Blogging Hiatus

Hi, friends.

I'm sorry, but I have to leave the blogosphere for the next 2 weeks. I've been spending way too much time online, and I've got a lot of backwork to do.

That means not only no posting here, but I won't be reading any blogs at all. I'm going cold turkey. This will last at least 2 weeks, but expect light posting during the 6 weeks I'm in Baltimore. I should be back to regular posting in August.

Thanks to all my regular commenters and readers for your support--although, really, you shouldn't encourage me! Have a great summer.


Is Love Overrated?

That's a rather absurd question, isn't it? But this evening's experiences have brewed a peculiar tincture of thought that I must share.

Tonight, I had the luxury of watching on DVD Woody Allen's latest motion picture, Match Point, a brilliant and terrible film I highly recommend.

I'll try not to give away too much of the plot, but let me issue a *SPOILER ALERT* just in case.

The protagonist, Chris, finds himself torn between two relationships. One is based on stability, future-oriented thinking, supportive (and very well-to-do) in-laws, and more or less living up to people's expectations. The other is based on pure passion, a sort of love at first sight that's totally impractical and has no real future, or at least a highly indefinite one.

I won't tell you which one he chooses, but I must say I do not envy his position. The film's ending makes it both beautiful and terrifying. Really, you must see it for yourself.

Meanwhile, in the halls of power, the GOP is catering to its base, and I do mean base, as in lowly and vulgar. That prejudice and bigotry are all they have left to sell America is just sad.

Much activity has been generated in the blogosphere regarding this proposed marriage amendment, and one post in particular struck a chord with me that I didn't anticipate.

Shakespeare's Sister, always a joy to read when she really gets into something with passion, had some interesting things to say about love and marriage:

One of the most remarkable things about our culture is that we have the freedom to marry for love, to forge lifelong bonds based not on class or race or religion or the number of goats our dads can spare, but on a feeling so beautiful that poets have spent lifetimes trying to lay it on a page, that artists have endeavored to capture in one still but enduring moment. Operas and books and films and pop songs, so heartbreakingly lovely that they can steal one's breath, if just for a moment, have been written by people in the thralls of love, or the searing pain of its loss. Monuments have been built, wars have been fought, and some of the greatest happiness ever experienced by humankind has been born because of love.

We are blessed with the luxury of love, and, make no mistake, it is a luxury. Marriage at its best is an expression of love. When it's simply an institution to facilitate the continued existence of a society through the birth of new generations, it is a splendid functional legal contract and nothing more. When it's a sign of commitment forged out of love, it is something ever so much grander. It is the stuff of legend.

Now, please keep in mind that since I taught a class on the subject, I am clearly an expert on love (and sex, too!). (Heh.) And I've reached an interesting conclusion: the freedom to marry for love is just not worth it.

This is not the speech of one who has been scorned by love, or even by a real cynic about the subject. But I do know a thing or two about what makes for human happiness, and I think this freedom causes far more anguish than it's worth.

Shakes' Sis goes on to cite Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium (a great resource for arguing in favor of the equality or even superiority of homosexual love), but I wish to draw upon other parts of the text that seek to understand love as two interconnected but quite distinct phenomena. This distinction is not a controversial one, and has appeared repeatedly in Western and non-Western cultures throughout history.

We have on the one hand romantic or erotic love (eros) and on the other companionate love or friendship (philia). (N.B.: it's philosophy, not erosophy. Isn't that funny?)

Now, as far as my understanding of the research on erotic love goes, this passionate affect tends to be of a highly limited duration, typically lasting not more than 5 or 7 years (the old "7-year itch" isn't just anecdotal). This is one reason why so many marriages end in divorce. Generally speaking, those that last will either become entrenched in habit and quotidian ritual or, on the plus side, will evolve into a very close and intimate friendship.

Now, arranged marriages are more likely to skip the initial fling, but not always. (Truth be told, my knowledge here is more sketchy; I don't really know the research on the tendencies of arranged marriages, in particular, over time. I assume that the ones that work also evolve into a similar kind of intimate friendship, whether or not there's much passion in the beginning.)

So far, then, arranged marriages seem like a loss. They'll undergo a similar development towards roughly the same end, but there won't be that crazy ecstatic erotic phase initially.

But, with the freedom to marry "for love" comes additional burdens: extra anxiety about the future, the despair of loneliness, the pressure of finding that "right person", the fear of dying alone, the frustration of not loving someone who loves you or loving someone who doesn't, the dramatic highs and lows of turbulent relationships, the disappointment in giving up and "settling" for someone who's only good enough, and on and on.

The harsh reality of single life is another one of the costs of individualism, of a society of disconnected individuals looking for something to fill them up (when all along they just need each other--enter again Aristophanes). In truth, I sometimes wish I'd just had a marriage arranged for me so that I didn't have to worry about it so much.

But, you might ask, what then of the heedless, all-consuming passion of eros? Shall we just give up this rich facet of human experience?

That's what affairs are for. It seems to me that clandestine liaisons are far better suited for eros. These things arise spontaneously while one has some other stable situation elsewhere in life: a family, a social support network, and so on. They are exciting and dangerous. The illicit lovers' time together is precious and all too brief, punctuated by a humdrum life that pales in comparison. The thrills and anticipations just fan the flames higher.

And let's face it, adultery is a fact of human existence. I think I'd feel like I'd missed out on something if I never get to have an affair (although I advocate open marriages, which I think can still maintain some of the allure of covert couplings if the partners have the right kind of agreement: say, they don't talk about who else they're seeing, they don't even say when they are seeing someone else and maybe even try to make a game of it by keeping such things secret, they always use protection and extra precaution with outside partners--really, I think this open marriage thing could work, if I found a reasonable partner sufficiently disillusioned about the absurd posturings of human existence; a Beauvoir to my Sartre, if you will).

The problem with marrying for love is that we pretend that love is just one thing, some kind of amazing fairytale passion that's supposed to persist forever and ever. In the movies, we always want the characters to drop everything, even ongoing stable relationships, and go after their heart's true love. But what movies typically don't show is what happens 5, 10, 15 years down the line. What then happens when there is neither passion nor order?

Of course here Match Point is again highly fascinating for showing a strange and profound resolution for this kind of conflict. (Closer would be another movie in which these themes are explored in a nonstandard, highly thought-provoking direction.) Match Point is really a film about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence.

But the cure for meaninglessness is human companionship. I contend that we'd avoid so many problems and so much existential angst if we just had more structured social support systems, including marriages that were contractual arrangements geared toward certain ends and with negotiable terms.

Who says love (eros) and marriage must go together like a horse and carriage? I mean, just look at the success of the horseless carriage or "automobile".


But, this is all just absurd... *sigh* (I could probably use some companionship.)


"Technological Fundamentalism"

Take a look at this article entitled "The Four Fundamentalisms", purporting to examine four ideologies, four non-thinking tendencies which pose a grave threat to the very existence of humanity.

The author, journalism professor Robert Jensen, extends the traditional meaning of "fundamentalism" beyond pertaining only to religion:

I want to use it ["fundamentalism"] in a more general fashion to describe any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Such fundamentalism leads to an inclination to want to marginalize, or in some cases eliminate, alternative ways to understand and organize the world. After all, what's the point of engaging in honest dialogue with those who believe in heretical systems that are so clearly wrong or even evil? In this sense, fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris, a delusional overconfidence not only in one's beliefs but in the ability of humans to know much of anything definitively. In the way I use the term, fundamentalism isn't unique to religious people but is instead a feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in the mistaking of very limited knowledge for wisdom.

As an alternative he proposes a kind of epistemological humility, "an ignorance-based worldview". The kind of opposition he paints here is similar to one I've adopted from Wm. James between monism and pluralism. The monist is the individual who believes that there is only one right way (his way, of course) in terms of belief, practice, self-identification, etc., while the pluralist seeks to, as I like to put it, "let the many flourish".

In both of these models, the idea is to acknowledge our limitations and be more accepting of individuals who arrive at different conclusions than we do (within reason). It's a matter of being open to new possibilities, seeing beyond a narrow perspective, exercising empathy towards those who differ from us.

Of these four threatening fundamentalisms, I'm with Jensen on the first three: religious fundamentalism, nationalism, and market fundamentalism. Fundamentalists generally suffer from an imagination deficit. Why should God be constrained to the limits imposed by a handful of ancient authors? Similarly, nationalists fail to see the arbitrariness of national boundaries (local allegiance, or loyalty to your community, is another thing entirely) and apologists for capitalism refuse to envision alternatives to a world economic order that leaves so many destitute and suffering.

We might debate over whether there are possible positive manifestations of these, over the extent of the problems they pose, and so forth. But I'd rather turn to his fourth category, which has me a bit on edge: technological fundamentalism.

Most concisely defined, technological fundamentalism is the assumption that the increasing use of increasingly more sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. Those who question such declarations are often said to be "anti-technology," which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether it's stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.

He goes on to criticize, in particular, nuclear and biotechnology, suggesting that we are dealing with forces far more powerful than we can control.

Now here, I'll grant that he makes a good argument. Much of new technology doesn't actually increase happiness in the world, and certainly doesn't offer people meaning. Labor-saving devices are quickly adjusted-to, and individuals just call for more and more, faster and smaller and easier-to-use and more powerful, and so on.

But, Jensen fails to think of the possibilities that could arise if we conducted our research with different ends. Instead of developing new toys, we might try to understand better what makes humans happy, what gives them meaning, makes their lives worth living. This kind of research has been done, and we're learning a lot.

It may be the case that it's foolish to think that the problems that technology causes can be solved by more technology--it's like the mouse in your house, which you buy a cat to get rid of, but then the cat won't leave, and you have to get a dog, and on and on like that until you get to, I don't know, Voltron, but then you can never get rid of him (h/t Poorman).

But should the solution be just to get used to the mouse eating your cheese? I really enjoy cheese, and maybe it gets worse when the cat starts drinking all my milk, or the dog starts eating my steaks, or Voltron blows up my refrigerator, and maybe that'll happen, but then maybe Voltron will just leave quietly after that? Surely crossing our fingers and hoping for the best as we do the exact same thing as before will work, won't it?

In all seriousness, I'm aware of these warning about hubris and playing God and all that. But even though I consider myself to be a Green (I'm registered to vote as one), I've never bought into this whole anti-biotechnology business. Like, what's so bad about GMOs? Wouldn't it be a shame if we could feed more people? Oh, but we're "playing God"! We're creating "Frankenfood"! Isn't that scary? Let's just leave everything well enough alone.

The potential for good is just too great for me to turn my back on biotech. Of course we want to ask what ends we are pursuing and I'm all about working towards sustainability. I just don't see that as incompatible with this research though.

The fact of the matter is that biotech can not only help to satisfy the world's basic needs, it can also directly increase human happiness. I'm not talking exclusively about antidepressants here, although they are nothing to sneeze at. But consider technologies like the one I wrote about not so long ago, that allows people to monitor their brain activity and develop new strategies for controlling pain. Or think about Haidt's work, and the research that shows the positive value of things like habitual meditation and strong social networks in cultivating human happiness.

This should not be about turning our backs on technology because we're scared of what it can do. This should be about using technology more intelligently. Perhaps we should lengthen the period between lab result and consumer product, but by no means should we be holding back the basic research.

Knowledge is power and I see nothing wrong with re-making a cold and uncaring universe in our own image, in the way we think it should be. We should be careful that we don't destroy ourselves or the other inhabitants of this planet, but let us make sure that our caution is in the right places for the right reasons.


If you care about the legitimacy of our democracy, read this article. (Updated. Twice.)

Finally, a somewhat mainstream media source has covered the 2004 election debacle. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., writing in Rolling Stone, presents an extensive catalogue of evidence detailing the systemic unethical and illegal behavior of Republican operatives in Ohio, with the aim of subverting the will of the people. It's a lengthy article, but well worth the read.

Reading through charge after charge of irregularities, I was overcome by the pure chaos of the way in which our votes were counted. The only regularity behind it all seemed to be the GOP's indomitable will to steal the election for Bush.

This is from the conclusion:

The issue of what happened in 2004 is not an academic one. For the second election in a row, the president of the United States was selected not by the uncontested will of the people but under a cloud of dirty tricks. Given the scope of the GOP machinations, we simply cannot be certain that the right man now occupies the Oval Office -- which means, in effect, that we have been deprived of our faith in democracy itself.

American history is littered with vote fraud -- but rather than learning from our shameful past and cleaning up the system, we have allowed the problem to grow even worse. If the last two elections have taught us anything, it is this: The single greatest threat to our democracy is the insecurity of our voting system. If people lose faith that their votes are accurately and faithfully recorded, they will abandon the ballot box. Nothing less is at stake here than the entire idea of a government by the people.

Voting, as Thomas Paine said, "is the right upon which all other rights depend." Unless we ensure that right, everything else we hold dear is in jeopardy.

The fact that so much of this fraud occurred under the cover of efforts to reduce election fraud is utterly perverse, beyond Orwellian. This is why we need massive election reform now. We need paper trails, safer voting software, easier access to provisional and absentee ballots, nonpartisan or bipartisan election boards, and an overall streamlining of the electoral process.

Above all, we need to strike a better balance in our regulation of fraud. Ensuring that voters are who they claim to be is important, to be sure. But what has utterly--and intentionally--been neglected in these purported "anti-fraud" efforts is making the voting process as painless as possible for citizens. It shouldn't take an Herculean effort to be able to vote for Kerry in Ohio.

It's sad to say, but we should not be surprised if the Republicans somehow maintain their congressional majority this November. If it happens in 2006, it will happen again in 2008, and in 2010, and in 2012...

As progressives, if we care about instituting universal healthcare, fueling alternative energy research, providing everyone with a living wage, ensuring equal rights for all people--or whatever we are fighting for--all of our struggle is for naught, if our votes are not counted. We cannot stand idly by and let this gross injustice continue.

This country is (nominally) a democracy. Regardless of how they vote, everyone should have their vote counted. This is not a partisan issue--unless the two sides are pro- and anti-democracy.

ADDENDUM: After looking at other bloggers' coverage of this article and reviewing some naysayers' attempts at refuting exit poll discrepancies and so forth, I am honestly at a loss to know whether or not the election was stolen. Frankly, since I am not an expert, I don't know whom to trust.

What we do know, however, is that there was a lot of fraud--we just don't know if it was sufficiently in one direction to have affected the outcome (this is more or less what Kerry says in RFKJr's article).

Part of my enthusiasm in embracing election theft narratives, I'll admit, comes from a reluctance in believing that Americans could actually have seen fit to ask for 4 more years of Bush. I'm sure he'd lose if he had to run again today, but there are still millions of people who support him.

And it's not fair to categorize them exclusively as ignorant, misguided, or duped. A good many probably were, but others had what they took to be good reasons for voting as they did.

Regardless of what happened in '04, or '00 for that matter, our election system is a mess and badly in need of safeguards and streamlining. Consistent standards in federal elections would be a step in the right direction for democracy. If we could also get corporate and private money out of politics, that'd be even better.

ADDENDUM II: For a nice summary of problems with RFKJr's article, check out this piece from Salon.com.

As I read more about this, it seems increasingly less probable that voter disenfranchisement was systematically biased and maliciously motivated, as Kennedy and others claim. For the first time, I've encountered explanations that I find plausible to account for various discrepancies.

Somewhat surprisingly, I'm actually left quite optimistic. If this is the case, then 2006 may not turn into a stolen election. We may just get our accountability yet.

It's kinda funny. After being disappointed and disgusted by Bush and his ilk repeatedly and for so long, I was willing to believe any bad thing I'd heard about him or them. This is not to say that this episode has increased my trust in the system or in Republicans. Rather, I feel like I need to be more skeptical of claims that I want to believe are true.

In other words, I'm a little warier of kneejerk anti-Bush sentiment. Statements are not false just because Bush utters them. I mean, he's gotta slip up every now and again and accidentally say something true. ;-)


My 50th Post!

I just noticed that I've reached post number fifty here on Sentiments. Huzzah! Now all I need is a readership...

A few items of note:

1. Crashing the Gate. Read this book. It's a delightful indictment of the Democratic Party Establishment and how the new progressive netroots movement is poised to gain control of the party.

I'm really starting to feel like we're on to something big here, the beginning of a movement that will change American politics for the better. It took conservatives 30 years to build a majority, but they've totally blown it. No one's talking about permanent Republican majorities very much these days.

What we need, more than anything, is publicly funded campaigns. The new populist movement among the Democrats is partially, as Markos and Jerome argue in CtG, a result of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act. Democrats were cut off from soft money contributions so they had to start reaching out to their base again. In time, as the party grows more (small-d) democratic, so too may the country.

Also, Russ Feingold is even cooler than you've heard. This guy's the real deal. He's a man of principle, who has refused to kowtow to big corporate donors, even though it put him at a disadvantage in some of his campaigns. The Dems hated him for McCain-Feingold, but it should do a world of good in the long run.

And that, really, is the encouraging thing about CtG. They're rather light on policy suggestions, and are largely interested in doing what it takes to win even if it means occasional compromise on some issues, because their real interest is in creating a unified progressive movement that can compete in 50 states, in every election, regardless of how red the local electorate may be.

This makes the Republicans have to work harder to preserve their own seats, and challenges the conventional wisdom about what is or isn't winnable. Similarly, by compromising in the short term, all of these single-issue groups that now dominate the Dems have a better chance to promote their issues down the line, when a progressive majority is established. As we've seen, there's no longer such a thing as a principled Republican. Even Joe Lieberman (*shudder*) is better than any GOP alternative.

Reading it has made me optimistic about the medium-term future. Barring obscene voting irregularities, I think the Dems will take back the House, and gain seats in the Senate--if they're really lucky, they could take it back too.

And because this is a populist movement, there will be more of a push to implement sensible pro-democracy policies that are now squashed by the elites who control the political establishment: secure and reliable voting, public campaign financing, national healthcare, alternative energy initiatives, a living wage for all workers, and higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals to pay for it all.

A pipe dream now, perhaps, but we're in this for the long haul.

2. How Would A Patriot Act? I've also finished reading this recently. Also recommended. Greenwald is great at laying out the constitutional and legal issues clearly to show how radical and unAmerican King George and his regime really are. It's a short book, and cheap, but also highly worth reading for its big picture focus.

Terrorism, as Glenn and a number of bloggers have been arguing lately, is not more dangerous a crisis than any of the others we've faced in our history: the Revolution, the Civil War, even the Cold War--these were times in which our existence as a nation was truly imperiled. The War on Terror is a farce. More than anything, it's a propaganda campaign to keep us scared while we're stripped of the freedoms that make being an American worthwhile.

That's not to say that there isn't a threat posed by Islamic terrorists; surely there is. But we must keep it in perspective. And there's no reason to believe that we need to give up our privacy and our free way of life to defend against it. Most of us are in no immediate danger.

George W. Bush is really the one who "hates our freedom". What kind of unprincipled coward is so willing to save his miserable little life that he would forfeit everything that generations of Americans have fought and died to preserve?

"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

3. While I have reached a minor milestone here, I find myself but days away from personally hitting the quarter-century mark.

And I think I'm still on the upward slope. After a point, I know things will go downhill, but I feel like I've got a good 5 or 10 years of youth left. I've peaked late, but I'm really starting to make up for past missed opportunities. I predict that my upcoming 26th year shall be the best yet!

This calls for a celebration! (And one shall be had, I can assure you of that!)