The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

Fearing Tenure: The Loss Of Community

In ‘The Clouded Prism: Minority Critique of the Critical Legal Studies Movement‘, Harlan L. Dalton wrote:

I take it that everyone drawn to CLS is interested in specifying in concrete terms the dichotomy between autonomy and community. If so, talk to us. Talk TO us. Listen to us. We have lots to say, out of the depths of our own experiences. For many of us, our sense of community is a strength, a resource, something we struggle to hang onto, sometimes in the most peculiar ways, especially when the pull of autonomy is strongest. The day that I am awarded tenure, should that happy event occur, any pleasure that I experience will be more than offset by the extreme panic that I’m sure will set in; I will worry that I have been propelled (or more  honestly that I have wittingly, selfishly and self-destructively propelled myself) two steps further away from so much that has nurtured me for so long. Even for those of us who have revelled in the sense of connectedness that, paradoxically, racial oppression has conferred upon us, there is a kicker: we don’t have any choice in the matter. We can’t choose to be a part of the community; we can’t choose not to be a part of the community.

When I first read these lines, I was reminded of a conversation that used to recur in some of my therapeutic sessions: Why would you shrink from that which you most–supposedly–desire?

Some insight may be found in Dalton’s confession. Tenure would mean not being part of a ‘community’, membership in which, while a reminder of exclusion from another, was also a belonging in a very particular way. It meant the enjoyment of a very distinctive camaraderie, the dwelling in a state of being that had its own rewards.

I will not attempt to speak for Dalton’s experiences so let me just briefly address my own. Gaining tenure meant the end of a ‘struggle’; it meant the end of a state in which I had a very ‘clear and distinct’ goal, a terminus of achievement, one that had established yardsticks and baselines for me, calibrating my ‘progress’ and reminding me of how far I had come and how far I still had to go. I saw myself as member of a group marked by its presence in the margins, by its distance from the center, by a vaguely heroic air of struggle against economic, intellectual, and even political barriers. We were the untenured, the ‘assistant professors’; we had secured the prize of a tenure-track position, but we were still ‘battlers.’ I had trajectories to follow, and I had fellow-travelers. My lot was sympathized with; many were solicitous of the state of my journey, my distance from its destination. I was assured of celebrations and revelries were I to cross the finish line. I could look ahead and see the goal; I could feel my cohort around me, propping me up.

In the midst of all this, even as I desired that onward and upward movement, I knew what I would leave behind: a time and a place in which I was in possession of that dearest of things, a clear and unstinting purpose.

I am well-aware that a reflection like this, in the context of today’s job market, is an extremely self-indulgent one. I write it only to highlight the ironic and puzzling nature of the situations that Dalton and those in therapy might find themselves in, and of the artfully hidden blessings of even those portions of our lives that we might find oppressive and worth delivering ourselves from.

The Curious Irony of Procrastination

Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer’; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.

You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.

One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit,  is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)

Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.

Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.

Karl Popper’s Undistinguished Take on Existentialism

In Chapter 18 ‘Utopia and Violence’, of Conjectures and Refutations, Karl Popper writes:

We can see here that the problem of the true and the false rationalisms [Utopianism] is part of a larger problem. Ultimately it is the problem of a sane attitude towards our own existence and its limitations–that very problem of which so much is made now by those who call themselves ‘Existentialists’, the expounders of a new theology without God. There is, I believe, a neurotic and even an hysterical element in this exaggerated emphasis upon the fundamental loneliness of man in a godless world, and upon the resulting tension between the self and the world. I have little doubt that this hysteria is closely akin to Utopian romanticism, and also to the ethic of hero-worship, to an ethic that can comprehend life only in terms of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’. And I do not doubt that this hysteria is the secret of its strong appeal.

One thing Popper does well in this passage is instantiate irony. Here, in a chapter, which is an ode to non-dogmatic rationalism, he flirts with an especially dogmatic attitude towards existentialism. This produces an exceedingly peculiar piece of writing. After noting that the problems under consideration, those of true and false rationalisms, are part of a ‘larger problem’, that of devising the appropriate orientation to the basic fact of existence, Popper seems to suggest too much is made of it by the new theologians i.e., the existentialists. Thus, this problem is fundamental, but too much is made of it by other theorists. There clearly is no pleasing some people. It gets worse. Not only are the new theologians guilty of making perhaps too much of this problem, they do so neurotically or hysterically. It is more than extremely curious that Popper, the arch-critic of Freud and psychoanalysis, should have picked two terms straight from their vocabulary to  show just how severe his criticism is, how acute the pathology under consideration is. He does not explain why these terms, in particular, apply. Are there symptoms of interest on display that might help us make up our minds? Popper does not explain too, why one of the central theses of a doctrine amounts to an ‘exaggerated emphasis’ on its claims by the proponents of the doctrine. How is a thesis to acquire centrality without emphasis?

But the dogmatism doesn’t end there. There is no argument to make the case that this ‘hysteria’–whatever it might be and however it might be manifested–is indeed as similar to ‘Utopian romanticism’ as Popper claims it is. What is the evidence for such a claim and why is this term is applicable to the attitude Popper is describing? Perhaps we are to be reassured by his statement that he has ‘little doubt’ about it. Popper then switches to posing a false dichotomy: that the existentialist ethic insists on comprehending life in terms of either domination or prostration. Popper seems to be making some vague gestures here toward Nietzsche, but this, prima facie, does not seem like a very coherent reading of him. Finally, to deliver the finishing touches, Popper then again reassures us of just how he does not ‘doubt’ that the aforesaid ‘hysteria’ is the reason for existentialism’s ‘strong appeal.’

All in all, this is not a distinguished display by Popper. Passages like these are not uncommon in philosophical polemics; I only note this one because its placement renders it especially incoherent.

Geertz, Trilling and Fussell on the Transformation of the Moral Imagination

In ‘Found in Translation: Social History of Moral Imagination’, (from Local Knowledge: Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983, pp 44-45), Clifford Geertz writes,

Whatever use the imagination productions of other peoples–predecessors, ancestors, or distant cousins–can have for our moral lives, then, it cannot be to simplify them. The image of the past (or the primitive, or the classic, or the exotic) as a source of material wisdom, a prosthetic corrective for a damaged spiritual life–an image that has governed a great deal of humanist thought and education–is mischievous because it leads us to expect our uncertainties will be reduced by access to thought worlds constructed along lines alternative to our own, when in fact they will be multiplied….the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with another one, as powerful or more, comes only at the expense of its inward ease.

Geertz wrote this in response to not just anthropological theorizing and speculation, both amateur and professional–about ‘other peoples’–but to the worries expressed by Lionel Trilling about ‘the basic assumption of humanistic literary pedagogy’  (in ”Why We Read Jane Austen’ Times Literary Supplement, 5 March 1976, pp 250-252) that no matter how great the distance in place, period and sensibility between us and those that inhabit the pages of literature, the author could  bring us closer, illuminate our lives, and make us aware of who we ‘already were.’ Trilling’s discomfort with this assumption arose from his feeling–as Geertz notes–that

[T]he significant works of the human imagination…speak with equal power to the consoling piety that we are all alike to one another and to the worrying suspicion that we are not.

So the ‘social history of the moral imagination’ is a task of considerable hermeneutic difficulty, one that must confront the difficulties it poses in the ‘instabilities’ it creates, all in an effort to make them relevant to the ‘social frame’ we inhabit.

The working example of such an engagement that Geertz provides is the recently departed Paul Fussell‘s The Great War and Modern Memory, which took on the archaic literary frameworks that were first utilized in perceiving and recollecting the First World War, and then later, were extensively reconfigured to amend–and give shape to–the modern imagination. Fussell’s ambitious conclusion was that the predominance of the ‘ironic’ in the modern was a painful reaction to the Great War, that what we call the ‘modern understanding’  is a sensibility that had found pre-existing literary, poetic and imaginative resources inadequate to do justice to the physical and emotional realities of the Great War’s torn and foul landscapes, soaked by the blood of millions of young men, sent to their deaths by incompetent war pigs.  This imagination was ‘shattered into thousand pieces of sour irony’ by this encounter; the modern imagination was the result of putting these pieces back together, over an extended period of time, painfully and slowly, by those who were present, and those who were not.

Geertz uses this history to suggest that,

[T]his is how anything imaginational grows in our minds, is transformed, socially transformed, from something we merely know to exist or have existed, somewhere or the other, to something which is properly ours, a working force in our common consciousness.

In remembering Paul Fussell, we should thank him for having documented such a transformation as vividly and powerfully as he did.

Note: I intend to write a few more notes here in response to Geertz’s collection.