engine for producing ever more wealth, on an endless upward spiral of more consumption and more work, until the earth is depleted and we are used up. The slag heaps will rise--human waste will accumulate: huddled masses of unproductive individuals who are burnt out and used up. But even the least productive citizens will be put to use as inmates, products of a growing privately-run prison industry on contract from the caretaker state, providing jobs for legions of guards, cafeteria ladies and other service workers, and handsome profits for stockholders.

So why shouldn't we extend health care benefits to more poor children? Because while in the short run it is efficient and humane, in the long run it will slow the progress of privatization and push back the advent of this utopian future of unlimited consumption and endless work. The end justifies the means.

Of course as a utilitarian I believe that maxim. I just think the end here is pure hell. This is, on a grossly inflated scale, the life most humans have lived until very recently in history: eat to work and work to eat--the endless cycle consumption and toil. It was only after the Industrial Revolution succeeded that a significant number of people could get off the treadmill, and buy time to enjoy themselves--to consume, and produce Culture in the old elitist sense: poetry, music and art for art's sake, literature, philosophy, crafts and pure science, the whole end and purpose of life. Now we're being told to get back on the treadmill and go even faster. Work harder and longer to produce more and consume more. If we achieved so much through those generations devoted to production and consumption, think of how much more we could produce and consume if we eliminated that unproductive leisure time, got back on the treadmill and devoted all our time and energy to production.

The end justifies the means, but this is precisely a failure to recognize what the end is, to take the means as the end. And in a very bizarre way it's strikingly similar to the countercultural program of minimizing consumption and the use of technology, promoting time and labor-intensive methods to save the earth. According to the countercultural ideal, c. 1970, we were supposed to cut back on labor-saving technology, processed foods, manufactured products and every convenience, grow our own vegetables, cook from scratch, and heat our yurts with wood we chopped ourselves, eating to work and working to eat. According to the neo-conservative ideal, c. 1990 we were to supposed to exploit labor-saving technology in order to extract more labor from the population, to produce more and consume more--again eating to work and working to eat. We cranked up the speed but the treadmill was the same.

Dr. Siddhārtha Gautama got it right: this is the Wheel. We could easily get off but cling and are crushed.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The World, the Flesh, the Devil...And the Good Tunes

Last Sunday, I drove through a strange liturgical neighborhood. I attended a Tridentine Low Mass, the Latin rite that took hold in the 16th century, was abandoned in the 1960s for Mass in the local language and is poised for a revival now that Pope Benedict XVI has swept away the last bureaucratic obstacles to its use...Pope Benedict insists he is not taking the church on a nostalgia trip. He wants to re-energize it, and hopes that the Latin Mass, like an immense celestial object, will exert gravitational pull on the faithful. Unless the church, which once had a problem with the law of gravity, can repeal inertia, too, then silent, submissive worship won’t go over well. Laypeople, women especially, have kept this battered institution going in a secular, distracted age. Reasserting the unchallenged authority of ordained men may fit the papal scheme for a purer church. But to hand its highest form of public worship entirely back to Father makes Latin illiterates like me irate. It’s easy enough to see where this is going: same God, same church, but separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXIII or Benedict XVI. Smart, devout, ambitious Catholics — ecclesial young Republicans, home-schoolers, seminarians and other shock troops of the faith — will have their Mass. The rest of us — a lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics, guilty parents, peace-’n’-justice lefties, stubborn Vatican II die-hards — will have ours.

Now wait a minute: what is the connection between Latin and "the unchallenged authority of ordained men"? Why assume that the Latin Mass was the property of ecclesial young Republicans and home-schoolers" while cafeteria Catholics and peace-'n'-justice lefties would naturally prefer keyboard, guitars and Cumbayah? Why assume that anything formal, fancy, exotic or aesthetically interesting was inherently devilish--at least from the lefty point of view?

That's what we assumed during the dullest days of the 1970s--and not only, or primarily, when it came ecclesiastical matters. Disgusted, and exhausted with the War in Vietnam, all patriotic symbols and ceremonies were of course the work of the devil: people like us would never fly the flag, watch parades or participate in any of the ceremonies associated with the American liturgical year. But that wasn't the whole of it, or even most of it: all ceremony, formality and costume was suspect. There would be no dress-up occasions (I was happy about that), no formal events, no dances, no proms or white weddings. I graduated from college wearing a dress I got at the Rummage Shop in town: my class had voted to forgo caps and gowns in order to use the money we would have spent on renting regalia to create a scholarship fund for students from "the Chicago ghetto" as we put it--even though one faculty member pointed out that they money we saved wouldn't pay for more than 2 weeks at Lake Forest College. I was married in my graduation dress a year later. Marriage was generally frowned upon because it was an "empty ceremony"--and in every context, "ceremony" was always preceded by "empty"--which benefited selfish, castrating women. If you insisted on getting married, you had better get married in street clothes or ethnic costume, preferable in the middle of a field, assure friends that the "piece of paper" meant nothing to you and that you were only getting married to extract money from your parents and collect presents. Catholics stowed the silverware and bought up earthen vessels, Jimmy Carter preached from an unheated White House in his cardigan and all the country went into penitential earth tones.

Then the US turned sharp right because Reagan promised Morning in America--light, color and joy, parades and patriotic ceremonies, dances, proms, graduations in regalia and white weddings, money, cars and suburban homes, and an end to the penitence and self-castigation. As an undergraduate during the days of demonstrations and teach-ins I thought that I'd been born too late and would never get this--never get the academic job I wanted because universities would fold, never own a house or car, never be married or have children. Now it seemed like there was a possibility of living the life I wanted to live--but it meant supporting the conservative agenda. There was a choice. The Right offered what I'd always wanted and thought I'd missed: a real career and interesting work, the possibility of owning a house, a car and a family. The Left offered, at best, the society in which I lived in our gritty 4th floor walk-up in a New York City slum--people like me working in crappy little jobs in publishing, journalism or the arts, in a world where no one was married or given in marriage and the very idea of having children was completely off the map--but at worst the world of the friends I'd left behind, living in even crappier apartments or sharing houses, waitressing to support boyfriends engaged in the serious business of reading Marcuse, singing old union songs and planning the Revolution, soaking and cooking dried beans and being a good sport when their men moved on to other chickies--not being clingy, castrating bitches when it was time, we were told, to let go.

I didn't believe it, at least not after I graduated from college in my rummage shop regalia. I realized that I didn't have to buy into the conservative agenda to have a career, a house, a car and a family, and I fought for all I was worth to get those things. Still there was that idea that anything that was even a mite tasty was bad and in particular that any ceremony, formality or costume was inherently right-wing. You could, perhaps, go to Fourth of July ceremonies and enjoy the festivities, but it had to be done in the spirit of irony. Any ceremony was tainted, a symbol for the Right marking territory.

So it was with religious ceremonies, like the mass in Latin. Like the Pope, the author of this op-ed piece views it as a marker of territory, a symbol of the ecclesial young Republicans and home-schoolers capturing turf. He does not get the idea that people might like it for what it is, simply because they like fancy clothes and Latin. His view seems to be that every practice is a symbol of some political or theological agenda, with little or no intrinsic value, and that right-thinking people, that lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics and peaceniks, will of course prefer guitars and keyboards and the Peace. The assumption is that no one can possibly be interested in religion as such, that religion can only be a symbol of some ulterior social and political agenda, that anyone who dislikes the 1970s earthtone mass and the utterly detestable Peace must really have some conservative ecclesial young Republican homeschooling agenda going. They just do not get the idea that religion as such might be important to people, not as a symbol of some conservative program, but in and of itelf.

I'm not Catholic, but sometimes I think that after 25 years at a Catholic college I might as well be. I've never experienced the Latin mass in a liturgical setting but I have sure as hell sung it, early in my life and often. I love church Latin: it has pure vowels and sings well. I loved above all things singing the mass, the Te Deum, the Magnificat, the Regina Coeli and all the good church music in Latin. I love Aquinas' hymns, O Saluturis Hostia, Tantem Ergo, Adoro Te Devote--though I think I love singing Anglican chant even better. I joined the Church because when I was 14 I sang the Schubert Mass in G, that sweet thing that every amateur choir sings. Why doesn't this guy get that this is what people want--that wonderful Latin, and the thrill of transcendence, the mysticism and aesthetic pleasure? Why doesn't he understand that it isn't the good liberal values people dislike but guitars and keyboards, priests dressed in gunny sacks, chickies singing into mikes, carpeted churches with theater seats, and the utterly hateful Peace because it's boring, emotionally flat, dull, pious, puritanical, embarrassing, puerile, sentimental and sickening--Jimmy Carter in his earthtone sweater nagging us to be nice and not to have too much fun.

Friday, July 27, 2007


Why Work? // Index

Welcome to CLAWS at We're a pro-leisure and anti-wage-slavery group of people dedicated to exploring the question: why work? This site provides information, support, and resources for those looking for alternatives to traditional employment.

I've started reading Tom Lutz' Doing Nothing: A history of loafers, loungers, slackers, and bums in America and hit this site to which he refers.

I'm thinking of joining CLAW, and the Leisure Party promoted at the site, but I'm not sure whether I really qualify. I don't like work--at least what I think of as "real work." But the main reason I don't like it is because it's not sufficiently strenuous, intellectually or physically, and because it's not individually productive. Before I got my first real job, I was a great Ayn Rand fan: the idea of exertion and energy, fighting, competing and striving appeals to me. What turned me off was the discovery that most real work isn't strenuous and doesn't produce results: you simply fill time and there's no way to exert yourself or achieve.

The book though is making me wonder whether I'm the authentic slacker I always assumed I was. But I don't do much slacking in the traditional sense. Apart from Washington Week and the weekly ritual of Keeping Up Appearances to which my husband and I are addicted, I don't watch TV. I don't play video games. I don't do any of the things most people regard as recreation. I write papers, prepare courses, read stuff for work and, being at the computer, on my breaks I blog. On mini-breaks--going to the kitchen to get a coke, I do little chores--wash the dishes, mop the floor, take out the trash, etc. I spend virtually all my waking hours either doing housework or my job, both of which I like. What bothered me most about the "real work" I did was that it wasn't sufficiently intense, physically or intellectually, and that there was no result.

The book poses a conceptual question: what counts as "work." It's the ambiguity that defenders of the work ethic which I so detest exploit. Work in one sense, strenuous intellectual or physical exertion that produces a result is fulfilling, satisfying and conducive to human flourishing. But most jobs are nothing like that: they're just drudgery and enforced idleness, doing dull, boring repetitious tasks and filling time in a confined space until the day is over. Moralists castigate the loafers, loungers, slackers and bums who don't, won't or can't do this drudge work, assuming that the alternative is, as one commentor or this blog suggested, playing Nintendo or simply vegging out. Work, they claim, is fulfilling, satisfying and conducive to human flourishing. But this is coming from the perspective of the tiny minority of individuals, at most 20% of the population, whose jobs are interesting, strenuous and productive, and who exploit the ambiguity to suggest that the rotten, mind-numbing drudgery that most people do is fulfilling, satisfying and conducive to human flourishing. Most people are scanning groceries, answering phones, inputting data, waiting tables, flipping burgers, sorting paper clips and shuffling papers to look busy, or just staring into space until they can get out. That's real work. It has to be done, but it doesn't benefit the people who are forced to do it in any way.

At least let's be honest about it. There are lousy jobs that have to be done--and most jobs are lousy. We have a life-lottery to see who will be sacrificed, as in the old Shirley Jackson story. The losers, the majority of the population, will have lives that are barely worth living. We underestimate the number of people who are sacrificed because we won the lottery and hang out with winners, and underestimate the sheer lousiness of the work others do because we've never done it for any extended period of time or imagined that we could be stuck doing it for all of our adult lives. We cover our tracks by moralizing and lying to ourselves: we pretend to believe, and maybe convince ourselves, that people who do lousy jobs don't suffer as much as we would if we did these jobs and that they could, if they chose, do better for themselves.

In Franz Werfel's strange futuristic fantasy, The Star of the Unborn, given advances in technology, most don't do any work. Imagine looking back historically from that future to the 21st Century where, even in affluent countries, even people who were relatively well off, most people were in effect imprisoned all day, 5 days a week for most of their adult lives working the rock pile.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Change on the Cheap - New York Times


Change on the Cheap - New York Times

John and Elizabeth Edwards were sitting at a camera-friendly spot along a coastal creek in South Carolina the other day, talking with environmentalists about global warming, when Mrs. Edwards mentioned that she was prepared to give up tangerines....John Edwards has a plan to cap carbon emissions, while allowing businesses to buy the right to go over their quotas. Many people regard this as the most efficient and politically salable way to reduce greenhouse gases. But they usually acknowledge that it would make some products — like small orange fruits that have to be transported a long way to get to market — more expensive. “I live in North Carolina; I’ll probably never eat a tangerine again,” Elizabeth said...

Which brings us back to the question of whether John Edwards is capable of admitting that his plan to end global warming — to save the planet — might require some American sacrifice on, say, the tangerine front.
“It does have a cost impact. No question about it,” the candidate said at the end of the day, as his car bounced along to the airport...Elizabeth Edwards joined in, pointing out that if produce that was shipped and trucked from far away got more expensive it would create incentives for people to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. “I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “And she likes tangerines,” her husband laughed...

Yesterday morning, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign called to clarify his position. The global warming program would not require families to pay more for everyday products, he said. “We are optimistic we will not have to raise the price of tangerines.”

This is American politics. Jesus wept, and all the angels too. This is why it is impossible for any American politician to be reasonable and honest and why Americans are contemptuous and distrustful of the whole political system because it's idiotic and corrupt. Here is a relatively decent person being open and honest and landing in the pit. Here is the dilemma--trilemma in fact--that every politician faces:

(1) Be reasonable and honest. No! You will offend, by our calculations, perhaps 0.0273 +/- 5% of the electorate, and in your position you can't afford it.

(2) Give the safe, canned answer. No--even worse! You'll alienate your Base--your most loyal fans who support you because you're different from the other candidates, because you don't give safe, canned answers.

(3) Be reasonable and honest and then, after a heated pow-wow with groomers and trainers send a representative to take back what you said and give the safe, canned answer. Worst--you are dead. Now they see you speak with forked tongue and accuse you of being a crook.

RIP my favorite candidate. Jesus Christ couldn't win at this game!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Full-Time Blues - New York Times

Jobs and Careers

The Full-Time Blues - New York Times: "Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Carolyn Maloney are circulating draft legislation modeled on the British workplace flexibility law that would give employees — all workers, not just moms or parents — the right to request a flexible schedule. The legislation — which would require employers to discuss flexibility with workers who request it, but wouldn’t require them to honor the requests — has a little bit of something for everyone: protection from retaliation for workers who fear letting on that they’re eager to cut back, protection from “unfunded mandates” for businesses. Critics might say the proposed legislation’s touch is so soft as to be almost imperceptible, but it’s a start. At the very least, it’s a chance to stop emoting about maternal love and war and guilt and have a productive conversation."

The results of the latest survey, chewed over ad nauseum on blogs and lists I read, a substantial number of mothers would prefer part-time to full-time work. And, apart from hardened feminists, the response has been: why not?

The reason why not is that this is the way things have always been for most women and it is the worst of all possible worlds: most women don't have either the opportunity to pursue careers or make lives for themselves as career housewives--women have jobs. Men, a lucky few, have careers: they work to achieve, even of only to achieve high salaries or to attain prestige and power. Women work for others, to fill in and help out: putting hubby through school doing pink-collar drudge work, hired out when the family needs additional cash, sent home when the family needs child care and domestic services and part-time to drudge in both the labor force and the home when the family needs both money and domestic services. Women are, and always have been, a reserve army of support workers, deployed as needed and used.

When I was a child, one of my fantasies was to be the ultimate housewife. I dreamed of having the perfect house--exquisite furniture and decor, perfectly managed and organized. The house would be my creation, my work of art, the ultimate expression of my self: in one version of my fantasy I dreamed of literally building it myself and, in most versions, I imagined making at least some of the furniture, painting the pictures on the walls and decorating the place with various crafts projects. I would cook superb gourmet meals, aesthetically presented, keep perfect accounts, save huge amounts of money and make even more by playing the stock market. In my free time, I would improve myself: learn to play the piano well, read, write, learn languages, create glorious flower arrangements and become spectacularly proficient at all arts and crafts. I would polish myself, and my house--the expression of myself--to burn with a hard, gemlike flame. I would be a career housewife--I would achieve, not for my family's benefit (husband and children were always vague in my fantasy) but for pure self-agrandisment.

That is not feasible for most women and never has been because whether at home or in the labor force women have jobs not careers, "doing for" others, supporting others and filling in where the need arises--always second-rate, always mediocre, practical, dependable, flexible, a resource to be used. Part-time work makes both serious careers in the labor force and career housewifing impossible--it means compromising both projects, being unable to go gung-ho with no brakes on at either of them, doing a half-assed job at both.

The Kennedy-Maloney bill seems promising--it doesn't tie flexible work to motherhood or even to parenting and care-giving responsibilities. But given the way things are you can bet that it will be overwhelmingly women, particularly women with young children who will take the bait--not because women's tastes are overwhelmingly different from men's but because their circumstances are different. There are glass ceilings and all the way up to them hurdles and filters: women know that their career prospects are limited, that going part-time, asking for flex-time or otherwise showing lack of commitment has few opportunity costs. Moreover women know that regardless of how many hours they work outside the home they will still be saddled with the bulk of child care and domestic chores. Brute tastes are an unknown: we can't assume that men and women in the aggregate have the same tastes, or different tastes. But we can see plainly that their circumstances are different, that the costs, benefits and risks of cutting back on work are different, and that is enough to explain some of the differences in behavior.

Whether it explains all is another matter. Maybe even factoring out differences in incentives, opportunity costs and circumstances men and women would still behave differently. Feminists, including me, are not out to claim dogmatically that men and women in the aggregate have exactly the same tastes, aspirations or abilities. The point is that at least some differences in behavior are a consequence of different circumstances, in particular differences in wages and opportunities on the job, and differences in the work load at home. And even more importantly, these differences perpetuate themselves. Women don't invest in work because employers don't invest in women; employers don't invest in women because women don't invest in work. Then there are those pesky externalities: women's choices have fall-out for other women. The choice of visible numbers of women to go part-time or ask for accommodations leads employers to make predictions about the behavior of other women and proceed accordingly. It perpetuates the idea of women as second-rate, less committed, less intense: good, solid, useful workers but not high-flyers.

However well-intentioned, even if this bill does not explicitly target women, what it would offer de facto is a kinder, gentler Mommy Track. The gender-neutrality of this bill is a fake, like talk about "parenting" when mothering is what's clearly intended. If this bill passes it will be women overwhelmingly who take the bait and that will perpetuate the standard arrangement, the worst of all possible worlds for women: drudge work at home and drudge work in the labor force--for every woman, two jobs and no career.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The REIfication of America

On this idyllic summer afternoon, my daughter and I went to REI to buy a water bottle. There was quite a selection, next to an even larger selection of camping dishes and camping flatware that would have done perfectly well for semi-formal indoor occasions, and acrylic margharita glasses.

I've never gone camping, though I did once sleep rough in South Dakota while hitch-hiking to visit a friend in Wisconsin--and woke up to see a bobcat staring me in the face. I do like biking thought and checked out a hybrid bike on the clearance rack--price slashed to $999. I said knowingly to Elizabeth, "this is made of one of these alloys and it's probably really light." Lifting it, it weighed like lead. A grand for this?

The store was full of 20-somethings examining leaden mountain bikes and 30-somethings, trailing toddlers, checking out jogging strollers. Where did they get the money for this stuff? When we were their age we shopped at thrift stores, garage sales and, when we were flush, Target. I mashed up leftover scrambled eggs from breakfast with mayonnaise to make egg salad sandwiches for lunch and crocheted together dish cloths to make shirts for the then baby.

REI irritated me. Can one describe a classification of commercial establishments as a "genre"? Nothing else will quite do. There seems to be a genre of overpriced stores and eateries that make their living by presenting a stylized version of hippie businesses c. 1975. In grad school we went to eat at Our Father's Place run by a community of Jesus Freaks who did a good spinach salad and sold chewy home-baked cookies, muffins of every description and little herbal teas. Now there is Starbucks--and endless knock-offs, including the coffee shop at school. The selection of beverages has been expanded and elaborated, but the teas are still there and the muffins are endless.

I have nothing against crass materialism or firms that charge exorbitant prices for fancy stuff. It's this commercialized faux-bohemia, that rubs me up the wrong way: these 2nd generation yuppies hauling mountain bikes, bottled water, gourmet trail mix and high tech camping equipment to the trailhead in their SUVs to spend a weekend roughing it, like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess in her royal cowshed.

I don't know why it bugs me--maybe it's the fakery and the self-righteous double-bluff elitism that generally goes along with it. "We aren't crass materialists like those people, who take their kids to theme parks and eat fatty processed food: we hike, bike, eat healthy natural foods and live the simple life at three times the price." If I had the bucks these hikers spend on roughing it I'd go to Old Europe, gape at great architecture, walk the streets of cities centuries or millennia old and consume High Culture. I'd head for the historical heartland, the Mediterranean--to the south of France, Province and Langdoc where they spoke the vulgar Latin Language of Hoc, to Rome, Venice and Ravenna where the Empire made its last stand, and fell, to Athens where Our Founder walked, and to Constantinople to see Hagia Sophia. I've been reading A Short History of Byzantium by I forget who and the very names of the waters between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea make me shiver with pleasure: the Bosphorus, the Hellespont, the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn.

I suppose the thinking is that this sort of conventional taste is too, too naive. Everyone knows you're supposed to like this stuff: hoi polloi learn what Culture is in school. The truly astute appreciate the stylishly off-beat. Wine snobbery is too, too obvious and even micro-brew snobbery is getting old: exotic vegetables and fancy chocolate are the new frontier. Anyone can learn off the list of Great Classical Music, Great Literature and Great Art you're supposed to like: it's the selective appreciation of pop culture that shows you really have good taste--haven't just learnt the list--and that you are so confident of your social standing that you can brag about liking science fiction and classic rock. I'm still not buying it. I like Bach, Mozart and Haydn (oh, yes, I'm fantasizing side trips to Vienna and Salzburg on the pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia). There's a reason why stuff makes it onto the Great Art list: it's what people naturally like. You can't walk around Bath or listen to Mozart and not like it. Interest in pop culture is an affectation.

I can understand appreciating natural beauty spots and enjoying physical activity. I enjoy biking and I'd rather like to try camping sometime--but not with $3000 worth of equipment. This faux-bohemianism of REI and Starbucks, organic veg, bran muffins and micro-brews, and the self-congratulatory elitism that dare not speak its name, gets up my nose. We got a water bottle for $20 and got out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Lutz's diligent research on a range of lazy and slovenly subjects, from French flâneurs to New York bohos, ultimately leads him to side with the bums. Flying in the face of yuppie values and critics of the welfare state, his "slacker ethic" emerges over the course of this history as both a necessary corrective to—and an inevitable outgrowth of—the 80-hour work week.

I just ordered Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America to top up an Amazon order so that I could get free Super-Saver shipping. I did, admittedly, read a review a while back and was looking for the chance to get it.

The work ethic is one of those evolutionary fossils that was once adaptive but has become detrimental to our well-being--like our proclivity for gorging on meat and fat. We evolved, socially as well as biologically, to cope with hardship and scarcity so we're geared up to gorge, fight, and work until we drop--and now we're stuck with it.

I have to say that for myself, though I like eating, and like fighting even better, I've never had any interest in working. In fact the focus of my entire moral and political agenda is on the badness of work and organizing things so that more people can get away with doing less of it. What I seriously don't get is why even amongst progressives, intent on promoting human welfare, so few understand the badness of work. They understand the badness of poverty, disease and ignorance and are committed to doing something about it but most just don't get the badness of work much less show any interest in doing anything about it.

Yesterday evening, while cooking dinner and waiting for the BBC News on PBS I found myself watching Heuell Hawser's feel-good travelogue, California's Gold. Howser, reporting on the avocado industry showed a processing plant where a crew of Hispanic women were sorting avocados into "ones" and "twos"--pretty green fruits for the supermarkets and ugly brown ones for guacamole. Howser stressed repeatedly, with approval, that the business of processing avocados hadn't changed for 50 years--no chemicals, no high tech, nothing inorganic--just a room full of women sorting avocados while, presumably, their male counterparts were in the fields picking them, also without the benefit of labor-saving technology.

I don't understand why neither Howser, nor most of his viewers, grasp how miserable the lives of these workers are. Of courseif they're progressive and enlightened, they believe that people who do these jobs should get decent pay and benefits--and I do too. But I don't know anyone who is grabbed in the gut imagining how utterly miserable these jobs are, how utterly inadequate any compensation--whether wages or benefits or working conditions--is to the sheer misery of the job. I don't understand why.

I looked at the women in the background, while Howser was interviewing the manager, sorting avocados and it wasn't that hard to imagine their lives. 8 am you go to work, get out onto the floor and start sorting the avocados--the ones and twos. And that's what you do for the next 8 hours--ones in this bin, twos in that one. Nothing to learn, no way to achieve, nothing of interest, no future, no way to excel, no chance of advancement, no scope for originality, no long-term goals, and nothing to show at the end of the day. Then you go home and cook, do some cleaning, go to bed, wake up and the cycle starts again. That's life, that's all there is. How can anyone watch this and not be moved--this is the life most people live and only a few of us, by plain dumb luck, have managed to escape it.

This is work--and I'm agin' it. I'd pay 10 times as much in taxes to see to it that no one is forced to do that work day after day, year after year with no hope and no possibility of escape--largely I suppose because it could so easily have been me: sorting avocados, scanning groceries, inputting data, working fast food. People look at pictures of starving kids and are moved. They read sob stories in women's magazines about dying children, feel compassion, and give until it hurts. Somehow they can imagine poverty and sickness, and empathize, but they can't seem to imagine the sheer misery of being locked into a life of endless drudgery, which is most people's lot. How can anything make up for being trapped in a restricted space for 8 hours a day, doing a job like this, buried alive?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Groomers and Trainers

Consultants have encouraged a culture that deifies them, happy to be the subject of prominent profiles in the pages of the Style section of The Washington Post or The New York Times Magazine...Dennis W. Johnson, a professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on consultants, said their ascendance is, historically speaking, a relatively contemporary occurrence and, he hoped, a passing one.

Watching Washington Week last night we were depressed by the extent to which the political analysis concerned image and political game-playing. Was Bush sounding tired? Was he hunching up, fidgeting, shifting his gaze when journalists asked hard questions? And how was the game going for Republican and Democratic hopefuls? The blogs and mags on the internet are full of intensive and extensive analyses of style points scored, gambits and end-runs. Within the left blogohemisphere the received view is that progressives have lost out in the past because of their failure to connect with voters' guts and have lost out to the Right because of it. The online literature is full of discussion on how best to make the gut-connect.

I suppose they're right--and that is horrifying. Who we elect, and the policies the US pursues, depends on an elaborate political strategy game, on candidates' grooming and "body language," and on the gut-connect. This is especially depressing to me given my line of work. The only useful thing I do in my job is teach undergraduates how to be clear, tight and rational and preach at them endlessly and forcefully about not thinking with their guts. Most don't believe me (they don't fool me) but they know that they jolly better toe the line because I'm grading them. They'll thank me when they're grown up.

When I first started teaching I got adverse evaluations with lots of comments about my appearance and a few saying that I was "disorganized." The remarks about disorganization baffled me: even though I didn't actually plot out every day of the course by date on a grid and give it to students on the first day of classes, as I do now, I had a clear, detailed syllabus and each of my lectures was in sonata-allegro form. And then I realized: it was because of the way I dressed. Organization by their lights was logically equivalent to grooming--it was about "looking professional."

At that point I knew I had a choice: I either had to dress up or make my classes so ultra-organized that there was no way they could get me on organization. And I did. I carefully ration any remarks that aren't strictly on topic--even when they are in fact relevant to what I'm talking about, and interesting--and avoid making comments that could be construed as "tangents" (as students put it) until late in the semester when I've won over some of the students and those who really hate me have stopped coming to class. This is what I hate about teaching: that straitjacket, the constant performance and people-pleasing that stresses me out and exhausts me. Even after all these years it still doesn't come easily or naturally, I'm always thinking about it, always working at it, always stressed out and chronically angry at students for demanding it: they say they want classes to be interesting but if I deviate even slightly from the straight line they zap me on evaluations. I'm sick of the constant performance and people-pleasing act. That is why I hate teaching.

It isn't that I think image, people-pleasing and packaging are "superficial." It's part of what I'm paid for and I do my job. At least, being tenured, I can get away with not dressing up if I work like a dog to compensate. It's just that I find it so difficult, stressful, and exhausting to work at it and invariably fail anyway. What I wonder is why people impose these demands on themselves and others. Why the endless, stressful, exhausting game-playing, politicking and strategies? 90% of our energy is burned off as heat without doing any work--all that time, effort and pain to dress, to feel out social situations and to please, to negotiate and go through elaborate routines before getting down to business.

The worst of it is that life and death hang on it: this is how we choose the people who run the country and try to run the world. We elect the communicators and people-pleasers whose performance has been perfected by groomers and trainers collecting focus group data. Like my students, the American public complains that politicians speak with forked tongue, that their responses are canned, that they're perennially politicking, cutting deals, and playing to the house--but at the same time demand the performance, image and packaging. No politician dares to play it straight: they're in the same business that I'm in and the demands are much, much more stringent. Americans boast that they "vote for the man, not the party"--which is to say they vote for the image rather than the ideology or agenda.

Now we are living with the consequences of gut-voting. Bush got in because he had a bad accent and bought a faux-ranch as a backdrop for his performance. And it's not as if Americans' disillusionment will make a difference. Now Lakoff et. al. are advising Democrats on how to harness gut-power and the image competition is, if anything, escalating. I'm sick of the whole damn thing which is probably inevitable given the system. If students demand that I put on a good show it's harmless. I produce slick powerpoints and have an elaborate scheme of post-it notes and markers in my books so that I never look like I'm fumbling. Nothing of importance hangs on what I do: colleges can afford to hire faculty as entertainers. But we can't afford to treat politicians as consumer products--and still haven't figured that out yet.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Who's Afraid of the Latin Mass--And Why?

Pope Benedict XVI . . . authorized wider use of the long-marginalized Latin Mass, a move that delighted Roman Catholic traditionalists but worried others who fear the erosion of important church reforms...In a decree known as a motu propio, essentially a personal decision, the pope urged priests to celebrate a 1962 version of the 16th century Tridentine Mass when their congregations request it. Until now, priests could use the Latin Mass only with permission from their bishops, which was not always forthcoming.

At last, some good news! So, when do we get our 1928 Prayer Book back?

It's hard to understand why, instead of being completely delighted about the availability of another option, people are worried. Seems though that there are three reasons:

(1) The slippery slope. The worry is that the reinstitution of this liturgy is a symbolic gesture, signaling a larger conservative agenda that could have ramifications for clergy and theologians who are professionally dependent on the institutional church. Could be, but no reason that lay people should worry: neither their jobs nor their civil rights will be affected. They can enjoy the Latin Mass and do as they please. (2) Perfidious Jews. The head honcho of the Anti-Defamation League is in a snit because the liturgy for Good Friday includes a prayer for the conversion of the Jews. So what? Does anyone seriously believe that this little snippet, in Latin, will fuel a resurgence of Anti-Semitism? (3) The REAL worry: the Latin Mass is too religious. Here is the take of one of the commentators at this site:

I have never felt comfortable looking at priests’ faces when saying mass. It seemed such an intrusion into a totally personal experience. By the same token I would have felt incredibly violated if people watched my every expression while praying. The idea of priests facing the altar together with the congregation seems to me the most logical one since we are all praying to same God.

The focal aim of liturgical revision, the the RC church and in the Episcopal church, has been to wipe out this sort of introspective, individualistic piety--the flight of the alone to the Alone--to obliterate any sense of transcendence, and to eliminate everything juicy--anything that's exotic, fancy, aesthetically pleasing or emotionally intense and everything seriously pleasurable. Why?

First, plain puritanism: the idea that if it feels good it must be self-indulgent and wicked. Oh, we get a little bit of pleasure but only so long as it isn't too intense, has a moral, and redeeming social value. Sex is ok as long as you don't enjoy it too much and it has the redeeming social value of producing offspring, or at least "bonding." Liturgy is ok so long as it's jolly and cheerful, not thrilling or ecstatic, and promotes ecological concern and good attitudes about justice, freedom and peace.

Secondly, Communitarianism or, as the religious folk put it, "the horizontal dimension." They've been chanting the mantra for decades now: "corporate--good; individual--bad." This has been the driving force of liturgical revision for over 40 years--from the adoption of the first person plural form of the Creed, to the stinking, rotten Peace, to the priest facing the people--we, we, we, "the church is People", the church's goal is "community building." Within Protestant traditions especially this is a response to Paul, Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard, and to popular evangelical Christianity--the sin-and-salvation religion, the idea of Christianity as a means to purification, personal salvation and the establishment of a "personal relationship" with Jesus. However liturgical reformers were locked into a false dichotomy and didn't realize that there were other alternatives to the sin-guilt-salvation you-and-me-Jesus model besides happy-clappy "community building."

Thirdly, the apotheosis of the quotidian: the idea that the distinction between the sacred and the profane had to be breeched and that religion had to be secularized--made insofar as possible to resemble ordinary life. According to the received view, religion was "escapist." By making it as plain and dull as ordinary life the Church would send the message that it wasn't just for Sunday, and that "real" religion was working for the good of the other in the secular city. Every grain of incense was bread from the mouths of the poor. Ideally churches would shut down and be sold off to finance social service projects. A righteous remnant of their members would meet in basement rec rooms to sing Cumbayah, share a simple communal meal, and plan the social service and political action projects which were what REAL religion was.

Finally, this whole project was driven by the dullness, anti-religious sentiment and utter obtuseness of liturgical reformers. They just didn't get mysticism or religious experience. The very idea that looking into someone's face when they were praying might be an intrusion or violation, as the quote above suggests, was just off their radar. They couldn't even fathom the idea that people might enjoy religion, that it might be intense, personal and blissful, a source of metaphysical thrills and the ecstasy of transcendence. These jerks don't have a clue. They imagine that the only alternative to the shit they've forced on us, the we-we-we jolly handshake mass is neurotic sin, guilt and salvation, and that their job as enlightened religious therapists is to get us out of that by making do us nicies and huggies.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Cold Feet on Global Warming

I went to Fry's Electronics yesterday with my daughter to get an expensive gizmo she just had to have. I was overwhelmed not only by the kinds of expensive gadgets intended to do jobs that I didn't want done, but by the range of gadgets in each category and was, briefly, proud of myself for not owning, or wanting, any of this stuff.

But not for long, because I am a sinner--not because I'm rich and greedy, but because I'm (relatively!) poor and pressed for time. I eat meat and processed foods because they're cheap and because I don't have the time to prepare ecologically sound vegetarian fare. I drive to work because I can't afford a house close to my job and because I can't afford the 4 hours a day it would take to use public transportation. And, with three kids, I have in my day sent tons of paper diapers to our local landfill.

Diapers were an issue when my kids were babies. I remember one TV program featuring a Saint of Ecology who noted that though she and her husband were "child-free by choice" some of her best friends, who had "chosen to have a child," made a point of using environmentally-friendly cloth diapers which they washed themselves. I was seriously skeptical about whether it was her best friends who were sloshing the shit off of these cloth diapers in their toilets. During the tour of the compost pile behind her Connecticut saltbox home she explained the benefits of using organic cleaning products, compounded of lemon oil and beeswax, to maintain her antique furniture. I found myself in vigorous agreement with her housekeeper and her best friends' nannies that this woman should have been drowned at birth.

Rich women rarely notice the toll ecological correctness takes on the women who have to clean the shit off their kids' diapers and polish their dining room tables with beeswax. Men never notice. The babies have clean diapers and the dandy whole foods fruit and nut casseroles appear on the table: they haven't got the faintest idea of the time and energy it takes to scoop these beans and whole grains out of bins at the local organic food market, to soak and process them, and to cook them in elaborate recipes to make them fit for human consumption. It's easy enough to serve decent Anglo-Saxon fare if you aren't fussy: chicken, steak or pork chops on one third of the plate; instant mashed potatoes and canned veg on the others. Healthy, ecological or vegetarian food takes much more time, effort and imagination.

The real ecological burden however falls on the really poor--the low and middle-income countries. Locally, Mexico dumps raw sewage in the Tijuana River estuary. We hold our noses and despise them in the way that we despise fat working class wives who serve their families fast food after a long day behind the Walmart checkstand because they don't have the time or money to do better. China, which now bills itself as the world's factory, pumps out pollution. When I was there two years ago, after my dog (lab of course) ate my glasses I was pumping in eye drops every 15 minutes to make wearing contacts tolerable. What do you say to people who just want minimally decent lives, not the glitzy garbage at Fry's, who just don't want to spend all their waking hours working and crapping around with the business of life, who just want a little bit of leisure--and pleasure?

Years ago, as one of my professional duties, I had to put up Tom Regan, an animal rights activist promoting vegetarianism. I showed him the cheap generic canned goods in my cupboard and challenged him: if you vegetarians want to promote your agenda subsidize garbage like this so that we can eat cheap crap and I don't have to cook. If we, the privileged, want the luxury of glaciers and rain forests, we should pay for it. The Bad Guys aren't greedy pigs aiming for more Fry's products--they're decent poor people who want a decent life, and don't want to spend all their waking hours working to eat and eating to work.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Two British National party members plotted to make bombs in readiness for a "civil war between races", a court was told yesterday. A former candidate for the party stashed boxes of chemicals at his home after buying them online at the instruction of a local dentist and fellow BNP member, jurors at Manchester crown court heard. However, the hoard amassed by Robert Cottage, 49, of Colne, Lancashire, came to light when his wife told her social worker she was scared that Cottage and 62-year-old David Jackson were planning to test chemical weapons in the local countryside...Ms Cottage said her husband had been very enthusiastic in the BNP, rising through the party's ranks during three years as a member and becoming a friend of its leader, Nick Griffin. Alarm bells began to ring when Cottage led her to understand that the chemicals were intended to harm the government or anyone who came unannounced to their home.

"He thinks there's a war going to happen with the culture, the Asian culture and the white culture and that Tony Blair and President Bush are scheming against people," she said. Ms Cottage added that her husband and Jackson were "solid" friends who met regularly to chat about politics, the BNP and Hitler.

Our daughter flew back from the UK two days ago, just after the bomb scare at Glasgow Airport. When our son was last in the UK he arrived in London the day after 7/7. I suppose this should make me nervous but it doesn't really: stuff happens.

Today in the NYTimes, Tom Friedman speculates that the root cause of these shenanigans is in Islamic "self-identity" rubbed raw by "humiliation and atomization" and urges Muslims (not any particular Muslims--just Muslims) to straighten up and fly right:

Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists. But it’s been widely noted that virtually all suicide terrorists today are Muslims. Angry Norwegians aren’t doing this — nor are starving Africans or unemployed Mexicans. Muslims have got to understand that a death cult has taken root in the bosom of their religion, feeding off it like a cancerous tumor.

By the same reasoning, I--and Tom Friedman--should understand that a death cult has taken root in the bosom of White Culture. Of course, not all white people belong to the BNP but it's been widely noted that virtually all white supremecists are white. Looking back nostalgically to the age of innocence before 9/11, when it was the IRA that planted bombs, though we understood that not all Irish Catholics were terrorists it was widely noted that virtually all IRA bombers were Irish Catholics.

Islamicism is the latest oppositional identity statement, filling the vacuum left by the collapse of Marxism: Che is dead and, worse, passe; long live Osama bin Ladin. Of course Marxism was ecumenical and anyone could join whereas it's difficult to get on board with Islamicism unless you have proper ethnic credentials--though not impossible: there are converts like shoe-bomber Richard Reid and John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. And there are lots of fellow-travellers.

It's all the same old crap, compounded of romanticism, political idealism, personal grievance and the universal desire to do violence, linked at one end to third world politics and at the other to organized crime. There's something for everyone--from educated ideologues and political radicals, like Mohamed Atta and the Glasgow Airport bombers to cranks and loonies like Mr. Cottage to the legions of young lower class males looking to do violence, flattered by attention from journalists and counterculture chickies, and delighted to be valorized as freedom fighters.

Of course it's "the longest war." But it's not a war against Islamicism, much less Islam, any more than it's a war against Communism, the IRA, the Basque nationalists or some amorphous thing called Terrorism. It's the war against Human Nature and, in spite of temporary setbacks and border skirmishes, the Enlightenment is still winning big. Really? You bet. I have have less chance of getting caught in a terrorist attack than I do of being hit by lightening, and very little chance of dying by violence. My husband doesn't beat me. I don't have to worry that bands of brigands will raid my leafy suburb or that competing tribes will rape and pillage. I don't spend all my waking hours eating to work and working to eat. My life, like the lives of most citizens in affluent countries and increasing numbers in developing countries, is radically different from the lives of billions of humans who came before us and immeasurably better.

There is no real philosophical problem of understanding what the Good Life is: wealth, technology and civil order are what make life good. The serious problem is not philosophical but technical and, therefore, much much harder: it's a matter of eliminating poverty, improving technology, and promoting good government. The idea that the problem is ideology or, more grandly, that there is some deep problem inherent in the human condition, is a self-serving evasion because the technical problem is so very hard and because we aren't willing to share our wealth. There will always be a minority of malcontents, lunatics and criminals. For the overwhelming majority of the human race however the answer is crass materialism--it's simply a matter of spreading it.