Category Archives: Society

Farming and Schooling

Farmers can be good entrepreneurs. Farmers are used to investing a large amount of time, money and labor now for an uncertain payoff in the future. In contrast, kids who grow up in school want structure, predictable rewards and guaranteed income.  They don’t want to take chances, and resent the idea of working for free. And learning to think in terms of paper- and screen-bound concepts and abstractions can kill the kind of concrete, creative intelligence that they can learn on the farm, and which can be so useful in setting up a small business.

Yeah, I’m overgeneralizing. But I look at the kids now in rural Thailand who have at least 7 or 8 years of schooling (as compared to their parents, who mostly have 0-4 years of school). and it is hard to get them to open a market stall, plant a vegetable garden, or even take a chance on a bus ticket into Bangkok without a job waiting. They’ll only invest in a machine like a chain saw or electric sander if they are sure it will get them a job with daily pay. After several years of required schooling, they are really good for nothing. They have been taken off the farm, so they no longer like farm work or can even do it very well. They are wary of risks. But after several years of lousy rural schooling, they haven’t learned enough to get a good job in town or a government job. They are just good for construction or working in the chicken factory.

A couple of times Luna has tried to hire people with high school or even some college to help her with her marketing job (ordering and designing clothes and bags in Thailand to send to her contacts in Italy). It never worked out very well. She complains they are lazy, “They know computer, know math, know English. But they not want to do nothing, not want to learn about job. Just want somebody to give money to them, not want to work.”

Every now and then, a rural family puts some money into educating a child enough to get a low level professional job in the city—secretary or nurse or bookkeeper or something like that. The results are often not satisfactory. The professional kids become obsessed with their city live and careers. They are embarrassed by their rural family, and rarely visit home or send money (except when they need their parents to take care of their kids). To be fair, entry-level professional jobs are often very low-paid, and the kids have to use what little money they earn to maintain appearances with a certain standard of living. But the family back on the farm can still wonder; why is this any better than opening a market stall–or even working construction?

But a government job, or the police is a different story. Nobody will ever second-guess a job like that. Sure the police are corrupt, womanizing bastards, and government workers are arrogant jerks who have to sit in an office all day long. But that kind of guaranteed income, while still being able to live near family and country, and maybe even own land and work the harvest . . . . But these are mostly open to men. Women still have to rely on their own resources.

And in the U.S.? Our system is so geared to preparing us for paper- and screen-bound office hierarchies and salary-work that it is hard to imagine alternatives, other than free-lancing office work that is symbiotic to the corporate hierarchies. It is no coincidence that many of the great tech entrepreneurs and creative entertainers are people who dropped out of school (although, to be fair, only after receiving a decent elementary and high school education). And immigrants are disproportionately represented in small business.

 

Don’t Vote

The U.S. election is coming and I’m not voting. I’ve voted once in a national election and now regret it. Voting in the U.S. is the consumate act of political self-degradation. It is submission to corporate power, big money, political machines and celebrity culture all in one. To vote in the national election is to say that I don’t have a problem with cynical propaganda, political hypocrisy and relentless media manipulation. A ballot cast is a vote in favor of the degradation of thought and language. It is a vote of approval for our Orwellian public discourse, a vote for more of the same next time. Exercise your freedom from the relentless degradation and homogenization of the corporo-statist big money-media machine: Don’t vote!

Yeah, I know, “corporo-statist big money-media machine”: it sounds a bit conspiratorial. But I don’t see a conspiracy at all. What I see is that elections have become a magnet for everybody that wants to manipulate, control, spew ideology, feed their ego, serve their own interests, deceive and bully. I have never seen so much dishonor and suspect motivations concentrated in one place.

The Innovators, the Free Spirits, the Silent.

The most amazing thing about the corporo-statist big money-media machine is that it has convinced us that voting is the ultimate exercise of our civil rights, our greatest expression of freedom. We believe that our moment of purest subjection is actually our moment of liberty. It must be true, because Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Steven Spielberg, L.L. Cool Jay and Diddy have all told us so. The more sleazy advertising a campaign generates, the more free choice we must have.

National elections have made us intellectually moronic and emotionally barren. I know so many people that spend half of their lives bitter and enraged —literally sleepless, stressed and irritable–about things over which they have no control. They spend hours each day fuming at the TV and ranting to each other about the latest electoral development that they’ll forget after two days. We spew all of our impotent, stressed-out anger at election campaigns, which then feed on it, digest it, and feed right back to us in forms calculated to make us even more stressed and angry.

I try to escape by not watching the news and refusing to talk politics. But then I’ll say something–about some topic like evolution, or religion or the word “security”, or economics, or old people–and somebody will start getting angry at me because what I said sounds vaguely like the political rhetoric of a party they disagree with. Or they’ll say, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s totally right,’ because it sounds vaguely like the slogan of the party they agree with–which wasn’t my intention at all. If, by chance, I do manage to convey the nuance of my idea, nobody wants to hear it. It’s just irrelevant. Middle ground is ont desired. We only want only to hear, speak and even think only in terms of the dichotomies, slogans, choices and terms set by political campaigns. (For more nuanced thoughts along this line, read Tocqueville)

The ineffable thrills of silence.

My refusal to vote has nothing to do with apathy or the fact that my vote won’t really matter. It has to do with the fact that any vote I make, for whatever party, is a statement that I am OK with the foul, reeking, cynical bullshit that gets passed on to us as the heart of our democratic process. It requires that I have spent hours degrading myself by listening to and thinking about the poisonous idiocy spewed by campaigns and pundits—idiocy designed to control and manipulate my opinions, to misguide and misdirect me, to obscure more than reveal. I much prefer to maintain emotional equanimity and personal independence.

Some people insist that I must vote for a candidate that I don’t like, just because the other candidate is so much worse. They say it is a basic civic duty. Some even insist that it is the only way to save the country from disaster and tyranny. If I respond that they are being excessive–that one person’s disaster is another’s redemption, and that we’ve already gone through dozens of national elections without a disaster, that the biggest problem is the electoral process itself–some will even start calling me names like ‘apathetic,’ ‘irresponsible,’ ‘head-in-the-clouds,’ ‘ignorant,’ ‘self-absorbed,’ and ‘arrogant.’ It is social coercion.

Is this idea that I have to vote, regardless of the worth of the process and candidates, really any better than a People’s Congress in someplace like China where everyone just votes yes for the proposed slate of candidates? The fact that the corporo-statist big money-media machine is divided into two factions doesn’t make any difference. Voting for either major candidate is a vote for the machine. If I want to enjoy and promote the virtues of living in a free country, I can think of no better way than not voting.

This has nothing to do about being undecided. If forced by gunpoint to vote for one of the two main candidates in the U.S. election, I would have no problem choosing. But I know that such a choice would not be based on any informed understanding of what is better for the country or better for me. I am enough of an historian to know that I barely understand the complexities of most policies, and that even policies that I think I do understand have consequences that extend far beyond their intentions. And the historical policies that I appreciate in the long run were not always associated with the candidates or parties I liked (an vice versa). And I certainly can’t learn anything substantial about the actual content of policies by listening to obscuritanist and diversionary campaign rhetoric. I know that the main motivation behind my vote would be that I viscerally dislike candidates who have the arrogant smirks and body language of jocks and stock traders. But the arrogant smirks and body language of nerds and intellectuals don’t bother me so much—I’m used to them (and probably have some of those tics myself). It’s a pretty lame reason for choosing a candidate. But most people become attached to candidates for similarly visceral and unconscious reasons. Indeed, the whole election machine is geared to cultivate and appeal to such reasons.

Voting for a minor party—the Greens, the Libertarians, the Socialists, the Objectivists, the Marijuana Reform Party—may seem like an better alternative, an active protest that ‘I’ve seen the major candidates but I do not choose them.’ But voting for a minor party still acknowledges that the election is the only game in town. And other people won’t see this as a principled statement, but only a confirmation that not voting for one of the main candidates is just a hopeless and pathetic waste of time and that people who do so are just nutball losers. Better to maintain my dignity and independence, and not take part at all.

Some Tocqueville for the Elections

In honor of the upcoming U.S. elections, some quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835, 1840):

Our contemporaries are ceaselessly agitated by two conflicting passions: they feel the need to be directed as well as the desire to remain free. Since they are unable to blot out either of these hostile feelings, they strive to satisfy both of them together. They conceive a single, protective, and all-powerful government but one elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with the sovereignty of the people. That gives them some respite. They derived consolation from being supervised by thinking that they have chosen their supervisors. Every individual tolerates being tied down because he sees that it is not another man nor a class of people holding the end of the chain but society itself. Under this system citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then they return to it.              –Vol. 2, Part IV, Ch. 6.

 

I know of no country where there is generally less independence of thought and real freedom of debate than in America. . . .  Inside America, the majority has staked out a formidable fence around thought. Inside those limits a writer is free but woe betide him if he dares to stray beyond them. Not that the need fear an auto-da-fe but he is the victim of all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecutions. A political career is closed to him for he has offended the only power with the capacity to give him an opening. He is denied everything, including renown. Before publishing his views, he thought he had supporters; it seems he has lost them once he has declared himself publicly; for his detractors speak out loudly and those who think as he does, but without his courage, keep silent and slink away. He gives in and finally bends beneath the effort of each passing day, withdrawing into silence as if he felt ashamed at having spoken the truth.                   –Vol. 1, Part II, Ch. 7.

 

I think that the type of oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before; our contemporaries would not be able to find any example of it in their memories. I, too, am having difficulty finding a word which will exactly convey the whole idea I have formed; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. This is a new phenomenon which I must, therefore, attempt to define since I can find no name for it.

I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself as for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he will be said to have lost his country.

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?

Thus it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.                 –Vol. 2, Part IV, Ch. 6.

On the Inner World

“We do not regard it as pathologically deviant to explore a jungle or climb Mount Everest. We are far more out of touch with even the nearest approaches of the infinite reaches of inner space than we now are with the reaches of outer space. We respect the voyager, the explorer, the climber, the space man. It makes far more sense to me as a valid project–indeed, as a desperately and urgently required project for our time–to explore the inner space and time of consciousness. . . . We are so out of touch with this realm that many people can now argue seriously that it does not exist. Small wonder that it is perilous indeed to explore such a lost realm. The situation I am suggesting is precisely as though we had all had almost total lack of any knowledge whatever of what we call the outer world. What would happen if some of us then started to see, hear, touch, smell, taste things? We would hardly be more confused than the person who first has vague intimations of, and then moves into, inner space and time.”

–R.D. Laing, Politics of Experience

“In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when? Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honored. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence, are almost completely ignored. A catalogue, a bibliography, a definitive edition of a third-rate versifier’s ipissima verba, a stupendous index to end all indexes—any genuinely Alexandrian project is sure of approval and financial support. But when it comes to finding out how you and I, our children and grandchildren, may become more perceptive, more intensely aware of inward and outward reality, more open to the Spirit, less apt, by psychological malpractices, to make ourselves physically ill, and more capable of controlling our own autonomic nervous system—when it comes to any form of non-verbal education more fundamental (and more likely to be of some practical use) than Swedish drill, no really respectable person in any really respectable university or church will do anything about it. Verbalists are suspicious of the non-verbal; rationalists fear the given, non-rational fact; intellectuals feel that ‘what we perceive by the eye (or in any other way) is foreign to us as such and need not impress us deeply.’ Besides, this matter of education in the non-verbal humanities will not fit into any established pigeon-holes. It is not religion, not neurology, not gymnastics, not morality or civics, not even experimental psychology. This being so the subject is, for academic and ecclesiastical purposes, non-existent and may safely be ignored altogether or left, with a patronizing smile, to those whom the Pharisees of verbal orthodoxy call cranks, quacks, charlatans and un qualified amateurs.”

–Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception

When I Grow Up

If I were to ever grow up, what would I want to be?

Sometimes I think a civil engineer. Infrastructure is the greatest contribution man has made to his own social well-being in a densely populated world. Not only is infrastructure useful, but it can be beautiful (suspension bridges) and mysterious (the layers and webs of pipes, wires and tunnels that exist beyond our awareness yet sustain our daily life). It would be an honor to contribute to this.

But then I think in practical terms. Contemporary infrastructure is a pale shadow of the glories from the first half of this century. Most engineers are either merely working maintenance for past glories, or toiling in the digisphere. To be sure, there are probably more exciting new infrastructure projects in other countries. But it is still largely an office job, with office drudgery, administration and office politics. And engineers aren’t known for being the most creative people around.

I used to think I’d like to be a movie director. But only in the abstract. The reality of organizational and personal skills, technical details, the need for charisma and big money have always put me off. And it turns out that I’m not much of a storyteller. And I’ve learned over time that I don’t really like taking pictures. I like looking and experiencing directly instead. Although, the idea of Werner Herzog is stil very tempting. . . .

The fact is, I don’t want a career. I became a history professor because I thought it might be a way to avoid taking up some occupational role as my identity. I thought it would be a way to avoid the commute and leave options open while still receiving a salary and some social (and self-) respect. But I find even this role to be claustrophobic—with expectations that I have no desire to fill.

But back to Werner Herzog. He didn’t just inhabit some predefined role and become a director. He makes film submit to his life and vision. That’s the way to do it: really grow, not just grow into a role.

Unhappy Professors Should Quit

Here are three reasons why unhappy professors should quit:

1) We are the ones most likely to whine and be envious, making academia unhappy for the others.

2) To get smart people back into the world, rather than neutralized in academia.

3) So we can stop whining and face other challenges. Maybe we can learn something. Maybe we can recover the more effective and enjoyable parts of ourselves, the parts that look forward to life.

When is the best time to quit? Probably before tenure, before we are too entangled in commitments and responsibilities. Although a post-tenure departure is a good way to fold departure into a mid-life crisis, and perhaps make something out of the crisis. The problem is that a pre-tenure departure will feel too much like failure for many people. That is why so many advanced graduate students are unable to opt for a more appropriate career despite their boredom and bitterness–because change feels like failure.

Of course, it takes a lot of self-awareness and some courage to quit. That is why unhappy professors rarely do it. . . . . I actually find that my motivation to resign is much stronger when things are going well. I feel less less constrained and emotionally constipated, with a clearer mind and a greater sense of possibilities. Whining (or even the temptation to whine–I’m actually not much of a whiner any more) is a space of retreat from possibilities.

Ordinary

We fear to be mediocre. We want to be special. This is a very ordinary fear and an ordinary desire.

But people who are different often wish they were more ordinary. They see their difference as a flaw. It is lonely. They wish they did not stand out, that they could share more with other people.

What we really want is to be recognized as excellent at something that is ordinary.

This is probably an obvious statement for most people. For somebody like me, raised with a faith in the value of non-conformity, it is tough to accept.