Peace in the Middle East Hinges On Assuaging the Ancient Jewish Distrust

*Note: I was going to write about Kanye for today’s post, but I felt as though this was more important to say.  As for Nietzsche’s thoughts on the matter, he’d just be upset that the Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, Americans, and everyone else haven’t overcome their attachment to the values underlying the conflict.

As a rule, I tend to stay away from writing about issues concerning Israel.  The tiny country is controversial enough as it is, and the fact that siding with or against Israel has become an increasingly polarized issue in the United States puts a limit on how much meaningful debate can happen about American-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian relations.  Furthermore, as a Jew I fear that my own biases will subconsciously creep into anything I have to say.  (I’ll make every effort to approach this article objectively.)

But with Israel once again in the news (surprise), this time concerning the Iran nuclear deal, I think there’s never been a more appropriate time to truly dig into why Israel acts the way it does on the international stage.  If the goal of diplomacy and global relations is to make the planet a peaceful and prosperous place—surely that should be the goal—it is vital to understand the collective values, beliefs, and psyche that power a nation and motivate its leaders.   Israel operates under a microscope whose powerful magnification has exposed every single flaw in the way it treats the people who live within and outside of its borders, but that microscope rarely seeks to understand, for better or for worse, the psycho-historical bases of these behaviors.  To treat the problems, these bases must first be uncovered.

The first and most important idea to understand is the state of Israel is irrevocably linked to the Jewish people.  Many Jews will be quick to point out that the two are not equivalent, and in fact total equivocation of Israel and Jews creates many problems given that one is a state and the other is an ethnic group, but that some degree of inseparability exists is undeniable.  Israel’s inaugural and current governmental system was founded by a bunch of early 20th century European Jewish immigrants to the land that was then and still called Palestine, people who were motivated by anti-Semitism in France and pogroms in Russia to seek a place where they could build a safe haven and become a self-determining nation.  Nationalism was all the rage across the Western world at the time, a cause that sparked World War I and a core principle of the Fourteen Points Woodrow Wilson proposed at the end of that conflict, and the particular nationalist movement involving Jews was dubbed Zionism.

While other nation-states formed from the breakup of Austria-Hungary, it took the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis to build up the international momentum for Britain to cede control of Israel to the Jewish settlers there.  Of course, in the process, many of the local Arabs were unceremoniously booted off their land, and ever since then the “right of return” has been an insurmountable obstacle in the path to peace between Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians.  Part of the reason why is that Israel remains committed to its Jewish identity.  The very words of the country’s national anthem proclaim this:

Hatikvah (The Hope) (English translation)

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,

With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,

Then our hope—the two-thousand-year-old hope—will not be lost:

To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

So despite all attempts to solve the Arab-Iranian-Israeli conflict with an areligious focus squarely on the present—which would by all means be the easiest, most practical, and best way to approach the problem—this is an issue that goes back as far as the history of the Jewish people.  And the history of the Jewish people is one built largely on a distrust of outside forces, a distrust that may seem anachronistic today but came about for countless understandable reasons.

The Jewish claim to Israel is rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham, but Jewish distrust is rooted in the ancient Hebrews’ experience in Egypt.  For generations following Joseph’s successful interpretations of one of Pharaoh’s dreams, the twelve sons of Jacob had lived in Egypt and become successful.  But in time, a new pharaoh came into power, one who did not remember Joseph and his good standing.  The Torah recounts the events that followed:

“He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are.  Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and depart from the land.”  So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens, and they built store cities for Pharaoh, namely Pithom and Raamses.  but as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.  So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor.” (Exodus 1:9-13)

There exist a few key elements to this story:

The first is that, for the first time in the Bible, the Israelites are singled out as “outsiders.”  Judaism, unlike most other major world religions, is an ethnic religion, meaning that its followers originated from a common ancestor and more members of the faith arise almost exclusively by reproduction, with no emphasis placed on missionary work.  Thus Jews are united by a feeling of familial connection which not only tightens the bonds between members of the group as compared to other religious factions, but also makes the group more identifiable and more likely to be singled out.

The second is that the Pharaoh assumes the Israelites pose a danger to his kingdom.  Perhaps he is merely suffering the effects of ingroup-outgroup bias, but the behavior is one that the Jews have seen repeated over and over throughout history: Jews exist in our community, and they will do bad things to us (like poison our water supply, use our children’s blood to make matzah, manipulate the financial markets, etc.).

The third, and most important, is that the Israelites, in a land where they once were welcomed, prosperous, and noted for their success, were systematically betrayed and discriminated against by the country they called home.  Once, Joseph had been hailed as a savior in Egypt; now, his descendants were a threat that had to be eliminated.

With the exception of times when Israel existed as a sovereign land and arguably in the United States Post-Cold War, the story of the Israelites and the Jews they would become is one of maltreatment in countries they did not rule.  This abuse has ranged from the cultural elimination attempted by the Seleucids, the destruction of the Second Temple, and the mass murder of European Jews during the Crusades to the expulsion from Spain, the pogroms of Eastern Europe and, of course, the Holocaust.  Because that last atrocity occurred with the world watching and with the forces of Zionism having built up for decades previously, it served as the impetus to the creation of modern Israel.  Other than that, you’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of reparations paid to the Jewish people for millennia of attempts to destroy them.

The Jews, obviously, are far from the only historical group to suffer persecution.  And it’s not as if a Jewish state, when it has existed, hasn’t itself been guilty of being the perpetrator.  But the Jewish people’s response to persecution is unique, deep-rooted, and proves crucial to any understanding of modern Israel’s behavior.

The earlier passage from Exodus mentions the way the Israelites responded to Pharaoh’s initial strategy of heavy taxation and assignment to the worst jobs: “…but as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”  Rather than complaining to the Pharaoh and demanding equal treatment, the Israelites put their heads down and placed trust only in their own abilities to thrive under increasingly difficult circumstances.  And because of the further success that came of their efforts, the Israelites found themselves enslaved.

While the Jews’ disproportionate flourishing (when they’ve been given the opportunity) can be attributed to a higher average intelligence, per one British study, the coexistent impulsion to hard work and self-reliance in the face of challenges can be attributed to this legacy of oppression.  Over the intervening three thousand years, outside help for the Jews and Israel has come sparingly—most notably from America, where the ugly, all-consuming specter of African slavery and racism prevented Jews from ever becoming the primary targets of persecution.  The world’s biggest act of aid to the Jewish people, the creation of Israel in 1948, may never have happened if the Holocaust had been mitigated by America and other European nations increasing their maximum allowed number of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s.  By and large, the Jewish people have never been given a reason to trust anyone but themselves.

This leads us to the problems that plague Israel today.  The nation has been singled out, for better or worse, for its unfair treatment of the Palestinians (whether or not this singling out is justified is one of those issues that has been polarized to the point where meaningful debate isn’t currently possible).  Its leader has retained power by cultivating the religious right at the expense of international approval.  Some doomsday prophets both inside and outside the country foresee it descending to the status of pariah state, joining the likes of the clinically-insane North Korean dictatorship and Apartheid-era South Africa in the history books’ most ignominious list.  And now Israeli leadership is doing everything it can to drum up opposition to a nuclear deal that, though it will receive wide accolades at the UN and among American liberals, arguably poses an existential threat to the nation.  Whether it actually does has been hotly debated, but that truth is irrelevant when the real issue—and a vital component of all Israel-related issues—is one of perception.

The Israeli Right, which controls the government and thus bears at least some responsibility for the Palestinian plight, holds more closely to the historically justified Jewish distrust than does the Israeli Left—and, for that matter, most non-Jews.  In the same way that white people can never truly understand the black American experience, non-Jews who condemn Israeli policy can’t fully appreciate the three millennia of persecution that underlie the psyche of Netanyahu and other like-minded Israelis.  These are people in whom the memory of the Holocaust runs as freshly as if it happened last week, who remain committed to the original purpose of Israel as founded in 1948: to provide the Jewish people with a safe place.

In such a context, comparisons of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South African Apartheid make little sense.  Regardless of how the extent of the oppression measures up and regardless of the current powerful position of Israeli Jews, the Apartheid was undertaken by a historically privileged group while the Israeli abuse of Palestinians is undertaken by a historically oppressed group that fears, above all else, a return to that maltreatment.  Israel is the boy on the playground who kicks the injured boy on the ground because he suspects the fallen boy is only faking injury and will destroy him if given the chance to stand up.  South African Apartheid was more like the Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph, fearing a majority population’s power and seeking to keep it in check by any means necessary.  Both are clearly morally wrong, but the difference in motive behind the actions requires different approaches to each instance of oppression.

In such a context, Israel’s distrust of Iran makes total sense.  After all, this is the most outspoken enemy of Israel (which, as I stated earlier, cannot be separated from the Jewish people) since Hitler, a country that has declared that among its goals is the total annihilation of the state.  Again, regardless of what the deal will actually produce ten or twenty years down the line, this narrative of rising enemies and increasing feeling of isolation has to sound awfully familiar to the Israelis who are convinced that the sky is falling.

In such a context, the solution to every issue involving Israel and its neighbors is obvious: instead of leaping to criticize Israel at every turn, accusing it of war crimes, and demanding that it either cooperate with the international community or face boycotts, any nation hoping to help the Middle East become peaceful must first consider and break down the very real Jewish distrust that lies at Israel’s heart (and the Arab/Iranian distrust of Israel, too).  If Israel could somehow be convinced that a totally liberated Palestinian-controlled Gaza and West Bank wouldn’t immediately take the offensive, if the world could somehow assuage Israel’s fear that the first Iranian nuclear bomb will be immediately fired at Tel Aviv, the Jewish state would instantly become far more agreeable on the international stage.  The left side of its political spectrum is already more inclined to start this process, particularly regarding the Palestinians.  Of course, such a trust-building exercise is a two-way street that would require the dropping of ancient prejudices on both sides.

The problem is that old beliefs die hard.  And for a state like Israel, the proclaimed home of a people who has been persecuted almost ceaselessly since Pharaoh enslaved them in Egypt three thousand years ago, trust is going to be very, very hard to come by—especially now that it has seen its greatest supporter sit down at the negotiating table with its arch nemesis.

Assuaging the issue of Jewish mistrust is a necessary first step in the direction of Middle Eastern peace that has not yet happened.  I’m not sure how such an alleviation of concern could even be accomplished, but it’s a strategy that must be attempted because turning up the international pressure on Israel isn’t working.  It has only activated the oldest Israeli fear, and continuing to make the Jewish state feel isolated will prove counterproductive to the peace process going forward.

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The Dionysian Karaoke Song Power Rankings!

Never, ever do karaoke in a bar with three people.

Never, ever do karaoke in a bar with three people.

Song of the day: “Karaoke” by Smallpools

Chasing the Dionysian involves partaking in spontaneous song and dance when the moment calls for it.  And there’s no better example of spontaneous, ecstatic, drunken song and dance than KARAOKE.  The word means “empty orchestra” in Japanese, which is basically an invitation to create values and affirm the life that fills the music!

Singing karaoke at a bar is a great opportunity to meet people, bond with friends, and impress that attractive person you’ve had your eye on for the past hour (or even kill zombies).  It’s also a great opportunity to make a total fool out of yourself in front of dozens or hundreds of strangers and leave the bar in disgrace.  That’s why it’s important to choose a proper song for your performance.  The song you pick plays a major role in determining whether you bring down the house in raucous cheers or the horrible combination of pity and jeering laughter.  Luckily, I’m here to help you select correctly.  Memorize this list so well that you won’t forget it even when you’re several drinks into the night.

First, I present the six criteria we’ll be using to rank my top ten guaranteed karaoke successes.  Each of these is on a scale from 1 to 5, and they’ll be averaged to get the song’s overall rating.

– Icon status (IS): How famous is the song?  I don’t care how much you love that Modest Mouse deep cut or Slayer’s best death metal, the crowd can’t get into that.  Sing those obscure tunes on your own in the shower.

– Period piece (PP): How well does the song capture the essence of a specific period or genre of music?  This is tied to Icon Status, but provides more nuance to your selection.  For example, if you’re going for late ’90s boy band, don’t you dare pick 98 Degrees (or any song that isn’t on No Strings Attached or Millennium).

– Mood setter (MS): What kind of effect will the song have on the energy of the bar?  A higher rating here means more upbeat, because if you’re doing karaoke the bar is probably not a chill place.  There’s also a length factor here–you don’t want to overstay your welcome.  “American Pie” is a classic, but it’s too slow and waaaaay too long to even be considered.

– Instrumental breakdowns (IB): Because you don’t have an instrument, you run the risk of looking pretty stupid during guitar solos or extended intros/outros, so pick songs without long breaks.  For example, unless you have the world’s best air guitar skills, don’t pick “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

– Difficulty (D): You should know how good you are at singing.  Now subtract about a quarter of that ability because you’re drunk.  If you still know you can nail the high notes on “Beat It” or do a perfect Sam Smith impression on “Latch,” go for it.  Otherwise, stay away from songs that will put you on the struggle bus.  For the sake of the rankings, 1 is the hardest and 5 is the easiest.

– Crowd participation (CP): Some songs have really easy lyrics for the crowd to sing without looking at the screen.  If they’re singing, your mistakes will be covered up and everyone will be having a great time.

And now, for the rankings!

 

 

 

10. “All The Single Ladies” – Beyoncé

IS: 4 PP: 4 MS: 3 IB: 4 D: 3 CP: 3 Average: 3.5

It doesn’t matter how high Taylor Swift’s star rises…she will never dethrone Beyoncé, who has been sitting at the top of the female pop singer world for the past decade and a half and remains as flawless as ever.  “All The Single Ladies” is her best entry for this list, with its infectious finger-wagging dance and catchy chorus.  The perfect selection if you’re a group of girls.

9. “I Want It That Way” – Backstreet Boys

IS: 4 PP: 5 MS: 2 IB: 5 D: 4 CP: 3 Average: 3.83

Ah, to be in elementary school again and swept up in Boy Band mania!  As is the case for many songs on this list, nostalgia plays a huge part in the appeal of “I Want It That Way,” and so do the computerized harmonies the karaoke machine will produce for you.  If you were more of an *NSYNC person, you can sub “Bye Bye Bye” in here and get nearly identical results.

8. “Hollaback Girl” – Gwen Stefani

IS: 3 PP: 4 MS: 4 IB: 4 D: 4 CP: 5 Average: 4.0

Everyone likes a little attitude on the karaoke stage, and “Hollaback Girl” packs a huge punch.  It’s never been so fun to spell the name of a fruit after comparing it to human feces.

7. “Hot In Herre” – Nelly

IS: 3 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 5 D: 3 CP: 4 Average: 4.17

A song that doesn’t get a lot of attention, as most of us would like to forget that Nelly was ever a thing.  But there’s no denying that the sentiment of this song perfectly matches the atmosphere of most karaoke bars: it’s all about dancing and getting a little hot and crazy.  Bonus points if you actually take off some clothes while singing.

T-5. “Twist and Shout” – The Beatles

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 3 D: 3 CP: 5 Average: 4.33

I’m not sure why this one slips through the cracks so often, especially considering its dual icon status of being a Beatles song and having had Ferris Bueller sing it on a parade float.  But the call-and-response is sure to engage the crowd, and you don’t have to care about your vocal quality because John Lennon basically screams the lyrics anyways.  Plus the build up after the guitar solo is second only to “Shout” in getting people to start low to the ground and slowly stand up.

T-5. “It Wasn’t Me” – Shaggy

IS: 4 PP: 5 MS: 4 IB: 5 D: 3 CP: 5 Average: 4.33

Let’s be honest: no one knows what Shaggy is singing in the verses, and no one cares.  So it’s basically an invitation for your drunk ass to blabber gibberish in a faux-Jamaican accent and gain a crowd’s adoration for it.  Once you’re through that and have everyone’s attention, you get to the part where you command them to fill in the titular line.  Also, this song is just hilarious.  The next time I sing karaoke, this will be the song I pick.

T-3. “Sweet Caroline” – Neil Diamond

IS: 5 PP: 4 MS: 4 IB: 4 D: 5 CP: 5 Average: 4.5

The verses of this song don’t matter at all.  It attains this high ranking because it’s impossible not to reply to “Sweet Caroline” with “BOP-BOP-BOP.”  After several drinks, the call-and-response only becomes more exuberant.

T-3. “Livin’ On A Prayer” – Bon Jovi

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 4 IB: 4 D: 4 CP: 5 Average: 4.5

We’re getting into the ’80s classics now, the ones you hear at every karaoke night because they’re just so damn fun to sing.  Bon Jovi created one of the most anthemic choruses of the decade in “Livin’ On A Prayer,” and the passion imbued in the lyrics is sure to elicit a heartfelt performance and a matching reaction from the crowd.

 

 

 

 

2. “Don’t Stop Believin'” – Journey

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 5 D: 4 CP: 5 Average: 4.67

You probably expected to see this one up here, and you were right to do that, because it’s a fucking great song to sing.  The build from the power ballad first verse to the “on and on and on and on” turns up the energy in the bar, and no one can resist trying to hit Steve Perry’s high notes.  A guitar solo would normally be a markdown for these rankings, but in this case air-playing it is a fundamental part of the experience.

You could easily make an argument for “Don’t Stop Believin'” to be first on this list.  It’s an absolute classic that never fails to involve the crowd and will leave you feeling like a total rock star.  But I’d like to propose a dark horse candidate for the top spot…

 

 

 

 

1. “Hey Ya” – Outkast

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 5 D: 5 CP: 5 Average: 5

Maybe it’s because “Hey Ya” was released in the 2000s and that era of music hasn’t aged all too well.  Maybe it’s because of the unconventional beat.  But for some reason “Hey Ya” is criminally underrated as a karaoke song despite the fact that pretty much all critics agree that it’s one of the best songs of the millennium.  It’s easy to dance to and still contains such endearing quirks as the opening count-off, the hand claps, and the directions to the crowd at the end.  Absolutely everyone in the bar will be shaking it like a Polaroid picture by the time you’re done with them.  It’s also very easy to sing, with a repetitive melody, a two-word chorus, and that part where you just get to yell the words for the last two minutes.  If you have even an nanogram of stage charisma, you will own the night by the time you’re done with this.

These rankings are just one man’s opinion, and Nietzsche wouldn’t be happy if you allowed me to define your personal karaoke song rankings.  So feel free to tear me apart in the comments.

The Philosophy of Phacebook Phriends

Modern technology (plus time travel) would have made some amazing debates possible.

Modern technology (plus time travel) would have made some amazing debates possible.

Song of the day: “Friends” by Led Zeppelin

Think about how many friends you interacted with today.  Out of those friends, how many did you actually interact with–like, in person, face to face?

That was probably about ten percent for me yesterday.  When you add up all the texts, Facebook messages, emails, phone calls, Snapchats, FaceTime and Skype sessions, etc., I must have communicated with about thirty friends.  Do you know how many whose actual, physical bodies I saw with my own two eyes?  Two.  Three, if you count family too (I had lunch with my grandma).

More and more, our friends live not down the street, but in our smartphones and on the Internet.  We can access them with the push of a button, send them pictures of our world instantaneously, and take our minds out of the here-and-now to chill in cyberspace whenever we’d like.  With applications like GroupMe and Google Hangouts, we can even talk to several friends at once.  Back when letters were the most effective means of long-distance communication and cross-country phone calls cost a fortune, it was much more difficult to stay close to the friends that had moved away.  Now, all it takes is the effort required to type a few words and press “enter.”

Most people embrace this new reality.  Do a Google search on long-distance friendship and you’ll find a slew of Buzzfeed posts and other sentimental blog entries singing the praises of having buddies who live across the country or the world.  But despite my own amazing relationships with friends from California and England and Florida and myriad other places, I find myself wondering whether the very nature of friendship has changed because of cell phones and the Internet.  Do we need to define it differently than we have in the past?  And is modern-day long-distance friendship quantifiably better or worse than the old-fashioned kind?

Psychology tells us that long-distance friendship alone is not enough to survive.  From birth, humans are dependent upon physical contact with other people to assure normal mental development–notably shown in Harry Harlow’s experiments that showed rhesus monkeys preferring cloth-coated “mothers” over ones made of wire frame and developing insufficient emotional intelligence when exposed to only the latter.  Humans benefit emotionally from touching and being touched by others in warm and friendly ways because such contact releases oxytocin, which decreases levels of cortisol and corresponding levels of stress.  And British psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests that because online, long-distance friends can’t share experiences or physical contact with us, our real-life social skills and the number of meaningful social interactions we have with others will actually decrease as social media’s rise continues.

Among the great philosophers, though, there are disagreements with this point stemming from each one’s definition of friendship.  Aristotle, who laid out one of the earliest and most influential discussions of friendship, wrote that the sharing of virtuous ethical activity is most crucial for developing true friends–a distinction marked by desiring good to come of the other for the other’s sake and being able to see their virtue as clearly as you can see your own.  Merely deriving utility or pleasure from someone does not make them your friend.  While his discussion has its flaws (you can check them out in detail here), when we ask whether long-distance friendship can fall in Aristotle’s highest classification of friendship, we can find support for both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, desiring a friend’s good for that friend’s sake is something that you can do over the Internet, and I’d argue that sharing values and virtues with our closest friends is a given and, again, does not require a physical presence.  But on the other hand, Aristotle says that friends must spend a great deal of time with each other in the pursuit of virtuous acts.  Does mere conversation and thought count?  According to Aristotle’s conception of the good (read: virtuous) life, it may or may not.  He names two different types of good lives: the life of politics and the life of contemplation.  The former seems to require physical interaction, particularly in the context of the small city-states that made up Aristotle’s Greece, where engagement in the government and society would have been of paramount importance.  To be fair, with the birth of social media activism, long-distance friends may be able to engage in the same kind of political activity, if only on a national scale.  But I would argue that social media activism falls more accurately into the category of a contemplative life, and that true political virtue still require the type of direct engagement that isn’t possible for friends to undertake when they are separated.

Friends who achieve virtue through contemplation, though, don’t need to be physically close to share a meaningful friendship because the Internet and telecommunications have enabled thought and discussion to be shared instantaneously and effortlessly.  On this ground, I think Aristotle is joined by other philosophers, especially those of the Enlightenment and later who maintained vigorous penpals (Voltaire being among the most famously active in his letter writing).  Also meeting Aristotle here is Nietzsche, whose anti-philosophy and subsequent characterization of friendship actually ends up dovetailing perfectly with the idea of long-distance buddies.

As I’ve discussed previously, Nietzsche’s entire system is predicated on overcoming yourself and all of the formations foisted upon you by society, history, and other people.  At first glance, friendship appears to be the type of permanent value that Nietzsche would consider a limit on the will to power–particularly Aristotle’s conception of wanting the other’s good for the other’s sake.  In a life dedicated to constant creation and destruction of values and the ability to spontaneously affirm life, wouldn’t attachment to another person get in the way?

This has always been the major thorn Nietzsche puts in my side.  Having studied both philosophy and psychology, I admire Nietzsche’s commitment to self-overcoming but can’t ignore psychological findings about the emotional importance of a steady self-concept and reliance upon friends.  I haven’t given up on trying to marry the two seemingly conflicting ways of thought, though, and I think I have an answer: real friendship is possible for Nietzsche between people who share the goal of expressing the will to power, but it’s a friendship based on challenging the other to reach new heights of self-overcoming.  These friends are not dependent upon each other per se, but viewing each other’s aspiration to the übermensch gives them mutual respect and the encouragement and competitive drive that fuel ambition.  We might call this type of relationship a friendly rivalry, the sort of friendship that John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared, in which the two were incredibly close emotionally but also pushed each other to new heights of creativity.

Does this Nietzschean type of friendship require a physical presence in the other’s life?  I don’t think so.  While the close proximity of hanging out together might provide a stronger sense of challenge to self-overcome, it also involves a greater risk of attaching permanent value to the friendship (again, a thought we take for granted but we’re in Nietzsche’s world right now).  In that case, a long-distance friendship might actually prove to be more effective, since the ideas and stories of expressing the will to power can still be shared but the separation of the friends reduces their mutual dependency.  The value thus accorded to the technology that makes long-distance friendship possible, meanwhile, becomes the new center of debate.

In sum, I think it’s obvious that a long-distance friendship will be stronger if it’s based in some original physical interaction, but that doesn’t mean a cyber relationship can’t be meaningful.  As long as we ensure that we don’t get totally caught up in the interwebs and lose sight of the real world and the moment we inhabit, there’s actually a lot of benefit to having a friend who can view your problems from a thousand miles away, see the big picture, and offer objective advice.  And when it comes to sharing thought, long-distance works just fine.  In fact, I think some of the less socially skilled philosophers *cough KANT cough* would have been absolute Facebook fiends–they’d probably be those people who get really annoying and share about fifty articles a day on their timeline.

So feel free to strike up an online conversation with me if you enjoyed reading this.  Maybe if things work out, we’ll actually meet up face-to-face and be friends like people were in the old days.

 

Nietzsche Would Have Loved Summer Camp.

One of Zarathustra's many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Singing one of Zarathustra’s many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Song of the day: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

Today marks the middle of the summer at North Star Camp in Hayward, Wisconsin.  This morning, over a hundred boys between the ages of eight and fifteen finished up their four-week session in the North Woods and returned home to their families.  About sixty others are spending the day with their parents, four weeks of camp under their belts elastic waistbands and another four to go.  And tomorrow afternoon, the reinforcements will arrive: over a hundred new campers to replace today’s departed for the next month.

For the first time since 2003, I am not taking part in the North Star revelries.  After five summers as a camper and six on staff it was time to move on to the next chapter of my life (that of being a struggling writer).  I miss camp, and I probably always will.  But the lessons I learned there over the past eleven years will continue to form an integral part of my personality.

I could extol the benefits of being a camp counselor for the next year, without pausing to eat or drink or sleep or go to the bathroom, and still have more to say.  Others, from Fortune 500 CEOs to education professionals, have covered that ground thoroughly.  Camp teaches grit, fosters multidimensional growth in children and teenagers, and aids in the development of leadership skills.  What they haven’t done, though, is an analysis of camp from a Nietzschean perspective.  That’s why I’m here: to tell you that he would have looked at camp and seen a paradise for the will to power.

Two summers ago, instead of telling my 13-year-old campers a made-up bedtime story or playing guitar as I usually did, I pulled out a well-worn copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and explained to them my rudimentary understanding of Nietzsche’s thought.  They found it fascinating, but I hadn’t yet read The Birth of Tragedy or Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, so the job was far from complete.  Most crucially, I lacked a real understanding of the Apollonian and Dionysian, the two opposing forces that drive art and creation.  To fully comprehend them, I suggest you read The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s earliest significant work, but here I’ll summarize.

The Apollonian, named after Apollo–the god of order, among other things–is the impulse to create forms out of the world, while the Dionysian–named after Dionysus, who represents self-less ecstasy–is a sort of nihilistic energy that stems from the absurdity of human existence and inspires spontaneous action without care for harmony or forms.  In an ideal world or work of art (Nietzsche cites Greek Tragedy pre-Euripedes as the epitome), the two work together, with the Dionysian energy constantly being shaped by the Apollonian into a form that we can understand and then subsequently destroying that form to create a new one.  It’s helpful to think of the Apollonian as a mask and the Dionysian as sheer inspiration behind it.  Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian can’t be expressed in human language or sense, but without the Dionysian, the Apollonian remains a lifeless facade with no energy to shape into forms.

When they’re described like that, the Dionysian seems pretty horrible to behold–existentialist philosophers would spend the next century grappling with the meaninglessness and terror of life that it brings to mind.  But the Apollonian alone is just as bad.  In Nietzsche’s mind, you can’t live in denial of this world’s fundamental lack of objective meaning, morality, and values and simultaneously experience life the way it naturally happens.  So life’s goal becomes one of overcoming your tendency to let the Apollonian dominate and instead allowing the Dionysian to express itself–an impulse Nietzsche calls the will to power and an aspiration he terms the übermensch.  And at camp, the comparative absence of “real world” formations makes it much easier for this balance to be achieved.

When kids go to camp, they often leave behind home lives where their days are rigorously scheduled, where there isn’t much time or mental space for them to think and create for themselves.  When they aren’t being shepherded from school to extracurricular activities, they have access to TVs and phones that might set limits on their creative and intellectual development.  Of course, for some creative types technology has opened vast new realms of innovation–the existence of pre-teen YouTube celebrities is proof that not every kid uses a screen for zombification only–but for many others it’s just another obstacle in the way of their self-overcoming, another Apollonian form that suppresses the Dionysian impulse for absurdity and spontaneity.

At camp, though, kids enter a universe outside of their parents’ colossal shadow and the distracting, overwhelming fray of modern society, where it is nearly impossible for a child to exert independence.  All camps have rules to ensure the physical, emotional, and social safety of all campers, and most of them have some sort of schedule of activities each day.  But compared to life outside the camp bubble–and this is particularly true of overnight camps, where the bubble is more complete–social formations are less structured and free time abounds.  With the guidance of a steady, open-minded counselor, the Dionysian energy that elsewhere finds itself in chains can break loose and contribute spectacularly to the development of campers’ values and creativity.

One of my favorite examples of a camp-fueled Dionysian outburst occurred two summers ago at the lunch table.  A couple of my campers, seemingly out of nowhere, began singing a number from Les Miserables between bites of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  I don’t know how “I Dreamed a Dream” gets stuck in a thirteen-year-old boy’s head, but it apparently had happened and now we were all listening to them impersonate Susan Boyle.  Would this have occurred at their houses back in the Chicago suburbs with their parents?  As a camp counselor your interactions with parents are minimal, so for all I know they may come from families that regularly bring Broadway to their meals…but I would venture a guess that no, this was an anomaly.  I found it highly entertaining, though, and wanted to see it continue in a way that would a) not become stale and annoying after two minutes and b) involve more of the group.  So on the spot I announced, “This is now an OPERA LUNCH.  You all must SING instead of speaking.”

What followed was the most memorable lunch I will ever eat.  My campers devised melodies on the spot to ask for the milk and tell each other about their morning activities, occasionally belting out a soprano proclamation at the taste of their food or dropping down to (a pubertal approximation of) a baritone to discuss what their rest period plans would be.  Fortunately none of them were tone-deaf enough to make me regret my decision.  By the time we were clearing the table, things had progressed into full-blown a capella versions of “Defying Gravity,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and the obligatory grand finale: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  There it was: the Dionysian energy of music transfigured into the Apollonian formation of a normal lunch, and the ordinary transfigured into the extraordinary.

The most important aspect of camp is this freedom to create at all times.  The moral framework and creative interests the campers have developed at home come with them, but in the context of a new community without the cloying influence of the outside world they find their potential as value-creators, if not completely unfettered then at least possessing a far-lengthened leash.  And so long as their creation remains on the side of affirming life and others’ freedom to create for themselves, there needn’t be any problems or moral issues with this type of expression.  They can come home with an appreciation for their ability to exert Dionysian power through the lens of the Apollonian (even if they don’t have those terms for it) and, hopefully, attempt to carry the lessons they’ve learned at camp into the rest of their lives.

I doubt Nietzsche considered the possibility that his thought would be applied to summer camps.  But if he could have spent four weeks at North Star, I think he would have shared my appreciation for the place.  It’s not quite Zarathustra’s mountain, and it probably preaches a little too much reliance on friendship for his liking, but overall it’s hard to find a place where the will to power can shine through more powerfully.

To all the campers who returned home today, I say, “Keep it up,” and to all the campers who remain, I say, “Make it life-affirming.”  As for me, I’ll continue to strive to make the world more like camp–a place where the Dionysian doesn’t have to be chased.

 

Mountains Shrouded By The Cloud

This perfect impression of an iconic German Romantic  painting is brought to you by the irresistible pull of Instagram and Facebook.

This perfect impression of an iconic German Romantic painting is brought to you by the irresistible pull of Instagram and Facebook.

Song of the day: “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead

As amazing as the Internet is, sometimes–no, most of the time–it’s just a huge drag on my creativity.  Hours that I could spend writing music or conceiving stories or experiencing life as it happens are instead gobbled up and turned to shit in the bowels of YouTube, Netflix, or (in my case) Wikipedia.  My latest mind-numbing vice is hockey blogs, which I follow avidly even though the NHL season won’t begin until October, and even cracking open my laptop to write this piece has required me to put my phone on the other side of the room and close out of all irrelevant tabs on my browser.  When used properly, tools like Google Drive and email prove vital to my creative collaborations…unfortunately for my goals, they share the same platform as all the distractions, and I inevitably end up frustrated that I haven’t reached my potential.  The best solution to this problem is to hit the reset button and get away from technology completely.  That’s why yesterday I chased the Dionysian to the summits of Donner Peak and Mount Judah, two mountains in the Sierra Nevadas north of Lake Tahoe.

My self of a decade ago would never have believed that I willingly sought out a five and a half-mile hike over eight thousand feet above sea level, but then again my self of decade ago hadn’t been at summer camp long enough to appreciate nature and hadn’t read up on his philosophy.  Back then, I wrote letters home to my parents espousing my hatred for the outdoors; now, exploring the beautiful wilderness–and simultaneously escaping the grasp of the modern, technological world–is vital to maintaining my sanity, creativity, and childlike exuberance.  Some great philosophers of the nineteenth century back me up on this point.  In his essay “Nature,” Emerson wrote, “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.”  Nietzsche’s mouthpiece Zarathustra made his home in the mountains, and retreated back there every time he grew weary of trying to teach the virtues of the übermensch to lower men.  And of course Thoreau spent a year at Walden–admittedly not quite the middle of nowhere, but certainly a far cry from the overstimulating dog days of the information age.  I came to Lake Tahoe intending for it to be my Walden or Zarathustra’s cave, and to truly make that happen I would need to go to a place where real reflection was possible: away from a screen.

It is ironic, then, that despite my deliberate journey in search of inspiration in the mountains, I found myself unable to shake off the ironclad grip of technology.

The Internet involved itself from the very conception of the adventure.  Instead of driving into the town of Truckee in search of a trail map, I used everytrail.com to search for the Tahoe area’s best hikes.  It’s second nature at this point, to the extent that I don’t know if I would have even thought of searching for a physical trail map if I hadn’t been able to pull up the list of hikes online.  I probably would have thrown in the towel then and there and resigned myself to another day of aimlessly browsing the comments on Chicago Blackhawks blogs, playing cribbage, and vegetating by the pool.  Any opportunity to rejuvenate my creative spirit would have been crushed immediately.

But alas, we found a suitable hike (Level: Moderate, Distance: 5.5 miles, two summits) and I set off with my uncle and cousin around 11:30 AM, using Google Maps for directions to the trailhead.  In the days before smartphones, we would have needed either a physical map or the advice of a friendly local to reach our destination.  Google made things much more convenient, but the very act of having my phone out tempted me with distractions (the Internet, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) that never would have been available otherwise.  As we whizzed past the pristine Donner Lake and wended our way up into the foothills of the mountains, my eyes kept flitting from the magnificent scenery outside the car window back to the 2″x4″ screen in my right hand.  I won’t say I was completely out of the moment, but even when my awe at the beautiful drive prompted me to encapsulate it in a photograph, my phone remained squarely in the center of the experience.

Finally, we reached the trail and I was forced to put my phone in my pocket because the rocky, uneven, uphill path required all my attention.  For the first time all day, I felt the joy that Emerson described: total accord between my body and mind, endorphins pumping into my brain as my legs propelled me along over precarious stones and through sweet-smelling pine forests.  My plan for inspiration was working, thoughts were racing into my head–I considered the wisdom of the rugged terrain, the insignificance of humankind compared to massive mountains, and whether or not the desire to climb to their peaks represents arrogance or mere aspiration.  These are all questions people have pondered since the dawn of civilization, when kings built tombs that reached toward the heavens and Gods were thought to live atop cloud-shrouded Olympus, and when I wasn’t bonding with my uncle and cousin through conversation I was bonding with my forebears through a shared fascination with high places.

No escape.  NO ESCAPE!

No escape. NO ESCAPE!

Still, though, technology got in the way.  Every cool tree, every breathtaking vista, and every funny sign had to be captured, dragged off, and whored out on the Cloud to my friends via Snapchat and Instagram.  Now that technology has given us the power to “share the moment,” we can hardly resist bragging about the cool shit we see and do, whether we realize we’re bragging or not.  Reach the summit of 8019′ tall Donner Peak?  Snapchat it and sell the moment as social capital.  Reach the summit of the even taller 8243′ Mount Judah?  Another Snapchat and even more social capital.  Eat a sandwich at the top of Mt. Judah?  Yet another Snapchat, adding humor as a bonus to the already astounding view.  I used each of these highlights of the hike as a commodity, relying on technology to do so, and the act of taking out my phone drew my attention away from the reason I had come out here in the first place.  In the end, how much of the moment did I lose in the process?  How much of any moment does our constant connection to the Cloud destroy?

Looking back on the day, things didn’t turn out too badly; I still managed to draw inspiration from the hike and the Snaps and Instagram posts that distracted me didn’t detract too much from my experience.  I’m actually really proud of my attempt at recreating Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, since I find the painting reminiscent of Zarathustra and am pleased that my philosophical journey was on my mind.  But when push came to shove, I proved unable to separate myself from the Internet and its horde of nefarious stepchildren.  It’s telling that out of all the thoughts I had on today’s trek, any of which could have made for a great piece, my frustrating inability to escape technology is the one that provided fodder for today’s post.

The Internet is incredible but so, so dangerous to those of us who get lost in its matrices.  And not even climbing over eight thousand feet above sea level could help me see all the way out of its labyrinth.

I’m A Little Worried About My Future

Photoshop is high on the list of software I need to buy.

Photoshop is high on the list of software I need to buy.

Song of the day: “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel

I suppose watching The Graduate is a time-honored tradition by now for people at a crossroads in their lives.  For me, going to Lake Tahoe on a family vacation with no clear way to earn a living wage when I return was the proper moment.  It’s been just over two months since I bade Vanderbilt farewell, and since then I’ve wandered around Europe and slowly begun looking for ways to apply myself in the working world.  So far I’ve got a few writing opportunities, but that’s about it.  With a sterling resume and a bright future through the door ahead, I really haven’t turned the knob yet.

So watching Benjamin Braddock fend off the successful adults congratulating him for his accomplishments and pressing him about his next step was almost like looking in a mirror.  I’m about Benjamin’s height, our academic careers through college are probably similar, and we both came home from school agonizing over how to transition into the adult world.  People ask him when he’s going to graduate school, encourage him to get into plastics, and coddle him with a ridiculous scuba suit without asking him what he wants to do…and if they asked him, he’d probably respond the same way I would: “I have no fucking idea.”

Instead of pushing forward and throwing himself out into the working world or continuing his studies, though, Benjamin spends the next several months getting a real adult education from Mrs. Robinson and completely checking out in all other facets of life.  And I can’t really blame him for that.  Mrs. Robinson is really attractive, and once Ben gets past the initial (extreme) awkwardness he probably learns more about life from sleeping with her than from first twenty-one years combined.  He sees what the adult world is like for many adults: a dreary, daily slog devoid of passion, where people who don’t lose themselves in their work and the cult of success lose themselves in alcohol and meaningless sex.  At one point he even calls out Mrs. Robinson for being this disgusting shell of a human being, but that’s what he’s slowly turning into as he wiles the days away drinking by the pool before his nightly sojourns at the Taft Hotel.  Benjamin Braddock, thrust ahead all his life by external pressure and his own crippling fear of failure, has finally discovered that none of what came before truly matters–and, what’s more, his desire to find something truly meaningful has vanished in the process.

This is my greatest fear: to devolve into Benjamin’s nihilism and passionless existence.  It would be so easy in the short run just to give up, declare life meaningless, and simply waste away.  All it takes is someone to show you that fleeting pleasures can get you by.  But I don’t have a Mrs. Robinson to be that guide, and whenever the thought of becoming that type of hollow man enters my head I get anxious, because I know how profoundly unhappy I would be and how badly I would feel for disappointing everyone who loves me.  So instead I think about the other type of passionless existence, the one that Benjamin has to escape at his graduation party–that of starting a job about which I do not care.  I know that after a thorough job search I could find a way to make decent money in consulting or advertising, get my own place in the city, and spend my days doing work that leaves me with a desire to numb my mind each night.  But would that be worth the risk of forever quelling my search for a true passion?  Would I end up settling–and worse, would I ever forget that I settled?  My heart tells me that now is not the time to take that chance, because my true passion is still out there, it’s still worth searching for, and when I find it I will reach a new level of happiness called total fulfillment.

Benjamin only discovers the power of true passion when he falls in love with Elaine.  Of course, his affair with her mother has made winning her over damn near impossible, but that’s what is so beautiful about the second half of The Graduate.  Ben’s transition from jaded rebel to dogged Quixote happens almost immediately and all of a sudden everything matters again–or rather, one thing truly matters and that one thing becomes everything.  And even if Ben had failed to get Elaine back after his disastrous confession to her, even if he hadn’t stopped her wedding and beaten down her fiancee and her father and carried her off into the sunset on a bus, his failure would have been beautiful because it was failure in the pursuit of meaning.  It’s the sole thread that unifies all existentialist philosophers–no matter whether true meaning is found in God, or in the manifestation of the will to power, or in the radical freedom and individual responsibility we hold in a godless world, all that matters is that we create our own values and find the reason to get out of bed every morning.  And so we can’t help but respect or even envy people like Sir Benjamin Braddock, Knight-Errant of the California Coast, who so fully subsume themselves in a goal that they measure their life solely by its achievement (as long as the goal isn’t malevolent).  They cause us to reflect upon our lives and consider whether we care about anything enough to go to the lengths that these shining examples of meaning did.

And that’s what I’m doing here in Lake Tahoe–reflecting.  This is a unique time in my life.  I’m not yet tied down by any responsibility except the one I have to myself, to find what I really care about.  That isn’t to say that I don’t care about my family and friends, because I very much do; it’s just that I don’t feel fulfilled solely off of their love.  So starting now, surrounded by beautiful mountains under a bright blue sky, I’ll spend the next few years on a quest for that ultimate fulfillment.  All I want is to have something or someone to ride off with in the back of a bus, to have that “oh shit what’s next” moment, and then to realize that what’s next doesn’t matter, because I’ve found what truly matters to me.

For this week, though, I think it’s fine if I do that while drinking a beer at the pool.  After all, Benjamin Braddock turned out alright, and he was a little worried about his future too.

*An aside: The Graduate may have the best soundtrack of any movie ever.  I adore Simon and Garfunkel.

 

What Am I Doing Here?

If I live my life to the creative maximum, will I also try to prevent a horse from being flogged and spend the last ten years of my life as a mental invalid?

If I live my life to the creative maximum, will I also try to prevent a horse from being flogged and spend the last ten years of my life as a mental invalid?

Once and for all, I decided to create a blog that wouldn’t grow obsolete over time.

I’m no longer inside the safety of the Vandy bubble, so the website I maintained for my radio show there has been passed down to a young protege.  And I’m no longer traipsing around Europe with two of my best friends, so it would make no sense for me to convert my account of our travels into a personal space to rant about life afterwards.  That would be like the million false endings of Return of the King except if the movie had continued past Samwise closing his door and just showed him getting older and fatter each year.

So a new website was necessary.  Luckily WordPress doesn’t have a limit on how many websites I can create.  The only inconvenience was having to create yet another Gmail account, but I suppose in the long run that will actually be a benefit–when Chasing the Dionysian inevitably becomes world-famous, I won’t need to sift through all the spambots commenters’ messages in my personal inbox.  Meanwhile, back in reality, I’ll check the new email every day and sigh when the only comments are from my mother and maybe my grandma.

So why did I name this blog Chasing the Dionysian, you ask?  Great question, I was hoping this would come up!  I even thought to prepare an answer for you!

During my college years I came to several major realizations about my life and myself, but two are particularly relevant to this story: first, that I love the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; and second, that I am going to make my living as a creator.  That’s a really vague term, I know, but I think Nietzsche would’ve been a fan.  After all, he based his entire value system on the concept that there should be no such thing as a set value system–no permanent definitions, morals, religion, not even a permanent attachment to our own past.  For him, the one constant that underlies life is the will to power, which is an instinctive drive to say “yes” to life as it happens and constantly reshape what we believe in most firmly.  To grasp any value, lover, or past identity for longer than the moment is to chain ourselves to something that denies life and remove ourselves from the freedom afforded by constant change.  The formless force that drives us to overcome these bastions of self is called the DIONYSIAN, and the person who can express it continuously is the UBERMENSCH.

As much as I love Nietzsche’s ideas and as much as I will defend him from people who associate him with Nazis (a tragic result of his anti-Semitic sister altering her brother’s works after his 1889 mental collapse), I don’t think I will ever be the Ubermensch.  I don’t think that’s attainable for anybody.  We like other people too much, we steadfastly maintain our beliefs, we can’t escape ruminating over the decisions and events that have defined who we are today.  The person who truly overcomes themselves lives a lonely life.  Is that worth it?  Not to me.

But I can still let Nietzsche inspire me, particularly on my creative side.  I want to write blogs and movies and books and webseries.  I want to interview interesting musicians and film their performances and put them up on YouTube.  I want to make music myself and maybe join a band and quit the full-time job I don’t have yet because I just don’t know what I want out of life and I’ve had to fight the paralysis of indecision for the past I-don’t-know-how-many months.  I am untapped creative potential without focus, and I live in a world of distracting people and newsfeeds that hinders my development as a creator.  But if I keep Nietzsche in mind and always ask myself what the life-affirming, value-creating choice would be in any given situation, I think I will turn out alright.

Maybe one day I’ll actually turn into Dionysus and I’ll throw myself a massive Bacchanalia and anyone who likes my blog posts will be invited.  But until that day, I’ll just be a young man in Chicago, trying to create something new every minute as I navigate through the craze of my 20s.  Check back here as often as you want for updates on how that’s going, what I’m thinking about, and maybe some cool features.  Or don’t check back at all–Nietzsche would admire your fierce independence.