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|Monday, February 27th, 2017|
|What is leadership?
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the news recently because of his visit with Donald Trump. A couple of weeks before that, Dilbert
creator Scott Adams (who has long been one of the most visible supporters of Trump on the Internet) wrote on his blog
that one of his liberal friends described Trudeau's promise to take in all the immigrants which Trump turned away as "an example of real leadership." Adams succinctly notes that "His conclusion is debatable." This got me thinking, however, about a question which has remained somewhat unresolved for a while in my mind: What is leadership? What does it mean to be a leader, and what qualities make someone a good leader?
People often call "leadership" that which they agree with. If a politician or other person in power does what people like, they will call it an act of "leadership." Conversely, if a person in a position of power yields results which people don't like, they will say that that person was an ineffective leader. Sometimes leaders are praised for being bold or unwavering in the face of opposition, but this is not really what people want from a leader; Donald Trump, after all, is facing plenty
of opposition from both the media and the general public, and yet few people seem to be visibly praising his courage for not backing down in the face of such opposition.
Ultimately, then, whether a person is a good or bad leader depends largely on opinion. If you agree with the ideas which a leader espoused, you are likely to think of them as a good leader. People generally have a positive opinion of Barack Obama's leadership, even though he was not very effective in actually implementing the things he intended to implement and failed to unite people around his vision. Conversely, people today are likely to think of Adolf Hitler as a bad leader, even though he successfully united his country around his vision and was quite effective in terms of implementing the policies he wanted. Trudeau's act of headline-seeking populism cannot be leadership, because it did not involve him independently coming up with an idea or working on turning it into a reality; it was nothing more than a publicity stunt, the act of him seizing the opportunity to give lip service to a hot-button issue, yet people hailed him as a great leader simply for telling them what they wanted to hear.
In a real sense, then, we see here the essence of what makes people perceive someone as a good leader. If you ask someone what makes a good leader, they will often give answers like "self-confidence" or "being willing to take initiative" or something like that, but the real truth which most people with leadership experience can testify to is that people perceive a leader as someone who tells them to do what they already want to do anyway. Being a leader isn't just about giving orders; anyone with authority can yell at a person and intimidate them into submission or obedience, but a person who relies on such tactics will not be an effective leader. Leadership is not simply imposition of will. It does not mean forcing people to do whatever you want them to do. Even the greatest of "leaders" cannot coerce people into doing something they really don't want to do.
It is similar to how people who are sexually "submissive" usually do not actually want to receive orders from someone who controls them. Most people who think of themselves as "submissive" actually want to be dominated and controlled in a very specific way. The act of "controlling" them, in this sense, is really nothing more than "ordering" them to do what they want to do anyway. People may desire this kind of "domination" because they are embarrassed about their sexual desires, for example, and so being "ordered" to do what they want gives them an excuse: instead of feeling personally responsible for what they do, they can use the show of domination to pretend that they are reluctantly going along with something they were forced to do. Yet if the person in the dominating role orders the submissive to do something they really don't want to do, the submissive will usually assert their will and start to balk, stating that they don't want to follow that particular order.
A truly effective leader, a person who will really succeed in a leadership role, needs a team of motivated people who are willing to work together toward a shared goal. If you have such a team of people, a group of folks who share a common goal and are willing to follow your guidance toward that goal, then that's a situation in which you can be an effective leader by capitalizing on people's strengths, recognizing what each person is good at and putting them into a role where they can put their strengths to the best use. In politics, however, it is nearly impossible to be an effective leader in this sense, because a country is naturally divided: not all people within a country have the same political goals or vision, and even the world's greatest orator cannot convince millions of people to all agree on the same points and the same plan for a country. For this reason, politicians tend to rely on a sort of fake "leadership" which is really just populism, the kind used by people like Obama and Trudeau, which basically consists of going on television and saying whatever the largest group of people want to hear. This ensures that history records these people as "great leaders," even if they fail to actually achieve anything concrete.
If you want to be a leader, then, you need to take some time to examine your motivations and ask yourself, as honestly as possible, the question of why
you want to be a leader. Do you want to lead people toward achieving some specific, concrete goal that requires the cooperation of a group? Or do you want to receive people's praise and admiration? These two outcomes may be mutually exclusive, because to actually get people to do something may require putting pressure on them to do things they don't naturally want to do, which may cause them to resent you. If you just want to work together with people but don't really care about what end it's toward, you may be better off just being a team member instead of the team leader--it makes you less of a target. And if you really just want to achieve something specific, you'll get better results by looking for people with a similar goal rather than trying to coerce any given group of people into working toward that goal. Oh, and if you think you want to be a "leader" just because you think you'll get more money that way, then you'll fail in everything you do.
|Sunday, February 26th, 2017|
|Doublethink is actually essential to human life
, Orwell coined the word "doublethink" to mean, as the book puts it, "The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." In the book, this was clearly meant to be a negative, a representation of how people in totalitarian systems lie not only to each other, but even to themselves by convincing themselves that things which they know to be false are actually true. In the context of the book, this idea is relevant since it serves partially as a commentary on the Soviets' habit of altering history by deleting or modifying records which they did not like. Within the context of hard facts, then, doublethink can be problematic if people are expected to believe in something which can be demonstrably proven to be false.
A problem with much human discussion, however, is that it often centers around concepts which cannot be provably true or false, such as the idea that human life should be preserved for as long as possible. At first, people might accept this idea as irrevocably true (why would a person want to live less than they could?), but the idea becomes more complicated in situations where, for example, a person is terminally ill and suffering due to their illness, and would therefore like to avoid having to go through this suffering since they only have a few months to live anyway. In such situations, the idea that human should should be preserved may not be agreeable to everyone involved.
If you expand your thinking and begin to consider the fact that we exist at all within our universe, one could make the case that all human life is an act of doublethink, for the simple reason that we are aware of how tiny and insignificant our lives are, and yet we choose to live and associate meaning with these lives anyway. When we are aware of how our lives, our world, and all of our history will burn out and be destroyed in a few million years anyway, it takes a personal act of ignoring this truth to say "I know that life is ultimately pointless because I will die someday, but I can choose to live my life, take some enjoyment from it, and achieve personal goals for myself anyway." This doesn't mean that we shouldn't think this way, or that it is wrong to do so, but to think this way requires an act of deliberately shutting out a certain reality, of actively ignoring a fact we know to be true but which we continue on in spite of. A recent xkcd installment (found here
) makes the case that the ideal human level of focus exists somewhere at a middle point between being so aware of our cosmic reality that we become paralyzed by existential angst and being so focused on tiny details that we become paralyzed by thinking about trivialities that prevent us from developing.
In my previous post
, I made the point that although we can never be sure whether a relationship we're in will last forever, it makes no sense to avoid relationships because of this uncertainty. To be successful in any romantic relationship requires us to say, in effect: "I know that this love may not last forever, but I do not benefit myself or my partner in asking whether we will be together 20 years from now. We can enjoy this moment we have together, and paradoxically, our love will probably last longer if I focus on nurturing it in the here and now instead of worry about what will happen in the future." You could dwell on all the reasons why love is futile or why things might go wrong or what the problems in the relationship are, but this hyper-awareness of risks and problems actually acts as a detriment to the quality of the relationship, making it more likely to fail. Success in relationships thus likewise requires us to approach our everyday life with a certain deliberate ignorance, a willful act of not thinking about the things which we know.
Doublethink is also required when more subtle decisions need to be made. Morally and ethically, in our everyday lives, we are constantly challenged with decisions which we need to make based not on hard facts, but on personal inclinations, gut instincts, and educated guesses. Ultimately, we can never know the "right" decision to make in such a situation, partly because of a lack of knowledge, but also because in many such cases, there is no single "right" decision, but rather a set of actions we can take which emphasize one outcome at the expense of another. In our lives, there are many things we can do, but we can't do all of those things, because there isn't enough time in one life to do everything we could possibly do, so we have to make the decision to devote our time and focus to a specific subset of possibilities, and choosing how to divide our personal resources this way is a very personal decision. Constantly worrying about which decision is the "right" one can distract us from our activities, so at some point we need to say something like: "I know that an opinion cannot be fundamentally right or wrong, but I can still choose to devote myself to a cause and make the furtherance of that cause a personal goal for my life."
That last point is dangerous: to devote yourself to a cause is always dangerous, because you can never know the effects of what you're devoting yourself to. There are anarchists who sincerely believe that the best thing for humanity would be to abolish all forms of government, even though there is no real precedent for such an experiment in our contemporary world and thus no real way to guess what the short- or long-term effects of such a radical change would be. There are statists who sincerely believe that humanity is too chaotic and unreliable to be thus left to their own devices, and who therefore advocate precisely the opposite, namely something resembling totalitarianism in which a committee of informed advisors tell the public what is best for them. And then there are anti-humanists who sincerely believe that humanity is a biological aberration which should be made extinct for the good of the rest of the plant and animal life on Earth. All of these are opinions, and therefore they cannot be inherently right or wrong, and yet they are viewpoints of real people who live in our world today and which those people have embraced because they believe those visions to be the best decision one could make based on what they've seen of the world. How can we reconcile such conflicting and incompatible goals and wishes in a highly-connected world where people from all over the globe can and do communicate with each other constantly on every imaginable subject?
Gandhi said "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." In order for any change to really take hold, it is necessary to go beyond just proposing it--someone needs to act on it, and if they act on their ideas and the results are promising, more people are likely to join their cause. This is part of why anarchism and totalitarianism have limited support in the world today: although they may have theoretical benefits, real-world instances of anarchy and totalitarianism in the world (both historically and in our present day) have had limited success, and this track record has left people skeptical as to whether such societies can really work out in practice. Kant advised people to live according to their principles, not according to the rules of right and wrong which they had been prescribed by authorities like the state or the church but according to what you
would personally like to see become a principle that people live by. Nietzsche advocated something similar, insisting that more important than whether an idea was "right" or "wrong" was whether a person could live authetically by their ideas and become the living image of the ideology which they wanted to advance.
As is often the case, although Nietzsche was a great thinker full of many ideas, his ideas have often been terribly misunderstood, to the point where many people have misused his ideas to promote pretty much the opposite of what he meant to actually say. It's helpful, then, to have commentary, for people to try and explain in their own words (usually words simpler than the original) what some philosopher or writer meant to say, which is why resources like this YouTube video
or this one
are helpful for people who want to understand Nietzsche. As those videos point out (and as is otherwise widely known), Nietzsche's controversial claim that "God is dead" has been widely (mis)understood as proclaiming a new era of nihilism in which there is no right or wrong and people are given free rein to do whatever they want. As the supplementary commentary in those videos makes clear, however, the point is not that the death of God (by which Nietzsche really meant the death of the church's authority to tell people what is good and evil, what people ought to do and ought not to do) allows us the freedom to do whatever we want, to pursue our most visceral and immediate desires. Quite the opposite, in fact: Nietzsche's point was that the death of a simplistic black-and-white mentality requires us to think more critically and intensively about the things we do and our reasons for doing them, because it is our responsibility to understand the effects of our actions and what we have to gain from them. Far from emphasizing a need for atheism, Nietzsche the "Antichrist" has actually been embraced by some Christian philosophers as sending a message for the need for people to go beyond simplistic ritual-based religion and embrace the full scope of intellectual capabilities which, as creationists would have it, were given to us by God. (See, for example, Nel Grillaert's book What the God-seekers found in Nietzsche: The Reception of Nietzsche's Übermensch by the Philosophers of the Russian Religious Renaissance
, and recall that Nietzsche loved the literature of Dostoevsky despite Dostoevsky's deeply religious and didactic writing.) Here, again, some element of doublethink is required, because to make decisions with this kind of deep understanding requires us, in essence, to say: "I know that this thing which I am doing has both positive and negative consequences, but I choose to do it because, in my own personal estimation, I sincerely believe that it is the best thing I could do under these circumstances, the best choice I could make given the situation I'm in."
Some people may point out that what I am describing is not exactly "doublethink" as Orwell meant it: Orwell described doublethink as, again, the ability to simultaneously hold two conflicting opinions in one's mind, while what I am talking about is more generally just keeping things in balance and trying to find the best middle point between two extremes, but I think that in order to be able to make decisions while understanding the potential negative effects of those decisions still requires some element of thinking which is close to what Orwell was thinking about, the act of thinking two opposing things at once. Indeed, as thinking human beings, we are often required to hold not just two opposing
ideas in our heads at once, but even many mutually incompatible
ideas, all of which we have to balance out, because that is simply part of being human. To describe our thinking as "doublethink" is actually to set up a false dichotomy: there is not only black and white, good and bad; there are infinitely many ways a person can make a mistake, countless ways for a person's thinking to go wrong. The simplistic notion of "doublethink" is actually part of what Nietzsche meant when he described going "beyond good and evil," because there is not only good and evil in the world; not everything is unambiguously good or bad. When we can truly go beyond good and evil as thinking human beings and come to appreciate the real effects of the things we think, say, and do, then we can start to make more intelligent and informed decisions about what to do with ourselves, both as individuals and as a species. This may, indeed, require us to hold several conflicting ideas in our heads at once, but unlike what Orwell envisioned, that idea is not a dystopia--it's simply part of being a human being with the ability to think critically.
|Saturday, February 25th, 2017|
One thing which characterized my thinking about human relationships as a youth was that I was always something of a romantic, in the most basic sense of liking the idea of real romance between people. Even in my early teenage years, when many boys my age would have been more interested in trying to have sex with as many girls as possible, I was not too much interested in sexual conquests, but rather believed in the importance of a long-lasting, intimate relationship in which two people shared their lives. I like this ideal, and I still like it today. I have never wanted to "date" casually in the sense of going out with girls just to have fun or try to get them into bed; if I've ever taken a serious romantic interest in anyone, it's been with the intent of starting something lasting and meaningful with them.
Unfortunately, as my life has gone by, I've become somewhat less idealistic and more realistic about love and romance, based on the experiences which I've gone through and witnessed or heard retold from other people. Many people like to believe in the idea that love is something which lasts forever, and many people believe in the idea of true soulmates, the idea that somewhere out there in the world is one person who's just right for you. These are nice ideas, but an examination of people's real lives reveals with time that there is really no "one," no such thing as a single person who will fulfill your every wish and whom in turn you will satisfy completely, because human beings are just too variable and too unpredictable for any two people to constantly be in sync with each other. You'll have many moments in your life where you're on the same page with another person, where you and someone else are thinking, feeling, or saying the same thing at the same moment, but these moments are transient. There is no phase-locked loop mechanism for human relationships: even when you experience a moment of resonance with someone else, you can't expect that you will continue to experience it once the moment passes.
This doesn't mean that you will never be able to establish a long-term relationship with anyone. Obviously, people can and do sometimes get married and stay together for the rest of their lives. It becomes apparent, however, that the secret to achieving such lifelong relationships is not so much finding the perfect person for you--because you will never find a person who 100% matches your personality at every moment and under every circumstance--as being willing and able to endure conflicts and disagreements with each other, to make compromises that allow the two of you to live your lives together in a way that both of you find acceptable. Finding a person with whom you have a mutual attraction is only the first step: people often get caught up in the concept of the "search," believing that they would have a happy relationship if they could only "find the right one," but actually, finding a person with whom you share mutual attraction is only the beginning of your work, not the end. Once you find that person, that's when you really need to start making changes and decisions about how the two of you will fit into each other's lives.
Statistically, studies suggest that every few years, you meet a person with whom you could happily spend the rest of your life. This means that if you ever missed an opportunity to be with someone whom you thought you could have had a great relationship with, you shouldn't feel like you missed the chance of a lifetime. "The one that got away" wasn't the right one, because there isn't only one single right person for you in the whole world, and if that person had really been right for you, both you and they would have made more effort to come together and to make the relationship work. We imagine, in such breakups, that we've just lost the love of our life and that we'll have to endure the rest of our life mourning what we've lost, but neither of these ideas are actually true. If either of you allowed the relationship to lapse, that's a sign that it wasn't really important enough to you anymore to maintain or to fight for. As I've said many times: when couples fight, that's not necessarily a bad sign. When they stop
fighting, that's when you know the relationship is over.
Admittedly, all of this leads to a rather cynical view of love and romance: it suggests that when two people get into a relationship, it's not something that will carry them through the rest of their lives, but rather a temporary agreement they get into because it's convenient, comfortable, or pleasurable for them. Whether they'll stay together for a month, a few years, or the rest of their lives remains to be seen, but even the most "perfect" of loves can sometimes shatter suddenly, and the reasons for this are often not even the big things like personal tragedy (such as a death in the family) or infidelity, but simply that the two people get tired of each other and find it more satisfying to be alone than to be together. The sad reality is that there is no love or relationship which is immune to these outcomes.
What this also means, however, is that people don't need to be afraid in relationships. You won't destroy the love of your life by making a mistake, because if a person truly loves you, they wouldn't leave you because you made a mistake. If a person leaves a relationship, that means there were deeper problems in the relationship than a simple one-time incident. Furthermore, if you or your partner do
end up leaving the relationship and things end between the two of you, this doesn't mean that you will have to be lonely forever. Relationships, too, follow the circle of life: they are born, live for a while under varying circumstances--some live longer, some live less--but all of them die eventually, even if the death of the relationship is caused by the death of one of the people in it. So don't worry about screwing everything up too much: a person will naturally seek out that which they love, and if they love you, they will come to you and stay with you. If that love stops, there is no point in trying to keep a person close to you who doesn't want to stay.
On the other hand, if the relationship is worth something to you, you can
prolong it by making efforts to do so. A relationship does take time, work, and compromise to nurture and maintain. If you want to retain your relationship, it's worth doing these things for the sake of the relationship. When you find that you no longer want to do these things, when you feel that it's no longer worth sacrificing for your partner for the sake of the relationship, that's a sign that you shouldn't ignore, because it means something. For better or for worse, most people know, in their hearts, whether they truly
love someone, whether they would really go to the ends of the Earth to be with that person or if they just want to stay with that person because they're conveniently at hand and act as a source of nice feelings for the moment. Search deep within your thoughts and feelings, and you will understand how you feel about someone, too. Then you will know what you really want with them.
|Sunday, February 19th, 2017|
|Just let me finish this
I need some sleep
It can't go on like this
Throughout my adult life, I've tended to live with my mind in the future, thinking about what I'll do next, what my plans are (or should be), where my life is going and where I want it to go. Some people might say that this is a sound thing to do, but my reality has been that all this future-thinking has been mostly futile. No matter what happens in my life, my plans never seem to last for very long. Everything I want to do, everything I attempt is thwarted in one way or another. The things which I've been successful at, the things which actually lasted longer, are the things I never saw coming and never would have (or could have) planned for.
The result of this has been that although I still tend to do a lot of thinking
about the future, in more recent years I've done less planning
for the future, instead doing things that only take a short amount of time (usually a few days at most) to accomplish. The blog posts which make up this very blog of mine have been a common example, a thing which I have resorted to to try and make my life somehow valuable and meaningful, a last shriek of expression in the deafening silence of the Internet, words written and distributed to no one, passing pilgrims who might perchance to see them for a moment before moving on and mostly forgetting about the whole thing. I want to change this, I want to be able to do something longer-term and longer-lasting, but I just can't seem to even imagine what that something might be. The future is a colossal blind spot to me, something so vague and shapeless I can't even perceive where to look for it let alone what form or structure it might have.
And so I stumble onward, grasping at this little project or that little task, putting what energy I have into that one thing, as if it might be the last thing I ever do with my life. Many is the time when I've written something here with the thought that it might be my last words, and I have thought to myself as I wrote: Just let me finish this. Just let me finish this one thing, this one last act of expression, just before I die.
It is apparent to me that this is not a healthy way to live a life if you do it for years on end, and yet for the past several years, I have utterly lacked any alternative that I can see. My life seems to have taken on a life of its own. A few years ago, I could never have imagined that I would be where I am now, doing the things I am doing with the people I am doing them with. All this short-sighted thinking, all this blind staggering and stumbling into the future has brought me where I am now, with the life I have now. And for the foreseeable future, it will remain that way, because I have no other options visible to me.
Where are the things that will last? Where are the things in life that will still be there when I need them? I'm not even asking for something that will last a lifetime; currently there is nothing in my life that I can even count on still being here with me in a year from now. When your planning timeframe is that short, you can't plan your life in any meaningful way.
I recognize that this is not entirely my fault, that this is partly a consequence of the world we live in today, a world which was specifically designed for nothing (or at least very few things) to last forever. People will say that this was inevitable, that the nature of our world required us to plan this way, to abandon permanence and sustainability and build for short-term goals, but I don't believe this. It's not as though the universe somehow has a mind of its own which forces us to plan for the short-term; if anything, the universe, being as old as it is, encourages us to plan for the long-term. We have no one to blame but ourselves, and I speak for humanity as a group here: we, as a human race, could have chosen to build for the long-term, and it was only our own selfishness, laziness, and stupidity that caused us to adopt this mentality that we "must" plan for the short-term and let the future bring what it may.
I realize, too, that I am not alone in this suffering. The world suffers with me. All around the entire world, there are people who want to build something lasting, something which can last a few decades, and they are likewise failing because our human world is a giant house of cards, and the moment somebody builds something, something else comes collapsing down, bringing down much of the structure with it, and the effort to repair this damage is becoming so pervasive that there is no time left to design for the future.
The idea of "progress" is over. The long, slow, irreversible regression has already begun. It's no longer a question of who will be left standing when it's over, because there will be no one left. It's only a question of who goes when. It's a formula used by countless horror movies: there are no survivors, just the gruesome spectacle of watching one figure after another die in the most monstrous way imaginable. Except this is worse, of course, because it's real and not a movie.
I can't shake the feeling that it might be better just to push the Stop button at some point.Natürlich darf er hoffen, so lange er lebt. Und sogar noch länger, denn Sie wissen... die Hoffnung stirbt immer zuletzt.
|Friday, February 17th, 2017|
|Things people do to make their lives feel different than they really are
One thing I've noticed about a lot of the things people do in their spare time is that they seem to be done mainly for the purpose of making one's life feel a certain way. People want to imagine that they are a certain type of person, or that their life fits a certain type of lifestyle, even if this is not the case, and sometimes people go to great lengths to put on a show of pretending that things are as they would like to imagine them to be, perhaps to fool other people, but more often to fool themselves into imagining that they are who they would like to be.
An example which may be familiar to some of you is the workaholic. There is obviously nothing wrong with good, useful work. Producing some valuable product or service which helps other people is a noble and worthwhile task. The true workaholic, however, has something wrong with them in the sense that they will often perform "work" which has no useful purpose at all for the purpose of making themselves feel useful, sometimes so that they can show off to other people by boasting about how hard they are working in comparison to others. Such a workaholic, ironically, is actually less useful than a worker with a healthier attitude toward their work, because workaholics will often end up doing useless tasks just so that they can feel like they are doing something, while a well-adjusted worker will focus on what is important and what is worth doing, and only do tasks that actually result in some useful outcome. (The Wikipedia article
on workaholics sums up this phenomenon nicely by noting that workaholics "tend to be inefficient workers, since they focus on being busy, instead of focusing on being productive.") A workaholic, then, is an example of a person who goes to great lengths to convince people, including themselves, that their life is a certain way when it really is not.
One of the most archetypical examples of the workaholic which I can think of is that of Prince Nicholas Andreevich Bolkonski from War and Peace
, who is described as constantly being in some kind of activity, one of the primary among these being manufacturing things using his lathe. The prince never seems to consider whether there is actually any need for any of the things he is manufacturing in this way; in his own mind, producing things in this way, even if they are not needed, even if they will not actually serve some apparent purpose, is a useful and noble thing to do because it is "work" instead of being idle, and therefore deserving of praise and recognition. This is a typical pattern of the workaholic: set up some ridiculous and useless hobby, indulge in it continuously, then verbally (or even physically) abuse everyone around you for not being as productive as you since they are not producing as much output as you are.
Perhaps I recognize this type because my mother was of the same type. My mother would often take on some kind of home-improvement project which really didn't improve our home in any way, but served only to give her an excuse to berate me for being lazy because I wasn't doing as much as she was. I recall one day when she started digging up some huge rocks in the ground, not rocks that a person could carry with their hands, but really enormous rocks, almost the size of a person, which obviously weighed hundreds of kilograms and which did not need digging up at all, since they had lain exactly where they were for probably hundreds of years without ever causing anyone trouble; in all probability, no one in history had ever moved those rocks from where they were, which is perhaps exactly why my mother seized on the idea of shifting them, since this would prove that she was working harder than anyone else, at least as far as those rocks went. I didn't much see the point in this activity, but I considered it a harmless enough endeavor for her to indulge her desire for activity in, so I left her to it until she called me over, asking me to help her move the rocks. I walked over to where she was, and when I reached her, she promptly announced: "May God curse you for not running
to help your mother." I realized even at the time that there was nothing normal, healthy, or reasonable about this behavior or this way of speaking, but this moment sticks out in my memory as an example of how ridiculous people will make themselves look to try and demonstrate how much more worthy their self-appointed projects make them than other people.
A common cause of people doing things to make their lives feel different than they really are, I think, is the situation in which a person wants to be good at some hobby but lacks a natural talent for it. This is particularly common in the arts, for example, where a person may aspire to be a great artist but lack the aptitude for art which they would need to reach their goals. An example of this is the figure of Antonio Salieri in the highly fictionalized account of that composer in Peter Shaffer's 1979 play Amadeus
, as well as the Oscar-winning 1984 movie of the same name which adapted the play for the screen. In this story, we see Salieri as a man desperate to write great music, but repeatedly thwarted by his own lack of talent, in contrast to the seeming effortlessness with which Mozart produces music based on some gift he was born with. As Salieri pleadingly implores: "All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing... and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?" The desire to be good at something which a person has no natural ability for commonly leads people to pursue that ability in their spare time, and if they lack an objective baseline which they can compare themselves to or an outside opinion from someone knowledgeable in the subject matter, they may convince themselves that they are very talented, wrapping themselves up in their own private world of creativity because they lack the ability or desire to see their endeavors objectively.
When I was a child, I was taught how to play classical piano and violin. I found that I did not enjoy this much, not because I wasn't good at it, but simply because the results were so meagre. I have never been a great fan of a single lone instrument playing by itself, even when played by the very best performers in the world. I greatly prefer the sound of a full orchestra, of the harmony and the contrast afforded by having many different types of instruments and thus many different types of sounds weaving in and out of each other. This was, however, obviously something that a single person like myself would never be able to achieve. Some people end up playing in an orchestra, but I never did, and so my devotion to my musical craft was neglected for the simple reason that I didn't see much point in it, particularly today, in an age when after practicing an instrument for a long time, a person with no talent could still produce much better music simply by pressing the "play" button on a CD player. A hundred years ago, before the existence of electronic audio recording media, I could have understood the point of being a highly trained musical performer. I was told more than once as a child that I was musically gifted, and so I pursued this gift for a while, because you sometimes hear about what a shame it is for a person to let their talents go to waste, and I didn't want to do that. It just never got to the point where I wanted to get it to; even at my very best, I would never be as good as the world's great masters, and again, what would be the point then of me going through such enormous time and effort to become a great piano or violin player when people with no time investment at all could make far better music using a simple, cheap machine? I was once asked, later in life after I had abandoned my musical training, whether I did not value my gift, to which I honestly replied that I did not value it enough to preserve it because it simply wasn't producing something that would have been of much value to myself or to anyone else. Today, I still hold this to be true: it seems to me that people who devote a lot of time and practice to mastering some instrument are trying to convince themselves that they are doing something great, when the reality is while they may be good at playing an instrument, they will always be a hobbyist making music for a small group of friends at most, producing music that is nowhere near the level of sublime perfection that you can find in endless abundance on YouTube or other places on the Internet for free.
You may conclude that I have a cynical and unromantic view of art and how it relates to the world. Perhaps this is true, but I just see it as being realistic. I realize that in my life, I have often tried, to the greatest extent possible, to see my life as it really is, not as I would like to see it. Perhaps this sounds like a good idea, but the problem with doing this is that it tends to leave life empty: if you just look at yourself as a person, you will see an ordinary person, someone not much different from anyone else in the world. If you then ask yourself what gives your life meaning or why you live at all, you will not have much of an answer to such a question. As I've written in the past, one of the main things I believe in as a rule for life is that life itself has no inherent value: you can certainly make
something good out of your life, but a person (or any other life form) having lived and then died is not, in itself, something valuable, and indeed, it can actually be a negative. For your life to have value, for your life to mean anything, you need to imbue it with something good and valuable and true, not the ritualistic motions of having a valuable life like pretending to be working or creating when you're really just inventing nonsensical activities for yourself to appease yourself with.
A final example which may be somewhat crass is the existence of the "girlfriend experience" or GFE, a special sub-category of prostitution which does not focus around sex (and often does not involve sex at all) but simply involves hiring a woman to go out on a date with a man as if she were his girlfriend. This is perhaps a step up from classical prostitution in that it entails someone trying to seek greater emotional and intellectual intimacy with another person than what they would simply get for paying for an hour of sex (or however long it takes), but it is still an artificial experience, the semblance of intimacy rather than the real intimacy that comes from getting to know someone, the sense of being close and important to someone by trying not to think about the fact that you really paid someone to spend this time together. The desire for intimacy with another human being is sometimes very strong, and the girlfriend experience is surely a step above regular prostitution, but I hope it is apparent that it shouldn't be seen as a substitute for an actual girlfriend (or member of whatever sex you find yourself romatically and intimately attracted to, if any).
My point here is not that people shouldn't try to infuse their lives with things that make life valuable or fuller, but simply that people shouldn't waste time and money on things which only seem
to make life valuable or fuller, that create the appearance
of a full, meaningful life by going through the physical motions of doing things with value when the results of those actions are actually empty. It is certainly worthwhile to try to make your life worth living, but when you do so, remember to be honest with yourself and separate the things which actually make life meaningful from the things which provide you with the illusion
of having a meaningful life by distracting you from your reality.
|Tuesday, February 7th, 2017|
|The least visible people in America
Who are the least visible people in America, the people most unable to defend themselves because they lack a voice and have been hidden by the media?
It certainly isn't the people you read about in the media. That means it certainly isn't women's groups, foreign citizens (or the people who want to see foreign citizens going to America), politicians, movie-star celebrities, business executives, or basically anyone else who opposes Trump, because all of these people have been nothing but
front-page news for the last two weeks.
I only saw it observed once or twice during the presidential debates between Trump and Clinton that one point which no one seemed to mention, one point which didn't come up at all, was the situation of the poor in America. There was endless talk of Trump's views on women based on a single five-word quote which Trump made offhand in a video recording from a casual conversation held more than ten years ago. There were many people who were worried and offended that Trump wanted to improve foreign relations with other countries like Russia and Israel. But there was no one talking about the poor and unemployed, no discussion about what would be done to improve the situation of the neediest people in America.
What really bothers me about most of the opposition we're seeing to Trump is how utterly self-serving it is. I've made it clear since long before the election that I'm not a Trump supporter, for a variety of reasons. Certainly, there are many reasons to oppose Trump, and people don't need to search for reasons to do so; the media serves us new reasons every single day. The problem with most of these reasons that we're given, the problem with most media coverage of America's most unconventional president in living memory (and perhaps of all time), is not that the opposition to Trump is invalid, per se, as that it's just so petty and stupid, a media circus which forms a distraction from the real issues which face the country, and indeed, the world.
"It's the economy, stupid!" became a catch-phrase of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, because Clinton understood that the main job of a politician is to ensure the safety and prosperity of the nation's people. 24 years before his wife narrowly lost an election, Bill Clinton won an election with no message of "equality" or other things which are now catch-phrases, but with a simple yet effective focus on the fundamentals, basic security and prosperity, the meat and potatoes of nearly all politics. Not only did it win him the election, it was also good for his popularity ratings. Although Clinton was an unpopular president in the first couple of years, the American economy surged towards the end of his presidency (although this had more to do with the fortuitous rise of the Internet than anything which Clinton personally did), and people loved him as a result. By the end of his presidency, even after it had become publicly known and admitted that Mr. Clinton had cheated on his wife and sexually taken advantage of various women, including at least one who was working as an intern under him (pun not intended), Clinton's approval ratings were sky-high simply because the country was going through a time of prosperity. Bread and circuses: feed the people and entertain them, and they'll love you no matter what.
Things have changed somewhat since then, however. The fundamental political goals of security and prosperity have somehow been supplanted by what's come to be broadly called "identity politics," a set of political goals based on advancing certain demographic groups, typically focusing on specific races or sexual orientations. The desire of non-heterosexual people to achieve greater political influence is nothing new, but it's only relatively recently that a majority of people--including people who are not personally in any LGBT group--identify with this movement to create "equality" for all races and sexual orientations. It was this new era of identity politics which led people to love Barack Obama despite his failure to energize the American economy or assure basic safety and security for the American people; despite his general failures as a politician, people loved Obama simply because he seemed like a nice guy, was a pretty articulate speaker when he went in front of a microphone or camera, and talked about how he supported gay rights. We live in an era where a president can stand before a camera and say "I support everyone's right to fair treatment regardless of whether they're gay or straight," and based on these simple words, win undying public adulation even as the country's economy, stability, and other measurable political outcomes deteriorate.
The problem with all of this is not that "equality" is a bad thing or that people shouldn't be treated fairly and equally, but simply that these are not political issues; these are social issues which have been politicized by people who made it their business to turn these factors into political issues. There is a relatively new idea which has taken hold that the president of the United States should be a role model, that he or she should be a morally virtuous person who shows the world how a person is to behave in their private life. While I can understand the thinking behind this idea (it would certainly be nice if the head of state were a decent, virtuous person), the basic function of a politician is something functional, not merely ceremonial or symbolic, and the effectiveness of a politician is reflected not so much in how good a role model they are for children as how effectively they achieved measurable outcomes relating to, again, security and prosperity. Obama might be a great guy for all I know, but he wasn't a great president.
It's safe to say that Trump's style differs from Obama's somewhat. Many people dislike Trump's aggressive, confrontational, and sometimes even reckless style, and I don't like it either, but this is kind of a secondary concern. Trump isn't a benign or harmless presence when he makes media appearances, but he doesn't actually have to be. That's not his job. His job is to concern himself with the safety and prosperity of the American people. And on that count, it seems like he might not be off to a bad start.
Since the disastrous collapse of the American economy in the year 2000, a disaster which the country never really fully recovered from, the primary concern for me in American politics has always been the plight of the poor and unemployed, because those are the people who most urgently need help. Other concerns are secondary; certainly, a government exists as more than just a job-search agency, and it's fine if the government adopts and promotes other causes as well, but in a country in a state of economic crisis, the country's first priority should be the most disadvantaged people, the low-wage workers who have lost their jobs, or never had jobs in the first place. Getting those people into paying jobs where they can start to pick themselves up off the ground is the biggest national emergency. It deserves to be the government's number-one job. Only once that has been taken care of can the government devote time and attention to other goals.
That's how I've always seen it, anyway. Apparently other people see things differently. Based on how people have reacted to Trump's presidency, it certainly seems like it, because although it has been occasionally acknowledged that Trump's influence may actually bring back some of the manufacturing jobs and other low-to-mid-range jobs which are the bread and butter of much of non-coastal America, this idea is rarely even brought up, as if it is so irrelevant as to be not worth talking about.
Instead, you have women protesting en masse
because... well, actually, I'm not really sure why. A lot of people didn't like Trump's "grab them by the pussy" comment, which I can understand, but somehow it's hard for me to imagine that millions of women were going on protest marches over those five words, which, again, were mentioned in a more casual than serious way during a conversation more than ten years ago. Despite some protesters waving signs reading "Don't grab my pussy," I believe this plea to be figurative, meaning that I don't think all of those women are actually worried that Donald Trump will grab them by the pussy. The "Women's March" that erupted as a result of Trump's presidency ended up being the largest protest in U.S. history, but despite all the sound and fury that went into it, it was never really clear what exactly they were trying to achieve. They wanted to "send a message," yes, but exactly what message was that? If you go to all that trouble to organize a protest and people don't even know what your message is, I'd say that's rather a failure in terms of sending a message. Some people said it had something to do with "women's rights," but what rights were these exactly? Do women think that Trump is going to enact legislation about pussy-grabbing? I'm being perhaps more flippant than I should be about this, since I realize that this is an important matter to many people, but the protests against Trump were simply too broad, too scattershot, too unfocused for anyone to really take a single message away from them other than "We don't like Trump," which is not really a helpful statement that gives us a vision for the future in an America where the guy has already been elected and inaugurated as president.
Okay, to be fair, there is a website for the Women's March, and at https://www.womensmarch.com/mission
, you can read a statement of the march's "vision," but the problem is that reading that page, it becomes clear that this so-called "Women's March" actually is not only about women, but also about "immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault"... It seems like that march basically became about protesting for every issue ever
, and that's just too big and vague of a mission for the resulting march to be anything other than a symbolic act, an act against Trump rather than an act for any kind of actionable plan.
I also find it notable and a bit ironic that that web page proudly proclaims: "defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us." That might be true, but the most marginalized among us, by definition, cannot be anyone represented by the Women's March, since anyone represented by the biggest protest in U.S. history cannot be marginalized. If there are actually that many people representing them, then "the most marginalized" people must be someone else who was not represented by these movements. And that brings me back to the economically poor.
Let me make one thing clear: my race, religious faith (or lack thereof), sexual identity, and immigration status are no one else's business but mine, and I have no interest in turning any of these into a political issue, nor do I see the virtue in anyone else turning theirs into a political issue. My personal demographics and beliefs are not a threat to anyone else, nor do I perceive anyone else's as a threat to me. What I do perceive as a threat, and what you should perceive as a threat too, is the spectre of unemployment, because that is a real and serious issue which can strike any of us at any time without warning, and it is a life-destroying problem. Identity politics, as far as I can tell, are for people who want to feel self-important by having their government acknowledge their existence; dealing with unemployment is real politics, the act of confronting an actual issue which threatens us all constantly. The fact that few people talk about this issue or about the people affected by it leads me to consider the unemployed, again, as the most marginalized people in America, especially if you consider the seriousness of the problem in comparison with the amount of media coverage it has received.
This, again, is why I have been so disgusted with the parade of media figures declaring, one by one, how much they oppose Trump and what good people they are for publicly denouncing Trump. Now the executives of major technology companies are getting into the act, and I have to ask: when did the managers of some of the world's largest corporations become the authorities on what's best for the disadvantaged? Do you really think that the CEOs of Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook have the interests of the unemployed poor at heart? These people oppose Trump's immigration ban, not because they care about equal rights or any other such liberal principles, but because it impedes their ability to exploit disadvantaged workers by importing and hiring people who will work for less money.
The same goes for the chorus of celebrities who have taken it upon themselves to air their political views in the most disgustingly self-congratulatory way imaginable. It's very well and good for Meryl Streep to make a show of denouncing Trump in a shockingly tone-deaf and inappropriate venue (when did media awards shows become a political platform for celebrities to teach the world their personal opinions? See also Michael Moore's famous tirade against Bush at the Oscars in 2003), but it's pretty safe to say that Meryl Streep is not among the poorest people in America. When we take our political opinions from the wealthiest people on Earth and allow them to tell us what we should think, something has gone wrong. Why aren't more people listening to the poor and unemployed, the people who actually know what needy people need? It would be nice if people, especially people with huge amounts of money, would actually do
something to benefit the people who would most need help, but instead these celebrities just go on a stage and make a big show of talking about how sad they are and how much they want to support the downtrodden people who are sad like them. It turns my stomach to see these people acting out these performances for their own public image, to show what good and kind-hearted people they are for five minutes before they get off the stage and forget all about it, going back to their pampered and wealthy lives.
You might point out that Donald Trump himself is a wealthy celebrity who doesn't exactly live an austere life, and I have to admit that this is the part which doesn't make sense to me either. It's true, of course, that Trump has nothing to gain from this whole game. Going against his own kind, engaging in a political fight against corporate executives, is exactly the opposite of what you'd expect from a guy like Trump. The only question which remains really unclear to me is: why would Trump, a very wealthy businessman, do something that benefits the poor? Why would one of the wealthiest people running on the Republican ticket do more for the poor than a lifetime politician running as a Democrat? Here, I have to admit, I'm stumped. I would never have expected Trump to stand up for the poor, and it's not clear why he would, or indeed if he really will. Maybe he, too, is just full of talk. Maybe he has absolutely no intention of doing anything to benefit the least visible people in America. But based on what he's said and done so far, I'm willing to give Trump a chance. If he can actually bring back many of the manufacturing jobs which have long since been exported from the United States, this would be a great thing for the millions of Americans who have no other job prospects and would otherwise be doomed to spend the rest of their lives in absolute destitution. This would be a huge task: it would mean reversing the course of globalization, one of the biggest and most entrenched economic trends of the past couple of decades, in just a few years. I have to admit that I'm skeptical about this proposition, but if there's anyone in the world who can do this, Donald Trump, a lifelong businessman who's now the president of the world's most powerful country, can. If he can't do it, there is literally no one who can. If Trump can bring jobs back to the people who really need them the most, then he will have truly brought life and hope back to countless American communities which are populated by the most hopeless and least visible people in America. And if he actually succeeds in doing this, then I'm willing to forgive him for everything else, because he really will have done the greatest thing for America that anyone could have done at this point.
Will he succeed? I'm skeptical, but again, I'm willing to give the man a chance, because if he can't pull this off, there will never be another chance like this. The world is watching you, Mr. Trump, and the hopes of your country rest with you. You have four years. Use them wisely.
|Saturday, February 4th, 2017|
|"Mr. Blair, we still make things"
There's a great YouTube video here
which very effectively summarizes, in just 3 minutes, why Germany has done so well economically as compared to other European countries. The video reiterates some points which I've written about here on this blog in the past, and since the video is quite concise, you should probably watch it yourself if you have any interest in the subject, but to add to the video a bit and highlight the key points it makes, I've written out my own descriptions of the video's points below:
1. As Angela Merkel stated in her famous quote to Tony Blair, Germany still makes things. Manufacturing is a key component of German industry. I can remember around the year 2005, American economists were still insisting on the futility of manufacturing, repeatedly emphasizing that producing physical goods was too expensive for a developed country to bother with, and the future was a services-based economy in which no physical products were produced. Today, the world is increasingly realizing what a stupid mistake that was. What kind of "services" can replace the need for physical amenities? Who in the world is going to pay premium prices for "management consulting" from some American executive whose entire career experience consists of shuffling papers in an office?
2. A close relationship between education and employment. In the United States, university students still routinely spend 4 years in a Bachelor's degree program to learn things which they will never, ever use in their working life. Germany strongly emphasizes practical work-training programs which train people for real-world trades, the kind of education which is looked down upon in the United States, scoffed at by Americans as something for "lower class people." In Germany, university education is something you do for self-enrichment, something you do after you already have a fixed career plan in place so that you can learn more about history and philosophy, not something you do to make yourself more employable.
3. The continuation of long-running family businesses. In Germany, family really means something, and families support each other, with the same trade often being passed down through generations, resulting in companies that are more than a century old still being run by the families of the original founders. When a child is born in Germany, they usually already have a place in the German economy, which is emphatically not the case in the United States today.
4. Treatment of businesses as a part of the social fabric, rather than just engines to make money. In Germany, a business exists with a sense of social responsibility, and is expected by both the government and the populace to treat its employees and its customers fairly. A business in Germany serves two purposes: to provide employment for its workers, and to produce useful goods for the nation's consumers. By contrast, a business in the United States exists for one reason alone: to make money for itself. The result is a whole network of corrupt, self-important businesspeople who imagine themselves to be clever and powerful because they make money, when in fact they are nothing more than parasites who make victims out of both their employees and their customers.
5. A focus on proven techniques rather than risky chance-taking. During the dot-com boom, the Silicon Valley culture glorified the risk-taking startup, insisting that the businesses of the future were those who could move quickly and capitalize on "the next big thing." This might have been true for a few years in the late 1990s, but in the aftermath of that period, it has become clear that in fact, there is no "next big thing," and that successful businesses focus on areas of proven stability rather than trying to seize on unproven get-rich-quick schemes which many Americans still believe in.
As the video also notes at the end, even though these principles might seem quite simple, they are rather difficult to imitate, since if you don't already have a manufacturing infrastructure, you can't just suddenly create one. Countries which lack the natural resources necessary to produce their own infrastructure are at a disadvantage here, but most countries, if they set their mind to it, could achieve a level of success similar to what Germany has achieved. The "secret" to Germany's success is only a secret because it's so obvious that it seems like no one else bothered to think of it: instead of selling snake-oil solutions to gullible people as a business plan, produce the highest-quality physical goods you can produce. This is good for the company because it earns them a reputation as a producer of quality products, and it also results in a prosperous national populace who can then become the next generation of your company's employees. This formula is so eminently simple and doable that it is only people's willful ignorance and cult-like belief in "post-industrialism" that prevents them from being successful.
|Thursday, February 2nd, 2017|
|A misconception of love
It's often said that love is the most wonderful thing in the world. Maybe that's true. But it seems to me that people often have a mistaken understanding of what love is, pursuing something which is neither satisfying nor healthy in the name of what they believe (or want to believe) is "love," and that in fact people do this more often than they pursue something which really deserves to be called love.
The most obvious and well-recognized manifestation of this is the confusion of sex with love. Most people who have any understanding of human nature and lifestyle patterns understand that sex is not love, and that people will often confuse the two, believing that the intense attraction they feel toward someone else is a deeply-founded love which will last a long time when in fact it is nothing more than a physical longing which will fade once that physical desire has been satisfied. In many cases, this "love" disappears as soon as the people involved have had sex. Sometimes the relationship lasts a little longer than that, and in fact, physical attraction is not always based mainly on sex; it can also be based on simple physical togetherness and the act of sharing life together, and this act of sharing your life with someone can be pleasant and certainly has the power to make the world seem like a brighter, happier place. But if the connection between two lovers is not based on something deeper, a more extensive set of shared personality traits, personal interests and principles, and life goals, then the bond which unites two people caught up in sharing their lives with each other is likely to be broken with time.
One thing which characterizes true love (perhaps the main
thing which distinguishes it from false love) is its duration. True love cannot suddenly end; it endures over time and persists despite hardships. Anything which seeks immediate satisfaction and is not willing to wait, anything which is not willing to plan out a long-term vision for the future, and anything which is insistent and not willing to negotiate is not love, but some kind of transient emotional impulse which is likely to pass quickly as soon as it's satisfied, something which seeks a short-term sensation rather than anything which a person is committed to. True love is willing to wait. True love sees a future for itself. True love is willing to make sacrifices and compromises for the benefit of the person whom it loves. True love is neither shallow nor sudden: it does not make judgments quickly, nor does it make decisions based on a person's physical appearance or other obvious surface attributes. True love looks into the heart and soul of a person and tries to appreciate them for who they really are inside, not how they look or act.
People recognize this, of course. Again, I think that most people with any life experience in being an adult probably recognize this intuitively, but they often choose to ignore this understanding and jump into a relationship without too much forethought. On some level, I can understand the mentality behind this thinking: if you meet someone whom you are attracted to, you cannot know whether you are compatible with them or not without getting to know them a bit, and so at the very beginning, you always have to take a chance on someone, to allow for the risk that's inherently involved in getting to know someone new. It doesn't make much sense to avoid a relationship based on the idea that it might
not work out if you haven't taken the time to get to know a person. Even so, it is prudent, in the early stages of a relationship, to be cautious and take the time to learn someone's personality before committing to the idea that it could be real love. It's good to be cautious, but you shouldn't be too
cautious, of course, or you can never make any progress.
Where serious problems arise is when people discard the concept of long-term commitment altogether and associate any form of togetherness or intimacy with "love." This is a problem seen, for example, in the lore associated with Paris, which is often named the "city of love." Paris has a long history of romantic stories and songs being associated with it, but these stories are almost always sentimental in a shallow way, focusing on short-term physical intimacy rather than the elements of mutual compatibility which really go into a devoted relationship, or else they are entirely sexual, tossing the entire concept of commitment out the window and just focusing on people who have vigorous sex lives, classifying this under the banner of "love." Similar behavior is seen in nearly every popular love song ever written, where some passionate singer describes the intense feelings of longing they have to be with the person whom they desire, but where basically zero thought is given to whether the two people are actually compatible or whether their affection for each other could last beyond five minutes in bed. It speaks to the intensity of the human sexual impulse that today, after thousands of years of history informing us how dangerous and futile it is to confuse a momentary impulse with true love, people still repeatedly make the same mistake over and over, tirelessly writing one love song after another about "love" when all they really want to do is get their rocks off.
This phenomenon exhibits itself on a larger scale, too, when groups of people get together. I have never been a fan of huge musical events where thousands of people get together to dance and put on elaborate shows, but one theme which I consistently hear from people who involve themselves in such events is love. When people are out on a dance floor surrounded by others who are sharing the thumping music and the gyrating dance moves with them, they tend to feel a sense of closeness and intimacy with those other people. The intense physical sensations of the music, the dancing, and the visual stimulus of seeing the other people all combine to create a pleasurable mental state in which the dancers somehow feel connected with each other in a psychic or spiritual way, and this mental state causes the dancers to feel as if they have somehow transcended into another plane of existence where "all is full of love." Of course, even a moment's thought makes it obvious that this is not the case: what's really happening is that a bunch of people are just shaking their bodies around. How much "love" are you actually sharing with the person next to you by waving your body back and forth? Obviously none; there is no real intimacy, no real connection taking place between two such people. At the very most, they might find some physical attraction in the other person's appearance or their dance moves, but this is not remotely a basis for true love. Yet people, even intelligent adults who have every reason to know better, still routinely describe such social gatherings as reflections of "love." Here in Germany, the famous "Love Parade" used to be held every year, and it was a huge event, with attendance often reaching about a million people, but despite the name, it had absolutely nothing to do with love. It was all about sex and loud music. Which is perhaps all well and good if you're into that kind of thing, but people shouldn't make the mistake of confusing it with love, or calling something "love" when it clearly isn't.
This theme becomes politically relevant as well, especially in times like the present, when huge tides of refugees are trying to find new countries to live in. Great support has been shown for refugees from many places in the world, with people declaring that "love" demands that we allow refugees to go to whatever country they want to go to, since doing otherwise would show a lack of concern for their welfare. While it is certainly well and good to show concern for people in need, I can't help but ask: how many of the people who are so visibly expressing concern for refugees are going to be expressing these same concerns once they stop seeing constant media articles about the refugee crisis? How many of the people who are demanding support for refugees would actually be willing do
something for refugees instead of just talking about them? How many people loudly demanding rights for refugees actually take a refugee into their home? It's very well and good to say that you want a refugee to come to your country
, but most people who do this seem to have the idea that they won't have to see the refugees after that, and so once the refugees arrive, they're no longer a problem. This is obviously not the case: even once a refugee arrives in a "safe" country, they will still need to find a place to live, food to eat, and a job with which to support themselves. This is something which even many people who have been living in "safe, developed" countries for decades haven't managed to do. It's very well and good to go to some protest and shout about how much you welcome refugees, but this is a very simplistic, passive form of showing support because it does not require you to actually provide anything. What refugees really need is not someone to march around and wave a sign; what refugees really need is basic human needs, meaning, again, housing, food, and so on. Unless you own your own house and have a spare guest room where you are willing to house a refugee for an indefinite amount of time (probably several years if not for the rest of their life), or unless you are a business owner who has a job opening which you want to give to a refugee, then you are not really in a position to help any refugees. Even for people who do have such amenities available, I do not understand why they would specifically want to offer those things to people in (or from) foreign countries when they could offer it to a needy person who is already in their own country. No matter where you live in the world, you can be sure that there are unemployed, homeless people living in your very city, so why wouldn't you make the effort to do something for your own neighbor
before going out of your way to import a person from a far-distant country? The media have created a hysteria around refugees, convincing the world that it is their responsibility to give all they have to people on the other side of the world while ignoring the basic reality that a few city blocks away is someone who is just as needy. Again, the cause of this is a lack of true love for other people: no one is thinking about long-term solutions which could really show a commitment to helping other people. There is only the pursuit of a short-term feel-good experience which does not bring lasting benefit to either the beneficiary or the benefactor.
Lest anyone think otherwise, be assured: you do not have
to love everyone and everything. It is okay to dislike people or things, or to be neutral or indifferent to them. But if you choose to tell someone that you love them, make sure that you really love them and are willing to put in the commitment to them that such love requires. Otherwise, you're just setting yourself up for a situation where both you and they will probably deeply regret the consequences of advertising something as love when there was never any love there to begin with.
|Monday, January 23rd, 2017|
|Wealth and security are the source of freedom, not the opposite of freedom
I was recently reading a book about the development of Europe following World War II, and it became apparent that the key element of this period in Europe's history which defined the continent's success was not its political condition, but rather its economic one. There is a simplistic mentality which people tend to retain about the east/west divide which supposes that the political freedom which people had in the West led to success, while the political suppression which existed in the East led to poverty and suffering. This illusion can be broken if you look a little deeper, however. In fact, the well-known patterns which define European economic divides today were already apparent at that time: "Western" countries along the Mediterranean coast, such as Italy, Greece, and Spain, faltered even then, although they were not communist countries, while countries like East Germany and parts of Yugoslavia flourished despite existing under communism, because they had already built thriving industries in the past. The parts of the Eastern Bloc which stagnated and decayed were the parts which had historically failed to build up their own internal economy, and so this pattern simply continued itself after communism took over.
A slightly radical thought, then, but one which I think has some truth to it, is to declare: a strong economy is the foundation and the key to a "free" country, because it enables most of the freedoms which are important to people. Politics alone cannot provide a meaningful sort of freedom to people; only wealth can create the freedoms that actually matter to people.
This is not a new idea, of course, but I think that it's an important idea to emphasize, because most people still don't think in these terms. People tend to think of freedom as a political thing, something which governments can very easily grant to people by passing a simple set of laws based on a simple set of principles. Central to this idea are the principles of freedom of speech, and freedom of movement: the freedom to say what you want, and to go where you want. While these are good things to have, they do not, in themselves, enable people to really do anything that they want to do. What really enables people to live well is material wealth.
Consider the example of West Germany during the Cold War, where people were not as politically free as in the United States. Certainly, people had more freedom to express their individual views than in the east, but what really defined the success of West Germany during that period was the so-called "German economic miracle," the rapid and successful development of a national infrastructure which promoted a state of material well-being. The standout feature of postwar West Germany was not its political
virtues, but its economic
ones. You could make the case that this "miracle" was the result of Western political policies, that it could not have happened without American-style capitalism acting as a model for the West German economy, but even if this is true, the point is that the real enabler of quality of life is not a set of political principles, but the availability of housing, food, and consumer goods.
A very simple--but effective--analogy can be made if you compare the United States to Central Europe at any point from the mid-20th century to today. It is well known that millions of Americans live in poverty, and that this has been true since even before World War II. Yet those people have all the freedoms guaranteed to them by the Bill of Rights, including the freedom to say whatever they want. What do you suppose this freedom really brings them? Is this freedom what they really need in their present condition?
Here is an important question to ask yourself, then: who do you think is more free, a homeless American who is guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of movement by their country's Constitution, or a person living in a more European-style (what Americans would call "socialist") economy, where people have somewhat less political freedom, but within which people are still provided with a place to live and their basic daily means?
Look into the eyes of a homeless family on a street in America and ask yourself: what do they really need? Are they suffering because they lack the freedom to say what's happening to them? Do they suffer for lacking freedom of speech or freedom of movement?
Once again: the primary factor determining a person's happiness and quality of life is not
their political freedom, but their level of material wealth. "Freedom of speech" is meaningless if no one is paying attention to you anyway. The homeless in America can say whatever they want about their poverty until they're blue in the face, but it doesn't bring them anything. It does not help them in any way, and it will not.
Another important factor which defines people's happiness and quality of life is their basic level of security. Here again, Americans get it wrong by focusing too excessively on "freedom." One of the most commonly misused quotes in the world is that stupid quote by Benjamin Franklin which declares: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." A more American quote could hardly be imagined. Franklin has a point, of course, but this quote is almost always misused, because it is used to imply that liberty and safety are mutually exclusive, that freedom and security exist in opposition to each other, and the more you have of one, the proportionately less you have of the other. This thinking is wrong, wrong, wrong.
As with so much of American history, to understand this quote properly, you have to consider the context of American development at the time. The United States was founded largely due to a history of tyranny and oppression that had existed in Europe, and so America was founded with the thinking that political oppression was the worst evil in the world, and personal liberty the most important treasure to be cherished. Franklin is right, of course, to insist that people should not put all of their trust in a government and give up their freedoms for the promise of safety, but here's the thing: you don't have to give up freedom for safety
. A properly functioning country provides both.
I have seen, all too often, places in America where people are afraid to go outside at night for fear of getting mugged or otherwise assaulted on the street. These residential areas turn into mass prisons where people's homes are their cells, a place where they take refuge because crime rates mean that they do not feel safe going outside. Yet these people still pride themselves on being "free" because of the lack of police presence in their neighborhoods. I do not understand this mentality which insists that a police officer stopping you to ask a couple of standard questions is an outrageous violation of people's fundamental rights, but street gangs who brutalize residential areas for financial profit are just part of the community. The police are not the enemy of the public; the police are there to ensure public safety, and a properly functioning police force does not restrict people's freedom, but rather quite the opposite: the police enable
people to be safe and go outside without having to worry about what might happen to them. That kind of a state of security makes people more free and significantly improves their quality of life. If "freedom of movement" is a fundamental freedom, then you need the police, you need a public peacetime security force, in order to preserve this freedom.
Whenever you hear that stupidly overused quote by Franklin, balance it out with this quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt: "True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." Roosevelt knew what he was talking about, and he was able to discern this understanding very simply: he looked at how people were actually living. Rather than basing his entire political ideology on a set of grand-sounding ideals which are too abstract to mean anything to people's everyday lives, he looked at the state of the world and recognized what is really important for people. It's not that every person has to be financially wealthy; in fact, people can have zero
money and still be happy, because what's important in an economic context is not money itself, but rather the things which money can buy. In order for people to be free and happy, they need to have a place to live, food to eat, and a modicum of things which you can buy in a drugstore, like soap and toothpaste and so on. These things enable a freedom to people which is really meaningful, much more meaningful than the empty political platitudes that Americans too often spout.
And if you want to talk about a more wide-ranging freedom, the freedom to really
do whatever you want, then it should be clear that this, too, comes from money. If you look at how the extremely poor and the extremely rich live, a very simple truism becomes apparent: money is
freedom. Money enables you to own whatever you want, do whatever you want, and go wherever you want. Sure, in America, people might have "freedom of movement" guaranteed in the Constitution, but how would a person travel from, say, New York to Chicago without money? Only economics gives people actual
freedom of movement.
Many people do not like ideas such as these, because it may sound greedy and wrong-minded, as if it is being implied that money is the most important thing in life. I do not mean to suggest that money is the most important thing, but the basic fact is that a physical, material means of living is necessary for people to survive. It is an essential component of any person's physical and mental health, and so by extension, the health of any human community or society. Too many Americans think that it is high-minded and noble to eschew such ideas in favor of the bare idea of "freedom." This results in the pattern, all too familiar in America today, of a person who has nothing, no food, no home, hardly any clothes except what they are currently wearing, minimal education, and no prospects of improving this lot in life, yet who nonetheless insists, loud and clear, "I am free, and that is what is important in life." Poor indeed is the person who thinks they are rich when they have nothing.
|Friday, January 20th, 2017|
|...But if you want to talk about something which we DID lose...
Well, well. Speak of the devil.
By the way, German has an equivalent phrase: "Wer vom Teufel spricht", or "Wenn man vom Teufel spricht", literally translating as "Who speaks of the devil" and "When one speaks of the devil," both equivalent to the English phrase, all of which mean basically "When you mention someone, they tend to show up."
Just yesterday, I wrote a post about my disappointment with my experiences in learning the German language, noting that I didn't seem to have a lot of reason to stick around on Duolingo anymore. Now I've just discovered that yesterday, on the very same day I put up that post, Duolingo announced that they have cancelled their "Immersion" feature. You can read the announcement about this here
Okay, you could make the case that most people weren't using it. I admit that I didn't use it very much either; I only reached translation tier 8, which is not really that high, but I still found it fascinating. For those who don't know what it was: it was really not much more than just a rudimentary translation interface in which you were given a document or article to translate (usually from Wikipedia or some online news source) and tasked with translating it into another language. This doesn't sound like much, and in truth, I guess it wasn't, but it took on an interesting community element which the main Duolingo interface lacks, because you could see translations which other people had done, comment on them, and correct them. Of course, people could also do the same to your translations. The translations became a sort of group community effort, and since people were translating real articles (which were usually at a much more advanced language level than what the main Duolingo program teaches you), it was a logical place for people to continue practicing their skills after they'd made it through the topic tree for the language they were learning. And now, without any fanfare, this feature is just suddenly gone
. All the translations I've done, all the translations which everyone has done, have just disappeared. There doesn't even seem to be a way to see the ones that have alrady been finished. Were they just unceremoniously deleted?
I probably shouldn't be as upset about this as I am. Like I said, the whole translation thing had a fairly featureless interface, and it's not like that many people were actively using it, but I don't see what Duolingo had to gain by deleting it. It just seems so senseless, so pointless to delete something which people had put a lot of effort into and which people were still actively using. Now that it has been deleted, what's left of Duolingo other than the simplistic "main" part of the site which consists of nothing more than translating simple, single sentences? It just seems so dumbed-down to the point of almost being childish. And of course, it was always this way, has been this way since I started using Duolingo years ago, but it makes me angry that Duolingo took away the one feature which was kind of open-ended, leaving us with a little sandbox to play with simplistic one-liners in.
I'm tempted to just stop using Duolingo as a silent protest. I doubt anyone would care, but it just doesn't seem worth continuing with it anymore. It's not like I was learning anything anymore anyway. I should be more positive about the whole thing, but somehow I just can't be. It's just so easy and so tempting to throw something away when it seems like it doesn't have value for you anymore, rather than trying to transform it into something which could have value.
|Don't worry, we're not losing much
And so it begins. As I write this, the United States has just inaugurated its first president to have absolutely no prior political experience. The media is awash with predictions that not only the United States, but indeed the entire world is destined to crash in an apocalyptic disaster before Trump's 4 years are up. As no one knows the future, I can't say whether these predictions are accurate or not. We'll just have to wait and see. But if I can offer a few words of comfort to those who are sad at all that's happened, let me assure all of you: we haven't lost very much.
People disliked Bush Jr. because he got us embroiled in endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was a stupid thing to do. But did things really get any better with his successor? People praised Obama for pulling out of Afghanistan, but he didn't really do that; he reduced
the number of American troops in Afghanistan, but Americans are still actively killing people there as I write this. The situation in Iraq has been similarly maintained. Not only did Obama not end American deployments in those countries, he started new wars in two Muslim countries, just like Bush before him. Not only did Obama brazenly assassinate the leader of Libya, an act which he had no justifiable cause for, he attempted the same with the leader of Syria, but when he couldn't get at Assad as readily as he got at Gaddafi, he instead fomented a brutal, years-long civil war in Syria by arming criminals and sending them on a campaign of destruction against their own government. In both Libya and Syria, this has resulted in total destruction of the national political and economic infrastructure. Both countries have been suddenly plunged into absolute chaos, and what makes this particularly outrageous is that this was all done in the name of bringing "freedom" to those countries. People criticized Bush relentlessly for acting like a madman, but when Obama did the same things Bush had done, those same people were mysteriously silent.
I've observed in the past that Obama has also been unwise in attacking and antagonizing Russia, resulting in a significant strain in relations between Russia and the U.S. What amazes me is that people think this is good foreign policy on Obama's part. When you act as the leader of a country and then demonstrate your brand of diplomacy by destroying relations with one of the world's most powerful countries and refusing to negotiate with them, you're not demonstrating authority or integrity; you're demonstrating megalomania and arrogance, presenting the idea that you demand everyone do whatever you want or risk having you attack them politically and threaten them militarily. This was not smart politics by any means. Even if you disapprove of what Russia has done over the past few years, there are better ways to deal with that than by destroying your entire political relationship to one of the world's most important countries. People have criticized Trump for adopting an accommodating stance toward Russia, but here's a news flash which some people seem to have forgotten: that is how you do politics
. When you disagree with a foreign leader, you don't resolve the dispute by threatening them and trying to intimidate them; you resolve things by negotiating with them, holding talks with them and working toward a resolution which is mutually agreeable to everyone. Even during the Cold War, things were better between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; even then, the leaders of the two countries at least communicated with each other regularly. It stuns me, again and again, that people can praise Obama for violating the number one rule of foreign diplomacy, namely being open to negotiations with other countries.
Obama didn't even get along well with supposed partner countries in Western Europe, fumbling his relationship with Angela Merkel and inexplicably threatening the UK by stating that they would go to "the back of the queue" for trade deals if they left the European Union. Obama clearly became too full of his own sense of power, thinking that he could order other countries to do whatever he wanted, apparently not realizing that the era when the United States could tell every other country in the world what to do is over, that the United States needs to start acting like a participant in world affairs rather than the world's tyrant.
But okay, let's say that you're willing to forgive Obama for his foreign policy failures because of what he achieved domestically. It's true that Obama founded the Affordable Care Act, something which many people have reason to be happy about, but aside from that one crown jewel which Obama supporters are so proud of, what has Obama really done for his people? The American economy has faltered for many years, and any recovery has been feeble at best. Far from doing anything to help everyday Americans get or keep jobs, Obama has consistently cooperated with big businesses, doing all he could to open up trade routes that make it easier to offshore American jobs. His presidency began with his upholding of a nearly trillion-dollar bailout of the biggest businesses in America, a bailout started by Bush Jr. As was commonly observed at the time, this was enough money to give about $2,000 directly to every single person in the United States, but instead they gave it to the big businesses, expecting that this would save the economy! This was trickle-down economics that far surpassed anything Reagan ever did.
And then there was immigration reform. People have some kind of strange idea that Obama was more open to foreign immigrants than other presidents, that he has done a lot to promote the rights of forign nationals in the U.S. It seems like this is based on nothing more than what Obama said. Look at what Obama actually did
, however, and you'll see a different story: under Obama, the rate of deporations of Latin Americans from the U.S. actually increased
. In fact, a basic fact check will reveal that 2.5 million people were deported from the United States during Obama's presidency, which is more than during any other presidency in all of American history
. All of this information is easy to verify if you look at actual events that have happened. Yet people somehow continue to believe in the ridiculous lie that Obama was a defender of foreign immigrants, just because he claimed that he was whenever he stood in front of a camera. It boggles my mind to think that people can actually be this gullible, that people would so readily believe anything Obama says just because he happens to be a member of the Democratic Party. Truly, the Democratic Party is like the most fundamentalist of all religions: "My sins are more excusable than your sins, because I'm on the correct side."
To be fair, do I think that Obama was much worse than his predecessors? No, not really. He simply did what every American president since at least Reagan has done: sell out the American people, give all that money to the biggest businesses, and start wars in the world's most disadvantaged countries. It seems like this is basically part of the job description. With Trump, there seems to be a glimmer of hope, a sense that perhaps this time, things will be different. Certainly, Trump is a president unlike any there has ever been. But do I really have a strong sense that things will change under his leadership? No, not really. I have no reason to believe that he will do anything other than--again--simply what every American president does. At this point, almost any kind of change at all would be a good thing. However, I doubt that anything will actually change. In all probability, we'll have another few years of the same stagnation and slow decay which has been a constant in America since September 11, 2001. So don't worry, folks: we're not losing much.
|Thursday, January 19th, 2017|
|At the end, a disappointment with the language-learning process
Last week, I went to a local German school to take their assessment test. It's been well over a year since I took a German exam or class, and I was curious to see how my German has progressed now that I've actually been working in a German-speaking company where I have to speak German with co-workers and customers on a daily basis. It's already been more than 2 years since I passed my B2-level German exam, so I was hoping that I could get some guidance on where to go from here.
The woman who assessed my results after the test acted a bit strangely when I spoke with her. Normally in these situations, the process is fairly straightforward: they tell you your test results, meaning they give you a concrete level which the test placed you at, and suggest that you take a class at that level. This time, however, the woman started asking me a lot of questions, ranging from how long I've been in Germany to what kind of books I read in my spare time, as well as what German classes I've taken in the past. I ended up telling her my nearly five-year history of studying German (it's hard for me to believe that it's already been almost five years now), and I told her a lot about how I study and what my thoughts throughout this learning process have been. When she finished asking me questions, she looked thoughtfully at the notes she had taken on our conversation, then suddenly asked pointedly: "What do you want to improve?" I paused, unsure of how to answer, and the subtext of her question became apparent to me: You speak German already. What are you doing here?
This was a difficult question for me to answer, because I didn't really have any concrete idea of what
I wanted to improve. As I thought about it, I realized the situation I was in: it was fairly obvious that I had aced the placement test. Indeed, when I gently asked whether I might get an idea of my test results before I went any further, she confirmed: "Your results were very good. You're in the upper C1 or perhaps C2 level." (C2 is the highest level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), supposedly approaching the fluency of a native speaker of a language.)
I've spent a fair bit of time going through various different German schools over the past few years, and one thing I've come to realize in them is that most people stop taking classes after the B2 level. Once you start getting into C-level classes, you reach a point where you can't really learn much more from just sitting in a classroom; you have to actually get out and start using the language, meaning you have to actively talk to people in that language, read books in that language, and watch movies or television, or listen to radio broadcasts, in that language. I've been doing all of these things for the past few years. And now that I seem to have more or less reached the C-levels of German, the question is: where do I go from here? Language schools rarely even offer classes at the C2 level since hardly anyone takes them, and so I gently asked the woman: "I suppose, in practice, you don't usually have classes at the C2 level?..."
The woman nodded with a combination of affirmation and slight embarrassment. And then I understood what she was getting at, the thing she was trying to avoid saying but which there didn't seem to be any way around: there were no classes there for me. There are no classes left for me, because people at my level stop taking classes, and they go out into the real world and start using the language. At this point, there's no other way forward.
In a sense, all of this is a good thing. You might think that I would be pleased to learn this, glad to know that my German is at such an advanced point that I'm almost at the very highest level. In a way, I suppose it is nice to know that at least on paper, my German is very good if not excellent. But I must confess that now, when I look back on my history of learning German, the present state of my German ability, and the future of my use of German, I am a little disappointed with the whole process, for the simple reason that my German still isn't that great. Sure, I can explain and apply the grammar rules that you learn in classes: I can explain how adjective declinations work (usually regarded as the single most complicated thing about learning German, and something which I explained
in a blog post almost 3 years ago), I know when to use conjugated forms of verbs and when to use the infinitive, and I can pronounce almost any common German word with more or less the correct accent, but here's the thing: I still have the sense, every day, that I still don't really speak German. I can go through the motions of reproducing academic facts which I learned, but I can't actually sit down with a native speaker and comfortably have a conversation, or pick up a novel and read through it with ease.
The main problem, as ever, remains vocabulary. I wrote a while ago that when people learn a language, they often tend to incorrectly focus on grammar, as if grammar is a significant impediment to learning the language. While it's true that grammar is important and you should learn how to get it right, I declared that the single biggest impediment in learning a language, pretty much without exception, is vocabulary. There may be many rules which you have to learn regarding a language's grammar, but in order to fluently speak a language with near-native proficiency, you have to learn a vocabulary of about 10,000 words that you can actively use in speaking or writing, and something like another 10,000 words which you can passively recognize even if you can't actively use them correctly. Amassing a vocabulary of 20,000 words is a daunting task, a feat which blows any study of grammar out of the water in terms of complexity. I believed that when I got started, and I still believe it now. Forget about even the most complicated grammar rules, like what endings to use or where to place words in a sentence; after a while, you get used to such things, and they come so naturally to you that you don't really have to think very much about the rules which govern them. The most difficult thing when acquiring a language, by an extreme factor, is the long work of building vocabulary.
Even today, my German vocabulary--or rather, my lack thereof--is the prime limiting factor which prevents me from understanding other people when they speak, prevents me from being able to express myself lucidly, prevents me from being able to understand words in a book or in a news broadcast. Even now, with however large a vocabulary I might have pulled together in 5 years of studying German, I still regularly hear and see words which I simply don't know the meaning of, words like Beschwichtigung
, words which every native German speaker who has been speaking German for more than 20 years will recognize, but which I, with my paltry 5 years of German, derive no more meaning from than a jumble of random letters. To constantly encounter such words while being told that my German is excellent is actually quite frustrating.
I realize that at this point, there is nothing left to do but keep going. In terms of official ratings, I've almost reached the top: I'm almost at the C2 level. Maybe sometime this year I will actually study seriously for a C2 exam and try to achieve the GDS (Großes Deutsches Sprachdiplom), considered the gold standard in German language ability. With a few more months of really diligent study, I might be able to do it. But even if I do, this is sort of an empty achievement, something I can maybe put on my résumé but certainly not something which augments my real-world ability to understand or use everyday German. I might as well try to pass the test just to make it official, but in terms of actually using the language in everyday settings, there's nothing else to do but press forward, keep reading complex novels, keep talking to people, keep developing my language skills so that with time, I will less frequently encounter words which I don't recognize, and my skill level, in another decade or two, will approach something almost resembling native-speaker proficiency. This can only come with time. There is no shortcut; the process of building a vocabulary can only come with a lot of time, spending a lot of time reading and listening to people speak so that you can recognize how a language is actually used.
I wonder what I should do with my Duolingo streak. Duolingo tracks how many consecutive days you've learned with it, and as of this writing, my streak is approaching 500, meaning I've learned a language every single day on Duolingo for almost 500 days. I actually got back into Duolingo and started this streak when Duolingo released its Russian course (something I also wrote about
when it happened), because I wanted to learn Russian, and I still do, but I must admit that I've been using Duolingo lately mostly to practice my German, even though in terms of German, I kind of outgrew Duolingo a while ago. Most of the things Duoligo teaches me on are just too basic for where I'm at, and most of the things which I still get wrong on Duolingo are minor things, usually idioms which are highly context-specific, figures of speech which are not emphasized enough to the point where I'd actually learn them without more practice on those specific points. I should really stop using Duolingo to "practice" German and focus on using it to teach me Russian. It's tempting to just drop Duolingo at this point altogether, but I don't really want to lose the progress of my ridiculously long streak. There are some people on Duolingo, a small sort of club or clique of them, who have streaks of longer than 1,000 days, and it would be sort of funny to put myself in that club, even though this would be an entirely meaningless and futile "achievement" at this point. I haven't yet seen anyone with a streak of longer than 2,000 days, and I think such a streak is impossible right now, because as of this writing, I believe 2,000 days is slightly longer than Duolingo has existed. (Wikipedia claims that Duolingo launched on November 30, 2011. As of this writing, 2,000 days ago is July 30, 2011.) So if I keep going, I could put myself into a sort of club of people who just kept going, just kept maintaining their streak on Duolingo... but then the question would be: what for? Duolingo only takes you to about the B1 level in a language, so what's really the point in maintaining your streak there once you've solidly passed that point?
I realize that I should be happy about where I am. I should be happy that I've made so much progress, that I can speak, read, understand, and write German so well. And to be sure, I am. I don't want to appear ungrateful for the ability to proficiently use such a beautiful, rich language, with such a wonderful body of literature and other writing that it produced over hundreds of years. But I would be lying if I denied that I'm just a bit disappointed with the whole language-learning process, because even now, where I am, at what is something like the "end" of the formal language-learning process, I still don't feel like I have really learned German to the level which I wanted to learn it at, and again, there is nowhere to go from here, no one to help me now, nothing to do but just keep going and let things sort themselves out. And again, I intend to do so: I intend to keep going, because it would be a terrible shame to neglect the German I have already learned thus far. I should make use of it now that I have this ability. It's just frustrating when every single day, I have to ask people to explain what they said because I didn't understand them, when I stumble over my words and have to halt because I don't know the word for what I want to express, when I sense people's frustration with my efforts to speak to them in their language and the limitations of my own language acuity on our ability to communicate transparently. If I'd known that being nominally "fluent" was this frustrating, I'm not sure that I would have ever bothered to learn another language. Oh well... Live and learn.
|Monday, January 16th, 2017|
|How the media's use of the word "progressive" demonstrates their leftist-liberal bias
I'd like to think that I am a person who is fairly tolerant of other people expressing opinions which are different from mine. I would even go so far as to say that I am generally accepting of people claiming that their opinions are the best
or the right
opinions. After all, you need to reach some kind of a conclusion to make a decision: if society consists entirely of people who politely say "Well, I have my own opinions, but I respect yours even if they are different," then nothing can ever get done and no concrete decisions can ever get made. In order for any kind of planning to be implemented, for any sort of action to take place, it is necessary for people to conclusively say "We hold this idea to be the one most relevant or valuable to us, and so we're going to proceed based on that." What I do not accept, and what always bothers me in a vaguely disgusting and disturbing sort of way, is people claiming that their opinions are correct without providing any justification for this conclusion. I would hope that if someone wants to convince others that their ideas are the most correct or most valuable, they would provide some kind of justification for this idea, some kind of reasoning to explain why they think others should agree with them. Yet I regularly see people, often people who are actually very intelligent and educated, inexplicably advancing the idea that their ideas must be the correct ones simply because they like those ideas the most, and that anyone who disagrees with them is self-evidently a bad person.
An example of this phenomenon is the way in which the word "progressive" is used in the media and in general discussion today. In its most literal, dictionary sense, being "progressive" simply means having an inclination to want to make progress toward something, some desirable goal which it is seen as worth trying to move toward. On the surface this idea sounds great: who wouldn't want to advance to an improved, better state? The problem comes when you try to define what "better" is, what would qualify as an "improvement." The fact is that there is not one single goal which all humanity is united in trying to reach; in fact, many people in the world have goals which are specifically opposite to, and thus mutually incompatible with, the goals held by some other people in the world. What some people consider "progress" is considered the opposite of progress by others. There is not any one single change which the entire world would unanimously recognize as "progress" toward some desirable, worthwhile goal.
And yet the word "progressive" is widely used in news media and political discussions to refer to a specific political agenda, with the implication that whatever that political agenda wants is the way "forward" to a more highly developed, improved state of affairs, and anything which opposes this ideology is ignorant and narrow-minded, an impediment to the process of humanity improving itself. I could even say that there is something to this idea, under two conditions: first, that the "progressives" specifically identify what their goals are, what kind of plan they're trying to make progress toward, and secondly, why exactly this process of making progress would be an improvement, why it would lead us into a future which is better than our current one. Yet people who describe themselves as "progressive" usually satisfy neither of these requirements: most "progressives" exist as a sort of cult-like clique who imagine that they have the secrets to how all human beings should live, and they rarely make a point of explicitly clarifying, for the public benefit, what their vision for the future is or how they would like us to get there. When they do express social or political ideas, they almost invariably do so without offering any reasons why they think these ideas are better than others, simply declaring that any intelligent person can recognize their ideas as the best, and that anyone who doesn't agree with those ideas is ignorant, uneducated, and should get out of the way of "progress."
Given that the word "progress" implies the act of moving toward a better state, progress should mean improving humanity. This could mean, for example, euthanizing or sterilizing people with genetic defects so that they cannot propagate their inferior genes in the gene pool, as well as people with physical or mental defects to eliminate people who are of a lower quality. From a scientific point of view, this would be a "progressive" course of action, since it would reduce problems with low-quality people and maintain only people of the best quality, allowing humanity to progress toward an improved state. This, however, is not quite what "progressives" usually advocate; in fact, it is nearly the opposite of what they advocate. People who call their ideas "progressive" usually use this word to denigrate old-fashioned ideas about religion and tradition, claiming that people should leave these antiquated, obsolete value systems behind and form better ones based on intelligent reasoning instead. Yet most progressivism is not based on any kind of reason.
A related term is "enlightenment," which became very much an important word during the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" in the 18th century, and it is notable how this word parallels "progressive" in that it implies, without any justification whatsoever, that it is somehow better than what came before it, that it is a movement of light-bearing luminaries bringing vision and awareness to a benighted world. Yet in every discussion I have ever seen of this period, I have never seen any kind of a justification, not a word that attempts to explain why
this so-called "enlightenment" is better than any other way of thinking. It is simply assumed that the people who promoted this enlightenment were very smart, obviously much smarter than those dumb old farmers who didn't understand it, and therefore this enlightenment was the only way forward for humanity. Even today, the word "enlightenment" is widely used in the media to refer to the ideas that became popular in the 18th century, but modern usage usually forgets the principle which was supposed to provide this enlightenment, namely scientific inquiry, and uses "enlightenment" as a synonym for anti-religion and political liberty for people to do whatever they want. I hope the irony is not lost on the reader of a movement which abandons science, the very thing which was supposed to give it some kind of grounding in reason, and promotes people's freedom to follow their infantile whims as a superior form of intelligence.
The way these words are used in the media today shows how the meanings of words are used to control what people think. Even in supposedly neutral, respectable news media today, it is routine to use the word "progressive" to describe a thoroughly left-wing ideology that does not actually attempt to improve things in any planned or scientific way (for example, as I mentioned, through eugenics) but simply promotes the idea that every person should be free to do whatever they want, with the implicit assumption that this is somehow the ideal state for humanity and that anything which brings us closer to this vision is surely a great thing for humanity. It wouldn't be so bad if these people had the honesty to just come forward and say "I want a world in which everyone is free to do whatever they want, and I think that this is the best possible vision for the future of humanity," but instead they hide this vision, claim the use of words like "progress" and "awareness" as exclusively for their own use, and demonize anyone or anything which opposes this vision as the enemy of humanity. The fact that the media not only allows such people to continue to control the use of our language in this way, but even does so themselves, demonstrates that there is a leftist-liberal bias in the media. If someone were to propose a national eugenics program, something which would actually materially improve humanity according to the scientific knowledge which "enlightenment" claims to pursue, no major newspaper on Earth would dare to describe such a program as "progressive" even if it were suggested with the aim of improving humanity, because "progressivism" is not really about trying to improve anything, and "enlightenment" is not really about making people more informed; these are just buzzwords which hedonists and anarchists have claimed for their own use, a language coup which the media has tacitly allowed and actively participated in.
Note that I am not actually proposing the implementation of a eugenics program myself. You see, unlike what so-called "enlightened" people claim to believe, I do not see science as the sole source of understanding, awareness, or thinking. There are also things like compassion, community, and basic human decency... Ah, but these things are all very old-fashioned values, so surely they would not be of any interest to the brilliantly enlightened, progressive geniuses who will lead our humanity into a better future.
|Saturday, January 14th, 2017|
|Why I like Southern California more than Northern California
The recent movie La La Land
is putting some media focus on Los Angeles, a city which was once seen as the center of all that was golden in California but which in more recent years has acquired a negative reputation as a dirty, polluted, and hopelessly overbuilt haven of crime and poverty. The movie refutes this view, presenting the City of Angels as a beautiful and magical place. Since I've done a lot of writing lately about my experiences in the United States and Europe and how these contrast with each other, perhaps now is a good time for me to explain something which might surprise some people who have read my blog for a while, namely that I've always liked Southern California more than Northern California.
A bit of background: I lived in the United States for about 10 years, and although I saw various parts of the country in that time, I didn't explore it as thoroughly as I later explored Europe, because travelling around the U.S. has a much lower payoff-versus-price ratio: in Europe, you can easily travel across most countries in a day or less on a fairly inexpensive bus or train ticket, and there are so many small towns and villages in Europe with hundreds of years of history that you usually don't have to go very far to see something interesting, while in the U.S. cross-country trains and buses take longer to get anywhere because the country is bigger, and you don't really see very much on such travels. So although I've briefly visited a handful of the most important places in the U.S., I haven't been to every important city in the country. What I have seen a lot of is California: I've been pretty much everywhere in California that's worth going to between Sacramento and San Diego, and I've lived in both Southern California (commonly shortened to SoCal) and Northern California (NorCal). Cuturally, many people hold these regions as synonymous with their most famous cities, respectively Los Angeles and San Francisco, but while I never actually lived directly in
either of these cities, I lived close enough to them that I travelled to them regularly, so I've seen a lot of both. I've also seen a lot of the environs which surround these cities, and based on the things I've experienced and seen, I always felt much more comfortable in SoCal than in NorCal.
First, let me address the question of just why
I think this might surprise some people. Folks who have read a fair amount of my writing will know that I like culture, perhaps to the point where I consider it the most important defining feature of any populated location. There is a popular image of San Francisco that it is the most cultured city on the American Pacific Coast, since it was the first city that was really properly developed into a significant population center rather than being just one of the tiny seaside ports that dotted the coast for much of American history. The common thinking seems to be that for people who like culture, there is nothing that comes close to San Francisco on the West Coast, since the city is seen as a "European style" city in its levels of artistic output. Los Angeles, by contrast, is seen as a filthy city full of unsophisticated beach bums who just want to surf all day. The "surfer dude" stereotype and its female equivalent, the "valley girl," are both endemic to Southern California. What, then, would a guy like me who is not a party person have that could attract me to the South, and why would I not gravitate rather to the North, to that city on a hill with its highbrow, cultured scholars?
First of all, let me reiterate what I always says about culture, namely that when I talk of "culture," I mean real culture, not just some people who dance around or put on some boring theatrical production and call it culture. Nor do I mean--as some people might wrongly assume--what is commonly called "high culture," because too much of that is just obscenely wealthy snobs looking at pointless artworks and talking about how much better looking at such art makes them. Culture is a mindset, a collection of ideas and values. Culture is what a society believes in and holds as having value. Culture is expressed not only through the arts, but also in the everyday lives of people. When culture does manifest itself as the arts, it appears through creativity that expresses the people's set of values, through art and media that can articulately express a point of view, especially literature and film. San Francisco is a center for the visual arts, but there is not much other creativity or artistry which happens there. The city lacks a strong literary scene, and most of the art that exists there makes the classical mistake of focusing on what is beautiful rather than what is meaningful.
Los Angeles, by comparison, is not only a far more creative city than San Francisco, it is actually one of the most creative cities in the world. People seem to assume that Los Angeles is nothing but the "Hollywood phony" stereotype, a movie-star type who is so artificial, so detached from reality and so full of themselves, that they are beyond intolerable. I won't deny that such people exist in Los Angeles, but they are a small minority. People seem to forget that for every movie star that gets cast in a Hollywood movie, there are a hundred non-stars who get listed in the credits because they do things like write the script, operate the lights, and otherwise participate in media productions (particularly film productions, of course, but not solely limited to such) in a way which is kind of like working any regular job, but somehow more meaningful and invigorating because you're a part of the process of producing a huge work of creative media. The sheer level of artistic creativity which is present in L.A. blows San Francisco out of the water; L.A. is full of scriptwriters, directors, producers, and other people associated with the film industry who are constantly creating stories and working to bring those stories to the screen. There is certainly no other place like it on Earth, no other place where human creativity is so intensely concentrated in one place for the process of creating stories that will be told to the world.
Some people might say that the cultural heart of America is New York City, and that I in particular should like that city since it is the literature capital of the country. It's true that most major American book-publishing companies have their headquarters located in New York City, but this doesn't really mean anything; the fact that publishing companies happen to have an office in a city doesn't make that city significantly more literary or book-centric than any other city, especially since New York is so huge that the publishing industry forms a very tiny part of its overall makeup. This is not the case in Los Angeles, where the film industry is so large that it actually dominates the local cultural and economic awareness. New York is a city with great cultural offerings, it's true, but for the most part it is a city focused on business and finance; it's more about Wall Street than anything else, and as such it is dominated by businesspeople. San Francisco has the same problem: much of the city is centered around the Financial District, and as a result it is heavily populated by the negative stereotype of yuppies, naive young people who live in abundant wealth but are entirely ignorant about the effects of that wealth on the city around them. In the 1960s, San Francisco became known as a center of the hippie movement, but since then, bankers, traders, and other wealthy businesspeople have taken over the city, with the result that most people in San Francisco today are either finance people who only think about money, hippies who just want to take drugs and think they can still find traces of a long-lost movement that disappeared decades ago, or very often people who try to be both at the same time, usually failing at both.
Those who have read my blog for a long time know that I have no sympathy or patience for businesspeople who think of nothing but how to expand their businesses. I have nothing against business itself
, as long as that business produces useful products and services which people need, but the entire "IT industry" in Northern California today is only about producing impossibly abstract software structures and elaborate marketing schemes to try and convince other businesspeople to invest in a useless library of software functions. There is no human element here, no thought of trying to make products or services which real, everyday people might benefit from. I have often heard people say that San Francisco is built like a European city, but this semblance is only skin deep. Yes, in terms of its architecture, San Francisco looks
somewhat European on the surface, but culturally and economically, it is a thoroughly American city in that it exists only to try and make money by selling anything and everything that can possibly be sold, as well as many things which can't be. Since any physical object which can have a price put on it has already been marketed to death, people are now trying to figure out how to turn unimaginably nebulous ideas into saleable products. What this process does to a city and its people is very sad: it destroys the culture in a city and turns the people into sales drones whose spare time is eaten up by trying to develop ideas into a business plan.
Contrast this with the lifestyle in L.A., which at least tries to develop products of human interest. Nobody has to ask why you're making a movie or what the purpose of a film is for. Hollywood is a vibrant place because it is a place where art and industry come together, where people can be tremendously creative but also make a lot of money doing it. The result is the best of both worlds, a place where people can develop careers while still having fun. Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a "fun" person, not the sort of guy who would go to a beach party or a strip bar, but even this being the case, I would feel infinitely more comfortable in such a place than in an environment populated by numbingly corporate businesspeople who only want to talk business constantly. Even though I am not a hedonist, I understand the motivation behind going to a music concert or a dance club. At least people who do that are trying to achieve something human, something that would somehow bring a happy experience into their life. The focus in Southern California is on quality of life: people there want to be happy, they want to have a good time, and they want to share their good times with other people. There's a stereotype that L.A. is full of gangsters and phonies who are just out to get something for themselves, while San Francisco is a city of gentle, thoughtful people who are just waiting to show some stranger the good life. This has never been my experience, however: I have always found people in L.A. to be gregarious, open-hearted people who are unpretentious and approachable, while people in San Francisco, if you talk to them, are only interested in figuring out how to get you to buy something. The curious thing about being wealthy in L.A. is that when you have a stupidly huge amount of money, there's no point in being stuck-up about it; even the wealthy in L.A. are oddly modest about their money and not particularly interested in trying to make themselves look better than other people, because there really isn't any point in doing so since so many other people have just as much money as them. In such a city, you might as well have some fun with your money, and L.A. is a city where pleasure is always shared, meaning it's never hard to find someone who'll bring you along on an adventure with them if you're willing to experience one.
I won't deny that L.A. has a gang problem, but this is not usually something which troubles everyday people, because most gang violence is gang-on-gang violence; random violence against innocent bystanders who are not in the gang scene is rare. It is true, too, that some parts of L.A. are sufficiently depressed and filled with crime that they should be avoided. If you end up living in L.A., it's good to know the parts of the city to keep away from, but this is true in most large cities. (Do you think San Francisco doesn't have its own slums?) As long as you stay out of the bad neighborhoods, L.A. is a reasonably safe city for its size. L.A. also has a bad reputation for the purely technical factors of air pollution and heavy traffic, and both of these stereotypes are completely true: air pollution in L.A. is relatively high because the city sits in a mountain basin which makes it difficult for the wind to disperse particulate matter in the air, and I did get tired of being in a city where I could spend an hour on the freeway and still not have driven through the city. To be fair, while L.A. traffic is terrible, I don't think it is materially worse than, say, Route 101 running through Silicon Valley, but okay, suppose that you don't want to live in a place with such traffic or pollution. No problem; you can go to San Diego, a wonderfully beautiful city with a very high quality of life and basically none of the urban problems that L.A. is saddled with. Or you can go to Orange County, or the Inland Empire, places not far from L.A. which share the same sort of easy-going, quality-not-quantity approach to living. These places have great weather, they're not too densely-populated, and they're not very expensive to live in. Compare this to the outlying regions of the San Francisco Bay Area, which are saturated with crime and poverty and still unreasonably expensive to live in.
In fact, Southern California embodies the American Dream perhaps better than any other place in the country. It is an economically prosperous region full of natural beauty and people who are happy to work together on big projects. More than any other place in America, it seems like a place where people can dream, where people's creativity is spurred on to ever greater heights. You might say that this is all a giant Hollywood illusion, that in fact this is the biggest "special effect" of all that tricks people into seeing someting that just isn't there, and to some extent, you're right: to be sure, thousands of people who go to Hollywood with dreams of being the next big star end up working as obscure porn actors for the rest of their careers, or worse yet, homeless and drug-addicted before dying young of an overdose or a drive-by shooting or something similar. To be sure, life in SoCal isn't always easy, especially if you don't have good connections with important people, and the whole sense of being able to realize your biggest dreams is, to some extent, a fantasy, an illusion which the region deliberately maintains in order to keep its worldwide mystique. Realistically speaking, I'm not sure that I would want to live in SoCal again, personally, because for all it has going for it, it's not really the kind of place for a guy like me, who doesn't like to go out much and dislikes the big-city lifestyle in general. But I must say that I had a certain sense of well-being when I lived in SoCal, a sense of deep happiness and of being at home which I never felt in any other place in America. Not everyone likes SoCal, and if you don't like it, that's fine; there are valid reasons not to like it as well, but I will always be grateful for having been able to live in such a magical and special place. I know that if I had to choose between living in SoCal, a place where people still know what is important in life, and living in NorCal, a place for hippie wannabes and miserable people who insist on living there because they think it's somehow the best place on Earth, the choice for me would be obvious.
|Monday, January 9th, 2017|
I've been to a lot of job interviews in my life. I tend to get nervous about job interviews, because they usually inevitably end up asking questions which I don't have good answers to off the top of my head. One of the questions which I most struggle with in job interviews is the inevitable "Why you?" question which seems to come up quite often. In a job interview, you expect questions about your work history and what kind of work you're looking for; that is normal and understandable. There are often also questions about your personal style, such as whether you prefer to work alone or in a team, which also makes sense since particular job roles might favor particular working styles. But all too often, the job interview deteriorates into seemingly-pointless questions which are meant to test the candidate's response to thinking under pressure. There is a very interesting and informative book titled How Would You Move Mount Fuji?
which is about these types of interview questions, the eponymous question in the title being an example of the sort of interview questions which technology companies like Microsoft and Google are somewhat notorious for. Even these questions usually have a certain logic to them, however, because they are often puzzles for which you can reason out a solution, and even if there is no concrete "correct" answer, you can often come up with a reasonable process for estimating an answer, which is precisely what the interviewer is looking for: how well you can estimate an answer when there is no hard information from Wikipedia or other sources available.
But then there's the superfluous and vaguely insulting "Why should we hire you?" question, which is typically worded something like "Tell us why you would be a good candidate for this position," or "Why should you be a successful candidate in this hiring process?" or some other prompt that asks you to tell them why they should hire you. Particularly since it usually follows a review of the candidate's work history and experience, this question makes no intuitive sense. It should be self-evident that if a person's work experience and skills give them the necessary background to do the job in question, then that answers the question. I usually try to gently answer the question with something to the effect of "Well, based on my experience and knowledge that we've talked about, I believe that I have the appropriate skills and understanding that you'd need for me to fill this position effectively," but again, this should be self-evident without it needing to be said. After we've already discussed what I know and what I can do and it's become apparent that I can do the job, what else should I do to demonstrate that I'm a fitting candidate? Shall I stand on my head and sing a Frank Sinatra song? It's not so much that the question itself is unreasonable as that it inevitably seems to come at the end of a conversation which has just answered this very question. The goal of the initial points of discussion was precisely for the interviewer to ascertain, and the candidate to demonstrate, that the candidate is appropriate for the job role. It's like taking a driving test, going through the process of operating a car correctly, and then after you've finished and parked the car, having the tester say: "Tell me why you should have a driver's license." That was the point of the test.
Besides seeming pointless, the "Why you?" question also often comes off as offensive and insulting, because it can be interpreted as the interviewer saying "I don't see the value in you." If you seem like a valuable person, the company would want to retain you as an employee, so for the company to ask "Why should we want you?" implies that you don't have apparent value as an employee. It helps, perhaps, to try and understand the real reason why this question gets asked: the problem is that because there are so many highly-qualified people in the world today, any company hiring for any position is going to get flooded with applications, and there will be many people whose work experience more than qualifies them for the job. When you're in a job interview, the point of the interview is often not to determine whether you're qualified for the job (the answer to this question in the interviewer's mind is usually "probably yes," because otherwise you wouldn't have been called in for an interview in the first place), but rather to try and pick one specific candidate out of the pool of people--usually dozens of them--whose experience and skills are a match to the job. The "Why you?" question isn't asking you to confirm that you're qualified, because that has usually already been established by that point; the question exists to give you a chance to show why you're special, why you might stand out in a crowded field of people. The sad truth is that since there are more job seekers than jobs, being qualified isn't enough. You have to somehow stand out in a way that makes you seem special enough that the people doing the hiring ultimately choose you.
This is the same problem which people face when they're trying to form personal relationships as well. A few years ago, I spent a fair amount of time on some dating websites, and while I didn't have much success in finding dates with them, I realize now that I learned a lot about human behavior from the experience of seeing how dating sites work and how people communicate through them. It's well known that women on dating sites are often inundated with messages from men who want to hook up with them, and so a very similar interpersonal dynamic is created to that of a job interview, in which the woman is the interviewer and the man is the applicant. (Obviously, I'm speaking of heterosexual relationships here. Being heterosexual myself and thus having no experience with homosexual relationships, I can't speak to how they work or how LGBT folks communicate with each other on dating sites.) Communication on dating websites often also boils down to the simple question of "Why you?" A woman on a dating site typically has dozens if not hundreds of guys who are more than eager to message her; if you're one of those guys, you might be a good-looking, intelligent, funny, and nice fellow, but that woman has a lot of other guys with those same qualities messaging her, and so she's going to be asking herself the question (even if she doesn't state this explicitly): Why you? Why should she take the time to speak with you when there are a bunch of other guys clamoring for her attention? You need to stand out in a crowded field.
The result is a dream scenario for self-centered braggarts who like to talk about their accomplishments. Even if it's not usually done so openly and obviously, most guys who contact women in such contexts are basically sending a subtle message to the effect of: "I'm special. I'm better than other guys, and you should give me your attention and affection because of the things which I'm telling you." I suppose that such people thrive in job interviews, since a job interview is basically the process of selling yourself, and people who love to boast about their accomplishments and good qualities have no problem doing that. The same is true on dating sites. I must confess that I find this whole scene rather distasteful, however. I am a normal human being. I am not defined by being smarter, more handsome, more hard-working, more polite, or more anything
than anyone else, nor do I want to be. I have no desire to be "special" in some unique way that sets me apart from other people. I just want to have a normal job and live a normal life like a normal, respectable human being, and there is something very wrong with a world in which this is not possible, a world in which people who try to do this are cast aside as not being remarkable enough while the people who make it their business to inform everyone of how great they are are lifted up as Wunderkinder
when they really should be taught a lesson in just how ordinary and unremarkable they are. I have no desire and feel no need to prove myself to anyone; I am who and what I am, and that is all anyone can be. I am a human being like anyone else, and I desire nothing more than to be a good citizen, a healthy and productive member of human society. What a shame to live in a world where there is no place for such people anymore.
|Friday, January 6th, 2017|
|I guess I'm in the German club now
In the years before I had ever been to Europe, I sometimes met people who spoke very enthusiastically of Germany. This happened to me several times, never from people who were from Germany or even ethnically German, but just people who had spent some time in Germany and found it such a great country that they couldn't stop themselves from speaking of it in gushing terms. As a person who self-identified as "American" at that time, it was hard for me to fathom what could be so great about Germany. I understood Germany's reputation for being efficient, clean, and well-ordered, and I certainly acknowledged these qualities as virtues, but it seemed (and still seems) to me that there must be much more that goes into a great country than just being orderly. I had always assumed that it was either some kind of latent form of racism that led these people to love Germany so much, a sort of closeted identifying with the popular image of Germans as Nazis, or else a pathological need for order that goes beyond what is reasonable, that same sort of demand for discipline which people who have been in the military sometimes retain and implement in their domestic lives even after they've left the military. Neither of these elements appealed to me, and so I always dismissed the passionate Germanophilia I occasionally witnessed as some sort of inexplicable, serendipitous synergy, an instance of individual people finding a particular place that happened to work for their personal style and set of interests but which wouldn't necessarily work for people who don't happen to be on that same wavelength, the way some people rave about finding their true home in San Francisco even though I always saw San Francisco as a boring town with nice ocean views but little else to recommend it.
Today, it's been about five years since I began acquainting myself with Germany, and looking back on my experiences and the things I've thought, felt, and written about Germany in these years, it seems I somehow got caught up in the enthusiasm. From tentative beginnings whereby I just happened to move to Berlin because it was geographically in the center of Europe and seemed like a good place to travel to other parts of Europe, I've developed an attachment to German culture and all things German which probably mirrors the same kind of enthusiasm I was once so bewildered by. I guess I'm in the German club now. How did this happen? Do I have any regrets?
Indeed, I do sometimes look back over my shoulder at the things I've written here about Germany in the past, and wonder if I've made a mistake. It's fine to like a country, but to esteem one country as better than others is dangerous. It was, after all, this very mindset which led to the military invasions and occupations which blemish Germany's history, and I have recognized, with some discomfort, how much some of my own writing seems to resemble nationalism, which I understand the dangers of. I try to avoid being extreme or unreasonable in anything. I try to back up any claims that I make with some kind of logic, not just pseudo-logical rationalizing but real concrete reasons. And yet it's clear to me that I've championed one country among Europe, one country out of a continent of around 50 countries. Have I made a mistake?
This question has long weighed somewhat heavily upon my mind, and it was for this very reason that I so doggedly pursued travel throughout the rest of Europe: not because I was looking for an alternative to the Germany which I'd so developed an attachment to, but rather to gain some perspective, to be able to see other countries in Europe first-hand without relying on other people's accounts or things I read on the Internet or from other resources. I wanted to see for myself whether I was actually wrong about Germany, whether I had just stupidly chosen it as the greatest European country because other people seemed to be doing so, or whether there was really something special in Germany for me. And now, after having been in every region of Europe (if not every single country--no, I haven't been so thorough as to scour the little island nations and micronations and the minor countries at the very edges of Europe), I ask myself again: have I changed my mind about Germany? Or does Germany really seem objectively better to me than every other European country?
First of all, allow me to say that I might pick Austria over Germany. Having lived in both countries, I honestly can't say which one I like better. They're not actually that different from each other (although I realize that many Germans and Austrians will vigorously protest this statement), so if we bring Austria into the mix, then it's kind of a toss-up regarding which country I'd rather live in. But if I allow myself this controversial assumption that Germany and Austria are more or less similar, then I can fairly confidently say with a mixture of both regret and vindication that yes, I still think that Germany (or Austria) is far and away the best country in Europe. I say this with regret because it remains a nationalist, biased, bigoted thing to say, and because I know it will offend and put off people whose loyalties remain with other countries; I say this with vindication because I feel that the things I believed about Germany (and Austria) years ago seem to have been confirmed today, namely that Germany (and Austria) really is a country special in Europe, better than the other countries in most ways that matter.
You might ask me, of course, just what these ways are, specifically. You would ask with justification, for any claim to the effect of "Country X is my personal choice for the best country" should probably have some concrete reasons attached to it. Given my own history of writing within this little blog of mine, however, I do not feel any great need to enumerate the various reasons why I esteem Germany (and Austria) as better than other European countries, because I have already given several concrete reasons for this conclusion before, in many blog posts I have written in the past. If I could summarize the things that make Germany (and Austria) better than other European countries, it might be something similar to: "Yes, Germany (and Austria) is clean, efficient, and well-organized. But it's also so much more than that. If it were really only
these things, then it would have no more appeal than living in a highly automated factory. People who think that Germany is only Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, and Mercedes might think that the entire country of Germany basically is
just one huge factory, but having seen Germany, I see now that Germany is much more than just a car factory. Art is important to Germans. Poetry and tasteful music are important to Germans. Careful, rational, and logical thought is important to Germans, not only in matters of business, but also in one's personal life. Perhaps most of all, quality is important to Germans: for the Germans, it is important that all things--not only cars or similar manufactured goods, but also hand-crafted products, works of art, and even human beings themselves--attain the highest quality they can possibly reach, built out of the best ingredients and structured with the greatest care and workmanship."
You might not believe me. You might say that this is just me seeing Germany (and Austria) through rose-colored glasses, idealizing a country which is really not much different from any other country. You might be right, of course; a person who is unreasonably biased is often not really capable of perceiving their own unreasonable bias. I do admit that I am biased, but I believe that I am reasonably
so, that I have real and valid reasons for the things I think and believe. But I'm willing to admit that I could be wrong.
And of course, this isn't to say that Germany (or Austria) gets everything right. There are many things wrong with Germany (and Austria). But identifying with a country is sort of like marrying a person. There is no perfect country, just as there is no perfect person. This means that you have to take the good with the bad, have to accept the flaws along with the virtues. It's also not always about choosing the one who's most perfect, most flawless--sometimes it's just about choosing the one you feel the most comfortable with, the most personally connected with. And while you don't have to get married, you do have to live in a country: since there is no land left on Earth which is not claimed by some nation-state (barring some tiny pieces of unclaimed or disputed territory which is not reasonably fit for human habitation), you have to live under the laws and society and structure of some country. People can sensibly choose not to get married if they don't meet anyone who is right for them, but you have to live somewhere, and since every piece of land on Earth is part of some country, you do need to pick the one which you're right for, and which is right for you.
Of course, not everyone perceives Germany the same way I do. Sadly, even the people who come to Germany as foreign migrants don't always see Germany the way I do; far too many of these people do not care about German culture, tidiness, or quality, but only come to Germany because of money: they see Germany as a wealthy country, a place where they can make more money than other European countries. This is why so many people are moving to Germany now--it's not a matter of love of fine art or diligence or quality or anything else like that, but simply the attraction to more money. I find this a great shame, because the presence of these people is corrupting Germany, distorting a land which was once relatively pure and honest and turning it into a haven of greedy thieves whose only desire is to chase whatever opportunity will net them the most money.
Perhaps even more outrageous than this is the complaints these people sometimes make of Germany. More times than I can count, I have read testimonies from foreign immigrants living in Germany (or, on some occasions, heard them first-hand in discussions I have had with such immigrants) to the effect of: "I like living in Germany because I can make a good living here, but I really dislike how uptight and strict Germans are. On vacation, I love to travel to my home country because there I can relax and feel at home among my country's tasty food and great dancing." I am not making this up or exaggerating these words at all; I really have seen or heard such opinions expressed more times than I can count, and it makes me very angry, because it's clear that these people have no love of Germany--in fact, they are actually repelled by the national character of Germany--but they remain here to take advantage of the local economy. It would be better for Germany if the economy were weaker, if the country were poorer overall, because then people would not come to Germany only for selfish reasons relating to money, but it would be difficult for Germany to reach this state, since it is precisely because of the relatively diligent and well-organized nature of Germany that the country is comparatively wealthy; it could not become poorer without losing some of the qualities that make it such a great country.
Nonetheless, I am infuriated whenever I see people who have moved to Germany but complain about how "strict" Germans are and how much more "fun" people could be having in other countries. If you have the choice between a country which values doing things as well as possible, with the highest possible quality and to the highest possible standards and precision, versus a country which approaches everything with a lackadaisical "good enough" attitude... if you could choose between a country which values purity, honesty, modesty, thrift, industry, diligence, prudence, and balance, and a country which is known for "great dancing," would you pick the former or the latter? Not only does the choice seem obvious to me, I am actually embarrassed to think that anyone would choose otherwise. Are there really people who hunger so strongly for "great dancing" that they would sacrifice all human virtue to live in a place where they can party non-stop and dance as much as they want? Are there really people who are so obsessed with "style" and "fashion" that they would give up everything that makes a good society for the sake of external appearances, something people are usually supposed to learn to look beyond by the time they reach adulthood? Are there in fact whole countries which are defined by having "good style," and which believe that this can excuse any amount of waste or ignorance? How does such a country even function? How can a society of people maintain their existence if all they are doing is dancing and admiring how fancy they are? Little wonder that such countries are struggling economically! And then people from these countries have the gall to go to Germany just to make money, then moan and complain that there isn't enough dancing going on in Germany, that Germans aren't fashionable enough, that German food is too bland. It makes me so angry that I wish to express my sentiments against these people with physical violence.
Those who have not travelled through Europe extensively might reasonably say: surely there must be other countries besides Germany which have economic prosperity. Surely Germany can't be the only country in all of Europe which is doing all right for itself. Before I came to Europe, I would have thought something similar. The thing is, there really isn't any other country which comes close to Germany in terms of sheer development, the sheer level of culture on display in even small towns, and the general propensity toward thoughtful contemplation rather than orgiastic festivities. The UK is the only other country in the EU which stands out in this regard (and as we all know, it won't be in the EU for much longer). Other European countries which are often seen as powerful--mostly France, Italy, and Spain--are actually fairly weak at this moment, their economies faltering and their national culture largely obsessed with a past which now exists only as historical records. As for the other side of the continent, well, Eastern Europe is quite a patchwork of different countries and cultures, but for the most part, Eastern Europe is still having difficulty getting caught up. Russia is an exception here, having made great strides since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but aside from that one country which was big enough to recover and retain a position of economic and cultural strength, most of Eastern Europe is still faltering both economically and culturally. Many Eastern European countries lack a strong sense of self-identity even today, and have resorted to the familiar, sad pattern of trying to imitate Western countries and modelling themselves after the American/Western European blueprint, inevitably resulting in a second-class knockoff which is neither original nor as good as the thing it's imitating.
To be sure, I had some nice experiences travelling around Europe. There are many nice places to see, things to do, and people to meet all across Europe. Some of them are really wonderful. But when I take each European country as a whole, there are not many countries that I would want to live in. Putting aside economics and finances for a moment, just focusing on matters of art and culture, there are actually not many European countries which I would put ahead of the United States in terms of cultural output. You know that stereotype that European countries are more cultured than America? This might be true for the "holy trinity" of European culture, namely England, France, and Germany, but outside of these countries, most European countries actually lag behind America when it comes to music, movies, visual art, and even "fine art" or "high arts" like literature, philosophy, and refined music. I came to Europe from the United States, and I certainly didn't do so to move to a country which has less
So I live in Germany. Some people will see me as a bigot, an asshole, and/or a brazen opportunist. Perhaps I am some or all of these things. But I can't think of any other country I'd rather live in right now... and my reasons for that have nothing to do with money or economics. Perhaps my sentiments on this matter will change in the future. Who knows? I certainly never expected to like Germany before I actually physically came here, so I'm willing to accept that perhaps I will be surprised by something else in the future, but for the time being, I can only quote a famous German and conclude: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise."
|Wednesday, January 4th, 2017|
|The rise of the big American novel
Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, 2015's Purity
, is a pretty big book--specifically, it's 500-and-some pages, like Franzen's other novels. It's also a novel that seems a bit self-referential, coming after the phenomenal success of Franzen's previous effort, 2010's Freedom
, which garnered praise from just about everyone who touched that book and earned Franzen the (admittedly somewhat dubious) title of "Great American Novelist." Obviously it would be difficult to top such a success, and Franzen seems awkwardly conscious of this position in Purity
, as the book contains a character who was once a highly-praised novelist but who has since passed his peak and is unable to reproduce the great writing he was once admired for. With regard to this character, the novel makes a reference to the phenomenon of the big book
(italics in the original), noting: "Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury
or The Sun Also Rises
. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length."
Ignoring the evident phallic reference here (yes, obviously a male writer's ability to produce writing may be psychologically intertwined with his sense of masculinity and virility), it does seem to me that novels are longer these days, on average, than they used to be. Certainly American novels, at least; yes, there were sprawling epics like Moby-Dick
back in the day, but most classic American novels are relatively compact, and once upon a time, this seems to have been a defining feature of great American literature. Hemingway became known for his terse, taciturn writing style in which it was often the case that a story was told more by what was not
written, and this became a style much imitated by his contemporaries and successors.
Today, all of this has changed. It seems to me that this is at least partly due to the phenomenon of the fantasy/sci-fi novel, in which it's easy to produce absurdly long tales since anything can happen in a fantasy world. With the more recent installments of the Harry Potter
series and the A Song of Ice and Fire
books bloating to ridiculous proportions, novels pushing 1,000 pages seem to be becoming the norm rather than the exception. There's a sense that if you only write a couple of hundred pages, as was done in previous generations, then you haven't really written a complete book. Perhaps this relates to the modern commercial mindset's conception of a book as a product: a book is not seen as simply a vehicle for good ideas or good writing, but rather as a commodity to sell, and the bigger the book, the more market value it can be seen as carrying. I hope it's obvious that this is a pretty stupid idea, but it is still an idea that people will probably think of, at least subconsciously, if they see a physically smaller book: "Why would I buy such a small thing when I can have something much bigger for nearly the same price?"
I wonder if this also has to do with the simple fact that most of the world's ideas have already been somehow encapsulated into a story, and so writers need to do more than just tell a story about some idea. If you look at classic American novels, they're usually about something, some driving theme: The Grapes of Wrath
was about poverty. The Scarlet Letter
was about crime and punishment in a small town. Uncle Tom's Cabin
was about race relations and slavery. But these are all subjects which have been more than adequately covered in the media over the years. Today in particular, with Wikipedia and other non-fictional media about every subject you could think of just a few finger-taps away on the Internet, a novel can no longer afford to just
be topical, just
be a book that happens to be about some issue that is current at the moment; it has to add something more than what you'd find out from doing a search online for a few hours. How can a book stand out in our media-saturated environment without going for ridiculous maximalism, putting everything and the kitchen sink in its sprawling, multithreaded plot lines?
The problem with doing this is that it leads to a fairly distorted view of human nature. For years, I've made the case that concerns about story characters not being "multidimensional" enough are misleading. Many literary critics complain when a character in a story is too predictable, when one character continually exhibits a specific trait, but the thing is, that's actually what people are like. If a person has a particular personality on one given day, chances are that they will have the same personality the next day, and the next day, and the day after that, too. Yes, of course people can change moods or behaviors from one day to the next, and people have complex psychologies which can often mask their real reasons for doing things even to themselves, but I worry that people who learn about the world from reading books will get a wrong impression about the world from reading these huge, fictionalized narratives. Remember that classic song line "A kiss is just a kiss"? The point is that sometimes a person's action stands on its own, and there isn't some deeper motive or story behind it. From reading Franzen's novel Purity
, you might get the impression that the only reasons people ever have sex are because they have daddy issues, or they feel guilty because of something they did in their past, or they're using sex as a way to get something they want, or they feel obliged to do so because of some sense of duty. Actually, in the real world, most of the time when people have sex, they do so just because they feel plain old sexual desire, and there's no deeper meaning or significance to it than that.
The problem with that, of course, is that it doesn't make a very good story. "Two people felt aroused, and so they had sex. The End." What a great story! It would certainly be a more realistic story, and once upon a time, "literary realism" was a big thing, but our deeper inspection of our world has led us to reveal that the real world just isn't as interesting as we'd like to imagine it is. If you could peek behind the curtains or the doors of people's private lives, you wouldn't find an endlessly intricate history of secrets, lies, betrayals, or other drama; you'd find a huge mass of people who lead thoroughly boring lives, going to work each day, coming home to watch television, and then going to sleep to repeat this cycle. If a writer is to write a story, he or she needs to seize on some kind of element of drama, something that would actually make a compelling story, and since this element is often lacking in everyday life, it has to be invented or contrived, which results in literature that presents a very distorted view of reality, even when it seems "real" or "relatable" to readers.
I'm not sure what can be done about this other than to reduce the role of fiction in literature. As I think about my own personal development and how I've come to see the world, I realize that a lot of the false ideas which I carried (and to some extent, still carry) in my head were acquired from reading books and making the false assumption that real life had something to do with what I read about fictional characters. Fiction is a useful vehicle for writing, but I generally find that non-fiction reading and writing is much more useful and enlightening than the contrived, faux-realistic stories that we are surrounded with. I'm certainly not suggesting that we eliminate fictional writing--just that we consider it as what it is, namely one writer's efforts to impress their own individual worldview and efforts at telling a story into text, with the associated values and assumptions that such efforts will necessarily contain as part and parcel of the overall work.
A big book
needs to create and maintain a huge fictional world of plot threads and in-universe attributes in order for the work to be internally consistent, and in our media-saturated world, these fictional subplots and facts often end up supplanting our real-world truisms for the sake of entertainment. That becomes a problem when these fictions start to shape how we see reality and how we think about human relationships. It's one thing to tell a story, but something else entirely to let the story replace reality. As this process continues, I can't help but wonder if a "page war" will develop in which stories swell to ever bigger sizes as books continue to compete against each other as products to be sold by weight, or if the rise of the big American novel actually marks the beginning of the end of the novel as a medium.
|Monday, January 2nd, 2017|
|The true face of America
For years, I wondered if I had lost something from my life by being born in the time and place I was born in. I've written countless times before about how I grew up through the 1980s and 1990s at a time when computer technology grew at an explosive and constant rate, only to turn 18 about a week before the year 2000 hit and yanked the rug out from everyone, leaving me to spend many years of my life re-examining who I was and what I wanted from my life at a time when the life goal which had been so obvious for me--the pursuit of a career in the computer industry--vanished as the computer industry became a thing of the past. It seemed clear to me that I had been born in the wrong time in history, causing me to become an adult at a time when the world's most powerful country no longer made its own things, but instead forced wage slaves in foreign lands to produce most of its goods in sweatshop conditions at wages that were below survival levels. Had I been born 5 to 10 years earlier, I could have become an adult and started entering the workforce at a time when computers were still the hottest thing around. Blaming everything on my date of birth wasn't a solution, though: not every person in history can have the good fortune to be born 18 years before an economic boom so that they can take advantage of it just as they are reaching adulthood. Time must move on, and with this movement comes the question of just what the other people are supposed to do, people like me who weren't around at the right time to catch an economic wave. You can't control when you were born, but you have some influence over your geographic location, which led me to began asking myself: could the problem be not only that I was in the wrong time
, but also the wrong place
When I was younger, the country for me seemed as obvious as my choice of career: of course I should live in the United States. Although I spent most of my childhood growing up in Canada, it was obvious that the computer industry was orders of magnitude larger and more diverse in the United States. Although I may have been raised to value a "Canadian" identity, I grew up to realize that this idea was nothing more than empty nationalistic propaganda with no substance to it, and that when I compared the two countries to each other, Canada was nowhere even close to touching the social, cultural, and economic possibilities that Americans had open to them. It wasn't just about the money for me: if there had been something else in Canada to hold me there, I might have remained there. But there wasn't. When I moved to the United States, I considered myself an American through and through: a person who identified with that land about as much as a person could identify with any country.
I'm not sure exactly when this idea began to shift. Already around the year 2005 or so, I started seeing the gaps in the American way of thinking, the problems created by the short-sighted pursuit of quick money which defines not only the American economic mentality, but even the American social and cultural mentality. I acknowledged these problems and recognized them as something deeply rooted in American history and the American mindset, but I assumed that I just had to accept them, had to live with them as part of the framework of the country which I had made my home. You've got to take the good with the bad, after all; there is no perfect country.
But things just kept getting worse. The situation wasn't improving; at best, it remained stable, but there was no path forward anymore. When the global financial crisis starting to hit around 2007 and 2008, I realized that what everyone had assumed was a temporary rough period was actually an ongoing systemic cycle, a pattern of deterioration caused by a fundamentally unbalanced system that had no grounding. As the smoke from the crisis settled but the promised "recovery" brought a return to GDP growth but no perceptible improvement in the lives of middle-class Americans, I finally realized the horrible truth which I had been blind to because of the period I grew up in: what I was seeing was not a pause before a return to the good times, not even a "new normal," but in fact the old
normal which I had never seen before. I had been promised that we had entered a difficult period, like the recessions of the late 20th century, which we would have to endure before a return to the good times. Actually, the opposite was true: the 1980s and the 1990s were a good time which some people were fortunate enough to experience before a return to the usual norm which had been visible in the first half of the 20th century.
Think back to the history of the United states around the late 19th century and early 20th century, before the Great Depression. Even then, even before that historical economic event which defined much of the 1930s, the United States was a country deeply divided between the financial elite and the oppressed working classes who lived in abject poverty and struggled to find even the most meagre work. A bit of research will tell you that this was not a brief "down period," this was (and is) in fact the default modus operandi of the United States. This pattern was interrupted by World War II because of the enormous surge of industrial investment and output that went into winning that war, and after Europe was destroyed and a huge wave of European refugees and migrants came to the United States, this allowed the United States an unprecedented position which it was able to take advantage of for decades while Europe rebuilt itself, but that kind of growth can't continue forever. As has been so commonly observed regarding the model of economic capitalism, a model which inherently depends on growth will eventually collapse, because in a finite world, nothing can continue growing forever. It was only a matter of time before that bubble burst.
Now that we see America with the benefit of the perspective afforded by time, we see the true face of America. Now it becomes clear that the second half of the 20th century was not the promise of a bright future, but rather a historical aberration brought about by the sheer destruction of history's largest war. People born in my generation--the Millennials--grew up with the wonders of computers and assumed that this was an industry which could sustain this great economic machine indefinitely into the future. People born in the previous generation--Generation X--had similar ideas about aerospace development in the wake of the great Space Race. People born in the generation before that--the Baby Boomers--grew up in a time of unprecedented American prosperity owing to the aftermath of the war. And people born in the generation before that--the so-called Silent Generation--are mostly gone now, and the few remnants are too invisible to offer us the words of caution which they might have been able to offer.
Now more than ever, the world sees clearly that America is not a boundless wellspring of prosperity and liberty, but rather the senseless exploitation of natural resources which had once existed in abundance but were then squandered. Now more than ever, the whole world sees how ridiculous and short-sighted the American mentality and American culture are, a simple-minded celebration of near-term economic prosperity won through crass marketing and the relentless desire to sell any product or service which can have a price tag slapped on it, with commercial jingles and thoughtlessly insipid television sitcoms defining the nation's cultural expression. Now more clearly than ever before, we can see how empty and meaningless the once-popular slogans of Americana are, words like "democracy" (do you really think American government is "government for the people, by the people"?) and "freedom" (the freedom to do what
, exactly?), "giving everyone a chance" (a chance to do what
, exactly? To work 60 hours a week until they die?), or "leaving other people alone and just minding your own business" (what's the point of a human society, then?) while other countries are forming national communities that build themselves on more than just money and consumerism, something more meaningful than GDP growth and amassing as many physical goods as possible.
I was born at the wrong time to ride the wave of the computer industry. I wanted to be a Steve Wozniak, a Vint Cerf, or a Chuck Peddle. But I was born too late for any of that. For years, I lamented my generation, my life's circumstances, and indeed, my life itself. Now I see that the problem was not the when (the date I was born), but also the where (the place I was born), and quite especially the what (the ideas I grew up with and continued to hold in my head). I missed one important historical revolution, but I have the privilege of being part of a generation that is witnessing historical events perhaps even more important in their significance: we are watching a world which is seeing, in very dramatic terms, the limits of capitalism and how urgently people need a different mentality to guide them into the future as the mechanisms of globalized capitalism collapse in their inability to perform or to bring people what they need. This already began in the 1930s, but that process was interrupted by World War II. This time around, the world can't afford another war on that scale, because everyone knows that the weapons we have now are too dangerous to release on that scale. The businesspeople who wanted to restructure global culture to be all about money are backed into a corner with nowhere to go, and there is no path forward without a significant restructuring of everything, a reworking of all the political and economic systems which have served us so poorly for most of the past 200 years.
The mask has fallen off, and a dying beast lies thrashing about under the world's watchful gaze. The past is known to us now, and with the benefit of distance, we see it all the more clearly. What remains murky is, of course, the future. I'd like to imagine that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and build something better from its ashes, but I suspect that human beings, as they always do, will focus too fanatically on one single idea, identifying a single limited point as the cause of all their problems and building a whole system for the purpose of avoiding that one problem while ignoring the other problems which slowly and insidiously creep into their society. That's not just an American problem, though... that's a problem with human nature itself. Indeed, this already happened when people tried to buck capitalism the first time: the wave of popular communism which swept much of the United States in the mid-20th century was largely a reaction to the Great Depression, but this movement failed partly because communism became too fixated on demonizing capitalism, so busy with denigrating Western economics that it neglected the important process of examining its own internal failings and how it could effectively address them. Every historical revolution has been built on that same pattern: a lack of balance, a too-specific focus on one idea. We have no reason to suspect that humanity won't repeat that same stupid mistake this time around.
|Saturday, December 31st, 2016|
|The lost travelogue: Vienna and Budapest, Parts 1 to 3
About 5 years ago, in December of 2011, I took a short vacation to Vienna, the capital of Austria, and Budapest, the capital of Hungary. At the time, I wrote a travelogue intended for my LiveJournal blog, similar to other travelogues I have written and posted in the past. I ended up not posting it because I expressed some very negative sentiments about Budapest, and since I had only been in Budapest for one evening, I felt that I had not really been fair to that city, that it would be remiss for me to wholesale denigrate a city I had only spent a few hours in. I could have posted just the part about Vienna, but for some reason the blog felt incomplete if I omitted a part which occurred right in the middle of the trip, since I went to Budapest from Vienna and returned to Vienna after being in Budapest. So I simply left the travelogue alone, mostly-finished but never publicized.
Today, I have spent more time in both cities. I actually lived
in Vienna for about a year and a half, in a period extending from early 2014 to mid-2015, and in this past month of December 2016, I took a longer vacation through the Balkans, the last region of Europe which I had not yet been to, including a longer stay in Budapest in which I had a chance to finally see more of the city, including seeing it properly during the daytime. Now, having had the opportunity to see both cities more clearly, I no longer feel that I am being neglectful in posting my then-half-formed opinions which I developed in late 2011. Having now seen most of Europe, I do not feel uninformed in stating opinions which have only solidified over time: Vienna is the greatest city in the world, and Hungary, although not usually considered a Balkan country, is in fact a Balkan country, the gateway to the Balkans, and everything south and east of Hungary's border with Austria is basically a place you have no reason to ever visit.
This does not mean that the Balkans are a bad place. No, that's not quite what I mean with this; what I mean is that the Balkans are the last place in Europe which has not opened up to globalized multiculturalism. The Balkans are
multicultural, but they are so because of historical reasons, not because of modern influences: the Balkans are multicultural because of the pre-modern blending of people from many different groups, including Slavs, Turks, Greeks, Dacians, Thracians, and several others. It is because each of these groups has been so prevalent in the region for so long that the Balkan Peninsula has split up into several fiercely-defended fragments. Each ethnicity guards its land vehemently and violently, but this is not a problem most of the time, which is to say that this does not lead to war as long as each group remains firmly within its own borders and does not try to encroach on anyone else's borders.
What this also means, however, is that the Balkan nations are not especially welcoming of outsiders, especially outsiders who intend to take up residence in the Balkans. Tourists are usually seen as okay because they bring money with them, but because each Balkan nation very specifically wants to be monocultural and ethnically homogenous, you have very little reason to go to any such country unless you actually identify with that country's ethnic or cultural identity. And the Balkans are a place where there is very little real culture: other than obvious things like ethnicity, language, and some aesthetic style differences in terms of architecture, dance, food, and so on (the things which I have repeatedly emphasized as explicitly being not
culture), the various Balkan countries hardly distinguish themselves from each other, and the Balkans are a place where people lack intellectual curiosity, but rather live like animals, living from one day to the next for whatever they can get out of it but hardly being artistic, cultural, or philosophical in the way that other European regions sometimes are. Even Bucharest's much-celebrated "Cărturești Carusel" bookstore--a project meant to revive literary culture in the Balkans' largest city--is crap, a sprawling tangle of ornate architecture which is made to look stylish but actually pushes the books off to the side in order to hide how few books there really are while putting impulse-buy trinkets front and center, resulting in a "bookstore" which is designed to fetishize the pseudo-intellectual act of going to a bookstore while minimizing how much the customers need to actually interact with the books in order to consummate this masturbatory act of self-congratulation.
If you really identify with one specific Balkan country (which is difficult to do unless you coincidentally happen to be of that country's ethnic origin) and want to become a part of their community, then you can go there and live like the locals do, since that is what a community is for: for people who identify with that community to be a part of. Otherwise, again, you have very little reason to go to any country on the Balkan peninsula. That goes for Greece as well, which I mention because Greece is often seen as somehow an exception, perceived by the West as a Western, non-Balkan country, even though this perception is based on historical notions of Greece which are more than 2,000 years out of date. And yes, that goes for Hungary too, which is a Balkan country in every possible way. Forget about statistics showing that Hungary is a highly-developed country; one trip to Budapest and you will immediately see that this is not true. It is screamingly obvious, not only in the complete lack of infrastructure development (and I don't mean large-scale industrial infrastructure, but even basic domestic infrastructure, such as transport and electrical networks), but also in the massive numbers of Hungarians sleeping on the street (these people are not refugees or immigrants; they are Hungarian natives
abandoned by their own country), the sheer ubiquitous filth and decay of the city (which is bad even by Balkan and Eastern European standards), and the country's utter inability to form any industry of its own, what little industry it has serving as nearshored branch offices of Western European and American corporations. This same pattern repeats itself all along the Balkan Peninsula.
I realize that may sound harsh, so let me clarify: I am not criticizing the Balkans for their poverty. A person born into poverty can hardly be blamed for their condition, and in any case, there is no shame in being poor. I write these things not to condemn the Balkan countries or their people for failing to reach the same economic level as Western Europe, for indeed, I have seen countries which were economically disadvantaged and yet which managed to attain a high quality of life for their people and which I enjoyed visiting. The latter is the key here, then: the problem with the Balkans is not specifically that they are poor, but rather that their people suffer from that poverty and lack a high quality of life because of lack of development. The artistic and intellectual culture in the Balkans is also not developed: as I mentioned, there is a lack of culture in the Balkans, a paucity of fine arts which leaves the whole area feeling ragged and coarse. As one travels from town to town in the Balkans, there is not a sense of moving between places which are well-defined in terms of a distinct local character or culture, but rather of moving through an unchanging mass of sameness, of the repeating patterns of subsistence and decay. I write this not to condemn the Balkans, but rather to caution others who might be spared the time and unpleasantness of travelling, as I did, through a region looking for something that wasn't there. I write this to take the opportunity to warn people against expending a great deal of resources and effort into searching for a deep and hidden culture which simply isn't there. This doesn't mean that the Balkans have no culture, of course; certainly, they have a unique culture all their own, but it is a more rustic culture, a less refined and more coarse culture, than what people usually associate with European culture: Balkan culture is quite short on philosophy and literature, being more focused on music (typically folk or folk-derived music) and visual arts. To be sure, the classical Balkan image of a group of friends getting drunk and dancing while playing an accordion is still a form of culture, but again, it's not really what most people are looking for when they go out looking for culture in the world.
On that note... Coming back to what I'd written about Austria and Hungary, I've taken the liberty of finally publishing my 5-year-old travelogue, but I suppose I might as well warn anyone intending to read it that I am obviously not the most unbiased source. My conclusions have already been stated above, and if you just want to know how the story ends, you don't need to read any further. It's also not really much of a travelogue; it doesn't have a lot of interesting insights or experiences in it, but if you do want to see more details about that week I spent in Austria and Hungary in late 2011, then, my dear readers, I present to you my lost travelogue below.( I put the travelogue behind an lj-cut for the sake of brevityCollapse )