Rock Bottom

Redemption is a subject near and dear to my heart, for personal reasons. I was never an addict, mind you, but (alarmingly long ago now) I experienced my own rock bottom.

Most people who talk seriously about hitting rock bottom know that by using the term they’re participating in a bit of lousy and misleading rhetoric. There is no “bottom” but the bottom of a grave. So long as you live, rock bottom is a state of mind, a series of events that precipitate an awakening, however brief.

The “rock” is right on the money, however. One minute you’re sleepwalking, unaware of the fog, and all of a sudden you smack face-first into something. The fog lifts as soon as you become aware of it, and you see that you weren’t sleepwalking at all, but rather sinking in quicksand.

The “bottom” is also dubious because of how radically different—even seemingly trivial from the outside—the “rock” can be. Some people undergo the worst pitfalls of addiction, suffer the worst bodily harm and emotional loss and alienation, but never hit rock bottom. Others encounter some minor setback, or not even that, and hit rock bottom and bounce hard. My own “rock” would no doubt seem similarly insignificant to most. I simply saw, at a moment when someone trusted me, a reflection in myself of someone I truly hated. It was jarring, and a jarring is what a sleeper requires to awaken, though they as often as not go right back to sleep.


Along with redemption, I am interested in redeemers.

Redeemers are rather more valuable than those in need of redemption, in spite of how attitudes have changed about such people. When I think of redeemers, I think of John the Baptist. He lived in the wild, he ate grasshoppers, he was kind of an emaciated raving wacko, but he was unflinching in his righteousness and generous in his forgiveness, for those who asked of it. Or so the stories go!

I’m no biblical scholar, but to my amateur eyes old John seems to form a type, existing in storytelling well before the Bible, of the man who has found wisdom in madness. I can already hear the protests that John was not in fact supposed to be mad, and I’m sure that’s right, though he looked the part. No, John was much more like Diogenes the Cynic, who scorned human artifice and found wisdom in his poverty (we will not say “humble conditions” for humility was not a Greek virtue and certainly not one of his).

The great redeemer of Christian culture is, of course, Jesus Christ himself. What Christ shared with Diogenes and John the Baptist was a connection with some source of wisdom. For Christ it was his divine nature. For John it was divinity as discovered in the life of the ascetic; for Diogenes it was in nature itself.

Unfortunately these days we tend to think it is the redeemed who have brought back the most. Most of the newer (fictional) stories of redemption that I know of involve a redeemer who was also once redeemed. In the stories, the addict or the fallen are deaf to the exhortations of their loved ones and the people who seem pure and true. “You don’t know, you don’t understand!” They cry, like a teenager confronted by their parents.

“Oh, but I do,” the redeemer whispers, “for I, too, was once an alcoholic/cokehead/abuser/killer, and I found my way back to the light. You can, too—I will show you the way.”

Where once knowledge was found in divinity or madness or nature, today it is found in vice itself; in the vice experienced by those who have managed to summon the strength to tear themselves away after prolonged exposure.

And you do bring something with you, when you come back from the dreaming. But it carries a price. And it is not nearly so valuable as the knowledge, the virtue, of those who have simply lived a good life, being good people, and found the strength not to find themselves among the ranks of the fallen, no matter what the bitch Fortuna threw in their way. If you invest your time in honing the skill of living well, you will have made progress on the road to wisdom, while the sleepers were busy struggling in the quicksand.

Corruption At The Highest Levels

Well, where else is it going to go?

A certain blogger provoked, as he is wont to do, by positing that all community is inherently corrupt. Seeing as how we’re all born into community, a.k.a. family, the question was severely sophomoric, and thinly veiled as tired provocateurship, you know, like a football linebacker spitting on the offensive tackle. Nevertheless, Yours Truly was provoked, and a stew simmered.

The question itself is intriguing because of its shallowness. It is the yelp of the idealist when first he is pierced by that stinging recognition that things purported to be good ain’t necessarily so. The reaction is easily predicted: flank the enemy, who herald their own purity, and shout the epithet, “You are corrupt! You are not pure! You are now The Other!”

Naturally, getting back to the command post from the enemy’s flanks can be fraught, traveling under the dark veil that corruption is actually everywhere, creating the surreal environment of The Other bleeding into The Pure, a conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily ideals. Most people find themselves wandering in this twilight zone of the zealot for a long time, even mouthing the words to the battle hymn of the pluralism, but expending valuable soldierly energy stamping out the apostate.

Some grow weary of carrying out the Inquisition, recognizing, perhaps, that some dear friends were lost along the way, or potential friends were forever quarantined in the ghetto. The fanatics fire their machine guns without a mind to aiming, and the zealots, even though they aim, never come off the front lines. Cynicism sets up, a seepage where the first wound bit. Everything is corrupt. The sun is growing dim and will soon snuff out, abandoning all life to a cold, hard rock.

Life stirs, however. Is it possible that I, being born into community, am corrupt by nature? And that I not only participate in the corruption of my communities, but also contribute to that corruption, unknowingly, unwittingly, even against my will? There are those wicked individuals who incarnate corruption, a slurry of my innocent corruption, seasoned with a bit of yours, fortified with their own reprehensibility. There are those zealots and fanatics who wallow in it thinking that it is purity. And then there are such as I, recognizing my putrid state, and the state of the community around me, the inescapable camp, a desperate band trying to tease out some virtue from among it all, not because I am more virtuous than the wicked, the zealot, and the fanatic, but because I aim to be more virtuous than I am. I reckon to be more virtuous than I am, and it is one whale of a task, considering the cold fact that the MPs continuously point you into the thick of the fray, where we must all dwell, firing at will or willing to not fire. What will we do?

We’ll do the best we can, and then we will pass along what best we did, our many deeds of valor and cowardice, to have virtue teased out of them by our progeny and disciples. Virtue is a creative act of several individuals, calling into being happiness, joy, and idealism where there is not, like a song emerging from within the confusion of the armies: sometimes more join the tune, sometimes fewer. Thus the rivers flow to the ocean and then find their way back to the mountains.

Rhetoric in the Workplace

I’ve been thinking a lot about this two year old Garett Jones piece on trustworthiness.

There’s a story that people tell themselves that if they do good work, make a great product, write a riveting novel, or whatever it is—then success will follow. Few people seriously defend this notion as an universal truth, but it is nevertheless a story that is told in order to instill a sort of work ethic to strive for the good internal to a practice.

But it simply is not true. Even in the workplace, where managers theoretically monitor your productivity. Managers do not look over your shoulder all day long. Managers have other people to think of and other responsibilities. At the end of the day on top of being reliable you have to make the case that you are worthy of trust, you have been doing productive, valuable work.

Your trustworthiness and the value of your (choose one: work, product, novel, painting, table) is not Manifest Truth that can be perceived for those who can pierce the veil. Part of going out into the world is realizing that you have to be an advocate for yourself. A principled advocate, but an advocate none the less.

One of the lessons of McCloskey’s body of work is that engagement with other human beings always involves both ethics and rhetoric, and the two are not cleanly separable.

How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital

Lamenting the atomism of modern society, the decline of community, associations and other forms of “social capital,” is such a common refrain on both the left and right that one wonders why they haven’t put aside their differences to form a club! I hear there are some vacancies down at the YMCA, and I bet you rates have never been so good. Call it… the Enemies of Anomie & Toastmasters Society.

Yet theorists of social capital spend more time writing about it (in itself a highly autonomous practice) than they do actually forming new co-valent social bonds. Perhaps it’s because, for both camps, the decline is seen to have been caused by such deep and hard to resist forces that they are equally resigned to pontification.

On the right, the deep source of creeping atomism is the all-encompassing, bureaucratized welfare state. Redistribution in this view is inherently trust-reducing due to its zero-sumness (Mary robbing Peter to pay Paul). For example, its argued that universal social programs crowd-out private safety-nets, like religious organizations or the family, destroying unseen pro-social externalities. In some accounts this merely accelerates a feedback loop of eroding social norms that was initiated the second Western Civilization embraced value pluralism.

Surprisingly, many on the left have come to similar conclusions, if only in a different vocabulary. Habermas, for example, has argued that state welfare systems “colonize” more natural forms of solidarity, contributing to their “reification” — an objectifying process by which implicit social relations are made explicit and impersonal, sapping them of their moral character. Readers of Sweet Talk might know this as a re-balancing from the sacred to the profane, the inherent transcendental and instrumental duality of all social relations.

Heady stuff. But is any of it accurate? Is it an inexorable law of late capitalism that we become individuated narcissists? Is there some theorem in Public Choice that says more welfare = less social capital? The answer to both is a big fat no.

In fact, the inverse relationship between social capital and the modern welfare state has been greatly exaggerated. There are three main reasons for this tendency, which I explore below: Continue reading “How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital”

In the Garden of Heraclitus

On the Innateness of Fundamentalism

We took a break from gladdening our hearts, as the ancients call drinking too much wine, to cure our hangovers by sweating them out in the garden. A gust from the sea blew a bean from my hand just as I was tightening my fingers upon it to pick it.  I sighed, stood up to stretch my back, and marveled at my headache.

“In March,” Heraclitus said, “if you do not march to war, you turn over your garden plot. They are the same thing.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “OK, yes, but no. Stop doing that!”

“My brother was overjoyed when I abdicated the throne in his favor–the throne: a footstool for Cyrus, I must say–until he discovered that conscription was his responsibility.”

“Do what now?” I asked.

“The ‘King of Ionia’ is responsible for conscripting soldiers for the Great King of Persia,” he replied. “That’s what all the hullabaloo is about, the democratic mob. The Great Tyrant is the Great Freedom, just so long as you mouth a few obsequiousnesses his direction, sending some gold along with a few girls and boys, you know, to linger behind his chariot and to run ahead of his chariot, to eat a few spears.” He stretched his back, looking toward the sea with that ever-disgusted look on his face.

“You’re making that up!” I exclaimed.

“Which part?” he asked. Which part? The whole thing! My head hurt too much to make my mouth do the argument. He continued, saying, “My brother is a fool, not just for being so eager for the throne–and I’m grateful he was fool enough to do so–but also because he kept picking poor boys and girls to carry the gold to ‘The Ones Having a Friend’s Mind.'”

“Because they kept skimming from the gold on the way there?”

“Are you daft?” he snapped. “Do you think at all before you flap your big dumb gums? No! Because the rich kids stay home to learn nothing of war and sex, spending their time onanistically, conceiving nothing except the notion to throw off the yoke of the Great Freedom.”

“The poor probably have less stable home lives,” I said.

“Indeed,” he retorted. “Divorce is rampant, death is prevalent, and unhappiness spreads like fertilizer. Those boys and girls serve now in the presence of the Great King in utter peace and tranquility.”

“Except for the forced warfare.”

“Small price.”

“But,” I said, “your brother has preserved stability, not just of the families of the nobility, but also of your fair city; he did so by preserving the stability of your most valuable citizens.”

“Did he?”

“I’m here now, aren’t I? And watching the sea, and drinking wine, and picking beans in your garden. That ain’t exactly servitude to no stinkin’ king, now is it?”

“Stick around,” he said. He suddenly looked old. “Stick around and see what foolishness the notion of ‘stability’ is become.” He practically spat the word. “The Friend’s Mind has changed, and he is already gathering his captains, and they are gathering their myriads, and they will soon march. At that time, we will not turn over a single stone in our gardens, despite our great desire to do so. They will drink our wine and throw every pot of ours into the sea, leaving our bodies to be scoured by the poor and the sun.”

giant jenga

“That’s not quite fair to your brother,” I said. “The rich kids did this. Wouldn’t they have rebelled one way or the other?”

“Oh,” he sighed. “I suppose so. Don’t you think, however, that his fixation on stability brought about utter destruction where there may have been hope for mere unrest? But you’re right: among a thousand men there might be one who is wise.”

“So,” I said, “we are rich and we are poor.”


“We are at peace and we are at war.”

“Your hangover is not doing your contemplating any favors,” he said. “Leave the conundrums to the wise.”

“At-peace-those-being are indeed warring.”

“Better,” he said, “but please stop.”

“A garden flourishes after letting the soil lie fallow for a year,” I said.

“Why won’t you stop?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m serious. Haven’t you seen a garden plot the year after letting it lie fallow? Everything grows as if under some sort of magical growth spell, not the least of which are the weeds, but also the herbs, vegetables, and flowers.”

He stood staring at me, bemused, pressing his lips together, then looking into the clouds. “True enough,” he said. “But I don’t want to let my garden lie fallow.”


Rule of the Buffers

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

What I like about David’s characterization of welfare above is the “simple triangle” framing. I can think of no better way of describing the conceptual scheme of modern individualism in the context of redistribution. Your historically literate redistributionist will point out to various schemes for taking care of the poor throughout the reign of Christendom; my father remarked that tithing for the poor used to be quite common.

But when tithing for the poor was a common practice, the model of institutional relationships was nothing like David’s simple triangle. There was definitely a thick layer just above the level of the individual, whose existence apart from such institutional relationships was hardly acknowledged.

Which brings me to Mark Weiner’s argument that draining the power of that layer to strong-arm individuals just is the chief accomplishment of post-Enlightenment governance, and allowing individuals more scope apart from their clannish obligations is a noble and dignifying task.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic Weiner’s argument that thick clannish obligations can be suffocating. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, such restricting obligations may have (and in parts of the world, continue to) reduce the scope for innovation.

On the other hand, as McCloskey herself would be the first to point out, such clannish connections also play a vital role in local, regional, and global commerce by creating thick trust networks. And deeply connected communities have been shown again and again to be more resilient against disasters.

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

I do not have a problem being a vertex on David’s simple triangle, within reason and if the person (people) on the other end are actually getting help. It seems to me that many schemes in this country that have tried to help have ended up making things much worse—public housing in particular comes to mind, and the black hole that that quickly became, sucking in generations and not letting go. It’s why I’d prefer Liz’s simple triangle whereby we’re just giving cash in some amount.

I also think community-level entrepreneurship is important. I saw some of this in DC—a church would sponsor a group that would tutor children in the projects with the hope of both providing them the education they deserved and building a relationship with them and their families. Such efforts seemed to have trouble struggling against the black hole, but were not entirely without hope. I hope those efforts continue, and that many of the bear fruit.