Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Thou Shalt Love

My assertion of absolutes does not have the purpose of proposing a deity, but rather to provide a foundation for the ethics I see necessary to the survival of humanity in the 21st century. In so doing, and in no small part thanks to Tom Head's comment, I stumbled upon George Edward Moore's Principia Ethica, in which the author proposes two possible instances of the absolute "good" without relying on an overarching deity to ground them.

The heading of this essay gives away the one that interests me today: disinterested, unstinting love of everything and everyone.

Earlier, in my criticism of the pope's sole encyclical letter so far, Deus Caritas Est (see here), I attempted to do battle against the classic Western boxes into which love is put, in order to diminish it. The pope's cry that God is love (per the encyclical's title) claims love for the Judaeo-Christian deity, with all that implies.

Other authors focus on a typology of love -- of family, of friends, of romance and altruism -- focused on to whom and in what manner love is dispensed. In the West we do not even like to think of these loves jumbled up in, for example, romantic love of kin or altruistic love of friends; we have a strong taboo against incest and a free market interpretation of friendship that requires mutuality.

Indeed, in my journeys in the middle-aged world of dating I have discovered many people's lists of qualifications and their a priori model of the "Right" mate; and given the industry with which they construct the image of what they want, they might as well be perusing consumer magazines to prepare for shopping for detergent.

They say they want love, but they don't; they want a human object that performs certain functions and fulfills certain needs and they want to seal the deal with a contract commonly known as marriage, or maybe something more ambiguous, such as cohabitation. A little honesty with oneself about this might spare everyone a great deal of wasted time and anguish.

So much for what love is not. As to what love is, as an absolute ethical good, I think it is best described as an emotional appreciation of others and other things for themselves that leads to disinterested caring.

Let's break this down.

Appreciation involves a recognition of the quality, value, significance, or magnitude of another or another thing, resulting in a favorable judgment or opinion -- including the aesthetic -- of whom or what we are perceiving in this way, a gratitude for the existence of such a person or thing and a assignment of rising value or price to the person or thing over time. Note the combination of awareness, esteem, gratitude and rising valuation.

Love begins in the emotions and this appreciation is emotional. We feel love. We feel awareness, esteem, gratitude and our feeling cascades into a stronger stream of appreciation as we continue to love.

For it to be an absolute good, love must be directed at all people and things -- even beggars and cockroaches -- and it must be directed at them for who or what they are, independently of their usefulness to us, or the way they fit into the criteria for judgment we have employed before becoming aware of them.

Finally, while love begins as emotion, it fulfills itself in a continuing action -- this need not be a Western laundry list of tasks, but may include the action to be, as in "don't just do something, sit there."

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Everything is relative, especially incest. Minus the admittedly lame humor, this seems to be the motto of most people in contemporary society. I beg to differ.

What most people mean applies to anything more or less controversial: morals, politics, religion, most of all truth. The notion, which stems from the humanism of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation alike, is that human beings are, individually, the arbiters of everything.

The almighty I knows what is right and wrong, what political party governs best, what God is like and what is true. This is based on the epistemological fallacy of the day: I can know everything and I am always right, for me at least.

False! Mistaken! Wrong-o, moosebreath!

I do not and cannot know everything. Knowing everything that human beings can observe empirically and prove scientifically has not been possible for any single human being since about the time of Demosthenes. In ancient Greece it was possible to hold in one brain all human knowledge. Today there are idiot savants who can hold a preponderance of human knowledge in their brains, but they can't do much with it of any use.

I am not always right. Much for the same reason, people cannot have the correct answers to every possible question. We just don't know.

Besides, many things remain unknown. Things that count: Does God exist? What's God like? (Yes, I know the one about the astronaut who told the Pentagon She was Black.) How did the universe begin? How large is the universe? Are there other intelligent sentient beings out there? What's the telephone number of an honest, cheap plumber?

Also, observation and empirical facts do not necessarily equal the truth. Human perception is fallible and limited; facts are dependent on context (I'm told, for example, that gravity does not work the way you would expect at the quantum level.)

Intuition and nonlinear thinking may capture ineffable instances of truths that are not observable, measurable, much less communicable.

Despite all this, I would contend that there is truth, a grand unifying truth that explains everything. We just don't know it.

At least, it's pretty clear that if there is truth, it is absolutely true; it is true everywhere, for everyone, in every context. Truth is the absolute, universal, incontestable statement about everything that transcends contextual and perception limits.

Its opposite is not truth. It may be falsehood, error, a lie.

Anything less than truth, by degree, omission or approximation, is not truth. Anything that is true for me, but not for you, is not truth; it may be a fact, a hunch, a strong feeling, an opinion. Not truth.

I don't know the truth. Not knowing the truth, I have no grounds to try to bash in your face simply because your idea of morals, politics, religion and truth differ from mine. It might be a good idea to be tolerant of one another.

But that doesn't make your idea or mine true. Much less both true. One of us is closer to the truth (probably me, since this is my blog).

Both of us cannot assert that our opposed and incompatible ideas are equally true, although we may deserve equal respect when we spout our nonsense. (By "our," to paraphrase Steve Martin, I mean "your.")

"Everything is relative" is an absolute statement. If it were a relative statement, compliant with the idea that everything is relative, it would be false.

If everything is relative, then the idea that everything is relative must itself be relative, meaning -- for example -- that everything might be relative for me, but not for you.

Everything cannot be relative. Only incest, Thanksgiving dinners, gifts of underwear, people one cannot divorce despite one's most earnest wishes, the price of postage stamps and a few other things.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Light on the Other Side

What if there really is a light on the other side of the river ... ? That's the thought that lingers after sharing what Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler confessed was his first night in Washington, D.C., on March 10.

The question comes from Drexler's hit song “Al Otro Lado del Rio” (On the Other Side of the River) from the film The Motorcycle Diaries, which in 2005 became the first Spanish language song ever to win an Oscar.

You may also recall the pitiful way the Academy Award event's television producers shot themselves in the foot by refusing Drexler the chance to perform the song, opting instead for a substandard performance by bigger names Carlos Santana and – hold on to your hat, Zorro! – Antonio Banderas.

The visiting Latin American artist combines pre-Columbian beats and computer generated sound with the strumming of his guitar. In his performance at the Lisner Auditorium I even saw him at one point flip his guitar and sing into the box.

For this particular song, however, he chose only traditional syncopation, his guitar and his balladeer's voice, a tenor just slightly reminiscent of Paul Simon as a young singer yet imbued with a beguiling intimacy: he is sighing his words only for you.

Certainly, “Al Otro Lado” was a perfect coda to the film's retelling of the young Ernesto “Che” Guevara's motorcycle hegira with lifelong friend Alberto Granado from Argentina to Peru, some time before their respective appointments with history.

In the film, the song is a fade on a fade on a fade, the sort of thing that abounds in Drexler's music.

What in 1952 was the prosaic takeoff of a lumbering cargo DC-3 from a distant airfield in a South American jungle gets telescoped to the North American present of 2000-and-something with a voiceover reminiscence performed by the actor who plays Granado, the Argentine Rodrigo de la Serna, actually related to Che in real life.

Then comes the fade-in of the wrinkled face of the real Granado.

Finally you hear Drexler: Clavo mi remo en el agua / llevo tu remo en el mio (I nail my oar in the water / carrying your oar in mine). Creo que he visto una luz / al otro lado del rio. (I think I've seen a light / on the other side of the river.)

For me, it was the recap of a lifetime: I was alive, just barely, the actual day depicted in the film; but in my own early years I did travel the first segment of Che and Granado's route, from Buenos Aires to the Andean village of Bariloche. Two-and-a-half days by train, I took it in both directions several times.

The first two hours you were in the suburbs and exurbs of the big city. Then the open country started; now its starts a couple of hours later, encroached upon by the metropolitan octopus that is home to a third of Argentina's population.

It was also the land in which I often went camping. A flat, verdant and endless land, the so-called "humid" pampa. Back then it still had a few rivers one had to ford on foot, or in a boat, or in a raft -- as in the movie.

At night the pampa I remember was a countryside lit only by the constellation of the Southern Cross. A light at ground level was a miracle -- or a mirage. Creo que he visto una luz ...

Yet I'd guess Drexler thought up this line looking out on the Rio de la Plata, an estuary that at its widest puts 138 miles of sweet, potable water between its Uruguayan and Argentine shores. From Buenos Aires, built near the river delta from which the waterway opens, it would take a very clear winter night when ships were at harbor to see a little twinkling miles away: Colonia, Uruguay.

Drexler's hometown perch in Montevideo is almost at the teeth of the river's mouth, where the river meets the Atlantic. If he thought he saw a light, at nearly 140 miles' distance, I'd say he imagined it.

Yet seen as a commentary on the decades of Che's historical life and the firestorm he set off, in what Washington strategists today call an “asymmetric conflict,” with thousands tortured, made to disappear and die, the song feels iconic.

Like Che, I was once shocked by Latin American scenes similar to those in the film. I just didn't think violence would change anything.

Let's not kid ourselves. The song is a Hollywood artifact. Drexler has even gone the extra mile of inserting the Christ-figure allusion, often made by some of Che, in the notion of not merely dipping one's oar in pursuit of a light, but nailing it.

So which is it, mirage or miracle? Is it possible any more that there is a light out there far on the other side? Hasn't it been doused out of sight with new cities, lively commerce, cleverly developed new injustices?

All this confronted me as I stepped out of the concert and back into the modern, globalized world.

How do I sum up the reason my eyes well up on the verge of tears? Drexler provides a soothing, hope-filled answer to explain the crossing of the river:

Sobre todo – he sings -- creo que no todo esta perdido. (Above all, I think, not all is lost.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ethics and Values

Someone who may cease regarding me as a friend was offended by my admittedly imprudent comment concerning what I observed was this person's lack of ethics, which I expressed -- with some imprecision -- as "values." Because I think this is a crucial issue of our times, I'd like to review this, as a self-clarification and an exposition that I think is missing in our society.

First, I need to distinguish between value, values and ethics.

A value is the result of a comparison: X is more worthy than Y. There are economic values (thing X is worth Y amount of work, represented as money), aesthetic values (the looks of blonde X are more valuable than those of brunette Y), behavioral values (I like doing action X more than action Y) and so forth. These are all largely subjective, arbitrary, malleable and impermanent. Values lend themselves to collective persuasion, either through coercion or through seduction of various levels and degrees, as is the case in dictatorships, advertising and fashions enforced by peer pressure.

Everyone has values. They represent some of the limits we place on behavior due to social convention, ranging from manners to law.

Ethics, on the other hand, is the branch of philosophy that studies human behavior, its concepts, its norms and its application. At one level, we explain what ethics are. At another we propose what is virtuous and what is not. At yet another level we attempt to apply or derive principles from questions about certain human behavior: Is abortion moral? What are human rights and how do we determine them?

In our society, the majority is not ethical. Many people derive ethical values from their inherited religion. Some people merely observe group behavior and christen what is conventional as ethical. Most people, in the end, rely on their own will to decide what is ethical.

It is this latter point that concerns me today. We have gotten to the point that most folks think that they must canonize whatever they do as moral and good, regardless of its consistency with any other kind of thinking. In this, my friend is like the majority. This is not ethical thinking, this is self-indulgence disguised as "ethical" by way of setting oneself up as one's own judge and jury -- without an external or internal code to which the court must hew.

In the last half century, it seems, we went from inherited, external and absolute systems of ethics to their displacement by allegedly higher internal, situational ethics that in the end became one long paean to the self -- anything goes if I feel good about it and since I should be good to myself and my precious self-esteem, it turns out that anything can be made to feel good.

No one is ever guilty of anything; even politicians who claim "family values" (but divorce often or are caught in flagrante delicto) will go so far as to assert responsibility but avoid having to give the required response, the payment due for the wrong done.

I find this problematic, yet when I assert it I get in trouble. I am called self-righteous, priggish.

People don't like to be asked to consider what ethical standards there, much less to weigh submitting to them, whether it feels good or not, whether it is legal, fashionable or acceptable.

Let's examine an example that is close enough without being uncomfortable for too many people today.

There was a time in living memory in which certain prejudices were acceptable, some forms of it were enforced by law, in some circles some form of prejudice was acceptable. Jews called African Americans Schwartze with disdain; the Irish called Italian Americans "wops"; people knew of lifelong bachelors who never married or lived with roommates of the same sex and whispered about them; a woman's place was in the kitchen; and, of course, no white Southerner wanted his daughter to marry a Negro or a Catholic.

All these ideas could be expressed more or less openly -- although the politest people did it behind the backs of the victims. Now they can't. Conservatives call the change in norms "political correctness"; they would like to go back, to "conserve" the ethos of prejudice.

In fact, prejudice hasn't disappeared. Jews whisper Schwartze and it has been reported that a black actor on the set of television's Grey's Anatomy called another actor, who is apparently homosexual, a "faggot."

Now, to ethics. Is prejudice wrong? Why? Was it always wrong or is it merely wrong since 1964? Are most of us guilty of this wrongdoing (in thought, word or deed)? Do we deceive ourselves by thinking that we are not, only to surprise ourselves when we blurt out something not quite as ridiculous as "macaca," but close? What ought we to do to assume reponsibility and give the required response for our actions?

Or is it that if I feel it's OK, I'm entitled to act, speak and think in a prejudiced way?

True confession here: I am prejudiced. One of my prejudices is against British people. I deplore so much of what the British Empire did and find the British so obnoxiously arrogant, that I rarely cut Brits much slack even though I admire many things that are of British origin. It's just the people I can't stand.

Granted, I tell myself that a large part of British arrogance, imperialism and general obnoxiousness is compensation for living in a small island with terrible weather, for being stripped of humanity in childhood by parents who care for pets more than for their children (go to England and you'll see plenty of fat pets and plenty of underfed children). It's a sense of inferiority disguised as somethings else.

Pity the poor Brits. They are racists because deep down they hate themselves. They are obnoxious because they are shy. They conquered everywhere because who the hell wants to stay somewhere you get soaked every day of the year. They started the slave trade from Africa because they knew their own workers were whiny shirkers whose skin was too sallow and bodies too infirm from their benighted climate to be any good at sturdy physical work.

So it's not really fair of me to prejudge every Brit I come across. Not really kind not to look for explanations and excuse. I should think of them as I think of the Spaniards: valiant, stubbornly principled, religious to a fault, life loving. Or is that a prejudice, too?

How does one confront the ethical wrong of prejudice? How does one, having admitted (with a little fun) that one is wrong, take a different course?

It seems to me that merely passing a law (the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and adopting a new fashion (political correctness) hasn't worked. Prejudice abounds. Racism abounds: witness the Bush Administration on Katrina.

Here is the core of ethics: a principle that makes us all uncomfortable because it describes ways in which all of us could improve. Whether we like it or not.

An ethical principle survives the excuse of upbringing, suffering, anything other than lack of awareness -- which ends when we've named and recognized our behavior in the damning principle.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Bloscars

Ever since Chani (aka Thailand Gal) handed me the Thinking Blogger Award at the virtual ceremony on her blog I've been beating my brains out to fulfill the condition. She was wearing a long white dress at the virtual podium. In the hall the whole blogging industry was there in stunning dresses and black tie.

Her terms? That I find five other bloggers to reward similarly. My problem? I blog but I don't really participate in the "blogosphere."

I'm a new boy on the block, although in the fourth year (which in Internet time is what ... four centuries?). Not so long ago a faux chick blogger.

I suppose I think of blog posts in terms of the only other opinion form I know: an op-ed column. I've written a few of those for newspapers and news syndicates.

And I have a touch for choosing things that don't have commercial successes. I was a die-hard WordStar user. I didn't buy a CD player in the 80s and 90s because I was convinced they would go the way of 8-track tapes. I also predicted 10 of the last 3 recessions.

Call it the Midas curse, rather than touch.

So I looked at blogs I'd bookmarked: nutgroist, muhammad and me, langa blog. Guess what? They've all stopped posting new material. Advice to bloggers: don't get noticed by me.

Then there are two racy ones I've dabbled in: girl with the one-track mind and suburban sex blog. The saucy British "Girl" is now a publishing sensation (she says ... I'm not aware of her book, but then I'm not aware of much that is merely a fad). "Suburban" has gone back to doing what he does with his wife -- without telling the world.

There's also Daily Kos, on the correct side of the political fence, but commercial.

A neighbor has several fairly scientific blogs -- thinking, yes, but what do I know? I can barely understand what this uberbrain writes about.

One person I cyberknow, Mayou, blogs in French. She has convinced me that my French is much worse than I thought. So how am I to assess whether the blog is worthy?

Finally, I am left with Thailand Gal herself (can one award the awarder?) and Head Reactivated by my cyberfriend Tom Head. Imagine being a doctoral level academic in religious studies and philosophy, but living stuck in Jackson, Mississippi.

This man can discuss Whitehead until the cows come home ... and he does, watching them mosey in from them thar hills. Call me a snobby New Yorker, but I couldn't do it. Nor can I match the depth of his expertise in his fields.

Tom is also a limpid writer, earnest and, from what I can see, someone who seems to have credibly integrated the values for which he speaks.

Without further ado, let me award to him the well-deserved Thinking Blogger Award, so I can get out of this tux.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Baby Boom Bull

It is a story written for my generation, the boomers.

You've seen the commercial. Dennis Hopper appears on the beach telling us dreams don't retire. Then comes the sales pitch from a company that sells "financial planning." It turns out that there are complaints filed in many states concerning what these planners do with your money, but that's not my concern here today.

(My only investment advice is to consider why the people who invest your money are called "brokers.")

No, the point of the sermon today is that we're full of bull, we boomers.

We think we're never going to die. At an age decades beyond that at which -- we once insisted imperiously -- people could not be trusted, we still think we're still young.

Half of us have become clever opportunists, in one way or another lent our support to the odd war here and there, built our nest eggs alongside the gurus of insider trading, told ourselves that we were not really betraying our ideals as we sold out. The other half of us stayed in the movements through Reaganian darkness, the slick Clintonian centrist con, the gilded-age Bush rape of the world, watching the world of our dreams vanish before beginning.

This was not the way it was supposed to turn out.

So here we are, 50-ish, kids flown the coop or about to, spouse or partner gone. So we have choices, if we are lucky, if our sellout or agitprop didn't catch up with us.

Science tells us we could live to 100. Ye gods!

A trip abroad, a new relationship won't change anything, certainly not a new car. Maybe it's time to start that one last meaningful life project, whatever it is.

Maybe it's time to put the bull out to pasture.