Happy Christmas/Hannukah/Kwaanza/Solstice/Newtonmas/Season of Joyful Consumption!

Happy Christmas/Hannukah/Kwaanza/Solstice/Newtonmas/Season of Joyful Consumption! — Like Matt Welch, I'm off to the Continent for the Holidays. I'll be in Berlin, visiting a good friend. I'm looking forward to Christmas in Vetschau, a little burg east of Berlin and New Year's in Prague. It'll be my first trip out of North America. And it's about time!

I may post once or twice from Berlin in the next week or so. Otherwise The Fly Bottle will be a field of deafening silence.

Have a great time celebrating whatever you celebrate, and may you get more than you deserve!

Totalitarian Chic — At the

Totalitarian Chic — At the Georgetown Urban Outfitters, for $45 you can get a replica Soviet soccer Jersey — CCCP boldly emblazoned across the breast. For only $45, you can purchase ideological transgression. For just $45, you can have your own faux-vintage wearable protest against hegemonic market culture. Show you're too cool to care about forced starvation and other forms of mass murder! Nazi-wear is a skoche too Republican for the scenester in the know. But Urban Outfitter Soviet-wear… well that's just proletarian, but, you know, with flair!

The irony just destroys me. The Guevara-gear too. The kids who buy this stuff in a spirit of dissent are oblivious to their role in punctuating the utter destruction of the collectivist order. Like severed heads impaled on posts, these kids are walking warnings for anyone who would dare challenge the market order:

Resistance is futile. You will be commodified. Attack us with ideology and we will sell it as nostalgia.

In Praise of Crises of

In Praise of Crises of Meaning— A common complaint from both left and right is that liberal commercial society creates a crisis of meaning for its denizens. Without the external imposition of expectations and responsibilites, our lives lack a structure within which meaning may emerge. This is supposed to be a problem in need of a solution.

Our free society, together with our thriving market culture, creates a surfeit of choice. Yet in the absence of a readymade vision of life's meaning and duties, we cannot know what we need to choose, or make a resolute stand against the onslaught of marketing that pulls us in contrary directions. Worse, without a readymade vision of life's meaning, a vision of life's meaning becomes yet another consumer product. But we cannot know which vision to choose without some sort of vision already in place. We are left with a gnawing anxiety, unsure of who we are, alienated from our own culture even as we participate in it. What good are thirty four models of toasters, or one hundred twelve flavors of gum, when this sense of disconnection and aimlessness dogs you relentlessly? You might have the exact Sumatran blend you desire. But that won't make you happy.

That's the argument, isn't it? Well, it's not a bad one. The anxiety of freedom is real. However, like a tortured, heartbreaking decision between Giselle Bundchen and Laetetia Casta, there are worse problems to have. The beautiful possibilities go overlooked.

There's no denying that it's hard making something of your life. And there's no denying that there is comfort, even meaning, in tradition and in assigned roles. But there is no universal formula for meaning. And readymade visions may leave you cold, or oppressed. Our freedom and wealth is beautiful and good. And, yes, the possibilities of freedom and wealth are daunting. But therein lies much of the beauty and goodness. We are now at a point in history when our wealth and freedom make it possible to treat life as art. We are at liberty to recombine the found elements of our culture and shape our days into something not only novel, but beautiful and true.

Now, no one is forced to be an artist with her life. There are templates. Join the Marines. Become a Moonie. Save the spotted titmouse. If you need a scripted life, then by all means have one. However, if you need a script to tell you how to choose a script, that's your problem, not freedom's.

We are not too free. For the first time in history we are almost free enough. Because this is new (in the big picture), we have yet to fully internalize the loveliness of a custom-made life, and to recognize periodic crises of meaning as its necessary concommitant. No one ever said great things are easy. It is a great virtue of our civilization that so many of us have these crises so often, because it means we are not entirely preoccupied by immediate needs — by herding the sheep, throwing more dung on the fire, burying the children.

Last night I paid thirty minutes' wages to see one scary looking bearded dude do awesome and dumbfounding things with a bass, a synth, a vocorder and drum machine. Who fucking knew? And that's the point: Who fucking knows? Like the freedom to explore the vast space of musical possibility, the freedom to explore the vast space of human possibility is awe inspiring, not only for the beauty of exploration for its own sake, but for the treasures exploration can uncover.

So, yes, I am unsure of who I am, or what to make of myself. My life has no fixed meaning. I feel alone and a little afraid. And I like it that way.

Living Without Appeal — Re-reading

Living Without Appeal — Re-reading my previous post, I was reminded of one of my favorite philsophical passages. It's from The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, and it moves me every time I read it. It's about living “without appeal.” Very roughly, Camus' point, as I understand it, is that by remaining almost naively honest about what one truly knows and persistently denying the desire to use doubtful readymade schemes to make life seem meaningful, one might discover a more authentic kind of meaning. But that doesn't do it justice. Go read it.

I've posted it on a new page, Afterthoughts, where I'll be putting things like like this that supplement writings on the main page.

Jonah and the Libertines –

Jonah and the Libertines – In his recent NRO Column, Jonah Goldberg maintains that “cultural libertarianism” is the great threat to the American Order. Goldberg has long been grinding his anti-libertarian ax, and here he outdoes himself, putting forth Virginia Postrel and Nick Gillespie as symptoms and causes of the relativistic cultural decline that brings us John Walker.

Goldberg says that while the genuinely open cultural libertarians are less hypocritical than liberals (whose tolerance is a ruse), that openness is really just a symptom of nihilism, which is bad. According to the cultural libertarians:

There are no universal truths or even group truths (i.e., the authority of tradition, patriotism, etc.) ? only personal ones. According to cultural libertarianism, we should all start believing in absolutely nothing, until we find whichever creed or ideology fits us best. We can pick from across the vast menu of human diversity ? from all religions and cultures, real and imagined ? until we find one that fits our own personal preferences. Virginia Postrel can write triumphantly that the market allows Americans to spend $8 billion on porn and $3 billion at Christian bookstores, because she isn't willing to say that one is any better, or any worse, than the other.

This is wrong. I count myself a cultural libertarian, yet I believe that all truths are universal, in the sense that if a truth is a truth at all, it is a truth for everyone. Who says that we should ever believe in “absolutely nothing”? We should always believe what our careful thought about the available evidence indicates, and these beliefs may be quite firm. Now, I don't have any idea what a group truth is. Goldberg mentions the authority of tradition, or patriotism. It's peculiar that he picks these, since tradition and nationalist sentiments are notorious dens of dangerous untruth. But if there is are truths in either, they are grounded in facts independent of the tradition or the sentiments of the people toward their nation.

The truth of a proposition certainly isn't relative to the individual who entertains it. If it's in fact good for Bob to become a pianist, then that's just true, no matter who you are. However, the thing that makes it good for Bob to become a pianist is both something about Bob and something about everyone. Everyone should nurture their talents and pursue goals that inspire them. But Bob should become a pianist because he's good at it and really likes it. So the grounding for certain univeral truths are in part personal. There is thus no tension between picking from the menu of human diversity and the existence of universal truths.

Here is a universal moral truth: It is good to have a happy, satisfying, meaningful life.

We cultural libertarians understand that there is a great deal of variability among individuals. And the things that are likely to give rise to happy, satisfying, meaningful lives can be very different for different people. Now, if you pick a person, and consider her constitution, experience, capabilities, and so forth, there will be some objective facts about what sorts of things will lead her life to go well. These facts will overlap with the facts that will make anyone's life go well, just insofar as there are commonalities in human nature. Everyone should have friends, love their families, have meaningful productive work, enjoy aesthetic pleasures, have a good sex life, take time for leisure, etc… The way any particular individual might go about achieving such values is variable and, yes, relative to the person. But this in no way entails or suggests nihilism.

If you ask whether porn or Christian books are better, you have to ask “better in what respect?” If you want to get your rocks off (a genuine moral value!), you're best with porn. If you want to build your life around limiting, elaborate, socially constructed falsehoods, try a Christian book.

Goldberg is talented at making arbitrary assumptions about the Good in order to attack folks without his peculiar set of prejudices. Here he goes after Nick Gillespie for enjoying himself, and then makes a dumb non-sequitur:

Gillespie confesses that when he was younger, he did “pot and alcohol, mostly, but also acid, mescaline, Ecstasy, mushrooms, coke and meth… Mostly I did drugs because they were fun and I liked the way I felt when I was high.” In other words, if it's good for me, it's good for everybody.

Goldberg's paraphrase has no relation to Nick's statment. Nick says that the drugs were fun, and that they made him feel good. I'm not sure what Goldberg has against fun and feeling good (he often strains in a striving geek way to project a Sinatraesque alcohol-and-cigars ethic of masculinity), but in any case, Gillespie said nothing about “everybody.” Knowing Nick a little, I think he'd allow that some folks might not feel good and have fun on mescaline. And so they shouldn't do it. And that they shoudn't do it would be a universal moral truth.

Golberg owes us moral arguments against porn and drugs if he wants to be taken seriously. Preferring porn over Christian literature isn't a symptom of nihilism; it may rather be a symptom of a firm grasp on reality, and on what it means to live a really satisfying, non-deluded life on Earth.

What of Johnny Taliban? Golberg writes:

You don't turn children into responsible adults by giving them absolute freedom. You foster good character by limiting freedom, and by channeling energies into the most productive avenues. That's what all good schools, good families, and good societies do. The Boy Scouts don't throw a pocketknife to a kid and say, “Knock yourself out, kid. I'll be back in a couple hours.” The cultural libertarians want to do precisely that.

If cultural libertarianism is just a synonym from egregious negligence about the well-being of people we love, then to hell with cultural libertarianism! But is Goldberg serious? Does he really think anybody thinks this? Well, if he does, he's stupid, and if he doesn't, he's dishonest. Take your pick.

Cultural libertarianism isn't a philosophy of child rearing. It is the belief that because there are a vast multiplicity of ways in which human beings might lead happy, satisfying, meaningful lives, we should keep it open to people to find the truly best way for themselves, and we should encourage a dynamic creative culture that reveals new, perhaps liberatory possibilities. But not all possibilities are equal. Some are contrary to basic aspects of human nature, and so should be avoided. Some will be contrary to aspects of a certain individual's natures. We should certainly limit our children's liberty in order to keep them safe, and yes, in order to channel their energies into endeavors we believe will lead them to have truly good lives. What about cultural libertarianism, properly understood, contradicts that?

If I had been Johnny Taliban's dad, I would have argued with Johnny about Islam, because Islam is unintelligent and harmful to a full, happy life. If he would have gone and become a muslim anyway, I would have told him that he's being stupid, and that I don't admire him for it. I might even take away the car keys!

I suppose I could characterize conservatism as the belief that one fosters good character by authoritarian suppression of independence through frequent beatings. But conservatives don't believe that, so it would be stupid to say it. Right?

More Goldberg Bashing — Goldberg

More Goldberg Bashing — Goldberg concludes his essay thus:

Chesterton pointed out that when a man stops believing in God, he won't believe in nothing, he'll believe in anything. God isn't necessarily the issue here. But the principle is the same. Humans, especially children, very much want to believe in things. If we don't bother to teach — or impose — certain Western values on our own people, they will embrace values that are neither open nor tolerant. Belief in “something” just isn't good enough.

First, Chesterton never pointed out any such thing, because pointing out a falsehood is like pointing out the winged horse crossing the street with the elf on its back. He asserted it, falsely. Indeed, it's necessarily false, as it's contradictory. A man who stops believing in God has, by that very action, demonstrated that he will not believe in anything.

The gist of Chesterton's falsehood is deeply anti-rational. The claim is that baseless commitment to (i.e., faith in) the existence a supernatural entity is the only possible foundation for norms governing belief. But that's bizarre. One needn't have God's assistance to arrive at the principle that you should only believe things you have evidence for (which principle is an excellent reason to stop believing in God.) With respect to value, the notion is that only God's commands can ground our judgments about value. But of course this is false. There is something that it is like to be a human being, and there are real requirements for life and happiness imposed on us not by God or our own descisions or desires, but by our naturally evolved biological and psychological constitution. Pace Chesterton's mystical skepticism, it is possible to discover what these requirements and values are using plain old human reason unaided by divine guidance.

We should certainly teach our children these values. But they aren't really “Western” in any other sense than that Westerners first discovered some of them. In any case, I certainly don't want people like Goldberg imposing them. Goldberg has just told us that he believes that you cannot discover these values by rational means, and the biggest problem in the world today is precisely that of people attempting to impose on others values that have been gained through leaps of unreason. The cultural source of the parental idiocy that allowed one stupid kid to join the Taliban simply has no significance compared to the danger posed by anti-rational religious commitment, which caused the death of thousands of Americans, and which Goldberg continues to recommend to us.