The Dissident

Lover of philosophy, politics, and spirituality

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5 Demands for the Left

This essay is an attempt to articulate five demands directed at the American Liberal Left. The demands highlight the weakness and deficiencies in a Leftist group that is currently impotent, ignorant, and crippled beyond belief. Mired in pessimism and negativity, the Left can be found either bemoaning the current President while offering no solutions, or they’re curled up in the corner sulking because of a recent micro-aggression against their identity, or even worse, you’ll find them denigrating and castigating Republicans using mindless name-calling. What’s been lost in the sclerotic rhetoric is an attempt to look forward at what America could be within the confines of a cooperative and collaborative dialogue. What’s been lost is an attempt to articulate what America should look like, and then a concerted effort that follows which seeks to make it actually happen. In the end, America is a project; it’s our project.

I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in fear. – Yanis Varoufakis

Demand #1 : Stop with the pessimism

The pessimism that’s endemic with the Left will make us more spectatorial, disgusted, and politically inactive. From my perspective, it seems that the Left can only feel complete and fulfilled if they are able to complain about our current president – without offering any solutions of course. I am willing to bet that at the end of a rainbow, you’ll find two liberals sharing their frustrations about Trump. But l don’t want to oversimplify. Perhaps the pessimism is due in part to such concerns as the pervasive effect of economic inequality, racial tension, gender inequality and angst over the threat of terrorism. I’m sure there are more examples, but there is an overarching cloud of declinism, which resigns the Left to the perspective that the sky is literally falling down upon us. But what’s wrong with pessimism? Well, pessimism fosters a do-nothingness attitude, simply because, well, everything is going to Hell in a hand-basket anyways.

I am continually awestruck at the Left’s unwillingness or blindness to articulate, and provide a strategy for, future hopes. Rather, there is an incessant desire to talk about how progress is now going backwards, rapacious government who cares little about the common American, or how the world is headed toward either environmental or nuclear disaster. Catastrophizing the world seems to the default rather than persuasive arguments that offer solutions or effective strategies. A better solution is to see America as a project; a project that views America as a bastion for the continued cultivation of freedom, liberty and justice. It’s a forward-looking perspective that relies on hope, open dialogue, and democracy to achieve a better world. If you think I sound too utopian, then simply look across the ocean at Germany, and ask yourself: how did a country, so embroiled in a barbaric past socially, and fiscally strapped economically, rebound to a strong economic powerhouse that is more inclusive and optimistic than ever? I guarantee you that pessimism wasn’t their strategy.

Demand #2 : Stop focusing on sins

The Left has become overly moralizing in its self-loathing of America’s genocidal and racist history, and the result is paralysis. We can’t demand that everyone apologize for the sins committed hundreds of years ago. I can’t apologize simply because I have never enslaved people or participated in Christopher Columbus’s genocidal campaign against the native Americans. The perpetual tendency of the Left is to moralize the past to such an extent that it normalizes guilt, self-hate and self-disgust. So crippling are the effects of the Left’s consensual self-loathing that any specter of hope or future ideal is rarely articulated. Why? Because we cannot talk about the future when it’s been dictated and imposed that we are all complicit in, for example, two World Wars and Vietnam.

Perhaps a better solution is to frame the historical past into ‘What we can learn from this?’ and juxtapose the answer to that question with ‘What kind of future should we create in order to ensure that those injustices do not reoccur?’. Likewise, when it comes to confederate statues that stand in the middle of a southern city, why not leave them up, and put up educational signs which explain to onlookers what subjugation, oppression, and dehumanization looked like in the old South (*Richmond, Virginia is doing this, and is the idea of an African-American history professor). The Left suffers from what’s called ‘presentism’ which fosters the tendency to interpret past events (e.g. sins) in terms of modern [present] values and concepts. The past has its own unique context that we can never fully step into and critique in a pure and uncontaminated way. Any of us would have easily been slaughterers if that ‘world’ was all we new and was enculturated into our personal worldview. And for that reason, we should focus on what we can learn from history’s brutal past, rather than moralizing it for the purposes of advancing a present agenda.

Simply put: we are not sinful because of our past. This thinking leads to passivity. We must have some type of pride for our future, if we are to work towards that kind of future.

Demand #3 : Stop assuming that national pride is white chauvinism

National Pride is not white chauvinism. Instead, national pride is what self-respect is to an individual; a necessary condition for self-improvement. If you have too much of it, you get hostility and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. Too little self-respect makes it too difficult to show moral courage. Thus, a lack of national pride makes effective energetic talk about change, unlikely.

National pride is a shorthand for a conception of what it is to be human. National pride illuminates such noble attributes like values, decency, virtue, dignity. National pride is a compass that points us in the direction of what we love and hope for in a society.

So what’s the point of national pride? National pride engenders unity that brings us together, along with a vision of what that looks like. When unity and vision conjoin, then there is something to be ambitious for and achieve. Both John Dewey and Walt Whitman, two 19th century major social thinkers, viewed the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite human historical project rather than in something eternal and non-human. They both hoped that America would be the place where a religion of love would replace a religion of fear. They wanted to put hope for a classless and casteless society in the place most commonly occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted the struggle for justice to be the animating principle, the nation’s soul. For Dewey and Whitman, national pride was a cooperative project that utilized freely achieved consensus (democracy) to elevate justice, hope, and freedom.

Demand #4 : Stop with identity politics

The Left needs to stop focusing on identity politics and focus on solidarity. In America today, every group feels threatened to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives – all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. What identity politics does is separate all groups into exclusive segments, which inevitably pits them against one another for a kind of “Oppression Olympics” to see who has suffered the most.

Fifty years ago, the rhetoric of pro–civil rights, Great Society liberals was, in its dominant voices, expressly group transcending, framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity. The Left, however, has changed its tone. Now out-group members cannot share in the knowledge possessed by in-group members (“You can’t understand X because you are white”; “You can’t understand Y because you’re not a woman”; “You can’t speak about Z because you’re not queer”). The idea of “cultural appropriation” insists, among other things, these are our group’s symbols, traditions, patrimony, and out-group members have no right to them.

Rather than standing up for America, people are standing up for their particular sub-group. Rather than standing up for democracy, equality, and justice, the Left stands up against Beyoncé wearing an Indian bridal outfit, or white restaurateurs who build a business cooking authentic Mexican food, or if a white author writes a novel based on the experiences of a Chinese girl. When liberal icon Bernie Sanders told supporters, “It’s not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’ ” Quentin James, a leader of Hillary Clinton’s outreach efforts to people of color, retorted that Sanders’s “comments regarding identity politics suggest he may be a white supremacist, too”. Really?

Identity politics fosters division and exclusion, while weaponizing each sub-group with an arsenal ready for battle. Unfortunately, the Left has cried wolf too many times. If the Left is offended by somebody saying, “All lives matter” rather than, “Black lives matter,” then how can we face the real trauma of, say, 44 million Americans (of all identities) having no health insurance?

Demand #5 : Stop having street parties as a guise for protests

Change in society comes by appealing to conscience, not by today’s so-called “protests”, or by blocking highways with marchers, or condemning segments of society as impure or sinful. Today’s protests are absent of any strategy to make actual changes to law – unlike the 60s. What even counts as a protest? Civil rights protests of the 60s involved an appeal to conscious. You forced people to confront the horrible things going on, and there were specific demands being made and they were directly made to an appeal to conscious, e.g. we should not be made to sit in the back of the bus. Today, what we call “protests” are really inconvenient street parties. What specific Occupy Wall Street demand do you remember? And think about how the Left handled a call for women’s rights in 2017. The solution was a nationwide block party of women (and men) donning pink p*ssy hats with their BFF’s and a Starbucks latte in hand. Do you think Capitol Hill was seriously nervous over millions of Leftist’s protesting with their goofy pink hats? Or do you think that shutting down a highway and frustrating the motorists in your city will force the police to be more just? If so, you’re being naïve. In contrast, when you had a sit down in factories or rallies against the Vietnam War in the 60s, it was actually part of a negotiation tactic that fomented change.

Protests can’t be a giant “F You!”. It can’t be that certain segments of society are deplorable and we demand in some vague way that they change. We have to operate within the system, the discursive fabric, which means you have to have some type of power that’s not a type of pseudo authority from on high, you have to appeal to conscious, or you have to persuade, or as with the workers you have to have a relationship with the people you’re trying to get to reach demands.

A protest that realizes this vision, is not simply a protest that condemns, or says America is bad because of all these atrocities. It says we all can work together for this possible future, and we’re all worthy of it, and we’re all capable of it.

Given the present tactics are not working, philosopher Richard Rorty suggested an appeal to conscience and persuasive arguments which gain sympathizers for a worthy cause. We see such tactics when we look back to political shifts like the civil rights movement and gender equality. With civil rights and gender equality, there is a stark difference in rights, or lack thereof, when you compare, say, 1910 with 2010. The reasons for the shift were persuasive arguments that appealed to the conscience of American society. It wasn’t name calling and violence in the street that united both sides, rather, it was people like Martin Luther King and feminist icon Betty Frieden who used their passion and mind to not only change minds but also change legislation. You simply can’t win people over by shutting down the highway for a march or castigating people who think differently.

The iconoclasts of the past that garnered tectonic change in society had one thing in common: they had a hope for a better future. As opposed to pessimism, talk that expresses hope of a future is what can catalyze change and spread like a contagion.

Final Words …

If I had a #6 demand, it would be, stop insisting we let everyone into our country. This #6 highlights a deeper thought that is weaved into my initial 5 demands, and it’s this: there is always a middle between two extremes. When feeling threatened, it’s consoling to gravitate to the extremes and hunker down. However, most often, cooperation and the collaborative process remains in the middle between the extremes. Just as we shouldn’t let everyone into the country, we should not give everyone a gun. The answer to our current vexing dilemmas lie in the shared democracy that takes place in the middle.

Christopher Hitchens once said, “the first step towards being stupid is being partisan.” In other words, we all become stupid when we hunker down with our tribe, and only our tribe. I listed my 5 demands because the Left has become so partisan, that a collective anxiety has taken over. This pervasive angst is paralyzing the Left making political action a distant option. Unlike most of the Left, in no way do I think the sky is falling, and I refuse to. It’s in my refusal, that hope, dignity and opportunity can remain viable pursuits for the America I want.

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups . . . it is the rule. – Friedrich Nietzsche

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Concepts as Absolute Truth

 

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I was sitting in a Bible study last week and couldn’t help but notice how Christianity is built on a Mount Everest of human-constructed concepts. Within an hour, I heard such phrases as “God is love,” “God is just,” “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “God protects us.” What stands out with these concepts is that they are not beliefs that can be concretely known. Rather, they are statements of faith based on hope. I found myself smugly thinking, “none of these Christian concepts are even demonstrably real!” The implicit conclusion in my thinking is that Christian concepts are illusory, but I – on the other hand – possess concretely “real” beliefs. But this is not true at all.

A concept is an abstract notion, or general idea. Concepts are not regarded as facts, rather they are an amalgamation of ideas that form a basis or conclusion. Unlike an idea which is more akin to a mental inkling, a concept has gone through some fine-tuning with a start and end point. Everyone is guided by concepts in order to make sense of the world. Even the secular person abstracts concepts from this world and acts as if it’s concrete reality. Several secular examples include: (1) there is an inherent worth and dignity in every person, (2) we ought to pursue justice, equity and compassion in human relations, (3) a democratic process through collaboration and cooperation is more valuable than an authoritarian style, and (4) love is real. All four of these examples represent concepts that are abstracted out of “reality” and embraced as possessing some intrinsic real-ness. There are some heavy concepts laced into these four examples that secular people define and defend quite effortlessly. Words like ‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘love’ seem real and objective to the secular person, just as it seems for the Christian who utters with supreme confidence “God is love.”

Let’s stick with “love” for just a minute. For the secular person, even something as simple and common as love between two people may seem like an obvious concrete reality, but really, it has no sustenance. All love is, is a feeling abstracted out of a relationship that takes form and shape based upon how one defines “love.” One person may define love as being unconditional and/or a much deeper feeling than affection. Another person may define “love” as a feeling one experiences when they (finally) feel secure and not alone. There are innumerable ways to articulate love, however, we are at an impasse as to any type of precision that makes ‘love’ a concrete reality – it is simply a floating and fleeting concept.

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My point is whether it is love, justice, or human worth, these are concepts that we abstract from reality and give it a complexion that appears real and concrete. Just as Christians fight and kill for their abstract concepts (e.g. salvation), so do secular people for the sake of what they think is “right.” Ask ten secular people how to define “justice” and you’ll get eleven different responses. And ask ten Christians to define “image of God” and you will never get two answers that are the same.

Why is this important? It’s important because when we turn concepts into concrete objective reality, we fall victim to tunnel vision that only reveals our “truth,” which results in a type of tribalism that reinforces all-or-nothing and black/white thinking. The Christian falls prey to this when it comes to concepts such as heaven or hell, as well as the secular person when it comes to the concept of justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have concepts, because embracing concepts are inevitable. I’m simply encouraging us to not absolutize concepts, because in doing so we invariably retard our capacity to look to other viable possibilities.

Let’s face it, both Christian and secular people abstract from their world concepts that serve to help us make sense and articulate what appear true to us. Concepts, which are abstractions that we presume to mirror reality, are nevertheless our personal mental short-cuts that reflect our values and worldview. Thus, before we do an eye-roll at Christianity’s “delusions,” perhaps the secular person should reflect on their own concepts that are incubated in the same quicksand.

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The Illusion of Self

Written in several hours at Starbucks by the San Jose Airport, with the Chainsmokers blasting in my ears and a blonde roast coffee keeping me alert. This short essay was inspired from articles on psychology and neurology spurred me to put the “self” and the “I” in a clearer context.

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Each of us lives with a sense of a self. We feel like we have an independent and existent “I.” We all yearn for clarity to the questions “Who am I?” Who is the “I” who says, “I love ice cream,” or “I am mad at you.” It is curious and revealing that we constantly refer to ourselves, our “I,” and yet we really don’t really know the manner in which this “I” exists. Where am I? Can you point to your consciousness? Am “I” my physical body: my nose, my face, my leg, my brain? However, doesn’t the self or “I” survive even if I lose an arm or leg?

Realizing the delusions of our self is akin to the little dog Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the machinations of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Throughout the Land of Oz, the Wizard was dominant, all-powerful, and authoritative, and everyone deferred to him. This is like our ego, telling us what to do and convincing us that it alone is wise and knows all. Then, one day, we get fed up and tired of being sent on wild goose chases, and we discover that the big Wizard is only a rather small, insecure, and powerless old man shouting into a microphone. It is all ruse. The Wizard dominated for his own benefit; Dorothy never needed him to get her “home.” Our personal Wizard might be the internalized voice of our parents, or of society, or of our profession. The Wizard is not us, however, and we don’t actually need him in the driver’s seat. Invariably, getting “home” and overcoming our self-destructive tendencies require us only to be brave enough to pull back the curtain and reveal our own false sense of self.

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My contention can be summed up in three points:

  • The “I” is a constructed entity.
  • There is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I.”
  • We predispose ourselves to expect that we live out the “story” that we think defines us.

First, the “I” is a constructed entity, a collection of opinions, projections, and disturbing emotions, rather than something absolute. The “I” is like a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives that seems so real – as if we have been cast as a character in a play.

We all manufacture an elusive “I” filled with character traits, virtues, and a back-story so that we can gain acceptance with others, fulfill a role in life, manage potential threats, and protect our fragile ego’s. We cultivate a “self” from the amalgamation of our experiences, memories, and extensions.  A man’s “I” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but clothes and house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his accomplishments and status.

The “I” is our constructed story that forms and shapes our identity. We are the chief architects of our individual selves as we build up a sense of ‘self’, ‘identity’, and the pronominal ‘I’. During the different phases of our development we morph into the ‘smart one’ or ‘the athlete’ of the family; then the ‘shy girl’ one or ‘the funny guy’ in high school. We are constantly sizing up people and experiences around us in order to adapt to the expectations and requirements of the outside world. We adapt by creating defenses and extensions so that our world becomes more manageable. We adapt by using denial, “That’s not really me!” and projection, “Oh, he thinks he knows everything.” We use are extensions to help us with our role and status in society. Thus, our extensions become our looks, our cars, our houses, and what appears on our Facebook feed. In essence, our extensions become our identities.

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Second, there is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I.” This is proven in our ever-evolving acting roles given the experiences we face and the situations we find ourselves in. I may say and feel, for example, that I am a father, husband, counselor, writer, son, impatient driver, mellow driver, good triathlete, funny guy, contemplative guy, coach, and so on. But I am none of these concretely, permanently, solidly, independently, or absolutely, even if I do believe I exist in all those ways at certain times and places. Sometimes I am a husband, but with my mom I assume the role of son. I play the role of good driver when my wife and son are in the car, but I’m Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights when I am in my car alone and I am late for an appointment. I’m professional and serious at work, but I’m goofy and crazy with my close friends. Am I a husband, good driver, and goofy constantly and absolutely? Not at all. I simply can’t nail down my identity or “Me” because I play a plethora of roles in order to adapt to my environment. Moreover, if tomorrow I lose everything and find myself bankrupt and alone, I will assume a new role and character. Simply put, the self and “I” is not physical, but it’s symbolic. The “I” is an ever-changing symbolic narrative we mold as it undergoes perpetual construction, refining, and re-definition.

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Why am I so focused on deconstructing the illusion of “I”? The reason is because the illusion of the self is so powerful that we predispose ourselves to live out particular “stories” that we think define us. Often when we have an experience, we generalize it to a personal trait. So, when going through various experiences, we typically reinforce an imprint of who we think we are. In a sense we could say we predispose ourselves to expect that we will live out the “story” that we think defines us, even when that story leads us into perpetual failure or self-destructive habits.

When we fail to recognize the illusion of the “I”, we end up fusing our identity with our emotions. We all, most likely would agree that we are not our beliefs, our experiences, or our roles. We know intellectually that we are not solely any of these limited things, but there’s the rub. Despite this understanding, we often behave and react otherwise. We “forget” in the heat of the moment. We live in a kind of a hallucination brought on by our emotions, which are experienced so fully and directly it’s as if they take over our mind and we “fuse” our identity with them.

Just look how people talk about their emotions. They (and you) say, “I am hungry,” and “Boy, I’m tired,” or “I’m mad at my boss.” In the moment we become hunger, tired, and anger. All day long we are constantly identifying with our emotions, and we treat them as if they are the infallible barometer of our true self. The reality is this: when we fuse our emotions to our (constructed) identity we cause our own anxiety by projecting specific beliefs, perceptions, and values onto the situation.

Currently, I am stressed because I have a rocky relationship with a co-worker. I have anxiety over the way that this co-worker treats me and false assumptions they have of me. But this anxiety is my own fault and my own doing. I am clinging to my sense of “I” that says, “I need to have a good reputation,” and “I deserve to be liked by everybody.” This is part of my identity and has been for as long as I can remember. If I don’t get perceived by others that way, then am I the opposite: a person with a sketchy reputation who should not be trusted? It certainly feels that that’s the perception. Quite honestly, my identity feels threatened! My anxiety, then, is the direct result of this aversion/desire I have around a specific identity (i.e. reputable, well-liked), and my attachment to the outcome.

Do you see the emotional fusion? Anxiety is fused with the desire and attachment to an insatiable need to be liked and respected. Why? Because I have constructed an identity that says, “Wes is a reputable person who needs to be well-liked and respected.” That is the role, identity, and “I” that I have constructed. I would be much happier, had I not constructed that identity, that “I”.

Listen, just because I believe the “I” is an illusion doesn’t been that we have to resign ourselves to a feeling of floating nothingness. It’s impossible to live 24/7 denying the “I”. The reason for this is because we all have experiences; and experiences are the catalyst for the formation of the “I.” Thus, we are destined to always construct a story of our “I,” as well as concretize an identity and story we wish to live out.  Given this inevitability, my suggestion is that we pick roles and identities that are adaptive and flexible. I’d much rather create a role for myself that is centered on “Wes the compassionate person” than “Wes, who needs to be perceived as a strong and reliable person.” We will always find a role to play, my point is that we can pick roles that don’t set us up for future failings.

In reality, the “I” doesn’t actually refer to anything. You can have an elaborate story about “I,” and you can refer to that story and worry about how that story is going, but there is no thing that all of that refers to. “I” is just a lot of memories patched together to make what we call a self-image, which is an accurate description of it – it’s an image. In the end, it turns out that “I” is just thoughts about “I.”

If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.  – Aldous Huxley