In Defense of Alcohol(ism)

travel & adventure

One drink to ameliorate torpor. Two to eradicate it. Three to make everything awesome. Four plus to keep it all that way.

Undoubtedly alcohol is the vice most accepted by polite society. Fitzgerald wrote that “Often people display a curious respect for a man drunk….There is something awe-inspiring in one who has lost all inhibitions, who will do anything.” One needs not venture far into the local tavern to validate both of these statements.

The truth os these statements is undeniable, especially that of the the former. I may get exceedingly intoxicated and proceed to insult a close friend or a complete stranger with relative impunity. Indeed I could catch it on the chin, but any resulting wounds will heal nearly as fast as the apology delivered the next day, buoyed by that familiar opening line: “Sorry, I was so drunk…” If I had a nickel. Conversely, if I get jacked on cocaine or crystal meth I have a much better chance carrying out this process of making amends in a courtroom. This is but one (somewhat) hypothetical situation in which the drunkard holds a decided advantage.

That turning to drink is such a common occurrence both historically and presently – it is the fuel of every great written work and oral story alike – is unsurprising. Perhaps it is this very fact that perpetuates our own instinctive predisposition to drink. But it makes perfect sense, for at any given time the drinker has found himself in a preferable position relative to his progenitors yet in absolute terms he still occupies a cruel existence in a merciless world beset on all sides by abhorrent ills.

What is a man to do? If three drinks make everything awesome – perception is reality, after all – one might as well drink. And if four plus drinks can help keep things that way, one might as well drink excessively, exuberantly, and in an unrelenting manner.

The prohibitionist and the moralist will decry anyone who drinks to escape reality. My riposte is, “Why? What about reality is not worth escaping from?” Even these individuals surely escape reality several times a day through their wandering thoughts. The drinker simply takes this a step further and lives an altered reality.

He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

— Dr. Johnson

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

revolution

If you are going to put a modicum of faith in any mainstream Canadian media outlet then The Globe and Mail is a sound choice. It skews centre-right but has plenty of insightful pieces from both sides of the spectrum written by erudite professionals of rich and varied experience.Then there is Margaret Wente: American-born defender of the bourgeoisie and resident plagiarizing polemicist.

Her latest piece is ostensibly an anecdotal tale about how society has strayed from optimal world of “back in my day.” It is almost primordial in its characterization of a younger generation ill-suited to and unprepared for the modern world. This particular manifestation is a lament for an uber-coddled millennial generation that lacks direction and any ability to confront the world beyond (and including) school. She cites the celebration and rewarding of a child’s every achievement as a cause for concern; a generation of “precious little snowflakes” is being conditioned for nothing more than a “hard landing” in the adult world.

But making her putative concern for this state of affairs known is not actually the point of this piece. The idea that children should be given adequate preparation for adulthood – the so-called real world – rather than an unrealistic sense of their attributes that all but guarantees an unpleasant transition into the adult world is not one many would argue against. But Ms. Wente merely trots out this over-publicized platitude, intentionally leads with the beating of this dead horse to belie the actual point of the article: to launch a scathing attack not on overprotective parents but rather on individuals who might aim to work in a field they are passionate about, and who will challenge the status quo by doing so.

The author’s discussion of overbearing parents and the harm they may very well be doing to millennials transitions unconvincingly to the aforementioned realm as she attempts to diagnose why coddled children might have trouble finding work. The culprit, naturally, is being told to “do what you love.” In Wente’s view, to offer this career advice is beyond the pale, for it “implants the notion that doing what you love can produce a sustainable livelihood – which isn’t always the case.” She of course offers nothing to support the claim that such notions are being implanted.

However, the lack of supporting evidence is not at issue here. The major problem with this article is the assumptions that underpin its writing. Here Wente refers to a sustainable livelihood, but does not probe what she means by that. She of course is referring to a livelihood that supports an existence akin to hers, to wit, one defined by cottages and luxury sedans and endless consumerist trumpery. Hers is an existence focused on maximizing one’s own comfort while disregarding the more important issues of the day, except perhaps to throw money at a feel-good cause every so often. To her and the class she speaks for, this is the only existence worth striving for. There is no consideration of potentially different conceptions of what a sustainable livelihood might look like or what one needs to live comfortably, nor will such a consideration ever so much as creep into this sort of piece.

The sustainable livelihood assertion leads into the nadir of the article – the segment that lays bare the focus of the piece to anyone reading between the lines. At this point the author decries the purported surfeit of recent university graduates that have set their sights on “work in development/save the world/find a career in environmental sustainability.” She follows this up with the sophistic claim that she sees nothing wrong with these “noble aspirations” but is perturbed, nay bewildered that no responsible adults have “levelled” with those students that dare to dream such outlandish dreams. It is no coincidence that Wente reaches for these examples, as such aims are anathema to a bourgeoisie reliant on the continued subjugation of far-off abjects and the concomitant burning of fossil fuels required to sustain the whole iniquitous system.

Then there is the coup de grâce: “The idea that your job should be your passion is a misguided romantic notion that only the upper-middle-class can afford to entertain.” Here the author proffers an assertion that is at present undeniable, but the issue again is a lack of questioning; here one would ideally question why this is, why it persists, and what societal shifts might break this mould. Instead the author is concerned only with impressing this on us as an inalterable, natural occurrence that does not deserve further examination. Surely a world in which more people could work in a field they are legitimately passionate about would be a more efficient, positively-minded society. However achieving such a society is not the goal of Wente and her class. Instead theirs is to propagate the message: “I’ve got mine Jack, and you should either get yours too if privilege allows it, or put your head down and be a good little wage slave like everyone else has resigned themselves to be.”

Wente then goes on to define the rigours of the world this generation is allegedly unprepared for as “obnoxious colleagues, pointless meetings, promotions that don’t come their way,” reinforcing the notion that casting a shadow tinged with lassitude on an office wall is the only respectable future there is to be sought. That there are potentially more fulfilling prospects out there – ones that could both provide a livable income and contribute to positive societal shifts – is a subject not worth entertaining.

There are myriad issues with 21st century media. Although this is one innocuous article unlikely to move hearts or minds, or to even be taken seriously, it is emblematic of one of the most major problems. In a world of constant connectivity and the nonstop news cycle one is wont to overlook implicit bias and subtle propaganda. To combat this one must be vigilant in taking notice of the types of words used and not used, the substance of questions asked and not asked; one needs to have more than a cursory awareness of who the author is and what interests they represent or speak for. With the amount of corporate money that presently flows into the media, and the amount of column space allotted to those promoting their own interests (often without explicit disclosure), it behooves all citizens to conduct their own due diligence when receiving information – a tall order in the first quarter of the twenty-first century but a responsibility we cannot afford to abdicate.

Original article: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/our-precious-little-snowflakes/article25141779/

Villefranche: or, a stopover in the Twilight Zone

travel & adventure

Our arrival across the Saône and into the town was no more unusual than any other. That ceased to be true in short order, as we ruminated on the fact the town centre had not sprang up nearer the river as many others had; rather this area of town was comprised entirely of big box stores, and our Bates Motel was nestled amongst them. The new building of the Hotel Newport was a motel that would not have been out of place sitting off the highway of rural Anytown, USA. Clearly it flew the flags of the EU, France, and the rest of Western Europe to distract from this as well as the fact that the entire town belonged on the other side of the ocean.

At its front desk was a cheerful girl scarcely older than us. The first hint that this was the commencement of a distinctly unusual experience was when we asked her to direct us to nearby necessities. She pulled out a map and puzzled over it as she tried to locate the hotel she worked at. Phil eventually did this for her.

We ventured out past the big box stores to find the first necessity – wine. The wine store dealt in quantities unheard of elsewhere in the world. You could buy five litres if you arrived with your own container, otherwise you would have to settle for either a 30- or 60-litre purchase. We chose two bottles of, as per Phil’s request, “Something cheap that we can drink withouut it being too cold.” We carried it back using the smallest method available given by the aloof and visibly disinterested proprietor of this odd little store, a box designed for six bottles.

The second neccessity, snack food, led us to a store at least a decade or two behind reality with sparse shelves stocked with items we did not want. To the tune of some brand of generic electric music ill-suited to grocery shopping we bought two bags of chips and three oversized bags of frozen green beans to chill our wine, ice being implausibly difficult to acquire in this country.

We also scoped out our restaurant for the night, as this was Saturday night and the hotel restaurant and all others nearby were naturally closed. Jen made it known that the one  beside the wine store was open and had burgers. What she didn’t tell us was that the specialty of this restaurant was all things potatoes. The name of the place – Le Pataterie – betrayed this fact. Its wooden interior and walls lined with trumpery, most notably a doll that was without a doubt full of murderous intent, would have made more sense had this place been north of Boise rather than north of Lyon. Nevertheless we ordered burgers with rosti for buns and asked that the chef cook the hell out of them, having seen the mostly raw burger being consumed at the next table over.

Returning to the Bates Motel and looking south we spied a massive storm quickly approaching us. The southern horizon was occupied by a Black Cloud of the Apocalypse that seemed to move nearer to us at an increasing rate while lighting flashed in all directions except to the north. We stood watching it all in the veritable calm before the storm. It was at this point that I knew we had entered the Twilight Zone and that all roads would lead us back to this spot when we attempted to leave. We moved inside and hunkered down, but the storm that moments ago had the town surrounded and dead to rights chose to give it a pass. Not a drop of rain from these most ominous clouds touched down outside our hotel windows.

The strangeness of this was not lost on us, but we wrote it off to the mysterious nature of Mother Nature. We soon realized what this electrical disturbance had wrought. As we played cards we spilt a few on the floor in the corner of the room. We collected what we thought was all of them but soon realized the nine of clubs was still on the loose. It is still on the loose, although where or when is unclear to us. We searched the corner of the room with a fine tooth comb – shaking out curtains, pulling up cushions – to no avail. The card had vanished, obviously into some kind of irregularity or rupture in spacetime. We all found this rather unsettling, and soon small details of our lodging began to exacerbate this feeling: the numerous horses on the curtains and bedsheets, the stark simplicty of the room, the woman cleaning the unused kitchen at midnignt, the complete absurdity that was Villefranche.

We resolved to make an unceremoniously rapid exit the next morning and never look back.

Anatomy of a Party

travel & adventure

It has been said that the mark of a good party is that you wake up the next morning wanting to change your name and start life in a different city. This is undeniably true. No good party has truly ended until you groggily arise the next day and lurch uncomfortably back into some foggy reality, aware of the very real possibility that the last vestiges of your dignity and reputation were drowned in a sea of booze the night before; the relief is palpable when you find this to only be partially true.

What, then, of the essence of a good party? It is perhaps comprised of a cacophony of spontaneous conversations and laughter, hoots and hollers. As it kicks into gear it creates a surreal vibrancy that at once encompasses and yet feels greater than the sum of its individuals.

A good party has only one single requirement, and that of course is free-flowing libations aplenty – no memorable party or revolution has ever been started by a group of teetotallers.

Loud blaring music is no substitute for drunken dialogue; the former is in fact antithetical to the latter, and should be avoided at the outset. Background music is acceptable but by no means necessary. If you cannot hear yourself think, let alone the words of the raconteur opposite you, something has gone terribly wrong. Spirited conversation transforms into a raucous dance party, not the other way around.

Nor is good food, or any food required at the outset. Snacks will more often than not distract you from your cocktail, and such distraction is unforgivable. You should eat a hearty meal before any party at which you plan to feign a reserved veneer. In other words, hearty meals should be avoided at all costs until after the party.

What of the duties of the host of a good party? Just as the singular requirement of the party is its alcohol, so too is the primary duty of the host to ensure that alcohol is flowing. The good host watches for empty cups with an eagle eye and does not allow them to persist. A good host is not averse to the concept of ‘bring your own beverage,’ but would never leave something as crucial as the alcohol supply to chance. Beyond that, the good host needs only to proffer warm greetings and make introductions between those guests unfamiliar with each other.

But what then promotes a good party and not a bunch of well- and vaguely-acquainted people drinking in uneven awkwardness? While consumption of spirits will eliminate most potential awkwardness, it is in many cases a wise idea for the festivities to have a theme. This need neither be elaborate nor trite; it can be as simple as a celebration of any milestone or event, a reunion of longtime friends and gathering of new ones, or even a series of gregarious drinking games. The point is merely to have a raison d’être for the event in mind, a purpose that has your guests raring to go. This is not to reject parties of a desultory nature – as these are usually the best sorts – but as a means to kick off the revelry. In fact the party should not maintain any semblance of structure for even one second longer than is necessary, for once it achieves that ineffable surreal vibrancy the party is best left to its own devices.

the worst thing about censorship is [redacted].

revolution

There is a disturbing trend taking hold in the Western world these days. Not that of radical Islam, or of constant distractedness. It is the scourge of what many refer to as ‘political correctness.’

To be clear, I am not advocating a society in which everyone says anything they want all the time, homosexuals and welfare recipients be damned. There are indeed limits to free speech; where the line is drawn is a source of never-ending debate, but it is generally agreed that direct incitement to hatred and violence, or the proverbial shout of “fire” in a crowded building are not protected speech. I am inclined to leave the line here and align myself with the free-speech absolutists.

We are indeed the minority. The societal pendulum has swung too far, from allowing wanton discrimination to policing thought; many in Western society have gone from negating speech that is almost universally recognized as illegitimate to shouting down speech that may be offensive to some to denying speech to those whose views they just do not like. The practice of ‘no-platforming’ speakers – a practice previously reserved for fascists and others who could be counted on to incite a riot – is routinely used on many university campuses to silence potential speakers. This is promoted by groups who are far too easily whipped into hysterics, and it is done to speakers who merely promise to share words and ideas that do not line up with the worldview of said group. This is just the most egregious example, because it turns a place – the university – where innumerable ideas should be exchanged and debated in search of knowledge and truth into a place where a minority of people control that debate and exchange; worse, they limit it to fit with their parochial outlook. They insist that no one should be challenged or offended at their university, an institution where such a proposition would have been antithetical to its very existence not so long ago. (As an aside, I have come into direct contact with this poisonous strategy and deplorable administrative acquiesce; in my second year, one of my professors was forced into early retirement because he had been using epithets such as “Japs” in their historical context during a course on the Third World and some students were displeased that he was not whitewashing history for them.)

This is a sad state of affairs, and it is not limited to the university. Every day we are seeing a public personality, and in some cases even an average individual “step out of line” either in the material or the internet world – and swiftly drawing the wrath of an online and very public shaming for doing so. This is no way to run a society. Arbitrarily deciding who gets to say what by way of mob rule is a regression to pre-Enlightenment times, even pre-Renaissance. If you find the views of someone deplorable, you do not seek to shut them up; this is authoritarianism writ large. Rather, you must engage them and debate them and convince an audience, and maybe even the person you have engaged, that your ideas are superior. It is to practice the ancient art of rhetoric, a skill largely lost today in a sea of tweets and nonsense articles.

To me this is a doubly sad state of affairs, because these authoritarian tactics are being employed by people who consider themselves to be left of centre, progressives even – those who should be “my” people – in the name of making society a better place. Armed with some of the most powerful ideas of the last two centuries they have proven that instead of progressing, they are unable to move beyond the mentality that led to the purges and the gulags. This mentality is a preemptory one that insists thoughts and words can and should be limited to ones deemed ‘right’ or ‘acceptable,’ and that those who refuse should be punished. This mindset is a direct threat to a free society and must be opposed wherever it is encountered.

As a closing rumination – and I will admit this is an odd jumping-off point for me to take – consider the Meghan Trainor song. This is not a particularly great, or even good piece of music. But in a monomaniacal music industry devoted to pumping out a slew of pop songs indistinguishable from one to the next, this stands out as something a bit refreshing. I sought to find out what it was and who had made it after hearing it on the radio for the seventy-sixth time. What struck me was that she had received criticism for demeaning skinny people. Now, I will agree that making one’s self feel better by putting down someone else is not an ideal manifestation of boosted self-esteem. But as a girl only a few years removed from high school, there is no doubt Meghan has long dealt with withering glares and acerbic comments from “skinny bitches.” That she has positively channeled her animosity into music is understandable and need not be criticized.

True, her speech has not yet been limited. This only serves to illustrate what the scourge of political correctness looks like in its infant or more benign form; it shows how people with an authoritarian view towards speech comb through content in search of a perceived slight or offense. Note that (to my knowledge) the people who are said to have been slighted have raised no protest; rather outside observers have decided that because some group may be offended the content in question is worthy of condemnation.

Trainor’s case also led me to think how some of the major musical figures of the 20th century, specifically some of my favourite artists would be received if they were up-and-coming performers in this day and age. Some of my answers: Dylan would be labeled a racebaiter; The Rolling Stones would be perpetuators of racist stereotypes;  Led Zeppelin would be held up as proof of a unrepentantly misogynist society; and Jimi Hendrix would be promoting violence against women. I could go on.

I digress somewhat, though it melds nicely to my main argument: any society that limits speech and promotes self-censorship is not a free society; it is one that can only deprive its members of countless transformative ideas, works of art, and means of real progress. Offensive speech should not be drowned out but rather brought into the open and soundly defeated through more speech, not less. Anyone who truly values a free and open society must fight authoritarian limits on speech in all their forms.

Further reference:

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/copenhagen-speech-violence

http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9376232/free-speech-is-so-last-century-todays-students-want-the-right-to-be-comfortable/

http://www.newstatesman.com/sarah-ditum/2014/03/when-did-no-platform-become-about-attacking-individuals-deemed-disagreeable

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-progressive-ideas-behind-the-lack-of-free-speech-on-campus/2015/02/20/93086efe-b0e7-11e4-886b-c22184f27c35_story.html

as for me…

revolution

At my age and current level of employment – which is non-existent – I seem an unlikely candidate for igniting or contributing to a seismic global shift. But it is both of these which instead confer on me a sort of advantage over the old guard, the established doers and thinkers.The surfeit of time on my hands allows for more than copious sleep and sex. It allows me an ample opportunity to pack into my as-of-yet-functioning grey matter all the information, in print and on screen, that I can get my hands on.

Neuroscience has long intrigued me, but my understanding is still limited. However, what I have been able to gather is that the subconscious holds an awesome power; it plugs away with words, facts, ideas, and the like whether or not the conscious is also participating. It is said (by Eagleman) that the conscious is often the last part of the brain to be informed of a thought, a decision, or a breakthrough.

Thus, at least to me, it stands to reason that if I read and write continuously on the subjects I have deemed to be most important – which begin with the human condition, traverse through inequality and Marxism, and arrive at the need for free education – eventually something resembling a solution to a problem or even the impetus for an intellectual revolution will emerge. Not only that, but such an idea will manifest at a time when I am financially and socially in a position to move it from the realm of thought and into the realm of action.

Not exactly concrete, but far superior to insouciance.

what fixes?

revolution

This is more a matter of mental housekeeping than anything else, but may well prove useful otherwise.

As I understand the world at present, there will be four pillars, often intertwined, that our generation will have to work towards strengthening. In only some particular order they are educational reform; the curtailment and rolling back of the powers of the surveillance state; democratic and/or electoral reform; and environmental and/or energy reform.

Education is not as self-explanatory as it perhaps should be. The issue isn’t solely that an unforgivable amount of the global population is insufficiently educated or not educated at all – that is a major problem that needs to be remedied. But to provide those less-than-educated individuals with our current brand of (non-technical) education would be as much a disservice to them as providing no education at all. While technical skills are necessary for the functioning of any community, my focus remains on education of the intellect. If we are to survive, the education of the 21st century needs to take on a dialectical and dialogical form rather than one that attempts to cram any number of irrelevant facts into the heads of the masses; we need to focus on the development of critical thinking, of ideas, of solutions to the problems of our new century.

Perhaps the greatest task we face is forcing people to think for themselves rather than abdicating this crucial responsibility to the demagogue, religion, or ideology of their choosing. This approach simply will not do. Nor will pedantry – the more learned individuals lambasting and mocking their less-educated brothers and sisters, trying to claim some sort of authority on a topic rather than sharing their knowledge in a manner beneficial to both parties. Try as some might to deny it, teachers will not always come armed with a degree or title, and we can learn much from those who occupy a lower socioeconomic or educational tier.

I lead with education because critical thinking and collaboration fostered by a dialectical and dialogical education will yield solutions to the other three pillars.

Turning to the surveillance state, the matter is much more simple. As Snowden has put it, the development of such an all-encompassing spy system “fundamentally changes the balance of power between the citizen and the state.” Indeed, it erodes the democracy or republicanism much of our world has long claimed to stand for. Make no mistake: this system has nothing to do with rooting out terrorism and everything to do with monitoring and stifling dissent. It is a power-grab of the most egregious magnitude. At a minimum we need significant civilian and judicial oversight of these programs if they are to exist at all; what we are being offered currently by way of oversight is mere window-dressing, the illusion of responsibility meant to assuage our rightful trepidations.

Democratic and/or electoral reform is perhaps a more nuanced topic and will vary from nation to nation. However, my view is founded on one straightforward truth: government must be beholden to the people that vest it with the authority to govern them. In both Canada and the United States, a candidate for federal office must almost as a matter of course be a wealthy individual or belong to a network with substantial fundraising potential. If he or she falls into the former category they are more likely, though not necessarily going to be out-of-touch with those they seek to represent; the latter is more serious, as a campaign run on the funds of others leaves that candidate beholden to them rather than those he or she claims to represent. This situation disqualifies, out-of-hand, individuals with the skill set to govern but without the financial means to campaign as well as vaults individuals preoccupied with private interests into public office. Campaigns must be publicly funded to be regarded as legitimate; proof of a potential support in the form a petition need be all that is required for access to these funds. The above points as well as the larger idea of what systematic and institutional corruption – rather than conventional quid pro quo corruption – and the importance of a remedy (though while specific to the United States) is argued for persuasively, if a tad repetitively by Lawrence Lessig in Republic Lost.

Environmental and/or energy reform may very well be the most important pillar; our health as a species relies on that of our planet. But I will not spend a proportional amount of time here, as I am largely ignorant as regards the scientific data, arguments, disputes, disagreements, and proposals in this arena. All I know for sure is that for decades now we have been raping our planet and plundering its resources all in the name of industrial capitalism and economic growth. The overwhelming consensus that I am able to comprehend coming out of the scientific community is that this approach is unsustainable. In my view there is also plenty to be said about the ethical and moral depravity of said approach, but for now I will withhold that discussion.

It is these four pillars that must be our focus in the coming months, years, and decades. Nobody can know everything and as such no one person can be expected to tackle all of these problems – to say nothing of the problem of inequality and poverty, though I believe addressing these four pillars has a good chance of alleviating that problem as a matter of course. What each individual must do is focus on the one that best aligns with his or her interests and expertise while fully supporting and even gaining some knowledge from individuals working on the other pillars.