On Being Able To Forge My Father’s Signature

A few years after my father passed away, I began to be able to forge his signature. One day, on a lark, I picked up a pen and tried to sign his name; much to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile stood forth. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then tried again. The resemblance of my production to the original grew; or so it seemed. There was no point to this exercise of mine; there were no documents to be forged, no school report to be faked. I’d just been curious to see if I could emulate my father in at least one dimension, one that had always seemed to capture, quite acutely, at least one aspect of the irrepressible flair I associated with him.  I called out to my mother and showed her my ‘work’: she agreed I had, indeed, made a good copy. There it was: the distinctive ‘P’ of his first name, which required an extravagant loop to close the ‘top’, and then, a quick, seemingly unintelligible sequence of lower-case letters, followed by the extravagant ‘C’ that began his last name, followed by yet another quick run of lower-case letters, and then, finally the closing flourish, a sharp, short line drawn underneath the first and last names, finished off with a pair of stylish dots. I had seen that signature hundreds of times: on report cards from school; on letters my father had written to his brothers, my grandfather, my mother; on official documents pertaining to his service in the Air Force; on various official documents that always seemed to be required by the ever-present state bureaucracy that pervaded our middle-class lives. I had seen my father draw it quickly and efficiently, mostly with a fountain pen. I’d always marvelled at how he closed the loop on the ‘P’; he seemed to throw his fingers and the pen upwards, and then drew them sharply down, so that the closed ‘P’ looked like a balloon floating above the stem below.

I know I carry around traces of my father in me; in the books I read; in the music I listen to; in the pleasures I find in the outdoors; in the ways I respond to the sights and sounds of aviation. I‘ve even tried to emulate his appearance; the crewcut I sport and the aviator sunglasses I wear suggest I haven’t given up on this endeavour. My father didn’t know it, but I paid him a lot of attention. That successful attempt at forging my father’s signature showed that somehow, through all those sessions of observation, I had internalized his actions; or perhaps there was some ‘machinery’ in me that made it possible for me to function in the same way.

I‘ve made note here of how I think my parents live on in me and my life. That successful attempt at forgery might have been another way to make my father alive in me again. As I enter a stage of life–the middle-aged years–that my father never got a chance to live through, I wonder how else his presence will manifest itself.

Wanted: Presidential ‘Leadership’ In North Dakota (#NODAPL)

As I have noted on this blog before (here and here), America is not done with Native Americans yet. You might have imagined that banishment to impoverished reservations was the final insult to historical injury, but apparently much work, like the denial of clean drinking water–the provision of which in certain communities seems increasingly beyond the capacities of our great republic–remains to be accomplished.

Ever since the Standing Rock NODAPL protests began–inviting an impatient, intolerant response by local law-enforcement authorities–a superficial sense of unreality has pervaded proceedings: Are we really, seriously, in the process of yet again violating another treaty with Native Americans? Have we no shame? Matters have worsened, of course. In a delightfully old-fashioned move, one evoking nostalgia for days gone by, as air temperatures have dropped below freezing on the North Dakota plains, police have used water cannon on protesters at nighttime. Some German shepherd dogs and some tobacco-chewing cops speaking in Southern accents were all that were missing from those classic American mise-en-scènes; these provided a salutary contrast to images of policemen chatting with those brave pioneers who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year, and desecrated Native American lands in the process. Sooner or later, the strong arm of the law will descend on the Standing Rock protesters to evict them; their presence is an embarrassment to those who have routed the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native American lands, and to all those who let them do so.

The history of past interactions with the Native American in this land is so sorrowful and shameful, so redolent of betrayal, that the very idea of a paleface not speaking with forked tongue when it comes to land treaties strikes most dispassionate observers as risible. You’d imagine that under these sorts of historical circumstances, politicians would consider it easy to go out on a rhetorical limb, and utter protestations about the need to redress past wrongs, to correct injustice, to suggest there might have been an implicit national agreement–a moral one–to the effect of ‘Never Again.’ Apparently not. For instance, during the election season, Hillary Clinton could only offer a familiar, mealy-mouthed, triangulated response; that attempt at cultivating that mythical creature, the ‘moderate Republican’ failed, and needless to say, it did little to suggest the Standing Rock protests were distinctive in any way. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, perhaps trying not to disrupt his carefully cultivated image as a measured, unflappable, reconciler of extremes, has stayed well above the fray, not deigning to put his considerable presidential authority and prestige on the line in speaking up for the protesters. But time is running out; the Oval Office will soon be occupied by a Wall Street bootlicker; and further waves of exploitation of lands out West will soon commence. The president has nothing to lose, and much to gain. Speaking up on behalf of, and intervening by any means necessary, shouldn’t just be thought of as a political tactic; it should be a moral imperative.

Note: In saying the above, I do not mean to suggest that protests are reliant, dependent on, or cannot proceed without the White House speaking up on their behalf; it would be just, how you say, nice to see a display of moral backbone from those quarters.

A Thank-You Note This Philosophy Teacher Will Treasure

Teachers love thank-you notes from students; they, along with great classroom interactions with students, are easily the highlights of our careers. Here is one I received recently, which as a teacher of philosophy, I will particularly treasure–because it cuts to the heart of the enterprise I take myself to be engaged in. It comes from a student who took Core Philosophy with me last year–in that class, I tried to teach an introduction to philosophy via the Stoics. My student was one of the best in my class; but he did not hand in his final as he had started to struggle with some mental health issues by then. He passed the class in any case, and then we lost contact. A week or so ago, I heard from him again:

Professor Chopra, I don’t how much this means, if anything, coming from an ex-student you taught but I feel compelled to write this message: Thank you. Over the past year, I’ve gone back to the Stoic readings we did in that class and reread them. They really helped me through some rough times with my mental health. They have helped change the way I think about a lot of things. Today, in a journal entry, I was thinking about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the day working my way through that collection. It really resonated with me.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your class greatly benefited my life. I was going to respond MUCH earlier in the year, but I was hesitant about doing so because so much time had passed. I wish you all the best. [links added]

In a follow-up he writes:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CUNYs do insist on a core curriculum, an introductory philosophy class such as yours, focusing on philosophy as a means to live a better life, should certainly be a requirement.

I unapologetically admit that I began studying philosophy as a kind of therapeutic method to help me deal with personal unhappiness, to find meaning in a life that seemed to have lost its anchors and become adrift, lacking in mooring and direction; like my student, I was anxious and apprehensive and melancholic. Academic philosophy was not what I imagined it to be, but I’ve never lost sight of that original impulse that drew me to philosophy. It is an impulse that animates my teaching of philosophy: I hope that the study of philosophy will make a difference to the way my students live their lives, and how they see the world, and themselves within it. I’ve lost some hope over the years that I can compete in any meaningful way with the various influences in my students’ lives but my personal relationship with philosophy ensures my teaching remains hopeful it can make some difference to my student’s lives, that it can introduce new, and hopefully, helpful, perspectives to them. This email assures me that my efforts are not entirely in vain; I should continue.

Note: I requested my student’s permission to quote his email to me anonymously; he agreed, adding on the note I have quoted in the follow-up.

‘Westworld’ And Our Constitutive Loneliness

The title sequence to HBO’s Westworld is visually and aurally beautiful, melancholic, and ultimately haunting: artifacts–whose artifice is clearly visible–take shape in front of us, manufactured and brought into being by sophisticated devices, presumably robotic ones just like them; their anatomies and shapes and forms and talents are human-like; and that is all we need to begin to empathize with them. Empathize with what? The emotions of these entities is ersatz; there is nothing and no one there. Or so we are told. But we don’t need those emotions and feelings to be ‘real’–whatever that means. We merely need a reminder–in any way, from any quarter–about the essential features of our existence, and we are off and running, sent off into that endless mope and funk that is our characteristic state of being.

The robot and the android–the ‘host’ in Westworld–is there to provide bodies to be raped, killed, and tortured by the park’s guests;  we, the spectators, are supposed to be ashamed of our species, at our endless capacity for entertainment at the expense of the easily exploited, a capacity which finds its summum malum with a demographic that is controlled by us in the most profound way possible–for we control their minds and bodies. 1984‘s schemers had nothing on this. And the right set-up, the right priming for this kind of reaction is provided by the title track–even more than the many scenes which show hosts crying, moaning with pleasure, flying into a rage–for it places squarely in front of us, our loneliness, our sense of being puppets at the beck and call of forces beyond our control. (The loneliness of the hosts being manufactured in the title sequence is enhanced by their placement in a black background; all around them, the darkness laps at the edges, held back only by the light emergent from the hosts’ bodies; we sense that their existence is fragile and provisional.)

We have known for long that humans need only the tiniest suggestion of similarity and analogy to switch on their full repertoire of empathetic reactions; we smile at faces drawn on footballs; we invent personal monikers for natural landmarks that resemble anatomic features; we deploy a language rich with psychological predicates for such interactions as soon as we possibly can, and only abandon it with reluctance when we notice that more efficient languages are available. We are desperate to make contact with anyone or anything, desperate to extend our community, to find reassurance that this terrible isolation we feel–even in, or perhaps especially in, the company of the ones we love, for they remind us, with their own unique and peculiar challenges, just how alone we actually are. We would not wish this situation on anyone else; not even on creatures whose ‘insides’ do not look like ours. The melancholia we feel when we listen to, and see, Westworld‘s title sequence tells us our silent warnings have gone unheeded; another being is among us, inaccessible to us, and to itself. And we have made it so; our greatest revenge was to visit the horrors of existence on another being.

Bury My Journalism At Bended Knee: The Press And Donald Trump

A journalist who speaks truth to power, not a megaphone, not a stenographer. That, hopefully, would be the identity a conscientious journalist would seek; such has not been the case with the US press corps for ever so long. (The Iraq War is the prime exhibit in this brief, but many others can be found with a little work.) Matters have not improved in 2016, a year which has seen the press continue to fawn over the powerful, to pay more attention to tawdry scandal than genuine political and moral crisis. The latest exhibit in this sorry display of sycophancy and servility is now upon us as we learn of the secret, off-the-record meeting that media executives held with Donald Trump this past week–the ‘optics’ of which suggested nothing less than courtiers lining up to meet the king.

As Glenn Greenwald notes:

[W]hy would journalistic organizations agree to keep their meeting with Donald Trump off the record? If you’re a journalist, what is the point of speaking with a powerful politician if you agree in advance that it’s all going to be kept secret? Do they not care what appearance this creates: the most powerful media organizations meeting high atop Trump Tower with the country’s most powerful political official, with everyone agreeing to keep it all a big secret from the public? Whether or not it actually is collusion, whether or not it actually is subservient ring-kissing in exchange for access, it certainly appears to be that. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone put it: “By agreeing to such conditions, journalists expected to deliver the news to the public must withhold details of a newsworthy meeting with the president-elect.”

As Greenwald goes on to note, such secrecy can only protect details of some kind of ‘working relationship’ the media hammers out with the president-elect, a relationship that is entirely irrelevant to their work: their job is to investigate and report. (Moreover, details of the meeting will be leaked eventually–selectively and strategically. As has indeed happened because the ‘media stars’ were upset at being–surprise!–harangued by a known loose-cannon, and ran hither and thither to complain about their hurt feelings.) Did the attending journalists imagine that they would receive some list of topics that were verboten and another of topics that could be covered? If so, they should have torn up any such list–and never have agreed to put themselves in a position where such ‘negotiations’ could take place. The press don’t seem to keen to assert their First Amendment rights; they’d rather accept them in curtailed form from those in power.

Greenwald makes note of the attendees’ rather precious complaints that they were subjected to a tongue-lashing, their claims that such criticisms would not sting for too long, and concludes:

The supreme religion of the U.S. press corps is reverence for power; the more Trump exhibits, the more submissive they will get. “I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving.” We believe you.

The right thing to ‘get over’ is the temptation to submit to power, and the right time to do so is now.

Dostoyevsky on Donald Trump And The 2016 Elections

Yesterday, I spent part of a gloomy, overcast day in the CUNY Graduate Center library, preparing for my classes today. In particular, I prepared for my class on existentialism by reading, yet again, Dostoyevsky‘s Notes From Underground. As I read sitting next to a large window, I heard chants emanating upward from Fifth Avenue; I looked out to see a large contingent of protesters heading uptown, presumably toward Trump Tower. (The Graduate Center Library is located at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, so I was only twenty or so blocks away from their intended destination.) I wished them a silent ‘good luck,’ and then turned back to my reading. In an email to my students over the weekend I had asked them to keep in mind that the Underground Man is engaged in a kind of ‘revolt.’ What was he revolting against? How is this revolt expressed? As I read on, and reached Chapter VII, I reached a set of passages which I thought would strike my students as remarkably relevant to these times–perhaps even prescient.

There, Dostoyevsky writes:

I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentlemen, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”….what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers–such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason….that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms….What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

Dostoyevsky has set up the above pronouncement with the following opening to the chapter:

Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else….Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage…. And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle fans into dust.
Note: Excerpts above from Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, Walter Kaufmann ed., Penguin, New York, pp. 67-71.

How Many Constitutional Amendments Are There?

The short answer: the number of times the Supreme Court has ruled on a constitutional question. Every time the Supreme Court grants certiorari, allows a case to move ‘upwards’ from state and Federal courts to its chambers, and then proceeds to rule–keeping in mind the supposedly relevant precedents, and on the basis of a coherent theory of the interpretation of legal texts–it offers us an amended constitution. Every act of interpretation–sometimes plain literalist, sometimes originalist, sometimes purposive–adds meaning and texture to the text of the articles of the Constitution. Thus the content of the Fourth Amendment is not to be found in the Constitution; it is to be found in the cumulative history of all Supreme Court rulings on cases that have rested on contested interpretations of the Amendment. What does ‘unreasonable’ mean? What does ‘search’ mean? What does ‘seizure’ mean? What does ‘persons’ mean? What does ‘effects’ mean? What does ‘probable cause’ mean? To decipher this meaning, scattered over thousands and thousands of pages of Supreme Court rulings is an almost insuperable and intractable task; it is much easier, therefore, to fall back on the simplest formulation of all: ‘The Fourth Amendment says that…’. But the filling out of that particular that-clause will call for the expenditure of considerable ink, and in the end, it will appear that the protections of the Fourth Amendment are considerably more ambiguous–in several dimensions–than previously imagined, by both its detractors and proponents alike.

These considerations show that talk of ‘constitutional protections’ must always proceed hand in hand with talk of constitutional interpretation, with the history of actual supreme court rulings on the constitutional question under discussion. Such inclusion is especially necessary when giving someone legal advice; as Justice Holmes sagely pointed out many years ago, the law is what the judges say it is: “The prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious.”

Our nation is entering a period of great legal uncertainty; there is much talk of taking cover under constitutional protections, of seeking refuge from an authoritarian government under the covering canopy of the Bill of Rights. But the text of the Bill of Rights is not sufficient to provide such protection; the Supreme Court rulings on Bill of Rights cases are far more germane. To look only to the Constitution is dangerously complacent; talk of legal rights without actual legal protections is hollow.

Many a patriot is disappointed and disillusioned to find out that in point of fact the Fourth Amendment is almost hollow in content; its protections systematically eviscerated over the years by repeated weakenings through selective, ideological, and politically motivated interpretation. Mass surveillance; warrantless searches; stop and frisk; the list goes on. Where is the Fourth Amendment?, the patriot asks. The answer is: not in a small booklet, but in that section of the law school’s library that deals with constitutional law.

Constitutional conventions, two-thirds majorities, ratifications by state legislatures–such is the machinery of the constitutional amendment by legislative fiat. Such convolutions are kludgy compared to the awesomely efficient method of Supreme Court rulings; there, in the foundry of the Supreme Court’s chambers, new meanings are forged every year, every Supreme Court season.