Andy Nowicki’s Considering Suicide

Andy Nowicki’s book ‘Considering Suicide’ belongs to, what I would call, the cultural alienation genre. Nowicki’s alienation is not of the Marxist variety that rails against division of labor and harbors the juvenile desire that all work should be play. No, Nowicki is fundamentally not at home in this world and believes that everything that makes life worth living has been lost to a meaningless, shallow and vulgar culture. People with Nowicki’s beliefs and temperament have a real problem. They have nowhere to go. To Nowicki, this culture is of such a universal and invading nature that the only choice is to endure it or live outside modern civilization itself. In this predicament, it is not surprising that the author considers the question of suicide.

As a self-identified “Catholic reactionary” there is an obvious problem about committing suicide. The author discusses a number of arguments in favor of suicide and  ultimately dismisses them. If suicide is to make a statement, there is the real possibility that after the heroic act is executed no one cares, and those who do, only briefly.  Nevertheless, Nowicki writes that “what I want is for them to know is that I haven’t settled for the lie that life is worth living in a choose-your-own-meaning culture.” But I doubt this makes a strong case for suicide. The rest of the world still doesn’t care and, for respectable Epicurean reasons, the author will not experience this gratification himself.  Most people will not even understand what the author would be trying to convey. Many people are not obsessed with the decay of today’s culture, suffering or death. In a moment of real clarity the author asks, “is the luckiest person the one who dies in such a profound state of ignorance?” At least since Erasmus wrote ‘The Praise of Folly’, the answer is “yes.” The only credible reason to commit suicide that survives scrutiny is the straightforward determination that the the pain of life outweighs its pleasures. But even in this case, most people still have a hardwired instinct to survive.

Let me entertain two arguments that could provide counterweight to the author’s deep desperation and pessimism. The first is a logical argument about meaning. It does not make sense to apply the word “meaning” to existence as such. Just like it does not make sense to search for categorical imperatives. The existence of God does not end the quest for ultimate meaning.  The most coherent Christian theology (orthodox Calvinism) arrives at the conclusion that we exist for God’s self glorification. And then what? Does this satisfy our thirst for “meaning?”

I doubt Mr. Nowicki is a Marxist. If he were, he could argue that all the unfair and ugly things in the world are interrelated and reinforcing and reality is exhausted by them. But we are fortunate that reality defies such determinism. A decadent political system can co-exist with the most beautiful expressions of art. Great technical progress can co-exist with dumb ideas about economics and public policy. An impoverished and crude  mainstream culture does not exclude longer and healthier lifespans. It is tempting and easy to think that all imaginable bad things in life come bundled, but there is little evidence that this is the case.

If these arguments do not persuade, I think there are two real possibilities: (1) the suffering of the person is not dependent on his environment but reflects an unfavorable physiological state of the brain, which may be mitigated by pharmacological treatment; or (2) the person’s suffering is of an abstract existential nature. Here the problem is not contemporary life but the fabric of the universe, and our awareness of it, as such. At that point we enter the nihilistic and Godless universe of writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Liggotti. Since the writer is a self-identified “Catholic Reactionary” I do not think we should go there but I sometimes have the impression that Nowicki wants to have his nihilist cake and eat the bread of Christ too.  For example, in chapter 7 the author ponders the question of God’s sovereignty and it is not clear to me whether he is converting to Calvinism (or Augustinianism) in this chapter or expressing serious doubts about his own religion.

To Nowicki, death “comes to everyone” and is a source of despair. He writes that  “the Carpe Diem” attitude quickly makes one miserable, for the very reason that one can only seize the day for so long.” The view that everything is futile when life is ultimately futile has a strong following. On the other hand,  the view that is it exactly death that gives meaning to life (see humanist death apologetics) has a strong following as well. The, otherwise not very enlightening, neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse rejects this alleviation of death from a contingent natural feature of life to something that gives or takes away meaning:

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man…

Aging or death is not a biological necessity and cryopreservation of the brain after legal death may even allow people who are given up by contemporary medicine to benefit from a second opinion from a future medical professional. Our habit of burning or burying a person that is “dead” by contemporary medical criteria gives the question of what it means to be “pro-life” a whole new meaning.

Nowicki has also written a book about the psychology of liberalism, and if his his observations in ‘Considering Suicide’ about contemporary politics are an indication, this should be well worth reading. He holds a special animosity for modern liberals and contemporary intellectuals who practice ethnomasochism to signal their own moral superiority and use the threat of “hate” to pursue their own power-hungry and hateful agenda:

“No one hates the way hate-haters hate ; no one is more dishonest about his intentions or in his overall self-representation than one who loudly proclaims that his goal is to rid the world of “hate.” Those who profess to hate “hate,” who cannot tolerate “intolerance,” seem capable of anything. More on point, they are capable of justifying anything.   If they are harsh, shrill, and mean, if they make unfair accusations or commit outrageous slanders, if they ruin or destroy lives, they feel no shame or guilt. After all, even if they go too far sometimes or make mistakes, they can fall back on the noble crutch. Their hearts are in the right place. “We only want to stamp out hate!” they scream.

Not surprisingly, Nowicki feels little affinity for contemporary “conservatives” who seem more eager to  export America’s civilization-in-decline to other countries than to roll back modern liberalism,  abortion (to which he devotes a powerful chapter), the welfare  state, and other manifestations of secular modernity. He attributes a lot of the ills of contemporary society and politics to the view that there are no objective standards for right and wrong anymore.

When he writes, “If God does not exist, then all claims to legitimacy are a ruse. Politics is gang warfare writ large, and all high minded talk of “justice” mere cant and hypocrisy,” there is little reason to disagree. Politics, per definition, concerns, non-unanimous, collective decision making that is an imposition on spontaneously evolved conventions that foster peace and trade. In modern times, the locus of power has shifted from God (his “representatives”) to the State but the power and obedience relationship remains identical. There is a serious debate between those who think objective values exist and can be discovered through reason and those who question this whole project. According to the moralists, these objective values put limits on what politicians  and public officials may do. Those with more empirical and skeptical views disagree, and argue that the existence of politics rests exactly on such metaphysical illusions. To them, contemporary politics feeds off the residual metaphysical thinking of religion and the quest for power and money is hidden by appeals to “rights” and “social justice.” The need for politicians to cultivate such illusionary concepts is obvious because the legitimacy of the state would greatly suffer if politics is simply seen as “gang warfare writ large.” Nowicky is clearly on the right track about the pathologies of modern political culture, but he seeks the solution in less modernism instead of a more analytic / scientific worldview. For a stimulating contrast, consult L.A. Rollins’s ‘The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays’ (review here), by the same publisher. Nowicki’s book ends with some reflections on existence and non-existence that set the stage for another uplifting Nine Banded Books publication, Jim Crawford’s ‘Confessions of an Antinatalist.’

Despite the main subject of the book (suicide), I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Considering Suicide.’ The cover artwork and the use of lower-case fonts for the title are appealing. A lot of the author’s cultural and political observations are dead-on and, I think, can be sustained with solely secular arguments as well. His relationship with death, meaning, and God seems more tortured to me and reminiscent of his indecisiveness about suicide. The author may be a Catholic but the tone of the book is decidedly nihilist, including his reflections on religion. In ending, I was surprised to detect the occasional use of strong language and open discussion of sexual matters in this book. If we can no longer rely on a Catholic Reactionary in such matters, all hope must be lost indeed!

The politics of travel guides

In a politicized society one should not be surprised to find politics in the most undesirable places. One would not expect political bias in travel guides. After all, most travel guides are published to sell as many copies as possible and therefore need to be factual and “inclusive.” Strangely enough, most travel guide writers seem to interpret this mandate as a stamp of approval to show disdain for any developments in a country that are not deemed cosmopolitan enough. The social and political history chapters in travel guides are so predictable that it makes you wonder if all travel book writers work from the same template and just tweak the details for each individual country or city. In the worst travel guides, social history is political history and the only exception to this rule is the obligatory discussion of the protest generation, which is generally discussed in a favorable light as a form of enlightened protest against cultural oppression instead of the start of a power quest of a spoiled and entitlement-seeking generation.

In most travel books there is one specific phenomenon where all attempts to be neutral are consciously ignored. Most European countries have witnessed the rise of social movements and political parties that challenge the ethnic and cultural egalitarianism of the political class (the political class now being the “protest generation” discussed earlier). The associated parties are almost invariably designated as “far right,” “ultra right,” and “xenophobic.” Upon reflection, there is something strangely incoherent about the way in which such cultural and political movements are treated. Travel guide writers usually pay lip service to the importance of countries preserving and cultivating their traditions and strongly encourage tourists to respect those traditions as well. But at the same time, any cultural or political movement within those countries that seeks to preserve those same traditions through means such as restricting immigration or discouraging the practice of non-traditional religions are treated as a bunch of unenlightened neanderthals. Some writers must sense the incoherent nature of their perspective and resolve this by postulating that the essence of the country or city that they write about is its “tolerance “or “diversity.” What started out as a review of a region’s unique culture culminates in the idea that the essence of that culture is to welcome and celebrate its own demise.

At this point, one wonders if those writers really fail to understand that the simplistic self-congratulating cosmopolitanism that is implicit in their writings contributes to the very homogenization of culture that makes so many big cities in different parts of the world so culturally indistinguishable from one another.  The most amusing example of this phenomenon can be found in the discussion of  “diverse” neighborhoods. These high-crime, high-unemployment neighborhoods are invariably being praised for being “colorful,” “exciting,” and “innovating.” This sounds appealing until you discover that the descriptions of such neighborhoods are nearly identical, regardless of the city or country being reviewed.

It appears that most writers of travel books think that the identity of a country or region is simply the joint acceptance of a set of abstract cultural norms and folklore. Of course, in modern Western societies there is anything but the joint acceptance of cultural norms and practices. One does not have to be a rabid right winger to observe that you cannot just replace one group of people with another group of people and expect no effects on the culture and traditions of a city. Surely, one can claim that such a development is dynamic and that cities have always been vehicles of change. In this case, however, that change is not a spontaneously evolved response to new technological and cultural events of a people, but an authoritarian top-down engineered experiment of a self-righteous political class with cosmopolitan aspirations.

It may be too much to expect that travel guide writers and editors restrain their political biases, but surely, there must be something better than travel guides, where substantial segments of the native population of a country are pictured as ignorant buffoons and cosmopolitanism is celebrated as the country’s defining identity.

Is politics neutral?

One assumption that has greatly contributed to the growth of government is the belief that the practice of politics as such is ideologically neutral. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the most abstract level politics concerns the making of non-unanimous collective decisions. To endorse and participate in this practice undermines a strict interpretation of liberalism. Similarly, political democracy is not compatible with liberalism either. Is is therefore not surprising that the objective of classical liberalism/libertarianism is increasingly being recognized as the depoliticization of society.

At a more practical level politics is far from ideologically neutral either. The low probability of affecting the outcome encourages rational individuals to abstain from voting. After being elected to office, politicians are routinely accused of selling out and becoming part of the system. Considering the incentives elected politicians face this should not be surprising, but this aspect of politics is not neutral in terms of ideology either. When a limited government politician sells out, the result is invariably more government. But when a “liberal” politician sells out the result is  generally not less government  but  more opportunism, corporatism, and political calculation.  There are few examples of elected politicians reinventing themselves during office to pursue a less interventionist agenda but there are many examples of elected politicians betraying their small government rhetoric.  The typical conservative response is “this time is different.” There is little recognition among most conservatives and many libertarians that the practice of politics itself is biased towards undermining their goals.

Faced with a system that encourages  irrational behavior and that is biased towards the growth of government the only remaining  response for an advocate of strict liberalism is to sell his vote. Unfortunately, the selling of votes is not permitted. Such an obvious feature of democracy becomes a little more mysterious if one considers that  politicians routinely buy votes by promising certain segments of the population redistribution of taxable income. As Randall Holcombe writes:

While at first one might be uneasy about selling votes, it happens in Congress all the time.  Senators and Representatives will agree to support a bill only if it has some specific special interest benefit added to it, and often special interests pay for that support through campaign contributions or other payments to the legislator.  People take this for granted, as the way politics works.  If it is OK for elected officials to trade or sell their votes, it is not immediately apparent that ordinary citizens should be prevented from selling theirs.

Not voting is not much of a political “strategy.” From an individual perspective not voting is just as ineffective as voting. But there are not many “activities” that convey the core message of classical liberalism as clearly as not endorsing, or participating in, the political process.  When attempts are made to overcome the addiction to politics, more fruitful means to restore individual liberty can be explored.

Further reading:

The calculus of voting
The addiction to politics

Beyond politics