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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Damn near the best article on ethics I have ever read

Joan Didion's classic essay "On Self-Respect".

Makes the point, among others, that what is critical is not that you avoid this or that misdeed -- she is clear about saying that people with self-respect still screw up, or screw around -- but how you deal with it, and with yourself.

Nothing else matters half as much.

The consequence of this is that ethics isn't really about doing good deeds or avoiding bad ones. It's not something you can do with a checklist. It's about who you are, at the deepest level.

You can find it here: http://www.vogue.com/3241115/joan-didion-self-respect-essay-1961/


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Being enlightened doesn't make you right

The last few days I've been reading Mark Richardson's Zen and Now, a retrospective and commentary on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Actually I bought the book a while ago but never finished it; and lately I've been browsing through it at random when I have a few minutes.

This morning I lighted on a paragraph where Richardson describes Pirsig's hospitalization for schizophrenia, an episode which Bob Pirsig himself described as "hard enlightenment". His wife Nancy commented that no-one who knew Bob -- besides Bob himself -- confused his mental illness with enlightenment. But she went on to say that she understood why he did. After all, once he had decided that he was enlightened, he no longer had to take seriously anybody else's contrary opinions. If she ever disagreed with him about anything he would no longer argue ... just stare her down and then walk away, because after all he was enlightened and she wasn't. So of course she couldn't be expected to understand why he was -- inescapably -- right.

Yeah, I get it too. It's a great solace to tell yourself that you are deep enough and smart enough to see into the true nature of things, while the trolls around you toil away in muddy confusion. But that's just a story ... one more of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, one more of the stories which enchant us and intoxicate us if we take them too seriously. It's just one more form of delusion, subtly masquerading as freedom from delusion.

The point is that enlightenment is an experience. It can be a profound experience. But it doesn't make you God. Though you see deeply into the nature of reality, that everything changes, that attachment brings suffering, and all the rest ... none of that helps you remember any more clearly whose turn it is to take out the garbage. None of it helps you know what to say to your kid's teacher, who has called a conference because your kid is acting up in class. None of it makes you a better husband, or father, or employee, or friend. None of it makes you right. It's just an experience.

There are ways to build on it, of course. There are ways to build on all our experiences. If you wake up one morning to find yourself enlightened, there are libraries full of advice on how to live now: how to be compassionate, how to tell the truth, how to pick your way through the day without stumbling or falling back asleep. But, like anything, it takes practice.

That part is less exciting, of course. But without it, enlightenment is just another intoxicant.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"McFarland" again, or, The unrecognized virtue of poverty

There’s another point to make about the movie “McFarland USA”. It’s about poverty.
From time to time rich folks get sentimental about poverty. There’s plenty of literature that celebrates the poor man as nobler and more virtuous than the rich man. And like all deliberate sentimentality, it lies. There is no ipso facto virtue in being poor, and plenty of poor men through the years have been blackhearted scoundrels. One might almost think that some rich man invented this trope in hope of buying off the poor man with praise, to avoid being murdered in his bed or having to part with real cash.
But that’s not the whole story. While the trope of the virtuous poor is false, I think that at root it is not so much cynical as unskillful. There is something real that the trope is trying to say; it says the thing badly – it says the thing falsely – but the thing is real all the same. It’s just hard to put into words.
“McFarland USA” probably still oversimplifies, but it puts a part of this elusive fact into pictures. And what it shows is this.
On the one hand, poverty does nothing to inspire personal virtue. The school is right across from the jail, and we are told that plenty of the school’s graduates end up in jail before too long. One runner’s father is released from jail during the story. He comes home to find his unmarried teenaged daughter pregnant, and throws a violent tantrum. Another character admits he is a reformed gangbanger – his term, not mine. Some guys who are hinted to be his former gang members come looking for him, and there is a fight – offscreen – which leaves blood all over the street. And we see all manner of pettier vices across the community. There’s no more personal virtue in the town of McFarland than in any richer town.
What else do we see? Coach White’s wife is driving through town and her car overheats – or, well, something’s wrong with it that involves clouds billowing out from under the hood, we’re not told more than that. One of their neighbors runs a beauty parlor across the street from where the car stops; she brings Mrs. White into her shop, gives her a manicure, and gets her boyfriend to fix the car. Coach White had bought the team running shoes out of his own pocket – the cheapest shoes he could find because that’s all he could afford. The community families put on a tamale sale and car wash to raise money for better shoes and decent uniforms. Coach White forgets his daughter’s fifteenth birthday; but the community mothers band together to put on a quinceañera celebration for her.
None of this is about personal virtue. All of it is about helping each other – about social virtue. And this is what’s true about poverty. It doesn’t make anybody better. But it makes everybody need help. We have, deep inside us, a social instinct to help each other. Poverty calls it into action, gives us an occasion to use it. Poverty allows us the chance to help each other, and therefore – oh, so indirectly! – it nurtures an environment in which social virtue can grow. This is why Mrs. White – who hated the town at first (as did the whole family) – finally says that nowhere else has ever felt so much like home. McFarland, because it is so desperately poor, is a healthier community than any richer town could ever be.
Nothing is guaranteed. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison writes in “Women and Blacks and Bensonhurst” that in her childhood in Bensonhurst (nobody’s idea of a rich community) people made a virtue of minding their own business. If everyone in the building heard a gunshot from the apartment directly above yours, nobody would investigate and nobody would call the police because “We mind our own business.” A girl in her class had only one eye because her father had knocked out the other one while beating her with a broomstick, and nobody did anything. Poverty doesn’t guarantee that people will help each other. Poverty doesn’t guarantee a healthier community.
All it can do is to provide the environment in which a healthy community might grow, if not stunted by other forces. And there is deep inside us, somehow, a voice calling us to help each other. That’s the most we can guarantee in the real world. But even that little is good.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"McFarland USA" or Revisiting "Ancient politics vs modern"

Last year I wrote a post in which I argued that modern political entities are by nature stronger than ancient ones: "Set up a modern state and an ancient one side by side, and the first will conquer the second as soon as it wants to." But now I'm not so sure. Does the rich power always vanquish the poor one?

Last month Walt Disney Pictures released "McFarland USA" in which a school teacher with nowhere else to go starts a cross-country team at one of the poorest high schools in California, and they sweep the CIF championships. It's a good movie: if you haven't seen it, stop reading philosophy blogs and go rent it. But it calls into question the seemingly natural victory of rich over poor. Before one race (on a course with a lot of hills) the coach tells his runners,
Just remember: when you start to feel pain going up those hills, so does the guy next to you and the guy in front of you. This race is going to come down to who can handle more pain. My bet is on you guys. [The quote is inexact.]
The rest is history.

Does this attitude translate to the battlefield? James Fallows recently wrote about why the American military -- the richest and most powerful army in the world by a very large margin -- keeps losing. In particular, we lose to poorer forces that are willing to engage in non-stop non-traditional warfare, particularly guerilla warfare. The North Vietnamese were very good at this; more recently, so were the Afghans. Armies like that nibble away at us until we just don't care any more, and call it a day. As Ho Chi Minh famously said, "You will kill ten of our men, and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it."

This suggests that maybe there is a breathing space, after all, in which ancient political forms could flourish. The city would have to be one like Sparta, oriented entirely around making war. It would help if it were located somewhere remote and inaccessible: Afghanistan and northern Pakistan are actually perfect in that regard, but they are already taken. But it's not impossible.

Even so, the margins in which such a city could prosper are narrow. When I summarized McFarland's victories by saying "The rest is history," it is instructive to look at all the history. McFarland's winning streak came to an end when the California Interscholastic Federation reclassified the small school into Division I, so that they had to compete against the largest schools in the state. No matter how good they were, they couldn't dominate against that deep a field and they began losing. Likewise, an ancient city transplanted to the modern day could probably hold out for some time against a larger power if they dedicated themselves heart and soul to guerilla combat. (I leave for another time the question whether such dedication would be consistent with the spirit of ancient cities in other ways.) But ancient cities were small. The city in Plato's Laws had 5040 families. If the larger power is sufficiently determined, sooner or later it can kill every last family and extinguish the city. And in the meanwhile, the city would have lived every minute as an armed camp. It's hard to think of this as the Good Life.

It may not be impossible to achieve ancient political ideals today, but there is no question that the attempt would be difficult on many levels.   

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What is "reality"?

I was reading an article this afternoon, a piece written 37 years ago by Robert Pirsig called "Cruising Blues and Their Cure".  He writes about people who love sailing – on weekends, at any rate – who plan for years to spend their whole retirement sailing and then give it up after a few months because it's not what they thought it would be.  The complaints vary, of course, but most say that they just want to "get back to reality."  And Pirsig asks, reasonably enough, what that means.  He answers:

As best I can make out, reality for them is the mode of daily living they followed before taking to the water; unlike cruise sailing, it is the one shared by the majority of the members of our culture. It usually means gainful employment in a stable economic network of some sort without too much variance from what are considered the norms and mores of society. In other words, back to the common herd.

Plato characterized exactly the same way of life – making allowances for the differences of time and place – by using his famous image of the Cave:

Imagine men [says Socrates] to be living in an underground cave-like dwelling place, which has a way up to the light along its whole width, but the entrance is a long way up. The men have been there from childhood, with their neck and legs in fetters, so that they remain in the same place and can only see ahead of them ….  Between [the light] and the prisoners … a low wall has been built … [where] performers … show their puppets above it…. Do you think, in the first place, that such men could see anything of themselves and each other except the shadows which the fire casts upon the wall of the cave in front of them? – How could they?

And is not the same true of the objects [puppets and other things] carried along the wall? – Quite.

If they could converse with one another, do you not think that they would consider these shadows to be the real things? – Necessarily.

Pirsig goes on to discuss how odd it is to think that jobs and bank accounts and keeping up with the Joneses are all real, while sun and wind and waves and storms are unreal; and he has some valuable things to say about how to handle the blues.  But what interests me is this very word real itself, and the remarkable fact that these depressed weekend sailors and Plato use exactly the same word to describe exactly opposite things.  Pirsig's depressed sailors want to "get back to reality" by returning the the very world of social conventions and familiar opinions that Plato says is most strikingly unreal.  What gives?

The first thing to clear out of the way – because it's a red herring – is the notion that real means "physical" or "solid" while unreal means "insubstantial" or "dreamlike".  Pirsig's depressed weekend sailors don't think the seafaring life is a dream.  They know perfectly well that the ocean is physical, and that if they fail to keep their boats in good repair they could drown in a storm.  In the same way, Plato might call our conventional lives "unreal" in some sense; but even Plato would admit that if two thoroughly conventional guys get into a fist fight in a bar, they'll both come out of it with bruises and maybe broken bones.  So much for "unreal".

But if the distinction between real and unreal isn't about physical perceptibility, what's it about?  Consider the example of a mirage in the desert.  You look at the horizon and see it shimmering in a way that you normally associate with pools of open water.  You're thirsty so you are about to run towards it, but your experienced guide puts a hand on your shoulder and tells you, "Stop. It's not real."

What's not real?  The water?  If there's no water there, then how can he be talking about it?  Or does he mean the shimmering isn't real?  But of course it is – you can see it!  You know for a fact that the shimmering is there!

No, what he means is a third thing.  What your guide is trying to tell you, in fact, is:

I know you see a shimmering on the horizon. So do I. But it doesn't mean what you think it means. You are used to thinking that shimmering on the horizon means 'water' … that the value of shimmering on the horizon is that it is a sign for where you can find water. But I tell you now that in the desert things are different. In the desert, that shimmering has a different value from what you expected. It doesn't mean what you think it means. It's not important as a sign of water. It's not real.

And that's what is going on here.  When Pirsig's weekend sailors talk about "reality" what they mean is "the stuff that matters, the stuff that's important, the stuff that has value."  So does Plato.  Pirsig's sailors don't want to get away from the conventional lives of their neighbors for too long, because they are afraid they'll lose touch and never be able to go back.  They are afraid they will become permanently unable to play the subtle social games that they mastered long ago, that they now play unconsciously.  And they have no idea what life could look like outside those games.  All they see is an Abyss opening beneath their feet – an Abyss of bickering or misery or hardship or loneliness or destitution or any other nightmare they could care to name.  Whatever it is that they see stretch out before them, it's not the familiar game of chasing the shadows on the cave wall, and so to their way of thinking it's not important.  It's not valuable.  It's not real.  And they want no part of it.

Ironically, Plato and Pirsig agree with these people exactly about what they are facing, only they don't think it's all that bad.  In the rest of his article, Pirsig talks about the changes you go through if you just face up to the depression and live through it.  You come out the other side as a different person.  Your whole frame of reference changes.  You don't see things the way you used to.  And that means that if you ever do decide to go back to living on land, it won't be the same as it was before: you won't relate to your friends the same way, you won't relate to yourself the same way … you won't have the same life.  You can't go back.

Plato says the same thing more graphically.  When one of the captives in his picture gets free from the Cave and climbs out into the sun, he's dazzled at first by the bright light.  But gradually his eyes adjust, and he can see for the first time what the world truly looks like.  Then when he tries to go back into the Cave, he's almost totally blind.  The Cave is dark, all there is to see is a series of shadows flitting on the wall, and he stumbles around uselessly.  Even the village idiot sees the shadows more subtly than the fellow who escaped, because the idiot's eyes have never adjusted to regular daylight and therefore are attuned to the cavernous dark.

So Plato agrees completely with the weekend sailors that getting away from their conventional lives means losing touch with that way of life – probably for good.  The only place he differs is that for Plato it is the conventional lives that are unreal, because for him that way of life is the one that is unimportant and valueless.  And for Plato it is the life of deep insight – into your own nature and that of the world around you – that is important, that matters, that is of value.  For Plato, it is the life of insightful contemplation that is real.

Plato never spent his retirement sailing alone across the sea, but he and Pirsig would clearly have plenty to talk about.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Asceticism and fragility

One of the points that makes Platonism a hard sell in the modern world is its asceticism.  The dialogs of Plato -- some of them, at any rate -- are rich with sensuous imagery, with the promise of wine and sex and song as well as brilliant conversation.  But the Platonic tradition as universally practised was in some respects a cold, colorless thing by comparison; and this coldness has its roots in the very same corpus of writings.  Taste the Platonic opus here and there almost at random, swirl it around on your tongue for a few minutes, and you find an unending struggle: against Plato's deep and urgent lust for the world tugs his equally desperate yearning to escape it.  For every Symposium there is a Phaedo.  And it is a bit of a puzzle, really.  Plotinus -- clearly inside the Platonic tradition -- wrote a long defense of the goodness of the material world, to refute the Gnostics who taught that the material world is evil.  And yet, notwithstanding this unyielding defense of the goodness of the material world (and so, implicitly, of the body), there remained in Platonism at exactly the same time a rejection of the pleasures of the body and a call to strict asceticism.  What gives?

Of course maybe they were just being inconsistent, but that's not an interesting answer and it should be our last choice ... when every other answer has failed us.  And I don't think we need to go that far.  I think if we look we can find more interesting -- and maybe even truer -- reasons to support Platonic asceticism.

What is asceticism, after all?  It's a way of life that rejects ... no, wait, hold up a minute.  To define asceticism, or anything, in terms of what it rejects makes it sound a purely negative ideal.  Is that fair?  Let's turn it around.  Platonist ascetics eat, but they eat a small amount and their food is simple.  They sleep, but without luxury and perhaps not for many hours at a time.  They drink water in preference to wine.  They may accept the company of others, but for the most part quietly, without a lot of talking or fuss.  And without sex -- another important qualifier.  And so on.  Now is it possible to characterize this way of life positively, rather than negatively?  In the abstract it may be a little hard; but when we are faced with concrete choices, nothing could be easier.  I'll eat this rather than that; I'll drink this rather than that; I'll sleep here rather than there; I'll get up again at this time rather than that time; I'll hold my tongue rather than gabbing; I'll sleep alone rather than with somebody else.  Each of these choices is as positive as the reverse choice would be: A rather than B.  And if you put it that way, the choices don't have to be motivated by a hatred or fear of the world.  They don't have to proceed from some fanatical belief that the world or the body is evil.  Seen in this light, simply as choices, they are no more than an identification that "That may be OK but this is better."

On the other hand ... Why, in real life, would anybody make choices after this pattern?  Why would anybody choose water over wine, or abstinence over sex?  It's all very well to say that formally speaking either choice is as positive as the other insofar as any choice is just a selection of A rather than B.  But is it possible for someone to make these kinds of choices consistently without being motivated by some kind of doctrinaire hatred of the world?  Can the Platonists really have it both ways, affirming the goodness of the world but not gorging on it?

Sure.  It all depends on what else they want too.  A man who is straining to hear a moth flutter by won't do a lot of talking, and he won't beguile his wait by listening to loud music.  He needs silence to be able to hear.  A man tasting the subtleties of a bottle of fine wine won't clutter his palate with a lot of salty, greasy, highly-spiced snacks.  A man straining to perceive anything wants all his other sensory inputs muted so tthat they don't drown out the thing he is looking for.

And so if you want to see the divine pattern back of the world, if you want to see how all the pieces hang together in one big organism, if you want to see how we are all just parts of a grand whole and if you want to feel the unsurpassable peace that flows from such understanding ... why then you also want to cut out the noise and the distractions in your life.  So that you can see.  So that you can feel.

For this reason alone, asceticism looks like a practical requirement of the contemplative life in the simple sense that you can't get this without that.  You can't pursue contemplation without attention, and you can't pay attention without a little peace and quiet.  But I think there is even more.

Speaking from my own experience, I can also say that sometimes I find myself feeling fragile.  I don't quite know how to explain what I mean, and I surely don't know what causes it.  Perhaps it is a form of depression, or some other minor aberration in the mood chemistry of my brain.  Perhaps it is something else.  But when the feeling steals upon me, I cannot tolerate loud noises or sudden interruptions.  When it starts to take me over, I have to back away quietly until it passes.  At times like this, I want nothing that will disturb my calm because I feel like too much noise or ruckus will make me shatter.  I may eat, but simple foods and not too much; I may drink, but water and not wine; I shun the company of others; I stop talking unless I absolutely must, and then I am stingy with my words.  And I am like this for a while ... maybe an hour, maybe a day, maybe more ... until after some time has passed I find I'm not any more.  If I lived in a place that had retreat centers set up for this sort of thing, it would feel the most natural thing in the world for me to check into one for a while so that I could be silent and alone, eating simply and sleeping on the hard floor, as long as I had to.  Then when I didn't need to live like that any more, I could come back to the world.

But of course I have a job and responsibilities that make this just a fantasy.  It won't happen, not any time soon.  The only reason it matters is that this is the kind of feeling which makes the ascetic ideal look like a positive one, certainly a happier choice than the noisier and more boisterous way of life that plunges into the world and grabs it with both hands.

The one time that I went on a week-long silent retreat, I found that as the silence deepened I felt more and more fragile.  This experience makes me think that the life of contemplation generally -- or of mindfulness, to the extent that those are the same thing -- probably encourages asceticism in a very natural way.  It's not that there is anything bad or evil or wrong with the world.  It's just that stepping back from the world can be -- especially for the contemplatives among us -- more comfortable.    

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ancient politics vs modern

A couple of months ago I posted an essay about Plato's Republic, and specifically about whether its prescriptions are as laughably impossible as we often say.  But it is worth noting that this is just one thread in a larger argument about the applicability of ancient thought at all.  Of course in principle I have already staked out a position on that question at the very beginning of this blog, although I am painfully aware that I have written so little here that anyone would be excused for thinking I haven't proven a damned thing.  What is especially interesting is that sometimes it is possible to use arguments or modes of thought that would have appeared perfectly clear to classical thinkers, while coming to conclusions quite different from theirs.  And politics is one of the places where this happens.

In my post about sex in the Republic, I argued that we shouldn't expect to be able to implement the kind of sexual regime Plato describes [an arrangement that was already long obsolete by classical times!] so long as we still own property.  But what about the rest of classical political thought -- the parts that the ancients themselves agreed with?  While no doubt the ideas may be useful as a framework or a reference point, could we plausibly try to build a society -- a regime -- on classical ideals?  And if not, why not?

A famous argument that it is no longer possible to frame a regime along classical lines is given in Stephen Holmes's 1979 article "Aristippus In and Out of Athens."  Holmes argues that the classical model of political life is no longer possible because times have changed. Specifically, Holmes does not deny the point from which classical thinkers started -- viz., that human nature requires sociability, ... social contact with others, ... friends.  But he makes the point that in classical times, the only way to get this social contact was as a member of the civic network in a polis, as an engaged citizen.  The only path to gratifying one's social needs was politics.  In modern society, by contrast, most of us find ourselves to be part of many different social networks, networks that overlap and interlock but do not simply coincide.  We are members of our families, but we are also employees at our jobs, worshippers at our churches, coaches at Little League, volunteers for local charities and in community theater, and so on.  Some of the people we know from one network might also show up in another one, but many won't.  And this complexity of interlocking but independent networks gives us a kind of freedom that was unimaginable to ancient thinkers who had never experienced anything like it.  Any attempt to implement classical political ideals would mean merging all these networks into the political network, or in other words politicizing all of life the way totalitarian states do.  But this is horrible -- nobody wants to live like that!  Therefore the modern application of classical political ideals is impossible.

It's an ingenious argument, and it was a career-maker.  (Full disclosure: I took one class from Holmes many years later, and it was halfway through the term before I visited his office hours to ask, "Are you the same Stephen Holmes who wrote ...?" He rolled his eyes and then chuckled, admitting that yes he was and adding that whenever he met a total stranger that was usually the first question asked.)  But notice that strictly speaking Holmes doesn't prove that it is impossible to apply classical forms to modern polities ... just that it would be very unpleasant or unattractive.  Anyone committed to dragging out the argument could easily reply, "That's just because we've been conditioned by growing up in the modern world to prefer the kinds of pleasures we find here. If we had been trained from birth to value other things instead, we might prefer the classical regime after all."  So the question naturally becomes, Is there any argument that can settle the contest between ancient and modern political forms other than an argument that proceeds from an acceptance of modern values?  Or does it all just depend on whatever you like?  
To get a grip on this question we need a little better idea of what exactly is entailed by classical political ideals.  Happily we can find a crisp list of four essential points articulated by Bertrand de Jouvenel in chapter 8 of his Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good.  (You can also find the book here.  For a good overview of Jouvenel's life and thought generally, see also this article here.)  Jouvenel makes it clear that the following criteria were absolutely essential to any good state, in the classical perspective:
  1. It must be small.  In the Laws, Plato proposed a maximum size for his ideal city of 5040 families.
  2. It must be completely homogeneous: racially, culturally, linguistically ... the works.
  3. It must prohibit the importation of any beliefs or customs or ideas from outside. That more or less prohibits immigration of any kind, or even much in the way of newspapers.  (Television or the Internet would be straight out.)
  4. It must not change. Innovation is death. 
Brian Anderson's article that I linked above summarized these criteria by saying, "You begin to get the picture. It looks like Albania under Enver Hoxa."  Not a place I'd want to live, nor probably you.  But does that matter?  Remember, the question now is not whether you or I would like to live here, but whether it is actually impossible.  Even if we found 5000 families of people who valued this sort of thing, could they make a go of it or not?

In the short run, and in total isolation, probably Yes.  But in the long run No.  And the real reason has nothing to do with "values".  The simple fact is that modern societies -- large, diverse, innovative societies -- are stronger than ancient ones.  In any contest, a big army has the advantage over a small army (other things being equal).  To be sure, other things aren't always equal.  David had the advantage over Goliath because he had superior technology.  But then, the innovative army will have better technology than the non-innovative one.  The diverse army can pick up new recruits anywhere -- this is one of the features of empires throughout history -- while the homogeneous army (like that of the Spartans) is limited to one population and one alone.  And a culture that is open to immigrants is also open to planting itself everywhere: you can buy a Big Mac on Red Square, and only two countries in the world officially do not import Coca Cola.  (Those two countries are Cuba and North Korea, and there are rumors suggesting we not be too sure about North Korea.)  There is no power in classical civilization that can stand up to this.

This says nothing about the respective levels of cultivation, to be sure.  I don't mean to compare the art of Praxiteles to the Cartoon Network.  But in terms of sheer strength -- in the first instance, military strength; and in the second, cultural dominance -- modern societies are vastly more powerful than ancient ones.  Set up a modern state and an ancient one side by side, and the first will conquer the second as soon as it wants to.  In that sense -- if in no other -- ancient political ideals are no longer realizable.