Special, Part 1

Everyone’s got a Charlie Sheen theory, right? Riding a cab in Bronxville a few weeks ago I was treated to my cabbie’s: “Have you seen those women he lives with? Small-breasted. He still fantasizes about sixteen-year-old girls.”

I was content to let that stand as the final word on Sheen, though I’ve seen Bree Olson and find cabbie’s remark to be chest-slander. But then I heard Charlie say this: “I’m tired of pretending like I’m not special. I’m tired of pretending like I’m not bitchin’, a total frickin’ rock star from Mars.”

Then I heard a celebration of him come from the mouth of one of the smartest people I know, and so I started paying more attention. There are many reasons to take an interest in what’s going on with the man. I believe one of them is because we all believe we are special and we want to stand up for him for standing up for us.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of special includes “being in some way superior.” The word comes from the Latin specialis – individual, particular – related to species, of course. I find that important. Special comes, in its roots, from individual. We are all told, in this day of self-esteem and no stupid questions, that we are individuals. Therefore we are all special.

We know at bottom that this cannot be true. We know that if everyone is special, no one is. We don’t really want to live in a world where The Incredibles aren’t allowed to be super; we want there to be superheroes and groundlings. We just also know which group we believe ourselves to be in.

Now, special seemed to be on its way out. A friend reminded me that it’s hard to think of an unironic application of the word these days, since it’s been overused by so many cheesy dramas (“She and I have something really special”), and mocked (Church Lady’s “Well isn’t that special?”) for being an emblem of 80s and 90s political correctness – special education, anyone?

But Charlie Sheen, with his bitchin’ retro lingo, is bringing special back.

“You can’t process me with a normal brain.”

Sheen dares us to specialness. As with art, we don’t want to be on the wrong side of his joke. I get it Charlie, I get it, man. I’m with you. I’m not with those normal people. You know, the ones who watch Two and a Half Men. See also Bret Easton Ellis’s overwritten article on this theme, in which he divides our current culture into Empire and Post-Empire (Anne Hathaway vs. James Franco, for instance; sincerity versus…lackadaisy?) and delights in ridiculing the square stiffs (Tom Cruise) who haven’t figured out the joke’s on them yet.

Or else the response to Sheen is yeah, you’re right. You’re a crack addict. You can’t see it, but I can. My brain is superior to yours. I’m special.

I started swirling in a cloud of Sheen around the same time I was emerging from a cloud of cancer. You know how sometimes you find yourself in a bubble and things just seem to all be related? I kept reading and watching and even experiencing things that all had to do with cancer. I’ll leave most of it up to your imagination, but one of the things I read was a memoir by David Rieff, the son of Susan Sontag (one of America’s greatest 20th century intellectuals), called Swimming in a Sea of Death. It’s about her third and final battle with cancer, the one that took her life.

Rieff writes, “just after she was diagnosed, she had said to me, ‘This time I don’t feel special.'”

Susan Sontag didn’t feel special. If you think that a beautiful mind is in any way special, if you think that being an artist and a writer and a contributor to culture and thought and society is in any way special, it is very hard to make sense of her feeling that way. But when you think of her sick to death with a cancer that was caused by the chemo she went through for her second cancer, you may understand it better, I guess. I don’t know. It still hits me like a ton of bricks. I want someone to hit Charlie Sheen with it though it won’t faze him. If Susan Sontag were alive, she, and only she, could stop the Sheen onslaught.

Sheen vs. Sontag:

Special v. Ordinary:

Non-Stop Porn Sex Winning v. Cancer.

Rieff, who admits to being a pretty depressing bastard, reminds us, “Of course, none of us are special…And yet feeling special is part of what makes us human.”

“My mother came to being ill imbued with a profound sense of being the exception to every rule.” This made me think of the beginning of Joan Didion’s famous essay “On Self-Respect” in which she remembers the first time she realized the lights would not always turn green for her. Rieff, himself a fan of Didion, adds, “On a certain level, all modern people who are not utterly beaten down by experience early and whose good fortune is that their tragedies come later in life feel this way,” that they are the exception.

We may understand that we’re not the exception to the rule, not truly special, but – and this is a theme in Rieff’s memoir – “to understand an illusion is not to rid yourself of it…we live in a society in which each person is encouraged to aspire to be, or thinks of himself or herself as being, not so much exceptional (that is an artist’s vice) but as having been granted an exemption from pain, illness, and even death itself.”

But I wonder if he’s right, if an innate feeling of exceptionalism is unique to artists. For one thing, what’s an artist? Someone who thinks that what they have to say is worth listening to? In that case please add to the list most teachers, lawyers, and people who tell you about their day before they ask you about yours.

Part 2 will answer this and so many other questions, like who would win in a Sheen/Sontag knife fight.

Special, Part 2

I happened to find myself in a large room full of artists last weekend. We were in the lobby of a casting office, with lots of posters of shows and movies grinning down at us, egging us on to stardom (read: specialdom). Drinking cheap wine, I overheard a couple of writers talking about the show Dexter. One young lady was talking about how she felt bad since the show made her constantly root for Dexter, cheer for him to not get caught so he can go on killing people. No shit, I thought. This is why I’m not good at cocktail parties.

Someone who is better at small talk said, “That’s good writing right there. That’s why The Sopranos was so good too. It made you feel sympathy for these mob killers.”

I’ll take Overly Simplified Analyses of Great Art for three hundred, please. But see while The Sopranos is great, Dexter is not. It’s interesting, and it’s a decent soap opera to watch that every now and then manages to cough up a slightly new moral dilemma (though it’s kinda the same one over and over). It doesn’t take great writing to get us to root for Dexter. The show is called Dexter. Who watches Hamlet and thinks, wow, I am just like that Rosencrantz guy? No. As Tom Stoppard pointed out in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we go with the title guy because we are all our own title guys.

Now, Dexter kills people. But he’s got a code and all that shit. This is not a very innovative idea. It goes back a long way in literature but my favorite example comes from Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who believes that since he is an extraordinary person (like Napoleon) the rules should not apply to him and he should be allowed to kill a mean old woman in order to further his aims, which will ultimately be for the betterment of humanity. You can see where utilitarian ethics, the stuff Peter Singer is fond of, can get you into tricky territory; let’s say there’s a billionaire who’s not giving any money to charity: why not just kill him and give it away ourselves?

Of course Dexter-thought, Sheen-thought, Raskolnikov-thought, is tricky territory too. Think of Nietzche’s Ubermensch, or Over-man, which was open to all kinds of interpretations, from the more helpful DC Comics Superman to, well, Nazis.

More personally, the special shield can help us forget our own mortality, our own frailty, our own eventual nothingness. This imperviousness is what Sontag gave up in her final illness. And it’s what King Berenger needs to give up in Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Exit the King. God what I wouldn’t give to see Sheen in that role. Here’s Berenger, hundreds of years old, sick and crazy, married to a young trophy wife, refusing to end the party even with his country in shambles around him. He just does not know how to die, how to let go.

It takes his first wife, the realist, to scold him: “You are doomed, and you should have thought about it from day one. And then every day after that, five minutes every day. That’s not too much to ask. Five minutes a day. Then ten minutes, quarter of an hour, then half. That’s the way to train yourself.”

Memento mori, in other words – remember that you will die. Rieff tell us that Sontag kept a human skull near her writing desk for decades. She contemplated death, she felt herself unspecial, and yet fought it to the end, tooth and nail, refused to give up her hope for an exception.

We all carry this contradiction within us. It’s what keeps us going. I think Berenger’s wife is right, and at night we’ll do her death homework, but I think we also need five minutes every morning to contemplate our specialness, our immortality, to get us out of bed in the morning. Sheen to encourage us to suck the marrow out of the bone, and Sontag to remind us what the bone represents.

“In the end you die in your own arms. It’s all a big nothing! What makes you think you’re so special?”

This is said by Livia Soprano, villainess, to her grandson, as she lies dying in a hospital. It throws her grandson into a tailspin. He starts reading “Nitch” (Nietzsche) and being moody.

Where I think Dexter draws his appeal – and Raskolnikov has this too but he’s not nearly as charming about it – is in his status as an outsider. He (at least in the first season; this seems to have been dropped) has problems having the emotions everyone around him has; he’s always walking around with a big secret, separated from everyone. He’s isolated, and we feel isolated a lot of the time, and we sometimes feel like the people around us are martians, and so we relate, I think. Again, nothing new: see also Meursault in Camus, but we’re watching TV not browsing a library.

My point is you do not need to be a good writer to exploit our fascination (and identification) with the outsider. My professor in college liked to talk about how Shakespeare was revolutionary because he so often focused on the outsider – Shylock, Othello, all those cross-dressing heroines – but he never considered that maybe we only think Shakespeare is great because we like those stories so much.


Well, maybe not. He is pretty great.

Eventually we grow out of our A.J. Soprano sturm und drang, because it’s impossible to keep living and not do so, but our perpetual love of outsider stories suggests that part of our “Parents Just Don’t Understand” phase never truly wears off. We all feel a little bit alone. We all feel a little bit different. A little bit special.

After all, Sheen/Sontag might not really be opposites, but two sides of the same coin (oh, what a dead metaphor). The catchphrase of hedonism is “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” so Sheen may well be living to the hilt because he knows it will end eventually, sooner rather than later.

Except for the fact that Two and a Half Men will be in syndication forever and ever. That really is special.

Word Extinction #3: Altruistic

A beautiful mind is the best aphrodisiac, so feast yourselves on Peter Singer, ladies and gentlemen.

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher, probably the most famous philosopher of our time (which says about as much as you think it does). He teaches at Princeton and stirs people up everywhere.

He made a first big splash by writing Animal Liberation, since considered a Bible of the animal rights movement. And he has made many littler splashes since then. He can be classified as a utilitarian, which means that he thinks what is best for the most people is generally best. He writes a whole ton on ethics, and in the past couple of decades has been making a strong argument that we all ought to be giving more to charity than we do.

Specifically, we ought to be giving to causes which work to eradicate worldwide poverty. Not U.S. recession poverty, but three of my nine kids died of diarrhea poverty. Muhammad Yunus poverty. By the way, Yunus is having some trouble in Bangladesh.

If you took AP Lang in the recent past, there’s a decent chance you read something like “The Singer Solution to Poverty,” which was an article he wrote in the 90s which laid out an early version of his argument.

He starts off by giving us a summary of the film Central Station, where a woman puts herself up against some serious obstacles to save the life of a young boy. He likes to do this; he has many tricky stories that lead us to say, “Well of course you save the kid even if it ruins your new shoes. Of course you do that, what are you, crazy?”

And then he’s all like, oh, well, then why did you buy new shoes last week instead of donating $50 to Oxfam? Don’t you think that could have saved a life too?

And then we’re all like, oh…shit.

Singer worked out a number, the amount of money he thinks one can live on in the Western world. He thinks we should donate any income we make above and beyond that number. Wouldn’t you give the money if someone held a gun to a kid’s head in front of you and asked for it? Or actually held guns to the heads of hundreds of kids, since subtracting Singer’s modest number from an average income would save not one but many many. Sure, you would. Unless you’re a dick.

Yes, I used a cat instead of a kid for the picture.

But put the kid in Africa or somewhere we can’t locate on a map and we no longer feel the need to donate. For me, buying books and theater tickets comes first. For you probably porn subscriptions and White Russian fixings. A chacun son gout.

Singer’s article caused an uproar when I taught AP Lang. Many of the students got incredibly defensive: “How much money is Singer giving?” they asked. I told them that was completely beside the point. An argument is valid whether or not the person putting it forth is living out its tenets. They sipped their Starbucks. (There was a palpable resentment one morning when another teacher came in to raise money for our Haiti fundraiser, and told the kids if they could afford Starbucks they could afford to give money to Haiti.)

Well, Singer has mellowed his argument a bit for his more recent book, The Life You Can Save. The idea is the same, but now he emphasizes doing what feels comfortable. Like a yoga class. Then next class you stretch a little farther, then a little farther. Yeah, I was feeling a cat motif today. Get over it.

In the book by the way he already has an answer for every counterargument you’ve got. This finally brings me to our new word extinction. Sometimes we judge those who donate, who give their time and energy and money to the poor and the needy. We question their motives, wondering if they’re not doing this simply for self-promotion, or for the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with doing a good deed. If you’re doing it for those reasons, we say, you’re not being altruistic. And then we sip more Starbucks.

The word altruism was coined by a French philosopher named August Comte in the 19th century. He is tied to John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, whom we usually associate with utilitarianism. Comte wanted to found a religion of humanity, and the idea of serving others (in French, autrui, from the Latin alter, other) led to the word altruism.

The word’s taken some kicks along the way. Ayn Rand is famous for writing really long books and for believing altruism to be evil. She thought people should work for what is in their own best interests. This has made her popular with rich people for years. In The Fountainhead, she makes a cartoony villain out of socialist Ellsworth Toohey, repeatedly drawing our attention to his literal giant egg head. Subtle, Ayn.

Throw in that weird rape scene and you can see why The Fountainhead has been popular with assholes and incubator intellectuals for a long time. And also why it has confused lots of high schoolers, like the one who asked for help on answers.yahoo.com:

In the book The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, it appears that Howard rapes Dominique. In websites like sparknotes and gradesaver, it says how this scene is very important. Why? And also, how come Dominique wanted Howard to rape her for? If she liked it, then would it really be called rape? Please answer these questions in your own words. Thank you.

Love it. Speaking of school again, that same English teacher I mentioned above was delighted to find out that the Ayn Rand Scholarship Fund gives out free books to teachers who get their kids to write essays about Ayn Rand’s philosophy, objectivism. I reminded her that cults always give free literature.

But we’re missing the point! The point is that The Fountainhead spawns those irritating conversations, the ones where people try to prove that there is no such thing as a selfless act. It’s like the asshole who always brings up that a non-conformist is always conforming to non-conformity. Yes, thank you, I am also not mentally handicapped, so I understood that already. Put down your Starbucks.

“When celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Madonna support organizations that support the poor,” Singer writes, “we look for hidden selfish reasons…Undeniably selfless behavior makes us uncomfortable,” since we don’t act that way ourselves usually, so we are happier believing that they are shallow attention-seeking bleeding hearts. And there is no doubt that a lot of charitable behavior and donation owes itself to selfish motives of one degree or another.

But so what, Singer asks? Hasn’t the money still been donated, the child saved? What is the potential point in beating out of yourself the little pleasure you might get from sacrificing your time or your money? We only really judge the motives of others in order to feel better that our acts do not measure up to theirs.

Objectively speaking, the motive of a charitable act does not matter. Pure altruism, whether or not it’s an impossibility, is actually an irrelevance. Give $450 to give a woman for fistula surgery and then post it on facebook for crying out loud.

Is it nobler to keep it to yourself, to stay anonymous, to not let the left hand know what the right is doing, as Jesus would have it? Probably. But life is too short to worry about sneaking around our selfish human natures. Children are dying. Sign the check.

So I think we should just get rid of the word altruism altogether. It’s been distorted to demand some impossible standard of selflessness. Generosity and decency and charity describe the better angels of our nature just fine without this stinking French import of a word.

You should read The Life You Can Save. It’s not long. Or if you want to buy me some Starbucks one day I’ll give you a twenty-minute lecture version. Don’t worry; I’ll recycle our garbage after.

But before I leave Peter Singer I want to introduce you to at least one of his other arguments, which has gotten him in some trouble, as you might imagine. The website utilitarian.net has collected many of his writings, including a short one on abortion. Singer describes the primary argument against abortion as having three points:

It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
 A human foetus is an innocent human being.
 Therefore it is wrong to kill a human foetus.

He says that most abortion defenders attack the second point, initiating “a dispute about whether a foetus is a human being, or, in other words, when a human life begins.” But what if they went after the first point?

To describe a being as ‘human’ is to use a term that straddles two distinct notions: membership of the species Homo sapiens, and being a person, in the sense of a rational or self-conscious being. If ‘human’ is taken as equivalent to ‘person’, the second premiss of the argument, which asserts that the foetus is a human being, is clearly false; for one cannot plausibly argue that a foetus is either rational or self-conscious. If, on the other hand, ‘human’ is taken to mean no more than ‘member of the species Homo sapiens‘, then it needs to be shown why mere membership of a given biological species should be a sufficient basis for a right to life. Rather, the defender of abortion may wish to argue, we should look at the foetus for what it is – the actual characteristics it possesses – and value its life accordingly.

In other words, what’s so special about a human life that guarantees it the right to life?

I want you to think about that as you eat your giant steak. From Starbucks.

Finally, on a more cheerful note, maybe, I have to include a story about Paul Farmer from Singer’s book. Farmer is a doctor famous for his work for the poor, especially in Haiti. Well, Singer tells about a time when Farmer was not able to save a newborn child. It died, and he cried. The curious thing is he said he cried because he realized he had in his mind substituted his young daughter for the baby. This seems normal, maybe even admirable. After all, we’re always told to imagine “what if it was your mother, your child, etc.” But Farmer was upset by this substitution. Why should he have needed to personalize this in order to be sad about it? “He saw his inability to love other children as he loved his own as ‘a failure of empathy,'” Singer writes.

In a real life example of that death penalty exercise I suggested (visualing someone who’s not like you and repeating that his life has value), Farmer now carries two pictures wherever he goes: one of his daughter, and one of his patients.

Keep that child in sight, and you’ll be more likely to let those shoes of yours get ruined.

How much do I donate, you ask? Completely beside the point. Remember?

BUT, if you want a photo of a child unlike your own to keep in your wallet, here’s one I took.