New York, New York is a Conservative Town

When I rose from Penn Station into Manhattan late this July, I expected to be greeted by a horrible smell. With my two older boys in tow (Thomas, 13, and Jack, 10), I entered Manhattan for the first time in my life. Indeed, within seconds I did see one of the notorious mountains of garbage, a filthy homeless person, and the persistent grime all along the gutters and walks, but there was virtually no smell. Well, that’s not entirely true: the fragrance of halal food trucks wafted pleasantly, satisfying my desire for an exotic experience for myself and the boys. With the help of Airbnb and Adam Gurri, we had a blast. What a great city.

As for me, I was raised in the Southeast during the 70s and 80s, and I did my schooling in the Midwest during the 90s. All our previous family excursions, therefore, have been west of Buffalo (where I live now), and south. Moreover, I have been given an enormous prejudice against all things New York, which was, during my childhood, a toilet. And more than a toilet: New York City is the home of Woody Allen, that smarmy, condescending urbanite, the epitome of the intellectual counter-culture which expressed open disdain for American Exceptionalism. It turns out those of us who were offended by his ilk were exactly right.

New York City is also the home of National Review, still standing athwart history, gleefully yelling “Stop!”, to the disdain of liberals, leftists, and now, also Trumpists (whatever that is). My father, who, living in Springfield, Illinois at the time, danced a jig on Abraham Lincoln’s grave to celebrate my birth, had us read National Review throughout childhood, a habit I took with me to college and beyond. Therefore, I was daily formed by the founder of National Review, a snobbish Stamford denizen and Yale man who inherited enormous wealth from his father, an oil speculator and fomenter of revolution in Mexico, not quite the exemplar for Southern Gentility. Perhaps, then, my prejudices against Manhattan were due for a revisitation.

My wife and I were both raised in tourist towns, so we have learned how to enjoy tourist traps for what they are and also how to wander away from them. And wander we did. We boys hoofed it through huge chunks of Midtown and Lower Manhattan over the course of three days, exploring what we could, absorbing the sights, buying into the attractions. I was in particular attracted to the people. I wanted to lay eyes on exactly who it is that makes New York City the center of the universe, and thus proclaims it.

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw them: “These people are conservatives. This is a conservative town.” Capitalism lay naked throughout the city, one gigantic open market, freely flowing, constantly innovating. There was even a business which stored our luggage, for a fee, while we spent the day touring. I was especially dumbfounded by the women of the city. The women were wearing skirts and blouses, dresses, feminine frocks, with hairstyles evoking evolutionary responses commended by secondary sexual traits, not primary. Why, the women were almost as lovely to look at as the architecture and the high rises!

“Whence leftism?” I asked. Men and women alike are more conservatively attired than in any city I’ve ever visited or lived in, certainly more conservatively than Chicago, and I won’t do more than mention my little Buffalo. How is it that these conservatively-driven people are so bloody Marxist, a worldview which makes their lives (and mine) more difficult?

I did notice a weariness in the countenances of all these young people who were hustling for personal interest, pursuing happiness, so I asked Adam about it. He said, “We moved away from Manhattan to Brooklyn because even when we were inside, we felt like we had to be ‘on top of it.’ Even though we still work in Manhattan, we feel we have escaped for the evening when we come home.” I think Adam has expressed what is palpable: in Manhattan one must be diligently “on top of it;” otherwise, Manhattan lands on top of you. Indeed, of the millions who work in Manhattan every day, how many do not have a boss? And even those bosses, along with the many who are thoughtful enough to think it through, have shareholders as bosses, always demanding more profit, and, I can imagine from the Manhattanite perspective, those shareholders are fat, hayseed, ignorant do-nothings who weaseled their way into make-work union jobs somewhere in middle America, that vast wasteland between the Hudson River and LAX.

In other words, the pursuit of happiness is hard, and no other people experience the difficulties of achieving the American Dream within a well-regulated (such as it is) open market like those who labor and toil in Manhattan. To me, these people spearhead the American Dream with their tenacity and employ of personal talent. That much is readily apparent. The promise of Marxism (or Leftism, or Progressivism, or whatever you want to call redistributionist ideology) is seductive: this system can make your life a little easier; the unfairness of the open market–this system can equalize things; this system can ease the pain of the pursuit of happiness.

When a religious fundamentalist powers down the window of his gigantic house on wheels, idling with the air-conditioner running in some Wal-mart parking lot, to scream epithets about the clutching squeeze put on them by East Coast Liberalism (you communists!), I can imagine that roughly zero inhabitants of Manhattan are persuaded to see the error of their ways. I would never have thought that any other class of American could have been perceived as more arrogant or rude than a Manhattanite, but my mind has been dramatically changed: the experience was almost entirely civil, with the exception of rambunctious guided tour barkers and shouting Pentecostals. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the caricature: the constant need to be “on top of it” with respect to the very tiny island of Manhattan creates a framework for dealing with the rest of the country, and with the power Manhattan wields, it’s easy to see how resentment waxes against the Big Apple. Leave us alone with your socio-economic impositions, whydoncha? What you think makes life easier for you I know impoverishes me, and not just of money, but also of institutions which you may not have ever had, and of freedoms.

All in all, though, New York City is a thoroughly American city, and I am proud of New York City, an earnestly nationalistic pride of which I am not ashamed. “Yes, New York City is the greatest city in the world,” I’ll say, “an American city, the template of the American experience, warts and all, the most beautiful city in the world, inside and out.” I don’t want to live there, but I can see why eight million people do.

manhattannewark

An Appreciation for Irony…

Irony is in a state of disrepute. It’s been used and abused by hipsters who wear “ironic” clothing and facial hair based on the self-conscious selection of a style because it’s ugly or anachronistic or inappropriate for a grown man in his thirties. It’s an empty, hollow irony, as opposed to critical, elevating, or subversive.

That’s a shame, because an appreciation for irony is perhaps the highest virtue. Formally, irony (whether dramatic, verbal, or situational) is a kind of capacity for double meaning. Done right, it permits one to stand with one foot in two parallel universes, one meaningful and the other absurd, and live a richer life.

“The literal mind is baffled by the ironic one, demanding explanations that only intensify the joke,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian. To illustrate, he retells a true story from humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who was accidentally captured during the 1940 German invasion of France:

Josef Goebbels’s propaganda bureaucrats asked him to broadcast on Berlin radio, which he incautiously agreed to do, and his first transmission began:

Young men starting out in life often ask me—“How do you become an internee?” Well, there are various ways. My own method was to acquire a villa in northern France and wait for the German army to come along. This is probably the simplest plan. You buy the villa and the German army does the rest.

Somebody—it would be nice to know who, I hope it was Goebbels—must have vetted this and decided to let it go out as a good advertisement for German broad-mindedness. The “funny” thing is that the broadcast landed Wodehouse in an infinity of trouble with the British authorities, representing a nation that prides itself above all on a sense of humor.

Wodehouse’s answer, that the best way to become a German internee is to buy a villa in France, is hilarious because it confuses cause and effect so patently. But that’s what happened. He bought a villa in France and got captured by German invaders. By framing the literal fact as a kind of piece of advice to an aspiring internee his radio opening underscores the raw absurdity of the war.

And war is absurd. But to the “very serious people” like the British, this war was not absurd. It was a noble cause in the defense of freedom, justice, democracy, and all that is right. To be ironic about something as serious as that was frivolous bordering on treacherous.

The thing is, though, that war can be both absurd and serious. Wodehouse’s irony uses a degree of ignorance or naiveté (feigned, in his case) to convey a penetrating and self-conscious insight. Similarly, absurdity only exists by way of contrast with radical purpose, knowledge and intelligibility.

It’s necessary to living at all that we believe the word makes conceptual sense and that we exist in it with definite purpose. Nonetheless, on some level our social practices and biological imperatives are deeply arbitrary, even weird, in a way that ought to induce nervous laughter. The goal of irony is to reconcile these two truths—to maintain a level of awareness that is neither overly self-serious or frivolous to the point of nihilism, and, when possible, to put it toward an edifying use.

Skin War’s Dual Identity

Take Skin Wars, a reality TV show that pits a bunch of random artists in body painting competitions. I found it while flipping through the TV guide, drawn in by the title and my primal alertness to all things ostensibly nude and aggressive.

Not fully knowing what to expect, I was amused that such a niche show even exists, followed by stunned to discover it was in its third season. I immediately traced the holy cross across my chest in awe at “the extent of the market,” before I suddenly realized what the real appeal of the show was: An excuse for never-ending shots of side boob.

skin wars

Essentially, the show is soft-core pornography with an art competition overlaid in order to provide the viewer additional fodder and a degree of plausible deniability. The fascinating part is how, couched within its brazen and kitsch totality, there are a dozen or so completely serious contestants.

With each body painting they explain the deeper meaning behind the work while being brutally critiqued by RuPaul. Half the time it feels like contestants are being rewarded less for their artistic ability than for their skill at impromtu apophenia. After the loser of each episode is eliminated, he or she invariably propounds one last time on the unappreciated genius of their Starry Night nipple integration, while casting shade on the remaining artists as unworthy hacks.

Taken as a whole, I believe Skin Wars is an excellent metaphor for the human condition. From behind the forth wall, as viewers looking in, the show is unapologetically absurd, if not borderline silly. And yet for the show to work at all it depends crucially on an internal, unironic kernel of purpose and earnestness in each and every participant. (Note: Nathan for You does an amazing job satirizing this common Reality TV dynamic).

Each half—from the show’s ratings savvy writer-producers, to their humorless Craigslist recruits—are necessary to the ironic whole. Just as one can forget to have fun through stern objections to the paucity of male models or the cynically slick editing, one can also become too invested in whose face paint was most on point. Only a sense of the show’s multifaceted irony allows for a critical though healthy engagement. 

It’s thus appropriate RuPaul is a main judge. He embodies the exact same duality of serious artiste meets outrageous performance theater. Shakespeare also made great use of dramatic irony through mistaken (sexual) identity. It is no accident that appreciation of irony is required for appreciation of drag.

Yet if irony is going to be reclaimed from the hipsters it’s got to be handled with care. Too often irony done poorly collapses into straight-up cynicism, which is ironic, since the cynic is excessively sincere in his own way. And so as with all virtues, irony requires practice, judgment and finding the right balance.

The Information Entropic Proof of God

My Mormon friend informs me scholars at BYU have a pet theory that Kierkegaard was directly influenced by Mormonism. Kierkegaard’s one reference to the nascent faith (quoted in the footnote below from this book) makes this doubtful. Still, I am intrigued by the suggestion that Mormon theology was influenced by the invention of the train and telegraph. In what ways have modern understandings of God and divinity been influenced by contemporary technological advances?

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Scientology was obviously influenced by 20th century debates in psychiatry, the space race, and the Douglas DC-8 jet airliner, but otherwise I think Kierkegaard’s prediction that technological progress would fuel retrograde and mechanistic metaphors for God had it backwards. Technology and basic science have pushed in favor of more and more abstract conceptions of God, as more and more of the workings of the universe come under human control and are found to obey naturalistic laws. In that sense, the idealists, rationalists and pantheists like Hegel, Schelling and Spinoza used metaphors for God that were way ahead of their time.

Computer science, in particular, has led (or will lead) to more computation or cybernetic metaphors of God. “God is information.” Or perhaps, “God / spirit is the intentionality underwriting otherwise hollow and derivative computational processes.” Or something like that.

It reminds me of an argument I concocted on the spot in a philosophy of religion elective I took several years back. We read Aquinas’ “Quinque viae” aka his five proofs of God’s existence. The professor, a militant atheist and functionalist, lectured for awhile about internal contradictions and tautology. And while I was and still am a strong atheist, I found his arguments ungenerous, and worse, boorish. So I raised my hand.

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God points at Adam and in so doing creates a position vector.
Professor, I said, You should note that Aquinas begins with the Argument from Motion:“Whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another,” and “Motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.” This establishes God’s fundamental connection to entropy.

Then, in his Argument from Degree: “As fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.”

The idea of maximum heat is literally a thermodynamic metaphor. God is like absolute zero, the baseline which makes heat measurement possible. In terms of entropy, this implies God is a zero entropy state: a state of pure and total order and useful potentiality.

Consider what we know from physics: The universe began as a singularity and entropy, which is to say disorder, has been increasing ever since. Is it a stretch to relate this inextricable progression from order to disorder with the Christian metaphor of being fallen and separated from God? Is the punishment for original sin not that mortal beings must eventually age and die, that is, to be subject to the whims of entropy? And is the “heat death” of the universe not well captured in the metaphor of hell as state of uniform disorder and chaos?

Consider next how information theory has updated our understanding of these physical truths. Entropy, through the lens of statistical mechanics, refers to uncertainty about the state of a given system. A low entropy system requires less information to be fully described with certainty. A single particle, for example, can be described by its position and velocity with certainty in a way that a chaotic system cannot.

entropy

Let’s go back to the initial state of the universe, which began in a singularity of infinitesimal size, contained in an equally infinitesimal amount of space and time. This is not directly observed. Rather, it’s postulated by extrapolating backwards along the arrow of time until the universe’s entropy is asymptotically nil. That is, where the information required to describe the state of the entire universe and everything in it approaches zero, with the degree of certainty approaching one.

This asymptotic, zero entropy state is in dimensionless space, and, in informational terms, contains literally all the “knowledge” of how the universe will subsequently unfold. In other words, it is omniscient and omnipresent. And moreover, since it contains infinite potentiality, it is a state capable of creating its own momentum, to be the unmoved mover.

I lowered my hand, and returned the floor to the incredulous professor, who scoffed.

“Ridiculous.”

Of course, I agree. But isn’t there more virtue in creatively exploring positions you don’t actually hold, rather than contorting obviously bad arguments into an even worse light?

Either way, the information entropic “proof” of God (i.e. the sixth proof) seems to me to be also asymptotic in its degree of abstraction. Is a more abstract metaphor for God possible? If not, then maybe it does have an ontological reality. I have no doubt Aquinas would agree. And perhaps Kierkegaard would agree, too, given his faith in God despite the undeniable disorder of things.

Breakfast With a Side of Hustle

Featured Image is New York, by George Bellows.

New York’s cardinal virtue is hustle. It is also its chief vice.

New Yorkers’ hustle seems a poor fit for Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean; the greatness and the excess of it seem too tightly intertwined. Quite possibly they are aspects of the very same thing. It seems instead more at home in a tragic view of human nature, which both precedes Aristotle and comes later in the form of Christian fallenness. New Yorkers hustle to get where they are going so they can work hard on whatever work they are called to do.

The deli where I occasionally get my breakfast is most alive when the line is most backed up. The unyielding energy and efficiency of the two men who handle orders for breakfast sandwiches and wraps is quite a sight to behold. What impresses me the most, as someone with an unreliable memory, is their mental queue—they take an additional order while still working on two or three ahead of that one. Each order is broken out into specific tasks, which they work on concurrently, usually concluding two at right around the same time.

In the two years or so that I have been going there, they have never made a mistake, and they always remember who it was that ordered each item. I’m sure they make mistakes—I’m not saying that they are perfect, superhuman breakfast sandwiches factories, though you might forgive me for beginning to suspect as much.

If there is a virtuous hustle, without vice, it is the ordinary, every day hustle that is embodied behind that counter, day after day. No stockbroker, or programmer, or statesman, could possibly outmatch the extraordinary wonder of such ordinary virtue.

It almost makes one forgive the hustle of fellow New Yorkers who shove you aside on the street or in the subway, or run you over in their cars.

Almost.

The End of Millennials

As the so-called Greatest Generation takes its place in oblivion, Generation X finds itself as the lone middle child of the generations, sandwiched as the smaller sibling between the Baby Boomers, the worst generation ever, and the Millennials, that great monolithic unseasoned mind.

GenX has assumed a peculiar role, I think, of being divided, divvied up by our parents, being the incarnational byproduct of the Baby Boomers’ willful overthrow of western institutions. On one side of the divide there is a sense of pessimism and doom that the whole western project is failing, and that the Baby Boomers are the primary malefactors in their sucking all the pleasures of civilization unto themselves before they crumple it up and throw it into the dustbin of history, at just about the same time they pass on to sleep with their fathers, leaving us no heritage except for some really great record albums.

On the other side of the divide is this: I was driving my 12-year old son to hockey practice the other day, and I was trying to penetrate his world, which was shielded by his iPod earbuds, and I heard myself saying, almost unconsciously, “So, Tom, what does your generation think?” Thankfully, he didn’t hear me or he would have rolled his eyes, and I would have become infuriated, and both our worlds would have become unpleasant. Nevertheless, I was pleased with the question, for even though this young man hasn’t a thought beyond the latest Minecraft update, or (to be more generous to my own dear progeny) his latest electronics project, he will soon have thoughts beyond those trivial things, and they will be generational.

It is an anxious game GenXers are playing, a Machiavellian one (by the common understanding): with one mouth, we are encouraging the Baby Boomers to remove themselves before their grip on our civilization becomes too morbid to procure its release, saying, “Why, yes, Peter Singer has some wonderful ideas about assisted-suicide. Say, the skin around your eyes does look a touch pallid, doesn’t it? I’ll go fetch the doings, and we’ll be done with you in a jiffy. You’ve lived a good life, now on to better pastures, right?” With the other mouth we are trying to set up a renewed western canon of ideals for our children via the Millennials, saying, “Have you thought to consider that human dignity doesn’t necessarily end when you become so weak that you need the constant care of your family?” Alas, to be the generational Pushmi-Pullyu is exhausting, and it is the essence of futility.

My son, however, is pushing the Millennials, and his generation are of a number, and they will be of a myriad of ideas that they shall press against the Millennials, and the Millennials shall press back, applying unwittingly the idealistic torsion forces which will shatter that infuriating optimism, as ours shattered, and as did the Boomers’ before us, and as it was for every generation whose parents sinned and set the children’s teeth on edge.

And then it shall come to pass that the Millennials will be frustrated in their efforts to progress, more or less, and their contributions to civilization, or to its collapse, will be put into the great crucible, and it will be fired, and the generations will sift through the ashes to find what value there might be.

And so there is hope.

Asking For Whom The Bell Tolls

Who doesn’t know you’re not supposed to ask for whom the bell tolls? Long ago, OG Existentialist John Donne answered the question for you: it tolls for thee.

I wonder about that.

He’s absolutely correct, in a sense, that we are all connected to each other, and that the ebbs and flows of humanity affect us all, the logical conclusion being that, inasmuch as when a single individual advances, we advance together (the tide lifting all boats); so also when a single individual is removed to Davy Jones’ Locker, we all shall surely find similar breaches in the hulls of our seaships. Experience teaches us that John Donne is essentially correct: the bell tolls for thee. In this way, blood is thicker than water.

“No man is an island unto himself,” he furthermore teaches. I beg to differ. Those of us who have the water have been cordoned off by water so that we are, indeed, islands unto ourselves, each separated out unto lonely spits of sand and coconut trees, being sustained by meager provisions, shouting with disunited voices to all the ships passing by that we can see the breaches in their hulls, but without unity, we are subject to futility. Alas, the bell is tolling for humanity: it is a gigantic ship struck by Kraken the great sea monster so that it is sinking even as it is rising, the shouts of the exulting in the aft decks drowning out the screams of the drowning in the fore decks.

Perhaps the laughter of those who have slipped away from the surface of the cruel sea is a mocking laughter, that the work done by Kraken is beneficial to those who by great strength of reason chose the aft decks (being incidentally born there to choose them), so that those who are now perishing were stupid, foolish, superstitious. But such is the connection of blood: it is indeed thicker than water, and denser. The sea will exult over the wise and the foolish together.

Not so those who have the water. The water separates us from the blood. As the bell tolls across the water, our faint voices, separated by a different connection that cannot be fathomed by any instrument which plumbs the seven seas, are largely ineffective. Lonely isolation makes a man crazy after a while, each in his own way, so that none of us can join our voices together in a single warning klaxon. A scattered few hear, however, and they jump ship, realizing in the joy of escape that the bell is indeed tolling a death knell for them, for to escape the connection of blood is indeed the death of blood, a death in the briny water apart from evil Kraken. After that, it is sweet fresh water, but drunk on an island unto himself, without the tolling of the bell for thee or for me.

Let the reader understand that I am raising my hand in an oath that cannot fail: I promise you I will never die.

kraken

Think Tank Theology

luther think tank

The modern Policy Analyst (homō-vāticinius) is a weird, hybrid creature. He or she must be an effective writer, researcher, organizer, and charismatic speaker all at once. Living within the scholarly lacuna between a university professor and a religious evangelist, he or she is perpetually torn by the tensions of academic integrity and ideological purity.

The natural habitat of the policy analyst is known as the Think Tank. While they exists to produce novel research, their deeper raison d’être is advocacy. Unlike the lobbyist, however, they do not speak for any particular firm or special interest. Rather, they keep their grip on non-profit status by appealing to causes or principles of broader appeal. Like a lion stalking its prey, the outcome of a research project is more often than not a foregone conclusion of economic correctness. Yet by pooling relevant facts and talking points under one heading, research generates the much vaunted “citation need” for any on-going debate.

Think Tanks tend to be lean operations, appearing more grandiose to outsiders thanks to the equally enigmatic species known and anointed as the “Senior Fellow”. Following Coase’s theory of the firm, Think Tanks do not spend their precious donations on elaborate office buildings full of retired professors typing out op-eds. Instead, more typically the full time staff is exactly contained by the needs of daily operations, with a network of Senior Fellows who carry on their own day jobs, essentially outsourced. Some of these Fellows produce nothing — they merely lend their name — while others are prolific, fed either by a salary or commission.

Such organizations provide a useful illustration of the limits of Coasean / transaction cost theories. While clearly shaped by a cost function, Think Tanks are also machines of persuasion to a theological degree. In a world of pervasive moral skepticism, Think Tanks stand as entities of secular normative force, continuously prescribing social and economic reforms couched in prophetic rhetoric.

While each organization has its own positive mission, they are nonetheless drawn in particular to the dissident act of debunking. The centrality of apostolic reform to a Think Tank’s mission thus makes them deeply Lutheran institutions. Like Martin Luther, himself an Augustinian friar, the archetypal policy analyst contemplates — but then must share the fruits of his contemplation, to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the legislature’s door, now in optional infographical form.

Finally, the youngest friars of all — the next generation of public entrepreneurs — undergo a period of cloistered asceticism, more commonly known as the unpaid internship. Though he is free and belongs to no one, he has made himself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. And once endowed with the coveted Letter Of Reference, the young policy analyst proceeds alongs, fully prepared to preach the gospel.

Related: The Problem of Evil and its Coasian Solution