What I Write When I Should Be Writing

Writing and reading are so seemingly essential to modern life, especially modern academic life. This might seem odd to people that believe that the advance of technology would destroy the written word. However, the internet has not devalued the written word but made it more powerful and omnipresent. Now, the majority of the American populace is literally surrounded at all times by more written information than ever before in human history. Furthermore, though places like Amazon may have “killed” (a ghastly metaphor) the brick-and-mortar bookshop (though not in all cases); they have not “killed” the print book. Indeed, this seems odd given the advance of devices and apps such as the Kindle, Google Books, and iBooks; for some, ebooks truly rule the day, but for many people physical books are still very much desired and used. Positing why this is the case can only be pure conjecture, utterly tainted by personal preference. However, I believe that the there is something in the physicality of tangible books that make them appealing to many people; there is also the aspect of visibility. It is impossible in most cases to tell from a passing glance what someone is doing on their smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Maybe they are reading an ebook, or maybe they are scanning Facebook; it’s a mystery. Whereas with a physical book there is no mystery, it is easy to tell at a glance when someone is reading a physical book. Moreover, I would hazard a guess, that a third aspect contributing to the continued presence of print books is a desire to differentiate activities.

There is a serious danger when one is reading on a screen to flit to something else, a game, a social media app, etc. This can seriously damage one’s reading; indeed, only the dedicated reader will not yield to temptation when a boring section of a book occurs. Clearly, there is a danger to flit between tasks with a physical book as well. It is all too easy to put a book down during that dull section. However, I would posit that there is a fundamental difference in these two types of task switching. Fliting between apps on a smartphone is as simple as putting down a book, but far less physical and, thus, (I would guess) far less memorable. Whereas after putting down a physical book it is still there in what can sometimes be oppressive physical omnipresence, reminding one of the task they’ve abandoned; switching apps on a smartphone is easily forgotten, it is easy from minute to minute to go from iBooks to Facebook to Twitter and on and on, without returning to iBooks. Closing out the app removes the presence of the book as does shutting down one’s Kindle or other e-reader. The book is in some sense gone, vanished, not, as with physical books, oppressively omnipresent. Giving up reading Gravity’s Rainbow on a reading app is much simpler than abandoning it physically. The file takes up no physical space, it does not stare one in the face every time they pass their bookshelf; in short, electronic books are more easily forgotten than physical books. Furthermore, I believe that many people probably want to differentiate their tasks, between “screen-time” and “non-screen-time;” especially with the growing body of evidence that screens are changing our brains [1]. I think it is safe to say that print books are going nowhere anytime soon. However, this does not get us any closer to why reading and writing are so fundamental.

It seems odd that something so artificial has shaped the modern world in more ways that it is really possible to fully comprehend. It is hard for any literate person to imagine a world without writing; I do not mean that it is hard to imagine what it is like to be illiterate. This is something, I think many can easily imagine, though I doubt many can understand the deeply unsettling emotionality of adult illiteracy. However, I think that to imagine being illiterate, or actually to be illiterate, presumes literacy. The lack assumes to the presence. To imagine being blind, or to be blind in reality, necessitates that sight exists. Similarly, illiteracy necessitates that reading and writing exist. This is why imagining a world totally without reading and writing is so difficult. However, stepping back from our phenomenal present existence and considering writing from a distance we can see that it is strange and artificial.

Speaking and listening are deeply natural for humans. We are linguistic creatures. This is evidenced by the fact that all humans in all places speak some language or another from infancy onward. Indeed, even deaf individuals develop and use language, though not spoken, that is deeply and structurally linguistic every bit equal to spoken language. Language is what people do. Many in the modern literate society, such as the United States, would unreflectively assume that writing is just as natural, evidenced, no doubt, by its omnipresence in society. However, upon reflection it becomes clear that writing isn’t natural. It is artificial. Consider indigenous societies that even today do not write. They are non-literate societies – NB they are not illiterate societies; they are non-literate, meaning that they live without writing and not without the knowledge of writing.  Of course, many of these indigenous populations are now illiterate societies, having been brought into contact with the written word. However, it should be clear that writing is not something natural in the same way that speaking (or signing) is natural.

Writing was invented a few times in a few places, the big ones are Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica; but there are other places where writing was invented, for example Crete and the Indus valley. For a long time a theory called monogenesis ruled the day. The theory held that writing was invented once, in Mesopotamia, and spread from there to Egypt; however, more recent finds have shown that the Egyptians invented writing on their own. Obviously, China and Mesoamerica (the Maya and Aztecs) were not in contact with the Mesopotamians, and thus could not have stolen writing from them; though this was, for obvious reasons, never seriously postulated. (Now, if certain people are correct, monogenesis may yet be saved, as obviously the aliens invent writing and gave it to everyone; but until there’s actual concrete evidence for these “aliens” it’s safe to say that the Egyptians and the Mesoamericans invented writing independently.) From these inventions of writing, the idea spread and morphed along the way. Soon Phoenician traders had developed what would become the alphabet, though they didn’t have vowels in their version. These traders spread their invention around the Mediterranean. The Greeks took hold of it changed some letters from “barbarian” sounds to vowels, thus creating the alphabet the majority of the world uses today (the “Latin” alphabet is an Italian variant of the Greek and the Cyrillic is a Slavic variant) [2]. All of this should show that writing is far from natural, in the sense of innate. It may have become naturalized because of its singular ubiquity but it is, nonetheless, created, artificial. Writing is an art and a gift that those of us in literate societies too often take for granted.

We’ve lost touch with the art of writing in two senses. The first is the rather forgivable loss of appreciation for the beauty of the written form, as handwriting and calligraphy slip more and more to the periphery; however, this loss is not so great given that writing began as something merely functional in many ways, after all most early examples of writing are basically accounting records. The second loss is much graver, we have, I fear, lost touch with the art of writing in a broad sense. By this I mean that we have lost the sense that there is an art to writing; that writing is something special, that it is something to be grateful for, and something to appreciate and cherish.  I fear that writing has become something so merely functional, so basic, and so base that it has lost all meaning to most literate people. It may be unclear what this loss means, but I fear that its implications are as deep and wide. If we forget that writing is something special we run the risk of relegating it to merely another technological tool, something to be used without much thought; something, moreover, to be abandoned if something better comes along. We forget that though writing is an artificial gift, it is a gift nonetheless, and has deeply changed our world. Forgetting the art of writing is forgetting the power of writing.

It cannot be denied that writing is the most power thing people have ever invented. This claim is bold but true. Certainly, inventions like the wheel, the utilization of fire, and guns have shaped the world and qualify as important inventions. However, the knowledge of these things can only be transferred in two ways: speech or writing. Indeed, the oral tradition is the older option, useful in many cases, but severely limited in scope. In the oral tradition things are passed down generation to generation in a direct line, this means that if any one part of the chain is broken the knowledge is lost. Since the oral tradition is also limited to the size of a human community, a break in the change is more likely than with writing. In writing, knowledge can skip a generation, or more, as long as the text isn’t lost. For example, it is possible for anyone to become a Scholastic scholar even if no one else in the family ever read St. Aquinas. Furthermore, unlike the oral tradition, writing is not limited to the size of any one human community; any one can learn the language of a text and read, regardless of their membership in a particular community. An additional benefit of writing is that written information is less prone to change in meaning than oral information. One need only think of the children’s game where something is whispered alone a chain of people and the message is changed, often extremely, by the end of the chain. Writing allows not only for the widespread and, generally, accurate transmission of technical knowledge for building wheels and weapons; it also, more importantly, allows for the spread of the most powerful thing in human history: ideas.

I believe that it is ideas that rule society and history. Indeed, to quote Ludwig von Mises [3]: “The history of mankind is the history of ideas. For it is ideas, theories, and doctrines that guide human action, determine the ultimate ends men aim at and the choice of the means employed for the attainment of these ends.” There is no better way to disseminate ideas than writing, itself an idea of sorts. Writing allows for the spread of ideas regardless of context, place, time, culture, or any number of factors that limit other means for spreading ideas. With the advent of the printing press the spread of ideas in writing grew faster, freer, and wider. With the ideals of universal education and literacy that blossomed in the mid twenty century, though never fully achieved, the advance of writing was finalized as universal. It is a tragedy that in all this the medium of advance has been largely forgotten and ignored; writing hardly receives a seconds thought as it is used to spread ideas around the globe. It is hardly considered that it is writing that heralded scientific revolutions, writing that convinced men to send armies to march across the globe to advance written ideas, writing that championed the ideals of world peace and an end to war, writing that simultaneously sent people to their deaths and promised that there would be death no more. Writing is a neutral tool as all tools are, the hammer can be used to destroy as well as to build, no less can writing. Nevertheless, it is the unique providence of writing to be that omnipresent tool that is used for every imaginable end. War and peace are penned in the same medium, racism and antiracism proclaimed with the same tool, theology and atheism championed in the same form. Writing and the advance of ideas, thus the advance of history, are inexorably linked. Writing as the basic representation of spoken language in symbols is often, unfortunately, overlooked and forgotten; its unique place in history and society overlooked; however, in a different sense writing is hardly ever overlooked or forgotten.

Writing as prose or poetry; writing as essay; writing as literature; in short, writing as the thing taught in English classes, is rarely overlooked. Compositional writing is the likely the first thing that jumps to people’s minds when they think about writing. Organized writing rules the day, in books, newspapers, magazines, and even television and movies (which use written scripts). There is no doubt that organized writing is important and world-changing; however, it is thoughts of composition, of order, that remove one from the wonder of the medium itself. As important as good composition may be, it is impossible without the presence of the medium of writing itself. A well written piece is something to be admired and praised but without the letters it is impossible. It is important that in composition we forget about the letters in favor of the words, or even forgetting the words in favor of the structure of a piece; however, though this leads to good composition it also leads to a loss of wonder and appreciation for writing qua writing. It is important that we take time to learn what makes a good composition a good composition, but it is equally important that we take time to reflect on the medium of composition itself: the art of this artificial thing that was invented a few times and in a few places; the beauty and power of the invention that changed the world; the might of this tool that we call writing. Writing is the most human of inventions and tells the most human of stories.

 

[1] See here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cravings/201609/how-internet-use-is-shaping-our-brains

[2] For a more in depth history of writing, watch Thoth’s Pill by Nativlang here:  https://youtu.be/PdO3IP0Pro8.

[3] von Mises, L. (1977). Planned Chaos, p.62. Foundation for Economic Education: Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Random Thoughts on Politics

This is another collection of short pieces on my random thoughts, this one happens to be political in nature. I understand if you dislike politics and don’t want to read this, I swear that I will be returning to languages soon and then some philosophy stuff. Anyways here are some random thoughts on politics.

Immigration and Refugees

This is a big topic in light of recent events and yet I can only bring myself to barely care. That probably makes me a terrible person, oh well. The reason I barely care is that in my ideal world neither of these things would be issues, but this isn’t my ideal world so they are. I’m for free and open immigration, I’m for letting refugees enter the United States; however, I’m against all forms of the government getting involved in either of these matters. There are ways of privately helping refugees and those are what we should be engaged in. No immigrant should receive government money, not because they’re immigrants but because governments and by extension government money shouldn’t exist.

I know I’ll be criticized, if only silently, by many. One criticism is “what about national borders, national sovereignty, or national culture.” Granted the last one usually doesn’t have the word national tacked on the front but it is certainly implied. Well, I don’t care about national anything because I don’t believe nations should exist, not in some weird one-world government meaning of the phrase but in a localist way that everything should be run locally. Simply put, I don’t think governments, certainly not national governments, should exist and therefore I don’t believe in the nation-state as a justification of anything. Oh and on the culture thing, people seemed worried about “losing their culture.” I’m really not sure what that means. Culture is not a stagnant thing, it is a constantly changing process, a negotiation made each and everyday by each person. Another criticism is that “we don’t want violent people coming into this country.” On some level I agree, I mean no-one should be violent period. That actually leads me to disagree on a much deeper level with this sentiment. First, there are already violent people here, I doubt it will be that much worse if some people come into the country. Second, as I stated above I don’t believe in the whole nation-state thing so there is no “our country,” there is a piece of geographically territory that is ruled by an entity founded on force that for some reason everyone insists on asserting is “one and unified.”

Maybe you can see why I am basically apathetic on this issue. People seem to want everyone to adopt a pro-immigrant/refugee policy stance of an anti-immigrant/refugee policy stance, but either way they want you to have a (governmental) policy stance. That makes it tough for me, because both sides are wrong due to the fact they both of them believe that government must be involved; whereas, I don’t.

Hate Speech and Free Speech

I have declared before that I am a free speech absolutist and I am. In my opinion all speech should be free including what is commonly labelled “hate speech.” This is not a generally accepted or even tolerated position, which to my mind shows the lack of nuance in people’s thinking. Let me explain. To begin with let me state plainly: I despise bigotry and despise bigoted and hateful speech. However, that does not mean I think it should be banned or in any way silenced. This is where people seem to lack nuance; many seem to believe that if something is terrible, evil, or vile that it ought to be banned or silenced. However, this creates more problems than it solves.

When speech is open and free there is more responsibility. Silencing speech removes responsibility for that speech, the speaker of hateful words goes into hiding, makes all their comment anonymously, and never takes responsibility for their speech. Furthermore, silencing removes the possibility of openly combating the ideologies that lead to hateful speech. Moveover, silencing does not kill hatred, it grows it.

Let me be clear: I understand the psycho-emotional damage of hateful and derogatory speech. Hateful speech is despicable; however, that doesn’t mean it should  be silenced. No, it should be made openly and combatted openly and decisively. Moreover, it must be combatted with respect if for no other reason than to be unlike the bigot. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” Hate speech is disgusting but it is free speech and thus must be allowed. By the same token, it must also be decry and freely combated at every injunction without silencing or disrespect. If allowed to be openly express it is unlikely to last long in the market of ideas, as Louis Brandeis said: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Note: Hateful action is not speech. Violent must never be allowed. It must always be denounced.

Respect and Listening to Each Other

It seems as though no one can listen to each other any more, if they ever could. In all matters of disagreement people seem to only shout at each other and never engage in meaningful and free discourse. Moreover, not only can people not listen to other viewpoints, they feel compelled to constantly insult and belittle everyone that disagrees with them. There never seems to be respectful discussion instead it is merely insulting each other. All sides engage in this shameful practice and it works because it captures people’s emotions. However, at the end of the day respectful discussion and debate have better results than emotional appeals and insults. Not that this is anything new. Insulting opponents seem to have always been a tacit, but they’ve never been a tacit that should be accepted. Hopefully, we can all try to be better at listening and being respectful even of those we most disagree with (i.e. don’t call people names!).

Taxation and Federal Programs

I recently saw a post on a social media platform that asserted the minimal cost of certain “threatened” federal programs, including schools, museums, and arts funding. The post asserted that the cost to fund these various programs is only around 22 dollars per year for each taxpayer. It also asserts that the posters are happy to give up this money to keep these programs in operation. Interestingly, the post uses the correct terminology for taxation, saying “please take my $xx.xx;” take is the correct verb since taxation is theft. However, that is not the part of the post that made me want to write about it. I want to write about this post because it shows an odd twisting in logic. Imagine if someone said that these programs should be privatized, run not by government but by private means. There would be massive uproar, likely from that same people saying that they are happy to have their money taken to fund these federal programs. They would claim that if these things were privatized no one would give them money. However, they have asserted that they are happy to have their money taken to fund them, so by simple logic they should be happy to fund them privately. If you think that the government should fund something, then you should be able to see that it will be funded privately! If you are happy to have your money taken to fund a federal arts program then you should be equally happy to fund a private arts program. Unless of course, you just say that you’re happy to fund all these things because you think it makes you sound decent, civilized, or cultured, when in actual fact you don’t give a damn about whatever it is you believe the government should be funding.

The Federal Department of Education

Upon the confirmation of the Trumpian Secretary of Education there has been an outpouring of discontent. Justifiable or not, people dislike the new Secretary of Education for various reasons for her policy proposals, her lack of experience, or just the fact that she’s a Trumpian. Nonetheless, I don’t take issue with people that disapprove of her, nor for that matter people that approve of her. Either way, they’re wrong. I don’t care who’s in charge of the department, because the department shouldn’t exist. I’ve now uttered, actually written, the fatal words. How dare I claim that the Federal Department of Education not exist! Think of the children! Apparently, the Federal Department of Education is the only thing keeping children in the Bible Belt for being openly taught creationism in science class, ya know, because parents and teachers are too stupid to make decisions. That’s the point, I’m at most a localist, I believe things should be run locally, in fact, I would say we should run things at an even smaller level, but that’s a different comment for a different time. Schools should be run locally and by and large they already are. The Department of Education has rules and regulations, sure, but if you really have so little faith in the states (especially southern states) to educate without them, do you really believe they aren’t already ignoring as many rules as they can get away with? There are going to be bad schools with or without the Department of Education, and the benefit of not having it is that you wouldn’t have to worry about a Trumpian being in control of it.

Homosexuality and Abortion

I am a Christian. If one is tempted to stop reading at this sentence because one presumes from the title and the preceding sentence they know what I’m going to say, STOP. The point of this is not to expound on my own specific beliefs about these two subjects, but instead to decry that in the contemporary conversation in and around the Christian faith these two subjects have become possibly the biggest areas of debate. I feel that this is an abomination far worse than any other. These two issues have hijacked the faith and are doing a very good job of obliterating it. Ultimately the debate over these two issues within the Christian community and with the broader community is a distraction from the true message of the church.  

The message of the church is one of love and salvation, not hatred and damnation. When in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is asked “Which commandment is first of all?” his reply is “love the Lord with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31; emphasis added). Notice that Jesus did not say, ‘the greatest commandment is the prohibition of homosexuality and the second of abortion,’ or, ‘love your neighbor, unless you have determined that you are the right judge and have determined them to be an unredeemable sinner.’ The point should be clear. The commandment of Jesus Christ, who Christians are supposed to follow, is one of love.

Furthermore, it is not the place of any individual however knowledgeable in the Bible or however self-righteous to judge their fellow humans. That job is reserved solely to God. But it seems because of homosexuality and abortion people conveniently forget about John 8: 1-11, the story about the adulterer about to be stoned to death for her crime. Do any of the most virulent haters of homosexuality and abortion recall verse 7? You know the one where Jesus says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” No? Funny, they must not have included that in the “I don’t want people to be Christians except if they parrot my every word” version of the Bible.

I could go on but I’ll cut to the chase. Whether or not homosexuality and/or abortion are sins in all cases doesn’t really matter. If they are and one subscribes to the view that all sins are equal before the eyes of the Lord, then why do these two things get discussed and decried more often than say disrespecting one’s parents. For that matter, if they are indisputably sins, then so is not loving your neighbor no matter what their sins are. Thus, if, as some that decry homosexuality and abortion so often imply, those living in sin are going to hell, I suppose they’ll have fun with the people they spent their lives hating. If these things aren’t sins then the issue is moot. Overall, they are just a cancer on the church that causes people to lose faith, to distrust the church, and to lose sight of what really matters. There are many other debates to be had that might actually matter than on things that in the scope of it all are trivial. I say they are trivial in the scope of things because if  they are indeed sins then they are no different from any other sin in that if one truly and completely repents one’s sins are forgive. That’s the message of the faith after all. And, again, if they are not sins, then they aren’t issues at all. Furthermore, the work of the church in the world is far more complicated than holding the “correct” position on certain issues. The work of the church is love for the world with the message of salvation. After all, love is the message of the faith, not hatred as it seems many are being lead to believe.

The Presidential Election does not Matter

No matter how bad you think a candidate will be as president, they will not destroy those things that lie at the heart of life. This may seem na­­ïve, one may say that the presidential election is hugely important, that it will deeply impact society, that a certain presidential candidate would mean the doom of America and possibly the world.  However, even if the future president starts World War 3 (probably the most extreme claim see here and here), which is highly unlikely; they will not be able to destroy the human spirit. Indeed, no regime, no army, no weapon, can destroy the human spirit. No government can stomp out love and joy and resilience. They can try, some put on a mighty great effort but never to much avail.

Stalin’s USSR,  NAZI Germany, Franco’s Spain, etc. were all terrible places to live, the regimes created  widespread suffering. They made life difficult to live, but never could they completely destroy the human spirit. They may have suppressed it, pushed it out into hiding, but they never destroyed it. People still loved each other, they still had joy in their lives, even if this love and this joy were done in secret, hidden away, out of fear. Though fear is a great and terrible device in attempting to destroy the human spirit, it can never sap that last drop of resilience from the citizenry. The lesson of this should be clear: no matter how bad things get people will still push back, even if they push back in secret. Indeed, when a regime attempts to destroy the human spirit, to weed out love and joy, to obliterate resiliency; the very act of existing becomes a revolt, the act of love becomes a rebellion, the act of joy becomes a revolution; and there is something profoundly beautiful in that. There is a reason that no earthly power can destroy human spirit it is the same reason no earthly power can destroy planetary movement.

The reason is nature, in this case human nature. Human spirit is the wellspring of a great many of debates and ideological disagreement; many deny that it exists and even among those that say it does there is a disagreement as to what it is. For my part I believe that humans are be nature good but easily and everywhere corrupted. I am not deterministic, I do not believe that human nature preordains precise existence. Instead, I believe, that humans are by nature free (have free-will) and contain the innate capacities to do a great many things but only through training can they do many of these things. What I mean by humans are by nature good but easily and everywhere corrupted is that humans have the disposition toward love, justice, and liberty but that in many cases this disposition is corrupted by any number of sources (environment, attainment of power, etc.). Furthermore, one of humans’ chief predispositions of nature is to be able to reason and be guided by reason and therefore to be able to live the good life. Moreover, humans have the capacities to reason with hope and love. This is why no regime can ever destroy the human spirit, the natural outgrowth, or manifestation, of human nature.

No power, no matter how great and evil, can ever destroy human nature, nor can they fundamentally and widely change it. It is the conceit of many regimes, operating under a blank slate view of humanity, that they can craft humans as they wish them to be. This is a dangerous and wildly incorrect belief. The best they can do is murder (directly destroy human life) and corrupt (as I said human nature is good but easily and everywhere corrupted), they may blind people to this corruption but they will never destroy the essential character of humanity. This brings me back to the presidential election: no matter how bad you think a candidate would be as president remember that you have the power over your life, remember that they day after the election you will still be able to love and be loved, that you will still be able to have and create joy, that you will still be able to fight on, even if you do these things in secret. Take heart and remember that society and government are distinct. Trump or Clinton may decimate the government, the nation, or the politico-geography world, but they will not (cannot) decimate the society. If American society is destroyed it will not be the fault of any one person or any group of persons, it will be the fault of all the individuals that create and recreate the society everyday. Indeed, society does not have an existence outside of the individuals that create and recreate it.

I will end this musing by quoting a brilliant article by Mr. Joey Clark:

Life without reason, indeed, produces monsters, but reason without hope in ourselves and our character as a people, without a willingness to dream beyond the whims and ambitions of the political moment, produces an arid landscape for the mind. Little can grow in such a climate other than resentment, apathy, and conflict. And lo and behold, unrefined cynics are sprouting up left and right in this drought of 2016.

[…]

Do not fall into quietism or fatalism; seek happiness with a zeal – in friendships and long conversations, in the pleasures nature has provided us, in the fruits of our reason and imagination, and in the avoidance of vain ambitions for power over others.

Mr. Clark’s article can be found here: https://fee.org/articles/what-epicurus-can-teach-us-about-freedom-and-happiness/