Lucius — Until We Get There (Live)

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On Trump

Donald Trump is an unconventional, untested, and polarizing presidential candidate, and I think many who plan to vote for him will do so holding their nose—but the fact remains that his ascendance to candidacy represents a significant trend in American politics and cannot be dismissed. The more one investigates Trump and his move from liberal-leaning Northeast blue blood to tentative champion of the GOP, the more interesting it becomes.

It seems, in many ways, that there are two Donald Trumps: the relatively quiet, thoughtful Trump of the 80s and 90s, where in interviews and TV appearances he worries about our national debt and OPEC’s power, saying we need a capable president but admits he’d rather not do it, and then there’s the Trump of now, the loud, brazen, fix-it man, the autocrat in training itching for the reigns. Trump in 2016 looks an odd amalgam of these people, and this seems to make him complex enough to allow people to see what they want to see in him. He is both a successful business man who knows his craft and a pompous windbag who flexes his relative power to exhibit pettiness and solipsism (read his Twitter feed sometime).

If we could extract the competent (though, if we’re being fair, not any kind of amazing self-made) business man from Trump, the man who understands how the market works and what a government can do to make a mixed market flourish, we might end up with a capable commander in chief, but that person and the unbearable, self-made caricature are inextricably connected. Much like we can’t in Hillary Clinton have the experienced and intelligent lawyer without the lying, scandal-ridden politician, we can’t have the best of Trump without the worst.

And if this is the case, then what Trump supporters get from him, even knowing his significant downsides, must be worth it, and what that seems to be is an “I’ll get things done” mentality. Trump posits himself as a doer, and argues that this country needs fixing—just hand him the tools. And in this, his primary urge and appeal, he is his most un-conservative and unappealing. Much like Clinton, Trump represents America’s increasingly external locus of control.

If one wants to learn about American sensibilities and circumstance in the 20th century, one can examine trends in automobile manufacturing and marketing. The models that role into the showroom provide a mirror of American values: the gargantuan luxury-mobiles of the 1950s, the power-laden cars of the 1960s, and the economic cars of the late 1970s tell a story about who we were collectively in that moment. Politicians work very much the same way, and if Theodore Roosevelt reflected the American desire for independence and autonomy, Trump is the latest model of let-me-take-care-of-you.

In this, he is decidedly not conservative—at least not in any small government sense. He supports eminent domain, the federal reserve, Social Security, government-funded healthcare, the Patriot Act, and closed borders. If the dominate sensibility of the GOP is fiscal responsibility and individual liberty, then Trump is an imposter. Or, more troubling still, we’re moving away from these values entirely in favor of a demagogue who vows vaguely to make everything “great” again, though he never really explains what that means (allowing people to quietly pencil in their own meaning there). I fear that Trump supporters might be right: Trump will get things done. I fear that what he’ll accomplish is contributing to an ever-increasing and overreaching federal government.

So, what’s a liberty-minded, fiscal conservative to do? Both parties are differently-packaged brands of big government, both promising, if you just give them the power, to fix our country. Certainly, Gary Johnson provides an appealing alternative, though it seems that Johnson will be more like a Nader and pull votes from Trump rather than a genuine third-party contender—as unfortunate as that is. If any substantial benefit will come from this election cycle, it’s that we might recognize the uniformity of American politics—that the oft-touted values of both the Democratic and Republican parties are simulacra, artfully-crafted lip service—and recognize that the push-and-pull that matters is between individual liberty and politely forced conformity, and that it’s not always easy to tell who’s on what side. And if our political system is broken enough to leave us with no other choice but one, I hope we might have the sense to change that system.

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Penn Jillette on Trump, Hillary, and Johnson

Naturally, this will be one of those videos whose context will change as this year’s election cycle continues and eventually ends. Still, I think Jillette has a lot of interesting things to say–and he’s such a likable person.

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Alan Watts: Moving in Toward the Idea of Zen

Alan Watts, if you’re unfamiliar with him and his work, was a student of Zen and of philosophy in general, who worked to bring Zen and other Eastern traditions to the West (though certainly, the juxtaposition of East v. West reveals part of the problem of translating things like Zen in the first place into a culture that sees things binarily). In this brief excerpt, he does what all great Zen teachers do: attempt to help the student or listener arrive at an understanding through illustration rather than direct instruction. Enjoy–I hope your Wednesday is treating you well.

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Liberal Bias in Academia?

This is something you’ve likely heard before – academia is bursting at the brim with leftist intellectuals actively attempting to indoctrinate students.  Perhaps the version you heard isn’t so aggressive.  Maybe the university is filled with left-leaning professors and students just can’t help but be influenced. Or sometimes the opposite case is made: the university is actually painfully conservative, reinforcing conformity and obedience.

But what is the truth? What does the university really look like politically? To answer this question, we have to look at some data.

Mother Jones does a nice job pulling data from a more complete study of the liberal bias by Niel Gross in Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?, distilling the book down to a few basic points:

  • 50 percent of professors describe themselves as being “left or liberal.” That puts the professoriate considerably to the left of the country as a whole; Gross estimates that professors are “about three times more liberal on average” than American adults.
  • However, just 8 to 9 percent of college faculty can be accurately described as “far left” or “radical”—and the percentage is even smaller among younger faculty. “The professorate is obviously not bursting at the seams with revolutionaries,” writes Gross.
  • 19 percent of professors could be called “moderates.”
  • On the right, Gross estimates that economic conservatives comprise just 4 percent of academia, and that 23 percent of academics are social and pro-military conservatives. In general, conservatives “tend to cluster in fields like accounting, management information, marketing, and electrical engineering” and economics.
  • Professors are also less religious than average Americans—but this, too, shouldn’t be overblown. Research by Gross has shown that just over half believe in God.

According to Gross, and this seems supported by other similar studies, reports of radical left-wing indoctrination in America’s universities is largely overblown. Certainly, intellectuals and academics trend to the left, but the university is not one big union meeting with red flags draped on the walls. Having spent some nine years myself in the hallowed halls of academia, I can attest to Gross’ findings. I’ve never seen a a communist flag in a professor’s office, nor an anti-Christian rally. Still, it’s pretty clear that academia, especially my field–the humanities–is populated mostly by left-leaning thinkers and intellectuals.

The question of why the left is so well-represented in academia is an interesting one, and Gross provides an answer that is likely an important part of the equation: academic self-selects and self-reinforces its political bias. Basically, as the academy began to gain a reputation for trending leftward, people who trended leftward were drawn to the university to be with like-minded people and those who trended rightward avoided the university. In other words, it’s a kind of self-reinforcing political tribalism. And when you look at the structure of most academic departments (though it’s quickly becoming more corporate), the process of bringing in new faculty is pretty personal; much of the process beyond the preliminary issue of qualifications . It’s no surprise that people would naturally gravitate towards candidates who are both qualified and share their worldview.

But it’s more than that, I think. From my own experience, for whatever its worth, the nature of academia seems to draw in a more left-leaning person for a variety of reasons. To be fair, my experience is almost entirely in the humanities world, and more specifically the English/writing world, but I imagine my experience would look familiar to someone in the social sciences or other similar fields. What goes on in the math departments, though, is a complete mystery to me.

One of the main reasons I think left-leaning people are drawn to the university, and to the humanities in particular, is that academia has traditionally been anti-commercial and anti-capitalist–something that appeals to those on the left who recognize the shortfalls of capitalism (which we might separate from “free markets,” here). At least when considering more traditional liberal arts colleges, the primary goal is always that higher, more idealistic aim: to deepen one’s ability to think critically, to challenge conventional thought, to discover what it means to be human, etc. Sadly, the corporate world has infiltrated the university, and academia has been changing for years now, but at least in theory, the traditional role of the university as a place of higher learning above all else still holds true in most institutions.


Another reason I think those who trend leftwards are interested in the academy is the nature of interaction in academia. Generally speaking, it’s communitarian and cooperative rather than individualistic and competitive. Don’t get me wrong–academia is still an extremely competitive place, with colleagues duking it out over grant money and honorary positions. Still, the natural “government” of the university is a committee: a group of people that strive to come to a consensus. This looks quite different from the top-down, more totalitarian or autocratic nature of the corporate world where orders come from above and are handed down. Again, things are changing, but at least at the college and department level, the sense of community is still considered important.

At the end of the day, it does not feel like the end-goal of the university is profit, and I think that appeals deeply to many on the left, who see the profit motive as potentially problematic and counter to their ideals. From a more pragmatic perspective, we can safely assume that people aren’t entering academia for a big paycheck–that’s for sure.

There are other important reasons, too, that there are more left-leaning than right-leaning people in academia. I think the privileging of empathy, the draw of a free-thinking atmosphere, and the separateness from the corporate world all naturally pull those on the left into the halls of academia. In fact, a quick look at those departments that privilege those things the most–say,  English, Peace Studies, Gender/Women’s Studies–reveal the most left-leaning people. People are drawn to institutions that share their values.

UND's Merrifield Hall

U of North Dakota’s Merrifield Hall–arguably the most left-leaning building on campus–houses English, Philosophy, Language studies, among others.

The question that comes up, then, is whether this degree of political singularity presents a problem for academia–whether it is missing out on some benefit from having a larger diversity of viewpoints. As academia is not quite as one-sided as most people think, and because even people who share similar worldviews still have much on which to disagree, I don’t think there’s much to worry about. What say you?


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One Reason I’m an Atheist

A recent conversation with a family member about my lack of belief inspired me to think more about why I’m so different than others in our family.  I left behind religious belief years ago for countless reasons, and I am able to better understand those reasons the older I get and more time I have to reflect on my choices and experiences.

Although I have no interest in starting a debate, I’d like to share one simple reason why I cannot be intellectually honest and believe in a god (regardless of the religion that god might originate from).  Besides other countless reasons, I cannot bring myself to believe or even seriously entertain the thought of believing in a being that would create smaller, inferior beings to worship him/her.  This level of cosmic narcissism is revolting to me, and it astonishes me that more people don’t consider this.

Let’s step back and consider God as a being. He or She is an all-powerful, all-knowing, master-of-the-universe being. One day, for whatever reason, this being decides to create the universe, and with it, earth and all its various creatures. The details differ depending on who you ask, but the general story is similar across religions and cultures. This being could have created this world out of boredom, out of inspiration, out of desire for companionship–and these all seem possible, but at least in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, it seems that this omnipotent being creates humanity to worship him/her. If we imagine this being to be morally superior (this being created morality, after all), how can it’s modus operandi be something we generally find repulsive–the desire to be worshiped? We point out dictators and totalitarian rulers, and comment on how their need to be worshiped, to be revered in image and song, and we say how sad, how strange, how characteristic of a serious personality disorder that is…yet we fail to question that quality in a superior being.

If, of course, our gods were created by us and exhibit the qualities we might expect a superior being to have, it makes plenty of sense that that being would be jealous and self-serving and cruel to those who fail him/her. That, however, is not how the story goes generally.

I’m not interested in inciting hatred or starting a riot, but I am certainly interested in questioning our assumptions–especially those assumptions that lie deepest beneath or everyday thought, those things we take for granted without even realizing it. I remember once that the late Christopher Hitchens likened believing in Judeo-Christin-Muslim theism to choosing to live in a mental North Korea, and while that certainly is designed to incite a strong response, is he wrong? Might the fact that so many gods feel like dictators be evidence of their humble human origins, where the experience of peoples living under absolute power cannot help but color (or determine) the nature of their gods? Certainly some food for thought.


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The Kafkaesque and the Power of Mind

We so often hear that word–Kafkaesque–tossed around to describe all sorts of things, from scenes in film to our everyday encounters with the world, but it seems that many who use the word either haven’t read much Kafka, or haven’t thought very deeply about his stories. The video below does an excellent job of explaining what exactly “Kafkaesque” means, and what the real moral is behind most of Kafka’s impenetrable beauracracy: namely, the power of the individual to determine his or her own world. It seems that ultimately, Kafka is a kind of existentialist.

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