Chick-Fil-A and the tyranny of the majority

If you haven’t been sleeping under a rock for the last two weeks, you’ll know that the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, caused an uproar by publicly speaking out in favor of “traditional marriage.” This occurred a short time after Barack Obama publicly came out in favor of gay marriage. After reading a few articles on the matter and participating in a lengthy discussion on Facebook concerning the issue, I feel like Christians supporting “traditional marriage” in our country are missing an important point.

First, let’s clarify a few things: marriage is a legal institution in our current state. While it may have started as a religious bond, the institution has been co-opted by the state to extend a number of legal benefits to those participating in it—marriages are registered with states, afford participants a number of legal protections, and are subsequently dissolved by the state. These legal benefits include, but are not limited to, issues of medical consent, property management and inheritance, and mandated spousal medical coverage through employers and insurance companies. Same-sex couples are not often afforded spousal benefits and, even if they are, there are thousands of dollars of legal paperwork required to acquire legal protections equivalent to a (very cheap) marriage license concerning medical consent and inheritance. Let’s not even get started on many states outlawing same-sex adoption.

Put very bluntly, same-sex couples are not being afforded equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the 14th amendment. Period. Full stop. Denying them the legal protections afforded by the institution of marriage is a blatant violation of their constitutional rights. Even if one were to engineer an equivalent “civil union,” we need to remember that separate is not equal.

In some strange turn, Christians in support of “traditional” marriage have turned this around to suggest that, in demanding same-sex couples receive equal protection under the law, their religious freedom as guaranteed by the first amendment is being somehow compromised. Just for clarification, the first amendment prevents the government from mandating an official “state religion.” This has since been extended to guarantee individuals religious freedoms, up to a certain point (animal sacrifice and the use of illegal substances in religious rites remain sticky and difficult, for instance).

The point I feel that is being missed by the proponents of “traditional” marriage here is that they’re effectively abusing their position as the majority in our union to deprive same-sex couples of equal protection under the law. Framing this in a religious freedom context is disingenuous in the extreme. Same-sex couples aren’t pushing for a federal law requiring all churches to embrace their gay love and marry them. They’re not demanding that those against same-sex bonds change their private attitudes. What they are asking is that they be afforded the same rights and protections as everyone else, whether or not everyone approves of their lifestyle.

Most disturbing for me is the lack of self-awareness amongst the groups rallying behind Dan Cathy. It is a possibility that at some point down the road, Christians will be in the minority in the USA—this is purely hypothetical, mind you, but nevertheless possible. Let’s also say (again, hypothetically) that a hyper-secular group comes to power in place of the once-dominant Christian majority. Once they’ve secured their position of power, would it be right for the secularists to take control of the state to deprive Christians their constitutional rights concerning religious freedom? No. Of course not. Then why is the reverse all right?

I should add here that the forceful opposition to this movement, including those hoping to use the state apparatus to deprive Chick-Fil-A of their right to practice commerce in some districts, is equally misdirected and ill-informed, but I would submit that the same flawed desire lies at the core of both sides. Entertainingly, they’re more alike than they know (or care to admit).

Christians have historically enjoyed a great deal of sociocultural dominance in the USA since its inception, but the Constitution itself was designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority from (hopefully) wrenching control of the state apparatus and using it to deprive the minorities of their rights (see The Federalist Papers, #10 specifically addresses religious factions). Historically, the Constitution eventually wins out, albeit with much struggle and tribulation. It’s imperfect, but it works.

I’m not entirely sure what these Christians are thinking by promoting the erosion of the wall between church and state like this. The precedent they’re setting here and now—by imposing their will and using it to deprive others of their rights—can just as quickly be turned against them when they no longer hold sway in this country. Their position genuinely puzzles me.

On training horses

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates briefly draws a connection between the craft of teaching and that of horse training. Granted, this is in the midst of a meandering, oftentimes ham-fisted defense of himself against the accusation that he was corrupting the youth of Athens. Nevertheless, I feel that the metaphor is more apt than we teachers care to admit. Teenagers are not particularly rational creatures. They are not predictable. They can be difficult. They are also incredibly rewarding to work with.

I am now a few weeks into my second (and final) semester of student teaching. I have been bucked, kicked, bitten, stepped on, and whinnied at (more or less literally). Thus far, I have found teaching to be an incredibly humbling process, mostly because it forces one to get intimately in touch with reality. When I say this, I don’t mean to suggest that those in the ivory tower or elsewhere are particularly out of touch with reality (although many are, mind you). I simply mean that, regardless of your profession—whether it be peddling ideas, fixing cars, growing plants, or whatever—teaching whatever knowledge you have to other people forces you to come to terms with difficulties that are rather uncommon in the day-to-day “work” you usually partake in.

These difficulties are not always the product of your shortcomings. Indeed, they usually are not: you, as a teacher, (hopefully) know the essential kernels of information that lock together the big picture in your area of expertise. In actuality, the phenomenon that makes teaching so profoundly difficult at times is deeply philosophical: to wit, the problems surrounding language/communication/whatever. One of the first and most important realizations a decent teacher makes is that no two people think (and thereby learn) in the same way. After spending years of my life considering the deeper theoretical ramifications of this truth, I am familiarizing myself with the other side of the coin—the pragmatics of these complications and, subsequently, how to overcome them.

In philosophy, we often find convenient answers that, ideally, cut at the joints of these problems and allow us to parse things out neatly. Even if the issues persist, there is some satisfaction in bumping up against an aporia and allowing it to be the last word in the matter—past a certain point, a self-aware human reason will realize its own boundaries. In philosophy, many difficulties regarding language are never fully resolved (or, at the very least, haven’t been addressed with enough rigor for us to put them behind us, as thinkers). In education, these difficulties have to be overcome if a student is going to learn. Oftentimes they are. As such, teaching provides a startling and, in a way, disturbing answer to many of philosophy’s stickier questions: “These things can be overcome…we’re just not entirely sure how it happens.”

Like training a horse, this process is not clean. It is bumpy. It cannot be quantified in any substantial way, especially when it comes down to one-on-one teacher/student interactions. This results in mental bruises and confusion and furrowed brows. And it takes sweat. And care. And passion. And some deep-seated faith, of a sort, that the seeds you are sowing will eventually—maybe years or decades from now—result in another person’s mind finding a similar beauty in the mystery of the world and our existence here.

Axioms

  1. Yes, you feel alone, confused, worried about the future, and existentially bewildered. This does not make you special or unique. People have been feeling this way for A Very Long Time, even before the word “existentially” had worked its way into common parlance.
  2. If you try to quantify the feelings in (1) in an effort to compare your condition to others, you’re doomed to failure. And you’re just making things worse for everyone. Try to empathize and the differences become irrelevant.
  3. If you think your sentiments can be adequately expressed with an animated .gif, then you should probably turn off your computer for A Very Long Time.
  4. There is no substitute for concentrated, deliberate attention to any subject—academic, emotional, or otherwise. This attention need not be intellectual.
  5. Sometimes the trite solutions are the best ones. The trite solutions typically require the most attention.
  6. Inauthenticity will destroy you. When it finally leaves you, you will be on your deathbed with more regrets than your geriatric mind can count.
  7. Distractions are typically worse for you than the affliction(s) you’re trying to distract yourself from and are far more likely to bother you for A Very Long Time.
  8. The world needs more grand gestures.
  9. It is harder (and far more noble) to commit oneself to a cause than it is to treat something with irony.

How to be a hipster

Rockers. Jocks. Goths. Gangbangers/gangsters. Preppies.

My teenage years were filled with concern over the prototypical social molds of the 1990s. Baggy pants? All black? Flannel? These concerns evaporated by the time I hit college, one of those things that is uncanny in how much it matters one moment and how little it matters the next.

And let’s not pretend otherwise. It was vacuous. Your ability (or willingness) to drop $50.00 on a pair of JNCOs was, for a few short years, what separated the cool from the not-so-cool. A shitty pair of pants was what decided which social circles you would be permitted into and those you would be shunned by.

It all seems ridiculous. Not just seemingly ridiculous. It was ridiculous. (I’m sure said paradigms still exist, in other permutations, amongst youth today—I’m far too lazy to learn about them, although I’m sure my life as a high school teacher will enlighten me in this regard.) And now that my peer group has matured a little bit, everyone seems to be more or less comfortable in their own skins. The paradigms are gone and we all look back at the days of our youth with a smirk of embarrassment.

And now there are hipsters.

Somehow, this has caught on amongst twenty-somethings. Somehow, a weird social paradigm has managed to survive past many people’s teens and an entire generation is caught up in a milieu of tight jeans, fixed-gear bicycles, Toms, record players, and…uh…irony? And, oh yeah, obscure things you probably haven’t heard of.

Urban Dictionary’s top-voted entry for hipster is, “the blend of every failed fad of 1990s.” Independent of the accuracy of such a definition, I’m still astounded at how many people my age have committed to this…lifestyle? The thing is, I’m hesitant to call it a lifestyle because…well, it’s too easy. It’s not a lifestyle, no more than the goths, jocks, and preppies of our youth were a lifestyle.

HYPOTHESIS: The “lifestyles” (again, I use this term hesitantly) of our youth didn’t melt away, but were forced out by real (more substantial, textured, whatever) lifestyles as we developed into self-authoring adults who cultivated real interests and passions, etc.

So lifestyles/social paradigms/whatever still persist into adulthood. Hipsters are just one of them, right? Why pick on them? Well, again, because being a hipster too easy. I have many hats that I think lump me in with a group: philosophy, education, reading, descriptivist grammar. All of these are products of me cultivating a passion. Spending time doing stuff. If someone could buy a collection of Plato and become a philosopher, then my study of philosophy would be utterly meaningless. It would be silly. It would be vacuous.

One of the key aspects of these more substantial, textured lifestyles is that they are predicated on things besides owning shit. I.e., you can’t study philosophy by purchasing a pair of pants. And this, I think, is what makes the hipster paradigm so goddamn puzzling. I can go drop a couple hundred dollars on some paraphernalia, claim that my appreciation for everything mainstream is tongue-in-cheek, and become a hipster overnight. And since there’s no substantial investment required to do so, my ownership of said products is necessary and sufficient for me to become a hipster.

I thought we were done with this…?

Surreal experiences beyond the ivory tower

Being only halfway employed has its perks. I have copious amounts of time to read the stack of fiction that collected over the course of my graduate career. I can spend lazy afternoons at the cafe reading said fiction. Or go on a bike ride during the first weeks of spring weather. Or cook some labor-intensive dish that I would otherwise lack the energy to even think about.

But I have also been applying for some additional part-time gigs to pay the bills. After all, I really should consider trying to pay off my student loans at some point. So some of my precious free time has been used for applying to jobs. It is monotonous, on the whole, but occasionally I have experiences so surreal that I can’t help but revel in the peculiarity.

I went in for an interview yesterday with a personal practice attorney. Attorneys, as people, vary as much as any other group, but when they are quirky, they are absolutely quirky—quirky with an energetic absurdity that is almost beyond imagination. I’ve worked extensively with engineers, too, who more or less come as close to the Platonic form of “weird” or “awkward” when they are weird or awkward, but they are decidedly not quirky. No. Lawyers have within them the seeds of pure, undistilled quirkiness. I have felt this way for a long time, but this interview reinforced this sentiment so strongly. After the usual introductions, the exchange went something like this:

Lawyer: Here, fill out this short little personality test.

Me: OK… [This is downright weird. Personality tests belong in big corporations looking to quantify human capital, not in a personal practice attorney's office. I have never seen anything like this. Nevertheless, I quickly complete it.]

Lawyer: All right, let’s see…you’re yellow. Which means you’re creative!

Me: I’ve always considered myself more analytic, but I guess I have a creative streak.

Lawyer: If you’re creative, why aren’t you writing poetry? Or a book?

Me: Well, I’ve never been that interested in writing fiction. I enjoy reading it…

Lawyer: Now, it says you studied philosophy on your resume. In the context of this personality test, you just discuss ideas forever and ever, on and on! [No, I am not making this up.]

Me: Well, I enjoy discussing ideas, but I’ve always been drawn to philosophy that can be applied to the world.

Lawyer: You didn’t listen to me! I said, in the context of this personality test! That wasn’t a comment about philosophy generally. [Having read over said personality test, I am sure there was nothing about philosophy, or philosophy majors, on it.]

Me: OK…

Lawyer: All right. Tell me when you were born?

Me: Uh…September 28.

Lawyer: Ah, so you’re a Libra! Libras like to talk a lot!

Me: Uh…I enjoy discussions, but I really don’t talk all that much, I don’t think.

Lawyer: Do you happen to know what time you were born? [Yes, really.]

Me: 9:30 a.m.? …I think? I’m not really sure.

Lawyer: That’s alright. I’ve heard enough. I like what you have said here and I may be in touch to schedule a follow up interview.

Me: [seriously puzzled, standing up] Uh, OK. Thanks…thanks for meeting with me.

Lawyer: Sure! That’s the backdoor over there. Just take that door out. Yeah. See you later.

Wanderlust

Do you remember the first time you saw the ocean, desert dweller?  We swept through the high lands and dropped off the mountain range and you could smell it from miles away.  It caressed you the way your first lover did.  And also like your first lover, it kept on going as soon as and long after you left it.

Foreign tongues are the same way, singing a siren song devoid of anything intelligible and still so full of meaning.  You will taste tastes.  Smell smells.  It will cut you deep and trample all over you and leave you exhausted in bed longing for more.

I remember the first time I stepped out of a metro stop with a bag on my shoulder and the cobblestones beneath my feet.  I remember sipping coffee while the sounds of an accordion bounded down the narrow avenue.  And I remember, for the first time, discovering an itch that I would never, ever be able to scratch.

Reconfigured

It has been a long time since I spent any significant period of time in your cave.

Things still creak.  Unusual features stick out in my memory and punctuate just how long it has been—the weird shelves, the desk that’s really a door, the low ceiling.  It—and I suppose you, by extension—smell pretty much the same.  Nothing has changed.

I remember that peculiar night so long ago.

Your sink was full of dishes and your bed was sunk in the middle.  For a long time there I forgot what your face looked like when it wasn’t seen through the lens of a camera and that scared me.  You were never that interested in figuring me out, but I like to think this hinted at an enjoyment that wasn’t cognitive at all.  Everything has changed.

I think the issue was always one of knowing, even though it probably doesn’t matter any more.

2009 in music

As I get older, I’m coming to appreciate shorter lists of bests and worsts.  Collections of top tens flood you with far too much information to digest, especially if it concerns a subject that you’re unfamiliar with.  Top three lists, I think, are better for a number of reasons.  First, it forces the writer of the list to really decide—ten gives you a lot of wiggle room to include selections that cover all of your bases, but three forces you to really choose favorites (or least favorites, as the case may be).  You can tell a lot about a person by their top three of anything, but ten just waters everything down.  Moreover, three gives the reader of lists a small, approachable chunk of recommendations to try on for size.  With this in mind, my favorite albums of 2009:

  • Woods | Songs of Shame: I had several lengthy discussions with my friend, Jesse, over our differing musical temperaments this year.  We had a lot of musical synchronicity over 2008, but we were pretty split on most albums this last year.  I’ve been in a really lo-fi mood lately and I think Woods’s album is nearly perfect—she was non-plussed with it.  Excepting “September of Pete” (a nine minute, self-congratulatory jam session that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album and jarringly cuts the album in half), Songs of Shame is melodic and mellow without being dispassionate.  Just skip track four.
  • Bibio | Ambivalence Avenue: I can’t really describe this album.  It’s a mix between dance music and folk music.  Considering folk is probably the first type of music that humans danced to, I think Bibio is doing something really extraordinary by crafting folk music conditioned by our generation’s culture.  As such, one shouldn’t expect traditional folk music here, but instead a truly unique musical experience.
  • The Antlers | Hospice: This album grabbed me and wouldn’t let go for about a month.  This is probably one of the most “complete” albums of the year, as it tells a deeply personal story of a man losing his lover to cancer.  Having lost my grandfather at the beginning of 2009 after several weeks in the hospital, this album resonated with me in a significant way.  Coming back to it near the end of this year with a slightly less emotion, it’s still musically brilliant, lyrically brilliant, and shows a really deep level of care and craftsmanship.  I’m excited to hear The Antlers’s next project.

And staying in threes, my most disappointing albums of 2009:

  • Volcano Choir | Unmap: Bon Iver produced my favorite album of 2008 and I was hoping for another experience akin to For Emma, Forever Ago.  Instead, I listened to a shoddy post-rock album that is weak, gutless, and boring.  The thing is, the album inspires nothing in me.  I’m not annoyed by it, I’m not passionately upset by it, I’m bored by it.  What a disappointment.
  • Beirut | March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland: When I heard Zach Condon was orchestrating a new album with southwestern influences in mind, I was elated.  Beirut’s past two albums have put an original spin on traditional, regional styles to produce incredible musical experiences.  Strangely, this album was split into two parts.  March of the Zapotec is clearly inspired by New Mexican culture and is quite good, even though it’s far from being Beirut’s best album.  Then it’s cut with Realpeople Holland, which is mostly slow synthesizer music with plaintive vocals.  The two don’t mix—each one keeps the other from ever getting off the ground.  And it’s disappointing because if either of them had been given adequate attention, either of them could have been great.
  • Bibio | The Apple and the Tooth: After loving Ambivalence Avenue, I expected great things and was subsequently let down.  Hard.  Half of the album is comprised of earlier songs by Bibio remixed by other artists and the other half—while catchy—don’t really feel carefully composed or thoughtful.  What’s more it just doesn’t feel musically coherent.  I’m curious what was going on behind the scenes here.  Specifically, I wonder if Bibio’s studio, thrilled with the reception of Ambivalence Avenue, pushed for another release as soon as possible.  What we got was a series of leftover songs that didn’t make the cut in the past along with some mediocre remixes of songs that really aren’t improved in any noticeable way.

Other stuff worth mentioning:

  • I didn’t list Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Paviliion because I didn’t really enjoy it.  I felt like Atlas Sound’s Logos was a better album that tried to incorporate classical pop music with a post-rock/noise sound.  I felt like Fuck Buttons’s Tarot Sport was a better album that did the traditional noise/experimental sound akin to Animal Collective’s older stuff.  Sandwiched between these two, Merriweather Post Pavilion just wasn’t that satisfying.
  • Can the Yeah Yeah Yeahs just stop producing music please?  It’s Blitz! was gimmicky and thoughtless.  And after listening to what Karen O did with the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, I’m convinced that she’s a one trick pony.  It’s time to put her out to pasture.  I’d say the same thing about Passion Pit, but I want to see what their next album has in store before writing them off entirely.
  • Dark Was the Night was not included in my best-of list because I think of it more as a compilation than an album.  Still, it’s absolutely superb and deserves mentioning as one of the most enjoyable listening experiences from this last year.  Also, it’s probably the best collection to introduce a newbie to the current music scene.

Holiday recap

Here is how holiday gatherings with my family inevitably go.

(serving ourselves, sitting down to eat)

Aunt/uncle/cousin: You didn’t want any ham/turkey/other meat?
Me: Nope, I’m a vegequarian.  I’ll eat fish, but no other meat.
Them: You’re still doing that, huh?
Me: Yep.
Them: So, do you think it’s wrong that I eat meat?
Me: …can we talk about this after dinner?
Them: I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain to just not eat meat!
Me: …
Them: Well, it’s your loss.  More meat for me!
Me: …