Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Blue Collar Intellectuals by Daniel Flynn: A Book Review

Daniel Flynn’s “Blue Collar Intellectuals” tells the story of several prominent thinkers and writers of the mid-twentieth century who either came from working-class roots or who worked to make the life of the mind accessible to ordinary middle-class Americans.

He begins the book by offering a diagnosis of our current intellectual and cultural malaise, pointing out the prevalence of a vapid and vulgar pop-culture, a decreasing attention to reading and reflection among the general populace, an intellectual class that is more concerned with distinguishing itself from the world of ordinary people than speaking to them, and a shallow fascination with technological gimmickry even at erstwhile educational institutions. In short, the general populace is becoming dumber while the intellectual class is becoming more irrelevant to the life ordinary people live, and that is a bad thing for society. The people highlighted in this book did not see the intellectual life as a fashion accessory, but took pleasure in reading, learning, and thinking, and sought to share the joy they found in these pursuits with other ordinary people.

After the introduction, the book moves through chapters highlighting six public intellectuals including Will and Ariel Durant, Mortimer Adler, Milton Friedman, Eric Hoffer, and Ray Bradbury. The chapters contain a mixture of biography, highlights from the thought or writing of the subject, and Flynn’s own commentary. I was particularly excited to read the chapter on Ray Bradbury and it did not disappoint. I think the chapter I enjoyed and resonated with the most, however, was the one on Eric Hoffer. What’s great about a story like Hoffer’s and, for that matter, any of the characters in this book, is that it reminds you that anyone can develop a serious intellectual life just through taking the time to read and think. It inspired me to commit myself to more reading and writing.

Flynn’s writing style is straightforward without being boring, making the book an easy, enjoyable read. I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t engage in hagiography, but clearly shows his subjects as real people, both flawed and complex. If I had any complaint to make, it would be that occasionally Flynn throws a barb at intellectuals that comes across as unnecessarily defensive, even though I think much of the general criticism he directs at them is warranted. The book makes a good case for the importance of intellectuals who live outside the ivory tower and who seek to bring the life of the mind to ordinary people. I come from a blue collar background, and my own intellectual life was started by another blue collar intellectual of sorts, the late Francis Schaeffer, who played the same roll for many ordinary evangelical Christians that the individuals in this book played for mid-twentieth century middle-class Americans.

This book is important because at a time when our culture seems to be more and more inundated with mass media stupidity, and more and more people seem to devote less and less time to reading or thinking about things that matter, it serves as a reminder that the life of mind is not just some rarified club that only highly educated professionals can enter into. Anyone willing to devote the time and effort can participate in the great intellectual conversations of the ages. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On the Need to Please Others

I have struggled my entire life with needing to please other people. At times this has placed me in situations of mostly unnecessary misery. I’ve really come to see this clearly in the past several months, which have been among the most acutely miserable of my life.

It all began just after I moved last September. I was working my first day on a new job, when I received a message on my cell phone from another potential employer. I had interviewed for both jobs on the same day and was almost immediately offered a job by the first. Now the second company was also offering me a job.

I thought the second company would be offering me a full time position with benefits, but the job they offered me turned out to be only a part-time position. I wanted to turn them down but felt almost obligated to accept the job offer from them, because I had told them I would rather work for them. To say no now would make me look bad. Instead, I ended up accepting the job from them, then attempting to work out a schedule that would accommodate both jobs. This was a mistake.

The next day, in part, I believe, due to the stress I put myself under trying to please what I perceived as other’s expectations, I became sick with a sinus infection. As I have already written about previously, in a former post, this sinus infection became a chronic illness that I am still fighting, although I am currently much better than I was for some time.

After two months, I finally determined, with the help of friends, that I should leave the second job, due to my chronic illness. I wrestled with this decision, in part because I was still concerned about disappointing other’s expectations of what I should do. I was afraid that some folks would see my quitting as irresponsible. Once again, I stressed myself out due to my fear of disappointing people. Thankfully, due to continued wise counsel from others, I stuck with the decision.

As time passed and I continued to be sick, I came to realize that even my failure to get better became an opportunity to feel I was disappointing other’s expectations. All of my friends and co-workers wanted me to get better and every time I saw any of them, the question of my health became a prime topic of conversation. I got tired of being asked how I was feeling since the answer was always negative. I felt I was disappointing other’s hopes for me by not getting better. This made me want to withdraw from people.

As I’ve reflected on this experience recently, I’ve come to realize just how deeply the need to meet other’s expectations controls me. I could give numerous other examples of this. I can’t help but wonder if it’s one reason that I like to spend so much time alone. Being alone, even when it’s painful, is often easier than being around people who you might upset or disappoint in some way.

So, the question that confronts me now is “Having become aware of this character flaw, what will I do about it?” It is easy to say that I will try to live differently, but it is difficult to break the hold of a mindset you’ve lived with your entire life. The short answer is that I don’t know, but I hope that I can begin to learn how to live my life without carrying the burden of having to please other people all the time. While making people happy can be a good thing, obsequiousness is not a virtue. It can paralyze us and inhibit us from becoming the people God has called us to be and from truly accomplishing what He has given us to do.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reality vs Ideology

I recall my perplexity upon finishing Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” for the first time. I knew that the book had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I believed (and still believe) that its author was one of the true heroes of the 20th century. I was interested in reading it partly because of its status as a work of great literature, and partly because I was interested in its critique of Soviet totalitarianism and ideology. When I finished reading it, I was confused because the book contained no explicit denunciations or critiques of communist ideology. Instead, in simple and straightforward prose, it told the story of a single day in the life of a concentration camp prisoner without ever making any direct commentary on the system that had led to his being present there.

What I recently realized, years later, is that that, in fact, is one of the main sources of the novel’s power. The critique of ideology present in the book is not in the form of an explicit theoretical treatise, but rather in the form of a simple exercise of bearing witness, in showing the reader a snapshot of what is, or was, albeit in fictionalized form. The character of Ivan Denisovich is not a cypher or a symbol of some larger ideal, he is exactly and only what he appears to the reader as in the novel's pages, a human subject attempting to survive and even thrive under conditions of ideologically imposed brutality.

The reason for this, I now see, is that the language of ideology is the language of theoretical abstractions. While theoretical language is an unavoidable and necessary part of writing and speaking, it is more easily detached from the reality of ordinary human experience and therefore, more susceptible to abuse. This is because formulating a set of beliefs about the way the world should be, always involves abstracting away from what is. The ideologue often becomes committed to this vision in a way that makes him or her impervious to the realities of lived human experience, attempting to force his vision onto the world at all costs. When given the power to force others to conform to its vision of how things should be, this fanaticism can lead to oppression and suffering.

It is easy to recognize the destructiveness of particular ideologies and the toll they take or have taken on human beings. Most of us recognize the evils of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. What is less easy for some to recognize, is that even the critique of ideology can itself become ideological. In the words of Georgetown University professor Patrick Deneen, “Can the principled stand against a politics based upon the application of universalized principle avoid becoming universalized?” Or, as conservative thinker D. G. Hart observes when discussing the conservative critique of ideology,

Conservatism arose as a denunciation of theoretical (read: ideological) approaches to politics, such as the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to rationalize and even mechanize traditional French society. Of course, the temptation for conservatism is to respond with a rival theory of politics for the good society.

This leads us back to Solzhenitsyn’s novel. It’s strength lies precisely in its failure to provide a counter ideology to that of the Soviet system it exposes. It does not give us a theoretical tool that we can abstract and use to advance our own ideological causes. It simply shows us the human reality of life under an ideological tyranny. It presents us with a reality to which we must respond. This is the novel’s lasting power and genius. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where I Am

About six months ago, I wrote here about my decision to leave my stable, decent paying job with health insurance in order to move 50 miles and participate in starting a church with friends. I talked about how it was an attempt to find and fulfill my life's purpose and calling, and how, for the first time, I was letting my sense of vocation determine my actions rather than the need to pay the bills. I said that even though some days I wondered if I was making the right choice, I had to believe that if God had called me, he would provide for me and make things possible. This was what it meant to live by faith, I said, to not be a prisoner of my circumstances. When I think about those words now, it nearly makes me sick to my stomach.

To put it bluntly, the last four months since I left my job and moved here have been among the worst of my entire life. In fact, I can only think of one other time in my life that things seemed worse than this. I have spent the last four months feeling like nothing so much as a prisoner of my circumstances. The truth is, right now, I have trouble seeing how it's possible to be anything else. All my former talk to the contrary now seems to me like a load of pretentious, self-deluded, spiritualized garbage.

Shortly after I moving here I got sick. Actually, it was a month to the day I had left my job and thus given up my health insurance. This was a scenario I had known was possible, and even feared on some level, but hadn't seriously entertained. I went to the doctor and paid out of pocket to be treated. I took the medicine I was prescribed and seemed to get better. But then, just as I was finishing the medicine, I caught a cold, and at the tail end of that I ended up with another sinus infection.

Of course I didn't want to believe it. But the symptoms were too clear (and too miserable) to ignore. So back to the clinic I went, to spend more money out of pocket. This time they put me on a different, supposedly stronger medication. Even before I had finished the course of medication, it became apparent that I wasn't getting better. I ended up on antibiotics a third time and didn't get better then either. By then I'd been sick for a month. 

On top of that, I was working two part time jobs, neither of which I really liked much. As a result of the time and energy consumed by the two jobs, I wasn't really able to participate in the life of the community I came to join either, a nice bit of bitter irony. I was discouraged, angry, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

To make a long story short, I ended up leaving one of the two jobs in the hope that the extra time to rest would help me get better. It didn't. Fearing possible pneumonia, I ended up going back to the doctor two more times, being put on antibiotics two more times, and I still didn't get better. Finally I was put on allergy medicine, which seemed to help some but didn't really make me better. I continued to feel lousy and exhausted all the time. 

Finally, I was able to take a vacation and go home over the week between Christmas and New Years. I was still feeling fairly lousy, but at least I was able to rest and enjoy spending time with my parents. My mom also paid for me to see her chiropractor, who gave me some supplements to treat my sinus problems. Leaving my parents on New Year's Day and returning to the miserable life I've been living here, was one of the saddest things I've ever done. I cried a lot that day and even the next.

After arriving back here, I began to treat my illness with an aggressive combination of home remedies and continued taking the supplements given by my mom's chiropractor. Over the course of a week, this seemed to help a lot. Then, a few days ago, with the help of friends, I had an appointment at a naturopath clinic. They put me on a restricted diet and gave me some more supplements to take. As of today, I am feeling much better, almost normal in fact. That is definitely something to be thankful for, but the story doesn't end there.

The whole time I was sick, I thought that if I could just get better, everything would seem fine, that I would be happy again. Now I'm feeling much healthier, but instead of being happy, I feel depressed. I made a big move and it was supposed to be a new start in life. Instead, it just feels like the same life I thought I was leaving behind, except worse. I'm working a job that I don't enjoy, the same kind of work as the job I left, except for far less money and with no health insurance. I'm living in someone else's house because I can't afford to live on my own. I'm nearly broke. I miss my family. I don't see a way forward.

A friend tells me that I lack faith that God is working in my life. That’s probably true. It’s hard to believe when life is so relentlessly painful and you don’t see a way out. God and His purposes seem like distant abstractions compared to the financial burdens I face, a job that makes me anxious and stressed all day, and my inability to see any way through these struggles. I'm tired of everything feeling like a continual painful uphill struggle towards nothing. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel like something needs to change, and soon.