In Praise of Parliament

I have had the great pleasure of working in Canada for eleven years now, commuting from my home in idyllic Tonawanda, New York, which lies between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, to St. Catharines, which is just west of Niagara Falls, Ontario. I work for an international charitable organization (which prudence forbids I name for their sake), so I have the opportunity to see some of the social welfare infrastructure on both sides. I commute by way of the Rainbow Bridge, which takes me past the sublime Niagara Falls.

When I pass over the border into Canada late on Friday mornings, I marvel at the sight of thousands of residents of Toronto making their way into the USA. For the longest time, I thought they must be coming for tourist reasons, to enjoy some of the natural wonders of Western New York, which are many and various, and are not developed at all, like Niagara Falls, Ontario, which has become, essentially, a miles-long gigantic menagerie of gentlemen’s clubs and hotels attached to the gaudy casino overlooking the Falls. But I was wrong, and I feel pity.

My good friend Sam Hammond is a Canadian, of The True North, strong and free, and the Canada he purports to live in is a nearly perfect Parliamentary System, where society is laid out according to a nearly strict Rationalist order, with restrictions on free speech to limit pesky questions from the fringe right or left, with restrictions on religion to limit any obstacles to the advance of benign technological progressivism, with restrictions on the press to limit knowledge of the machinations of government, which are almost perfectly pure, where society is forcibly compassionate, with a generous welfare system which distributes vast wealth to the underprivileged, to the losers of life’s lottery, with a system of free healthcare, accessible to all–it must be infuriating to have to line up at the border to enter the USA, waiting ninety minutes, every Friday during a ten-hour window, not including the drive time from Toronto, to dine affordably, to shop for groceries, to buy cheap booze, to acquire household amenities, and to get basic medical attention at our innumerable private health facilities, which vary between religious and for-profit (the horror!). The return trip is just as frustrating, finding that comfortable gray place between outright lying to the good people of your own Canadian Border Patrol about how much you’ve acquired, and merely understating the declared goods wrapped in blankets and towels beneath your feet and in the trunk. You’re just trying to have what’s best for your family, eh?

If I were in that queue, I’d be infuriated: I mean, America is the Forrest Gump of the nations, right? And to be quite frank, Niagara Falls, USA is a sphincter of Western New York. It literally smells bad, the result of some manufacturing process that exploits the Niagara River as a source for energy; the roads are worse, after a century of mafia-controlled graft; the routes are inscrutable, thanks to New York City’s own Robert Moses (Western New York’s Haman). Buffalo is revitalizing, but it fell a long way since its heyday, struggling against New York State’s suffocating politics. And Canadians know it; they know that Niagara Falls, USA is our Leah to America’s Rachel, and they love her. They’ve also seen the pictures of San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Charlotte, Nashville, Jacksonville, Disneyland, and other growing cities of Texas and the Southeast. They know about the great medical institutions of St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston, the cultural innovations of San Francisco, Madison, and Los Angeles.

And New York City: would those of you dwellers of Manhattan please start wearing colors so that Torontoans can stop wearing black?

Seriously, how did such stupid people–lookit: all those religious people in the Midwest and the Southeast–how? Just how? How did such stupid, superstitious, unthinking, uneducated, illiterate, gun-toting, Puritanical, and (miraculously) boorish people luck into such prosperity? Such advancement? Why do they persist in this quaint idea of their Founding Fathers, who, for some mysterious reason, eschewed the greatness of a Parliamentary System? The messiness of their elections, their intolerable populist shrieking, their government shut-downs without the friendly crafty plots of a Governor General, their tradition-less 300-year old culture (except murder; they’re good at murder), and their lack of stolen jewels for the monarch–how is it that they are the wealthiest, happiest people on the planet, so much so that droves of people pour in through their borders, enough to create an immigration crisis? Luck, or theft, or something, I dunno.

The Presidential System sucks.

Quack!

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Old Man River

Really, dear reader, not a single one of you pointed this out or reminded me of it? I’ve been doing my riff on Heraclitus (you know, the river guy?) for months, now. You should be ashamed. One of the greatest songs in the American repertoire, the perfect theme for Heraclitus…

Seriously, even after my “Heraclitus hates Athens because he’s under the influence of Zoroastrian teachings which strongly eschew slavery, and Athens is a corrupt, slavery-based economic, self-indulgent city-state” post?

Philistines, every one of you.

I can’t look any one of you in the eye, ever again.

Troll Feeders Anonymous

Hello, my name is Adam, and I feed trolls.

I try to ignore them. I try to just walk away. But. Just. You know? You know.

My sponsor, another Adam, who I believe you’ve all met, says that I need to use my time more wisely. Read a book. Spend quality time with my loved ones. Talk to people who will give me the benefit of the doubt and will genuinely try to have a conversation.

For a long time I’ll be good. And when it looks like something’s going to escalate, I’ll just choose to be the bigger guy, and say something nice, or apologetic, or just politely exit the conversation.

But then, just as I begin to think of myself as a perfect sage of patience, some comment thread on some libertarian blog post will start to get nasty and I just can’t help myself. I start out mildly sarcastic and then I move on to catty, and finally it just comes to insults, and I’m back to square one. I end up fatigued and annoyed and gained nothing.

I admit I am powerless, and give myself up to the elder gods of phpBB to set me free of this burden.

Meta-Judging at the County Fair

Once the boys’ wristbands were secured in a euvoluntary exchange at the ticket booth, I sat myself down in a sunny corner of the midway to do what I love most about going to the fair: judging.

The rabbits are particularly handsome this year, probably because of cooler weather. Lambs, goats, roosters, the same, but not the hens: they leave something to be desired. The pigs have a disease; the only ones here are to be auctioned off, and they cannot return to the farm. In the 4-H expo hall, someone has a strawberry-rhubarb jam that is out-of-this world. The County Fair is beautiful this way: so many blue ribbons heralding the arrival of the judging.

Judging isn’t easy; with each variety there are myriad criteria to good judging: tattoos, their placement, number, and artistic value; piercings, placement, number, and value; weight and muscle tone; t-shirt, advice and advertisement; children, harnessed, free, sugar-crazed, polite, excited, crying, laughing, bewildered, carried; facial expression, pleasant, unpleasant; teeth (one lovely Seneca Nation young lady was missing an incisor); skin color (the most magnificent African American man sauntered by, skin as black as India ink, tall, fat, the spitting image of Charles Mingus wearing whiskers in the style of a 17th Century Dutch pirate); hair, dyed, braided, combed, cut, dreadlocks, shaven, mohawk; clothing, tight, too tight, way too tight, loose-fitting, comfortable, too loose, whoa that’s awesome; comportment.

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Now, comportment is a kind of sum-of-the-parts judgment, how a specimen might carry himself or herself. Audacious tattoos on the belly? Well, does she have the panache to pull it off while she licks cotton candy off her fingers, one-by-one? Lobes stretched? Indeed, but does his baby boy like to play with them while he argues with the carney about the circumference of the basketball rim?

As you can see, judging at the County Fair is not for the inexperienced or kind-hearted. We judge from experience, knowing that the deviation from appearance to lifestyle is minimal, almost background noise. Nevertheless, a good judge simplifies: I wonder if that person is happy? And, would I be happy as that person? The County Fair brings all kinds out into a common biosphere, surrounded by a fence and the bubble of the heavens. Here we all are. Are we eudaimoniac? I found myself envious of about a quarter of the specimens presenting themselves, and probably less happy than another quarter. That makes me as happy or happier than about half of the other specimens. Not a blue ribbon, but a respectable showing.

I was tired from judging after a while, and it is good for a judge, in order to recreate, to find the biggest, bestest, best-cooked bratwurst to be found east of Chicago, with a little hot mustard and (for this judge) a smidgen of ketchup, atop a healthy bed of sauerkraut within a sizable bun, with a pop. I’m not sure the exchange could be called euvoluntary because the price, at $7.50, was a steal. I settled into a bench under a shade, tucked into my bratwurst, and lifted my eyes, and behold! a judge.

It was too late for her: I had her espied, a half a league hence, from behind the mist of an exterior siding company’s expo booth, through a sea of people. She was not checking me out. Indeed, not, I was cramming my fat gob with a gigantic sausage. No, she was judging me. She wonders if I am happy. Could she be happy as me?

The boys were exhausted, and my tummy was full, so we departed the County Fair by way of the equestrian competition. Glorious creatures, horses and riders, and so I judge.

Wisdom, Cynicism, Glamour, and Wit: Wouldn’t You Like a Bit of it?

Oh, Adam. How you wound me so.

Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.

Okay, so I admit that I may not have gotten straight to the point. Let me try to remedy that.

Consider three people. Art, Betty, and Carl (to pick three names at not-random). Art is the naif, Betty is the unreflective cynic, and Carl is the pomo age-of-irony post-introspection petit sage. In Postrel’s terms I categorize each as follows:

  1. Art is gormless. He believes what politicians say (or if not all politicians, at least the ones on his team). He is ensorcelled, perhaps unwillingly. He has yet to acquire the talent of second-guessing the elites, be they political, religious, commercial, what-have-you.
  2. Betty is Holden Caulfield, less naive than Art, but more naive than Carl. She’s recently recognized the insincerity that pervades and in Humean fashion has begun to catalog her observations and register her disgust. “The whole world is a lie” she cries.
  3. Carl rejoins: “no shit, Sherlock.” You see, Carl knows what Betty knows, and he’s reconciled it. He’s come not merely to passively, placidly accept the mere existence of mundane human hypocrisy, but to recognize that as in all human endeavors, it is strewn with trade-offs. A culture suffused with glimmering lies, ponderous kayfabe, and tightly-bound hypocrisy comes with costs, but it’s almost certainly better than an alternative world with nothing but pure brutal sincerity. Likewise, he recognizes the dire need for temperance, that a world full of rib-prodding insincerity is probably just as intolerable. He knows that navigating the world of half-truths we inhabit is challenging and that he’ll occasionally be wrong from time to time, but that his life and his society are enriched by the sweet little lies we whisper each other.

I implore you to believe me when I write that I wasn’t landing on Betty as the paradigm for maturity. I was pointing you at the dull-as-dishwater observation that one player won’t have any more than an infinitesimal influence over the general equilibrium, and that between the three rough options of a) naively believing everything everyone tells you b) sullenly rejecting any utterance as worthless insincerity and c) coming to grips with the duplicity of humans and using this secret knowledge to help you flourish (though not, of course, at the expense of others); the third option is quite clearly the best. Joyce’s Mulligan wasn’t a heretic—he was a placid apostate. 

I invite you, my dear friends, to untelescope your morality. You’ve no more hope of eliminating insincerity than an ant does of redirecting the Nile. The low-cost, high-margin project lies in learning how to best navigate a world where irony and insincerity are treated as exogenous.

To be sure, it’s difficult to precisely place where any of this fits into a serious project of eudaimonia. I think (though I admit that it’s only via introspection) that it’s eminently possible to be a good, useful, productive, moral member of society and to have also relinquished any pretext of sincere belief (I will say that I’m still occasionally taken aback by the sheer quantity of clergy I personally know who’ve confided in me their atheism). I have a suspicion, hard to test empirically, that the tripartite sincerity spectrum is orthogonal to good livin’, even if it correlates strongly with #phronesis. But I don’t think I want to go too far down this road, as yonder lies the realm of navel-fluff picking.

Dipping Your Toes Into the Irrational World

I keep my vinyl records on the opposite side of the room from my record player (or “turntable” for the more effete vinyl connoisseur), which is twenty-one feet away (I measured). I’m compelled to do so by something within, something which is out of reach of the rational self; there’s no sense to it. In every way it would be easier to put my collection right next to my stereo system. In fact, if someone from HGTV were to come by and blanch at the arrangement, I’d be highly offended, on camera even, at the suggestion to rearrange, for any reason, aesthetic or practical.

There is now attached to the arrangement a ritual; that’s right, a ritual. From my collection I pull several records–by the way, this is all predicated on whether I’m in a record-listening mood. If I’m not in the mood, then I don’t do the ritual: I click my mouse through iTunes until I find the playlist I desire to hear, or just click Pandora. See, that’s the point. What kind of ritual can develop organically from some easy scrolling and mouse-clicking? A ritual of frustration, I suppose, if you don’t know what you want to listen to.

Where was I? Oh, yes, kneeling before my collection on the bottom shelf: I pull several records to put them in a designated “on deck” spot so I don’t have to flip through my entire collection for the duration of the mood. I walk over to the turntable, turn on a special light which illuminates it (that’s so I can see the print on the record label; I’m getting old), lift the lid of the turntable, walk back to the On Deck Circle, pick a record, remove the actual record within its sleeve from the cardboard packaging, gaze at the artwork for a moment, walk all the way back to the record player, remove the vinyl from its sleeve, mount it onto the turntable, set the needle into the groove on the outer edge, close the lid of the turntable, place the sleeve atop the lid, turn off the special light, walk to my chair in the middle of the room, and from there I listen until the needle lifts itself from the groove on the inner edge. It’s an invocation and a benediction, with an entire liturgy between, complete with genuflection and pauses for silence for meditation.

Music, especially long play music fit for one side of a vinyl record (before progressive rock artists discovered the 74-minute compact disc), is a work of art whose purpose is largely to affect the emotions of the listener-participant.  Such art has a penchant for stirring the passions, not the least of which are love, hate, anger, happiness, and fear, along with the more subtle ones, such as longing, loss, sadness, and hope. All of these are buried deep within the breast, only tenuously associated with the intellect. For example, I am much moved by Rush’s 2112, which has no small amount of literary influence upon it, yet I am not moved to discourse about the music intellectually. That, of course, kills the experience, and creates an artifact out of living music. The same with Mozart’s piano concertos, and Beethoven’s late violin concertos, and Genesis with Peter Gabriel, and so on.

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So, why the ritual? I know that I feel like performing this ritual, which grew organically, mind you, in order to prepare my body for the emotional encounter it is about to experience. The intellect, apparently, desires to have its body’s passions aroused, but also desires protection from them. A ritual sets boundaries, guides, and rules: “This far, anger, and no further!”

This far, love, and no further?

Futility Transcended, Out of the Mouth of a Babe

Jack, my across-the-street neighbor, died during the spring after a short illness. He had lived alone for about five years after his wife died of cancer. His eulogy is respectable, and, overall, he was an asset to our lives. He was a good neighbor. Today, Saturday morning, marks the day of the final disbursement of his estate: the house is sold and the stuff remaining in it has been piled, with some care, onto the lawn for a garage sale.

Consumerism annoys me, not least because of parking. For the next two days, my driveway will be the cul-de-sac for the vultures picking over poor Jack’s bones, looking for stuff amidst his stuff. It really is disgusting. I say this acutely aware of my own hypocrisy, the owner of a piece of undeveloped land not far from my house so I can make like Wilderness Man with no potable water, electricity, or any other accoutrements of home, all of which can be found in a two-minute drive down the road. There’s even a pizzeria which will deliver to my wilderness outpost within twenty minutes at the push of a button on my smart phone. Fie! Fie upon thee, consumerism!

What I really dislike, of course, is the notion that one day all too soon, my stuff will be piled onto the front lawn for the children of the same vultures to pick over, looking for stuff. I called to my younger son, whose name is Jack (8 years old), and I pointed across the street, saying to him, “There’s Jack’s stuff” (see what I did there?).

“Really?” he said, and he paused for a moment, surveying the swarm. “It doesn’t look like much.”

“No,” I said. “And one day, your stuff will be piled on the lawn, just like his.”

“That’s okay,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “I won’t need it anymore.” He looked for a moment more, then returned to his room, where his stuff is.

It is okay, the accumulation phase of life, isn’t it? After all, we need stuff. Jack-across-the-street’s stuff includes many blankets. They look comfortable.


Addendum

It was weird going through someone else’s Christmas decorations; I demurred. The boys picked up a nice walkie-talkie set, with no charger, and two flashlights, batteries included. One of Jack’s daughters met me, saying, “And here it is, the entirety of Jack and Connie’s life, laid out.”