Today's Philosophy Weekend is a question: what is the meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?
Of course, the division between conservativism and liberalism is nothing new. But the emotional intensity of the split has been remarkable in the past few months, stoked by the rollout of Obamacare, which has led to an explosion of political noise, paranoia and apocalyptic drama way beyond the bounds of any normal political debate in this country. The break can be seen in the word cloud above, which shows the terms used by Republican voters to describe President Barack Obama.
It's notable that "liar" dominates the word cloud. This shows the depth of the problem Barack Obama faces in trying to communicate with his opponents. "Liar" is a tough word to fight back against, because it indicates a complete alienation between speaker and listener. If a President is perceived by opponents as incompetent or stupid, some cure for the condition can be imagined. If a President is simply seen by opponents to be a liar, there is no path to a common ground, because there is no common trust.
The pointing finger in this photo belongs to Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist. The pointee is Russell Brand, a brash and popular comedian who has guest-edited a new "Revolution" issue of the New Statesman, in which he says things like this:
Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people … Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change.
Funny thing: it was only when I began writing about ethical philosophy here on Litkicks that I began writing seriously about history. The two disciplines might not seem to have much in common, but to me they feel intertwined.
Maybe that's because our popular conceptions of both ethics and history show so much confusion, contradiction and willful denial of obvious fact. People often say illogical and nonsensical things when they talk about their moral principles, and they do so as well when they describe what they believe has happened on planet Earth leading up to our present times. It's hard to say whether our typically chauvinistic and ethnocentric conceptions of history cause us to be ethically confused more than our ethical confusions cause us to mangle historical fact. Let's just say that both things happen a lot. If our world will ever have the happy epiphany in ethical philosophy that is our hopeful destiny and due, it will probably be accompanied by a more informed popular grasp of history.
I read a lot of history -- more history than fiction or philosophy or poetry or even (believe it or not) rock star autobiographies. I haven't written about history much here on this blog because, frankly, I'm scared to start. I have too much to say. I don't know where to begin to unload. I think that many things people believe about history are dead wrong -- no, I know this, because every good history book proves this to be true. But I don't want to turn Litkicks into a whirlpool of historical revisionism. Historical revision is a field with an ugly reputation, since revisionism can be used to gain respect for horrific campaigns such as Holocaust denial.
But perhaps historical revision isn't what we need. We need historical vision. We don't need new books to tell us that what we've learned is wrong. We just need to read the damn books we already have. They will tell us that everything we've learned is wrong.
Here are three superb books I've read that have helped me to understand how little we tend to know about the things we think we know.
Back when I was a philosophy student, Immanuel Kant was it. The 18th century Prussian philosopher who pinched off the stiff arguments between the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists and ushered in the contemporary era of analytic/existential thought was probably more highly regarded by most of my professors (a highly contentious lot) than any other single figure except maybe Plato.
That doesn't mean Kant was anybody's favorite philosopher, though, either in my college's department or anywhere. He probably wasn't. Everybody respects Kant, but few get excited about him -- probably because his ideas are so widely and generally accepted. He is a foundational figure because he stands as a mediator between opposing ideas.
Kant's greatest achievement in 18th century European philosophy was to mediate a middle ground between two intellectual attitudes that had reached a deadlock. He agreed with the British Empiricists that human beings cannot claim access to absolute truth by means of philosophical argument. But he denied the empiricist's model of the human mind as an empty vessel, accessing reality only by means of sensory experience. Instead, Kant showed, we must realize that the mind constructs its understanding of the outside world, and that therefore our beliefs are grounded in something less flimsy than the phenomenological and epistemological mass of meaninglessness that Bishop George Berkeley and David Hume described.
With this model, suddenly the tedious arguments between Berkeley and Hume and Spinoza and Leibniz seemed to matter less, and western philosophy found several more creative and constructive paths. Philosophy got better after Kant. He led the way to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer, to Soren Kierkegaard and Freidrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and William James, Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
I love a writer with the gumption to fix the world. The list of great shouting visionaries and Jeremiahs of classic literature includes Henry David Thoreau, whose prescription was nature and simplicity, and T. S. Eliot, who offered humanity the balm of strict religious and academic tradition. it takes a special kind of sensibility to tell the world what it's doing wrong.
Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were all social philosophers, but they never made the slightest attempt to recommend a solution to society's problems, though their fellow modernist W. B. Yeats tried. Anton Chekhov did not preach, Leo Tolstoy did. Albert Camus did not, Jean-Paul Sartre did. When the Beat Generation hit, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs all seemed aware of the same fault lines in modern civilization, but it was only Allen Ginsberg who tried to recommend a path to progress through pacifism, sexual liberation and activism, as Jack Kerouac resigned himself to lyrical drunken pessimism and William S. Burroughs built bunkers, both psychic and residential, from which to observe the disasters to come.
Jonathan Franzen is a modern novelist who has the same rare and classic passion to save the world as Thoreau, Tolstoy, Eliot, Yeats, Sartre and Ginsberg, and this one reason I like him so much. Many readers, however, do not like this kind of behavior from a novelist. The enormously successful and popular Franzen (one of the few candidates, in my opinion, for best living American writer today) is now testing his audience's patience for preaching with an unusual new volume, The Kraus Project, an annotated collection of essays by an Austrian Jewish satirist and cultural critic named Karl Kraus who was, Franzen tells us, extremely influential during the twilight years of Vienna before, during and after the First World War, a hundred years ago.
This is a sculpture found in ancient Syria around 5000 B.C. It's a reminder of how glorious a land is today a scene of misery, genocide and fear, as the civil war against the Assad regime worsens and the world contemplates the possibility of a USA missile strike that nobody believes will help the government's victims.
Syria is a treasure of the world, a place of amazing history. It's the northern corner of the Biblical lands. It was part of the Roman empire, then the Byzantine empire, then the Islamic empire. It was a target for the Crusades, then for many centuries an Ottoman land, and finally it found itself a remote outpost of France's confused post-colonial strategy in the 20th Century.
It's not a big surprise that a land trampled by war for two millennia should today suffer from more and more war -- and yet my fellow citizens of the USA who worry about the poor victims of Assad's chemical weaponry can think of nothing better to do for the suffering country than to shoot gigantic missiles at its cities and hope some bad guys get caught in the wreckage. This is the weak proposal that President Obama is putting before Congress.
Do you ever get a "stuck" feeling when you're trying to think? How can we ever know if we're thinking widely enough, if we're failing to realize something obvious, something so large that it can't fit inside our frame of reference?
The angry, confusing debates -- politics, society, religion -- that often roil us today are rooted in varying frames of reference. We can't understand opposing points of view because we can't see past certain premises and presumptions. Emmett Grogan, the late hippie activist and social critic who founded the Diggers in San Francisco in the 1960s, worked obsessively to broaden his own thinking, and encouraged others to do the same. The Diggers opened a storefront where they gave away food -- and, in a delightfully postmodern touch, asked people to walk through a physical manifestation of a "frame of reference" in order to get it.
I wish I could love Noam Chomsky, the American political philosopher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of important books about revolutionary politics like Hegemony or Survival and Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky made his name decades ago as a psychological linguist, but then like Bertrand Russell he risked his academic reputation by speaking out and eventually writing popular and controversial books about politics. Today, Chomsky's career operates on two levels: he remains highly respected among academics as an authority in linguistics, and is also well-known in the United States of America as an angry critic of the country's aggressive foreign policy and banal two-party system.
I wish I could love Noam Chomsky because he is a self-described anarcho-syndicalist, which means that he favors a society with minimal government -- not a state of pure anarchy, but as close as can be safely and reasonably acheived -- and a cooperative, share-based economy that would enforce social justice not by coercion but by mutual agreement of the citizens. Anarcho-syndicalism is a friendly political ideal that emphasizes idealism within realistic boundaries, and has proven effective as a loose ideological backbone (to the extent that any such single ideological backbone exists) for movements like Occupy Wall Street.
Anarcho-syndicalism is often seen as a form of liberal/left-wing ideology, but its emphasis on individual freedom and small government ought to make it appeal to idealists of any wing, including conservative libertarians and open-minded Tea Partiers who don't believe the hype that all liberals favor large government. In an anarcho-syndicalistic world, there would be virtually no federal government (this is anarchy, after all) but everyone would be expected to voluntarily follow rules and pay taxes in compliance with whatever social groups they choose to be a part of.
Last weekend I mentioned two keys to appreciating Slavoj Zizek, the popular but controversial Marxist philosopher. First, I said that his philosophical stance if one of defensive advocacy rather than constructive theorizing, that he is best understood as a self-appointed "lawyer for Marxism". Second, I said that Slavoj Zizek can best be understood within the context of the startling history of the country he is from -- by which I refer to both Slovenia, the country he is from now, and Yugoslavia, the nation in which he was born.
I'd like to discuss both points in more depth, and explain why I think these approaches to Zizek's work help in understanding the fervency of his ethical mission.