Some truths have a tough time landing. They hover overhead, drifting uncomfortably in the air. People stare up at these truths, squinting. "Yeah, that looks like a truth." "Hope it doesn't get any closer."
One of these truths is hovering heavily over our heads right now, here in the United States of America. Our government spends an incredible, ridiculous, unsupportable amount of money on the military. The chart above (chosen by Andrew Sullivan as the #1 nominee for 2012 chart of the year) shows how much the USA spends compared to the other powerful countries on the planet. This certainly is the #1 chart of the year, and the data point about our overspending is the single most important data point we need to discuss as our Congressional debate over taxation and deficit spending proceeds.
But this truth -- the truth that we spend way too much on preparations for war -- has no home. It's a homeless truth. Andrew Sullivan found the chart in a Mother Jones article aptly titled "And You Wonder Why We're Broke?", and Mother Jones is an excellent liberal/progressive publication that supposedly has some influence within our Democratic party. But our Democratic party establishment won't touch this truth, because proposals to cut military spending will not help win elections and will feed into the damaging misconception that liberals are weak on defense.
I've been thinking about the word "redemption". Since utopian political ideologies are currently out of style (as we discussed last weekend), "redemptive ideologies" might be a less off-putting term for similar ideas. The term does not carry the same sense of overreach, the connotation of a naive attempt to build a transcendent and perfect Platonic society. Few people will admit to being a utopian, but perhaps many people will admit to believing in redemptive ideologies?
Well, wait a minute. Something is going wrong here, because I searched Wikipedia for "redemptive ideology" and got sent to the Ideology page, only to find this slap in the face awaiting me:
Today, many commentators claim that we are living in a post-ideological age, in which redemptive, all-encompassing ideologies have failed, and this is often associated with Francis Fukuyama's writings on "the end of history".
So redemptive ideologies are out of style too -- and this is a funny thing, because I know for sure that redemptive ideologies are wildly popular today. They drive our beliefs, our practices and, every election day, our votes. So what's this denial all about?
Utopian idealism is out of style. It's been out of style for a few decades now, at least.
When we discuss politics or ethics, we try to avoid sounding hopeful or idealistic at the risk of sounding naive. If we have a utopian idea we're likely to keep quiet about it, because this is never a winning position in a debate. It's too easy to scoff at hope.
Even when utopian idealism is a winning position, as during Barack Obama's "hope"-filled 2008 presidential campaign, it's usually a costly one. Obama's implicit vision of hope and change emanating from Washington DC have earned him enduring ridicule. (Sarah Palin opened her speeches in 2009 with the question "How's that hopey-changey thing working out for you?", and I know one environmentalist Obama-hater who only refers to the President as the "Pope of Hope".) It's much easier to be cynical about the fate of humanity than to be caught dreaming about the practical possibility of a better world.
But here's the funny thing: nobody wants to admit to being a utopian, but most of us are.
Sadly, due to another terrible shooting disaster, gun control is back in the news. A poster is going around Facebook and the Internet with some amazing statistics:
Last year, handguns killed
48 people in Japan
8 in Great Britain,
34 in Switzerland,
52 in Canada,
58 in Israel,
21 in Sweden,
42 in West Germany,
10,728 in the United States
I support stronger gun laws in the United States of America, and I know many other citizens do. But we all know that gun laws alone won't solve the problem of gun violence (though it would help a lot), and we also know that there is a strong organized resistance to gun control. To solve this standoff, we need to dig deeper. We can start by looking for the roots of our society's gun violence problem.
Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with some outrage around the world, because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment, He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate has Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan "a catastrophe", and yesterday Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy" of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as long-suffering Tibet. The blog Moby Lives has also taken a few funny shots.
I don't have much sympathy for the government of China, since I've really never stopped reeling from the several books I've read about the long massacre known as the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's masterwork, a manufactured famine that killed more millions of people between 1958 and 1961 than any of the nearly countless other holocausts of the 20th Century. The immensity of recent Chinese history is so overwhelming, in fact, that I'm sure I can't understand it in any meaningful way. Mo Yan was born in 1955, and suffered as a young child with his family through the notorious famine.
The great recurring topic of Mo Yan's historical fiction, though, is not the famine or the later Cultural Revolution but an earlier holocaust that took place before he was born: the vicious Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II. This is Mo Yan's primary subject, though he has also written about the famine and later Maoist and post-Maoist cataclysms. Mo Yan's pride in China and his refusal to play into Western ideas about Chinese history has clearly dented his popularity in my side of the planet. But when I read his sharp, acidic, furious prose, I sense that we can learn more by reading Mo Yan than by rejecting him, even though we may strongly reject his political stance.
I probably skim 150 to 200 blog posts or articles a day, prompted by RSS and Facebook and Twitter. The headlines usually fly by without leaving a trace, but I skimmed one two weeks ago, then returned to it a few days later to read it in full, and found myself thinking about it ever since. This is a piece by a professor named William Egginton with the unfortunately unfocused title "The Novel and the Origins of Modern Philosophy" that appeared at a site called Berfrois after originally running at Stanford University's Arcade. It'ss about the influence Miguel de Cervantes's satirical masterpiece Don Quixote may have had on Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, which contained the philosopher's great declaration cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").
As I read the short article in full, the idea of considering Cervantes and Descartes together suddenly struck me as an obviously great idea -- and not only because of the coincidence that they both have 9-letter names in which 5 of the letters are in exactly the same place (the pronunciations, however, are entirely different, one name being Spanish and the other French).
Philosophy Weekend has always been about moral, social and political philosophy (I originally thought of calling the series "Ethics Weekend", but that title just does not have any zing to it). In the past couple of years, I've allowed two major developments to dominate my choice of weekly topics. First, I became alarmed by Ayn Rand's increasing popularity and began devoting many blog posts to a critique of Objectivism and its underlying assumption of psychological Egoism. Second, I got caught up in the excitement and crazy drama of the 2012 USA presidential election, and devoted many weekend posts to that whole thing. (Interestingly, the common demoninator between these two themes was embodied in a single person, Congressman Paul Ryan, who I expect to be writing a lot about again in three years when he begins running like a maniac for President.)
I never mind a good diversion, but a recent New York Times headline about an attempt by the Obama administration to create a rulebook for the use of military drones reminded me that I originally had a different underlying inquiry in mind for all of these philosophical inquiries, which has gotten buried amidst all the Ayn Rand inquiries and Mitt Romney bobblehead dolls of the past two years. My big question is this: what is pacifism, and why has it become so quiet? Is the philosophy of pacifism viable at all today? How can pacifism be returned to relevance in an era that seems to have completely disdained it, and how can it possibly be that so few people seem to care whether it is returned to relevance or not?
I was talking with friends about the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" shopping craze that has become an increasing meme in the United States of America over the past few years. The prevailing opinion among my friends is that this trend represents yet another terrible new turn towards casual violence, selfishness and greed in our craven society, and reports of maniacal frenzies at spots like this Walmart in Moultrie, Georgia seem to bear this interpretation out. One person caught in the Moultrie, Georgia frenzy was quoted expressing disgust about what went down:
History has a way of turning complex philosophers into simple cliches. Through the course of my philosophical education, I've only ever heard of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a target for refutation, a "straight man" from an earlier age of extreme rationalism, destined to be torn to shreds by the witty talents of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, William James. With skillful opposition like this, Hegel's legacy of crystalline idealism never stood a chance.
It also did Hegel's legacy no favors when Karl Marx built his advanced theory of utopian Communist society upon a Hegelian framework, though Marx explicitly stated that he was doing so by transforming Hegel's abstract intellectualism into a materialist system of thought, aiming for real-world results rather than theoretical conclusions. It's does not seem that Marx's Communism was a faithful friend to Hegelian idealism (Hegel died when Marx was 13 years old, so Hegel never knew about his most influential follower) -- but it is clear that Marx ruined Hegel's name for legions of anti-Communists. Once a bright light of the German renaissance, Hegel has taken such a terrible beating from the empiricists, existentialists, pragmatists, free market economists and philosophical libertarians who followed him that his reputation can barely be said to have survived at all, except as a symbol of obsolescence.
Can a beating like this ever be fair? Is it possible to find value in Hegel's work today, and is there any point in looking for it? Well, it's certainly possible to understand Hegel as a fuller person when one learns that he began his fruitful philosophical journey as an eager University student in Tubingen, Baden-Wurtterberg, where, incredibly enough, he shared an apartment with the future poet Friedrich Holderlin and the future philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Their dorm parties must have been intense. Hegel's early college years were the years of the French Revolution and its tortuous aftermath, of shocking political changes that rocked all of Germany and central/eastern Europe. Eventually, after young Hegel advanced to graduate studies in the Prussian university town of Jena, he would directly witness Napoleon's victorious entrance into that town, and would applaud the champion of French egalitarianism even though he was fighting against German armies.
This surreal image is a real screenshot from a real website -- the victory website that went live after the polls closed on USA election day 2012, because apparently, stunningly, incredibly ... Mitt Romney's staff was that sure that they would win. They had given unconditional orders -- unconditional! -- to launch the website when the election ended.
Four days after the election, the revelation that not only Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan but their entire entourage and staff were sure they would win is still rocking the world. It turned out that Romney spent the evening of election day stewing in his hotel room with his yes-man entourage, doing nothing but smoothing out the final draft of his acceptance speech.
The prior evidence that he would lose was, of course, rather overwhelming. His campaign had gone unusually badly in the public eye, he had barely unified his own party, and had never dominated any polling cycle. Nate Silver, the most influential poll analyst in the world, a nonpartisan observer who in the past had correctly predicted Republican victories as well as Democratic ones, had already announced in the New York Times that polling numbers strongly favored President Obama. The Obama administration knew it would win, and said so. I knew Obama would win. Even Bob Dylan knew Obama would win.
Yes, of course, the Romney campaign was projecting confidence in its public statements, and everybody on Fox News and conservative talk radio was parroting the weak evidence that Romney might win, but few of us imagined that the Romney inner circle had wrapped itself so deeply in delusion that they believed it deep inside. This was a greater cognitive disconnect than anyone expected. Isn't Mitt Romney supposed to be a solid businessman? Don't businessmen use actual information and data to make decisions? If his judgment was so murky about his own chances to beat a popular President, how could he be expected to produce rational policies involving, say, the chances that a hostile approach towards Iran or China would be successful, or the chances that greater tax breaks for the wealthy would help the middle class, or the chances that deregulating Wall Street banks would not enable another orgy of corruption, or the chances that global climate change was not a serious scientific concern? Romney's final day as a candidate found the man who would be President at an absolute peak of cluelessness, his head completely in the clouds.