Friday, April 24, 2009

Defending Tradition

It occurred to me recently that Gay Marriage is an issue I feel strongly about. As a far left liberal whack-job, of course I believe that marriage should not be limited by gender, just like I believe that abortion should remain legal, the rich don’t pay enough in taxes, environmental protection should be a priority, and we need more gun control.

But, emotionally, none of those issues effect me the same way gay marriage does, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

It’s not really personal: I’m straight and happily married. And it’s not a need for universal equality, either. While I feel for gays and lesbians here, the rights they’re denied are fairly minor compared to various groups over the world. Homosexuals in Iran, for instance, face the threat of execution: objectively, the situation here seems somewhat trivial in comparison. If I was only driven by “fairness,” I’d have to put this on the back-burner until a lot changed worldwide.

I gave the matter some thought, and here’s what I’ve come up with. The reason this bothers me so much is simple: it’s because I believe “America” should mean something.

There’s been a lot of talk about “tradition” coming from the right. Well, I agree that tradition is important. In fact, I think it makes us who we are. With that in mind, let me tell you about a tradition I deeply believe in.

For hundreds of years, the United States has continuously revised the definition of marriage to strive towards equality.

There was a time when women were treated as property in a legal transaction: now we have a union of equals. Women weren’t always protected from abusive husbands: now legal recourse is available. Marriages between partners of different races weren’t always permitted: another inequity we’ve corrected.

Of course, these changes didn’t happen quickly or easily. But… aren’t we past this? This isn’t the kind of fight anyone should need to go through anymore: we should be better than this. If a group in America is being denied certain rights, they shouldn’t have to fight anyone. Pointing out the inequity should be enough. Haven’t we learned that history doesn’t look kindly on those who fight against equality?

Apparently not. Conservatives are still fighting for what they call a “traditional” definition of marriage. I’m not buying it: the definition of marriage in this country has “traditionally” changed and evolved. What they want is a static definition.

And that, frankly, is un-American.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Post-er Boy

So, I’ve recently been reading up on post-structuralism for a novel I’m thinking of writing, and I was reminded just how much I hate the movement. If you’re not familiar, post-structuralism is one of those newfangled literary/philosophical movements which defies explanation.

In fact, to attempt to explain it in simple terms would insult the very ideas it represents. Therefore:

Post-structuralism basically holds that any analysis of meaning should be conducted from the point of view of the reader (or listener or viewer or what-have-you), rather than the author. In essence, they’re arguing that discussions about an author’s intended meaning are pointless, since we’ll never really know what any author actually wants to communicate.

Oh, there’s more than that: whole books about the deconstruction of texts and meaning, but I’d say that right there is the CORE of post-structuralism. Yes indeed, that’s generally what the term MEANS.

I could rant for a while about inherent problems with this framework, how it neglects the possibility of skeptical doubt regarding an author’s intent, leaping instead to a sort of linguistic nihilism… but that’s not really what I want to do. I’d rather take a moment and consider the man I consider the epitome of post-structuralism: George W. Bush.

You see, nearly everything that came out of the ex-president’s mouth was a post-structural gem. Consider his stance on torture: namely that it was wrong and that “We do not torture.” All the while, of course, we were.

Consider the schism between his stance on civil liberties and the actions he took. If he’d only been lying when he claimed he was protecting our liberties, he have had to change his tune in the face of overwhelming evidence. Fortunately, he wasn’t lying. A lie represents a contradiction behind a statement and the truth. But there can be no truth. There is only text.

A cynic might accuse Bush of lying to the American people, but this would be an antiquated appraisal, a structuralist reading, in fact. Consider that the word “torture” is but a signifier. And any good post-structuralist will tell you that the signified slides away. Clinton may have toyed with the meaning of words, but Bush abandoned meaning altogether. There was NO direct correlation between what he said and did: none was needed. As he proved in 2004, he was able to get reelected by repeating meaningless slogans over and over again.

The administration seemed to know what it was doing: the 24-hour news networks were all to happy to air these soundbites all day. Voters responded to phrases like “flip-flopper” and “stay the course” more than they cared about numbers or facts. Bush voters, in particular, revealed little knowledge of the state of the world.

In essence, Bush correctly realized that his statements were, for all intents and purposes, the only things that mattered. Whether Iraq had weapons of mass-destruction was irrelevant to the public: only the rhetoric – the text – mattered.

Bush was a president whose claims existed outside of context, and, as much as I hate to admit it, this worked for a while. During the Bush years, we existed in a kind of post-structural environment. But nothing lasts forever: by 2006, the voters had had enough. Out went Republican control, and in came the Democrats. By 2008, the rhetoric had subsided a bit. Sure, a good one-liner was still important, but candidates who tried to run on these alone – such as Giuliani’s nonstop string of 9/11 references – found themselves out of the race early.

It seems to me that post-structuralism was not only epitomized by the Bush era, but I feel comfortable claiming it died there, as well. The utter lack of context or meaning that defined Bush’s presidency wasn’t something we were able to stomach.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

And the blog is worth even less....

Lets begin with the name, shall we? I acquired my BA with a concentration in philosophy and writing from Hampshire College, and, so far at least, it hasn't made me rich or famous. That said, I wouldn't trade the time I spent at college for the world. One of Hampshire's many idealistic claims is that it teaches its students how to teach themselves, and there's actually quite a bit of truth to this. Hampshire helped me develop the ability to think, and - more importantly - it's where I met my wife. So take the title with a grain of salt.

But enough with cheap sentimentality: cynicism is the lifeblood of the internet, and far be it from me to fight the free market. Hence the name: Worthless Degree.

As for myself, I'm an unrepentant geek living and - for the time being - working in the city of New York. But in this deteriorating job market, the freelance philosopher's options are tragically limited. Therefore, I find myself doing general office work. No complaints; I'll take what I can get, but it's hardly an environment where I find myself engaging the issues that really interest me.

No, I haven't really had many outlets to voice my opinions, and, frankly, my wife's sick of hearing them. Therefore I've decided to offer them to the world at large. Those of you crazy enough to read them have my apologies in advance, of course.

In addition to Worthless Degree, I keep a blog called The Middle Room, which focuses on movies, comics, and other geek-related topics. Those of you who never put aside childish things might also enjoy The Clearance Bin, a toy review site I run.

I've also written two novels and a large number of short stories I'm trying to get published. Eventually, I'm planning to start a site dedicated to my fiction: I'll keep you informed, of course.