Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Problems I See: Time, GMOs, Education

        The hands of the clock stretch towards me. With each passing second they tap me on the shoulder, reminding me with the utmost discretion – but unnerving candor – that another moment of my life is gone. Most of the time I try to shrug off the clock; at other times I greet it with an uneasy smile. Whichever the case, it comes with the same message: tick-tock, tick-tock. I do not know whether its message is supposed to be cause for alarm or hope; perhaps both. In any case, the clock drones on, its percussive beat unchanging. Clocks are in the business of manufacturing time and taking it away. 

        For me and many others, the clock is the soundtrack of our lives. One starts to wonder if the clock is designed to make life easier, or rather, life designed to appease the clock’s savage pedantry. Slowly but surely, it devours us whole. Set the alarm, turn it off; punch-in, punch-out; set the deadline, mind the dates; organize the calendar, make space in the agenda. Today we are told to fit our lives into boxes, above lines and between dashes. And while there are a thousand ways to organize time – that is, a thousand ways to cut life into a thousand fragments – there is one imperative that underlies it all: speed. They assure us that we are to think and we are to enjoy. But above all, we are to act with a sense of urgency, to run until we do not remember why. Congratulations, we have achieved our goal. Now can someone remind me why we were running in the first place? 

         Time’s march is sadistic. As I watch the clock I feel puny, impotent. Like a prison guard gloating over his prey, he watches me from the other side of the wire. I am stuck inside these four walls, wedged between earth and sky. So I resist. It strikes me with its cast-iron arms, the only thing that does not seem to age. The scars are plain for all to see: lines scrawled across the face, a body sagging under its heavy load. Some of the prisoners give up, for there is no escape. No exit. The prison warden assures us that no one ever makes it out alive. But is there really anything on the other side of the wire? In defiance, some decide to hunger strike. They refuse to play by the rules of the 
 game, rejecting the very cards which make the most serious joke in the world possible; their torment. 

        A rebellion suddenly breaks out. Rocks are flying. Someone has snuck weapons into the prison. But the guards are ready. They’re smiling. Tear gas and bullets are exchanged. I am hit. Slowly my mind recedes as a pool of thick, warm blood collects on my hands and torso. What does this mean? Will I finally make it across the wire – in a casket? But suddenly I awake from this dream, this nightmare, to the sound of my alarm clock. 

        Prisoner 10101990, welcome back.

        The level of disconnect between words and reality is almost unbelievable. Sometimes I just want to scream. Take the latest round of voting in Washington, for instance. By a strong majority, Washington voters chose to not label GMO (genetically modified organisms) on food labels and packaging. They were told by Monsanto and other agro-corporations that doing so would increase the cost of food by needlessly stoking consumer fears and inflicting price distortions across the board. More importantly, the voters were assured that GMOs cause no negative side-effects, this being proved by rigorous testing. All of this is wrong. 

        For the agro-corporations to claim that GMOs do not cause any negative side-effects – and insinuate the “scientific” facticity of these claims – shows just how bad their “science” is. Right now it is impossible to test GMOs for side-effects because the companies that produce them refuse to release their patented secrets. Since the only people who can “test” them are the very people who make money off them, such testing seems less than impartial, transparent and rigorous. It definitely is not “scientific”.

        The fact that these corporations argue that excluding ingredients from a label can be considered a “scientific” practice says it all. To make informed decisions, consumers need to be told where their food comes from, its caloric density, and which ingredients constitute it. I do not know of a single scientist who would argue that having this information makes for bad “science”. To the contrary, any real scientist knows that you need to have information to make a scientific decision in the first place. At this time, no such information is publicly available. It is this censorship, after all, that the lobbyists are pushing for in the first place. In other words, the anti-label measure is an attack on science – the mere possibility of assessing GMOs through scientific standards.

        It is also worth remembering exactly who is peddling these supposedly “safe” and healthful products. One of the wealthiest corporations in the world, Monsanto, is at the forefront of the anti-label fight. Incidentally, Monsanto is the company that championed DDT as a “safe” cure-all to the world’s ills, advocating its use on everything from malarial swamps to wheat fields to infant children. Eventually people learned that DDT can cause birth defects, and its toxins rapidly accumulate in the fatty tissue of mammals. The ubiquitous use of “safe” DDT caused massive ecological damage and drove some species to near-extinction. 

        Besides producing the curious combination of food and industrial chemicals, Monsanto also specializes in the production of weapons of mass destruction. (Interestingly enough, some of its labs were used for work on the Manhattan Project.) The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to one million people have either been disabled or suffer from serious health problems due to the use of Agent Orange, a lethal defoliant manufactured by Monsanto for use in the Vietnam War. A significant number of these casualties are American soldiers who released the defoliants, only to later suffer their terrible effects. This was, of course, unexpected. After all, Monsanto’s methods were “scientific” and its products touted as “safe” for usage. 

        The anti-label lobbyists consequently leave us with an interesting question: if we have questions about GMOs, should we take them to the company’s weapons production, industrial chemicals, or food laboratory hotline? Do they even have separate departments? Perhaps these companies are anti-label because they are afraid that if they had to produce labels, these labels might get mixed up from time to time. Imagine a box of GMO cereal or maybe a bag of apples saying, “Warning: flammable, radioactive, poisonous and explosive.” Or simply, “Warning: lethal weapon. Use responsibly.” Some soldier might end up with a couple of bombs that say, “120 calories, 20 grams sugar; part of a well-balanced diet.” 

        If people were well-informed, they probably would be antsy if they just saw a label that said, “Produced by Monsanto,” and for good reason. Of course, this is precisely what Monsanto fears. 
        If you have not noticed, there has been a lot of hype about education in the newspaper lately. A bunch of school districts across the country are adopting what are called “Common Core State Standards,” a curriculum which is supposed to prepare students “to compete and succeed internationally,” to quote Oregon deputy superintendent Rob Saxton. Citing perennial fears about the rest of the world “overtaking” U.S. students, yet another solution to America’s festering education crisis is being offered. What does it involve? The exact same measures that federal and state governments have been pushing for the past two decades: “Students are [going to be] reading more nonfiction… across multiple subjects,” which essentially means more math and science. 

        How will “progress” be measured?  The exact same way that progress has been measured for the past two decades: more standardized testing. This supposedly innovative, but, in truth, laughably redundant “solution” is also very lucrative. Not surprisingly, the “makers of the SAT and ACT” – who have carved out a business niche for test services – are the most vocal champions of this approach. And they are bound to make a killing off it. As ‘The Oregonian’ explains, these tests would “need [more] human eyes” to grade, consequently making them more expensive than previous testing “solutions”. You know, the “solutions” that apparently failed before. How do you fix a broken education system mired in standardized testing? More standardized testing of course! (And let’s make it even more expensive while we’re at it.)

        To be sure, there is an education crisis going on, but standardized testing is not the solution. Standardized testing is part of the problem – a major part in fact. Administrators competing for funds, ratings and promotions want a way to quantify “learning,” and tests provide a ready-made way to do just that. But rather than encouraging students to learn, the time-sucking, money-grubbing, narrow-minded approach that these tests necessitate actually prevents it from taking place. What results is the spectacle of learning for the sake of the spectacle itself – a rating – rather than the substance of learning: the stimulation of curiosity and expansion of intellectual horizons. 

        With administrators breathing down their backs, teachers are coerced into employing a strategy called “teaching to the test” – that is, teaching what is specifically on the test, instead of pursuing pedagogy which would help their student’s grow intellectually. The results are, again, predictable. Students are induced towards apathy, as they spend days listening to the teacher monologue about specific test concepts which have no pedagogical value. Learning is reduced to a crude means to pass a test, rather than a way to grow as a thinking being. 

        This fact is most vividly illustrated by test lobbyists’ championship of testing math and science. For decades the U.S. has been “behind” in the education arms race – education is about being able to “compete,” after all – especially in its math and science scores. The solution has always been more testing. The topics covered change but the overall blueprint is the same: test more, teach less. This is stupid. If students are memorizing math subjects by “wrote memory” without fully comprehending them – the most substantive charge made by test lobbyists – this is because they are memorizing them to pass the tests

         Teaching for the ultimate purpose of having students pass a test inevitably fosters rigidity. The focus is not on practical application or context, but, rather, the predictable questions posed by an established test curriculum. Furthermore, the blueprint for teaching math and science has been test-centric for decades. To suggest that tests are the solution is myopic: it is the test approach itself which has bastardized the teaching of math and science. 

        There are a few telling assumptions which should be drawn out from the education discourse:

        Firstly, education is understood in business terms; thus Saxton’s jargon about students being competitive, and the focus on technical knowledge (science and math) with economic utility. But the industrial discipline and blind deference to authority which the modern workplace demands – if anything – stifles creativity. Just as it is near-impossible for teachers to teach creatively within a corporate hierarchy, whereby administrators call the shots, it is near-impossible for workers to innovate when their superiors are pushing for conformity. Applying a business model to education is disastrous for other reasons as well. The proliferation of for-profit schools with very low standards attests to the poverty of the business model for educational purposes, as does the for-profit test industry, which, we must note once more, is sapping the fiscal vitality of teachers, students and school districts. 

        Secondly, intelligence is now equated with uniformity in the worst sense. When Saxton and his peers aver that students need to “succeed internationally,” they are essentially arguing that in order to “compete,” students must – ironically – be like everyone else. They are trying to shove the right knowledge into students’ brains, the knowledge that people “internationally” – that is, everywhere else – are learning. Real education denotes a process, not a set of facts that are imbibed in the petri-dish that Saxton is trying to make out of the classroom. Students should be encouraged to think, not just told what to think. China has tried this test-centric approach for decades, and teachers generally agree that their students are less inquisitive as a result than students elsewhere. They are beginning to reject the test-centric approach because it does not work. In ignorance, Americans have chosen to affirm standardized testing with a vengeance. The result: creativity now means conformity and obedience to those in power. 

        Thirdly, fictional work and abstract ideas are not regarded as “serious” by education experts, the most obvious reason being that fiction and art are less marketable – again everything is judged through the business lens. It is should be noted, though, that the significance of fictional works are often not readily grasped; mediocre minds fail to understand their genius. It should then be no surprised that those in charge of education fail to appreciate their importance and insist that “nonfiction” take precedence. To appreciate Zola, Hemingway or Faulkner one needs more than the ability to understand that two numbers squished together makes a new number. More importantly, it is often in novels and works of fiction that life’s subtle truths are most effectively evoked. 

        What is the take-away from all this? Educators need to be allowed to teach, and administrators need to get out of their way.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Boeing Hostage Crisis: The Problem and a Solution

        The day starts out much like any other. Children scurry about while their parents try to corral them up for school. Mothers sweep well-worn floors and fathers wipe the sleep out of their eyes before stepping outside, perhaps to go to work or maybe just to get away from their wife’s sweeping. It is already warm, and the laughter of children can be heard as they walk to school. Overhead the sun, a vast crimson stain, begins its long climb to the top, a journey it makes every day charting its slow, ponderous path. 

        But today is not just any other day. A thin buzzing noise can be heard from off in the distance. It gets louder and louder until it thunders with emphatic clarity. The sound of glass and metal being promiscuously twisted together is heard, the buzzing’s terrible climax. A woman screams before being joined by the cries of others. As a helicopter flies off into the distance, the villagers frantically dig for the bodies below, whose soft groans can be heard above the rubble. A finger there, a foot here; part of a corpse hangs from a tree, set there by the force of a Hellfire missile. 

        There will be no school today. Brooms will be left leaning, and it is doubtful that anyone will be going to work. Before life resumes bodies will have to be accounted for, funerals planned, and people – what is left of them – taken to the hospital. And though life will resume, as it inevitably does, it will never be the same. There will be scars. Scars etched into bodies corrupted with steel and lead; scars that pockmark the earth, now cursed with the blood of humanity; and scars that cannot be seen, scars that are only felt – and then, keenly – by the absence of others.

         Half-way around the world, the day begins. Coats are being buttoned and scarves shirked as children try to convince their parents to not add another layer. In their hurry to make the bus, some have forgotten their lunchboxes. Others have done so intentionally: the last thing they want is another PB and J sandwich. 

        Back at home, the parents leaf through the newspaper. An article in the middle of the “Business” pages locks their attention, even before the coffee has taken effect. Anxious, they put down the cup and grip the pages with both hands. A quick swelling sensation begins to prick the bottom of their stomachs, like a heated iron; it is a feeling that has become increasingly common. They will not be able to drink any more coffee today, but, then again, they will not need it. In bold print the paper says that the company they work for is threatening to leave the region unless workers surrender their retirement benefits and the government grants it a big tax break. The article explains: “If Boeing doesn’t get what it wants from lawmakers and its workers by Wednesday, the giant airplane manufacturer vows to ‘pursue other options for locating… work’”. 

         At first they only feel anger but soon a sense of despair seeps in. After all, what can they do? The past few years have been “difficult” enough. One of the cars had to be returned because its payments could not be kept up. And what about the house? Where will they go if they cannot make the mortgage payments? The vacant lots across the street… At work they have been talking about hard times because of the Recession, but you saw the third quarter earnings… But there is not enough time to think. Both parents don their uniforms and walk to the car. It is time to go to work. A thin buzzing noise, one of tension and weariness, undulates in the back of their minds. So off to work they go, to the business which is seeking “Forever New Frontiers”.
_ _ _ _ _ _

        Political action matters because it is a form of human action. And like all forms of human action, its effects resonate beyond their immediate implications. Here in the Pacific Northwest, politics have been getting heated for some time. Boeing, one of the region’s largest employers, is threatening to export its work elsewhere unless the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers agrees to dramatic cuts in benefits, including the scrapping of workers’ retirement plans. But this dispute is not just another of the perennial battles between capital and labor. For as Boeing threatens to destroy the livelihood of its employees, it is also holding a gun to the head of the Washington State Legislature: unless it gets “some $8.7 billion dollars in tax breaks and other goodies” from the government, it will bleed itself of its own workers, not because it has to but because it can. In other situations people call this “blackmail” or “terrorism.” Here it is called “economics” and “business as usual.” 

        Ironically, only a company as rich and powerful as Boeing could strong-arm the legislature into holding a session special to “save” it from leaving the region – that is, on its own accord. In fact, the corporation is negotiating from a position of power, not because it is actually under water or even close to being so. Instead, it is on the offensive and taking no prisoners – not even among those who make the company possible, its workers. An October 2013 article in ‘The New York Times’ explains that the company is rolling in dough, as a “surge in sales of commercial jets… [topped] analysts’ expectations for an eighth consecutive quarter,” and “Boeing again raised its profit forecast for 2013”. A quick recovery from the effects of the Great Recession and high demand for fuel-efficient jets has made Boeing not only a stable company, but a highly profitable one.       
        Even so, its leadership feels the sadistic compulsion to discipline its workers, to force them to tighten their belts and prepare for an artificial period of scarcity. ‘The Oregonian’ reports that the contract which Boeing is imposing on its workers would “replace workers’ defined-benefit pension plans with a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plan.” Moreover, the “contract provides wage increases of only 1 percent every other year. It would lock in a wage structure that would see new hires take as long as 16 years, instead of the current six years, to reach the top pay scale.” 

        What does all this mean? By moving to a “401(k)-style, defined contribution” retirement plan, the company would place the onus of retirement savings on its workers by shedding its existing obligations. Put less clinically, they are scrapping workers’ retirement plans for a much scrawnier, watered down ersatz. Their putative “plan” is essentially to have workers take care of the retirement themselves while throwing in a miserly “contribution” – “defined” so as to not be too generous – and call it good. What is offered is nothing more than a skeleton of a “plan” created for nothing more than the right to claim that a plan exists. 

        The motives behind the other measures – better termed, punishments – are more obvious. By putting a low ceiling on wage increases and devising a work hierarchy that is difficult to climb, Boeing will erode the wages of its workers over time, extracting greater profits by taking them out of the paychecks of the very people who make its profits possible. Not everyone will feel the blow, though. CEO Jim McNerney will almost certainly be awarded a sumptuous raise this year, just as he was “compensated” for his Spartan sensibility with a cool $22.1 million dollars last year. The Board was quick to explain that his raise was well-deserved, due to his “effective leadership and successful implementation of Boeing’s business strategies” – the substance of which we have already covered. 

        Let’s be honest. Boeing is one of the wealthiest corporations in the region and not suffering from any financial difficulties. Despite these facts, its executives have chosen to short-change workers. The reason: they want more money for themselves and their shareholders. When deconstructing the situation what one finds is absolutely distasteful. The supposedly visionary “leadership” of McNerney and his partners in crime is nothing more than a scheme to take from the vulnerable to pad the rich. Let us examine these contradictions, though, as they are shared contradictions which lie at the heart of modern economics. 

        For the past hundred years economics has been guided by the principle of “managerial prerogative,” which states that those at the top echelon should have total control over the company’s business model. The workers – those who constitute the productive element of the company – are to have no say over this process. Thus we arrive at that strange beast known as the modern corporation, in which the execs claim that they are working for the “good” of the company while threatening to gut the company of its workforce. Through their own words and actions we see that, for them, the “company” consists of no more than the management (themselves) and shareholders. 

       We are told, in effect, that Boeing does not need, nor consist of, machinists, welders, and mechanics – people who build airplanes – despite the fact that Boeing is, in fact, an airplane manufacturer. These brilliant execs apparently believe that profits are generated by those who count them, rather than through productive labor. If we follow their logic to its necessary conclusion, we reach several novel findings: 

1.  Profit is generated by those who count it rather than through those who earn it via their labor. If we continue this line of argumentation we will also learn that, like Voltaire’s Pangloss, noses exist so that people can wear glasses. 

2. The company leadership is the company itself. They do not preside over it, but, rather constitute the company in its totality. One may then say that they are not “leaders” in the usual sense; there is nothing within the company to “lead” but themselves. Their leadership thus consists of the pursuit of their own hopes and ambitions.

3. When the execs claim that Boeing “creates jobs,” they mean that Boeing creates jobs for those who matter: themselves. Everyone else is redundant, obsolete. After all, the “company” – that is, the leadership – can pick up and move whenever its wants. Indeed, that is precisely what it is doing now. 

        In short, while dissecting the principle of “Managerial prerogative” we find that it makes little sense even when subjected to the most basic laws of reasoning. Indeed, this principle is so course that one might expect to find it in a pre-classical text in which the earth is presumed to be flat. What contradicts it is this simple observation: in order to have a company one must first have workers. To attack the good of the workers is to attack the good of the company itself, since it is the workers who ultimately compose it. And because it is the workers who engage in the day-to-day life of the company, to reject a priori their ideas about how the company should run is both short-sighted and unfair. It is also plain stupid. 
        But there is more to the Boeing hostage crisis than workers, the state, and a nasty clique of businessman. While Boeing extracts “profits” by skimming workers’ paychecks, it also accumulates wealth by murdering people across the globe. A significant part of the corporation is dedicated to the production of military hardware which is sold to some of the worst human rights violators in the world. It is known, for example, that Boeing sells missiles and other armaments to the Israeli army, which has in turn used them to murder Lebanese and Palestinian civilians who live across Israel’s border. I suppose, however, that this is just another part of Boeing’s “effective” business model.

       And Boeing is not unique is this regard. Corporations like Caterpillar, Motorola and Lockheed Martin have long supplied the tools that make Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine possible – and profited handsomely from doing so. However, if “managerial prerogative” were replaced by more participatory forms of decision-making then these business practices would probably be less common. Worker participation would make business more transparent, and prevent a small group of execs from making political decisions – which kill thousands – under the guise of “business as usual.” And if profiting from war, rapine and murder is “business as usual,” as so many elites are quick to interject, then it most certainly should be done away with. 
_ _ _ _ _ _
        So what is to be done about Boeing? I do not know. I do know, however, that “business as usual” does not work. I also know of a few people who surely have an idea or two in mind: the workers. Why not ask them? 



Friday, November 8, 2013

The Terms of Rebellion: Thoughts on Man in Revolt

“Man is the sole creature who refuses to be what he is.”
                                       – Albert Camus, The Rebel


        Lately my mind has been wandering… squirming like a fish out of water that slowly grows more rigid and numb. I am trying to locate my stream of consciousness, but where did I leave it? Then I remember, and, collecting my thoughts, find myself once more immersed in a rivulet of thought. Before I got my job, my mind was a beam of light refracting off shards of glass. At the speed of light there is a certain clarity to one’s thoughts. Like rays of light dancing on a window-sill, thoughts intermingle, merge and evolve with an effortless glow. Whatever their fate, their source remains constant, precise. And wherever aimed, the light retains its power to sever the darkness. 

        As of late, though, my mind is like a fish. It moves – for it refuses to stop – but feels heavy and shiftless. Like a fish swimming on pure instinct, it goes but does not know where it is going. My thoughts drift, float, sputter but their source is not clear, nor their purpose. But they continue, moving in and out, like the passage of breath in the lungs or blood in the heart. Because one has to think; there is no more choice in this than the will to live itself. To think is to choose to live. But how one chooses to live is another question altogether. So we are left with a question: how do you choose to live; that is, how do you choose to think? 

        It is not an easy question. In some ways, it is an uncomfortable question. Our consciousness – our awareness of our thoughts, our being – reminds us of our contingent nature. We may choose the direction of our thoughts and actions, but, to an alarming degree, we do not control the paths that we travel. The paths which we consider, the paths which we refuse, are paths all the same: they are traveled, arrived at, measured – seldom constructed. For the most part, one cannot see what lies ahead; most of these paths are ones we did not make. But our thoughts weave through them all the same – or perhaps, swim down them. Because, again, there is little choice in this besides the one choice that covers all: the will to live. 

        And if all thoughts are contingent, requiring a point of reference, a motive, they may be thought of as trail-markers, crumbs strewn along a dusty path. So where have my thoughts been wandering? Where am I going? 

        It seems to me that people love to think but seldom think about the things that matter most. Love, life, death, hope, these are all subjects that most people agree are “important,” but in practice are ones which are usually avoided at all cost. To a significant degree, learning, and most every other form of action, is a defense mechanism. People think to forget. They become so preoccupied with one subject or pursuit – work, money, sex, etc. – that they have very little time to think of anything else. And this is intentional.

       In Sartre’s novel Nausea, the protagonist Antoine watches other people in a cafĂ© and realizes that “It’s a farce!” Everyone is distracted – in a newspaper, meal, or the eyes of their lover – for the sake of being distracted. They do not want to come to terms with the fact of their existence, so they put on a charade, denying it by avoiding it, even while living out this undeniable truth. Or as Antoine writes in his journal, “They each have their little, personal impediment that prevents them from perceiving that they exist”. 

       Sartre penned this scene to suggest that in order to cope with the debilitating tension that arises from living in a world without transcendent meaning, people choose to deny their existence altogether. They refuse to face the truth that life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. In effect, they spend their lives trying to dissociate themselves from reality, numbing themselves to their mortality and the futility that embraces them. The absurdity of this course is evoked by Antoine when he writes in his journal that “Mr. Rollebon,” a figure in a book he is writing, “is my friend: he needs me in order to be, and I need him in order to not sense my being.”

        Sartre is almost certainly right in claiming that humanity in general tries to circumvent the fact of their existence. The problem, however, is not that they inoculate themselves to its absurdity, but, rather, that they refuse to consider the significance of their actions, their thoughts; the fact of their being. Contrary to the findings of Sartre, the denial of existence is carried out not because existence lacks intrinsic value, but because the significance of existence is so great that its denial seems preferable to its recognition.

        This denial, carried to its logical extreme, makes for a life in which each activity is carried out as part of an ongoing process of negation. In order to dull the chaos, the tension of life – and deny its significance – opiates are sought out. The human existent’s engagement with the world comes to be mediated by a series of screens and defense mechanisms.

        Today the scenario looks something like this: A single male adult works hard not just to pay his bills but also to wear-out his mind, to keep it from entertaining probing questions. When his mind wanders, when he is alone, such an eventuality becomes more likely and dangerous. To counter this tendency, he drafts an elaborate set of contingency plans for such eventualities. He drinks until he cannot feel or drowns his thoughts with the television, by seeking out large crowds, or finding other white noise to fill his idle hours. With ear-buds, blue-tooth or cell-phone installed next to his brain, he forges his own world. It is he who selects the soundtrack to his life, he who chooses what he sees or hears, and he who decides what parameters of discussion are to be set. He is always clean but never comfortable; his comments are correct but always guarded; his smile is wide but plastic. And the books he reads – when he reads – are sometimes intelligent, but usually part of an accepted canon, selection, or bestseller list. 

        When the actions, choices and allegiances of these people are weighed, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that their lives amount to a battle of attrition against life itself. Who will be the first to surrender, to give up the charade – the human existent or the reality which they deny? For them, life is not a positive process of creation, but, rather a perpetual reaction against that which is; that which must be denied. It is an ongoing process of negation. 

        Current conceptions of love and sexuality attest to the holding power of this nihilism. Love, for example, is often spoken of as a reaction, rather than a positive force in its own right, one that transcends the limitations of individual pride, preferences and convenience. Instead, love is described in fanciful terms which have no verisimilitude to the world in which love is supposed to take place. Red roses, passionate embraces and eternal spring are worn-out tropes which most people are quick to dismiss. But, in practice, few people have an operative understanding of love that goes beyond these fictive boundaries. 

        The result is predictable. People seek out an Other, a person through whom they can dissolve their insecurities, and upon whom they project their hopes and dreams. Bound in the tension of existence, living out a series of reactions against this very fact, they seek the solution to their woes in a symbol: the Other. Lovers, the ultimate Other, embody the solution: they are strength where there is weakness; warmth where there is cold; affection where there is pain; succor where there is suffering. In the eyes of their companion, they are minor gods: all that they need is in their arms; all knowledge and hope can be found in their eyes. They embody a positive value only insofar as it is the solution to their lovers’ woes; the negation of their problems. Simone de Beauvoir described this process best, writing in The Second Sex that, “In woman is incarnated in positive form the lack that the existent carries in his heart, and it is in seeking to be made whole through her that man hopes to attain self-realization.” 

        But all castles of sand fall into the sea eventually. The Other inevitably fails to live up to the impossible, fictive standard to which he or she is measured, leading to confusion, anger and eventually separation. Simone de Beauvoir thus writes that: “as the Other, she is other than herself, other than what is expected of her. Being all, she is never quite this which she should be; she is everlasting deception, the very deception of that existence which is never successfully attained nor fully reconciled with the totality of existents” (original italics). And “here lies the reason why woman incarnates no stable concept; through her is made unceasingly the passage from hope to frustration, from hate to love, from good to evil, from evil to good. Under whatever aspect we may consider her, it is this ambivalence that strikes us first.” 

       One might suggest that it is precisely this “ambivalence” that makes common conceptions of love so vapid, fanciful or contradictory. Having entered a set of intimate relations as a response to the terror of existence, the lovers consequently find themselves reacting to the failure of their reactionary expectations – the failure of a reactionary, yet ever-persistent worldview. 

        True love, however, is not merely reactive since it is not a means of hiding from the world, but rather, a means of engaging it. Love embodies radical, positive action, compelling its practitioners to move beyond the confines of their prejudices, narcissism and short-sighted desires. To love is to practice compassion towards the needy, the vulnerable, and the despised through practical action: through friendship, the giving of aid, and expenditure of time for the benefit of real people. Above all, love is a verb that denotes transcendental action: to transcend hate by choosing to love one’s enemies; to transcend apathy and fear by living alongside those who dwell within one's sphere of existence. The practitioner of love does this not because love is the solution to their problems, but because love is the reason – the solution – to the manmade problem of existence. If humanity cursed itself by denying the parameters of its existence, then only love can salvage humanity by empowering people to transcend the parameters within which they have imprisoned themselves. 

        In terms of its romantic expression, love is not a fleeting feeling or a glorified form of mutual exploitation, as most people imply. Mature romantic love cannot develop in relationships where each lover sees the Other as the solution to their extraneous problems. Instead, their relationship to the Other teaches them how to further transcend themselves by looking out for the good of, yes, others. Love then is not an easy “solution” to any problem. To the contrary, it inevitably engenders its own problems and challenges. However, it is the only means by which humans ever really transcend themselves and find real meaning; and through this peace. 

        There are a few practical implications for romantic love which should be noted. Firstly, any two lovers should be stable human-beings, that is, not regard each other a solution to their problems. For people to say that intercourse is “making love” or the “consummation” of love is, besides hokey, very misleading. It would make much more sense to say that the resolution of a serious conflict – in which lovers have to transcend their narcissism – is the “consummation” of love. De Beauvoir states this beautifully when she writes that, “the curse which lies upon marriage is that too often the individuals are joined in their weakness rather than in their strength – each asking from the other instead of finding pleasure in giving.” 

        Secondly, a healthy romantic relationship can only take place between equals, otherwise the relationship inevitably digresses to that between master and slave. Every relationship implies a power-relation. Naturally if the power-relation is tilted towards one side then reciprocal relations, the most enduring and meaningful form of relations, are impossible. And lastly, romantic love should be rooted in a deep, general love for others that is practically expressed in the everyday. There is nothing more annoying, and few things as venomous, as a clingy couple. Love for a partner should be informed by, and inspire, a love for people in general – not only the Other. 

        But one will say that this is foolish. After all, how can someone love a distant neighbor or perfect stranger? Is this expectation any more practical than talk of red roses or moonlit walks on white sand beaches? This is a wrong-minded question. Unless one transcends themselves through a love for their community and neighbors – even their enemies – their love for their partner will be partial and ill-developed at best. Can a “love” which only loves those who are close or who love them in return be said to be a transcendent love? Can is really be said to be love at all? 
        I suppose most readers will be grinning and shaking their head at this point. If there is one thing that makes people human, it is to be set in one’s beliefs. Yet I know that to err is human too, and so will not be too surprised if I should learn that I have once again missed the mark. 

        At the beginning of his book The Rebel, Albert Camus writes that “Man is the sole creature who refuses to be what he is.” Camus goes on to outline how humankind has rebelled against its mortal condition for the past 150 years. The results were disastrous: revolution, hatred, fear and two world wars. Today, humanity finds itself in much the same place, as war continues to stain the earth red with blood, the poor continue to be oppressed, and fear – of emptiness, of the unknown, of death – continues to gnaw at the heart of man. 

        It is time, as it has long been, for people to acknowledge the fear that holds their souls captive, to stop denying the self-evident fact of their existence. To do so, humanity must accept that just as God is God, humanity is indeed human. And the only force that can transcend these fears, these doubts, is love.