Cautionary (top photo)
Many years ago, a super-intellectual atheist friend of mine quipped, “Christianity would be great, if it wasn’t for the Un-Christian way so many who call themselves Christian, actually behave in the world!”
I found that line funny, and told him so – because even though I personally knew of many examples of brutal and sadistic Christians, who took pleasure in causing pain to the meek over whom they had power, he was at the time, quite determined to persuade me about “Scientific socialism.”
“Dude,” I just had to point out, “your team has exactly the same problem!”
Many socialist ideas sound kind, generous and excellent, but people who actually call themselves socialists do not consistently use those principles in their own day to day actions, the way we might hope.
I started thinking about this problem again recently, during a long break in a painting session. The lecture that day featured Francis Bacon, as an exemplar of great sensitivity to the real occurrence – being able to identify fine and unexpected chance, and really make the most of it.
Means of access
I’ve long been skeptical of the work of Bacon (though I adore his historical namesake), but Kieran’s choice combination of paintings and quotations helped me appreciate it in a way I never have before – bringing my musical improviser mind to look, where usually my cartoonist judges first! ;o)
The funny side thing (not even slightly funny at the time) was that Bacon buttressed what I suspect was his natural artistic inclination anyhow, with the philosophy of Existentialism – a very good fit, especially when fresh.
But existentialism is itself another one of those things like Christianity and Socialism which has a text, and also a group of professed devotees. The most glaring difference is that the texts of the first two are about transformation of individuals, calling on their higher potentials, and enabling a finer society to emerge as a result – in intent, if not in practise.
Existentialism never did have any such goal – its central point is far more like the endless “Why” questions from a four-year-old. At root, the big one (and the real theme of the sixties – left AND right) “Why should I?”
This actually is a really important question – but that doesn’t mean the indignant way in which the existentialists were asking it, was ever going to take us to a useful or powerful place from which to observe, create, critique, organize or find happiness – personal or general.
Which to me, leaves out absolutely all of the good stuff in life. Might as well be reading Skinner, for all the attention they pay to humane connection! (by the time you’ve made alienation your starting axiom, you’re already in big trouble!)
That’s why I have never been surprised to find so many who claim to be existentialists, were actually on the all too common narcissistic/sociopathic axis already, and like Bacon, encountered and embraced a philosophy that fit perfectly (in a different way) with their natural quality of energy.
I believe existentialism was very valuable as a balancing critique – but it was posed against great social forces which are now almost entirely absent from the stage – institutional authority in particular. We talk and act as if this persists, because many of our coercive institutions continue, but the way in which authority used to operate culturally, is completely gone.
So too are the particular mental shackles we used to struggle to break – which is not at all to say that we’ve achieved any greater freedom – only that the complex of shaping pressures which bear upon the young now are quite unprecedented in their range, power and insidious vagueness.
Decades ago, we could clearly see and point at the authority figures who were limiting us, and rail and rebel at them fairly directly. Students now are often faced with old coots who are bending over backward not to offend them – so much so, that they cannot even offer the old solid, demanding (and irreplaceably useful) structures of high craft and study discipline.
Having been educated with institutional gentleness, they are then thrust into endless ruthless jockeying and hustling to find a place for themselves. NOT as a function of vanity – just to scrape together the rent money!
A small bit of the mournful litany from this frustrated student. “You always have to have cool stuff to tweet and keep your instagram and facebook profiles exciting, you have to self-promote and build your own brand. Constantly worried that you’re not going to get enough likes, or you’ll do something dumb, and wreck what you’ve already built. Makes it really hard to loosen up and take artistic risks – even though I know I have to do that, to grow…”
All of this daily (and hourly) effort not in search of viral fame and fortune, mind you – but only to tread water – this is what it takes, just to exist at all!
Nor is the commercial prize nowadays a long term contract or multi year relationship with a publication, so often as spot jobs and piecework – ‘on spec’ (working for nothing, unless they feel like using it) if you’re not careful – or even more commonly, and unforgivably offensively – “For the exposure,” (A payment of ‘Screw-you’ right to your face, with a great big smile that you are somehow expected not to punch). ;o)
Warm and cool neighbours
So here’s the thing – the reason that the left looks so bad to the right, and the right looks so bad to the left, is that both teams love their text when they can use it as a critique, and neither likes to look too hard in the mirror.
Studies do actually show an interesting difference in behaviour which is not hypocritical, and worthy of note – both ways ’round. Conservative thinking people do give far more to charity, and Lefties are far more willing to pay taxes to have good works done in their name for all, by the state.
Naturally, they each have a lot of choice invective about the specifics of the other’s approach to sacrifice and greater-good – but I’m just saying, let’s stop pretending there is no impulse to charity and decency on either of these sides. That is demonstrably nonsense.
Do my leftist friends who believe big oil is evil still drive and fly as if their own actions are exempt – even though it’s evil, when everyone does it?
Yes, the vast majority of them do exactly that. Most people simply haven’t got the toughness of character to make such challenging sacrifices.
Do my right wing friends who believe in values decency and civics demand school-tax cuts, undermining the very formation of every social good they claim most to prize? Consistently, and with weird vigour!
Pay the cost of civilization and honour the meek? Nope – my money in my pocket, first!
The abyss looks also…
WHO IS IN THE MIRROR?
More importantly – what would our discussions look like if we started from the idea that none of us were the automatic good-guys, and all of us still had plenty to learn about morality, sacrifice, values, and one another?
Find me a leftist who believes in paying for their values up front, and not delegating their moral sacrifice to the state, and a conservative who is genuinely into the hard honest work of building community (which means first, overcoming self for principle), and we’ll have a nice basis upon which to start.
In the meantime – I propose that we should all take ourselves a lot less seriously (since we show no signs on any side, of truly being serious). How about we go evidence-based for awhile, instead of relying on fervid passion (which, let’s face it, has not proven especially helpful).
Start with real world bookkeeping, engineering and thermodynamics.
I’ll admit they aren’t nearly as much fun as bases for fulmination and accusation – but the cute thing is – all of these modes of thought provide us with useful practical and reliable FUNCTION!
It’s always worth remembering that genuine real-world effect is still one of the things that our thoughts can achieve – but only if we choose to think!
(Or so I feel)