Professor Trompsky #3

Professor Trompsky, what do you think of the intellectual climate of today?

There is a worrying decline of what I call the culture of wisdom. More often than not, people engaging in debates are more concerned with cementing their own argumentation, making their own narrative waterproof as it were. Instead of trying to integrate the stories of their opponents in their own Grand Narrative, they readily dismiss them as fundamentally flawed. I miss the eagerness to achieve such inclusivity, the wonder of how an other thinking mind can draw sometimes totally different conclusions. This presuposses, I am well aware, a fundamental respect and we shall call it a belief in the intellectual capabilities of their opponents. Rather than treating them like an annoyance they want to get rid of, I miss the intellectual attitude that wishes to celebrate disagreement in order to proceed to a higher truth. Recently I wrote about this and produced the following formula. We should attempt to reduce a strange narrative we encounter to our own.

Don’t you think this is the faux nostalgia that comes with age? Was it not the case that intellectuals in the cold war era, dismissed each other for chosing the wrong side?

[chuckles] No, I can give you a concrete example. Take the political debate. If we talk about Venezuela, our initial response almost always reveals our political core belief. Media outlets who, under the influence of market pressure, tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to know, amplify this phenomenon.

Professor Trompsky #3 was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Equality

We breathe the same air. That statement is already beginning to be problematic if you live in one of China’s heavily polluted cities and you can’t afford to escape to the relatively unspoilt countryside. You can’t afford to buy Canadian air in a bottle, shipped to you by a special company. Let’s breathe some air before we continue. Equality is a wonderfully artificial concept, but it is often understood in a rather idiosyncratic way.

Some right-wing populists distinguish equality of opportunity from equality of outcome. They argue that left-wing policies cancel out the differences caused by the hard work and perseverance of some, rather than the differences caused by the lack of opportunities or disability. More principally, they would argue that equality is not something that can be enforced.

For the religious right, equality is an abstract, absolute and ‘untouchable’ value. At life’s edges, this is turned into an intuitive moral argument by pro-life activists or people who oppose euthanasia. Perhaps precisely because equality is such a sacred and abstract value for them, they don’t feel good about ethical debates about redistribution that seem to quantify people’s value. If equality is something that can be manufactured, as the liberal mind believes, it becomes a mundane and fragile balance, rather than the equality ‘under god’ (who is the ultimate guarantor of justice, at Judgment Day).

We breathe and wonder once more about the complexity of this concept. We see it translated and dismissed as ‘sameness’, or embraced as the rationale of solidarity. We all agree that people should be treated the same by the law, more precisely, that the law should have already spelled out any differences before a trial, and further that such differences don’t pertain to things like race or sex, but could pertain to things like wealth or mental health (for example to determine the degree of punishment).

We feel compelled to come up with a technical, legalistic definition. We want to spell out our intuition of equality, but might lose sight of the actual practice of equality. We can for example write mathematically about representative democracy and ‘one person one vote’ while forgetting the messiness of the influences of moneyed interests on politics.

Equality, we should perhaps admit, doesn’t exist. It is an important article of secular faith. It is a transcendental condition of rational debate that prima facie, the value of your opinion is the same as the value of mine. I will need to give a reason to show the superiority of my opinion, authority won’t do. Perhaps rational debate is the best we have to celebrate the value of equality.

Meditation on Equality was originally published on Meandering home

Minor Inconveniences

Caravaggio – The Sacrifice of Isaac

Can we all contribute a little bit to make the world a better place? It sounds easy, and it feels good. There are thousands of web sites and campaigns clamoring people into donating a few percent of their wealth to the Good. There are even courageous politicians who dare to ask people to drive a little bit less in cars that are a little bit smaller. After reading these first three sentences, I am quite sure you felt these are the words of a cynic, am I right? You had this discomforting feeling that a disillusioned sore soul was sneering at you, someone who was once, in a former life, a hypermoralistic puritan. Am I right?

Have no fear. I’m not trying to “get to you” and make you feel guilty because you don’t comply with my pompous über-moral. I just want to write something about minor inconveniences. How could we define them? “Inconvenient” means “not suited to our comfort”, so how about “not completely suited to our comfort”? A fly that sits on your computer screen, not enough space in your refrigerator, a TV without a remote control, a room too cold to take off your sweater, a torch that has to be recharged, a shower that takes time to heat, sharing a room with someone else, sharing a car with someone else, or a less than perfect air conditioner. These might be examples of minor inconveniences, as opposed to major inconveniences like your car stolen, your house burned down or your loved ones lost. But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?

Do be afraid. With 7 billion people on the planet (and projected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050, and 10 billion by the end of the century) all craving a convenient life with convenience products, all craving energy-guzzling plasma TVs, big cars, air conditioning, lots of meat and plastics, we are going to feel the consequences in our own generation, let alone the horror we bequeath to our grandchildren. Read the scientific reports, read the analysis of authors without vested corporate interests, and judge for yourself. The solution does not only consist of changing to renewable energy and phasing out the mining of new materials. Every expert will tell you that without some minor inconveniences on the consumer end, it can’ be done.

Should we willingly accept minor inconveniences? Every inch we drive less, every degree we turn the thermostat up or down, every penny we invest in “renewables” is an invasion into our privacy, a gross insult to our very being and our “Way of Life”.

Any intended inconvenience is, by definition, a self-sacrifice. It might sound impossible after the death of God in the 19th century and his burial in the bogs of last century’s cruelty, but when I look at the numbers it is exactly what we need.

S E L F – S A C R I F I C E