Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Socrates as Dissenter

Passages from Socratic Citizenship by Dana Villa
April 26, 2011

“The fact that Socrates’ ‘true political art’ stands at an explicit (and carefully preserved) remove from the world of the assembly and its political leadership indicates that the kind of ‘moral improvement’ he aims at is not something that can easily be measured…. The virtue Socrates attempts to awaken is not something that can be inculcated by political means or through the standard channels of moral education. It consists, first and foremost, in getting his fellow citizens to think about what they are doing. The life of active, engaged citizenship – celebrated by both Pericles and Callicles, as well as by the civic republican tradition – militates against this possibility. Thinking what we are doing necessarily slows us down, if only because it demands that we stop acting in order to think. It moderates what Arendt (in On Revolution) calls the ‘love of public freedom’ and ‘joy in action.’

“Socrates’ radical suggestion to the Athenians and to all ‘lovers of action’ is that political deliberation and judgment are no substitutes for thought or moral reflection, and that thought itself provides no solid results that can serve as the basis of further action. If his fellow citizens become at least episodically philosophical, Socrates can be said to have ‘improved’ them by slowing them down, by loosening the grip the Periclean idea of greatness (or the Calliclian idea of power) has on their imaginations. His ‘true political art’ can thus be understood as the attempt to de-aestheticize the public realm – not, however, by moralizing this realm but rather by making care for the city something distinct from and secondary to the (thoughtful) care for one’s soul. Only when their moral sense has been sobered by an appreciation of the worst wrong can citizens begin to free themselves from the communal intoxication of the Periclean vision and from the Calliclean corruptions which flow from it….

“In his role as dissenting citizen, Socrates is careful to appeal to the Athenians’ established sense of proper conduct. In his role as philosophical critic and ‘gadfly,’ however, he goes well beyond the sensus communis. It is therefore misleading to say that Socrates calls his fellow Athenians ‘back to the best ideals of [their] past as criticized by philosophy.’ The sheer intensity with which Socrates demands the avoidance of injustice puts him in diametric opposition not only to the power-worshipping of Polus and Callicles but also to the ideals of civic greatness and self-sacrifice articulated in the Funeral Oration. Callicles gets it right: if what Socrates says is true, then ‘surely the life of us mortals must be turned upside down and apparently we are everywhere doing the opposite of what we should.’ (481c) Where, in Euben’s words, ‘being great becomes being good, courage becomes the willingness to suffer injustice rather than commit it, and the purpose of life is not to conquer Syracuse, avenge one’s friends, build an empire, or leave monuments behind but to conquer tyrannical impulses [and] harm no one,’ we have not a purified or refined table of values but a substantively different one. Socratic negativism dissolves the Periclean ideal, using the imperative of avoiding injustice to reveal the moral hollowness of aesthetic monumentalism. It points to a new moral world, one where the principle of conduct derives not from the collective desire to demonstrate greatness or cultural superiority but from the individual’s desire to preserve his or her moral integrity, to not be a party to injustice.” [pp. 38-40]

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tocqueville v. Socrates

Tocqueville v. Socrates
P. Schultz
April 25, 2011

In the latest batch of papers read and graded, two students used Tocqueville and his account of “soft despotism” as a guide in understanding American politics and especially Progressive politics. As is well-known, especially today when Tocqueville seems all the rage, “soft despotism” provides for the wants and needs of the people while or to an extent that it renders them inert and governs them despotically. This is quite a critique of modern democracy and one that some conservatives like as it allows them to call out what we call “the welfare state.”

But what if the alternative is “the warfare state?” And what if the “warfare state” is the result of embracing, as Progressives both former and current, both liberal and conservative, a politics of greatness, meaning national greatness?

This allows us to raise the question: Which is worse, which is darker, Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” or the kind of politics that results from the pursuit of greatness? Which is more deadly? Which is more inhuman? It might be that a politics that seeks to provide for human beings is less bad than a politics that seeks to inspire human beings or human societies. A provisional politics might be preferable to an inspirational politics precisely because the former is less deadly, more pacific [without being pacifistic], and more humane.

And, good, old Socrates: Where would he fall in this regard? Socrates clearly did not seek to inspire. In fact, it would seem more accurate to say that he sought to deflate, and especially to deflate those who thought of themselves as “inspirational,” like the Sophists, who sought to inspire the young, to feed their ambitions by enticing them to participate in politics by seeking power and privilege and promising them that they would teach them how to achieve such power and privilege.

I would say that Socrates sought to disillusion as well as or as a means to deflate those most overblown with self-importance. That is, he sought to puncture the ambitions of the hubristic by revealing that their dearest convictions were illusions. According to Socrates, because they pursued greatness, both personal and political/social, the Athenians did not care for that which is most important, viz., making one’s soul the best possible. Apparently, the care of the soul requires turning away from the pursuit of greatness, especially the pursuit of great power and/or great fame. And this is what Pericles, for example, did not understand nor did the Athenians. Maybe Tocqueville did not understand this either.

It might be that “softness” is, if not better than “hardness,” at least requisite in order to render “hardness” humane. Or, put differently, the feminine side of human nature, the caring side, the nurturing side, is essential, especially when it comes to caring for one’s soul, for making one’s soul the best possible.

Monday, April 18, 2011

More Madness and Insanity in American Politics

More Madness From Bacevich’s Washington Rules

Here is more that confirms the madness that characterizes American politics, by which I mean delusions of a high order that seem to have our “decision makers” in their grip.

“In 1961, the ‘best and the brightest’ [The Kennedy Administration and all those highly intelligent or, rather, highly educated people who worked in that administration] had assumed ownership of [the Washington] consensus. Determined to remove any doubt as to who was in charge, they moved quickly to assert unquestioned control. Dissatisfied with the means available, they sought to devise new and more flexible instruments of power. Beginning in 1965, they put their handiwork to the test in Vietnam, the brush-fire war that, in their own minds, loomed large as a test of American global leadership. To their considerable dismay, they soon discovered that efforts to douse the fire produced the opposite effect. In attempting to snuff out a small war they produced instead a massive conflagration. Determined to demonstrate the efficacy of force employed on a limited scale, they created a fiasco over which they were incapable of exercising any control whatsoever.” [pp. 107-08]

Again, if this is not madness then I don’t know the meaning of the word or it has no meaning. You start with a “brush fire” and, in attempting to put it out, employing strategies specifically adopted for that purpose, you turn the brush fire into a huge fire – well, that is, in a word, insane. Or if you dislike that word, then try “delusional” to describe such behavior. Academics and others can come up with all kinds of explanations for such behavior, such as “group think,” presidential isolation, presidential insecurity, presidential personalities, but these explanations only serve to obscure what actually happened. Intending to assert control by means of distinct strategies, these highly educated and very ambitious people who believed in “being involved” and with trying to make a “contribution,” lost control! That is, they failed and they failed miserably, contributing to the deaths of millions in the process. You might think this would lead other thoughtful people to question the desire to “be involved” and to “make a difference,” but it does not. And so, the madness goes on and on and on, even while the virtues of our political system are trumpeted. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Excerpt from Bacevich's Washington Rules

Excerpt from Bacevich’s Washington Rules
P. Schultz, April 17, 2011

Read the following and recognize that those waging war in Vietnam knew, early on, that we could not “win” and yet they went ahead anyway:

“One point deserves particular attention here. For Bundy and others in the administration, the urge to act grew out of considerations unrelated to the crisis of the moment or even to Vietnam as such. The formal report rendered by the Bundy mission let the cat out of the bag: ‘We cannot assert that a policy of sustained reprisal will succeed in changing the course of events in Vietnam,’ that report acknowledged. ‘What we can say is that even if it fails, the policy will be worth it.’ The very act of bombing the North would demonstrate American will, ‘damp[ing] down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done.’ Pain inflicted on the North Vietnamese would ‘set a higher price for the future upon all adventures of guerilla warfare,’ thereby increasing ‘our ability to deter such adventures.’ In effect, the United States needed to bomb North Vietnam to affirm claims to global primacy and quash any doubts about American will. Somehow, in faraway Southeast Asia, the continued tenability of the Washington consensus was at stake.” [p. 98]

You must remember that the same logic applied to the sending of troops to Nam and to whatever death toll this involved. In fact, given this logic, the higher the death toll to American troopers, the better – because it would illustrate that the US was serious! Now if this is not madness, then I don’t know the meaning of the word.

Random "Thoughts"

I will be flying by the seat of my pants on this one. You wake up with these "thoughts" bouncing around in your head.....this time about budgets and budget battles.

What if the current budget battle is merely a way of preserving the status quo? More generally, does it matter what kind of battles we fight? That is, are some battles less likely to raise first order questions/issues and, if so, as seems likely, are budget battles more or less likely to raise such questions? Of course, on "general principle" I am skeptical of these battles raising first order questions, so what can I say in defense of this skepticism? [The general principle being that the currently empowered are more interested in preserving the status quo than changing it.]

Suppose my wife and I are having a dispute, a budget dispute, over how much money we are spending or are going to spend to take a vacation in Europe. It gets pretty intense but we both agree that we should (a) take a vacation and (b) we should take that vacation in Europe. Obviously, if we did not agree that we should take a vacation, we would have a different kind of dispute. But now consider if this disagreement over taking a vacation was not budgetary, that is, did not revolve around the issue of whether we could afford a vacation but rather because one of us thought taking vacations is frivolous and not the way serious and mature human beings ought to act. These differences seem to lead to a different kind of dispute than the dispute over a budgetary question. Suppose a dispute between spouses over whether the family can afford to have its children hunt game and a dispute over whether the family should have its children hunt game because one member of the family thinks that shooting animals is barbaric. It seems to me that the latter is a different dispute, perhaps even a different kind of dispute than the former. [This brings up images of The Lord of the Flies for me, when Jack decides that he will turn his choir into hunters. Was that decision determinative of all that follows?]

Politically, suppose there is a nation that spends a lot of money on "defense." And suppose there arises a difference of opinion of whether that nation should continue spending so much on "defense." Now suppose this is cast as a budget battle, viz., the issue is defined as whether that nation can afford to continue spending so much on "defense." There is agreement that the money being spent is being spent on "defense" and so the only question is and should be a budget issue. Now, suppose someone comes along who says that these huge sums are being spent not for "defense" but for another purpose or purposes, say, for projecting the nation's power abroad in order to impose a particular order on the world, to remake the world in that nation's image because that way is the way all human beings should live. Now, it seems pretty clear that the second dispute, insofar as it is engaged in, is a different dispute than the first, the first being merely budgetary while the second seeks to raise the issue of "ends" or what the nation's "goal(s)" should be.

But note too that the first dispute, the budgetary dispute, would actually serve to displace the second dispute, the dispute over ends. That is, so long as this nation only debates how much it can afford to spend on defense, it will not debate to what end(s) its money should be spent. This phenomenon may be used to preserve the status quo insofar as the question of ends will not be raised.

So, one could argue that those arguing today for a much smaller government on budgetary grounds are not really serious about changing the status quo, despite all the ink being spent that claims the opposite. An argument for smaller government on budgetary grounds alone is not an argument that can change the direction of the government or the prevailing view of government as, say, the or an engine of progress. It has been said, and there is evidence to support these claims, that the national government was actually larger when Ronald Reagan left office than it was when he assumed office. Insofar as this was so, we should not be surprised because Reagan never made an argument, as did Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, that was, even in part, critical of the progressive view of government as the or an engine for progress. And Reagan could not do that because he did not and probably could not make an argument challenging the idea of "progress." He is not to be overly criticized for this "deficiency" as he is hardly alone in it. Even Paul Ryan, the current allegedly "radical" budget cutter, does not make such an argument. And as a result, his budget cutting will, despite all appearances, merely serve to reinforce the status quo. Big government will remain one of the central facts of our lives, even if or as the Paul Ryans of the current situation assume its power.

Which is just a long winded version of the quip: "No politician will reform the system that put him in power." I would only add, that this does happen but only rarely. Now, to get on with my Sunday......Is there a nap in my future?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Some Random Thoughts

From Andrew Bacevich's book, Washington Rules, with some comments and questions appended. Originally sent to my Presidency class on April 15, 2011.

In the chapter, "The Advent of Semiwar," Bacevich examines the careers and views of Allen Dulles and Curtis LeMay, the heads of the CIA and SAC respectively. These men built "empires" after WWII but they "are all but forgotten today." About LeMay, Bacevich points out that the press at the time "gushed" over him. Life magazine said that "LeMay knew that when he committed his bombers against Japanese cities 'a lot of innocent and helpless men, women, and babies were also going to be burned up. [But] this fact did not deter LeMay. He is a thoroughgoing professional soldier. To him warfare reduces itself to a simple alternative: kill or be killed. He would not hesitate for a moment - indeed he would not consider any moral problems to be involved at all - in unleashing the terrible power that now lies in his hands....LeMay is a tough man: the kind of man the Russians respect." [pp. 49-50]

And it was written in Harper's magazine that SAC [Strategic Air Command] had human beings in it who accepted "the awesome responsibility...to obliterate a city at one blow. For this mission everything human and therefore fallible must be dispensed with, must be trained out of them. Systematically the Strategic Air Command seeks to perfect its men, in the hope of honing out human error, doubt, and frailty." [p. 49]

Does this actually say that "everything human...must be dispensed with?" It seems to say that. And does this mean that We the People also have adopt similar or identical attitudes toward "everything human?" It would seem so. And are "doubtless" human beings "perfect?" It would seem so. Amazing stuff, whether you find it appalling or uplifting. And to think that some people argue that the United States doesn't have the "stomach" for fighting wars. Maybe this is one reason people like LeMay are "all but forgotten." It serves to confirm the illusion that we are, at bottom, a peaceful people. [I am not singling the US out here. Has there ever been a peaceful people? Seems doubtful.]