Thursday, January 18, 2018

One For the Road

Last year I did an interview for Brian Whitney's book 'Subversive-Interviews with Radicals'. The book is out now, 52 interviews of people who, perhaps, see the world a bit differently from the majority. Here's the original interview (I haven't read the book yet, so am not sure if it all made the cut). If you're interested in reading 'Subversive' in it's entirety, it's available on Amazon here:

Can you tell me a bit about what anti-means to you and why you decided to write a book about it?

I should probably start with the second part of your question and proceed from there. I guess it was about ten years ago that I discovered the wonderful world of blogging. I'd been writing a ton of poems and posting them on various poetry websites, and blogging offered a free and easy method for archiving and sharing the material. That was about the extent of my writing for quite a while. It was a little later on that I developed an itch to express myself and my primary existential concerns outside the confines of formal poetry. 

I knew that the subject matter would have to tie in somehow with the problem that's increasingly plagued me since I was very young, which was the challenge of reconciling an optimistic view of life in the face of terrible suffering, human and otherwise. And here we come to the first part of your question, for in examining this dilemma with ever-increasing emotional urgency for most of my adult life I had already come to the rather depressing conclusion that no honest reconciliation was possible. It seemed that I'd already run the gamut of religious possibilities, as well as those of more generalized philosophical and psychological coping strategies, but nothing had stuck. After several decades of searching for some kind of justification for the way human beings have always done things, and finding none, I finally and fully acquiesced to the truth that I'd known from the beginning, a truth that had been gnawing at my guts since I could remember. The truth that life should never have been, and that the only human endeavor ultimately worth its own weight should be directed toward the alleviation of suffering and death by striking at its very root, sentient existence itself.

Notable futurist Nick Bostrom penned an essay several years back entitled 'The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant'. In it, he explores what he sees as the predicament of human suffering and death embodied in the form of a gluttonous monster who demands the sacrifice of thousands of men, women and children on a daily basis for its own eventual consumption. The gist of Bostrom's allegory is that humanity as a whole should be directing its efforts towards killing the dragon; indeed, that there is a primary moral imperative to do so and as quickly as possible, seeing that each day delayed adds another stratum to an already unconscionably cumulative body count. 

Of course, there are two ways to kill a dragon. One way is to fire missiles at the thing, keeping our fingers crossed for a true and mortal strike. This is the approach taken by Bostrom in his treatise. I see a few problems with this proposed method of dragon slaying, namely:

1)We don't know that our dragon-tyrant can be killed in this manner. All we do know is that he's been with us forever, and that just when we think we're getting a handle on taming him, he explodes up out of the earth to ravage and plunder us once again, sometimes in new and even more virulent ways.
2)We have no idea of whether or not a slain dragon remains dead forever, or if in fact that the slain dragon has relatives who might sooner or later show up seeking revenge. Nor is it possible, without some kind of wizardly foreknowledge to know if this is the case. In fact, I've heard rumors that there's another beast, the grand daddy of all dragons, lurking outside the limits of our observational horizon who is even now eating away at the fundamental fabric of our existence. His name is Entropy, the defiler of all our dreams. In this sense only those of us with the least humility dare to sit at the victory banquet table without at least sometimes casting uneasy looks over our collective shoulder. 
3)Even if we grant that the dragon-tyrant can be killed, at least in the context of temporal existence and momentarily disregarding the long-term aspects of universal disintegration whose diminishing animative energies we are only borrowing for a relatively short while, we're still faced with the problem of 'how long?', and its concomitant sixty-four dollar question, 'how many?'. What's it worth in terms of body bags on our march toward the end of our proposed existential rainbow? Does our aggregate hope of eventual quasi-immortality for the species justify the costs, the generation of generations of steppingstones toward an imagined Nirvana contrived of flesh and blood and love and loss? Where's the payday to all those who suffer for the dreams of some hypothetical progeny who may or may not ever exist? Who gave their permission to be exploited in this fashion? Certainly not I, nor my children, or anyone else for that matter. Apparently our basic ethical principles are valid only insomuch as they exist to further our vicarious immortality fantasies. Beyond that, it seems like the only sure remedy available for those who resent being forced into a situation they never asked for is suicide. A stinging balm, to be sure, and at least as acrid as the dragon's breath. 

On the other hand, there's another way to kill a dragon, and that is simply to stop feeding it. More precisely, the idea is to stop growing the crops that the dragon thrives upon. Take away the fuel and the dragon starves, and THAT is what antinatalism means to me. Antinatalism is a means to an end, that end being the surcease of suffering and death on this planet. Well, not ALL suffering and death, granted. There's that whole 'circle of life' thing to be considered, what with humanity being only one of billions of life forms on Earth. Nevertheless it's a start, and there are practical approaches that could be implemented such that human misery and death could be abolished in a single generation, simply by putting the kibosh on the whole procreation thing. It's very easy not to have a baby, after all. People do it all the time. Or don't do it, as the case may be. And when that last person falls, it will be in recognition that the dragon was us all along. 

Anyway, to finish up with the second part of your question, I did some internet searching along the lines of 'the morality of procreation'. Somewhere along the way I discovered the term 'antinatalism' which seemed to make nutshell sense to me, so I filched it and named my new blog 'Antinatalism- The Greatest Taboo'. Shortly thereafter I discovered another blogger named Chip Smith who had written some articles about the subject. Chip also happened to be the owner and operator of his own publishing house, namely Nine Banded Books specializing in, shall we say, somewhat controversial subject matter. I decided to contact him, some correspondence flared up between us and before you know it I was a published author. I'll always be grateful for the opportunity he afforded me to express myself. Who'd have thunk?

Why do you think people believe life is so important?

This question sort of presupposes that people approach this subject as a logical proposition, but I just don't believe that's true in most (and arguably all) cases. There's a temptation to go off on a myriad of tangents here regarding beliefs and motivations. To avoid doing that (since this isn't MY book, after all), I'm going to restrict my answer to what I hope is a concise and baseline response. Biological organisms in the main simply DO NOT WANT TO DIE. It goes against our evolutionary heritage, our programming. The urge to survive is a basic feature of evolution. Naturally, when I speak of evolutionary 'urges' I'm not saying that amoebas kneel in fear and trembling before the throne of the Primary One Celled Organism lest they be smoten (smited?). What I AM saying is that the fundamental responses and reflexes innate in the lower organisms have their correlates in human behavior, and EVEN in the abstract processes of higher thinking, and therein lies the rub. 

If someone swings their fist at you, you may react by merely ducking your head, or perhaps by raising your own arm and blocking the punch. You might even return the sentiment in kind. But what do you do when that fist is made of the abstract flesh and knuckle of 30 year mortgages, or decline of job satisfaction, or the knowledge that you have a genetic predisposition towards intestinal cancer, or that if the rain doesn't come you're going to lose your crop and you and your family are going to starve? How do you block or dodge that kind of blow? 

One way we have of reacting to all this is to fight back in the same kind of complicated and convoluted way that the attacks come at us. To deal with the mortgage we invest much of our time and energy in earning money. When we discover that we hate our jobs (as most of us do), we distract ourselves with television, alcohol, drugs, and the variety of minutia that serve as a hiding place to protect ourselves from our own psychic misery. When faced with imminent doom in the guise of disease or environmental hardships we run for help from friends and neighbors, from the government, and as a last resort from the skies themselves (God knows I'm good!). 

However, at the end of the day and no matter how valiantly we have fought back the tides of corruption and injustice, we know that we are finite creatures, and that we are bound to die. We have found the enemy and the enemy is time, and there's nothing in our power that can help us stand against our final, irrevocable dissolution, while none of our evolutionarily honed defense mechanisms make a damned bit of difference in the end. This knowledge is what sets us against other living things. It is our curse.

But do you think our aforementioned evolutionary-fueled response mechanisms are going to knuckle under to THAT particular bully of inevitability? Hell no! And so human ingenuity plays its trump card. Since time seems to be the primary agent of our ontological sorrows, we simply cast it away with a flick of our abstract wrists and embrace timelessness. Eternity. We set our 'true' natures outside the restrictions of change and decay-

A craft, a calling, a work of art- 
achieving at best a qualified immortality, 
for as we all know 
the world will one day fly apart. 

What, then? Might there be more? 
Launching electronically reproduced masterpieces 
off toward the universe's dark horizon, 
ere the temporal waves engulf this receding shore? 

But, what of heat death? 
That imagined, far-flung day 
when the cold corpse of the cosmos 
sighs its last breath? 

Nowhere to drop anchor after nullity's deluge- 
or, is there? 
From out of the heart of the silent aftermath 
there shines forth a beacon, an eye of spectral fire 
beckoning us to hope's final refuge,

to a testament wrought in the hardest stone, 
in the infinite halls of the maximal museum- 
God's memory, 
where all is reclaimed, and not alone.

Of course, God goes by many names. One of those names is 'Meaning', or to line my answer up with your question a little bit better, 'Importance'. Either way, what we're talking about here is the creation of an ontological object built of purely abstract stuff, stored away in a forever enduring treasure chest beyond the reach of thieves, where neither moth nor rust corrupt. This objectification of our yearning for timelessness is then folded back into the stream of temporal existence as a totem, an embodiment of eternity in finitude. No need for a literal one-to-one correspondence here, although depending on the sophistication of the cultural inflection involved you might get some of that. 

Or a lot. The main thing to remember is that these abstract structures are all built in the service of fooling ourselves into believing that we can duck a punch thrown by the universe. For the modern existential pugilist who can't quite make himself believe that a literal God is in his corner, thus providing him with a distinct, personal immortality- in other words, he is unable to translate the totemic promises back into an intellectually satisfying personal eternity gambit- he is stuck with trying to make the best of what he has. An abstract object of ungrounded hopefulness grafted onto the continued survival of the species. 

In summation, why do people believe that life is important? Precisely because it is not. But the truth hurts like a punch in the face, the punches keep coming, and all we can do is throw up our invisible hands and pretend the raining blows are divine kisses. 

I took a look at your blog and saw a lot of angry comments from some people about your views, what do you think angers and terrifies people so much about anti-natalism?

Again, for the person who has invested his own sense of immortality in the immortality of the species as a whole down through time, to posit the end of the species is to directly threaten that person's life. Fear and anger are tied directly into the survival mechanisms, our fight-or-flight responses. 

Some years back on my blog, I coined a term (I THINK I coined it, anyway); namely, 'vicarious immortality'. I think it pretty much speaks for itself. We know we're going to die. We don't want to die, in the sense of irrevocable personal annihilation, anyway. So we fake ourselves out. We tell ourselves in a sort of subtextual way that as long as the species survives, so do we. 

I related in my book the story of my then young daughter's reaction to the imminent 'putting down' of a family pet. When I tried to explain to her that everything dies, her response back to me was basically “Then what's the point?”. Now, this really wasn't a purely philosophical question at all. In fact, it was a mostly visceral reaction in the face of a feeling of utter futility, a reaction that I think most of us can empathize with. At such moments the realization of our own danger quickens within us. The truth of our situation breaks through the veneer of cultural conditioning put in place to protect us from situations just like this, and we find ourselves feeling threatened and attacked by a force against which we cannot defend ourselves, other than by retreating back behind the veil that only partially obscures the truth of ourselves from ourselves. It's a horrible knowledge, and it's understandable that the more intractable among us might lash out in anger at the messenger of such dire forebodings. Not a reaction I relish, but I get it.

I actually enjoy my life, but I also don't really care if i die tomorrow.  Does that make me an argument for or against your views?

Neither. Stated as succinctly as I can, antinatalism is the ethical position that we shouldn't be bringing new lives into the world due to the risk of unacceptable suffering and inevitable death. At least that's my approach to the thing. There are other issues at stake as well, such as the question of consent, but that's something I don't spend much time worrying over. To be honest, if suffering was completely taken off the table I doubt I'd find the emotional wherewithal inside myself to even bother making a fuss about the subject, though other antinatalists might surely disagree. 

Personally, I am very happy that you are happy, and I hope you continue to be happy until the end of your days. I just don't want you to have children, because of the very real possibility that somewhere down the lifeline they might become NOT happy, and none of us want that, do we? 

Is this more about famine and over population with you, or is it that life just blows and isn't worth it?

I am an antinatalist because I believe bringing children into the world is a horribly irresponsible thing to do in the context my own empathetic sensibilities. I understand the biological predilections, the personal and cultural motivations, as well as the philosophical justifications, but I am not swayed by these things one iota. Furthermore, whether or not life is objectively 'worth it' isn't a question I devote much time to. As a matter of fact, such 'objective' moral reckonings stand dead in the water as far as I'm concerned. Being a value subjectivist, I deem myself up to the task of developing my own ethical framework from the ground up, so to speak. If my framework happens to line up with someone else's (which it most assuredly will at many points for reasons I don't have space to get into here), then so much the better. So for clarity's sake, the real question here should probably be something along the lines of 'Is bringing new life into the world worth it to ME?”

To which I answer no, it isn't. 

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