Tag Archives: freedom

WRTII, Part 1: Riding the Waves

14 May

The next three posts will tell the tale of my recent West Coast adventure, as detailed in this introductory post.

My wanderlust is calling, and I’m ready to answer. I spend my Friday at work chomping at the bit. I was supposed to have a meeting halfway between Duluth and Minneapolis today and bought plane tickets accordingly, but alas, the meeting was canceled, so I’m stuck in the office, watching the clock. I drive down to Minneapolis late in the afternoon, and meet a big group of old friends for dinner and games. After a leisurely Saturday morning, I head for the airport and make the four-hour journey to San Francisco, where I will spend a weekend in the company of my cousin. I visited him on my road trip two summers ago, and this will be my only repeat destination on this trip, but as it’s a city that no brief weekend jaunt can do justice, it’s a welcome return.

My cousin collects me from the airport and we jump right in with a swift tour of a few sites around the city that one won’t find in a guidebook. First, a tree swing with a stellar view of Billy Goat Hill; alas, this time around, the guerrilla swing-hangers lost their war with the Parks Department, and it has been cut down, spoiling the fun. Next, a concrete slide in a vacant lot on a hillside, complete with cardboard to scoot down the slope, the brainchild of a neighborhood kid some decades before. Finally, a labyrinth at Lands End laid out in stones in the model of the one in the Chartres cathedral, which we meander through in full. San Francisco is a complete adult playground; even, we lament, as the city prices out most young families.

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Sticking with the playground theme, our mode of transportation for much of the weekend will be the most San Francisco thing imaginable: a moped app named Scoot. Much like bikeshares, Scoot allows users to unlock mopeds stashed around the city (either in scattered garages or on the streets, where past users have left them), put on a helmet from an otherwise locked compartment, and Scoot to their desired destinations. I take a little while to get used to it, as the proximity of the brake and the throttle make for a few awkward lurches, but before long I’m Scooting with confidence. It’s also entirely practical for San Francisco, where traffic is never too fast, and where hills make a traditional bikeshare much more of an ordeal for the causal peddler. A twenty-minute series of introductory videos coaches users on the mechanics of mopeds and basic safety, and thanks me for being part of a movement to change the world. Such pretention is one of the reason the tech world drives me insane. Isn’t it ever enough just to be a good, fun idea for a particular city?

This being San Francisco, though, Scoot is only the tip of the iceberg. The current craze (or infestation, depending on whom one asks) involves electric scooters, which zip along on streets (where they are supposed to be) and sidewalks (where they are not) and get dumped in all sorts of odd places around the city. Somehow, these aren’t even the most preposterous transportation options in the city. That award goes to the GoCars, the yellow three-wheeled two-seaters that putter about a couple of inches off the ground. It all feels awfully gratuitous, but all these options get us where we need to go in the end.

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After a delicious dinner in the Sunset District, Saturday night features a beer tasting with a few familiar faces from my previous visit to the Bay Area. The conversation turns to local politics as we down stouts and nibble at smelly cheese. San Francisco’s impending mayoral election will follow familiar plot lines to the 2016 Democratic Party primary, as an establishment figure tries to break the city’s glass ceiling while some rebels nip at her heels. Beyond that, the Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) movement tries desperately to break through the cynicism of well-heeled Bay Area liberals who reject greater density and development so as to preserve their perfect little neighborhoods, thereby driving some of the city’s absurd property values. I can’t help but be sympathetic to the cause, though my inner contrarian raises a few objections. Are we really right to pack more and more people into San Francisco, an earthquake-prone metropolis in a state that has its water issues? And this country already has a problem with concentration of wealth in too few major cities; might not the pricing out of San Francisco be a natural corrective that forces the tech engine of the American economy to spread the wealth and talent elsewhere? Duluth would be happy to have the services of a few refugees looking for a foggy, hilly city with much more reasonable real estate. I suppose I can dream.

Speaking of dreams, it crosses my mind several stouts in that my cousin and his friends are living a sort of millennial dream. They enjoy comfortable (if somewhat crowded) urban living, delicious food and drink, weekends at Tahoe, and travel around the world for both work and play. College, work, and church provide networks that form little communities within a larger city. We even got some avocado toast as an appetizer without a hint of irony. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that living it for a few days stirs up a little desire to start searching the job listings, as that magnetic Fear of Missing Out, so ubiquitous in an age of social media, rears its head again. A cursory look suggests I could double my salary, and while much of that gain would get swallowed up by rent, Bay Area money would still go awfully far, especially in travels or some eventual move elsewhere. Tempting, isn’t it?

There are a lot of reasons why that won’t happen, from family to temperament to some conviction over what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. But the allure tugs at my ambitious side, and only a week after my return, after a run around Congdon on a Perfect Duluth Day, do I fully remember why I don’t want to go down that road. I have my own little world to tend to here.

The delicious San Francisco life continues the next morning with a delectable brunch at Zazie in Cole Valley. (A pleasant West Coast offering: thanks to time zone differences, one can go to the bar next door and watch East Coast baseball while enduring one’s hour and a half wait for a brunch table.) The wait is worth it. And then, after further Scooting, we settle in at an authentic San Francisco crawfish boil, as one of my cousin’s friends has imported a stash of crustaceans and cooked them all up in a park with a view of the Golden Gate.

Sated, we Scoot over to Washington Square, see the old Italian neighborhood, and marvel at the public notice signage necessary to announce the planting of trees in San Francisco. I shake my head at my profession as we clamber up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The urban planners here probably have as much power as anywhere, and use it for all the wrong purposes. The panoramic views from Telegraph Hill blot out that annoyance, though, as they show us the bay to the north and east, a glistening city in the sun to the west, and the Financial District, complete with the remarkably phallic new Salesforce Tower, to the south. (This seems fitting in so many ways for the city’s contemporary aesthetic.) The streets that descend down from Coit to the various numbered piers are nothing more than stairways, with cozy but luxurious homes tucked behind their gardens. We board a ferry for Alcatraz and head over for an evening tour.

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The prison at Alcatraz has been closed for over 60 years, but its symbolic power remains, thanks to both its high-profile prisoners and its unique geography. An audio tour recounts the experiences of guards, prisoners, and the families that grew up on The Rock. I did not know, however, about the subsequent Native American occupation of Alcatraz, an attention-grabbing move in the 1960s still in evidence today in the graffiti they left behind. The occupation played a role in ending assimilation policies at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and freeing these groups to pursue greater self-determination.

The landscape, however, provides the greatest surprise of this visit: Alcatraz is a beautiful place. Sure, I expected a good view of the city and the Golden Gate, but Alcatraz itself has well-manicured gardens, graceful walks with stellar views, a few picturesque ruins, and offers up a sanctuary for thousands of birds. If not for the background noise in the audio tour, it would be impossible to remember that this place was once what it was. It is somehow heartening to see such an institution restored to the placid state of a seaside estate.

Following the tour, Alcatraz’s rangers offer a series of programs in various places around the island, recounting tales of famed prisoners or demonstrating the operation of the cell doors. The most memorable one, though, comes from a ranger who tells the tale of two inmates who dreamed of freedom. One, an escape artist whose attempts were foiled, figured out that he could brew beer in the milk bottles using the basic ingredients in the prison kitchen, where he toiled and found his escapes in hooch for years. The second, who came along after the guards had caught on to the milk bottle method, came up with an even more ingenious solution: beer fermentation in the prison’s fire extinguishers. Freedom, the ranger explains, is always possible with a change in perspective.

My cousin and I take the ferry back to the mainland and grab a late-night meal at El Farolito in the Mission. The street, filled with storefronts covered by garage doors, feels more Mexican than American, and save for the avocados on our burritos, the taquería itself has that vibe, too. We sit beneath a large painting of the Basilica of Guadalupe, and a lone mariachi minstrel makes his way up and down the length of the narrow restaurant. We devour our burritos and enjoy El Farolito’s excellent people-watching: young revelers on a Sunday night, complete families looking for an evening meal, gay couples, bougie white kids like us looking for an authentic bite. I’m at home here. Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

I bid my cousin farewell early Monday morning and take a BART train down to the airport. (How can such a wealthy metro have such a dismal train system?) I collect my chariot for the week, a white Jeep Renegade, from the cheery staff of Fox Rental, and begin my road trip. My first leg will give me my fill of ocean, as I swing south along the California coast. I head out on The 101 (highways come with articles in the West), intent upon seeing Silicon Valley and the Stanford campus with my own eyes. My enthusiasm for a window into the seat of technological power wanes amid thick traffic, however, so I pull my first audible of the trip and make a turn straight for the coast. I encounter The 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, at Half Moon Bay, and head south from there. I don’t regret my choice for a second.

At first The 1 runs somewhat inland, and I’m going through green cow pastures instead of beaches. Then, however, it rolls over a ridge, and the shoreline explodes before me, with ranks of perfect breakers making their way into shore as far as the eye can see. I make my first pit stop at Bean Hollow Beach, and while there’s not much to separate it from the beaches I’ve passed before or the ones that will follow, it seems an appropriate place to stop and admire some tide pools. I pass through Santa Cruz, and stock up on some camping gear at the REI in Marina. A late lunch comes at a cute café in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a stucco-spattered town that preserves its original character about as remarkably as any American city. Here one will find no parking meters, no street addresses, no stones out of place: just rows of cute houses, art galleries, and wine tasting rooms. Life must be rough here.

South of Carmel is Big Sur, that beautiful and sparsely populated streak of coast where mountains and sea collide. The 1 weaves along clifftops and drops down to beaches, and offers a stunning view at every turn. Most of my fellow travelers are tourists, though locals with surfboards head for a few well-chosen spots. The driving pace is leisurely, with frequent turn-outs, and while it is hard to tire of this scenery, I just go until I’ve had enough, and then work my way steadily back north toward my accommodations for the night on the Monterey Peninsula.

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I have the audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur for my listening pleasure on this stage of the journey. This is later-stage Kerouac, when his protagonist has become world-weary and tires of beatnik kids hunting him down for autographs. He drowns his sorrows in boozy binges. His solitary trip to Big Sur to clear his mind only leaves him lonelier, and sends him crawling back for more parties in San Francisco. All of his old friends from On the Road have aged, too. Cody Pomeray (Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and Neal Cassady in reality) has gone from the carefree epitome of cool to a family man trying to get out of the shadow of a stupid prison sentence for marijuana possession and live a decent life. Repeated later journeys down to the Big Sur cabin with various hangers-on always start out seeming like good ideas but are a mess by the end. While plenty of uncertainties afflicted Kerouac and friends in their early adventures, it came along with fevered searching and a sense of destiny. Now, the quest just ends in hangovers, and manipulation of words no longer does the trick, or at least not until the book ends in a deluge of stream-of-consciousness.

Big Sur, wrote Lillian Ross, is not a place at all, but a state of mind. Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz clearly did not inhabit that state of mind; he wasn’t able to shift his perspective, as the beer-brewing prisoners of Alcatraz had. Another semi-jaded aging writer traveling solo across Big Sur, however, can still pull it off, as he stops at Garrapata Beach and meander along the surf for a spell. Beauty alone may not bring enlightenment, but it is a powerful force in the moment.

I return to the Monterey Peninsula, stock up on food for my week of travel, and check in to my cottage in Pacific Grove. It’s a quaint, well-appointed place, and I throw open the windows to invite in a sea breeze. Next, I meander down Pacific Grove’s placid streets and start a two-mile hike to downtown Monterey along a beachfront path. Waves roll in to my left, Victorian homes watch over me to my right, and a man proposes to a woman along the path. I pass the Monterey aquarium, which is closing up shop at this time of day, and head down Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s old manufacturing district is now a collection of expensive shops and restaurants, though at least there’s still a bust of the author and a fountain honoring the canners midway down the street. I consume overpriced fish at a place that advertises itself as a brewery but just serves other people’s beer. With little else to do, I return to my cottage along inland streets, and Pacific Grove feels almost unnaturally placid. It’s a lovely place, but highly sanitized, its business district almost too quiet. Sure, it’s a Monday night, but the telltale vacation rental licenses hang prominently on the corner of many houses. I wonder if Duluth, another waterfront town of a similar size and distance from a wealthier metro, might someday lurch toward a similar fate. It could be worse, but it isn’t exactly abuzz with life, either.

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On this first of five nights of solitary travel, I reflect on my choice while drinking in some wine and sea breeze in my cabin. This is what I signed up for: a chance to take on everything between here and Zion by myself. I can either conquer it, or watch it go by. If I come back to these seaside towns I’ve seen today, I doubt it will be alone. But I have my solitary side, and a periodic need to prove myself in the wilderness, if only to myself. And when I come back, all will be well.

I arise early the next morning, and check out before anyone in the neighboring cottages stirs to life. I head down to the ocean one last time. Large bodies of water always pull me in, even though I’m a mediocre swimmer whose weak stomach is easily upset by bobbing on waves. Endless expanses of water impose themselves on people who live by them, and make clear our place in a grander scheme of things. I’ll miss the sea, and will welcome back vast expanses of water when I return home to Duluth in a week. For now, though, I turn inland, and look for inspiration away from the comfort of watery vastness. Freedom requires different perspectives.

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A Cycle Renewed

13 Mar

I’ve been slacking in my writing of late, which will happen when one is fairly busy and also coming off a rush of hockey-related activity that reached new heights this past month. I’m backlogged beyond belief on interesting articles that I’ve read and would like to comment on, though I’ll knock two out of the way in this post. I also have yet to opine on Donald Trump, which I’m told any self-respecting blogger must do or forever forfeit his credentials, as if everything there is to say has not been said already. (Worry not, I’ll let myself get sucked in at some point.)

Now that hockey is over this should conceivably be easier, though I’m afraid this alleged “spring break” I am now on will offer few such opportunities. With one last graduation looming, I have a lot on my mind, and a lot people with whom I want to spend time before venturing out into the world again. And in some of my rare free moments, I may opt for sloth instead of patient cycling, as was the case yesterday, when a 70-degree March afternoon found me beached on a towel in Loring Park. It was a dreamy escape. This freedom is only momentary, though, and it had my mind wandering back to a Roger Cohen article from a couple months ago on “ways to be free.”

In the article, Cohen describes the “ferocious ambivalence” that drives people in pursuit of freedom, with references to his own road trip through central Asia in his youth and the sublime surfing writing of William Finnegan. (I’ve never surfed in my life, but an excerpt in the New Yorker last year left me transfixed.) Cohen’s son seems skeptical that such freedom is possible in this day in age, but Cohen disagrees, and I think he’s right: for all our attempts to impose control on the world, vast swaths of it remain unconquered from the well-ordered Western mind. It will forever be this way, and we owe our sanity to it: the moments when we tap into that freedom beyond are some of the most formative moments imaginable.

Careful climber that I am, these moments aren’t always easy to find; as much as I may yearn for them and seek them out at times, they tend to be fleeting. My semester in Mexico certainly had some stretches that approximated it, but my self-discovery journey, such as it was, proved a far more inward affair that dug deep instead of roaming broadly. And, now that I am on the brink of a move to the 9-to-5 life, that hunger for adventure roars up again. It wants me on the road, or at the very least to wander through a few more Minnesota state parks to drink in the little details. For all my cynicism about journeys of self-discovery and the self-centered direction that inward turns can (though do not always) take, their power is genuine. We always seem to value things most when we’re about to lose them.

Perhaps, then, it’s helpful to read about a different sort of journey. Take the case of a Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham, who used some Department of Agriculture data to rank all of the counties in the U.S., and declared that Red Lake County, Minnesota, was the country’s worst. The other states with counties near the bottom of the list ignored it, but Minnesotans, being Minnesotans, lashed out in polite but scathing anger. Ingraham visited, came away absolutely charmed, and now, several months later, is packing up his family and moving to Red Lake County. These moments are effective because they are so spontaneous or serendipitous, and they are life-altering in large part because they are so unplanned.

Ingraham’s story will no doubt cue its share of Minnesota smugness. Still, it’s a refreshing tale for someone who’s been dwelling on questions of status lately, and who’s trying to remember what’s worth valuing as he starts a career. It does run the risk of lapsing into complacency, a contented niceness that will forever leave me a bit restless in this state. We still need outlets for that roaring daimonic desire that every now and then surges up and reminds us what it means to be free. But in the meantime, a Minnesota spring is on its way, and it’s to renew belief in what we hold closest, no matter how small or mundane those things may seem. For that, northern Minnesota remains the perfect reminder.

Finding the Cyclical Life in Arendt and Vargas Llosa

15 Jul

This blog is, admittedly, rather eclectic, and I am proud of that. There are posts about high school hockey and posts about city council meetings and posts about obscure intellectual debates, and I am well-aware that a number of readers come just for one of those topics while ignoring the rest. The posts on hockey and local politics have a certain order to them, while the more theoretical ones, while united by some vague themes, are fairly disjointed.

With that in mind, I’m going impose some order and tease out some parallels between my post on Hannah Arendt’s theory on evil and another recent one highlighting Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech on the importance of literature. They might not seem to have much in common in subject matter or underlying theory, but they share a robust vision of human life that is not strictly individualist or collective, but one that cycles between the two and emphasizes the importance of each.

At a cursory glance, both of these outlooks can appear rather individualistic. Arendt is famous for her attacks on totalitarian governments and the mindsets they instilled in their citizens, argues for a distinct private sphere of life (albeit not a realm she celebrates much), and had no problem with Adolph Eichmann hanging for failing to exercise his own moral agency. Vargas Llosa, who once ran for president of Peru as the candidate of a right-leaning party, is a staunch defender of individual liberty.

But neither one is that simple. As I explained in the last post, Arendt was no rampant individualist. Instead, she subscribed to a different definition of freedom rooted in Aristotle that saw living in community as the very essence of being human. In fact, she rejected the label “philosopher” because she believed it referred to people who studied man (in the singular) instead of people and how they interacted, and preferred to be called a “political theorist.” She had no great love for collectivism, but she was well-aware that human flourishing does not involve autonomous humans operating in vacuums, but is forever tied up in daily interaction with other people—that is, politics. Her thinking, while not always easy to penetrate, has a clear logic.

Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, is very much a modern man, and posits the individual at the center of his philosophical outlook. In a 1992 interview in Sergio Marras’s América Latina (Marca Registrada), he celebrated the death of collectivism that he believed came along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hoped “the death of all social utopias [will] lead us to search for utopias in activities where it’s not harmful, but actually very positive: for example, in art, in literature, and in individual life.” (Emphasis and translation mine.) Vargas Llosa’s profession also lends itself to an appreciation of individualism: as an author, his great creations emerge ostensibly from his own mind, and nowhere else. “A novelist is someone whose inner existence is as compelling as the details of his or her life,” writes Jane Smiley in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Still, even Vargas Llosa is well-aware that every person’s individuality emerges in part as a response to the collective. Storytelling is not just a means of entertainment or self-improvement, but a necessary foundation for the move from the “tautological” tribal life of prehistoric homo sapiens and is the power that “makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.” Like Arendt, Vargas Llosa sees that human flourishing emerges from the political realm, and the ability to dialogue with others and imagine a different life.

From my own experience, I can endorse Vargas Llosa’s words wholeheartedly.  I don’t know that I’d completely accept a label of “communitarian” or “localist” or “republican” (small-R republican, not the political party) but I do often emphasize themes that are associated with these words, and that comes directly from my first attempt at novel-writing. While I was an undergraduate in college, I started writing a novel late at night while my roommate was trying to sleep, and slowly put together a novel. It was about as individualistic an act as can be; it was a creative attempt to create a sort of narrative around my life, and I never shared any of it with anyone. (In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.) While it was an alright story and offered varying degrees of subtlety, the book was essentially a justification for my political views and my lifelong project of relentless academic success and achievement. But as I wrote, the book collapsed in on itself: I came to see the humanity in the ideas and people and places I’d meant to attack, and I came to love the setting that my protagonist sought to escape. Literature is, ultimately, to blame for my decision to head home after college; without it, I never would have come to embrace my own roots. I’d always been socially conscious, but at the same time, there was a manner in which my well-intentioned desire to climb the ladder and go on to save starving children in Africa came at the expense of more immediate relationships and realms in which my political activity could have an immediate, tangible impact. I don’t mean to denigrate people who commit their lives to social climbing or saving people elsewhere, but I did realize that I, at least, wasn’t going to find happiness there.

Instead, I find that it comes in cycles, with my time split between introspective writing (a la Vargas Llosa) and outward engagement in the community around me, as Arendt prescribes. While I certainly haven’t abandoned my old sense of ambition, I have recalibrated it to an entirely different sphere of life; one that situates it within a community, forever in search of dialogue. I have a lot of work to do.

How Is Evil Banal?

11 Jul

I have not seen the new “Hannah Arendt” movie, but I am enjoying the recent outburst of commentary on her most famous work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is her account for the New Yorker of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Israel. The work is most famous for describing Eichmann’s brand of evil is “banal,” a wonderfully pithy phrase that has inspired generations of political thinkers to completely misunderstand her work. Writes Roger Berkowitz of Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities:

Perhaps Arendt has been so violently misunderstood because her thinking is both provocative and demanding. Her blessing, and her curse was a facility for quotable aphorisms that, like Nietzsche’s, require whole books to reveal their unconventional meaning. It is easy to cite the “banality of evil.” It is much more difficult to make sense of what Arendt actually meant.

The common misunderstanding, says Berkowitz, stems from testimony at parts of the Eichmann trial Arendt did not attend, in which Eichmann’s anti-Semitism was on full display. Surely, her critics argue, had she heard his very willing embrace of Nazism, she would not have found anything banal in Eichmann. Berkowitz again:

The problem with this conclusion is that Arendt never wrote that Eichmann simply followed orders. She never portrayed him, in Cesarani’s words, as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” Indeed she rejected the idea that Eichmann was simply following orders. She emphasized that Eichmann took enormous pride in his initiative in deporting Jews and also in his willingness to disobey orders to do so, especially Himmler’s clear orders — offered in 1944 in the hope of leniency amid impending defeat — to “take good care of the Jews, act as their nursemaid.” In direct disobedience, Eichmann organized death marches of Hungarian Jews; as Arendt writes, he “sabotaged” Himmler’s orders. As the war ground to an end, as Arendt saw, Eichmann, against Himmler, remained loyal to Hitler’s idea of the Nazi movement and did “his best to make the Final Solution final.”

The banality of Eichmann came not from his blindness, but from his idealism; his grandiose belief that he was a part of some movement that gave meaning to an otherwise fairly dull, bourgeois life. Arendt does indeed make Eichmann sound rather pitiful—not because he was an automaton, but because he had a desperate need to conform in his search for meaning. He abdicated his moral agency by accepting the ideas of others uncritically.

This argument could very easily turn into a rejection of all politics, for fear that it inevitably corrupts people and drives them to commit terrible deeds. Arendt, however, goes in an entirely different direction—one that is alien to the contemporary framing of politics as a fight between the state and the individual. In the words of Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez in Mexico’s Nexos magazine (translation mine):

What is notable about this theoretical construction is that, despite being a vehement denunciation of the voracity of totalitarianism and all nationalization, Arendt does not find refuge in the defense of the private or the apolitical. On the contrary, she restores the value of politics better than anyone. Far from distancing herself from this sphere, she was convinced that it was necessary to recover it, or occupy it, as we say today. In politics she did not see a prolongation of the war, nor a nest of bureaucrats or proxy representatives. Politics, for her, was a cultural treasure that permitted men to find themselves, and find they were truly human. Only in the common realm of politics could man find his authentic existence. He is not the man in private isolation, in the monotonous echo chamber of commercialism. Citizenship could not be the occasional episode of voting, but a daily experience of one exercising liberty with others.

The work that should have been titled Amor mundi [The Human Condition] sustains precisely this necessity to revitalize the public space and find means to act in concert. It does not look for refuge in the private realm but instead in the plaza, in places of deliberation and encounter. In the face of historical determinism and manufactured inertia, it offers a route of imagination and creativity. The most essential thing about man is his “talent to create miracles,” that is, “his capacity to initiate, to achieve the improbable.” Conformity is the negation of liberty. In this way, Hannah Arendt led the fight for a notion of liberty that has little to do with the normal sense of the word in our day in age. Beyond liberating us from exterior constraints, being free means becoming engaged with the world. Her vision of liberty is republican, and densely political. In his room, isolated, man cannot be free. He is, if he goes out the door and enters the city and acts within it. Arendt restored the liberty of the ancients, the liberty within the city, among others. Totalitarianism is the most radical negation of liberty because it not only prohibits action; it also negates man. It negates the victim but also the executioner: one or the other, nuts and bolts within the imposed machinery of power. There are no individuals, only the species; there is no man, only humanity.

Totalitarianism is no longer the existential threat it was when Arendt wrote, but her work is no less relevant today. Due to a long list of factors I won’t delve into here, political participation has declined, and it’s not uncommon to hear laments over the collapse of civic participation. On the other side of the coin, there are still plenty of mass protests and advocacy campaigns, but many of them operate in ideological echo chambers. People get together to fight for a cause, but there is little in the way of dialogue, save mutterings about “those people” on the other side and shaking one’s fist (or worse) at the counter-protesters. In Arendt’s reckoning, this is not only an impoverished view of political life; it is a negation of human freedom.

To be sure, it is easy to pine for “dialogue” and “civil debate,” but it isn’t always easy to make it happen, and proponents of such debates are often not all that interested in hearing what other parties have to say. Arendt’s politics, however, goes back even further. It involves such simple things as families around the dinner table, friends at the bar, and co-workers acting in concert. It involves casual give-and-take, a slow learning that builds a culture out of which one defines one’s individuality. Politics conducted in good faith within a community is anything but banal; it is absolutely essential to the formation of a free human being. Only through such a dialogue can a person learn to consider alternatives to the ideological conformity that so enthralled Eichmann.

It isn’t the answer to everything that plagues politics in this day in age, and it takes effort. The design, however, is startlingly simple, and it is a start.

This Is Water

18 May

The Georgetown University Class of 2013 is currently being rained upon on Healy Lawn, listening to a series of commencement speakers who are about to release them into the world after college. This means I’m one year removed from my own graduation, so it seems like a fitting time to reflect on the greatest commencement speech I’ve ever read: David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon College. I’m hardly alone in lauding this one—this partial video of it went viral recently—but I’m not terribly snobbish about this sort of thing, and I suppose it isn’t surprising that people who actually care about commencement addresses often value the same thing.

Here’s a transcript of the full text:

http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

I first read this a few years ago, but had forgotten it somewhat until last month. Ever since, I cannot count the number of times I’ve repeated that mantra. This is water. This is water. It really isn’t possible to be forever aware of the water around us—and there is such a thing as too much awareness—but Wallace (hereafter ‘DFW’) is dead-on when he notes that blind consideration of our own interests is our default setting.

In my reading, the climax of the piece is here:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

DFW goes on to say that worshipping the divine probably makes the most sense, given the fallibility of everything else. Since I don’t have a particularly rosy view of human nature, I’d certainly agree; the problem here—as most any devout believer will probably tell you—is that logical arguments for faith aren’t especially convincing. Sure, they might sound lovely, but to true belief requires some sort of leap into surrender before a deity or some other supernatural realm. This is a leap many people are quite unwilling to take, including many people who consider themselves religious: acknowledging a God is one thing, but submitting to the teachings of faith as a serious code for life is an entirely different matter. It is also one of my own biggest stumbling blocks: a few fairly minor things aside, I haven’t really chosen to worship anything yet. I take pride in my skepticism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of its downsides. Freedom always has a price.

And DFW is dead-on in his definition of freedom. The freedom we so desperately seek does not come from liberties enshrined in some constitution, though the two can be related. Freedom comes from awareness; from having the wherewithal to embrace our surroundings as they are and find our niche within them. This does not mean blind compliance; instead, I think it means something akin to the old Reinhold Niebuhr prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and its various offshoots—‘God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ That wisdom is freedom. (Though I do have something of a beef with the second clause; surely not everything that we have the power to change should be changed!) It’s all a bit vague, but freedom’s power may be in its vagueness; it isn’t something we pin down, but something we feel.

Looming over this address, of course, is the knowledge that this incredibly insightful man took his own life just three years later. DFW had his mental issues, certainly, but it makes one wonder when he forgot what water was, or if the depth of his mind somehow overwhelmed him. The task is, as he says, “unimaginably hard.” But with the right grounding, with the right object of worship, it is all worth it.

So congratulations, Georgetown Class of 2013, and all of the other graduates who are on their way off to some other stage of their lives. Finding myself largely in the same place I was at this point a year ago, it’s time for me to head out into the world again, too.

But, of course, I cannot forget.

This is water. This is water.