A Vivid Memory, Iraq 2003

There are many summer months in Baghdad, Iraq when you look up into the sky and all you see is a solid light blue.  From one side of the horizon to the other, whether you turn your head all the way left or all the way right: light blue all around.  There is not a single cloud of any sort, nor a trace of one trying to form.

Occasionally there will be smoke or something in the sky, for various reasons.  And of course, there is that bright, burning sun rolling around up there.  But no clouds.

When I think about this, a very vivid and simple memory comes to mind.  It’s a memory of when I was 19, during my first summer in Iraq, in 2003.  I was reading a field manual on land navigation (I loved everything army at the time, and mostly still do), and discovered a couple of fascinating ways how you can determine, when you’re lost somewhere, which direction is north.

The manual said that if it’s nighttime, you can use the stars.  You look for the big dipper in the night sky, and focus on the 2 stars that form the far side of the cup, away from the ladle.  These are called the pointer stars.  They point towards the north star, and if you trace an imaginary line across them and extend it out, that line will cross the north star.  Now, there are many stars in the sky, especially in more remote areas, but it is easy to discover which star on that line points north.  All you have to do is reach out your arm, and use two fingers to measure the distance between the two pointer stars, and then follow that distance out, about 5 times over, along that imaginary line.  It takes you right to the north star every time.

It was daytime, though, when I was reading this, so first I tried out what is called the “shadow-tip method.”  Following the instructions, I stuck a stick in the ground, and that stick naturally cast a shadow of itself.  I put a small rock on the tip of that shadow (about the size of a quarter is recommended).  I waited 10-15 minutes, during which time, because of the earth’s rotation, the sun had moved in the sky, and the shadow had moved as well.  By placing a second rock where the shadow’s tip now was, I had established, between the first rock and the second rock, an imaginary line representing east and west.  Once you know east and west, north is easy to figure out.  You just face east, and look left.  I remember thinking that this was really quite amazing — and I still do — even though the whole thing is pretty straightforward.

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Is Friendship Good? The Problem Facing College Fraternities

Joining a fraternity in college can be a great opportunity, but an opportunity for what?

Opinions vary wildly about this, and for good reason.  Just think about what a fraternity essentially is: a self-confident group of recent high school graduates, united by their youth, humor, and let’s say common appetites.  The risks are obvious, and even thought of their “benefits” conjures up worry and suspicion.

So is it worth it?  If fraternities are inherently unstable, giving open air to the burning passions of youth, then why have them in the first place?  This needs to be answered not only to defend fraternities from critical bystanders, but to help improve fraternities as they are.

The main problem fraternities face is that an oversimplified view of friendship squelches their motivation to address difficult issues.  Such friendship is often an excuse for allowing excessive and irresponsible behavior to go unchecked.  Enforcing even the most basic standards can be obnoxiously depicted as a violation of “friendship.”  I personally witnessed in my own chapter years ago what was essentially a friendship faction go to battle with a justice faction, leaving brotherhood itself appearing to be incompatible with collective self-government.  This I know is a common cause of fraternity breakdown, from which rarely anyone walks away unscathed.  Worse, there is sometimes no such battle at all, and this simpleminded friendship becomes more deeply entrenched, even valorized.  Then, once their unbounded fraternal passions are sparked as they inevitably are, they quickly ignite and become enflamed.  The fraternity becomes a Dionysian temple for low indulgence and base behavior, until there is nothing left but the smoldering embers of a once proud chapter.

The tragedy here is that the energies stimulated by fraternal brotherhood are immensely valuable, with vastly constructive potential.  Consequently, fraternities are uniquely able to infuse a great love of life, learning, and engagement into the college experience.  Brothers, likewise, also generally exhibit a strong commitment to philanthropy and to community service.

What many miss is that fraternities have great value because of their inherent difficulties.  Addressing the obvious excesses, and discovering ways to manage, constrain, and elevate these powerful passions and desires, is precisely how character is built and citizens are forged.  Furthermore, these youthful passions can be channeled into great, ennobling actions and commitments.  Fraternities provide opportunity for college men to push beyond friendship simply, toward the much more difficult goal of building men of character and distinction.

Fraternal energies need only be harnessed and directed, primarily in 3 different ways: (1) pro-active alumni mentorship and oversight, (2) a smart and methodical selection and education process for new brothers, and (3) strong institutional norms and expectations for how the chapter should function.

Each of these three components requires time and commitment to develop — a break in the continuity thereof, and a fraternity chapter can find itself feeling lost and hopeless.  Moreover, the membership is constantly changing as brothers advance in their studies and graduate (or leave school), making continuity only that much harder to maintain.  The alumni can help with this, as can university advisors and the general fraternity’s headquarters.  But most of all, the brothers of the undergraduate chapter must be committed to being more than friends; they must continuously strive to become leaders of substance and virtue.  This necessity, this problem, is the source of the ennobling value of being in a fraternity.  There is therefore nothing more counter-productive than taking up the banner of friendship against this fundamental fact.

Fraternal friendship, or genuine fraternal brotherhood, is not a bond made simply by youth, humor, or untutored appetite.  Instead, it is constituted by the very virtues necessary for its own energies to be appropriately directed — toward the personal growth of each brother, and the chapter’s public honor.  Such virtues need to be identified, cultivated, loved, and respected, both abstractly and in the concrete, visible actions of each and every fraternity brother.

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2 Types of Immortality

What does it mean to desire immortality?

In my dissertation on this topic 2 different types of immortality emerge, each of which can be desired: (1) literally living forever, and (2) living on symbolically, for example in the memories of the living.

Religions like Christianity promise the first kind of immortality, being personally saved and restored in the afterlife forever.  In one part of my dissertation, I show how philosopher John Locke credits Jesus Christ for making immortality the reward of living a good, moral life.  It was by appealing to human beings’ desire for immortality that finally people were willing to follow a philosopher’s moral doctrine (Locke likens Jesus to a philosopher).  Do what this philosopher tells you, and you will be eternally rewarded.  This was a game changer for philosophers generally, who had hardly been listened to previously.  In many cases, in fact, philosophers had been persecuted (Jesus is a prime example).  Now, if you could connect your philosophic doctrine to Christ’s successfully made promise of immortality, people will listen — all because people have a desire for immortality.

But the desire for immortality can manifest itself in other ways.  Having children perpetuates your presence in the world; having grandchildren and great-grandchildren even more so.  In Genesis 22:17 God promises Abraham “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies.”  The divine’s gift to Abraham here is a symbolic form of immortality; why else should he care?  Inventing something — a new gadget that everybody uses — is another extension of yourself.  For example, take Steve Jobs’ memory — and even when his name is forgotten, his influence — which will clearly endure due to his inventions.  Politicians and other people of prestige carefully cultivate their legacies, trying to work their way into history books.  We carve our names into trees and finger our initials into wet cement.  Why our names?  We also extend this desire for immortality to those we love, naming charities and scholarships in their honor.  We erect monuments, dedicate books, and name our children in honor of the dead, to extend their memory.  These all are vehicles by which the significance or our own lives and that of others extends down through time.  Indeed, one of the worst things you can wish on a person is to be forgotten, for their memory to be extinguished.  This list goes, and you can probably think of some great examples yourself (please send them to me when you do!).

Of course, these two broad types of immortality are not mutually exclusive.  Anyone can pursue any or all of the types of immortality, if they have a strong enough desire to.  But the distinction between literal and symbolic immortality is a meaningful one, and I think very important to political theory.  Since this last point requires a bit of explanation (it involves Plato and the Declaration of Independence), I’ll leave it for a later post.

Hillary’s Answer to the “Why?” Question

Presidential candidates all have to provide a clear and concise explanation as to why they want to be president.  Faltering on this question can ruin an entire candidacy before it even begins (e.g. Teddy Kennedy).  Hillary Clinton’s answer, as it was portrayed in her candidacy announcement yesterday, is an interesting one.  She claims that, “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.”  Now there’s nothing explicitly shocking here (sounding a bit like an off-hand boxing metaphor), but there’s more thinking behind it than first meets the eye.  Champion how, and against what?

Many will recall that it was President Bill Clinton who once famously announced that, “the era of big government is over.”  Can we tell from yesterday’s announcement whether Hillary agrees?  Well, no, not definitively — but I do think we’re getting some hints in this direction.  It goes back to the basics.  The basic liberal idea is that individuals should be able to live freely in society and have equal opportunity to make a decent living.  This political ideal goes at least back to FDR.  The threats to this liberty come from those within society that have concentrated economic and social power.  The exploitative rich, the existence of male patriarchy and white privilege, make it harder in today’s society for “everyday Americans” to get ahead.  The most appropriate institution to “champion” everyday Americans in this struggle is of course a big, strong government.  Or so goes the typical liberal vision.

Of course, in being a “champion,” she could have other adversaries to “everyday Americans” in mind — like big government itself.  Were she a conservative Republican wanting to champion everyday Americans, that explanation would certainly fit.  But remember, Hillary isn’t only a self-described progressive Democrat, but she’s been getting a lot of criticism recently from her left flank.  The growing concern is that Hillary will become another disappointing centrist, as Obama has ultimately turned out to be in the eyes of many progressive Democrats.  Her main task early on, it would seem then, is to fire up the party.  Under the current circumstances, this means distancing herself both from Obama’s weak follow-through on his agenda, and her husband’s presidential record from the 90’s of “triangulation” and bi-partisan compromise.

I would therefore call hers a very good answer to the “Why?” question.  It opens the door to a broad narrative about the role of government, and what it should be doing to serve everyday Americans.  And, it shows from Day 1 Hillary’s goal of connecting with everyday Americans, and opposing those forces — whatever they may actually be — that cause harm.

My Mother, My Immortality

The desire for immortality wasn’t the most obvious topic for my political theory dissertation, particularly one aimed at helping us understand our political situation today (the issue has been considered by most scholars as a dead one for hundreds of years).  On the other hand, we all agree that new solutions are needed to overcome the problems that we face as a society.  Well, new solutions mean new ways of thinking — it’s as simple as that.  And sometimes the old can be made new again.

Of course, new ways of thinking are likely to fail — that is exactly why nobody else is trying them.  They are untested, and often for good reason.

There really is no good way to get around this problem.  Either we seek out these new solutions, and assume the risk that goes along with that, or we play it safe, waiting for somebody else to tackle the big issues of the day.  With one life to live, and with a strong appetite to have some lasting significance, I’m willing to sometimes take my chances.

Over the past few years, I have found that this unusual path gives rise to unusual needs.  I often feel, in my personal and professional life, that I am operating without a safety net — that failure will have serious consequences, and mediating those consequences requires constant vigilance and flexibility.

In this respect, I am profoundly blessed to have the unceasing love and support of my wife, Margarita.  Where I have also found strength, unexpectedly, is from researching my family history.  I began this much more personal kind of research shortly before my mother died 3 years ago tomorrow (April 13th, 2012).  It had long haunted me how little I knew of my family, and how unrooted I felt in this world.  When I began, I could not even recall the names of 3 of my grandparents.

In one of the last conversations I had with my mom, she shared with me some details about our family in order to help jump start my research.  She also gave me some life advice, which was a pretty unusual thing for her to do.  She told me to make sure, apart from working hard, that I try to make sure that I am happy.

This advice seemed pretty straightforward at the time (Sure Mom, okay), but her words stayed with me.  Is there really a difference, after all, between working hard at something you are passionate about and being happy?  Was she just giving me a hard time?  The Bible tells us that we are cursed by the Fall of Adam to sweat and toil to provide for ourselves.  Marx tells us that our labor is actually our fundamental essence, the activity that gives meaning to our lives.  Adam Smith says in the Wealth of Nations that we innovate in the hopes of working less, perhaps suggesting that it is after our work is done that we pursue happiness.  There are lots of different views on this, so was my mother’s advice just too oversimplified?  That’s exactly what I thought for quite some time.

The better answer that I’ve come around to brings me back to the start of this post.  The fact is that the answers given to us by the Bible, by Marx, by Smith are all undeniably subject to circumstance.  They might all be right, they might all be wrong, and it may just depend.  What we are charged with doing in this world, however, is discovering our own answer to our own circumstances.  In this respect, after initially dismissing it, I now consider my mother’s advice to be superior to all three of these great moral and philosophic authorities.

“Make sure that you are happy.”  Go out into the world and discover the possibilities.  Test them; experiment with yourself.  Research your family history, write a dissertation, love unconditionally.  Be devoted, be “all in” when you try something.  Maybe it will work, or maybe it won’t, and you’ll have to start all over again from the beginning.  At the end of it all, at least you’ll have made sure.  I don’t know how any of us could do any better.

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There Will Be Blood (and Politics)

There Will Be Blood (2007) is by far, my absolute favorite movie.  Of course it has many virtues as far as films go, despite winning far too few Oscars in my non-expert opinion (only 2, including Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis).  Yet what draws me in above all else is its central storyline, the clash of two men’s monumental ambitions — on the one side, Daniel Plainview, the tenacious oil man, and on the other side, Eli Sunday, the frail (but fiery) founder of a new church.  And indeed, things do get bloody.

I’ve watched this movie many times over the years.  It’s a beautiful, fascinating study of two things near and dear to my deepest interests: human beings, together in what might be called their natural environment.  As weird as it may sound, this movie has truly enriched my understanding of political life, and continues to inspire me as a political theorist.

Take for example Eli Sunday, the poor farmer and upstart founder of the “Church of the Third Revelation.”  Eli is just as Daniel sees him, an utterly false prophet.  To paraphrase one of the movie’s major scenes, he is a ghost-gumming, arthritis healing, ostentatious fraud.  What is so exciting about Eli, however, lies behind all that in his long-term, entrepreneurial vision — his desire to create, to compete, and to thrive.

And this being so, no one better arouses Daniel’s competitive spirit, or his hatred, more than Eli Sunday.  He hates Eli so much, in fact, that he almost seems to appreciate him as a worthy adversary.  You might say that underneath it all, Daniel is in some kind of perverse love with Eli.  He is infatuated with him, with beating him.  They are essentially brothers — kindred liars taking advantage of as many people as they can, in a world they resent, surrounded by people they despise.  And they each unconsciously do God’s work in the process.  We see how Daniel’s oil wells “blow gold all over the place,” bringing roads and schools and churches to the communities he comes to.  Eli’s church, on the other hand, prompts one of the most powerful scenes in the entire movie, Daniel’s volcanic admission before his Lord and fellow man that “I have abandoned my child! I have abandoned my boy!”  The terrible, spiritual pain of this scene prompts my soul to scream out: What truth! What justice!

What is this, if not a deep meditation on political society?  Here we see the distilled human energies that are, for better or worse, the essential life blood of that society.  To see them (and are they not real?) laid this bare certainly is challenging.  Yet how can politics be fully understood, without not only acknowledging the vices of these energies, but appreciating their virtues?  Or their enduring necessity?