More snow on the way

It’s been dubbed the Upside-down Winter:  more snow to the south; less to the north.  And there’s more on the way—about a foot more for the city of Philadelphia.  Most of my work is done in isolation, so thankfully it doesn’t affect me as much, unless the bad weather comes on a show-face day.  It does not in this particular case, but I cannot imagine what commuters have been going through this year.

Before settling in for the night, I bought more food-in-a-box—I’m a bachelor after all—and made sure there was sufficient caffeine to get me through the worst of the storm and then some.  Last time I got exactly as much as I needed to deal with what was forecast, and then awoke to find out that the weathermen had underestimated by a good eight inches.  Ah, well.  If I had to predict the future I wouldn’t be so great either.

At a recent meeting of the Philadelphia Anarcho-Capitalists, one person observed that Philadelphia is a failed State.  Anyone who didn’t believe him then must certainly believe him now, two-and-a-half snowstorms later.  Earlier this month it took days to get side streets plowed out.  In these situations the city constantly pleads its case that the workers are doing the best they can.  Maybe they are, but if they are, that doesn’t speak well for the public ownership of road resources.

Some citizen complaints, too, were misplaced.  Many erroneously believed that their street was not plowed properly, if at all.  Often, however, the case was that the plows came, did the best job they could, and in the ensuing days deep icy ruts nonetheless formed, making safe driving impossible even at very slow speeds.  This comes from people throwing snow back into the streets.  I personally witnessed this, though anyone that lives in a place where snow is common will not have a hard time believing the story. Of course, all the officials—the mayor, the police commissioner, Santa Claus, and maybe even the Cardinal Archbishop—went on television to beg people not to throw snow back into the streets, but they did anyhow.   The uniformed are chagrined at this.  Why won’t people just listen to us? I have a theory:  since the streets are owned by everyone, they’re effectively owned by no one; therefore, there is no incentive to take good care of them.  The public ownership of the streets creates an animalistic world in which it is every man for himself, and oftentimes the most efficient solution for Johnny Q shoveling out his Hyundai is to throw the snow out into the driving lane.  To hell with everyone who has to drive through this mess for the next week while we wait for temperatures to struggle their way back to forty degrees.

During one of the recent snowstorms I jokingly mused whether or not Locke’s theory of homesteading applied to digging a car out from two feet of snow, and if, therefore, people “owned” the parking spaces they had dug out.  Does that much fluff render a parcel of land “previously unused?”  Probably not—and please don’t take all this too seriously.  But I suppose it’s a more fun way to get at the idea that only privately held property is conducive to order and peaceful cooperation.  Tempers flared more than once in the past few weeks over parking spaces, and even public officials came to embrace an attitude that the space a resident dug out for himself should be respected.

In the wake of these storms, I did most of my traveling as a pedestrian or as a runner.  Guess which sidewalks were in the worst shape.  If you guessed the sidewalks adjacent to city and federal property, you would be correct.  Private property: 3; public management of necessary resources:  0.  Garbage pickup is also way behind schedule.  Make it 4-0.

I am in the process of resting a weary Achilles tendon, so if it is going to snow, I say go ahead and get it over with.  February already sucks anyhow.  Being disappointed in February weather is like being put out with a politician.  Surely we must know better.

I am pissed off because I am not God

I started this blog to talk about economics, politics, and the like, for the most part.  Lately it seems like I’ve been talking more and more about running.  Other runners will understand.  Running started out for me as a way to lose weight, and in time it became a way of life, a way of access to my mind and soul, a thing to do to get away for awhile, alone with my frustrations and fears, my excitements, disappointments, and plans.

Last week I was on top of the world.  I began running eight miles—up from my previous usual daily run of six miles.  On Monday I noticed a little bit of pain in my right shin, so as a precaution I bought new running shoes, since they were due for replacement anyhow.  The new running shoes have a harder sole, which the salesman told me is good for someone who runs long distances, and I being at or above 36 miles a week qualify for that description.

The eight mile runs continued until Friday, when I felt a slight, dull pain in my achilles tendon on my right foot.  I kept running.  That was my first and most crucial mistake.  I wasn’t particularly worried until Saturday, when I had to abandon a run after only two blocks. But Sunday was better, and I jogged the half mile home from the subway without a problem.  This gave me hope—too much hope, in fact, as it made me think I could get back in the saddle, but yesterday morning’s run was abandoned nearly as quickly as Saturday’s.

By 3pm I could barely stand to walk.  Through a friend I tracked down a podiatrist I’m acquainted with, and this afternoon I spoke with him on the phone.  It’s quite clear to me that this injury is serious business, and I might well pay a price for failing to recognize that sooner than I did.  Moreover, as I found out this afternoon, I engaged in two risks factors that can lead to this particular injury—increasing distance and new shoes—within a few days of each other.

There is a difficult balance to be struck in all this.  One’s health must be guarded, but it’s also important not to be a wimp.  It’s all very frustrating, and frightening.  An uncertain future in running gives me nightmares about getting fat again and having all the problems associated with that.  This injury also brings me face-to-face with the limitations of my own will.  When dealing with outside forces, it is easier to delude ourselves, to convince ourselves that we have more control over things than we really do.   But when your own body resists your will, you run straight into the brick wall that says, “You are not God.”  The mind-body disconnect is very troubling to people who think they have it all put together.

Years ago, a mentor of mine, a Catholic bishop who used to engage me in long conversations about the music of Gustav Mahler and other things you’d never expect a bishop to care about (but he’s a Jesuit, and therefore cultured), told me that I am pissed off because I am not God.  I ran into a friend the same day, and I related the story to him, and he agreed with the bishop without missing a beat.

I am pissed off because I am not God.  I can’t run right now, and there is nothing my will can do on its own to fix this.  I just need to get over it, and allow the experience to cut my ego down to its proper size, and in the meantime, my love of running will doubtless increase, so that when I can return, I will be grateful for every last step I can take—even the ones in yucky winter and early spring weather.

Ron Paul, the prospects for 2012, and an anarchist’s response

I like Ron Paul; I really do.  If I had the chance I’d take him to dinner.  He did a lot of good for me in the formation of my own thinking during his campaign in 2007 and 2008.  Please keep all of this in mind as I indulge in what some might consider to be counter-productive quibbling.

Dr. Paul has, of course, become the de-facto leader of the libertarian right and even an admired figure amongst many anarch0-capitalists.  His efforts have brought the Federal Reserve and its counterfeit money under the microscope of mainstream society.  He predicted the economic collapse which occurred in late 2008, though as yet Rudy Giuliani has not apologized for laughing at him like an immature jock during the presidential debates.

There is some chatter about Paul running for president again in 2012, and anyone who’s even remotely connected to libertarian circles has doubtless received umpteen invitations to join this or that Ron Paul group on Facebook.  This weekend he gave a speech at CPAC, and he even won the straw poll, which elicited boos from the advocates of the warfare State.  I took some time last night to listen to Paul’s speech, and while it contained lots of ear candy for the Old Right, I have to say that talk of constitutionalism, limited government, etc., just doesn’t do it for me anymore.

There is a certain naivete, in my opinion, on the part of libertarians.  Limited government sounds good; in fact, if we had a limited government, there would be no “market,” as it were, for the ideas of anarchism.  But limited government seems to be an historical and practical impossibility.  The same could be said for constitutionalism.  There is no good reason, therefore, to expect the situation in the territory commonly referred to as the United States to be any different, especially when one also considers the fact that the government is responsible for interpreting the very constitution which is supposed to limit its powers.

In addition, how can one expect political stability from a piece of positive legislation?  This is essentially what the constitution is.  It is not a statement of natural rights or of political philosophy; it is a document drawn up in part in response to Shay’s Rebellion, which caused the elites of this country to converge to create a stronger central government.  (So can we put all this nonsense about the founders being for small government to bed?)  It is ironic that the constitution gives the government the explicit right to tax; King George III, on the other hand, never enjoyed such a luxury, a fact which almost certainly contributed to the American revolution.  Are we really supposed to believe in light of things like this—and eminent domain, and…..well, let’s not be too pedantic—that the constitution is a founding document of a government that gives two shakes about individual liberties?

Contrast the constitution with the way monarchies were set up:  “Divine Right” was not, at first, the right of a King to make up a law on his own whim; rather, it meant that all his laws had to be in accord with Divine, or “natural,” law.  It was a means of circumscription.  It, too, was eventually violated, but it took much longer than the constitution, which was “nothing more than a g*ddamned piece of paper” within a few decades, at the very most.

But I digress, a bit.  The point is that this system would seem to be broken, and that there’s no point in trying to work within it in order to rehabilitate order in our society, since its brokenness is related to intrinsic flaws rather than simple mismanagement.  Therefore I believe that Ron Paul could do much more good by being a thinker and speaker than by being a politician who asks neoconservatives at CPAC to consider his cause.  Do you really think he influenced so many people because he came in fourth place in some presidential primary?  Hardly.  It was the ideas he brought with him that did it, and ideas—not politics—are what move society from a lesser condition to a better one.

Congressman Paul seems to believe that working within the Republican Party is the way to promote his ideas.  He is probably in a better position than I am to make this determination.  I’m left wondering, though, if this doesn’t invite a certain kind of adulteration to take place.  Look at what has happened to the Tea Party Movement.  They went from End the Fed to Sarah Palin in only about a year.  Would Ron Paul be better off making himself out to be more on the fringe?  (I know that must sound ridiculous to some people, but from the anarchist perspective it makes sense.)  A sharper line in the sand just might help to prevent the kind of co-opting that political parties thrive on.  Think of the way the conservative movement was watered down and popularized in the late years of the 20th century.

Finally, is it a contradiction to use the political process as a means to promote liberty?  Politics, as Dr. Paul himself has noted, is the art of the majority voting to take away the rights of the minority.  This is anything but liberty and anything but private property rights, which are the foundation of individualism.

All that said, in a world in which Dr. Paul were president, we would be much better off.  Likely the American troops would be out of at least some of the 140 countries in which they are now stationed.  Taxes would be lower.  The first amendment might mean something again, depending upon who the attorney general would be.  This raises a question for the convinced anarchist, whether to side with gradualism or radicalism.  Both have their strong points.  For me, it would seem that radicalism is the answer.  If taxation under Bush at x percent is theft, and taxation under Obama at y percent is theft, then taxation at z percent under Paul—even if it were only hidden taxes such as tariffs showing up as part of the price of a good—would also be theft.  (But don’t think for a minute that Paul would actually be successful at eliminating the income tax.)

I guess it all boils down to the fact that, for me, government as such is the problem, and that it does no good for a good man to become a part of the problem.  Like I said, I like the man.  I’d take him to dinner.  I’d ask him questions about economics and political philosophy.  But not even a man as good as Ron Paul could get me into the political vortex again.

Stand up comedy from CPAC

Television these days seems to be filled with a lot of creepy stuff—shows about cops, crime, hospitals, etc.  As a light sleeper I can’t watch this crap.  I sat down tonight to eat some dinner after a very satisfying run, and turned on the prole box for some light distraction, and, finding my options limited—most of the shows being of the creepy variety—ended up watching the CPAC conference.

These Republicrats never cease to be entertaining.  When I resigned myself to watching this dross, George Will was at the podium, offering up thought-provoking quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville about the tendency of democratic societies to turn into soft tyrannies.  On this point, many commentators would be in agreement:  H.L. Mencken, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Richard Weaver, and, apparently, George Will.  It’s fascinating, however, that if you mention such ideas to most conservatives, they will sneer at you.  Democracy is their false idol, and one dare not speak an ill word about it.  But put them on the losing end of a presidential election and suddenly they start to see the point.  Fair is foul and foul is fair, etc.

Then it came time for the presentation of the John M. Ashbrook Award, named in honor of a congressman who challenged Richard Nixon from the right in 1972.  A video tribute to this late congressman played first, extolling his virtues and crediting him with paving the way for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980.  Anyone who watched the reaction to Ron Paul’s campaign in 2008 must surely have been struck by the irony here.

The Ashbrook Award was  given to Roy Innis, National President for the Congress of Racial Equality.  Can you say “identity politics”?  Let’s be honest:  this African-American was chosen as a counterpoint to Barack Obama.  In the age of television, image is all that seems to matter.  Call me cynical; you’d have a point.  But the timing is a little too perfect, if you ask me.  And of course, the occasion was used to claim the true mantle of Martin Luther King, Jr.  A bit presumptuous, no?  The same behavior from liberals provokes sneers from the right.

Innis advocated bringing the Tea Party into the Republican fold, which doesn’t really upset me, given my a-political inclinations, along with a pretty strong sentiment that the Tea Party is basically conservatism on xenophobic steroids.  More insidious was Innis’ contention that third parties are harmful.  (George Will made a similarly ridiculous point that the two party system represents free thinking, which assumes two fantastic ideas:  1) that there are only two possible solutions to any given problem and 2) that there is an appreciable difference between the two contemporary major political parties.)  The goal is to win, and that has always been the goal in politics.  Even Benjamin Franklin, the primordial Boobus Americanus, understood this.

In this midst of all this, someone—it might have been the master of ceremonies—made a crack about out of control government spending under the Obama administration.  This from the party that just managed eight years of spending that outstripped Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Vietnam War.  How short the American memory is!

All in all, it was an entertaining twenty minutes.  Politics is the same as ever, and as unworthy of my participation as ever.  So what are you going to do to improve society? the Statists usually ask me.  That’s easy.  I will learn, read, and talk about ideas. I will share ideas with others, debating them and feeling for the truth as we paw our way through the dark night of human existence.  Politics does not determine ideas.  Rather, ideas determine what the politicians do, since they merely moisten their fingers and feel for the direction of the wind.

Athletes: Heroes for all times

The Olympics started on Friday, and although I always resist watching them at first due to the nationalistic character of the games—or at least the nationalistic character given to the games by those covering them—I usually end up becoming engrossed in them.  That has happened this year, as it happened in 2008, when the summer games helped inspire me to lose forty pounds.  By coincidence, I recently finished Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike, and so my mind has been thinking a great deal about athletes lately.

Armstrong, who tells an amazing story that we all know by now, relates at the beginning of his book that he wants to die after riding his bike down a mountain at high speed.  Only a world class athlete would wish for such a thing, the same way musicians dream about dying on the conductor’s podium or at the organ console.  (This assumes, of course, that the organist is also a musician, which is not always the case.)  Armstrong says that he loves pain; he also says that when an athlete endures pain and setbacks, he faces the innermost parts of his soul.  For that reason, athletes are some of the strongest people around.  Perhaps what is most likable about them is that they know that their greatest enemy is themselves, and so they don’t seem to waste time going around trying to save the world like Sheila Broflowski.

Saturday night I was watching the women’s moguls on TV as I was getting ready for bed.  These ladies had been preparing for years—perhaps all their lives—and there they were laying it all on the line in a single run that lasted less than thirty seconds.  It’s a rather peculiar sport.  They get on skis, do a couple of jumps, and intermittently bounce up and down on little mounds of snow.  Who thinks this stuff up?  It would all seem pointless to a harsh pragmatist, but these ladies were out there doing the most important thing anyone can do:  They were conquering themselves.  One of the mogul participants made a terrible miscalculation on one of her jumps and ended up falling face first into the snow.  It looked like she got enough of a mouthful of the fluffy stuff that she could have skipped dinner.  Nevertheless, at the end of her run, she beamed with pleasure.  These people are alive.

Watching these people rise about their fears to conquer whatever obstacles lie in front of them has been a great inspiration.  Individual sports are particularly heart-warming, since they are more about each person doing the best he or she can.  Team sports can stink, since one person’s blooper can let down an entire city.  In individual sports, a blooper is a chance to learn, a chance to grow, a chance to reach down just a little bit farther and conquer another level of hell that lies in the human heart.

All of this is enough to make the observer want to jump out of his skin with enthusiasm, and I am no exception.  For days, I was daunted by icy conditions here in Philadelphia.  But last night, after so much exposure to athletes who have more guts than I do, I decided that it was time to get back outside and run, and I didn’t care if I slipped on the ice and cracked my head open.  At least I’d be doing something that I love.  Did I slip a few times?  Yes.  Did my ankles enjoy the uneven texture of the packed snow which has turned to ice?  Not really.  But I felt alive, and I had one of the best runs of my life.  Even if it had sucked, however, I would still have been a better man for it.  You see, the most important part about excellence is being excellent on the inside:  refusing to give up, being unwilling to take counsel of one’s fears, always looking to be just a little bit better than the day before.  These are essential to achieving excellence on the outside, i.e. good results.

There are hard days, even awful days.  The writer Haruki Murakami relates that one runner, when asked if he ever must run when he doesn’t feel like it, says, “Of course.”  It’s not about listening to one’s feelings.  (That’s what’s gotten our society in big trouble, if you ask me, because this is all most people do these days.)  It’s about following through with what’s right or good even when it’s difficult.  It’s the higher part of human nature conquering the lower part.  I have several sayings that I repeat to myself when the going gets tough.  When I’m really feeling bad I use, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”  Most of the time, however, I use lines like “I will run the race,” or, “I will finish the race.”  People see me repeating these to myself and must think I’m nuts, but I weigh 165 pounds, and they don’t.

I don’t say, “I will win the race,” mind you.  I keep some track of my times but don’t give much of a damn about them.  The bigger battle is simply overcoming my bad inertia and overcoming the parts of myself that make me such a lazy jackass.  I intend to fight this battle for the rest of my life, and I’m thankful for the example of the star athletes, who do such a great job of taking all my excuses away.  And with some hard work, the day might come when my 10k time is something worth bragging about.

It only takes one

We’ve all heard the phrase that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole barrel.  It might seem a little too fantastic until experience proves otherwise.  I can say that it only takes one person to ruin the chemistry of a working group, if not induce widespread downright hostility.

I want to focus, however, on the flip side of this rule.  Some months ago I was having a difficult run, when one of these South Philly dudes popped his head out the door with words of encouragement.  I was surprised at how much of a spring this put into my step, and I finished the run easily.  Every now and then I still see him, and he always gives me a shot in the arm, while most other people are looking at me like I’m crazy, or even a sidewalk usurper.

It’s not uncommon to hear people level charges at others of being an “echo chamber,” or other such thing.  If you don’t like a philosophy, the conventional wisdom goes, just accuse those who accede to it of being a bunch of back-scratchers.  Of course, empty-headed groupthink is a reality and must be guarded against; all the same, we must not disregard the need for affirmation and encouragement from others.

It only takes one other person.  Forget about popularity contests.  Don’t even entertain the idea of winning over your whole family.  Maybe no one in your family will understand whatever endeavor you’re trying to accomplish.  Whoever the person is, if he is thoughtful and intelligent, he will prove to be a valuable asset.  These cheerleaders come from the unlikeliest of places sometimes.  Several of mine encourage the development of my ideas even though they’d rather be dead than embrace my various philosophies.  But they are helpful because they are genuinely curious, intelligent, and able to see the good in others, and they are able to help me because I’m patient enough (just barely) to listen to their criticisms.  I’m lucky to have more than one, but if I only had one, I’d still have a precious jewel.

The world is a lonely place, and we are bound to take far more ridicule than accolades in the course of any project.  Who can face this tyranny of stupidity alone?  Even many organizations designed for those with similar interests can be hellish on the individual spirit.  I remember one organist colleague of mine who constantly poo-pooed me for having standards that are “too high.”  The answer to this is to find one person—just one—who sees the good in you and has the courage to question your assumptions in a constructive way.  Then you will be unstoppable.  You will finish the race.

Internet arguments

Experts say that one of the reasons road rage is so prevalent is that drivers feel anonymous behind the wheel, and therefore they feel secure enough to say and do things they otherwise wouldn’t if they felt more accountable.

There is a kind of internet rage as well, though sometimes it’s not rage, but just a certain kind of harassment.  It is fueled not so much by anonymity but by the ability to lambaste someone and then run away and shut down Safari before he’s had a chance to defend himself.  This happens a lot on Facebook, to the point that I have curtailed posting potentially controversial items.  There is a certain cadre of people on Facebook that must let it be known every time they see something on my page that they disagree with.  The fact that I leave them alone and don’t get all preachy on their page seems to have little effect on their behavior.  The courtesy is not returned.

I thought this problem would be solved by saving my political comments for more politically-oriented situations.  Not so.  In fact, lately I’ve become utterly amazed at what can start an argument on Facebook.  Last week, for instance, I was in a cafe reading Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, when I decided to put on my favorite hat and take a picture.  I thought it would make a great profile shot.  Within minutes of its being posted, I had people—good people who are friends of mine, no doubt—coming after me about whether or not it was okay to have a hat on inside.  “I hope there were no ladies present,” one said.   It was all so—-annoying.  I don’t dislike the people that were stoking the fires of this conversation, I just found it all to be rather pointless, and a complete killjoy.

Then, today, instead of posting a very unoriginal status update about the fact that February sucks, winter sucks, I miss the sunshine, etc., I decided to get creative and search for an interesting quote.  I found a great one by Allan Bloom:

As soon as tradition has come to be recognized as tradition, it is dead.

I thought this might occasion some interesting discussion—and there is much to be said about this quote—but nothing quite so dogmatic as the first response:  “Not true.”  Gee, thanks for the enlightenment.  Happily, the conversation seems to have taken a more productive and more jokey direction.

Is there anything left to discuss in our world that won’t start an argument?  Thanks to the Global Warming controversy, not even the weather is safe territory.  Nicer conversations were had in the fourteenth century about the filioque question.  People even develop intense hatreds over dumb stuff like sports, whether or not clergymen ought to wear lace albs, and which presidential candidate has a more well-defined jaw line and is therefore more deserving of the popular vote.  To be sure, sentiment is anterior to logic, and so we’ll always be passionate beings, but why does everything deteriorate into screaming matches?  I don’t think it’s our unwitting attempt to copy talking heads; in fact, talking heads are most likely a response to the demands of the market.  Perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that our incuriosity has teased the worst parts of our tempers out of us.

I am not innocent in this, I’m sorry to say.  Sometimes I start it; other times I allow myself to get sucked into it.  One of the things that keeps these kinds of conversations going is the sheer delusion that other people actually give a damn what we think.  Many of us think it’s up to us to save the world, to “save souls” for the sake of fill-in-the-blank.  This seems to make us lose sight of where the boundaries might be prudently placed on any given conversation.

I am not arguing against the exchange of ideas.  In fact, one of the problems here is that a sizable portion of our culture has no tolerance for any worthwhile ideas—ideas in the philosophical sense—to begin with.  Conclusions are too frightening for us.  But witness the exchange of ideas between thoughtful people—the debate between Foucalt and Chomsky comes to mind—and see how much more civil it is than a shouting match that occurs between two headline readers that only know how to repeat slogans.  Our modern functional illiteracy has enforced a kind of dogmatism.  It engenders the attitude, for instance, that if you’re against the NEA, you’re against the arts, and that if you’re opposed to gun control, you’re A-okay with violence.  Et cetera, ad nauseam.

The last piece of mystery meat in this witches brew seems to be a lack of a sense of humor, which is, I dare say, sometimes related to a lack of wit in general.  No one can laugh about anything, not even a stupid hat in a coffee shop.  It is also a sense of humor that  allows us to see the truth about ourselves.  I know for a fact that I am a jackass, and that everyone else is, too, so we need to go easy on each other sometimes.  Plato said it more eloquently:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.