Posts Tagged ‘examined life’

I read this morning that nearly half of the American people believe it is acceptable to use torture if it yields actionable information. I find this utterly abhorrent.

For you 50% I pray that you don't know the definition of torture.

Many or you who fall into this category call yourselves "Christian" and I ask you this: Would Jesus – "Mr. turn the other cheek" – ever condone imposing excruciating, unspeakably horrible, unending pain on another human being? Would Jesus ever say there is a proper time to connect a woman's labia to electric current or to deny sleep to a prisoner between sessions of waterboarding? If you answer "yes" then I suggest you find a way to unbaptize yourself because your view of Jesus is clearly different from Jesus' view of Jesus.

Some of you may not call yourself Christian – or even religious – and I want to speak to you also.

Can you not at least consider a moral code that respects the right to exist of every member of our species? Can you not acknowledge each human as worthy of being left without unspeakable pain? Can you not imagine yourself drowning, being slammed against walls repeatedly, having your genitals mutilated, being kept awake for days on end, being stoned to death, having your fingernails pulled out, and realize that such unspeakable acts inflict pain of which you cannot even conceive – and that a worldview that condones such acts in not even human?!?!

I hate terrorists as much as any American. I love America at least as much as most of you. I even waver in my support – and lack thereof – of the death penalty when I hear of the horrors that we humans can inflict in others. I want those who harm others to be punished. But there is a line beyond which nothing can pass – no moral system, no twisted ethics, no religion, no belief system – and that line is the purposeful infliction of excruciating pain – physical, mental, or emotional.

When half of our country is willing to cross that line then we are perhaps a state no better than the Islamic one called ISIL This can't possibly be the case. The greatest experiment in a society of liberty can't possibly have degraded to the level of one that accepts torture and denies the sacredness of the Geneva Conventions.

If you really believe that torture is acceptable then I beg you to reconsider. We have taken steps backward but surely not so far back as barbarism!!!


Some people hate my diatribes against political candidates, religious zealots, anti-rationalists, creationists, science-haters, war-mongers, racists, misogynists, antisemites, homophobes, and my whole cast of characters. Some people love them.

People of different backgrounds also have widely different responses to my posts on loving each other, respect for every individual life, the ethics of war, respect for religious diversity, struggling with rationalism, respect for atheists, and love of our lonely little blue rock in space.

To be honest, I don’t really care and here is why.

I began this blog as a way to keep myself writing. It was for me. I blog as if I were writing in a diary. The only difference between this and a private journal is that I think about whether what I write here is something I’m willing to let others read. It’s a diary but it’s not private.

My one unshakable belief comes from Aristotle and is simply this: “The unexamined life is not worth living“. I believe that we humans are distinguished from other mammals simply by our power to reason. I don’t know if that is really true because I have a 50 year bias toward cetaceans given to me by my mentors Greg Bateson and John Lilly. But, from what I can know without talking to orcas it seems we are unique in our capacity for reason. Most of us under-utilize that blessing and some of us use it for monstrous purposes. But, for me personally, thinking, pondering, debating, considering, arguing, and examining are the reasonable paths to being fully human.

My blog, therefore, does not try to convince you of anything. It does not try to insist that I’m right. In fact, I admit that I’m often not. All this blog does is to give you an unobstructed view into my personal self-examination. I have a substantial private life. But the part of my wrestling with God, biology, philosophy, and existing which I choose to expose is, herein, an open book.

So, I’m going to continue to piss you off sometimes. I’m going to let you watch my struggle if you so choose. You can’t get me to stop doing that even if you negatively react to my posts. All you have to do is stop reading them if you don’t like them. Personally, I hope that you continue to read this writing for many years to come. All I hope is that I challenge you to think; and that by exposing my self-examination I somehow help you, yourselves, to grow.

I’m grateful to all of you whether you like me and my writing or not. You challenge me to think and I hope the challenge is mutual.

In deep gratitude and love for you all: Happy Thanksgiving.



We’ve established that the word “despair” blows me away and that you don’t need to feel sorry for me. So, why should you give a shit about me and my lack of grandkids, at all?

The first answer is easy:

Love is not binary. Feelings are not binary. Emotions are not binary. In fact, love, feelings, and emotions are not even discreet. These elements of our life are continuous functions. So, just because I’m not suicidal does not mean you shouldn’t care. I want your love and support.

The second answer is more complex:

To me, a part of examining one’s life in an open forum is to help others learn by sharing experiences. I share many things here and on Facebook and Twitter that are really no one’s business but my own. I choose to share my shit, not so you will feel sorry for me, but so that we can learn from each other.

  • I guarantee you hate some of my posts.
  • I guarantee you smile at at least a few.
  • I guarantee you don’t know why the hell I share some things I do.
  • I guarantee I piss you off.
  • I guarantee that, at least on occasion, you think about the value of compassion, the need for personal responsibility, and the value of integrity. Those are the 3 pillars that support me and…
  • I guarantee it helps ME to get shit out of my system and to embrace your feedback.

As Socrates reminds us, “The unexamined life is not worth living“. I embrace that in a public way both for me and for anyone who cares. So, it’s good for us all if you care.

The fact is that caring about other people, while holding myself accountable for my own actions, is the foundation of my life.

I used to think I was an Objectivist. Then I found how much joy I got from helping other people succeed. I gave up the Objectivist path because if lacked a notion of benevolence. Then my friend Nathaniel Branden (of blessed memory) started speaking of benevolence at Objectivism conferences. I’ll still never be an Objectivist because it conflicts with some of my Reform Jewish values. But, from it, I learned to take responsibility for myself and to recognize that making one’s self the best one can be DOES help others succeed! it does so because one may stand as a role model and because there is nothing wrong with bringing others along for the ride. So, when I paired that with my Jewish notion of benevolence I came up with a value system that works for me.

That is why you should care about me and my desire for children. Because my hope is that taking you along for the ride will make us all better people. Helping all of us to become better people is why I see those of you who share your children with me as an extraordinary blessing. It provides both the giver and the receiver the opportunity to help others through responsible action.

More on that is coming soon…

Not long ago, this BLOG was just my way of being me. I wrote for myself; in large part because I wanted to keep my “chops” polished. A few people per day would find their way here and that was just fine. I said what was on my mind and that was the end of it.

But one week ago, my dear friend Emily Gottfried passed away. My essay in  memory of Emily drew over 1200 people to this little space of mine; and more than one of them has asked me why I write a BLOG. It’s not about a single subject. It’s not about a single viewpoint. It’s not about a particular political philosophy. So, what the hell is it and why do I write it? I think it’s only fair that I try to answer the question – so I will.

Emily used to say, about my BLOG and Facebook page, and Twitter feed that “Steve is just a completely open book“. I think she’s basically right. But, it’s not because I think anyone really cares about what I do and think every day. I’m not arrogant enough to think that. I’d say it’s because, while lacking in arrogance, I do have high enough self-esteem (thank you Nathaniel Branden) to think that sharing my struggles might some day be helpful to others. So, yes Emily, I am an open book.

Among the most well-known and over-used phrases we see today is the ancient saying of Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living“. I’ve heard that for my entire life but until a few years ago it never fully sunk in.

In the past couple decades I’ve lost several dear friends. Emily Gottfried is the latest. But before her was my best friend in Oregon, Pablo Esteve; my co-worker, Bruce McPherran; my college mentor, friend, and one of the people I most admired in the universe, Stephen Lucky Mosko; Lucky’s wife and my college friend Dorothy Stone; and several others who were all far too young to die. This brought me to terms with the importance of living ones’ life purposefully.

After having read some very technical works of philosophy by Robert Nozick (yes, he too died young), I happened upon his book: “The Examined Life“. In it were “meditations” on everything from parenting, to sexuality, to the nature of faith, to the Holocaust. That is when I got the idea to write this BLOG. Not because I’m the genius that Nozick was; but, because I saw value to how Nozick thought and then synthesized an eclectic blend of thinking into an examination of a personal life. So, I decided to pursue an examined life through writing publically.

In essence, this BLOG is really about one question:  Why is an actively practicing Reform Jew who reads Roland Barthes, was initiated into Kriya Yoga, and watches Antonioni  films a fan of Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Libertarianism?

Well… I am awash in inconsistencies. So, I might as well share the struggle!

Nathaniel Branden told me that trying to keep living with my contradictory views would just make me unhappy. In many ways, he was right. But, wrestling with my conflicts also seems (to me) to make for a very rich life. It would be nice if I could just pick a belief system, like Objectivism or Christianity, or Judaism, or Shinto, and then live my life happily ever after. But, for better or for worse, I can’t (or won’t).

From Rand I get my belief in the importance of striving to be the best you can be. taking responsibility for yourself and valuing your own life; and my belief in the fundamental importance of living rationally using the mind that is uniquely human. From Judaism I get validation that the fulfillment I get from fighting discrimination, working for peace, speaking out against genocide, and standing up for human rights, is a real, viable way to be edified. Those are 2 conflicting systems but I gain from them both. Rand would surely have none of it; nor, probably would the Bal Shem Tov and the Kotzker Rebbe. But, too bad… I am who I am.

I’m not sure I could ever say, in good conscience, that an unexamined life is not worth living because, each in its own way, every life is precious. Yet, for me, living an examined life makes the life I lead richer and more fulfilling. If you get a little entertainment, or someday something I’ve said helps you in your own life struggles, all I can say is thanks for riding along!

This probably won’t surprise you but there are not that many people who I admire so much that I’d call them my “gurus”. I’ve mentioned a couple of people over the past year who fall into that category. Today I’d like to mention two of them again and to tell you why, although they are vastly different people, they form much of the foundation of my worldview. These two guys truly ARE my gurus: Robert Nozick and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

To me, Robert Nozick is a genius. He started out leaning far to the left, became associated with the far right for a while, and came to be called one of the “fathers of libertarianism” because of his book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia“. That book was a frank and direct disputation of Rawls that clearly claimed and supported the arguments for the absolute primacy of the individual. It took the position that the only acceptable government is a minimal one with the limited role of protectecting individuals against violence and property violations; and ensuring the enforcement of contracts. “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War.” But, while AS&U is Nozick’s most well known accomplishment, over the years he backed away from some of his rigidity and ultimately ended his (far too short) life’s work with a book called “Invariances“. Nozick called himself a Libertarian until his dying day but, by the time he reached “Invariances“, he had moved from a position of rigid beliefs to an acceptance of human “falability”. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to call Nassim Taleb a “genius”. But, he is a mathematical stalwart, an experienced thinker, a friend of Benoit Mandelbrot, and a great writer. Taleb received his BS and MS degrees from the University of Paris, an MBA from Wharton, and a PhD in Management Science. He had a well established career as a derivatives pricing wiz and a Wall Street “Quant”. All of that is cool, and I’m sure he made more money than I’ll ever make doing those things. But, it was not until he turned his interest in mathematics to the area of uncertainty that he became a well-known writer. Taleb’s first book for we lay people was “Fooled by Randomness“. His second, just in time for the great American financial fiasco, is called “The Black Swan“. In the latter, Taleb takes very direct aim at financial regulation and risk management using statistical analysis. His premise is that stats don’t protect you from risk because the greatest damage you can encounter comes from exactly what statistical models tell you NOT to worry about (We thought all swans were white… until the rare instance when we saw a black one! – Then our whole model of “swan-ness” was proven wrong.) Taleb has almost nothing in common with Nozick except that his work concerns “fallibility” and the ways that our unwillingness to acknowledge it can harm us. You guessed it… we’ll come back to that in a moment.

I’m not sure how Robert Nozick managed to move through a life of so many disparate ideas. But I think that his willingness to explore with an open mind is an admirable trait and one that I want to emulate. The whole premise of his book “Invariances” is that we need to think about philosophy as we do about physics. I can’t say I readily buy into the idea of applying Heisenberg to logic, epistemology, ontology, and reasoning. Yet, Nozick’s premise – that the objective certainty of something relates to the ability to transform the conditions in which it exists and to have it’s truth remain invariant – is a magnificent way to look at the world. No doubt it drives my Objectivist friends nuts. I’m sure Nozick wrestled with it as well. But that is really the point. Unless something is invariant under every possible transformation, it can always be fodder for wrestling. Nozick’s willingness to publicly struggle with a world of potentially valid philosophical pluralism; and his willingness to consider that ideas with which he disagrees MIGHT be valid; are the two things that most inspire me about him. We’re fallible; and it’s okay to examine our lives by struggling to understand that! We must consider the reality that there are things we do not know – and that THEY are what most challenges us.

Taleb’s view of fallibility is different. To him, we are fallible because, no matter how firmly we ground our decisions in solid data, there is always a chance for that rare, unpredictable event to shatter everything. We can think we are right. We can “prove” it with the most rigorous analytical models possible, but there is still a chance that we will lose everything. There is still a change we are wrong; and we have to hedge our bets. Unless something is completely immune to the potential effects of chance, it can, again, always be fodder for wrestling. Taleb’s willingness to stand against ignoring things just because they are statistically improbably is a view I greatly admire. We’re fallible; and it’s okay to live our lives by struggling to mitigate those risks. We must consider the reality that there are things we do not know – and that THEY are what most challenges us.

So, why would I take my lead from 2 guys who really don’t have much in common? Because underlying both of their work is the notion that we can’t know everything. We can’t always be right. There might be things that we don’t understand. And… it is struggling with these unknowns that brings the most excitement and fulfillment (and, yes, the most risk) to our lives. The reason these ideas resonate so profoundly for me is this:

  • I believe in rationality but I remain open to the possibility that my dataset is incomplete.
  • I love my Reform Judaism but I remain open to the possibility that other spiritual paths have no less validity than my own.
  • I believe in laissez faire capitalism with limited regulation but I remain open to the fact that in such a system it takes only a single immoral participant to damage millions of other lives.
  • I believe in “school choice” but I remain open to the knowledge that this leaves parents in control of what children learn irrespective of whether it is intellectually sound.
  • I believe in evolution by natural selection of random variation that was initiated and is being driven by no external force; but I remain open to the knowledge that the vast beauty of our universe rests upon many things I can’t comprehend.
  • I believe in compassion, unconditional integrity, universal tolerance, human rights, liberty, and love; yet I know that even a single unlikely event can jeopardize those values for the whole world; that even compassion and integrity may not be “invariant under all transformations“; that I’m not always able to practice these values myself.

Nozick and Taleb are my “gurus”, my guides through life, because they remain a constant reminder that I am fallible and that not everything is predictable. Nozick and Taleb offer me an open door to struggle with my beliefs, to change my mind, to recognize and wrestle with my inconsistencies, and to examine my life with the knowledge that not knowing can be, not only acceptable, but a driving force behind a good and fulfilling life.

Nozick and Taleb stand before me at the twin guardians at the door of fallibility – at once guarding it from the entrance of the unwary and the weak – but allowing the prepared ones a cautious entrance.

Bill Viola is among the leading video artists in the world. Some would say he is “arguably THE leading” video artist but I simply can’t accept the word “arguably”. When one thinks of video art, perhaps Nam June Paik, or Ed Emshwiller, or Kit Galloway, or Dan Sandin may come to mind. Paik may even be a contender, or even the winner, as best known among them. But to my mind, the work of no one who has ever touched a video camera can compare with the magnitude of the work of Bill Viola. Bill’s work is unique within the discipline of video art. Sometimes the pieces that Bill has created in the last decade or two are referred to as “moving paintings”. To my knowledge, no one creates anything like Bill’s work and no one uses video in a manner so emotive and so painterly. For this reason, I am more than mildly excited that Bill is not only among the 2011 Praemium Imperiale Laureates, but is the Praemium Imperiale Laureate in PAINTING!

Bill Viola’s work has been shown on virtually every continent. He has received awards from  institutions as diverse as art institutes and MIT. But leave it to Japan, where the aesthetics of emotion, subtlety, and sensitivity in art are most respected, to finally recognize the true underpinning of his work – Bill Viola is a PAINTER!

I first met Bill Viola in 1979 or 1980 thanks to the CalArts School of Film and Video and to Mr. “Expanded Cinema” himself, Gene Youngblood. Before any of us had color TVs (okay, a slight exaggeration, but only just) Gene was predicting the future of the moving image and the eventual merging of media technologies. Gene wasn’t always exactly correct, but he certainly was closer than almost anyone else. He predicted that we’d all one day have cable (or satellite) television and that it and computers would one day merge. He really is an amazing man. Besides, how many people do I know who actually knew (well) both Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand! But, I digress. My point is simply that Gene knew, back in the 1970’s, that Bill Viola would lead that pack. That is why Gene would regularly invite Bill to speak in his classes, and to show his work. To this very day, Bill’s video “Hatsu Yume” is my favorite of his earlier pieces; not because it is visually stunning (which it is), or because it is brilliantly communicative (which it is), or because he got to do it on a quite impressive grant from Sony (which he did), but because I remember sitting on the floor in class watching Bill spend inordinate minutes adjusting the television on which we were to watch the tape. Like everything about Bill Viola, it had to be both technically and visually perfect.

I never gave up on following the work of Bill Viola. I saw it in museums and I remember one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen in an LA art museum in the 80’s. I remember the first time I was transfixed by “He Weeps for You” and the first time I sat in “The Room for Saint John of the Cross“. But nothing prepared me for the visual experience that finally turned Bill from my “favorite video artist” to my favorite artist in any medium. That experience came at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles where Bill showed the body of work collectively known as “The Passions“. It was at that show where I learned that video could be so emotional and so passionate that it’s impossible to avoid tears. It was at that show where I saw that video could be quintessentially painterly. And, it was at that show where I experienced my favorite of his pieces, and my favorite work of visual art: the “Five Angels for the Millenium“. In fact, On February 17, 2003, I posted this (which I can’t believe is still there!) to the Getty Center Website: “I was in awe. I’ve seen every piece of Viola’s since the 70’s when he’d come to lecture at Gene Youngblood’s video art classes. When I saw The Greeting I thought that Viola had reached the zenith of his career. But I was wrong. Silent Mountain still resonates in me many days after seeing it. And if Silent Mountain resonates, then I don’t even know what to call the feeling that Five Angels for the Millennium left me with! Transcendence maybe. The joy of knowing that man can be uplifted. Needless to say, I love this show.” To this day, I stand by that reaction.

So I have to share just one more non sequitur. I had very little time to see the Getty show in 2003. I got to the center at exactly the time that the show was to open,  on the first day of the show. The bad news is that they were opening the show 2 hours late because the first 2 hours were devoted to a press tour. The good news, and amazing blessing, is that when I told someone in the gift shop that I’d studied with Bill, she took me up to the gallery and let me in to the press event.  Yes, I had only 2 hours to see the show. But much of those 2 hours was spent getting a private tour with Bill. So, perhaps those 5 angels like me as much as I liked them!

Now, all of these stories bring me back to my original motivation for writing this post. The work of Bill Viola has been a part of my personal aesthetic for most of my adult life. I’m sure that he has no idea who I am. That doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the pride I take in recognizing his genius over 30 years ago; the joy I take in watching the body of work that I respected back then grow into one of the most visually amazing bodies of work in western art culture; and the growth that I, myself, have received from studying with Bill, following his work, and making the moving image and Bill’s “moving Paintings” a part of my own process of self-examination and my understanding of aesthetics, emotion, and the world.

Congratulations Bill!