Tuesday, January 25, 2011


January 27 2011
     A recent piece in The Economist ("You Choose": December 18, 2010) considers the question, "Does the modern world offer too much choice?"  It alludes to an episode of” The Simpsons," in which "Marge takes Apu shopping in a new supermarket, Monstromart, whose cheery advertising slogan is 'where shopping is a baffling ordeal.'"  The article's cites social science research evidence, and here are three that illustrate shortfalls of having too much choice:

          "Choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.  It might even be said to tyrannise."

          "How is it, that in the developed world this increase in choice, through which we can supposedly customise our lives and make them perfect, leads not to more satisfaction but to greater anxiety, and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt."

          "A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that 47% of respondents thought life was more confusing than it was ten years ago, and 42% reported lying awake at night trying to resolve problems."

      The last quotation does not made explicit the connection between life being "more confusing" today and the multitude of choices consumers face when shopping, but it safe to assume that is the effect and cause the writer is suggesting.   It is true that too much choice, especially when buying expensive products - automobiles, homes, or complicated investment plans — 401k pension plans, makes it tough to decide what to purchase, but does variety really induce anxiety, inadequacy and guilt? Or is something else at work?   It seems to me the fault lies not in our economic variety but in ourselves that we are anxious and confused.
     The modern world can exhaust one with its deluge of products.  Which of the hundreds of soaps, shampoos, deodorants, breads, pastas, shoes, coats, trousers, computers, televisions, should we buy?  A more essential question, perhaps, is why are there multitudes of products that exceeds by far what people want or need?  Cheap manufacturing costs explain in part the mushrooming of those super-sized stores teeming with merchandise.  The frenetic production of goods, however, also reflects the calculated attempt of business to stimulate more consumer demand by creating an endless bounty of products consumers can select from the moment the novelty of what they have recently purchased wears off.  This has been a successful scheme of business for a very long time and with advertising’s help has enticed or induced almost all of us to buy things that were neither wanted nor needed.
          Considering the vast number of choices shoppers are given and the seductive power of advertising, one might think that people would be delighted rather than distressed (as reported in The Economist) by the cornucopia of products laid before them.  Perhaps many are delighted by all the choices available, considering less than half (47%) found “modern life more confusing than it was ten years ago.”  Still, there is something to be said about being sometimes unsettled by too many choices; however, it seems to me that there is something deeper in our psychology that unleashes the disquiet in mind The Economist is alluding to.  That disquiet in the mind is reflected in the way we live our lives: Each day we travel to work, and then back home to a hurried dinner before an hour or two of flipping channels or searching websites.  Then it's off to bed for too little sleep to gather a proper rest for the next day.  When the next day arrives, we rise to only repeat the day before.  Like the mass production of goods, we too seem to live in a flurry of activities each day. Such a life puts me in mind of George Herbert’s "The Pulley."  In the poem's mythology and metaphor Herbert envisions what we know too well:

           THE PULLEY.

WHEN God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by ;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can :
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
            Contract into a span.

            So strength first made a way ;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure :
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,
            Rest in the bottome lay.

            For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature :
            So both should losers be.

            Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse :
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
            May tosse him to my breast.

          In the poem, Herbert ascribes human anxiety ("Repining restlesnesse") to the one treasure withheld from the human race – “Rest.”  Like his God, this world of ours provides us with every conceivable material product.  And we are told over and over through all manner of advertising that all these goods and products will fashion a fulfilling life for us. Like the process of choosing what to buy from the variety of what we are sold, we bustle to each activity of the day.  It is neither the number of choices nor the events of the days that “leads...to greater anxiety and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt” but the control we permit these to have over us. We falsely believe we choose to buy the countless redundant products, and we then accept the illusion that these products will somehow make life “perfect.” Meanwhile, the days get lost in multiple little events that accentuate how we have no control over the transitory reality of life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Snow Buddha

     The photo below was taken of a  Buddha sitting in my backyard. Right now I can turn and see him from where I sit. The snow from last Tuesday still covers most of him.





As a counter to the horrific shooting in Arizona and all the media frenzy that followed, we might do well to read four of The Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha: right view, right intention, right speech, right action.  Aside from this crime, let's consider also the odious attacks by conservatives and Republicans on Democrats over the past two years.  It is the kind of despicable behavior that should infuriate all who respect the rights of those with whom they disagree politically.  
     Even though the sick murderer in Arizona has been shown to have no ties to the political right, the Tea Party, or Sara Palin, Frank Rich demonstrates in his Op-Ed essay "Listened to Gabrielle Giffords," (New York Times, Sunday, January 16, 2011) that too few on the right have had the courage to rebuke their fellow pundits and politicians who continue to debase political discourse by portraying Democrats as anti-American and even enemies of the country.  Moreover, he cites examples of leading Republicans and conservatives who have downplayed the increasing "vitriol" ("Second amendment remedies"; "armed and dangerous") that has been spreading during the past two years (See Rich's essay noted above.)  Fortunately, there is John McCain who continues to reject the vile calumny circulated by some of his colleagues on the right. (See Washing Post Op-ed, Sunday, January 16 2011)
     What should anger us too are the insanely permissive gun laws in this country.  One would think that Americans could find a common ground on which to base sensible gun control laws.  Yet in spite of the astounding number of gun related deaths, pro-gun politicians and citizens remain unpersuaded that the sale of guns needs to be tightly regulated and restricted. So thick is the intransigence of pro-gun advocates and the N.R.A. that any law regulating guns is unacceptable to them.  One might think that the bloodshed in Arizona would open gun supporters' mind to reasonable gun control, but the response from gun advocates has been universally hardhearted.   What hope is there for civilized progress if it is opposed by such a remorseless mentality?
     Some have hoped that the crime in Arizona would be the inspiration for reasonable gun control.  But the brutality of how they died in Arizona will fade from the American psyche and the inspiration for gun control will dissipate as the ravenous media fill the coming days with "up to the minute" news, sports, and entertainment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Winter Lament


        At work today, I walked by two colleagues who, like so many, were discussing the forecasted snowstorm.  Already sick of winter myself I expected them to complain about the cold and snow.  Instead, both men descried the timidity of those lamenting the onslaught of snow.  I shouldn’t have been surprised; when nasty winter weather seizes our attention, we can predict at least two reactions.  One is how intolerable the conditions are.  The second, mentioned above, features stoicism, real or posed, acknowledging and accepting the obdurate facts of winter. There is a third, infrequently observed possibility, that comes from those who love the snow and cold; for now, I’ll leave that inexplicable group for another time.
        As for myself, I find it harder each winter to muster the stoicism I thought innate to my character and difficult not to bemoan winter weather the way I do (loudly) summer mugginess and heat.  I venture outside each frigid morning and tighten my jaw and stomach as the freezing air stings my nose and cheeks.  No one could believe such an early blast could be bracing and energizing, but there are some who actually claim this. In the afternoons I like to walk for exercise; a brisk twenty-five minutes in the cold, fresh air arouses me from the torpor that fills the mind and eyes in those initial post-meridian hours.  Despite being refreshed, I am relieved always to get back inside the warm house. 
        When I was young, I loved to watch snow falling through the dark night blanketing the tree boughs in white shrouds.  Something mystical or sublime seem to gesture to me with each lilting flake; something mellifluous like the rhythm and rhyme of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Though a beauty still descends with each night snowfall, the numinous is absent.  To illustrate my point, here’s Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man”:


         One must have a mind of winter       
         To regard the frost and the boughs            
         Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
         And have been cold a long time
         To behold the junipers shagged with ice,           
        The spruces rough in the distant glitter
         Of the January sun; and not to think          
         Of any misery in the sound of the wind,       
         In the sound of a few leaves,
         Which is the sound of the land         
         Full of the same wind          
         That is blowing in the same bare place
         For the listener, who listens in the snow,         
         And, nothing himself, beholds          
         Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

          The “misery” evoked by the sound of wind chaffs any who expect to find the comfort or certainty of an Emersonian sublime in the poem.  Stevens offers is a state of “mind” that might ignore (“not to think”) the “misery” that sweeps with the wind across the landscape.  But however stoically one withstands winter, nothing can negate the ubiquitous cruelty of this season.  That would require some transcendent power the twenty-first century imagination can no longer conjure.  The best we can do is collect whatever peace can be found in the dark and cold.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nihilism: Not in America

           At the end of the nineteenth century, there were intellectuals who, in concert with Nietzsche, wanted religion to dissipate as modern concepts from science spread; meanwhile, theologians and the religious railed against the scientific and secular ideas that threatened Christianity’s dominance over life and society.
          A hundred years later, those who believe in God can observe much that has changed.  Today, there are public atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who work tirelessly through their books and lectures to depict the world’s religions as persistent myths that have perpetrated far too many crimes against humanity to permit them to go unchallenged publicly.  Hitchens, in particular, has crisscrossed the United States debating ministers and people of faith as he strives to advance the legitimacy of atheism and dispel the “fantasy” of religion.
          There are a few undeniable points that can be made about Americans and their religious beliefs: first, religious belief in God thrives as much as ever in America.  A two-thousand and eight Pew Poll revealed that ninety-two percent of Americans believe in God or some universal spirit and seventy percent of Americans believe that religions other than their own can lead to God and salvation.  Second, atheism, though increasing, poses little threat to religion or belief in God.  In light of these facts, it is exasperating to read Harvard Philosophy Professor Sean Kelly’s blog purporting that a state of nihilism permeates American society, and, at the same time, a silent dogmatism infects Americans’ religious beliefs.  (“Navigating Past Nihilism,” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/)
          According to Kelly, nihilism has come about because religious tolerance has had the effect of nullifying meaning for people. Now, one might think that religious tolerance would foster religious diversity and enable different faiths to grow stronger.  Instead, Kelly argues that tolerance has denied God “his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live,” and created a “state” where the “culture...no longer has a unique and agreed upon social ground.”  Thus, Kelly concludes, “God is dead,” (again; Nietzsche’s pronouncement didn’t take.) and nihilism has spread beyond the subject of university seminars in philosophy.
          If tolerance can really engender nihilism in the way Kelly indicates, then how can he account for the rejection of atheism denoted by the remarkably high percentage of Americans who believe in God?  After all, atheism is the necessary precursor for nihilism.  But never mind the burden of overcoming facts.  A little later in his blog, Kelly suggests that for a person to experience faith as valid, he has to believe his faith is “universal and absolute.”  It is necessary, in other words, for a person to believe that only his specific faith can lead him and the rest of humanity to God.
         As Prof. Kelly’s argument unfolds, his reasoning becomes more distorted by his unsupported conjectures.  He offers no evidence (to counter the overwhelming data indicating otherwise) to show that Americans do indeed suffer in a state of nihilism because they are tolerant of different religions or that they are in fact dogmatic regarding their religious beliefs.  He does postulate that Americans deceive themselves into thinking that their religious beliefs are held universally by one and all (Where does this leave nihilism?), but again provides no evidence to support his perception of this mass self-deception.  On this point, his strategy is simply to season his perception with the philosopher's bromide: the philosopher (he) can see their self-deception, but they, of course, cannot.  Convenient and clever though this point may be, it is not at all convincing.
         Prof. Kelly’s final section claims to have discovered in Melville’s Moby Dick a text that can inspire the spirituality he sees missing in America.  He imagines an America in which “there are nevertheless many different lives of worth, and there is no single principle or source or meaning in virtue of which one properly admires them all.”   The problem with Kelly’s point is it describes American attitudes as they already exist (See the Pew Poll cited above).
        In part, Kelly’s essay could be read as another attempt to engraft onto American society and culture the pronouncements of a nineteenth-century's philosophical giant (Nietzsche) whose status outside the academy continues its slide into irrelevance.  At best, his analysis of religion and nihilism offers merely conjecture about rather than a realistic assessment of religious belief in American today.  But then the conclusions of philosophy have always been much more imaginary than real.