Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Robert M. Pirsig



I went to bed feeling sad. I had my reasons. I awoke randomly and set in my living room chair to learn that Robert M. Pirsig had died a few hours earlier. His 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance influenced me more than any other book I’ve read. 

A few folks are lucky to produce one thing that may be termed a ‘masterpiece’; the rest of us are fortunate instead to read them. One hears of ZAMM’s inclusion in all manner of college syllabi: philosophy courses, naturally, but also classes in comparative literature and cultural studies, computer programming, and biochemistry. Really. Look it up. Seminars have been offered; dissertations have been written. Countless people (well, a few hundred, I guess) have sought to reproduce the motorcycle journey of the unnamed protagonist and his son – and Phaedrus, the shade of the author’s madness – documenting the beautiful and banal places that Pirsig visited. All to celebrate his Chautauqua on values, the ascent of inquiry. And his descent into madness, too.

A few years ago I taught a grad seminar where I invited students to chase an idea down a rabbit hole, following a chain of authors that stretched at least twenty years from citation to citation. Within the broad array of topics we covered in the course, they were challenged to choose their own adventure, so long as they descended into some degree of depth below the constellation of ideas they’d begun to master. It’s one thing, I explained, to draw water from the surface of a familiar well. It’s another thing entirely to dive deep in search of connections and conversations and conflicts that stretch back generations. One discovers a chain of argument, maybe, but one is just as likely to create links that the interlocutors might never have imagined. Some students loved the assignment; others endured it. But all were, in this manner, introduced to the experience of reading ZAMM.

For me, Pirsig’s book was that rabbit hole that dug beneath the surface of things, from contemporary technocracy to Enlightenment optimism, to Aristotelian structure, to Pre-Socratic origins. To the cosmologists and the mystics who investigated things that now left to poets and artists. ZAMM was also my introduction to rhetoric, the field of inquiry that helped me find my livelihood and my voice. Yet the book also mirrored my youthful confidence and subsequent doubts in its evocation of an intellectual expedition that both descended into madness and rose from idea to idea, connection to connection, to produce an ineffable sense of vision and perspective, a feeling that, having completed the journey, I might have actually seen a glimpse, a sliver, of how things fit together. Such is the double-sided coin of insight and insanity, that rabid, unkempt exuberance that "I alone understand how it all works."

ZAMM’s protagonist (like its author) dropped out of grad school after digging too deeply down his personal rabbit hole. Even now I can see him sitting in a small seminar room, warring with his professor about the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic: 
“The sessions on Aristotle were round an enormous wooden round table in a dreary room across the street from a hospital, where the late-afternoon sun from over the hospital roof hardly penetrated the window dirt and polluted city air beyond. Wan and pale and depressing. During the middle of the hour he noticed that this enormous table had a huge crack that ran right across it near the middle. It looked as though it had been there for years, but that no one had thought to repair it.” 
The crack is a metaphor for the modern divides, those artful contrivances that the author sought to transcend, at the risk of offending the academic gods and losing his sanity. Later on, Pirsig writes, he returned to Aristotle, to the site of his Chicago struggles, the scene of the crime, and wondered what the fuss was all about.

More than a few readers have felt the same way about ZAMM. Indeed there are plenty of puritans who dismiss Pirsig as a hippy huckster who merely wrapped a loose version of his autobiography around a muddle of ideas better explained by experts. Then there are those more-dog-eared-than-thou folks who dive so deeply into the book that they resemble those who have hiked too far into the Yosemite wilderness and return blinking away visions only they can grasp - shaking their heads at the fools who wander the parking lot, snapping pictures of nearby trees. For me, ZAMM was a book I’d sometimes cite and sometimes recommend. It towered above me but was still comfortingly familiar, accessible. I had made my own journey through its pages and imagined that its author was smiling somewhere at the enormity of his creation.

I’ll never know. I never sought an opportunity to meet Pirsig. I left it to acolytes and experts to catalog his words and parse his meanings. Even so, when I awoke after a miserable night’s sleep to read the news, I felt an obligation to reflect on his contributions to my life, my teaching, and my efforts to make sense of my own obsessions, limitations, and values. Pirsig was a writer, an all-too-human one. His literary output was sparse when measured in a certain way. Yet Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a milestone that marked my life. I am grateful to have traveled even a short distance with the man who rode up ahead.

Image credit: William Morrow/HarperCollins

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Don't Feed the Trolls


I’m watching footage of the anti-Milo Yiannopoulos protest at Berkeley and wondering what the demonstrators hope to accomplish. Yiannopoulos is a troll; his words and ideas offend me. But even more offensive is the notion that some people would try to shut him down from speaking - in the birthplace of the 60s-era Free Speech Movement.

Some folks will surely disagree with me, perhaps retorting that “hate speech” is not protected speech. Yet I recall an even more odious demonstration of hate in 1977 when members of the Nazi Party of America planned to march through Skokie, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood north of Chicago. People in that community had every right to be outraged at this intrusion. But as the ACLU argued before the Supreme Court, even the most patently offensive speech is protected by the 1st Amendment.

There are, of course, reasonable limitations to free speech. Child pornography is not free speech. Libel is not free speech. Yelling fire in a crowded theater is not free speech. There are other entirely sound exceptions. But surely one should have the right to speak one’s piece in a public place - even as one must be willing to consider the words of others with whom one disagrees. This, not Donald Trump, is what makes America “great.”

Our institutions are threatened enough by Trump’s occupation of the presidency. Let’s not join him and his minions in efforts to tear down our cherished liberties. We must resist bad speech, yes, but not with coercion. We must fight Trump, Yiannopoulos, and other trolls with better ideas.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Resisting Trump: Are You Ready?


Today the sun glows behind a gray shroud, its shadows are anemic, shrinking, and more rain is forecast. With foreboding and growing fear, we watch our government take on an equally dismal expression, as its executive branch - with the exception of some of its bravest resisters - works to dismantle our constitutional principles.

How shall we respond to these gathering forces that are seemingly as bland and quotidian as the weather but equally able to wreck our foundations? What shall we do? Amidst a rising regime that seeks a shameless, naked, and determined acquisition of power, we are rightly reminded to reflect carefully before leaping into senseless action. But ultimately, we must act.

In his Over-Soul essay, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Always our being is descending into us from we know not whence.” In other words, despite our individual limitations, we are bound together into something greater than a single life.

Inspired by this Emersonian Transcendentalism, John Steinbeck filled Jim Casy, the fallen prophet and itinerate preacher of the Grapes of Wrath, with an ecumenical passion: “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing… Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.”

This tolerance should not be confused with passivity. It is a call to involve ourselves in the world around us, to depart our cloisters and engage with the pains and pleasures of others. It is also a reminder that all laws, no matter how well-intended, are human creations, equally subject to human error and deserving of conscious oversight.

Henry David Thoreau helped shape this vision. A solitary idealist who would much rather tramp the quiet green spaces of nature than join the hurly-burly of city life, Thoreau called us to act when the pains of shared suffering demand it. To be sure, he emphasized that human machines eventually grind themselves to a halt if we’re willing to wait long enough. But, he added, “when oppression and robbery are organized… let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

20th-century America saw a necessary rise of resistance against the oppressive machines of racial hatred, economic injustice, and gender inequality, a time that called for a nation’s citizens, woven from the same cloth that helped thwart aristocracy in one era and smash fascism in the next, to forgo its patience and muster on battlefields of land and soul.

Writing, marching, and ultimately dying for his beliefs, Martin Luther King understood this demand all too well. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King called for us to become rebels with a cause, gadflies in the Socratic sense who would not only preach our values but practice them. The creative tension of that practice is not simply a matter of philosophy or rhetoric; it is a call to disobey.

We must be willing to break unjust laws - not for anarchistic pleasure but instead from a fundamental belief in American values. After all, as King wrote from his jail cell, “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

We look upon King, Gandhi, Anthony, Stanton, Thoreau, Emerson, and further back to Jefferson and other resisters, and we say, “Well, of course.” History has taught us the rightness of their actions. We re-read their words as if they were somehow always hewn in stone. But those brave men and women were not monuments; they were frail and fallible human beings with all of the fears that we share.

They were dismissed as agitators. They were mocked as fools. They were marked as criminals against law, decorum, and common sense. The tyrannies they faced were overwhelming, and the prices they paid were high. They could not imagine that school children (and sometimes overwrought professors) would one day recite their words as the scripture of America’s civic religion. They acted without the sure promise of success. They saw no other choice but to resist.

As Americans facing the new clouds of a Trump administration hell-bent on transforming our country into something that would horrify its founders, we must do nothing less.


Images by Andrew Wood

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Professing in the Age of Trump

How should a professor respond to the Age of Trump?

Many of us are understandably frustrated by the bad ideas coming out of Washington D.C. these days, in the form of unqualified cabinet selections, impulsive policy statements, and unhinged late-night tweets. We recognize the danger of our current national mood and feel duty-bound to respond with every tool at our disposal. And, no doubt, to be a professor, whether during these troubled times or in more halcyon days, one must first and foremost profess. It is an obligation woven into the title. Yet, now more than ever, we must attempt a difficult balance.

On the one hand, the act of being a professor, hardly a passive privilege but rather an active responsibility, emerges from the Latin reference to working in the world: to “lay claim to, declare openly." It is a declaration of one’s expertise, measured against public standards; it is a statement that one knows. Yet there is another meaning, public, yes, but also much more personal: the “profession” that one believes.

Socrates, pious citizen and iconoclastic gadfly, understood the difficulties of straddling both positions when he was called before the Athenian assembly to answer charges that, among other crimes, he had confounded the youth of his city with his rhetorical wiles. To be fair, Socrates would retort that he was no sophist, that he was a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. Putting aside this argument for a moment, we may still yet recall that when he was threatened with fines, imprisonment, and ultimately death, Socrates knew that he could not rely on mere dialectic to save him. He knew that he could not be “saved” at all if he were to honor what he professed. He would speak, publicly and dangerously, to profess both what he knew and what he believed.

This ancient convergence of knowledge and belief calls to mind a contemporary conundrum facing the university professor. In our classrooms, we call upon our disciplinary knowledge to convey what is known in our fields. Of course, knowledge is fraught with debate. Fact-claims reside within and emerge from ongoing questions that remain to be settled, they are shaped by epistemological and paradigmatic filters, and, most importantly, they are subject to violent repudiation - though not by “alternative facts,” that absurdly flippant excuse offered by Trump Counselor Kellyanne Conway for administration hacks’ willingness to confuse fact with conjecture. No, facts are rightly repudiated by our merciless efforts to test them and reveal, not with passion but by method, that what is fact today may be falsehood tomorrow. Our willingness to submit our claims to peer review is a necessary standard that demonstrates the degree of our professionalism.


At the same time, abstract facts are used for concrete purposes, to build things, to formulate policy, to impact human lives. It is one thing, after all, to know the effect of carbon emissions on the planet; it is another thing entirely to advocate for their reduction because that kind of professing - that kind of advocacy - resides less in fact than in value (the comparative value of human life over corporate greed, for example). And values are not facts. Values emerge from that other manner of belief that called for Socrates to speak against the prevailing wisdom of the assembly, even at the risk of his life. And this is where the question becomes particularly thorny. Because values in a democracy (which is itself both a manner of government and an aspiration for human affairs) are not tested as facts; they are tested by our ability to persuade, to profess our beliefs not as facts but as ideal possibilities.

The professor’s dilemma, then, is the struggle between one’s identification of facts and one’s advocacy for beliefs. There are few other jobs where those terms blur so easily. Certainly, few of our students would confuse us with priests extolling holy writ from our lecterns. But our power to measure their educational outcomes through the act of grading makes for a grave responsibility. How we meet that responsibility - indeed, how we define it - can hardly be resolved to universal satisfaction. But we must try our best to define our terms and defend our stances, publicly, if only that we may benefit from hearing the perspectives of others.

Speaking therefore as one professor, I hold that the classroom, certainly one located in the humanities and social sciences, should as much as possible be treated as a microcosm of public life where each student is encouraged to craft meaningful articulations of the facts and beliefs as they understand them. As professors, we are called to introduce students to many of those facts, along with some of their more useful frameworks. But we should not abuse that power by encouraging students to confuse beliefs (neither ours nor theirs) with facts. No doubt we should share our beliefs, profess them without shame. But our students require first that we demonstrate a democratic tolerance for debate and an open-minded appreciation for contrasting opinion.

Some might say that this perspective demonstrates intellectual cowardice, that this day demands that we transform our classrooms into tools that may dismantle the creeping (and sometimes nakedly obvious) crisis of the Trump Age. I sympathize with that position. Indeed, I believe that Trump is not only ill-informed but that his occupation of the presidency is illegitimate. And I recognize that resistance to that which one both knows and believes to be wrong may take many forms. But for now I can imagine no better response to the anti-democratic impulses of his administration than a bravely democratic stance, to teach my students to listen to the opinions of others, to parse those opinions for the validity of stated facts and the utility of stated beliefs, and to debate them, publicly and with confidence. The story of our country, after all, is one of bad ideas holding sway for a while before ultimately being won over by good ones.

In response to an illegitimate president who mocks our values and fears our democracy, this is one professor who will speak out and push back. I will support allies in all sorts of public action to resist Trump and return our country to a positive, humane course. At the same time, I will attempt to live that difficult balance in my classroom, to encourage students to practice the principles that Trump repudiates. We will listen to each other, learn from each other, and inspire each other to speak authentically and honestly about what we believe, even at the risk of encountering opinions that strike us as wrong. We will practice that virtuous profession that counters falsity with fact while respecting the fundamental humanity of our interlocutors. No matter how wrong our opponents may be, as we define that term, we will engage them in the marketplace of ideas, not with force but with persuasion, not with hate but with love. And then, not easily, not without pain, but eventually, we will win.

Lectern image from Amazon

Friday, January 20, 2017

Mr. Unelected President, I resist


Today marks the inauguration of our 45th president, Donald J. Trump. Where I live, northern California, the weather has been dark and rainy, a suitable pall for a dismal day.

I’ve admitted it before: I was stunned by the election result. Trump lost the popular vote by a wide margin, 2.8 million, and yet his ability to game the electoral college wrested victory from a vastly more qualified (though politically tone-deaf) opponent. And now Donald Trump, a man who has boasted about sexually assaulting women, a man who flirts with racists and tyrants, a man who has selected a cabinet composed of people hell-bent on trashing the departments they will lead, this man is now President of the United States.

On this dreary day, I think back to a conversation I had with a colleague who shares my shock and concern. Responding to her understandable horror at the election results, I attempted a conciliatory stance, saying, “Well, I didn’t vote for him, but I want him to succeed as my president.” She didn’t need to pause. “So you hope he succeeds in turning back LGBT rights? You hope he succeeds in pushing back on workers rights? You hope he succeeds in his plans?”

My tongue-twisted reply surely belied the confusion that many of us face. I was raised to associate the presidency with the hopes, wishes, and identity of our country, to support the office even if I could not praise the officer. Such a position always struck me as fundamentally democratic. My side plays fair, the other side plays fair, may the best person win.

But the best person did not win, not only because Donald Trump is so manifestly unfit for the office but more obviously because he didn’t win. He occupies the office but has not earned it. 2.8 million Americans prove that point. And while I admire the Constitution, have actually read, studied, and taught the document, I will not forget that its framers once marked slaves as being worth three-fifths of a person, that its framers enshrined an aristocracy with appointed senators, that its framers failed to ensure the voting rights of women. These mistakes, and other ones, needed to be rectified through the process of constitutional amendment. And the electoral college remains an error in need of remedy.

Until then, I find myself adrift, wondering how to respond to an election that is equal parts failure and farce. For all its faults, I still support the Constitution, and I continue to love my country. I remain a proud veteran, loyal citizen, and respectful participant in public life. But I will not again make the error of confusing Donald J. Trump with the office of the presidency. He is its occupier, not by popular vote, not by divine right, not by common sense.

Just this morning, before my bus began its climb over the hill from Scotts Valley to San Jose where I work, we visited a final stop. There in the rain stood two bedraggled protesters holding signs that read “Not my president” and “Save the ACA.” Under dark skies and stormy weather, they announced their positions, quietly and with dignity. They did not shout, and they may have wondered when our bus passed by, spraying rainwater from the tires, whether anyone noticed or cared. I noticed, and I took heart in their silent protest. I was reminded.

Donald J. Trump is a fraud and a failure. He is a liar and a con. He is undeserving of the office and unprepared for its obligations. He is not my president. Some folks voted for him, knowing his sins and somehow not caring. They will now watch what they have wrought, straining their eyes for some way to blame the opposition. They are hoping that we will be bullied, silenced, stunned into submission. Some will be, I suppose, fearful that they may lose their jobs, their privileges, their safety. But most of us who said no to Trumpism are ready to push back. Starting today.

“Mister Unelected President,” you are not my president, and I am proud to stand with those who will resist you from the beginning.

Image by Andrew Fyfe 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Shameless Media Plug: Twilight of the mom and pop motel


Based on “The twilight of the mom and pop motel,” an article I wrote last year that was featured in The Conversation, The New Republic, the Houston Chronicle, and the Associated Press, WAMC Northeast Public Radio’s Academic Minute asked me to produce a radio narrative of that piece, which aired on January 2, 2017.

Check it out!