Monday, July 7, 2014

Back to Life

I haven't posted in a while, and this requires some explaining.

The last several months have been the busiest I have ever experienced. I launched a small business, a vape shop, in February. Originally intended to be open a limited number of hours and with a limited selection, I opened it in a decent-sized city where there were no other vape shops operating. Out of the sheer inertia created by heavy demand, it has grown into a respectable business, and I've learned more about how to vaporize propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin than any human should ever need to know.

I also became a staff sergeant in my guard unit, which did its final qualification on our recently acquired Bradley fighting vehicles in the last month. I've learned more about how to use a chain cannon than any human should ever have to know, and by the way, it's fucking fun.

I started attending church late last year, by invitation, and stopped attending a couple of months ago. The services and beliefs didn't much surprise me, but I learned some things about myself, namely that I don't belong there. I doubt I will ever go to church again, and that's not a statement of exasperation or dislike for it so much as a statement of ending a personal project. There's a lot to say about that.

The real kicker, though, is that I finally graduated from college. I now have bachelor's degrees in history and economics, with a 3.7 GPA, Phi Beta Kappa, all that.

College hasn't been the stress test I expected. I attended a major state university with a very good academic reputation, but it's still 2014 and higher education dived for the lowest common denominator long ago. So thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the last five years have been something of a vacation, with just one year of that time occupied by an easy National Guard deployment to Africa to make the vacation slightly more exotic. My courses held some challenges, particularly the math, which is a language I continue to struggle to gain proficiency in. But all told, college was easy.

Easy does not mean that I enjoyed it, and it doesn't mean that I didn't leave tired and frustrated.

This is the tale of an education that both failed and succeeded. My education succeeded because there was a lot of thinking going on in that place, which educators say is what they want. For me, the combination of lots of free time and a near-obsession with figuring shit out, born of intellectual competitiveness, drove me to take a good but rough understanding of society and move quickly towards cartoonishly overanalyzed geekery. My education failed in that, upon serious analysis, the ideas on the shelf available for me to buy, basically Western intellectual orthodoxy, which looked good on impulse, turned out to be garbage, the products of shoddy, slapdash workmanship meant to sell to fools and not actually use for serious work. I actually went in with far more faith in the Western intellectual tradition and the American way of life than I left with.

As a thinking individual - ostensibly what the university system is trying to produce - I had a choice between accepting what I saw as bullshit on faith, assuming they knew more than they let on, or rejecting it and alienating myself a bit from the culture which both supports and is informed by that system. Showing my arrogance, I took the latter.

More than with actual church, my time in the Church of Reason made me an apostate.

When I started back to college after my time on active duty, in 2009, I was for all practical purposes a moderate liberal. The issues didn't bend me out of shape too much, but I thought exploitation of lower classes was a serious problem, I thought entrenched interests among the rich and powerful prevented their potential from being realized, and I thought that competing private interests, mostly in business and religion, created needless waste and pain all over the place. Solving these problems was a matter of logic and what is loosely known as "common sense."

The way I saw it, these were not perspectives grounded in the usual Western bias towards vulnerability, cooperativeness, individualism, or any of the other "underdogmatic" traits; such thinking had not occurred to me yet. Instead, I saw those problems as genuine systematic weaknesses. It was a matter of changing our social system to be more powerful and effective, not slagging it or gaining any kind of recompense for victim groups. I've rarely given a shit about that. So while I was practically a liberal, I wasn't ideologically a liberal. I wasn't interested in anything but functional power. I left social issues alone and based my thinking on a good-natured "live and let live" approach, at least at first.

I don't want to give the idea that I was surrounded by terrible people or that the professors sucked or just turn this into a rant. There are a lot of brilliant and decent people in academia. Nor was I always a fish out of water. Particularly for my first two years, I got along famously with my professors, ran ahead of the curve in my classes, mixed in with the brightest of the students with ease, terrified stupid people who made the mistake of talking, all good things. The first two years were a honeymoon period.

But I also don't want to give the too-generous impression that deep conversation about serious subjects grips every student on campus. During my time there, I was part of a group, which was maybe 2 percent of the student body along with some faculty, who was driven to dive into these things. I joined groups like the Philosophy Club. I hung out with the kids from Young Americans for Liberty, not because I'm a libertarian but because they're good kids who drink with enthusiasm and have a sense of humor; I somehow became liked among them despite spending an inordinate amount of time telling them that their point of view was idiotic. I showed up at Students for Freethought every now and then. And I was president of the History Club, which was tremendously difficult because half of that group was made up of guys who wanted to talk about war and the other half was girls more interested in softer points of culture. Interest one group, and you alienate the other; I got tired of it and gave up the position my last semester.

The discussion groups interested me more, but most of those groups didn't want to really hash out issues so much as kill time or create a forum for activism, and I despised activism on my campus. "Take Back the Night" anti-rape walks, cultural awareness for whatever brown people garnered the most empathy on a given week, and endless parades of speakers discussing the difficulty of being a Latino or LGBT or vegan or whatever in their social environment. Just listen, applaud their bravery, rinse, repeat, probably next week. I avoided it whenever possible, but when teachers are giving extra credit...

That activist streak was not what I expected out of a university. I expected something akin to dispassionate analysis of various facets of life, in an organized environment. I expected something above culture. Instead, I found a haven for emotional rhetoric gone completely out of control.

What's most grating at first about arguing with people in college is the near-complete lack of self-reflection. The sides are mostly chosen before the shit goes down, even among teenagers. One reason I don't feel ridiculous rejecting the liberal status quo is, simply put, everyone else is going with whatever they feel is right and justifying it later. Academia is not really the Church of Reason; it's the Church of Post-Hoc Rationalization. Particularly on ethical and cultural issues, a type of soft intuitionism dominates; people will jump through insane hoops when formulating an argument, just so they don't have to tolerate anything they find ugly, or listen to anyone they don't like. Piousness, loudness, and emotional manipulation of an audience, all are demanded to win, and learning anything in the process is totally optional. I don't share their taste, but even when I do, I find their methods of coming to conclusions suspect enough that I now immediately search for where I went wrong.

My favorite of all the people who embodied this was a tenured instructor of moral philosophy and open Marxist. He didn't teach philosophy. He came right out and said that he didn't do deep philosophy, and that he was a social activist. It was rather jarring that he so often did not understand the underlying principles and perspectives of his own arguments, never saw his intuitions as anything but universal, that he could so easily push them simply because they "felt right" and call it a day. I didn't take classes with him; I traded papers with him, talked with him at the department, and that was enough. His stated goals, in the first presentation I saw him give, were to disempower the police and support inner-city minorities when they rose up against their oppressors. I would never tell a story so cliched if it weren't real.

In other professors, usually in math and hard sciences, I saw a very different story. It becomes painful after a while to see a good teacher who would be stellar with good students crash against waves of apathy. There were many, many grading curves given in those classes. We all knew that the university required a certain grade distribution that the professor had to conform to, and they certainly didn't revise grades down very often. This helped me a couple of times, so don't take my GPA too seriously.

Meanwhile, the debates started to look like just a warm-up for every kid who would spend the rest of their life trying to convince people that their side was right, mostly for the sake of their own conscience, and nothing more than that. Pushing likable ideas to drum up support was, itself, the point. Democratic cultures live and die on popularity contests. Such a mindset is easily found today among middle management and customer service types in corporations everywhere. The attitude of journalists and politicians is the same thing on steroids. This preparedness to assert a perspective and make it a popular point of view are what a liberal arts education actually develops, and it's probably good in some sense that it does that much, because it does precious little else.

Socratic method is hugely overrated: when you're dealing with allies, the dialogue will be friendly and open but you will probably all have a similar perspective anyway. When you deal with enemies, you will not be open-minded towards someone trying to beat you down. Dialectic only works when you have someone who both trusts you and disagrees with you, and the feeling is mutual; how often does this happen?

After those first two years, the honeymoon was over. The Africa deployment gave me lots of free time, and I tried filling it by writing stories. In trying to create narratives, I ended up questioning them, and the rest happened quite naturally. I returned to college after the deployment - I hate leaving things unfinished - and slowly moved further to the right, seeing things differently, until I was no longer on the conventional scale of liberal and "conservative" at all.

Eventually, the thing that wears the most about the entire experience is the complaining, the completely jaded attitude towards material improvement despite avowed materialism. It's not as endemic as you may think in the classroom itself, particularly if you avoid certain areas like women's studies, which really have no reason to exist beyond encouraging revenge. Most other departments were too controlled for direct, heavy propagandizing. The classroom is, after all, an authoritarian environment, where the teacher controls the discussion and is held responsible by higher echelons if that discussion veers too much in any political direction and offends someone. Tenure doesn't get them out of everything.

But even if the classes didn't particularly encourage it, the cultural atmosphere did. Professors didn't directly state that old culture was bad and new, as yet unrealized culture of absolute tolerance good, but they found ways to emphasize material which said this, at the expense of material that did not. Emotional discord was taken as proof that there was something fucked up in the system, invariably in higher levels of the hierarchy. In such a place, the individual finds little incentive to rise to the challenges of the world; instead, they are told that the challenges are illegitimate. The world would never be a good enough environment for your specialness.

They do have an ideology, core programming, a fuzzy but nevertheless powerful lens that they look at the world through. They believe in oppression, and any other point of view is not just wrong, but immoral. My programming is more aligned with honor and brutal honesty, more accepting of struggle, more adamant about the individual proving their value to the group and its hierarchy, not resting the legitimacy of that hierarchy on how well it cares for people who believe their value intrinsic. This point of view is very old and very unforgiving. It requires real strength. Those who subscribed to it used to be seen as the ones who held society together. Now, we're just assholes. Most people think that such ruthlessness has been proven to be useless or, worse, a psychological disorder. I don't think society works without it.

One thing was for sure: I wasn't winning popularity contests with my point of view. People were never going to be convinced of something so alien, so I argued just to troll people as often as not.

The ethic of the university, modern liberalism with a handful of socialist and libertarian dissenters who really don't stray far, holds an unquestioning faith in its perspective that was, to me, anathema to the open-mindedness it professed. They were not open-minded about culture. They were preaching recycled Christian ethics, without the obligation to God. Basically, liberationism dominated, and this wasn't Brown or UCLA either, it was a relatively conservative campus.

So, in the brain and nerve center of the wealthiest, the most empathetic, the most technologically advanced, and the most powerful culture in the history of human civilization, a fresh generation of kids with too much self-esteem and no respect for their society are not directly told that it is evil, but it's implied everywhere. Nothing will be good enough until there is equality, synonymous with freedom. No formal power will be legitimate, simply because it exists, it's power, and that means a lack of equality and oppression. They will teach this to each new generation until the functional excellence of the American capital system and the military dominance of the Pax Americana is overwhelmed by pure cynicism. And they will think themselves heroes for it.

That cynicism comes from being a true believer who's culture never meets the expectations it creates for itself. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with the system, or the institutions, or the hierarchy, or anything out of the present stock of answers. It means that there's something wrong with the expectations, with the underlying values that create them, with the goals and visions driving it.

I was a Nietzschean at twenty-one, when I first read the phrase "will to power" and knew I'd found the phrase that encapsulated the most consistent explanation for human behavior I'd seen. Somehow, I thought I would find something in an intellectual environment that gave me some faith that people were aware of themselves and pursuing power well. I didn't. Instead I found a lot of self-delusion, and by the time I was done, the sport had gone out of it and I was ready to stop talking about it for a while. Maybe in that sense, my education was a success for the system, too.

Now, I have a business to run and a million projects on my mind, none of them activist and only a few of them involved with the subjects I studied. I don't know how much I'll continue to write, certainly on occasion but probably never another nine-post month or any serious publication. Some of the attention economy material may end up getting written down somewhere, but the point will be to get back to life. It will be strange to live and try to find something of value to dedicate myself to, given the way I think, because it's not my culture and I clearly don't belong here, but everyone has to adapt and I'm not exempted from it. The only thing to say is, "we'll see."

Stay tuned, more will come. Eventually.