Monday, March 2, 2015

In Defense Of Minor Bad Habits

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Drinking Wine, via Wikimedia Commons

There are, as I see it, basically two ways of understanding the human condition.

The first is that, absent some set of dysfunctions, diseases, problems, damage, human life is good in a pretty simple way. Heal yourself -- and before you know it you'll be out enjoying the beauty of the sky, appreciating the deliciousness of a red pepper, volunteering to turn puppies into the guide dogs of the future, you know the drill.

The second is that the problems of the human condition transcend all therapies. Heal your heart, heal your mind, have the good luck that the people you love all live long and prosper -- it doesn't really matter. Life will still often be boring, unsatisfying, and pointless, bad when it's packed with unquenchable longings, and worse when it's not.

Unless you're new here, it'll come as no surprise that I hold the second view. My feeling is, you don't have to have been locked in a room as a child to have grown up into an adult who often feels fussy or angry or massively impatient or whatever. You just have to be a human being.

There are, of course, people who hold the first view. They're always talking about how if you just stopped eating sugar or found the right therapist or something, you'd be fine. Somehow -- and this is the part that always bugs me the most -- there seems to be this idea that solving one life problem will help you solve all the others, because you'll finally get it all together.

Often I find it's the opposite. Master one thing, another thing bothers you more. When I stopped smoking, I started drinking more.

If these people-of-the-first-view just had this opinion for and about themselves, that would be totally fine and they and I could live in peace. I could complain and drink too much pinot grigio, and they could go camping and exult about the views, and while we might not be best friends, I wouldn't feel like their existence is a problem for me.

But somehow the people-of-the-first-view often seem hell-bent on applying it globally. This is a problem, especially for those of us who don't fit the first-view experience of life. Also, I think it goes beyond the scope of oh-some-people-were-annoying-on-Facebook, because it gets into everything, and no one can just enjoy a minor bad habit anymore.

A few days ago the New York Times had a story about how Vermont is taking more urgent steps with respect to dealing with the heroin problem there. The story featured a guy who seemed like your basic dad type guy and how he'd become addicted to heroin; at first the clinic couldn't fit him in, and then with the new programs they could, and he figures that if that last-minute opening hadn't occurred, he probably would have died.

Reading about all the people with heroin problems in this article made me feel so fucking sad. And I thought to myself, "If these people were all smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking too much beer and using pot all the time, wouldn't that be so much better from any conceivable point of view?"

I mean, wouldn't it? Isn't it always better if someone is muddling through with some relatively safe crap, some minor bad habit, even if it's bad for them, than if they're doing a drug that can easily kill you, like heroin?

One major problem with the hegemony of the first view is that when the rhetoric of War On Minor Bad Habits gets out of control, you take away the one tool that people who experience the second-view-human-condition people have to manage their bad habits. Sure, they might give up their bad habits. But if they're sad or going through a divorce or out of work, you know what happens to those minor bad habits. They become a heroin addiction, and then they kill you.

So sure, if someone you love has a minor bad habit, give them a nudge and a nag every now and then, but don't get on your high horse about it -- and don't act like there's some magic Rubik's cube of treatments and habits that once you lock in, you're good. For a lot of people, that's never going to be true.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When Updating Opera Means Blandifying It; Or, Why I Hated The COC's Don Giovanni

From the COC production.

Let me start by saying right up front that I have nothing against updating opera productions. Sure -- put your characters in a modern board room. Make it be about the Iraq War. Use business suits. I love it.

However, a lot of updating I've seen lately I have hated. And the reason I've hated it is that, contrary to what is often thought, the effect of some updating is not to make opera more disturbing, relevant, thought-provoking, or edgy, but rather to make it more bland, more mushy, and more irrelevant. 

When someone complains about an updated opera production, the standard line is that they're some kind of traditionalists, who want to be lulled by opera's beauty and tradition, and that presenting them with disturbing contemporary commentary is too jarring for them.

Let me just say: for me that is the opposite of the problem. What I see in some updating is, instead, a kind of gutting of the themes of the opera. (#notallupdating).

The worst updating involves seemingly disconnected "cool" aesthetic choices, minimalist staging, and "interesting" effects like "Oh, the whole thing is happening inside a play inside a nineteenth-century garden!"

Often, I find the effect to be one of distancing the audience from the themes of the opera -- themes that, given opera, are often profoundly disturbing in themselves when the production is straightforward.

For example, I recently saw the COC's production of Don Giovanni. I kind of love Wikipedia's quick synopsis of the opera itself: "Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, and sexually promiscuous nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit."

In the recent COC production, several elements of the story were re-imagined. It was set in the 20th century, and the characters' relationships were changed so that everyone in the story who is not part of Don Giovanni's family is part of the same extended family. Don Giovanni is dressed like an ordinary schlump, usually in a ratty overcoat. About his re-imagining, the director says that it's not really about Don G. being a "bad person." Instead:

"The main clash here is between two radically different ideas about how to live a good life ... Don Giovanni here is not a seducer or a playboy; he is an older man, somebody who has experienced heartbreak and disappointment. He comes in with something of the messiah complex, but his utopia of a new kind of community unsettles everybody in the family."

I thought this approach destroyed the opera by undercutting its most interesting and important themes, without being bold enough to suggest other ones. Here are just three examples.

1. Power, money, and coercion.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni uses his status and money as a nobleman to get what he wants at huge costs to everyone else. Because marriage to a nobleman would transform most people's lives beyond belief, young women -- such as the servant Zerlina -- will go along with him whatever he proposes. By falsely suggesting marriage will result, Don Giovanni is able to coerce and deceive women into having sex with them, even though in the traditional cultural setting, this could ruin their lives.

But in this production, any reflection on how massive wealth inequality impacts social relations is completely lost, since Don G. is just some guy, the family is presented as well to do, and Zerlina isn't a servant at all but rather the daughter of one of the family members.

Disturbing commentary on money, class, and society? Gone.

2. Love, Sex, and the Seductiveness of Evil.

Even if you gut the social commentary, you still have the extremely interesting possibility of presenting the theme related to the drives of lust and affection and how those can point in the opposite direction from the drives of good sense, love, and other nice things. It is utterly bizarre to me how in the massive suburbanization of modern life there's this party line that lust and sex are nice parts of love and go along naturally with it, while meanwhile there's this whole other thing happening with rape and sexual assaults and people in public life being completely undone by their non-monogamy.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni is a bad guy. But he's an attractive guy. Part of that is his money, sure, but it's also because sometimes, evil is attractive -- that's one of those universal and universally interesting things about the human existence.

But in this production, Don G. isn't "evil," he's just some guy with some other ideas about living, and his charismatic effects are a total mystery. Was I the only person watching and thinking, "Who on earth would be sexually attracted to this slouching, arrogant asshole in a dirty coat?"

If you can't show why he's attractive, you can't even start with themes, because the story doesn't make sense. Plus, if Don G. is just a person with other ideas about "the good life," that suggests the update would present the opera as a reflection on the problems of modern monogamy and the possibility of something else.

You know what? That would have been AMAZING. It would have been an opera about something different, but something actually interesting, relevant, and possibly destabilizing to the audience. But I didn't see anything like that.

3. Unrepentance and Fate.

Everyone who talks about Don Giovanni seems to mention the fact that at the end ghosts appear and give him a chance to repent, and he refuses, and then goes to hell. I love that the opera traditionally has been seen as having comic elements, melodramatic elements, and supernatural elements.

But once you've gotten rid of Don Giovanni being a bad guy, the whole thing with the ghosts and supernatural elements doesn't really make sense. Is he psychologically persecuting himself? If he just has other ideas about "the good life," why would he do that? If the forces against him are that he's being ganged up on, that whole punishment and refusal to repent thing just doesn't make any sense.

Weirdly, with respect to the whole re-imagining the story idea, this Toronto Star review suggests that somehow, as traditionally told, the themes of Don Giovanni wouldn't make sense in our modern world:

"If you come to Don Giovanni to see a swaggering specimen of macho humanity break the hearts of numerous women without impunity, you will be disappointed. In this post-Ghomeshi, post-Cosby, post-Dalhousie Dentistry era, it’s hard to see how an old-school reading of this opera would fly any more."

This is mystifying to me. You're saying the themes of rich and powerful people using their influence to get other people to have sex with them -- sex that ends up being destructive or damaging -- are irrelevant to the modern world? That the stories alluded to show that that theme is passe? If anything it's the opposite. The traditional story is too relevant. It's presenting it straight that would really disturbing, destabilizing, and edgy.

It's not the traditional opera that's somehow a safe bet, a mushy, comfortable, inert bit of aesthetic fun. It's the update.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sustainable City Living FTW, Or, Pod-Life, I Has It

Yesterday morning I woke up and learned it was -11F. That's, like, I don't know, some way-below -zero temperature in Celsius. I've adopted many of my new country's habits but for some reasons Celsius, no can do. 

I learned how cold it was cold from my iPhone. Because there is no way I would have known otherwise. Because I enjoy the special condition I think of as "life in the pod" -- the pod being my condo apartment, which, being surrounded on five of six sides by other apartments, isolates me from almost everything going on in the outside world.

For some reason people have a lot of negative associations with living in small spaces, one person on top of the other, but I don't know what is wrong with these people because I think it's the best. The small space means I don't accumulate a ton of stuff. It's easy and convenient to clean. If there are problems, there's always someone to call.

And most of all, the pod is always comfortable and cozy, in one of the most eco-friendly ways around. On the coldest day of a Toronto winter, I can, honest to god, turn off my heat for the whole day, and when I come back at five, the temperature is hovering around 70. Even keeping the place toasty, the heater only comes on rarely.

There's something so life-affirming to me about how in this context, being right up close with other people, having lots of them right around you, actually enables you to live a more comfortable life, a life that would be unsustainable otherwise. It's just like public transportation. Other people, instead of being in your way, are part of your path to happiness.

Sometimes I encounter the idea that there's something antithetical about big city living, on the one hand, and environmentalism or being into the protection of nature, on the other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because if the people are all crowded in together into small spaces, then there's way more space where there are no people messing everything up. It's spreading out and sprawl that destroys the environment.

Even the recreational activities of urban life may be more environmentally sustainable. Just the other day the New York Times had a story about how recreational activities like hiking, camping, and back-country skiing are seriously damaging to the environment. Money quote:

"Impacts from outdoor recreation and tourism are the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

If only all those people could be herded into an art museum!

Anyway, all this means that when I see environmentalists protesting urban development, I want to say, you got the wrong end of the stick, guys. You should be herding everyone into big tall buildings, where can share the footprint, share the heating bill, create demand for public transportation, and hang out in coffee shops. Giant wilderness spots and the animals who live in them -- they'll be left alone in peace.

For me, the icing on the cake in terms of the eco-friendliness of urban living is the fact that, contrary to what you may have thought, elevators are among the most energy-efficient means of travel around. As the New Yorker explained in an article years ago, that's because of counter-weights. Once you put the counter-weight on, the energy required to move people up and down is actually pretty small.

When you're feelingl down about the human condition, think about that for a few minutes. What a wonderful display of human ingenuity and cooperation! Engineers came up with counter-weights, architects and builders put them into nice big buildings, and people like me use them to get to our apartments -- after we've taken our energy efficient subway or bus ride home, of course.

TL;DR: city living FTW.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Why The "Politics of Envy" Is A Stupid And Evil Idea

From 2011. I can only think it's gotten worse. Source: The Atlantic.

 Nothing pisses me off quite like hearing that being mad about rising income inequality and thinking something should be done about it means embracing a "politics of envy." What a cynical and manipulative piece of bullshit.

The phrase, I take it, is meant to suggest that if you think it's problematic that some people work hard and have huge vacation homes, while other people work hard and have unpredictable shifts at McDonald's. you're somehow suggesting that the latter people envy the former. If you're poor and you can't afford healthy food for your kids, and you're mad that someone else just bought a new yacht -- well GEE -- that's one of the seven deadly sins dude! Just say no!

The reason it's such a bullshitty idea is that the issue of inequality isn't about desires or longings or "coveting" or whatever but just about justice and fairness. You can see how ridiculous the expression is when you try to apply it to other contexts where it seems more obvious that fairness and justice are the issues.

Let's start with sports, where for some reasons people who can't wrap their heads around distributive justice seem to have a finely developed sense of fairness and right and wrong. Suppose you had a sporting competition and one team showed up with some wildly successful device that allowed them to win every time: special jumping tools for the basketball players, or sticks with magnets -- or, just say for instance, specially deflated footballs.

People would be outraged. Not fair! Cheating! Even if -- unlike the deflategate case -- there wasn't a rule specifically about these objects, you can believe people would fall all over themselves to make a rule about it. "Unfair!" "Not a fair competition!" would be the rallying cry. OK. Would you say that the eternally losing teams had a "politics of envy" toward the always winning team? No, I didn't think so.

Next, what about that whole high-frequency trading kerfuffle? Basically, the idea here is that in certain circumstances it's possible to exploit tiny differences in the speeds of information transfer to get an advantage in some finance markets. In his book Flash Boys, Michael Lewis's describes people actually moving their desks from one end of a room to another to gain an advantage.

Large advantages to those with fast connections is widely considered unfair. Not by everyone, but certainly by a lot of people, including investors and industry professionals. Now what if you approached those investors and industry professionals and said, "Unfair? Oh -- that's a politics of envy. Just because some people can finagle things with higher speeds -- you just envy their awesome computer power dude! Chill it with the deadly sins already and just embrace losing!"

Finally, think about discrimination. Suppose suddenly it became widely agreed that to address the wrongs of the past, there was going to be radical preferential treatment agains straight white men. Straight white men would always be last to be considered on any list for anything. What do you think would be the general response? "Oh -- all those white guys begging for coins while the rest of us prosper? That's just a politics of envy." Yeah, right. It's hard to imagine a world in which "unjust and unfair" wouldn't be the main rallying cry against this.

So, WTF? Why call it politics of envy when it's general inequality? How did people become so convinced that the status quo is somehow just or fair?

Look, you were born with certain advantages of smart and healthy and strong and able or you were weren't. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. You were born to a family that nourished you and prepared you for life and gave you an inheritance or you were born to one that abused and ignored you. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. It's just like a team or a trader with a great modem -- not fair.

As long as we live in capitalism we probably can't disconnect success from luck and get rid of this problem -- but what we can do is make it less bad. Especially at the bottom. No one in a rich country should have to work three crappy jobs with unpredictable hours and still not make enough to get by. It's ridiculous, and not fair. It has nothing to do with envy. Sheesh.

In this article about Clinton's preparing for the presidential run, Larry Summers uses says how important it is to find a way to talk about inequality without "embracing a politics of envy." The article also talks about how to talk about anything other than growth and opportunity is to want to "punish the rich," and is "vilifying the wealthy."

Please, just stop. It's not about envy -- and it's not "punishing" or "villifying" anyone -- to want to take some baby steps toward ameliorating the harshness of the radically different life outcomes that result from factors completely beyond your control.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dilemmas of Philosophy: Creativity And Criticism

I'm a philosopher, but I didn't become one in the normal way. I studied math in college, and when I did take a philosophy class in undergrad, I happened into one of the standard Descartes-to-Kant history surveys. To be honest I spent the semester staring out the window and thinking, "Who cares about proofs of the existence of god? This is stupid."

It wasn't until after I'd spent years pursuing a PhD in mathematics and then eventually started hanging around some humanities people that I began to read some philosophy of mathematics, and that drew me in to the whole shebang, and really right into the core of philosophy. If you know me at all, you know I have ideas in a wide-range of philosophical areas, and that, in the classic philosophical style, I like to think about how they all fit together.

So I may be an "accidental" philosopher, but I'm definitely a philosopher.

This particular history, though, means that when I started my PhD in philosophy, I was already a pretty formed person, with opinions and a self-concept that were formed in the "pure math" atmosphere and not the "humanities" atmosphere. 

And one of the first things I noticed hanging out with humanities people -- and especially humanities students -- was how much time they seemed to spend on essentially critical activities. Finding a problem in someone's argument, objecting to a framework, finding a counter-example, complicating a narrative.

While I could see how criticism could be important, and obviously useful for learning, and how it could be part of a dialectic activity that really did move things along, I found this aspect of the humanities ... would "distasteful" be too strong a word? Criticism seemed to me so narrow in scope, so not-getting-anywhere, so uncreative, and frankly, often a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

I wanted to go beyond criticism. I wanted to create something, and I wanted to take a stand not only on what I thought was wrong, but on what I thought was right. If you know math, you know how creative it is: the main activity in math is proving things, and there's a rich aesthetic quality to it. I wanted to keep the feeling of doing that, and I also thought there was a kind of intellectual virtue to laying my own cards on the table, to say not only "I disagree with your claim that X" but also "I think Y."

So OK: as I've gone along in philosophy, I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to do just that. I've tried to say what I thought the answers to certain problems were, or how the problems should be framed, or what interesting things would follow from which other things.

Lately, however, I feel like I'm running up against the limits of creativity in philosophy. One major problem with it, it seems to me, is that it seems to require framing your new thing with some accepted background framework or set of ideas or posing of the question.

I mean, in philosophy, to make your new contribution seem intelligible, interesting, or relevant, you kind of have to appeal in some way to the way things are set up. Otherwise people -- and especially other philosophers -- have nothing to connect them to your idea, no way of understanding or entering in to what you are saying, no shared starting point for reflection. For example, if you want to offer, say, a new view in bioethics, getting others to care about and understand your work requires some kind of use of familiar concepts and references to familiar texts and so on.

But this seems to essentially limit the depth of possible challenges to the status quo. Sometimes you don't want to appeal to the existing framework, because sometimes it's the framework that's the problem. Sometimes you want to say that some whole way of doing things is wrong -- wrong in such a way that you can't just turn around and create some other way of doing things.

For example, in his book The Racial Contract, Charles Mills expertly lays out the historical and philosophical case that what we think of as "social contract theory" was constructed on essentially racist foundations. It's basically a ground-up criticism of a whole way of thinking about something. I have to admit, when I first finished reading the book, I thought to myself for a moment, "Well? And? Should we stop doing social contract theory? Change it? What?" I was looking for the positive and creative part in a book where that wasn't the point, where the point was more to say that the whole frame for thinking of some area was a problem. I had to step back and remember what that kind of deep criticism was all about.

So while I continue to feel the appeal of the creative and the positive, the importance of offering something that might be true of the natural or social world and not just true of some other theorizing, more and more lately I find myself confronting its limited usefulness for really deeply different thinking. And wow, does this ever seem like a time for deeply different thinking.

This essential limitation to creative and positive work seems to me particularly a problem in philosophy. In other humanities, it seems like scholars have so much to connect them to one another just in the content of the discipline: US historians have the history of the US; scholars of French literature have the literature of France; art historians have actual art to talk about.

But philosophy, it's like there's no there there. All we have are our ideas, and our history, and our shared conversation, for connecting our ideas together and sharing what we are thinking about and how it matters. That's not only a negative thing -- it can also be what makes philosophy limitless and open-ended in the strange way that it is. But it can be a problem.

One way it can be a problem, I think, is in this creativity/criticism dilemma. The creative work of philosophy, the saying what is, the making of a theory or set of ideas to share seems constrained. Since you're always referring back to some shared conversation from the past to even frame what you're talking about, it's hard to strike completely out on your own with a radically and interestingly new thing.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sexual Liberation And Sexual Inequality

Whatever, by Michel Houellebecq. I love that The Independent called the book "funny, terrifying, and nauseating."

I was reading MathBabe the other day and she linked to this piece by a professional dominatrix who was arguing that greater sexual liberty would make the world a better place. Especially, she said, if men felt free to be themselves instead of being laced into some absurd masculinity, then they might relate to women in a better way.

Here's a passage I find appealing:

" the majority of my sessions, I am creating a space for men to explore areas of their sexual lives that society feels are unmanly; they come to me to be penetrated, to be used, to serve, to submit, to worship, to be taken. A client might have any or all of a bewildering array of fetishes, but they mostly come to me to experience something well outside the very narrow confines of what society says that it means to be a man."

As she goes along, she develops an idea that feminism, if it rejects a certain kind of sexual moralism and narrower views about sexuality, might contribute to men's well-being in wide-ranging ways, including sexual liberation of a kind that would allow men to be themselves and perhaps be less caught up in problematic kinds of masculinity and aggression.

Basically, I agree with this idea. Years ago I on TKIN I wrote a post that said, "You know how they say, 'If you want peace, work for justice?' Well, if you want sex, work for feminism."

Really, nobody is more for sexual liberation than I am. One of my philosophical research projects is devoted to developing theoretical concepts of sexual freedom and autonomy that go beyond the crude kind of "you can't tell me what to do" -- concepts that can articulate a sense of positive sexual freedom, the freedom to be yourself sexually, which surely goes beyond the right to be left alone and not told what to do. So, yeah.

And yet. I think it's important to acknowledge that there are certain problems that sexual liberation will not solve, and could plausibly exacerbate. And I think that some of those -- contra to the spirit of the essay -- are linked to anger and aggression.

First, as one of the MathBabe commenters said: "Unfortunately there is tension between liberty and equality, and complete sexual license would probably increase sexual inequality rather than diminish it."

Here is an elaboration of that idea, expressed in what I take to be the canonical text on the matter: the novel "Whatever" by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq:

"It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It's what's known as 'the law of the market.' In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a total liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude."

If that's too wall-of-texty for you, here's the Cliffs Notes. Basically, if sexuality is constrained by commitment and monogamy, then roughly speaking each person gets one -- or maybe a few -- sex partners. That is, it's something like "each person gets one person," with a little wiggle room around the edges.

If you're at the top of the sexual hierarchy -- the most attractive, rich, accomplished, fit, sexy -- commitment and monogamy mean you might attach yourself to one person and have a few affairs or see a few prostitutes. At most.

If you're at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, commitment and monogamy mean there will be other people of your preferred sex/gender for partners who will also be at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, and you can form commitments and marriages with them and then have sex with them.

So with commitment and monogamy, the people at the top and the bottom would be having some sex with not too many people. Once things open up and those constraints go away, you get immediately into a more sexual "haves" and "have-nots" situation. And what's more of a trigger for male aggression than being a sexual have-not?

Gendered attitudes about sex are obviously complicated, but even leaving all of that aside, I guess I'd want to say that sexual inequality could be, in itself, a bad thing, and that the fact that some people never get to have sex at all would be, in itself, a very bad thing, and that even just the concept of "hierarchy" in sex is a bad thing. Bad, that is, for women and men alike.

I don't think any return to the constraints of commitment and monogamy are what we should be aiming for. But I wish we could talk about sexual inequality in a constructive way that wasn't all caught up in anger, aggression, indignation, and blame.

Monday, January 19, 2015

My Eroding Love Of Luxe

Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679), In Luxury, Look Out. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I used to be kind of in love with luxury. I loved beautiful clothes and I figured when I had enough money I would buy some. I daydreamed about owning a Ferrari or some other absurdly expensive car. I grumbled, silently, about the ugly buildings in the big public universities I've long been affiliated with, vaguely imagining that someday maybe I'd be walking some beautiful ivy covered halls and feeling a rightful place in the world.

I don't want to overstate anything. I've never thought luxury was unproblematic, and I've always been very aware of both the practical problems of luxury, e. g., fancy stuff made in horrible working conditions, and the abstract problems of luxury, e. g., the fancier your stuff is the worse everyone else feels. Luxury is often non-sustainable, elitist, whatever. I've always known that. So it's not like I had some plan to get rich and surround myself with luxe. I just had a certain kind of love. Probably unrequitable, but love nonetheless.

As I get older, though, that love of luxe is rotting away.

I think the first sour note was introduced between me and luxe when I started to have enough money to buy an actual purse. As a young person I just carried a backpack, and when I got to grad school I found a Coach bag in a thrift store for thirty dollars which I used for years. After a few years of having a real job, I thought: I could get a proper bag, something nice.

I don't know if you've ever shopped for a woman's purse, but the situation out there is pretty out of control. Coach, it turns out, is actually seen as the poor-woman's-nice-bag, even though the purses are a few hundred dollars apiece. A proper "nice" bag, like from Prada, you're talking a few thousand. Something luxe, like a Birkin bag, you're talking many thousands of dollars. (In case you need help, Forbes has an article for you: "How To Buy Your First Hermès Birkin.") 

I don't know if this is just me or whether you have it too, but seeing all those bags, it makes the "nice" but reasonably priced bag seem a little ridiculous. Like, am I really going to spend serious money and get something way inferior and not even something considered proper luxe?

I wrote about this problem before, where I called it the "hedonic stairmaster." Once you're in consumer goods mode, how do you settle for 3, or even 7, on the ten-point luxe scale? You just keep climbing. I can't stop.

So our my relationship with luxe was already strained. And then we had the economic crisis and sudden focus on inequality and poverty and things started to be tough on everyone. Then things that were too luxe started to feel weird to me. Not just in the cognitive way I'd understood before, but in a more visceral level. I started to emotionally connect those beautiful Birkin bags with something that felt bad, something I didn't want to be a part of.

Weirdly, the financial crisis doesn't seem to have had this effect on many people. Everyone's all about the luxe now. High end malls are doing better than ever, while J. C. Penney can't catch a break.

Anyway, lately I've come to appreciate even the ugly buildings I work in. It feels like they form a suitable and appropriate venue for the discussion of ideas. Honestly, at a time that feels like a financial struggle for a lot of people, it starts to feel like there's something odd about the whole sitting-around-in-beautiful-buildings-talking-about-stuff thing. What are we, priests?

In some ways the intellectual thing works best when the status aspects are ratcheted down as much as possible. And there's nothing like utilitarian architecture and crappy lighting to quietly ratchet down the status aspects of what you're doing.

Just a couple of months ago I taught Rawls in my Introduction to Philosophy class, and we were talking about inequality. As I walked back from class, I passed through the quite elegant new addition to our building which is part of the Accountancy program, through the double doors, and into the dim and grim hallway that my office is in. Don't get me wrong: my office is book-lined and has a window and I've got zero complaints about it, but drabness-wise, our building is up there.

And suddenly I found myself so happy to be leaving the luxe Accountancy space, with its huge windows and fancy staircase, to pass back into the drab. I remembered how much harder it is to shake things up and be a rabble-rouser if you're spending a lot of money -- especially money that came from someone else. I remembered how the ivy halls of my daydream connect the physical space to a history in which some pretty unsavory elements, like racism and sexism and classism and all kinds of other things -- were even worse than they are now. I remembered how the drab physical space could help put me and my students on a more equal footing, could be welcoming and non-intimidating to them -- with both of us having to acknowledge that even a Starbucks has a more luxe interior than the space we're in.

Bag-wise, I never did buy anything nice. I've gone back to wearing a backpack. For fancy occasions, I bought one of those standard nylon Longchamp bags. And, of course, I've still got my thrift-store Coach.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Universalizing The Female Niceness Tax

Woman on a Striped Sofa with a Dog, by Mary Cassatt, via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently I find myself dealing with what I think of as the female-niceness-tax. If you're a woman you probably know what I'm talking about. It's the way some men, men we don't know, talk to us in a way that asks for care, concern, a listening ear, some moments of our time, a bit of sympathy. Not all men. But enough men that it's a thing.

Sometimes it's men you're attempting to deal with in a consumer or economic transaction, like you're taking a taxi ride and the driver won't stop talking to you, and other times it's just people you run into when you're trying to do something. Like the other day, I was getting the snow scraper out of the car of someone I know and someone else was kindly wiping snow off their car, and it turned into this whole like let-me-tell-you-some-things "guy confidential."

Often it's a tale of woe, like when someone wants to tell you about how they had some illness, or got screwed by some other person, or got fired unfairly, or got rejected from school, or whatever. Sometimes it includes Q + A, which in this context means Questions and Advice, like where you say you live in X place and the guy says "You live where? Why do live there when you could live in this other place? You should live in this other place, it'd be much better for you."

Snow scraper guy talked to me for about ten minutes, and hit most of the big categories, including details about how he, too, was going to do a PhD but there was X problem and the police got involved (we'll just leave that story there for now). It was about 15F, and it was still snowing, but I was clearly expected to be nice and stay and chat and listen and make appropriate sympathetic sounds.

The nature of this "expectation" is interesting, because obviously nobody is forcing you. But usually, at least in my experience, the implicit trade-off is pretty clear: you can stay and listen and be nice, or you will be thought to be a bitch, or called a bitch to your face, or worse.

It can be annoying. You're there hoping to get back to your thoughts or your book or your project or your music and instead you are thrust into this dilemma: stop what you are doing and do a little niceness work, or deal with some angry fall-out. Either way, it's like a niceness tax: pay up or else.

The reason I think of this as a female-niceness-tax is that for some reason I'm not clear on, the men who talk to female strangers this way don't seem to talk to male strangers this way. These men, when they encounter other men, seem to have a different game going on altogether. Either they say nothing, or they want to impress, or they want to exchange opinions, or show off some knowledge. But silence among men often seems acceptable. One of the advantages of being out in the world with a guy instead of alone is getting to dodge the female-niceness-tax.

In the modern world, the payment of the tax feels unfair to me, a constant drag on my ability to do the things I need to do or the things that gain modern would currency like accomplishing things or making money or getting tasks done so I can move on to something else.

Here's where it gets complicated, though. Because it's easy to be indignant about the tax and it's easy to express that indignation by saying the tax should be abolished, that women must be left alone to go about their business, that this constant interfering in their mental lives is bad, a wrong, a problematic way that people relate to one another.

But do you really want to say that a small attempt at human connection is an essentially problematic way to relate to others? I don't. I actually wish people could be a bit nicer and warmer to one another all the time, not a bit colder and harsher. So someone needs a pat on the back, an attentive listener for a few minutes, someone to say "wow, that sucks that that happened to you."

In my view, the problem with the tax isn't that it's there, it's that we're the only ones paying it. I wish it didn't have the particular gendered component that it has. Even the negatives of the gendered component really count as negatives only because our society has become so peculiar in making the pursuit of exchangeable commodities like money status and prestige so essential to an OK life.

So rather than abolish the female-niceness-tax, can't we just make everybody pay it?

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Crisis Of Epistemic Overconfidence

Alchmemy illustration in the Italian book Della tramutatione metallica sogni tre (1572?) by Gio. Battista Nazari], via Wikimedia Commons

The world is complicated, so sometimes we don't know what's up. When you don't know what is going on, you can still have opinions about the best thing to do. But what you can't do is present those opinions with confidence, like Oh that, we have that all sorted out. And yet -- it seems like that's exactly what people do. It's infuriating.

Often I feel like when you look into why people told you to believe something, it was like some version of "sounds reasonable," "makes sense to me," "sounds legit."

For example, the more we learn about nutrition, the more it seems that whole idea of eat-less-fat be-less-fat doesn't really add up. Just like the whole eating-cholesterol causes high cholesterol didn't add up. Just like the whole massive doses of vitamin C or E or whatever didn't add up.

And then you find out that the reason people believed them had to do with things like "fat has more calories per unit weight than carbohydrates," or "some vitamins are good so more is probably great" combined with some vaguely suggestive empirical studies.

Sounds reasonable. Also sounds absurdly oversimplified. And turns out, it was. Yet things like this are often presented as well established and they've had huge effects on our lives.

There are so many things like this in medicine. When I was a kid, everyone said that even a low fever should be treated with aspirin, since it seemed reasonable that a fever would be bad for you. Everyone also said to treat swelling with ice, since it seemed reasonable that swelling was bad and you should try to counteract that. But now we know: fevers and swelling are both ways the body helps fight whatever is wrong with it. Which, once you think about it, also seems reasonable.

Of course, the same thing happens in economics. In this Times op-ed defense of economics being a science, Raj Chetty says the fact that there are constant disagreements, epistemic uncertainty, and extremely limited opportunities for controlled studies doesn't mean economics isn't a science, since "big picture" medicine has the same problem, and it is certainly a science.

It seems to me maybe if you have enough big picture problems it'd be more accurate to say "could be a science" than "is a science," but leaving that aside: the reason the science issue seems important to people is mostly because of the truth, objectivity, and certainty aspects that come in its wake. People want to know: does this activity present results that tell us what is going on?

And the answer there seems to be mixed at best.

It's fine that economics and big picture medicine are difficult, and that answers there "remain elusive," as Chetty puts it. But if you don't know, act like you don't know. Don't go throwing your weight around, shaming the butter-loving, the aspirin-reluctant, the anti-capitalist. 

They might not know what is going on, but face it, you don't know what is going on either.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Three Micro-Moments In 2014 Literature

Woman Reading, By Mary Cassatt, via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe you don't remember the interview from the mid-nineties where David Foster Wallace talks about the magic of fiction. I do, because I think about it all the time. He said:

"There's a kind of Ah-ha! ... It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art."

I get this feeling from literature as well. This explains why, while I can't bear to see sad movies because they just make me sad, I can and do read sad books. Because there's something about the internality of reading that for me that I can share the sadness, or put it into context, or feel it as a way of being human rather than as a crushing pointlessness.

So, here at the end of 2014, a pretty bad year for humanity overall, I thought I'd mention just a few things I read this year that I can't stop thinking about.

1. I just finished reading Akhil Sharma's new book, Family Life: A Novel, which is about a boy whose older brother becomes severely brain damaged when he hits his head on the bottom of a pool, shortly after the family has immigrated to the US from India.

Over time, their father develops a terrible drinking habit. Later he tells his family how awful it is to be hungover all the time:

"He said that in the morning he would be in his car driving to the train station and, when he heard people on the radio, it was as if they were broadcasting from another country, that he was in a country where there was a war going on and these people were broadcasting from a nation that was a peace."

I love that so much.

2. In the middle of the year I read Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant. It's about her experience with her parents aging and dying. At one point her mother has been so seriously in decline that Chast has mentally prepared herself for her mother's continued weakening followed by death.

You can tell she wants it to be painless. You get the impression that after months and months of the process, she's looking forward to that process winding down and finally coming to an end somehow.

But then she comes by for a visit, and there's a new nurse, and Chast's mother is up and dressed and sitting on the sofa eating lunch. And she's a little shocked, and she says,

"Where in the five Stages of Death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?"


3. This year I also read Miriam Towes's recent book All My Puny Sorrows. It's about a woman dealing with her suicidal sister. Her sister is a perfectionist, and at one point the narrator explodes with frustration over her sister's whole world view.

And she says,

"Stop being perfect! That doesn't mean you have to die, you moron. Can't you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful? Get fat and start smoking and play the piano badly. Whatever!"

When I feel down on myself for not meeting some stupid life goal or whatever this passage occasionally pops unbidden into my mind. It's a good reminder that a lot of what people need from one another has very little to do with being brilliant and accomplished, and much more to do with just being around, sharing a meal, cracking an occasional joke, you know.