Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Monthly Archives: June 2016

Worst days.  §

Seriously, how many “worst days ever” have I had over the last three or four years, and especially over the last year?

Ten? Fifteen?

And yet they get worse and worse, for everyone. I have historically been a resilient person, but the weight is getting to be impossible to bear.

What gives? When will there finally be a “best day ever” once again? It is so very long overdue that it’s almost intolerable!

I am tired of waking up with stoicism and courage. I want to wake up with joy and anticipation. Is that so much to ask?

It doesn’t even have to be big joy and anticipation. I’ll settle for just a little joy and anticipation. Just a little bit?

Come on, life. Come on, God. Come on, universe. Surely we have all had enough at this point?

— § —

I don’t know what to say or do. I am honestly at a blank, at an impasse. I haven’t been this clueless since I was a kid.

— § —

If there was some way to say “I accept absolutely any state of affairs and any outcome so long as I can skip the next five years!” I would do so.

There is no point to them.

But obviously I can’t.

— § —

If I could press rewind and return to fall semester 2003 to start all over again from there, I would.

I guess that’s what people mean when they say, “If I knew then what I know now…”

But of course I didn’t. And you don’t. Nobody ever does.

Seppuku.  §

A strange and terrible and wonderful practice.

I would never do it myself, nor would I ever encourage anyone to do it. All of which goes without saying; it doesn’t belong to our time or to our culture.

But, in an extreme way, it is reflective of what is missing from our society. It is the polar opposite of who and what we are.

In a way, the Christian story and mythology is a similar trope, thought not nearly as pure or as focused as the Japanese tradition.

But the ideas are the same:

  • Ritual self-sacrifice
  • The primacy of the social order
  • The understanding of the smallness of the self
  • Appreciation of the relative weights, consequences of battle and concession

At some level, and in some circumstances, concession in the interest of the greater good requires more strength than the fight for immediate and personal interests.

This is an understanding that we as a culture have lost. I count myself amongst the lost; I will fight to the end—for my position, to prolong my life, for ideals, etc.

But in fact, despite my inability to embrace these things myself, I see their importance.

Throughout history, and in each of the great religious traditions, the repression and sublimation of the self have been seen as the greatest moral virtues. I agree with this, even if I cannot embrace them.

This is what we have lost, and it is a great loss indeed.

And worse still.  §

Well, little did I know when I posted that.

Just how bad can today get?

I’m going to regret asking that, I’m sure.

Bad days.  §

Sometimes a day is ruined by a single catastrophic event or experience.

Other times, it’s not one thing in particular, but a slow accumulation of little disappointments, frustrations, and fears that come together to make a day particularly onerous.

Today fits into the latter category. And the end of today can’t possibly come soon enough.

Early morning.  §

I am not sleeping. This happens from time to time.

And then, as often as not, I open this thing and type. Once I begin typing, I invariably struggle with the question of what to say—and yet before I begin, the urge is incredible; I feel compelled.

I believe that there is more to be said in these late-night posts in particular, even if I can’t quite access it and it never quite hits the page. Bridging the gap between that incredible urge to put my hands to keyboard and what the incredible filter of my mind actually allows to emerge is going, I think, to be one of my life projects from here on out.

It’s paradoxical, and more than a bit funny. You spen the first half of your life being trained to filter everything. Then you spend the second half of your life trying to open the filter and let more truth come out.

But if you don’t get the first half down, all that will come out is chaotic noise. The filter is control. You have to first learn to impose some order and control on things before you can use these skills to produce a facsimilie of truth.

I’m reminded of the Dalai Lama’s quote:

“Learn and obey the rules very well so you will know how to break them properly.”

The one, for better or for worse, has to come before the other as a matter of practical necessity. But it all does take time.

I’m now into the back half of things. I’ve learned the rules. Now I need to practice and develop my ability to break them properly.

Who I am.  §

© podoboq / CC BY 2.0

Days like today remind me. Over the last few years, in which it often seemed as if each day was darker than the last, I’ve often lost sight of myself, struggled to remember certain things that I used to know beyond doubt. What do I like? What is my native habitat? What is inside my soul?

Today the summer heat was interrupted by dark clouds, wind, heavy rain. The trees in the back yard are lush, green. Water is everywhere. There is a quiet roar in the air, and the scent of rain and pavement. I watched my children perform at their martial arts school with discipline, exceeding themselves and finding moments of pure intention and action. I come home to a dark house in the dim light of a rainy summer afternoon, and in front of me sits the keyboard and the books.

This is who I am. This is me. Rain, wind, green, fertility, discipline, performance, understatement, overfocus, literacy, productivity.

We couldn’t make our marriage work because my wife is my opposite in every way. I tried for a very long time to change, to moderate, to be different. But I am what I am. On afternoons like this, I can now again feel pure, inspired, whole.

It is good to be alive. It is good to stand, buffeted and drenched, in wind and rain. It is good to sit and exist with words. It is good not to care about money. It is good not to care about the rest of the world.

I am reminded of the phrase from Northern Exposure. “Have you ever had a pure moment?” one character asked another.

That is what life is for me. A constellation of pure moments that valorize being. It is not about people. It is not about goals. It is about purity. The rest is noise.

— § —

Here is what is missing from the world in one word: Respect.

Respect for:

  • Elders
  • Tradition
  • Knowledge
  • Diversity
  • Others

People these days are presumptuous. The culture of the individual and of individual achievement leads to this. People think that their initiative leads to learning and success and value. It doesn’t. Discipline and respect lead to these things.

It should be noted that respect is not a matter of conviviality, as some people now seem to imagine. It’s a matter of deference, even when those to be respected are not present. It is, quite literally, a matter of “knowing one’s place,” or, in other words, humility and the concession of the superiority of others in certain affairs and circumstances.

The world has gone off the rails because respect has gone off the rails.

In the middle of the night.  §

Society has changed over the course of my adult lifetime, while I haven’t changed all that much. As a result, I’ve gone from being a “liberal” on the “far left” to something that in some quarters today would be called a “conservative,” though I’d disagree with the label.

— § —

One big reason for this difference is my position on activism. I don’t like it. I think that, in general terms, it tends toward blackmail and is difficult to separate from minor strains of terrorism.

I say this as someone that has done activism—I’ve tabled and worked crowds and even gone on large rock and roll tours representing nonprofit interest organizations.

I stopped doing it in my twenties. Why?

Because I was not ethically comfortable with what I was doing. It felt as though I was subverting political systems and society rather than participating in these. It felt as though I was engaged not in trying to shape governance and policy, but rather to do an end-run around it.

— § —

I’ve long admired traditional English culture. Why? Because of restraint. There is an ethos of restraint and decorum—of doing things “by the book” in the social sense—that is sorely missing in society today.

— § —

This post is all over the place, but that’s okay. What it’s all pointing to in a secret way is the fact that my pending divorce has much to do with the fact that my spouse and I have foundationally different values and understandings of the world and how it ought to be—of what the best interests of humanity are.

Interestingly enough, these differences have less to do with ends and more to do with means, but the fact is that means matter, as most would acknowledge.

We have always struggled over these questions, and in retrospect, they are some of the most difficult between us, things that will likely haunt us for years to come. I hope we can overcome them.

But the question of the right way as opposed to the right destination is one of the most salient questions in policy and culture today. It marks much of the debate in public culture on multiple continents.

What is the “right way” to arrive at a destination, even if we can all agree that the destination itself is right?

— § —

I am a radical in terms of destinations.

But I am a conservative traditionalist in terms of the means that ought to be employed in attempts to arrive at them.

The (Small) Individual.  §

© Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0

More on social media and identity politics.

— § —

We live in an age in which pretty much every one of the traditional ways by which we situate and understand ourselves as members of society and as human beings has evaporated, as Marx once commented, but perhaps didn’t entirely yet understand even as he wrote it.

Already stripped of the power of names and lineages, family has now become non-nuclear as well. It is rather like the purchase of a car; one happens into it, and then, a few years later, one happens out of it. Your inclusion in or membership of a family is by universal consent alone, so even in its growing meaninglessness for the social body, you can’t make claims with it simply by virtue of having been a part of it, much less is this membership seen as definitive (or, indeed, is it even noted) by the rest of society. You are not, and you are in no way permanently related to, your family.

The mobility of labor and of the upwardly mobile portion of consumer society means that community is also now both weak and circumstantial, doubly so in an era of electronic communication and mutual political suspicion in which temporary and circumstantial population aggregates are better described as anti-communities in which people go out of their ways not to have to know one another and not to be seen as directly or permanently associated with one another in any way.

On the level of religion, we see both a falling away of membership and the rise of secularism along with an increase in general (not merely Abrahamian) ecumenism and the loosening of dogma and practice. Religion becomes one more consumer good or service that is forever in less and less in demand, something that is often seen as at best a guilty pleasure akin to smoking or monster truck rallies—not meaning much, not at all a foundational social quantity, and not to be talked about in polite company.

Along with the rise in consumer and information culture has come the decline in civic groups, which are similarly now not so much a matter of strong social ties but of branding, something that one applies to oneself like a label in the abstract for college applications and dating sites, rather than a web of concrete and enduring social relations. The local clubs and lodges and so on see collapsing attendance and interest even as the national rolls see relatively un-involved growth through online signups and mailing list expansions.

The states of education and class, too, have become weak and non-definitive as both have been diluted precisely by their former importance. In a free market in which the degree is a defining characteristic of identity, degrees proliferate as do means by which to deliver them for a price to all, including (and perhaps especially) those that once might have been excluded—eviscerating in the process any means by which education provides a concrete means to position oneself in relation to others. Add to this the rise of the commuter-consumer campus, and the school-hopping (once during undergraduate years, then between undergraduate and masters, then between masters and doctorate), and once again any concrete and enduring web of relations and self-understanding is lost. And while class was once secretly undergirded by distinction in taste, the rise of the highbrow lowbrow and the universalization of social media and electronic media means that there is neither preference nor association correlated in any way to income level, birth heritage, lifestyle, region, or any other quantity.

In short, there is only one quantity left by which to understand and sacralize the self—its very own body. This is the most stable thing in human life that remains. If I cannot stably be any of these other things, I am—at the very least—my body. That much I know.

The secret of identity politics is that its identities are very thin indeed; whereas once upon a time all of the above might have counted for much in “identity” terms, identity now is reduced to begging for scraps where it can find them.

  • Skin color (becomes the politics and identity of race)
  • Body shape and weight (becomes the politics and identity of fat, diet, nutrition, and fitness)
  • Sex (becomes the politics and identity of gender)
  • Bodily activity (becomes the politics and identity of sexuality and feminism)

The problem of course is that the langue of the body in most cultures, including our own, has long been rather tiny, yet this langue now must be adequate to valorize and sacralize the distinct individualities of millions or hundreds of millions who wish to be important and to be reassured of their own solidity as selves without reference to anything beyond.

The langue must be expanded if the parole is to be effective at accomplishing this.

One paradoxical result of this is that every category becomes endlessly flexible and “spectral” in ways that destabilize the traditional understandings, while at the same time pitched warfare is fought on behalf of these new terms to ensure that all concede their wished-for stability and durability. Hence “womyn,” “latinx,” “afro-(insert secondary term here),” and the entire LGBTQIA spectrum, amongst other innovations—all new and all of course claiming to be very old and entirely foundational to identity.

Another paradoxical result of this—and here is where the social media comes in—is that the body must be performed publicly for claims about social situatedness and identity to inhere. And yet in the absence of the traditional stable social milieux described above, there is a paucity of audiences at issue. And so social media steps in to provide a “general audience of others” where the body is performed in pursuit of social embeddedness precisely in social media’s uniquely socially disembedded way.

This has the circular effect of reifying the body as the center of identity—the body and the actions that it takes are central to, and virtually the only component of, self-presentation—while further eroding all of the prior foundations of identity; all relationships become transactional rather than foundational because their social import is precisely and only in their engagement with the body.

Social media is both a symptom and an ongoing cause of the retreat of self-identity out of the social realm and into the body. The result is identity, gender, and sexual politics, and the further breakdown of social institutions of all kinds—couples, families, churches, communities, and so on.

Critics often talk about the narcissism of the present age and the way in which “the self” rules the day, but in fact it’s not so much that “the self” is definitive as it is that “the self” has become little more than “the body” and its properties and transactions.

Brexit II.  §

© Ekabhishek / CC BY SA 3.0

The thing about the discourse is that it gives culture short shrift.

People are more than attached to their folkways and traditions. They derive their very selves from their folkways and traditions. I know that I do from mine.

We all take for granted that cultural differences can make friendships and relationships interesting and exciting, but also terribly fraught—and those who claim to be more enlightened understand that this is because we are rather attached to our ways of living and to being who we are; we don’t feel at all stable, right, or at home unless we can do this. If someone else has tremendously different ways—ways that conflict with our own, then we may try not to judge even as we admit to ourselves that the friendship or the relationship probably isn’t going to work.

But somehow, at the national level, this gets lost. It’s true that the plebes are probably easily led to things that look rather like “racism” or “xenophobia” when it comes to expressing attachment to their own ways of being, but it’s a fool’s game to expect a population to let go of its entire identity within a generation. We don’t expect it of immigrants; it is silly to expect it of the resident mass.

Walter Benjamin said it well. “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”

No one—neither the elites nor the most impoverished laborer—now expects a world of tradition to remain unchanged throughout an entire lifetime. But this leads people to continually search that much harder for something—anything—to which to anchor themselves. And it makes them that much more indignant when the places of their moorings are continually uprooted.

— § —

The cosmopolitan class is the cosmopolitan class, in many ways, because it has never felt this attachment to folkways or traditions, having been born to other cosmopolitans—or because they want desperately to deny any identity at all. Get them across from you at a bar table with a drink in their hands, and they’ll say one or the other of these two things.

But if this globalization thing is to work without blowback of this kind, it will have to be done more slowly, and with more respect not just for the identities of immigrants, but for the identities of residents as well. The change must be regulated and slowed if it is to take; it can’t be announced by fiat by elites and expected to take hold without controversy or anger.

The mass isn’t really angry at the immigrants. They’re angry because they’re afraid to lose their sense of self—just as immigrant communities are, which is why they form civic institutions to preserve their cultural traditions and promote awareness.

I’ll say it again: It can’t be done by fiat, and the emergence of true cultural syncretism takes time and learning and above all gradual shifts in practice and socialization. It takes longer than just a generation or two. While it’s happening, space must be opened for stability and comfort, and that means respecting a population’s democratic desire for stability and deliberation over the courses of their individual lives. This is much more about Merkel’s fateful overreach than it is about racism and xenophobia.

People are generally happy to be open and generous and sharing, but give them the sense that they’re drowning and a good number of them will try instead to swim—every time.

Brexit.  §

© Dave Kellam / CC BY SA 2.0

In many ways, I reserve judgment. This will cause no small amount of heartache, but then the event of the referendum itself, without reference to any particular outcome, was already the harbinger of heartaches-to-come, largely unavoidable. The referendum did not create either the sentiments or the disagreements that led to them.

Either way, it would have been bad for the United Kingdom, and bad for Europe. This way, it will also be bad for many immigrants. The New Statesman said that the referendum opened the “Pandora’s Box,” but in fact the global elites have been slowly opening the Pandora’s Box for a quarter century or longer.

It’s a crisis of the West in general; one referendum wasn’t going to avert the crisis, no matter the outcome. The crisis marches on to bigger and better (or, indeed, worse) things in the years and decades to come, and I’m not entirely sure there is anything to do about it.

The West is in regrettable decline. Left and right are both gone mad. All good things must end.

— § —

What is interesting to me about the referendum, when I step back a bit, is the fact that it will actually have an effect in the real world at all—that the votes and the outcome might, shock of shocks, matter.

Certainly no vote anywhere in almost any nation has mattered all that much for quite a long time.

Yes, yes, some percentage of the population hobbles over to the polls a few times every decade here and there, in country after country and they pull the lever for this or for that, for something or for other, knowing full well that whichever side wins and whichever side loses, nothing at all is likely to change.

Options have been severely limited; voters choose between six of one and a half dozen of the other, then watch as either the six or the half dozen compound the insult by pretending as if no one had voted anyway. Meanwhile, those of “the consensus” have satisfied themselves with “consensus” as an explanation for all of this, while at the same time taking care to keep pulling the strings that matter, just in case.

This has been the game of the global elite for some time, and the secret meaning behind Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history” some years ago. Eventually he had the good sense to walk this claim back, realizing that all had been fortunate that it’s real meaning hadn’t been discerned. A little embarrassment and a harrumph or two and it was all put to bed and thank God anyway.

But here we have a population who was allowed to actually make a choice that matters and between two actually different options.

Who went and resurrected democracy? And on whose authority? How was this allowed to happen? And might not the plebes now, having had a taste of it again, begin to demand more?

No wonder everyone is upset at Cameron.

And the United States is ripe for precisely the same kind of unpredictable eruption of actuality after a great period of denial. Both Sanders and Trump are latent evidence of this. I suspect that these two aren’t the end of things but rather the beginning of them, particularly now that “consensus” in the form of Clinton has won.

— § —

My thoughts are with all of those that will be negatively impacted by this outcome. And for all of those that would have been negatively impacted by the other outcome.

But not with those who were to be fine no matter the outcome. They are the ones, meant to be the leaders of things, who are most responsible now for the state of things.

Sadness and life.  §

I suppose you know that you’re getting too old and that you’ve seen altogether too much when you begin to say things like, “All the world has gone crazy.”

But, in fact, all the world has gone crazy.

— § —

I don’t know where I belong in the culture now. Nowhere, it would seem. I don’t quite know where I will take myself in that sense.

I do know that I’m not satisfied. I’m not satisfied with what I’ve seen, with the options I’ve chosen and had to choose from. I feel as though there must be something better. And I am actively searching for it.

Meanwhile, I would do well to care just a bit less about the world and to realize and to recognize that, in fact, the world will not be redeemed. Or, at the very least, it is not my place to do it and never was. The world is, I increasingly clearly see, a mad place—simply mad, and while I can stand up for what I believe to be right, I should disabuse myself on any expectation that it will “get better” or that I can “make a difference” in the ways that young people tend to prefer to imagine.

I must make my peace with what will be, with the world as it is. That doesn’t mean that I give up, but it does mean that I never postpone another thing or another feeling for “better days to come.”

— § —

One critical set of things that have always been missing from my life and that remain missing from my life—a lack that will have to be remedied—are rites of passage.

I have never had the right rites, the ones that other people have had. The regular high school graduation. The college graduation. The masters graduation. The big wedding. Now, anything resembling a rite of divorce.

Only one major occasion in my memory has ever been marked in any way by ritual or public appearance and presentation—my Ph.D. graduation.

But one event does not a lifetime make. The anticlimax is not a good way to live in meaning. It tends to enable everything to blend together, to lead to a frustrating sameness in all things, a kind of negation of the import of life events.

I don’t know what rite(s) will next be appropriate for me, but I do know that it is time to begin to do them publicly and traditionally, so that I can feel as though I exist and as though my life has mattered to myself and to others.

The battle.  §

© 2002 USMC Archives / CC BY 2.0

I have spent a lifetime surrounded primarily by women.

And over and over again, women have tried to beat it out of me. Probably the same is true for other men. To beat what out? That thing. That me-ness. It has always been too: scary, irresponsible, independent, stubborn, decisive, assertive, distant, reserved, stoic, adventurous, etc.

The answer is no.

No, I will not let it be beaten out of me. Not by family, not by friends, not by a long line of significant others. I am who I am and I do what I do. I would not allow myself to be killed off at 20, nor at 30, and now not at 40.

We are not women, women. We are men. I won’t apologize for it, and I won’t change. Ours is to do, and to do what is right. Not what is happy, not what is convivial, not what is cooperative, not what is safe, not what is convenient, not any of these things.

We are not here to play the game of “everyone wins and no one loses,” and we are not here to play the game of “let’s just have lemonade.”

To do, and to do what is right, come what may. That’s it. That’s all. And if we have to lose a thousand times, until the day we die, that’s what we’ll do. Because it’s better to be a loser than to surrender to a world in which everyone and everything—no matter the value, low or high, good or evil—is declared a winner.

All things—thoughts, people, plans, actions, circumstances, ideologies, times—are not created equal. We are here to fight the good fight. Until the end.

So—no. Not changing.

— § —

Three cheers for:

  • Honor
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Struggle
  • Generosity
  • Respect
  • Duty

No, I don’t sound like a liberal. I don’t sound like a conservative either. The fact is that these values have disappeared entirely from the Western canon. It’s time to fight for them again, to bring them back. As a species, we have lost half our birthright.

On being a man.  §

I’m not ashamed to be one. And I’m not ashamed to reflect on what this means for me, and for my son, nor on what I want from life. And it doesn’t make me an ‘MRA’ or a ‘misogynist’ to refuse to disown my manhood, or to use words like ‘manhood’ in the first place.

Women have the red tent and the sisterhood. Great!

It’s time men come back to the vision quest and the brotherhood that have been taken from us by a society that has lost its men. It’s not scary if these things exist. It’s necessary.

It’s fucking necessary.

— § —

And for those that wince at a post like this, or even the use of the word ‘man’ at all: QED.

Q. E. D.

Serial monogamy.  §

I am preparing to exit from yet another long-term relationship. Eight years here. Five years there. Three years over yonder. This is the stuff life is made of.

I have in the past commented here on the typical Western refusal to contemplate the reality of death. I do that now once again.

— § —

I continue my reading on medieval history. I find that the history of the Crusades is largely misrepresented in the common knowledge and in popular discourse. As with all things in history, it is more complex, and less a question of good and evil, light and dark, than shared sentiment would have us believe.

— § —

When I was small, my favorite color was green. This is becoming my favorite color once again.

— § —

Once the tears and rage are gone, there is nothing left but to get on with it. Life is what it is. And then you die.

Perspective (from Zen).  §

A master and his disciple were walking along a road when they came to a stream. A young woman was standing next to it, and asked if they could help her cross the stream. The master picked her up, and carried her across. She thanked the master, and he and the disciple went on their way.

When they reached their destination, the disciple asked, “Master, are we not supposed to avoid contact with women?”

The master replied, “Are you still carrying that young woman? I left her by the side of the stream.”