Hummingbirds and the Pointlessness of Life

HummingbirdI currently have the worst headache that I can remember having. I have loaded up on every pill that could possibly help me, which probably means that I will fall asleep shortly because one of them is an antihistamine that puts me to sleep. But there is nothing like pain to make me think of Schopenhauer. The only point to living is to facilitate further living. It is very much like a hamster running on one of those treadmills. And that’s fine as long as you are enjoying the run. But if you are in pain, what is the point? You keep the process going just so that you can continue to suffer?

If humans were really smart, they would have died out long ago. Unfortunately, our will is much greater than our intelligence. This kind of goes along with what I was talking about in, Why I Am Not a New Atheist. This idea that we are rational is undercut by our continued dedication to life. The will is a supremely irrational thing that keeps us going even under the worst of conditions. (Well, maybe not the “worst” but the general levels of suffering that we humans are used to.)

Right out in front of our house, we have a hummingbird feeder. And I get to watch one particular hummingbird that uses it, whenever I’m in the kitchen. It’s a great example of what I’m talking about, because hummingbirds are so small and use so much energy that they must spend most of their time eating. And so this little guy flies up, feeds, flies away. And he continues it over and over again. To be honest, I’m not sure why he even goes away — he’s there that much. And I’m sure that he mates and sleeps too, but pretty much his life is eating.

And what is the point of that?! I know I can justify my life. It is complex. I do a whole lot of things that have nothing to do with continuing my existence. But ultimately, it does all come down to the hummingbird that doesn’t have any point to existing except for its drive to continue existing. And that is an annoying fact of existence. It bothers me. I wish I had some greater insight into the nature of existence that I could use to counter what seems to be the utter pointlessness of life.

Don’t get the idea that I’m depressed. I’m not. My head is killing me and I don’t like that. But otherwise, I’m kind of bullish on life right now. That doesn’t change the fact that I look at life and see its pointlessness. And I’m well aware that as much as I may feel pretty good (except for the headache), this is only temporary. I will fall into a deep depression when such considerations will not be academic. Of course, I won’t kill myself. Because my will is so much stronger than my rational capacity. I’m just like that hummingbird, feeding today so I can feed tomorrow.

No Shakespeare Skeptic Can Be Trusted

Gary TaylorIn their criticisms of Shakespeare, Wittgenstein and Tolstoy enact the stance they admire: they struggle against the idolatries of their day, they set up the emotional honesty of their own responses against the cant and convention they hear all around them and in Shakespeare himself. They play the fool, the deflator of common (non)sense. And they have generally been treated as though, by criticizing Shakespeare, they had made fools of themselves. George Orwell explains Tolstoy’s criticisms of King Lear as a function of Tolstoy’s own uncomfortable similarity to Lear; as usual, since the days of Dryden and Rymer, the critique is not rationally answered but taken as proof of personal weakness. Hume and Wittgenstein and Santayana were philosophers; philosophers can’t be trusted. Voltaire and Emerson and Tolstoy and Wittgenstein were foreigners; foreigners can’t be trusted. Hazlitt and Cobbett were radicals; radicals can’t be trusted. Oliver Goldsmith condemned Shakespeare’s “forced humor; far fetched conceit, and unnatural hyperbole”; Samuel Johnson said that “Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault”; Matthew Arnold complained about Shakespeare’s sloppy “workmanship” and his often “detestable” style; A E Housman confessed that “it gave him no pleasure to read a play of Shakespeare’s from beginning to end, for though some parts were magnificent, there were others so slovenly that the effect of the whole was disagreeable.” But Goldsmith and Johnson and Arnold and Housman — and Jonson and Milton and Dryden and Pope and Wordsworth and Byron and Landor and Whitman and Shaw and Eliot, who all expressed similar reservations — were rival writers; rival writers can’t be trusted. Rymer was a disappointed poet; disappointed poets can’t be trusted… Ezra Pound admitted that “Hunks of Shxpr bore me; I just can’t read ’em”; but Pound was a rival poet, a madman, a foreigner, and a fascist to boot; mad fascist foreign poets can’t be trusted. Or, rather, any of these categories of human being can be trusted when they praise Shakespeare but not when they venture objections.

—Gary Taylor
Reinventing Shakespeare

Supreme Court as Microcosm of American Politics

Dahlia LithwickDahlia Lithwick wrote a great overview of Wednesday’s King v Burwell hearing, High Drama for Obamacare at the High Court. She’s a very playful writer and it is well worth reading the whole thing. It is pretty much all that I know about the hearing. And I have to say, I don’t know why so many observers — including Lithwick herself — seem so reticent or even gloomy.

Chief Justice Roberts said almost nothing. That could be ominous, I suppose. But I think it just means that Roberts knows this is a highly contentious case and maybe in this case it is a good idea to keep a low profile. The bad reading, of course, is that if he were planning to find for the government, why not clearly signal it so that people wouldn’t be left in doubt for the next few months. But I don’t think that would be his thinking if he were concerned about his and the court’s reputation.

It certainly seems to be the case that Kennedy is siding with the government. He seemed to be following two different tracks that lead to a good outcome. The main one is the argument that if the law reads the way the plaintiffs want, that means that the federal government had excessive leverage over the states. Basically, it was saying, “Sign up for full Obamacare or we are going to destroy your state.” It’s an interesting argument, because the last time the Supreme Court waded into these waters, it decided that the states had the right to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. So Kennedy seems to be saying that since the Court decided that way, it has a kind of obligation to not cause the states any more harm.

The whole thing is an outrage, though. What the “liberals” on the court were saying made perfect sense. You really have to tie yourself in knots to find this challenge compelling. Check out this exchange the Lithwick recorded:

Elena Kagan opens with a “simple daily life kind of” hypothetical in which, she says, “So I have three clerks, their names are Will and Elizabeth and Amanda. Okay? So my first clerk, I say, Will, I’d like you to write me a memo. And I say, Elizabeth, I want you to edit Will’s memo once he’s done. And then I say, Amanda, listen, if Will is too busy to write the memo, I want you to write such memo. Now, my question is: If Will is too busy to write the memo and Amanda has to write such memo, should Elizabeth edit the memo?”

When Carvin says “No,” Kagan retorts: “You run a different shop than I do.”

Michael Carvin is the plaintiff’s attorney. I suppose he had to answer that way, but it is ridiculous. I’d hate to be a lawyer that spends his whole life making stupid arguments all for the benefit of those who already have more money than God.

What Scalia and Alito had to say didn’t bother me all that much. Alone, I wouldn’t think it meant that they were necessarily going to vote against the government. But there was no real discussion of what was supposed to be the big issue: whether four words out of an enormous law could trump all the rest. Instead, it was more stuff like you might hear on a slightly elevated right wing talk radio station. And I think what it means is that in any clearly partisan case like this one, the evil trinity on the Supreme Court will always side with the conservatives. If Roe v Wade came before them, they wouldn’t look at the law; they would just know that they were going to overturn it because that’s the side they are one.

It’s all embarrassing. I just hope the rest of the world isn’t watching. But it is a perfect microcosm of American politics. The “left” is made up almost entirely of moderates — people slightly to the right of Richard Nixon. The “right” is just crazy. And the “center” is just a couple of justices we all hope will occasionally be reasonable. I think we are safe on this case. But we are looking at decades of bad times here in the United States.

Much Ado About Snowden’s Return

Edward SnowdenGlenn Greenwald wrote a really informative article over at The Intercept on Wednesday, The “Snowden is Ready to Come Home!” Story: a Case Study in Typical Media Deceit. This is in reference to all the recent stories about how Snowden wants to come back to the United States and how he has lawyers working on the matter. As Greenwald documented in some detail, there is no story. It isn’t that Snowden doesn’t want to return and that he doesn’t have lawyers working on this. Rather, it is simply that Snowden has always wanted to return home and has had lawyers working on a deal pretty much from the start.

The problem that Snowden faces is that he’s been charged under the Espionage Act. This is the 1917 law that the Obama administration has used twice as many times as all other presidents before him. And I don’t think that they have ever used it appropriately. It is for this kind of crap and the general war on whistleblowers that Reporters Without Borders dropped the United States 13 places to 46th on its index of press freedom. Remember, there are not even 200 countries in the world. So this puts the United States outside the top 20% countries. How “exceptional” is that?

According to Greenwald:

[Snowden] would be barred by US courts from even raising his key defense: that the information he revealed to journalists should never have been concealed in the first place and he was thus justified in disclosing it to journalists. In other words, when US political and media figures say Snowden should “man up,” come home and argue to a court that he did nothing wrong, they are deceiving the public, since they have made certain that whistleblowers charged with “espionage” are legally barred from even raising that defense.

From the beginning, Snowden has claimed that he would come back to the United States if he were given a fair trial. It’s sad that in my country, this is a request that has to be made. Of course, there are plenty of poor “nobodies” who are only too aware that a fair trial is just not something that our judicial system provides. But when it comes to stuff like the Espionage Act and government secrets generally, the government doesn’t even pretend to be just. Basically, if Snowden came back, his “fair” trial would consist of a jury passing judgment on him without his having presented any real evidence. Such a trial would be no better than the Soviet show trials of the 1930s.

Given that Greenwald documented many times when major media outlets had published stories and headlines about Snowden wanting to come back home, how is it that this recent brouhaha started? It is very simple. Snowden’s Russian lawyer just wrote a book. He held a press conference as part of the promotion for it. During the press conference, he was asked about Snowden and he said, “He has a desire to go back, and we are doing everything possible to make that happen.” It wasn’t meant to be news because it wasn’t:

Various media outlets then took these redundant, anodyne comments and distorted them into some brand new BREAKING!! event — as though Snowden suddenly decided for the first time he wants to Come Home — and then proceeded to extract from this fake narrative a series of utterly misleading, false and propagandistic claims about Snowden, Russia and the NSA…

Countless cable shows similarly treated this like some sort of breaking, revealing news about Snowden’s life in Russia and his desperation to return to the Land of the Free — all based on things that happened over and over during the last 20 months.

The implication here is that Snowden must now regret what he did. Life is horrible in Russia and he wants to come home. Greenwald noted that Snowden is not at all unhappy in Russia where he has quite a good life where he’s able to work on the issues he’s always cared about. There is, of course, still this Cold War residual in America that Russia must be a terrible place to live. This is part of a larger American narrative that it would be terrible to live anywhere but America. This is generally most especially believed by people who live in awful places like Dallas.

Glenn GreenwaldSo the story, such as it was, allowed the US media to create a false narrative where Snowden had turned against Russia and toward the the 46th best place for press freedom — also called the “land of the free.” (Fun fact: higher on press freedom is Romania.) Of course, this is all ridiculous anyway. As everyone should know, Snowden is only in Russia because the United States has done everything in its power to stop him from leaving. The Bolivian president’s plane was forced to land and searched because the American government thought that Snowden might be on board.

If Snowden ever makes a deal to come back to the United States, it will certainly not be under this administration. It isn’t that future administrations will be better about this stuff. History shows that they just get worse. But Snowden will always be an embarrassment to the Obama administration. So a Republican especially might have a reason to make an acceptable deal — something like they gave to David Petraeus. But it doesn’t sound like Snowden is in any rush. As it is, the United States seems to get worse every year. “Land of the free” is more and more a cruel joke.

Morning Music: Sam Baker

Say Grace - Sam BakerReader Ryan Hall introduced me to the folk/country singer-songwriter Sam Baker. He’s rather like John Prine in his approach to telling a story through music. But he’s less inclined toward traditional melodies with greater care in his lyrics — using a kind of talk-singing that is highly evocative. Apparently, when he was 32, he was badly injured during a terrorist attack while traveling in Peru. Many of those traveling with him died. His left hand was so damaged that he had to relearn the guitar with the other hand. Regardless, he’s just amazing.

Here is the title song off his album Say Grace. It’s about an older woman considering her life — past and present. Things don’t have to go wrong — they just get sadder inch by inch — and we push on. I especially like these lines: “The TV says war in the holy land; she looks at the wrinkles on the back of her hand.” Exactly.

Birthday Post: Stephen Schwartz

Stephen SchwartzToday, the great songwriter Stephen Schwartz is 67 years old. At this point, his most successful musical is most likely Wicked. But I have never seen it or even listened to the original cast album. I know him from Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show. Actually, the last one isn’t all that good. But the first two are really great. Given that he started his career very early, there isn’t anything terribly interesting about his life. So let’s listen to some of his work.

First is “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord)” from Godspell. It is a wonderful example of his ability to create a melody so strong that he can just repeat it over and over again.

Here is the most recent Broadway production of Pippin as they performed at the 2013 Tony Awards. It consists of “Corner of the Sky.” I loved it when I was a kid, but I actually think it is rather weak. The melody is strong, but the transition from verse to chorus drives me crazy. But then it goes into “Magic to Do,” which is a far better song.

After looking around a bit, I can’t find anything from Wicked that I care to share. The truth is that I’m not that fond of Broadway musicals at this point. They have gone in exactly the opposite direction that I had hoped they would go. They just become more involved and complicated — trying to compete against movies. And they have largely become soulless. And I don’t think that people especially like them. It’s just a thing. Musical theater could be something really special. Instead, it is as edifying as a sitcom. But at its best, at least the songs are well crafted.

Happy birthday Stephen Schwartz!