As I write these words, the United States Congress is attempting to wrap up one of the most surreal, theatrical and plainly ugly legislative battles in its history. The Republican-majority House of Representatives and the Democratic-majority Senate cannot pass a bill to raise the nation's debt ceiling, putting us days away from defaulting on our own national debt. This would be the equivalent of declaring national bankruptcy within a world economy that has always considered our debt to be completely solid and reliable.
The noisy spectacle aside, most observers are confident that a last minute compromise will be reached. (If it isn't, I trust that the smart and sensible Barack Obama will take steps to ensure the nation's solvency using every resource available to the Executive branch. We are at least a couple of options away from economic catastrophe.)
But what does it all mean? Here's what I think about the bigger issues, and I'd love to hear what you think too. I'll keep this as brief and succinct as I can.
When I talk with friends about the Buddhist position on desire -- that desire is illusion, that we must free ourselves from desire -- the conversation often becomes circular. How, someone may ask, can a person want to not want? And, if we free ourselves from desire in order to become happier, aren't we actually following our desire (the desire to be happy) by claiming to free ourselves from it?
These are the right questions to ask, and I'm not going to pretend to have the answers.
But I think we have much to be gained by reframing the question in a wider way, and placing this question at the very center of our philosophical thoughts. What is the object of our desire? Let's say I want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell (this is a highly realistic scenario, since in fact I do want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell). So, which of these sentences are true?
(This is the first guest post in the Philosophy Weekend series. James Berrettini is a friend and fellow software developer with whom I've conducted intensive private debates over difficult questions of philosophy and ethics for many years. He and I often disagree, but I know he shares my belief that these questions are keenly relevant to modern life. Here's James's introduction to a popular but misunderstood writer and thinker, C. S. Lewis. -- Levi)
Sarah Palin was mocked for telling Barbara Walters for saying that she turns to C. S. Lewis for "divine inspiration." Richard Wolffe, a commentator on Chris Matthews' show, thought this indicated a lack of seriousness, assuming that she was referring to "a series of kids' books." Defending Lewis, Matthews interrupted saying: "I wouldn’t put down C.S. Lewis." Wolfe continued: “I’m not putting him down. But, you know, 'divine inspiration'? There are things she could’ve said for 'divine inspiration.' Choosing C.S. Lewis is an interesting one."
C. S. Lewis was indeed an interesting writer, if not for the reasons that Wolffe believes. Like many people, he was unfamiliar with Lewis beyond knowing that he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia books, which we all "know" now, thanks to the good people at Walden Media, Walt Disney Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. Who was Lewis?
Sorry, but once again, no Philosophy Weekend here this weekend. Still on vacation, still recharging the ol' Evereadies.
I am working on some big ideas for the next entries in this series. Some new questions, an attempt at a new synthesis ... but it will have to wait to begin next weekend.
I'm on vacation today. But you came to visit and I don't want to leave you with nothing, so here's a verse from Sappho. Last week I attended a poetry reading where somebody read these lines onstage, and they stuck in my head:
Some say an army of horsemen,
some of foot soldiers, some of ships,
is the most beautiful thing on this black earth,
but I say it is what one loves.
This is journalism?
I'm disgusted by Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece on Tea Party politician and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and not because I like Michele Bachmann any more than Matt Taibbi does. I think she'd be a disastrous President, as bad as Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Rick Perry and maybe even worse, and I think there will be a lot at stake in the 2012 Presidential election.
A debate is raging in the United States of America about the nature of government itself, and significant intellectual challenges are arising from all sides. At times of heightened controversy like these, good journalism becomes absolutely essential. Here's what Taibbi, a supposedly serious and reputable liberal political critic, has to say about the latest rigid conservative to make waves as a Presidential contender:
Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government.
Then, a little further on:
In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.
Two philosophical entertainments for a pleasant summer weekend:
1. I'm intrigued by a new novel called The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, originally published in 1989 and translated into several languages, but only now available in English in a new edition translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger and published by Twisted Spoon Press of Praque.
I'm only a few pages in, but am already impressed to find in this book a rich, obsessive look at the whole meaning of Russian literature. The endpaper copy explains:
... As two tenants engage in an extended debate over the nature of evil, the take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and nail the culprit, and it becomes clear that the entire tableaux is a reprise of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Displaying a sharp with and a Gogolian sense of the absurd, Pyetsukh visits anew the age-old debate over the relationship between life and art, arguing that in Russia life imitating literature is as true as literature reflecting life.
There's been an explosion of popular interest in the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand lately, and not only because I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong and Why It Matters (which, I'm happy to report, is selling quite well). Rand died nearly three decades ago, but her Objectivist philosophy has made headlines for two different reasons in the past couple of weeks.
She's been a sore point lately for Republican Congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, an avowed admirer. Several Christian groups have been asking why a conservative politician with "family values" credentials would admire and follow the work of a stringent atheist with provocatively modern ideas. Ryan, a Catholic, claims not to be influenced by Rand's dislike of religion, but this answer does not seem to be satisfying his critics. A group called the American Values Network has begun targeting both Rand and Ryan in television commercials, and the Congressman was caught in a "gotcha" video dodging a persistent critic who tries to give him a Bible while asking "why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?" Time Magazine calls this Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Problem.
Adam Hochschild, a popular historian whose King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa spelled out the full story of the Belgian debacle that inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, has written a powerful new book about the loose coalition of pacifists and activists that fought bitterly against England's participation in the Boer Wars and World War One a century ago. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.
Hochschild is a rare popular historian who writes not about subjects designed to make male readers feel good about their masculinity (a visit to a bookstore's history section, after all, gives the impression that the Civil War and World War II were the only two wars ever fought) but rather about stunning or vexing episodes from our past that we know nothing about. I was not aware that there was a vigorous pacifist movement in England a hundred years ago. The invisibility of this past movement reminds me of the invisibility of the pacifist cause today, and Adam Hochschild is certainly interested in making the same connection. Here he is in the book's introductory chapter:
I'm in transit, and still worn out from a busy week. I'll hit you up with some Philosophy Weekend next weekend.