The real problem in the body politic

(Trigger warning: equivalence alert!)

No, I don’t think the Democratic and Republican platforms are equivalent. Ideologically, I’m with the Dems maybe 50% of the time and the Repubs maybe 10%. No equivalence there. But the partisan tone has become equivalent on both sides. If a Dem or Repub leader says anything at all, the other side must consider it a priori wrong (and indeed evil) or risk being kicked out of the club. Perhaps social media is the worst for trapping people into such silos, but with many friends posting political comments daily, I can’t remember the last time any of them on either side deviated from the preset party line when an oppostion leader spoke.

So yes, I favor the Dem platform (or at least find it less bad), but there are three beasts in the cage, and the Republicans are not the most destructive of the three. There are the two major parties, and then there is the “us vs. them” paradigm of politics and social relations, shared equally by denizens of both parties. With my old hippie vision of moving toward a more ideal union, where people still disagree but with the understanding that we are all on spaceship Earth together, it is the paradigm itself that is the most destructive beast of the three. As long as we are locked into the zero-sum, “us vs. them” paradigm, we can move laterally to fix this or that local issue, but there can be no forward movement. We can get short-term ideological gains from our party – e.g., as I favor the Dem platform, I can hope the Dems seize the reins from Trump for at least the short-term benefits I think they would bring. But I cannot hope that Dems any more than Repubs will fix the long-term, and possible fatal, disease in the body politic. Neither party has the slightest motivation to correct the “us vs. them” model that is killing us.

Our only long-term hope is for someone to emerge outside the current political spectrum, an MLK-type voice. Politics per se is dead, killed by the two parties and the army of idiot activists on both sides. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

The good news is that underneath the veneer of us vs. them activism, I find that many people are quietly hungry for a unifying voice. I thought Obama was potentially such voice, but his failure to unify the country was pre-ordained by the fact that he emerged within one of the two major parties. Half the country will never listen to any unifying voice that emerges from the opposition party. Thus, my statement that the voice must come from outside the current political structure is a kind of logical tautology. Logic permits no other way. Of course, such a voice, on such terms, may never come, and we may disintegrate slowly or quickly, depending on which of the two parties is in power. But those people I meet hungering for some voice to restore a sense of shared humanness, those people still give me hope. We just need to take all this activist energy invested in one side or the other of the us vs. them paradigm and turn it against the paradigm itself. I would especially ask my friends on the left who consider themselves radical: How radical can you be if you are still hauling around the old albatross of the “left vs right” paradigm? If you want to be radical, break the paradigm.

Can we really get a critical mass of people to shed the dead snakeskin of politics as we know it and start over with a blank slate, a social vision stripped of politics with nowhere to turn but to heart and imagination? Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

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(Click covers for links)

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What is Truth? Science, Identity, and Imagination

During a stout and whiskey session with one of my regular interlocutors, JV, the kind of session where you push each other through various adversarial positions on philosophy and politics, the inevitable question came up: What is truth?

At that juncture in the floating debate, JV was in the pure science posture and the question was thrown at me. How can I assign any truth value to mythological systems (including religious ones) that have no scientific basis? And if I persist in such foolishness, how can I turn around and defend science against its contemporary critics from the Right (of the anti-evolution, climate denier sort) and from the Left (the “you don’t know my truth” identity politics that rejects the universals of science and reason and shared humanness, and indeed anything science might say that is politically unsavory at the moment, as vestiges of a racist patriarchy)?

To which I pled guilty on all three counts – the defense of mythological systems against science-based attacks, the defense of science against attacks from today’s political Right and Left, and, most boldly, claiming no contradiction to my impromptu epistemological system.

On the first count, I believe reality is more than just a collection of objects in this space we call the universe. Sure, that’s a big part of it, but lived reality is more complicated – at a minimum we can say it includes objective and subjective aspects. Science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and that there is nothing else to our lived experience. I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons.

It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

Imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love, electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc. Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain? It seems to me that the scientist observing the arc may have her finger on an objective correlative to the feeling of falling in love, but it is still just an objective correlative. She can use it to study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

The scientist gives us truths about the objective world, but the great mythological systems offer “truths” about lived experience that fall outside the scope of science. I put “truths” in quotes to avoid confusion. Myths do NOT give us scientific truths and indeed are often demonstrably false from a scientific perspective. I am not saying that they can compete with science on its own turf. No, when it comes to explaining the physical world, science rules. But “truths” about lived reality can be found in Greek mythology (for example) nonetheless. Indeed, the narrow definition of “truth” in the sense of scientific fact has only become the dominant sense in the past few hundred years. For most of pre-Enlightenment history, the pursuit of such truth about the physical world was a mere sidebar to the study of what were perceived as deeper inquiries into spiritual and intellectual truths.

In saying that science rules in determining truths about the physical world but that a broader sense of “truth” is needed to get at lived reality in its fullness, I have already segued to the second charge against me. How can I defend science against today’s critics from the political Right and Left? The defense against the Right is easy. Evolution and climate change are physical world studies. To claim, e.g., that the Bible has equal stature to science in studying the objective mechanisms of the physical world implies a gross misunderstanding of the difference between physical reality and lived reality, between the two senses of truth (the narrow sense, wherein science rules, and the broad sense, which concerns lived reality more broadly). Whether you agree with me or not, it is easy to synchronize this defense of science against the political Right with my defense of the great mythological systems. My defense of those systems in no way suggests that they be called upon to provide factual data about the physical world.

The defense of science against the political Left takes a similar path. There is a tendency in postmodernism (and I don’t want to reduce it to this tendency but this is the relevant tendency in the present discussion) to see truth as socially constructed. And if truth is socially constructed, science as an arbiter of truth is a social construct that can and must be interrogated. Now apply identity politics to this interrogation and you might conclude that science (and other Enlightenment formations) are not the conduits of general truths about physical reality but are formations that serve the dominant ideology (i.e., white supremacist patriarchy). This, if I may quote Henry Fielding, is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.” It is my position that the scientific method, no less than math, helps us to draw universal conclusions about the objective world. By “universal” I don’t mean “certain.” Theories need to be revised, and science can sometimes be hijacked for political purposes, but the basic conclusions of evidence-based science, like gravity, apply regardless of what this or that tribe or social demographic thinks. A very large point of the Enlightenment was to articulate tools that can get us beyond those tribal definitions of truth and worth, which had locked people for so long in darkness and prejudice and distrust across demographic lines. I believe my friends on the identity politics Left make a mistake when they try (however inadvertently) to lead us back down that road.

The final charge against me – the potential contradiction of my defense against science on the one hand and my defense of science on the other – should have resolved itself in the previous paragraph. For clarity, though, I will add that my defense of science against today’s political Left and Right does not negate my earlier defense of those image-filled systems that explore what Carl Jung calls “the subjective inner world … the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” Indeed, to the list of ancient Greek mythmakers and modern visionary poets, I will add this thought by LSD guru, Timothy Leary: “Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”

Gaston Bachelard, sometime science professor who became the Chair of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, talked at times about two axes in his epistemology: “the axes of poetry and of science.” The power driving the first axis, the axis of poetry, is imagination. If today’s seekers of truth are going to right the ship of planet earth, they need to give up the politicized definitions of truth. They need to respect the tremendous capacity of science to give us valuable information about our world that transcends tribe and reminds us of our shared humanness. And they need to recognize imagination as the power than can exceed science as it harnesses the vitality of those “invisible roots of consciousness” to visions of social reality that transcend tribal divisions and bring us all together for the next stage.

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Apollo and Daphne

Separate we sit on the stone
a lizard below flashing green and gray
the sleek soft body coiled in fear
or hatred or worse. Monuments surround us.

The horizon ruptures, up, up
it floats and hangs through the moss
mislaid dreams of a fruitful season
our own bodies sleek and soft and coiled.

I see you now clear and separate
fading fingers fine-strung in moss
and behind you the radish slice moon
all beauty and light and bitter ash.

Aquarian Anarchy

Now for the new political position hinted at in my Russell Brand entries, profusely hyperlinked for your encyclopedic pleasure:

Aquarian Anarchy, or Aquarianarchy

Aquarianarchy (A-kwé-ri-ₔ-nár-kee): Rule by a bunch of idealist, neo-hippie waifs in communal forms of organization, suited to the forthcoming Age of Aquarius, with a little extra “anarchy” thrown in at the end.

Aquarianarchy recapitulates 1960s liberalism into a new political position that is outside the present left-right axis, a third pole if you will, with an eye on the progressive ideal of a society that is post-materialist, open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity and rich in human contact.

Aquarianarchy stands apart from today’s conservative economic and social vision via its critique of capitalism (Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius; Luddites and Technophobes) and of the Republican Party platform (Who’s for the Middle Class).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from conservative conventions in lifestyle and social and professional behavior (Fashion Anarchy, Professionalism and Alienation).

Aquarianarchy incorporates some long-term tenets of libertarianism while acknowledging their short-term impracticality (From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from those post-1980s liberal strategies that divide rather than unify. This means rethinking the recent liberal framing of race and gender (White Privilege and a Third Way on Race, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground, Female Chauvinist Pigs), the liberal acceptance of double standards for underdog groups (Ban Bossy), and a policing instinct that stifles expression by encouraging self-censorship and shaming for every perceived offence (Is “Where Are You From” Offensive, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground). Demographic shaming did not work in the 1960s, when liberals fought against it, and it won’t work now with liberals fighting for it. We need to be celebrating each other, not pulling each other down.

Aquarianarchy also begins to articulate ethical parameters for a post-capitalist age mindful of environmental resources (Regifting and Post-Technological Ethics).

Overall, Aquarianarchy draws most on the pre-1980s liberals of the hippie and post-hippie era. Remove all conventional chains on speech, self-expression, and modes of social organization. Basically, if it breaks down demographic walls and foregrounds our shared humanness, if it encourages unfiltered free expression without fear of faux pas or shaming, if it welcomes those who disagree as well as those who agree with us to the table, if it promotes a vision that steers our tottering planet away from “jittery materialism” (Brand, p. 106) toward a sustainable ecology and human values, it’s part of the general plan.

And that “little extra anarchy” I promised comes at the expense (superficially at least) of some of my liberal brothers and sisters. I.e., against current liberal trends that subtly reinforce a “separate but equal” ideology, Aquarianarchy re-seizes the full integrationist torch of the 60s with an anarchist vigor, advocating every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Think of it as the cultural correlative of private property. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism (or conservatism) that says we need to respect walls of separation. Bust the whole thing wide open.  I think that little bit of anarchy is prerequisite to the revolutionary change we need when the current age collapses.

A final note on process: It bears repeating that this revolution must begin in the subjective arena of human sensibility, with restructuring in the political arena as a consequence. People must (1) take time for meditation and practices of self-reflection, if possible read things by Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, visualize your inner values shifting toward something commensurate with a post-materialist age; (2) begin to express these inner changes locally, in everyday choices, from supporting others in fashion anarchy to regifting; (3) then comes the political restructuring based on planetary sustainability and post-materialist values of human fulfillment. If during this process Arc #1 gets ahead of Arc #2, or Arc #2 gets ahead of Arc #3, not a problem. But if the political restructuring of Arc #3 gets out ahead, we’ll need to stop and revisit those cautionary checks from Gandhi (Chauri Chaura incident) and from The Beatles and The Who, as per my letter to Russell Brand. Let’s do this right and not get fooled again. After all, what with those “ecological imperatives” of which Russell speaks, we might not have another chance.

1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

In a previous blog, I mentioned how 1930s liberals and 1960s liberals were strange bedfellows, despite some shared principles. The same could be said of post-1960s liberals and post-1980s liberals. The continuity comes with shared progressive goals on social, economic, and environmental fronts, as well as in foreign policy. The fault line runs along the general concept of political correctness and the specific idea of policing offensive speech. (And even in this area, we share a long-term vision of a society less hamstrung by hate and prejudice, although we differ on how best to get there.)

The 1960s hippie liberalism was more wide open in what forms of expression were to be tolerated. The conservative “Establishment” culture of war, money, and machines was held in place by conventional restraints on what to say, what to think, what to wear, how to live and with whom. The hippie idea was to break down all conventional restraints and open up free expression, whether in clothing, thought, speech, or lifestyle and communal forms of organization. Let everyone express themselves freely at the communal table, without fear of reprisal, and even offensive speech will be recontextualized and find its natural level.

1980s liberalism in some ways took a 180-degree turn. The 1980s paradigm shift in liberalism was largely academia-driven, as opposed to the grass-roots, street-level, lifestyle-based paradigm of the hippies. 1980s liberalism introduced the idea of speech codes and of standing ready with a stifling challenge should anyone say anything offensive, especially on topics of race and gender.

Although I share the progressive goals of my 1980s liberal colleagues, and I sympathize with the idea of foreclosing particularly hateful speech before it becomes toxic, I think a cost-benefit analysis favors the 60s approach. The risk of the 60s approach is that hateful speech, if tolerated, can become toxic. The benefit of the 60s approach is that everything is aired unfiltered, ideological fault lines on issues like race and gender are exposed, not hidden, and are more likely to be dealt with in a swift and communal manner. The benefit of the 80s approach is that there is less toleration of prejudicial ideas and therefore a lesser risk of those ideas going toxic. I see two risks to the 80s approach. The first is that the prejudicial attitudes go underground, where they might coagulate and do more harm. Were this the only risk, I’d say the benefit of the 80s approach outweighs the risk. Better to marginalize hate groups than to tolerate them too easily in the mainstream.

The second risk, more problematic in my mind, involves a kind of self-censorship that affects the whole community and not just the hateful minority. With very smart people parsing every speech act for implications that might be hurtful to this or that demographic group, regardless of intent, discourse in general becomes a little icier, less open.

Consider two periods of my own life. In my days as a blues-joint bartender in Austin, I had a motley circle of friends who would go out frequently in random combinations of black, white, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight, working class rowdies, and scholarly grad students. This involved many late nights of deep conversation and frequent banter of a wildly “politically incorrect” stamp. Then, in the very late 80s, as a graduate student and then faculty member, my circle was composed largely of academic (English and related departments) liberals. Although I benefited greatly from the intellectual milieu, the halls of academia fostered a tendency to pause and filter before every utterance, lest someone catch you in an utterance that inadvertently validated the dreaded dominant paradigm. Although I share to this day the political goals of “academic liberalism,” the “lifestyle liberalism” of my unfiltered, anarchistic days in Austin produced warmer, deeper, heart-to-heart connections across demographic lines, albeit with some topsy-turvy moments along the way. As a capsule community, the Austin group was probably closer to the long-term progressive ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.

Still, the differences between post-60s and post-80s liberalism are not absolute. Although my center of gravity is post-60s, I don’t say that anything goes. Harassment (e.g., writing hateful speech on someone’s dorm door) or using racial or gender slurs in the presence of one’s employees should be codified violations subject to swift and severe punishment. I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that some speech warrants only limited protection and some none at all. But in the vast mess of rough-and-tumble discourse that is not subject to legal scrutiny, the lines of what is tolerable get blurry, and must be negotiated not only by 60s and 80s liberals but by and with our conservative friends as well.

As to where to go from here, I’d like to think we can back off a little on the gotcha readings of speech acts by others. Post-structural theory has taught us that we can always extract varied and contradictory meanings, including offensive ones, from every speech act. But that doesn’t mean we should do it. Especially where there is no offensive intent, where someone perhaps less politically or academically up-to-date than us implies something that current academic practice has deemed unfit, public attack or humiliation is probably not the best fix. Why alienate a potential ally over an unintended faux pas? Better to give a gentle nudge or a good-natured counterpoint. Even where the intent is malicious, or favors older paradigms that are clearly inequitable, all out attack or humiliation may not be warranted (although it may be, on a case-by-case basis).

Mandela and Gandhi are great examples of political activists who always stood up to bigotry but never wrote off the bigot. When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them; he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause” (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II passim). And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his enemies when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiography, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242). My concern is that perhaps too much of our current critical practice has veered into that ad hominem zone, making it more difficult to see that, like it or not, we are all on this journey into the future together.

So when it comes to sensitive subjects, we never need to countenance overt bigotry, but we can err in favor of behaving generously to each other rather than humiliating each other for wrong-headed ideas or statements. When it comes to our own behavior, I’d rather speak unfiltered, make my mistakes, and make my adjustments, than interact with others in a partially shut-down mode to avoid some unintentional offense.

And now I welcome any feedback from my post-80s liberal colleagues, whose point of view I value but to which I am not entirely privy, having formed my own political core values largely in the 1970s.


As I look to another visit to Germany and France, I recall a long talk with German friends over Spargel and Spätburgunder about our different (but overlapping) cultures, in which it occurred to me that the things I most appreciate and most lament about American culture come down to the same thing: individualism. Americans are obsessed with it, and therein lies their greatest weakness. And their greatest strength.

Individualism will always be part mirage. We are not “thrown” into the world as the existentialists would have it. We emerge organically as part of our parents’ bodies, part of a larger organic chain of parents and children and extended families. Really, it makes more sense to see the species as a single organism, a tree perennially producing new leaves.

This doesn’t mean I am against self-reliance. I believe in the virtue of self-reliance, and believe, probably more overtly than many of my liberal comrades, that this virtue should be an informing principle of any social welfare system. But an obsession with self-reliance can become pathological. Like it or not, we do not live in a state of nature. Like it or not, the world we live in is not just populated by individuals but by very large political and institutional and corporate formations – “collective formations” if you will. We can try to set policies that harness that collective energy for the collective well-being (the tendency of democratic socialism), or we can cling the individualist credo of “every man for himself” and ignore those gigantic formations at our peril. America tends toward the second extreme. The result is the greatest economic disparity of any post-industrial nation. Those at the top of the corporate (“collective”) macro-formations enjoy the profits of middle-class productivity, while middle-class families go bankrupt over health care and education costs at a rate that must be astounding to our more socialized friends across the pond. Our insistence on unlimited individual gun rights is coupled with 11,000 gun homicides a year, compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK. That is individualism in practice.

But naturally my German friends, now imbibing into the night at full throttle, wanted to push the other side, asking what I think GOOD about American individualism. First of all, self-reliance in itself is a virtue, and only becomes pathological when it ignores the actual formations in the cultural landscape. And socialist policies can take a toll on self-reliance if not implemented with care. But more importantly, I do get a sense of freedom in America that is linked to individualism. Not that I share the absurd belief of some of my conservative friends that we are objectively more free than our European neighbors. But there is a subjective tonality that profits from the hyperindividualist ideology of America. In my many hitchhiking romps coast-to-coast in America, and in a lifestyle that has exposed me to a broad demographic spectrum, there is a sense that Americans wake up every day ready to go out and make their own rules. This feeds a kind of creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit, a continual willingness to reboot without looking back, and it does give America a special dynamism. (I suspect it also makes quicker soil for the growth of things like fashion anarchy, although as I have shown in my other excellent blog entries, fashion anarchy must work its way back through German socialism if it ever hopes to arrive at the decentralized freedom that individualists seek.)

So, yes, I love Europe, and I especially love the richness of its cultural history and the way it has harnessed collectivist formations to enhance the commonwealth. But the social and cultural traditions that make Europe fascinating, and make it in my mind capable of dealing in a more mature way with the collective formations of late capitalism, may benefit from the occasional prompt of America’s naïvely free-spirited individualism. I guess that’s why I need to bounce around Europe from time to time and why I need to entertain my European friends back home in New Orleans. I’d like to think that we’re participating in the kind of cross-pollination that keeps the species moving. Now for that German beer.

Jung’s Synchronicity

To my scientist friend and sometime interlocutor, you might tentatively grant me that science and reason like to explicate everything with reference to a causal nexus. Let’s start with the big bang. Since I can’t get figures to print in WordPress, picture a circle (the big bang) at the center of the page with rays shooting out in all directions. Within each ray, each point is “explained” by the antecedent points in the ray, the string of “causes” that got you there. That’s the “causalist” way of explaining reality.

Carl Jung’s synchronicity, drawn in part from his reading of the Chinese I Ching, gives a different way of apprehending reality. Look at the group of objects in this room or outside the window, or the grouping of people and things in your life right now. Synchronicity sees not the causal aspect of that configuration but the chance aspect. It strips away the reference to that external causal nexus and really looks at the things themselves. Jung gives the example of the crystal. The Western mind sees that all crystals are hexagonal (well, not exactly, but they all approximate a rational ideal of the hexagon that doesn’t exist as such in real life). The mind of the I Ching sees the unique, chance aspect of the one crystal that happens to be in hand, the beautiful arbitrariness of its single identity. Neither mode of apprehension is “correct”; they both offer insight into reality.

But synchronicity is not all chance. Here I turn to Jung’s central contribution to the history of ideas – the archetypes and the collective unconscious. (And don’t blame Jung for this, because I am now making up these connections as I go along.) Synchronicity does attribute meaning, often profound meaning, to the configurations at hand. It does so not with reference to the external string of causes, but with reference to a kind of depth within the configuration. For example, two people meet and experience tremendous love and tremendous loss. The “causalist” might explain by saying that Person A moved to this city after such and such causal events, Person B moved to the same city at the same time due to a different series of causal events, etc. Synchronicity disregards these causal sequences. Any meaning comes from the subjective depths. These two people reverberate with the unbearable love and unbearable loss of Apollo and Daphne, of Cupid and Psyche, these timeless archetypes, a kind of cosmic destiny, rippling through their here-and-now experience. It may not be a meaning you can map along a series of coordinates, but it is a meaning you can feel.

And now, with due respect to the vast body of information made available through causalist disciplines, one could at least argue that the archetypal way of rendering the meaning of our two lovers captures the richness of the human experience more accurately than the causalist reading.

Regifting and Post-Tech Ethics

Roiled in the recent holiday spirit, my friend, Brit, asked if I could do a regifting manifesto in the vein of my fashion anarchy manifesto. I thought I’d over-comply and build an entire ethical system around regifting. Thus the following.

I think of ethics as having a constant layer and a layer of culturally-specific variables. The constant layer – the golden rule – is fairly simple, and is constant even as expressed differently by Kant, Jesus, Plato, Confucius, et al. As the Dalai Lama puts it: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

On the variable layer, ethical conundrums arise with each age and within each culture. As the Mayan calendar ends and we move into the post-technological age, I see a few practical strategies for ethical behavior that might navigate us from late capitalism to the Age of Aquarius.

First, we have to restructure our ethical vision to meet changes in the natural environment. Technology has reached a point where it can (a) rapidly strip-mine all remaining resources off the face of the earth in pursuit of quick profits, or (b) distribute resources as needed to all parts of the world. The Corporate State wants to bind people to the consumerist ethic that keeps technology on track (a). One person alone can’t stop that consumerist mentality, with its concomitant greed and political structures, all designed to maximize how much stuff can be hoarded. But there are things individuals can do. And through the old-fashioned ripple-effect of friends of friends of friends, and the newfangled speed of social media, we can change the cultural sensibility more rapidly now than in the past.

Thrift store shopping (kudos to Macklemore). Simple. Why burn through Mother Nature’s resources more quickly than you need just to satisfy the “new stuff” fetish that has been cynically implanted into our brains by the Corporate State?

Regifting. If you have something you know a friend would like, why not give them something that has a little bit of your own life imprinted on it, something with real traces of sentiment, something that shows you’ve sacrificed a little bit of yourself for them to keep forever or until such time as they regift it and pass along the chain of accumulated sentiment? Things made with your own hands would fall into this category too, at least so long as those things are given in the spirit that the receiver is welcome to pass along the object, which is now a locus of emotional history and not just an anonymous commodity, to someone else that he or she would like to bring into the chain.

Regifting will not get traction as quickly as thrift store shopping, because the Corporate State has buried this taboo into its subjects more deeply. After all, since regifting completely detaches the idea of “the purchase” from the idea of “meaningful gift,” the Corporate State rightly sees it as an even bigger threat. All the more reason for us to get a movement going to make regifting cool. And here we must rely on a new generation of teens and twenty somethings, as the stigma will be too much for most older people to overcome on their own.

So practice regifting, practice thrift store shopping. And practice fashion anarchy, too, as it will maximize creative leeway for every individual and at the same time liberate our most basic self-presentation from the commodified versions of self being sold to us for cold cash at retail outlets and big box stores every day. It will also dispel, and perhaps transform, the motivation of some of consumer culture’s most dogged enforcers (those who act as fashion police). If individuals do these things and promote these ideas mindfully, we will already be moving toward a culture where self-actualization and human achievement is no longer measured in terms of purchasing power.

But don’t underestimate the resistance we will encounter. On the economic level, these apparently small lifestyle choices shift the priority from ever-growing economies to sustainable economies, which is a very dangerous idea to the status quo of profiteering giants who are currently managing the global economy. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the power of those giants. As the earth’s resources are depleted, the age of consumerism will die. The writing is on the wall. The ice sheets are melting. What little rainforest remains (now about 6% of the land surface) could be consumed in about 40 years at present rates. The Age of Aquarius is coming. The only question is whether it will happen via a utopian or dystopian pathway. In the utopian model, human ideals are transformed and we come to find fulfillment in creatively sustaining the resources around us. In the dystopian model, our appetite continues to grow until there are not enough resources left to sustain growth, and the species begins to implode as resources dry up while humans still define themselves by how many resources they can personally control. Now make your choice.

From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism

A friend who read my “Letter from a Fashion Anarchist” recommended that I read Chapter 37 of Jeffrey Tucker’s Bourbon for Breakfast, which addresses workplace attire. I was happy to comply and my response led me into the curious byways documented below. (I haven’t read Tucker’s full book so sorry if I haven’t got him altogether right.)

Tucker and I actually see the role of clothing in the workplace similarly, the only difference being that he seems to be a realist all too happy to buy into a system that believes in wearing a “suit” to “show off your character”(p. 175), and I am an idealist (perhaps a naïve idealist) working to change the sensibility that props that system up.

Since the book as a whole seems to be libertarian anti-statist tract, this requires some explanation. Aren’t Tucker and I both against the status quo? Yes and no.

He seems to be an anti-government libertarian and I am an anti-Establishment hippie in ideology.

In his clothing chapter, any power he takes from the government he vests in a kind of pro-Establishment sensibility. He sees the fashion conventions of old being supported by a kind of self-censoring sensibility. Certainly his view of “work” and “workplace” are in line with what I would call the world view of the Corporate State, whereas the Age of Aquarius hippies envision a whole new social order beyond the horizon line of the Corporate State, with a radically different view of what “work” and “workplace” would mean.

It turns out that “anti-government” and “anti-Establishment” may be two very different beasts. Tucker would do away with the government but would, despite his subtitle (“Living Outside the Status Quo”) hold in place the status quo (e.g., fashion rules) with a normative sensibility. It reminds me a little of Michel Foucault’s reading of history, where establishment hierarchies update their ideological support system (circa the 18th century I believe in Foucault) from technologies of coercion to technologies of consent. The formations of absolute monarchies yield to more subjective strategies of subjection. But these new strategies, far from being liberating, turn out to be even more effective at and by controlling the sensibilities of the subjects.

My anti-Establishment views are quite different. I see government per se as neither good nor bad, but only as good or bad as those who control it. In the 60s, e.g., it seemed to the hippies that the government was the enforcement wing of Establishment thinking – old white guys sending young men to die in Vietnam in support of the Corporate State, with its vested interest in a culture of war, money and machines. Thus there was indeed an anti-government angle in the hippie movement, but the real villain was not the government but the Establishment that was pulling the puppet strings of government. The government was just a mediator between the Establishment world view and the individual. Fixing things required not a change of government, not merely a Marxist-type revolution in the control over resources, but a change in the sensibility of individuals en masse.  (See my Taxes, Private Property and the Age of Aquarius.)

To sum up the point of dispute, Tucker would lock in the chains of conventional fashion/thinking so deeply that we would all toe the line (e.g., dress appropriately at work) without the need for government. I would rather obliterate the chains of conventional thinking entirely.

In terms of the full implications, I’m guessing that Tucker is consistently anti-government but ambivalent about Establishment conventions and mores. I am consistent in my rejection of Establishment conventions and mores, but I have a hippie ambivalence about the government. I have a libertarian distrust of government restrictons on individual freedom (going back perhaps archivally to the issue of the Vietnam draft). But wherever people gather in groups there needs to be governance. If that government takes the form of enforcing the chains of convention, it is bad. But if the government is a guarantor of liberty and collective well-being, it can be very good indeed. And although I agree with my libertarian friends (to the dismay of some of my liberal comrades) that the government can overregulate behavior, the government has in fact often been a guarantor of liberty. The Civil Rights Act is an obvious case. But also through workplace and environmental legislation, the government has often acted to protect the individual’s right to life, liberty and happiness, and the collective right to clean resources, where powerful individuals and corporations would just as soon crush individuals and the environment to enhance the profits of the elite. And per Tucker’s libertarian idea that the government messes up everything it touches, I dispute this as an a priori. It has messed up some of its ventures. But it is hard to argue that the U.S. achieved its greatness without any provision from the government.

Imagine back for a minute to the antebellum days of the Southern aristocracy, which Tucker only half tongue-in-cheek idolizes in his introduction, take government off the table, and re-envision history from there. No government interest in public education, or postal service, or highways, air traffic control, no child labor laws or Civil Rights laws. Would the trajectory of history have been better?

Don’t get me wrong. Like any self-respecting hippie or fashion anarchist, I have some sympathy for a vision of society governed by smaller, decentralized nodes of power. But Tucker’s small-government vision takes a conservative turn where mine takes a radical turn toward a new age. His libertarianism is rooted in the rugged individualism of the 19th century. But the libertarian retreat to rugged individualism is no longer an available option. We can’t just work in our own cottage industries, we can’t just pay-as-you-go at the neighborhood doctor’s office. Even if we wanted to, the infrastructure just isn’t there any more. If we just pretend that the gigantic corporate formations of late capitalism, which exert economic control over health care and other trillion-dollar industries, are not there, if we just rely on our Davy Crockett individualism at this moment in history, the vast majority of us will be crushed by those very formations whose existence we deny.

I am not saying that the corporate giants of capitalism are intrinsically malicious; they are merely indifferent to the fate of individual human beings or the environment. They focus myopically on profit – and who can blame them. They evolved within a system where they are expected to generate profit and the government is expected to protect consumers, workers, the environment. Everything evolves together, as part of a system, and the moral mechanism has evolved external to the engines of corporate profit. To be sure, the government doesn’t always function well as a “moral mechanism,” but simply to do away with that external mechanism and expect the corporate giants and power brokers of profit to refrain from exploitation is to expect something all out of scope with what they have evolved to do.

So if the libertarian approach to small government is anachronistic, how does the anti-Establishment hippie move us toward the happy valley of small, decentralized government? We have to start with small steps. If I look at the current situation and say that a bad government binds people to the chains of convention, or to the status quo as Tucker says, and a good government smoothes the path for individuals to flourish in freedom, where do we go from here? Germany, for me, exemplifies a good blend of capitalism and socialism for today’s state of social evolution. The government takes into account the massive health care formations that exist today and works the system to the benefit of the people. All statistics show that they spend half per capita on health care than we do in the U.S.and have significantly better outcomes. Every American worries about health care costs if they get sick, and about 1.5 million Americans per year go bankrupt over health issues. Germans are free to pursue their dreams without any of this anxiety.

I recall how startled a German visitor to New Orleans was when he saw a benefit show for someone with cancer. “This is what you have to do when you get sick?” he asked. No one in Germany has that anxiety. Or when I was talking to my young German friends at the university in Karlsruhe. They were stunned to learn that American banks now make more money from student loans than from all credit cards combined, that American students routinely go through decades of adult life with massive student debt. Germans are free to pursue their dreams without any of this anxiety about carrying crippling student debts into their search for work and family stability. Or gun control. We have 10,000 gun-related homicides per year (compared to 200 in Germany), and 30,000 gun-related deaths overall. We have 300 murders a year in New Orleans alone, a city with less than half a million people.  So we in America have widespread crippling student debt, widespread anxiety about health costs, have to plan where we can and can’t walk without being shot, and we do it all in the name of “freedom.”  Germans, on the other hand, give a little more to the government, and in return, are free from anxiety about things like student loans, health care costs, and safety. Who is the freer people? One can’t deny a free-spirited element in America at the grass roots level, but one also must be suspicious when certain Americans use the word “freedom” to justify policies that generate big business profits while shifting burdens downward toward those grass roots.

So the droll truth is that the path to libertarian freedom runs through German socialism. To forego that evolutionary process and merely disempower the government as today’s libertarians might wish to do is to throw ourselves on the mercy of some very powerful formations that are expressly indifferent to our well-being (since they evolved to have the single “moral” obligation of turning a profit for investors). Sure, German socialism is still a long way from utopia, and the vision will have to be adjusted as we go along, but this is the direction we need to move in if we want to get beyond the dreams force-fed to us by a profit-driven Establishment, if we want to recast for ourselves what it means to be fully human, what it means to be bonded in society to fellow humans, what it means to attain a level of self-fulfillment that goes beyond the anemic forms of fulfillment offered by our current consumer culture.

. . .

So anytime Jeffrey Tucker comes my way, I’ll make a pot of sangria (can’t really do the bourbon for breakfast) and engage in a good-natured debate over the bowl with him, but I’m a little reluctant to enlist, based on Chapter 37, in his version of “living outside the status quo.”

Letter from a Fashion Anarchist

I am not a good dresser. I sometimes wear black shoes with a brown belt. I sometimes wear socks with sandals. I sometimes do this carelessly. I sometimes do this deliberately. I am a fashion anarchist.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against fashion. The people I supervise at my office are welcome to dress up or dress down, as their fancy suits them on any given day. Occasionally things in the “up” style catch my eye as aesthetically pleasing; occasionally things in the “down” style catch my eye as aesthetically pleasing. Often, I’m just plain oblivious. My only rule is this: Dress however you like and give others the same respect.

The most common objection to fashion anarchy stems from the misconception that it is “anti-fashion.” People who know me know that I love art museums, that I love to garnish my plates at dinner. And I am sometimes asked: Why are you so against devoting the same attention to fashion? The answer, of course, is that I am not against it. Everyone should pursue their interest in fashion or art or garnishing down to whatever level of detail pleases them. I’m all for freedom of expression and freedom to be as creative or conventional as you like. Just let me dress as differently or as carelessly as I choose. Otherwise, you undermine the very integrity of fashion. You have turned it from a liberating, expressive act into something restrictive and socially deadening. So match your socks and your belts and shoes if you like, but don’t forget to celebrate those who mismatch.

A second objection to fashion anarchy is that clothing should suit the venue. In this case, there is no misconception, merely an outright disagreement. The fashion anarchist does not believe in venue-driven restrictions. These sorts of restrictions are generally a residue of class hierarchy. The wealthier class does not want to see underdressed people in their buildings or clubs or social locales. In another context, I may argue that this need to segregate one’s “people” from lower orders occurs only where you have collective material power combined with collective low self-esteem, or that it is a residue of pre-Renaissance social needs which will wither away in some forthcoming Age of Aquarius. For now let us just say that the comfort taken in maintaining one’s hierarchical status is probably not going away any time soon. Fair enough, but when class exclusivity uses fashion as its weapon, it may serve some purpose for the exclusionary class, but it certainly does no service to fashion. The “dress code” mentality is, in fact, the direct or indirect source of all hostility to the world of fashion. When fashion becomes a tool for exclusion, the excluded come to associate fashion with oppression, and some measure of hostility will follow.  But where fashion is a conduit of free expression, stripped of all restrictive functions, it becomes purely liberatory for all classes. This is the final irony: that only through the prism of fashion anarchy can fashion emerge in its full liberatory mode.

So next time you see me with the mismatched socks and sandals, you might want to buy me a beer. For I am your reminder: fashion anarchists are not the enemy of fashion; fashion police are the enemy of fashion.

(For expansion and follow-up, see From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism.)

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External links:

When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink, Smithsonian Magazine.