"21," by Ben Niespodziany

...since I'm trying to be more professional, small failures hit harder. They're seeds of guilt which grow like magic beans.

"21," by Ben Niespodziany

There is always pressing, depressing news to consider, but one article I'd like everyone to be familiar with is Karen Hao's "How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation." I feel like there's been a mini-debate the last few months by well-meaning people who study disinfo. Some have been arguing that the endless spam and worthless content of these platforms isn't actively dangerous, just bad for society in general. Others were much more critical, seeing the ability to turn people's brains into mush as key for the advance of fascism globally. Karen Hao makes her case decisively, I believe: spam networks, merely by chasing the money, end up being gamed by authoritarian movements during election season. Hate sells and spreads rapidly, and market mechanisms with no controls are ripe for exploitation.

Below, I've written some thoughts on a short poem by Ben Niespodziany which has been occupying my journal. The notion of standards looms large for me. I'm doing my best to try and be better, meet more standards if I can't exceed a few. And it's fun, in this context, to run into people who've never been held accountable for anything or be held myself to overly strict standards which couldn't be met by the people imposing them.

Niespodziany asks us to consider how a "saint" and the "moon" relate. You know what? That's the perfect starting point for a consideration of standards.

"[21]," by Ben Niespodziany

"The saint"—these words trigger me. Someone reached moral perfection in this life? When it comes to standards, I can't even keep my car clean.

Well, okay. I'm doing better with the whole "being professional" thing. At the least, I'm checking my e-mail more, meeting due dates, supporting colleagues and students. Some standards feel more natural now.

Still, I'll say unnecessary things at times. Or act rashly. It's not that I don't have a filter—my god, I wouldn't have survived if I said and did the things I've seen some (with armies of infinite apologists) say and do. But since I'm trying to be more professional, small failures hit harder. They're seeds of guilt which grow like magic beans. "How could I have thought this way? Am I who I say I am?", I ask, as a giant beanstalk threatens to take me to a place where a giant will crush me.

The guilt a saint must feel—how to comprehend this? They must prevent themselves from merely considering anything unseemly. I wonder if they're tormented by guilt for existing.

[21] (original via Twitter) 
Ben Niespodziany 

The saint
waits up late
for a sign.
The moon
does the same.

Oh no, you say. Great saints have great struggles. They have bad thoughts but work through them. I'm not so sure about this. Honesty entails making mistakes, and moreover, the most harmful things we do come from pure intentions. When we advance morally, it's almost always complicated, never simple. A lot of considerations are balanced at once, for a short time.

A saint does have to talk to God, be in a dialogue where they cannot possibly feel guilt. They see God, in a way, and this would exclude having a wayward thought. A part of their lives has to be moral perfection. I mean, they perform miracles: God trusts them with His power.

Here, however, we're given "the saint" waiting "up late / for a sign." Some are going to say this is why we admire saints. They prove themselves to god. I'm still thinking about the guilt they must feel. But we can both advance a more specific question. Is searching for god, waiting up late for a sign, the same thing as being in dialogue with god? That no guilt is felt, because guilt over the right things isn't really guilt?


"The moon / does the same."

The problem has never been the saint. Maybe the saint exists. Maybe they don't. An "unclear" and "indistinct" idea, to twist Descartes a bit.

The problem is the endless apologetics. The end of saying "there are saints" is saying that "moral perfection is possible" and "miracles do happen." Someone with integrity, who struggles in this life but reaches deeply moral truths, serving with conviction, ends up serving that end. That's not fair to their legacy or to how morality actually operates.

And so I think it's correct for the poem to turn to a mysterious, mystical object. "The moon." Associated with desire, with an order that governs us which we cannot comprehend. "The moon / does the same." It might as well be a saint. It, too, waits for a sign. The sun will rise, and it will go.

The moon as clockwork is what I wonder about. We've got all these ideas about what sainthood could or couldn't be like. A saint inspires some while being ignored by others. But the moon inspires everyone, creating its own cult. And it does this through a constant combination of darkness and the everyday. It's a perfectly explainable phenomenon, except when it's not.

On the other hand, a saint needs the cult. And, to talk about something that's been on my mind recently, hero-worship in general demands cults. We're always creating these little cultures to effectively say "this is why you're wrong, you don't properly appreciate what this amazing artist/thinker/guru does, look at how you're missing the significance of what they produced at age 6." We're not throwing this kind of nonsense at thoughtless people. In point of fact, this is aimed at people who see exactly what we're up to. We're just not able to accept serious critique, or give credit to a real mind.

So there's the saint waiting for a sign, and the moon waiting for a sign. And then there's us. Maybe we're the sign. A better world which wouldn't need the saint because we're actually thinking before we act. A world which could appreciate the romantic beauty of the moon for what it is. The signal we must give seems to involve listening and patience more than ritual, though.