Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Some random thoughts or not

Here are some quotes [and very little commentary] from a book entitled "The New Science of Politics," by Eric Voegelin, which are, to say the least, interesting:

"The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God is dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic mystery is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, [the mantra to "contribute, contribute, contribute" that is imposed on all young people these days] the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline." [p. 131]

For Voegelin, one of the most important events of human history was "the opening of the soul," which means for him that the soul was viewed as the source of transcendence that all human beings seem to seek. In his less than rousing language: "The opening of the soul was an epochal event in the history of mankind because, with the differentiation of the soul as the sensorium of transcendence, the critical, theoretical standards for the interpretation of human existence in society, as well as the source of their authority, came into view." [156] That is, among other things, the possibility of philosophy arises, and the possibility of critical social thought.

And it is in preserving this perspective that the possibility of philosophy and a genuine human existence exists. History, human history, is the story of the truth of the soul and the truth of society agitating mankind, continually and perpetually. There are those who would like to "freeze history" by means of "an everlasting constitution," but this is not recommended or desirable.

"The idea of solving the troubles of history through the invention of the everlasting constitution made sense only under the condition that the source of these troubles, that is, the truth of the soul, would cease to agitate man. Hobbes, indeed, simplified the structure of politics by throwing our anthropological and soteriological truth. This is an understandable desire in a man who wants his peace; things, to be sure, would be so much simpler without philosophy and Christianity. But how can one dispose of them without abolishing the experiences of transcendence which belong to the nature of man? Hobbes was quite able to solve this problem, too; he improved on the man of God's creation by creating man without such experiences....."

In other words, Hobbes, and of course those Hobbesians like the founders of the American political order, tried to "de-soul" human beings as the price of social peace.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two Americas

In an essay entitled "Two Americas" Walter Karp puts his finger on what seems to be the most important divide in the United States, the divide between being a "republic" or being a "nation." As he puts it there: "...there are two distinct Americas, two separate objects of the patriot's devotion, two distinct foundations of two contrary codes of political virtue. One is the American nation, the other is the American republic. At every important juncture of our political life these two Americas conflict with each other." [p. 13, in Buried Alive, a book of essays by Walter Karp published after his death.]

As Karp points out, when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers and were faced with the government's attempt to censor that publication, the law firm that had represented the Times for several decades refused to defend the Times because to do so in wartime would be unpatriotic. But this is only consistent with one version of patriotism, viz., "the corporate entity known as the nation." [14] "To defend the infringement of liberty, to refuse to uphold the Constitution in a crisis, to support alien methods of despotism - surely that in a republic is shameful, disgraceful, and unpatriotic. The nation pulls one way, the republic another. They are today deadly rivals for the love and loyalty of the American people." [14]

Further, as Karp points out, "Americans are not fellow nationals, we are fellow citizens." And "America is more a creed than a country, and the creed is republicanism. The ties of a common nationality do not bind Americans together and never did." [14] This devotion to nationalism or as Karp calls it, "nationism," is much newer than our republicanism, traceable to the late 1800s when the United States undertook what Henry Cabot Lodge called the "large policy," that is, an interventionist, imperialistic foreign policy which led to the acquisition of the Philippines, Hawaii, and repeated occupations of Cuba. "The cult of the nation" requires such a foreign policy because it is only in the international arena that the abstract thing, the nation, comes to life. We were as a nation, well into our second century, before the cult of the nation required a cult of the flag and a cult of militarism. There was no pledge of allegiance uttered in any classroom before 1892 and the elaborate rituals involving our flag were only created by the War Department and the American Legion in 1923. As Karp wrote: "The object of the flag code was to transform the country's banner into a semi-holy talisman ans so give the abstraction called a nation a semblance of life." [16] And, of course, the nation requires what is called "a strong sense of international duty," which means ultimately, a sense that we as a nation must not only be prepared to make war but be willing, even eager, to make war. After all, war is the most visible action a nation can take. And war would underline that sacrifice, even the sacrifice of one's life, is or should be among the most important political virtues. As JFK said, "Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country." Note well: JFK could not have logically said this about a republic. In these ways, "A 'new religion' of nationism eclipse[d] and even supplant[ed] the old republican patriotism." [19]

There is also another way of looking at or labeling this great divide, viz., by distinguishing between a "union" and a "nation." To indicate briefly the differences here, in a union, such as a marital union, the parts do not or should not lose their integrity, whereas in a nation, the parts should lose their integrity and be subsumed by the whole. In a nation, the whole subsumes of consumes the parts, whereas in a union, it is important to preserve the parts as they are what make a union a union. A union is impossible without diversity, diverse parts, whereas a nation is impossible with diversity. Where unions strive for diversity, nations strive for homogeneity.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Elections and Football Games

I was watching a football game yesterday, Saturday, October 9th and there was a stoppage of play to review a play. As it was near the end of the game between LSU and Florida, all seemed to be glued to the field to see and hear what the officials would decide. And it dawned on me to wonder why. After all, neither of these teams will be in the running for a national championship, neither of the coaches is in danger of losing his job, and the outcome of the game will have no impact whatsoever on the pro prospects of any player on the field. So what was all the fuss about?

Then I remembered that some years ago I got a paper from a student comparing our political system to the Super Bowl. That is, we were the spectators and the two teams on the field were the Republicans and the Democrats. Of course, we had nothing at all to do with the action on the field, had no control over it whatsoever, and could only sit, cheer, and hope that "our team" would win. I thought that this was a pretty good paper then and think so now, emphasizing at it did the passive character imposed on us by our political arrangements. And for me, this is not too far from what the "Founders," some of the "Founders," wanted. As I like to say, the "Founders" sought to stretch the links between the government and the people in order to empower the government and disempower us, the people, at least to a significant extent. Not break the links between us and the government but to stretch them quite significantly.

However, now I see another dimension to the analogy, viz., that whatever the outcome on the field, it will have no impact on anything of any importance, like your life or my life or the direction of our country. Just like the outcome of the LSU/Florida football game I watched on Saturday. Oh yes, it is exciting and it is fun to watch. But it was, strictly speaking and quite literally, of NO CONSEQUENCE! Just like our elections! And, of course, this is the expected result when the political parties in existence are status quo parties and collude with each other to maintain the status quo.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Bitterly Divided Parties?" Not So Much

Here is what I love about reporting on our political system. In The Nation magazine this week, there is an article on Russ Feingold, Democrat Senator from Wisconsin, who is trying to retain his seat against a challenge from one Ron Johnson, a wealthy businessman who is spending huge sums of his own money to try to unseat Feingold. Presently, Feingold trails in the polls.

The article includes commentary on the "growing divide between the two major parties" and the "bitter divisions over the Bush and Obama presidencies...." But at the same time, the article points out that Feingold is a "maverick," that is, a politician who votes independently, opposing both Bush and Obama on their common war policies and their common policies on international trade. He even voted to continue the impeachment of President Clinton, as well as opposing Clinton's proposals to loosen bank rules. He even voted against NAFTA and the Patriot Act.

Gee, first, I wonder: who Obama would like to win this race? Bet it isn't Russ Feingold. Feingold has criticized Obama and his administration for not supporting civil liberties, among other things like the "surge" in Afghanistan. But, second, I wonder about all this talk of how bitterly divided our two parties are. Perhaps what seem to be bitter divisions actually disguise what is, in reality, a movement toward a consensus or the maintainance of an already existing consensus. That this might be the case would explain why health care "reform" passed AFTER the election of Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts. And it would suggest that what the Supreme Court did in a recent case dealing with spending on elections, freeing up "independent" groups to spend without limits, is part of this maintainance plan, part of the movement to consolidate the power of certain elites, among them both the Republican and Democratic parties. And, of course, it would be helpful if people like Russ Feingold were not in the Senate. Because unlike John McCain, Feingold has not made "his peace" with "the Establishment." Surprisingly, perhaps, he is one of the few who thinks it still necessary to stand up against the wealthy and the powerful, those who use our political system to advance their own interests while pretending to "feel our pain." Watch this race and hope that Feingold can pull out a win. The "republic" needs him.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Here is something of a "discovery" I made this evening while talking with my wife. We were talking about a candidate for the State House [Ma.] who claimed to be "pro-life" but was in favor of capital punishment. I said I thought this was "Bullshit." How can one claim to be "pro-life" but favor putting people to death? It just did not make sense.

But then I thought that this is hardly a defensible "conservative" position. Traditionally, conservatives favor or trust individuals to make decisions and distrust government from making decisions. Hence, the hue and cry about taxes or the new health care law, which imply that government knows better than we do how to spend our money. This argument gets a lot of traction among current "conservatives." But when it comes to abortion and capital punishment, these same "conservatives" take exactly the opposite position. That is, they distrust women or couples from making certain medical decisions regarding pregnancies and trust the government to make decisions regarding putting people to death. The same disconnect happens to many "conservatives" when it comes to what are often called "end of life issues." That is, they, these alleged "conservatives," distrust people to make their own choices while trusting the government to make these same decisions. Now, these "conservatives" could respond as follows: "Well, the government is not actually making these decisions; it is merely forbidding people from making certain decisions, just as it forbids people from enslaving other people or assaulting them." And this has a certain logic to it, except for the fact that when it comes to capital punishment, the government is making decisions about who is to live and who to die, whereas when it comes to terminating a pregnancy, it is not allowing women or couples to make their own decisions. And, of course, this is a decision by the government, just as government is making a decision for me when it tells me it is illegal for me to end my own life with dignity or freely.

So what is up with these "conservatives?" At the very least, they can be charged with inconsistency, which I admit is not always a virtue in politics. But if we dig a bit deeper, I think there is more going on here than inconsistency. Some would argue that our "pro-life conservatives" have an animus against women, and there may be some truth to that. But I think it is something a bit different because here our "conservatives" move over toward the "liberal" side of our alleged liberal/conservative divide, insofar as current liberals seem more than willing to limit individual choice for the sake of what they consider to be the greater or common good. What begins to emerge is the thought that our alleged liberal/conservative divide is not as basic as we like to think it is. And, moreover, this "divide" just possibly hides or obscures more basic divides, e.g., that between men and women or that between the wealthy and the rest of us. That is to ask: What are the most basic issues, the most permanent issues of politics, liberal v. conservative or gender or class issues? And if it is the latter sets of issues, what happens to politics when these are "hidden" or "obscured?" Que bono? If you have been reading this blog, I suspect to know what my answer to this question might be.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

American Politics For Dummies

Here is what I love about the conventional wisdom on American politics. Most people, almost all in fact, think that the Democrats are incompetent and, hence, they always blow it when they get a chance to govern. But this thought has one basic error or rests on one basic error, viz., that the Democrats are actually interested in real reform rather preserving the status quo. If you take this one basic thought out of your head, put it aside for awhile, you will see that the Democrats are only as incompetent as they need to be to preserve the status quo. Obama the Magnificent became Obama the Incompetent when he undertook to "reform" health care after his election. He apparently "forgot" how to rally the troops or got "confused" about how to proceed. But, on the other hand, consider that our "two" parties are not actually interested in reform but are, rather, status quo parties. This is what even the Tea Partiers know, or at least what those know who are challenging the Republican establishment. Do you think that the Republican Party will be sad if Christine O'Donnell loses? Why? Because they actually oppose masturbation?

And what is the "status quo?" Well, first and foremost, it is the power arrangements that now exist and that have led to power and privilege both Democrats and Republicans, as well as those who are called "Wall Streeters" but who could be called simply "the wealthy." Wasn't it interesting that the election of 2006, in which the Republicans took it on the chin and was about the war in Iraq, changed almost nothing? It certainly changed nothing with regard to Iraq, just as Obama's election in 2008 changed nothing with regard to Afghanistan. And what about all those "Wall Streeters" Obama appointed to oversee the bail out? Oh yes, that was real reform - and if I had wheels I would be a taxi cab!

The current relevance of this argument is that while everyone, or almost everyone, thinks that the upcoming election bodes ill for the Democrats, I think, in fact, the Democrats are not going to be all that upset if the Republicans do well. Then, of course, the Democrats can say, truthfully, "Well, we tried reform and it has been rejected. Now, we will just have to see what we can do with the help of the Republicans." And guess what? They will get help from the Republicans - health care passed after Brown was elected in Massachusetts! - and reform, real reform, will disappear, once again, buried in what we will be told are the "realities" of American politics. It happened after FDR's landslide election, it happened after LBJ's landslide election, and it even happened after Ronald Reagan's landslide election [Reagan ended up raising taxes 11 times!]. If you want to go on thinking that these are the results of some "hidden force" buried deep in the American political scene, be my guest. I cannot help but think that the "hidden force" is only hidden because we choose not to see it - and it is our "two party" system!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

There Must Be Some Other Option

Some years ago, I use to say to students and others that I found it impossible to be a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. I put it this way: I decided I would be a liberal and, sure enough, pretty soon some joker would come down the street, a liberal, saying the most asinine things you could imagine - like let's hire people on the basis of such characteristics as race or gender or age or whatever. Then, after hearing that, I decided I would become a conservative. Pretty soon, sure enough, some joker would come walking down the street saying the most asinine things you could imagine - like let's make war on a tactic, "terrorism." And let's spend huge sums of money on this "war." Well, of course, now it was impossible to be a conservative. Isn't there some alternative that makes sense?

Perhaps this is what politics is like as a matter of course. Pascal in his book titled, Pensees, claims that we make a mistake when we read Plato and Aristotle on politics and read them as if they were being serious. Pascal says that we should read them as if they were writing comedy because for them, reforming politics was like trying to bring order into a madhouse! Perhaps Pascal was right, if not about Plato and Aristotle, then about politics. And this would help explain the success of the Daily Show and Stephen Colbert, who lampoon our politics and our politicians with vigor and intelligence. And perhaps this helps explain why Kurt Vonnegut's book, Slaughterhouse Five, is so good or "spot on." The key delusion that politicians share is the delusion that we are in control here. We are not, as hurricanes and other natural phenomena remind us all of the time. As Billy Pilgrim learned to say, so should we: "So it goes." Or as a parrot says in one of Tom Robbins novel, mocking Marx: "People of the world, RELAX!"