Saturday, December 31, 2011

American Assassins

American Assassins
P. Schultz
December 31, 2011

            A very short blog today. The following is from Stephen Kinzer’s book Overthrow:

            “’Mission accomplished,’ General Javier Palacios, who led the assault reported to his superiors by radio at 2:45. ‘Moneda taken. President [Allende] dead.'”

            “Moneda” is La Moneda, the “presidential palace” in Chile. [We have a “White House” but foreigners have “presidential palaces,” which was by the way one of the first names of the “White House.”] And this message was sent at the end of a coup and an assassination that was fomented by the US of A.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ron Paul and Conspiracy Theories

Ron Paul the Conspiratist
P. Schultz
December 29, 2011

Here is a link to an article in the New York Times on Ron Paul and his tendency to endorse what are labeled “conspiracy theories,” along with other charges thrown in to show that Paul is obviously unfit to be president. Of course, coming from the Times, it is obvious that Paul is unacceptable because he would not preserve the status quo or the current economic and political arrangements, which the Times is heavily invested in.

But more to the point, this opinion confirms what Noam Chomsky has argued for some time now, viz., that the phrase “conspiracy theory” is applied to anything that even hints at an institutional analysis of our current situation. Of course, some institutional analyses have a conspiratorial aspect to them, such as, the CIA killed Kennedy. [I have learned only recently that these theories were propagated by the Soviet Union after Kennedy’s assassination. See Brothers in Arms, a book about the Kennedy and the Castro brothers.] But of course we Americans are far more able to think that, say, Oswald was a lunatic than that his killing of Kennedy had anything to do with the facts that the Kennedys were trying to kill Castro. Almost anything that even hints at institutional analysis is marginalized and replaced by some inanity like bin Laden attacked the United States because he “hates us.” You know, like he was a well armed 13 year old girl.

Ron Paul is unique in that he is the only candidate, including Obama, who is willing to say that our institutions are to blame for our troubles, whether the institution be the Fed or the Department of Defense. And this makes him, of course, a kook and unfit for the presidency. But, hell, by these standards Ike would be unfit if he were to repeat his warnings about the “military-industrial complex.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

Orwell Revisited

Orwell Revisited – Briefly
P. Schultz
December 23, 2011

            This a link to an article sent to me by a friend and former colleague, which argues that the demise or decline of the American empire will come much more quickly than some like to think. I have two objections to this article.

            First, it seems to me to be a “liberal” version of fear-mongering. This is evident in the assumption made throughout the article, an assumption never actually defended, that the end of the American empire represents “decline” for the United States and even bad news for the world. The latter assumption is, for the most part, unspoken or is hidden in the article’s undergrowth, as it were. Also, it seems simplistic to identify the beginning of the end of the empire with Bush’s war in Iraq. More interesting to me, however, is the question of why this should be seen as a “decline.” This could be a good thing. As I wrote to my friend, would it be a bad thing if college athletics returned to a way of operating that was less focused on “glory” and “greatness” and more on what are now called “student athletes?” [Have you ever noticed that some labels become prominent just when they no longer reflect reality? The change from calling it the “War Department” to calling it “the Department of Defense” for example.]

            Secondly, this article reminded me of Orwell’s argument in his article, “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution” that the intelligentsia/manger types worship power and that this comes across as a prejudice that current trends are bound to continue into the future. So, if China and India are rising today, then they will continue to rise tomorrow and into the future. Of course, they present the past in the same way: If something happened, it had to happen because of “history” or of the overwhelming importance of power in directing or controlling human affairs. So, because the US Constitution was written and ratified, it had to be. And this is how history is written for the most part. Orwell also suggests that public opinion is not controlled by the same prejudice or, as he puts it, the same “mental disease.” And this is so because “the public” knows the limits of human power in controlling events. For example, it is the upper classes, those with the most power, who most often abuse that power. Why? Because they have been fooled into thinking that with power they can control events, can control life. The middle and lower classes know better and, hence, are less likely to violate what Orwell calls “the elementary rules” of life.

            What we can know is that the American empire will end – because all empires end. What we cannot know is how this will happen or what might replace it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tea Party "Extremists"

Tea Party “Extremists”
P. Schultz
December 19, 2011

            Once again, the Republican leadership has acted in a way that seems to make no sense.  At least, their actions make little sense if one assumes that the goal of all political parties all the time is to win elections. The action in question was that the Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to accept a compromise that had been worked out between the Democrats and the Republicans in the Senate to preserve the payroll tax cut back so as not to increase taxes when doing so might endanger “the recovery.” And the House Republicans did this even though the Democrats had compromised, or allegedly had compromised, on certain issues such as that of building a pipeline for oil that would transverse the nation. So it is fair to ask: what is up?

            I feel pretty sure there is more to it than what appears below but it is, nonetheless, worthwhile to put this argument forward. Namely, that the leadership in the House [and to some extent in the Senate] is content to look like obstructionists for a cause of doubtful worth if this result helps to paint the insurgents in the Republican Party as extremists or uninterested in governing. And this quotation from a Democratic congressman makes the point rather sharply:

“We are witnessing a pattern of Speaker Boehner walking away from bipartisan compromises to kowtow to his extreme Tea Party wing of his caucus,” Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, said in a statement. “This is the latest example of the Tea Party Republicans sacrificing the good of the country on the altar of extreme ideology.”

            Now, it is fair to ask why Speaker Boehner would feel the need to “kowtow” on “the altar of extreme ideology?” After all, Boehner is in charge, is he not? His position in the Congress is safe, is it not? Well, perhaps not so much as people think. The Tea Partiers are, if not extremists, then at least insurgents. As such they pose a threat to current leadership in the House, whereas the Democrats do not. Even if the Republicans were to lose control of the House, which seems unlikely, this would not mean that the current leadership would lose control of the party. In fact, were the Republicans to increase their numbers in the House, that might endanger the current leadership insofar as there might be more Tea Partiers in the House who could then displace Boehner and other Republicans who are not Tea Partiers.

            Moreover, the fact that a Democrat is being quoted here is interesting in that it points to the “collusion” that exists, willy nilly, between the Democrats and the Republican leadership. Both parties have an abiding interest in preserving the status quo, that is, preserving the prevailing leadership of each party. And, without even needing to meet or communicate, the two parties work together to get this done. As a result the more things change, the more they remain the same. C’est la vive.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ambition and American Politics

Ambition and American Politics
P. Schultz
December 18, 2011

            In the past few days, there have been several opinion pieces about Newt Gingrich as the “front-runner” for the Republican presidential nomination. The most interesting of these have been written by columnists who are conservative Republicans, like George Will and David Brooks. And it is fair to say that these columnists have not been kind to Gingrich.

            While this is certainly justified, given Gingrich’s capacity for making outrageous statements probably intended to draw attention to himself in the best tradition of narcissism, it is interesting to me for what it reveals about the Republican Party as a political institution. For these attacks on Gingrich remind us that elections are not just contests between parties, such as the Republican and Democratic parties, but that they are also contests for control of each party. That is, along with and perhaps even controlling the battle between parties there is a battle within each party for control of that party. It is this battle that leads some to argue, as I have done here, that at times parties are willing to lose elections, want to lose elections in order for some to preserve their power within the party.

            For example, Massachusetts is said to be a “Democratic state,” that is, a state that is controlled by the Democratic Party at the expense of the Republican Party. Try as it might, the Republican Party cannot, it is said, win elections. Of course, this is not true as evidenced by Mitt Romney being elected governor and by Scott Brown being elected Senator. So, perhaps, the Republican Party or those who control it are satisfied with the situation because to change it would require that these people forego control of their party.

            So, behind these criticisms of Gingrich lies the fear by the likes of Will and Brooks that if Gingrich wins, he will restructure the power arrangement within the Republican Party, leaving those like Will and Brooks on the outside looking in, as it were. Hence, they now have to point out Gingrich’s all-too-obvious flaws, making him seem like an extremist or a whacko. There is nothing particularly “conspiratorial” about this interpretation and it reveals that most often, as Noam Chomsky likes to point out, any interpretation that is “institutional” tends to be characterized as “conspiratorial.” This is a way of drawing our attention away from any analysis that points in the direction of concluding that it is the system, not those who temporarily occupy its positions of power, which needs reform or changing.

            And this brings me to my second point regarding Gingrich, viz., that he has been criticized for being overly ambitious. [See a column in the New York Times today by Bruni for an example of this. See below for the link.] The argument is that Gingrich is overly ambitious, which points away from the criticism, endorsed once by none other than Abraham Lincoln [speech entitled “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions], that the system that was created in 1787 by the “Founding Fathers” relied too heavily on ambition as it would be the characteristic that animated the new political order. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” James Madison wrote in the 51st essay of the Federalist. And Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist pointed to “the love of fame [as] the ruling passion of the noblest minds” and intimated that this passion, this love of fame – a kind of “immortality” – would characterize the men who would be drawn toward the presidency as moths were drawn to flames. These men would, if allowed to, undertake “extensive and arduous enterprises” in order to achieve this fame, perhaps even undertaking such enterprises when the public good did not demand or justify them.

            Now, it is easy to see without looking too far that such a passion makes for an ambiguous foundation of a decent political order or of a genuinely republican political order. Human beings of great ambition are dangerous, as the opponents of the new Constitution pointed out is different ways. Such human beings could, for example, make a nation war like or as might be said today “imperialistic.” And a war like nation must, as we are constantly being reminded these days, sacrifice its liberties for the sake of its security. This is said with a frequency today that underlines how easy it is to undermine a commitment to individual liberty for the sake of creating a “great empire.” [Another phrase found in the Federalist.]

            But if we focus on Gingrich and his allegedly over the top ambition, we can and will ignore the more basic question of whether our political system is defective in ways that cut deeper than the defects of any particular candidate or incumbent. And after we do this, we then will wonder why our elections don’t seem to change anything, failing to recognize that they do change some things, just not those that need most to be changed. And I would submit that until we come to a realization that ambition is at best a “virtue” of ambiguous value, our political system and our politicians will fail us, even while seeming to be successful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

From Rand Paul on the Constitution

Some decent argument from Rand Paul on the Defense Authorization Act of 2012. "The Land of the Free" is quickly disappearing thanks to the likes of John McCain. It is sad. 

"Sept. 11 didn’t succeed because we granted the terrorists due process. The attacks did not succeed because al Qaeda was so formidable, but because of human error. The Department of Defense withheld intelligence from the FBI. No warrants were denied - the warrants weren’t requested. The FBI failed to act on repeated pleas from its field agents, agents who were in possession of a laptop with information that might have prevented Sept. 11.

"These are not failures of laws. They are not failures of procedures. They are failures of imperfect men in bloated bureaucracies. No amount of liberty sacrificed on the altar of the state will ever change that.

"We should not have to sacrifice our liberty to be safe. We cannot allow the rules to change to fit the whims of those in power. The rules, the binding chains of our Constitution, were written so that it didn’t matter who was in power. In fact, they were written to protect us and our rights from those who hold power without good intentions. We are not governed by saints or angels. Our Constitution allows for that. This bill does not."

Monday, December 12, 2011

American Politics: A Politics of Greatness

 This is an email response I sent to a former colleague of mine who had difficulty understanding the argument for a different kind of politics then we currently pursue.

I am not sure what you asking or whether you are just trying to make a joke out of my anti-federalism. So, I will respond as follows: Anti-Federalism need not be about all the particular policies you list here. It is, for me, a mindset, having little to do with policies. And the mindset revolves around this issue: What is the more appropriate goal of politics, greatness or goodness? [this is just one way of framing the issues. But I think Socrates saw it this way. Athenian politics = the pursuit of greatness and this was a disaster for the soul.] If the appropriate end of politics is greatness, that is, national greatness, as the progressives argued and as both liberals and conservatives today accept, then my argument will make no sense to you or anyone else. And I will not argue with you or anyone else because it is a waste of time. However, if the choice between national greatness and goodness is an open issue, that is, one worth considering, I will discuss it.

You know, Paul, JFK and his brother, RFK, pursued greatness [bullshit like: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Led to many, many deaths in Vietnam so they could make sneakers for us now!] and a part of that pursuit involved trying to cashier Castro and the Communists in Cuba. [This is my current interest. If it isn't yours, so be it. It is mine.] And in the pursuit of Castro they undertook to try to assassinate Castro and, guess what? Castro got JFK first! It is reported that RFK, after the assassination, when alone was heard to cry out, "Why? Why, God, why?" Well, Bobby, it is real simple. Hey, you try to kill someone and they kill you first, this is called justifiable homicide! One need not plumb the depths of some divine plan to know why your brother was killed: He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Just a little old fashioned justice coming down. And we shouldn't forget that JFK had Diem assassinated only weeks before he himself was assassinated. Hey, what goes around, comes around. Or as Malcolm X said at the time of JFK's assassination: "The chickens have come home to roost." Oh yeah! And Americans think that 9/11 was a bolt from the blue! Hey, if you declare war on terrorists, as Reagan did, then the terrorists have the right to kill you! That is why it is called war!

We, in the U.S., have been pursuing a politics of greatness ever since TR and Wilson and FDR and we have paid the price. "But it ain't really hard to understand; if you're gonna dance you gotta pay the band." We can go on, as we are doing, pursuing a politics of greatness, but we will then go on paying the price, both domestically and abroad. The pursuit of great wealth, which both the liberals and the conservatives promise, only using different means, results in the creation of great inequality and, therewith, justifications for that inequality - you know, like people who attended Harvard are smarter than the rest of us and deserve to have the power! Or that people like the Kennedy's are better than the rest of us and deserve to have the power. Gee, JFK fucked up gloriously, both in Cuba and Vietnam and now we have another Harvard grad in the White House and he is fucking up! Surprise, surprise!

To end this: There is a great essay by George Orwell you ought to read, "James Burnham and Managerial Revolution." You can google it and find it. Orwell saw through the bullshit of elitism, the belief that managers are capable, more capable than ordinary people. Orwell's defense of public opinion is mind boggling and persuasive. It is only when public opinion is ignored that the managers forget the "elementary rules" that all sensible people respect. Like what teacher in a classroom would ever think seriously about education as a "race to the top?" Or like "no child left behind?" Hell, as one of my students at BSU pointed out to me in class last week, the purpose of education as we practice it is to leave children behind! Some go to Yale and some to to Assumption! What sensible person would ever declare war on a "tactic," that is, terrorism? What sensible person would ever think that we can modernize a place like Afghanistan? Only a Harvard grad could think up something like that! Or an Assumption grad who aspires to be like the Harvard grad!

Enough. Good night and good luck.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Drones in the U.S. versus Pakistan

Some excerpts from Al Jazeera. Can you imagine what would happen in this country were a foreign nation to fly drones over our territory and were to kill 24 soldiers of ours by mistake? I dare say, we would not be as restrained as the Pakistanis are being. They boycotted a meeting we wanted them to attend. If it happened to the U.S. we would bomb such a meeting!

"Imran Khan, Pakistan's cricket-great-turned-politician and the chairman of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party (Movement for Justice), has led around 6,000 protesters in Karachi demanding an end to US drone strikes on Pakistani soil.

"Thousands of anti-US protesters had gathered since Saturday near the port of Pakistan's largest city Karachi  to stage a two-day sit-in against what they regard as violations of Pakistan's territory by US and NATO forces.

""Khan called for the blocking of NATO's supply line to put a stop to the unpopular drone attacks which are carried out mainly in Pakistan's tribal regions, where al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are believed to be based.

US-Pakistani relations are at a low point over the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad.

""Pakistan is angry that it was not told in advance of the raid and says it did not know that the al-Qaeda chief was hiding in the area.

In the wake of the operation in which Bin Laden was killed, Pakistan's parliament demanded that the US stop its missile strikes and drone attacks, warning that it may cut off the supply route into Afghanistan altogether if the attacks do not end.
'Pakistan complicit'

"Dawn, Pakistan's leading English daily, reported that Khan said that the "war on terror" is not Pakistan's war and it was harming the country's integrity, and that drone and other such attacks were breeding terrorism."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Political Prophecies

Political Prophecies
P. Schultz
December 7, 2011

Here are the words of a former colleague of mine, trying his best to defend one of his heroes, Raymond Aron, from the charge that, like so many others, he, Aron, failed to see that his anti-Communism was more than a bit rabid. According to this former colleague, Aron understood “once events occurred it was tempting for our contemporaries to assume that those events were somehow inevitable all along. This temptation was present both during the Cold War and afterwards.” [Daniel Mahoney, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, p. 176] The cold warriors, those who according to Mahoney “resisted the totalitarian temptation….[were] later criticized for wasting their time fighting a movement that was…destined to collapse.” [ibid.] And then Mahoney characterizes those who dissent from this viewpoint as deserving of Aron’s “rebuke” for their “cowardice and abstention by historical detachment.” [ibid] So, if one disagrees with Mahoney’s and Aron’s arguments it must be due to a moral failing because, apparently, any disagreement is patently foolish.

Well, there is a wonderful essay written by George Orwell entitled James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution wherein Orwell comments on the tendencies of intellectuals, of managers, of professors and other “thinkers” to confuse current trends with future trends. And here is a passage most relevant to Mahoney’s argument:

“Towards the end of the essay Burnham compares Stalin with
those semi-mythical heroes, like Moses or Asoka, who embody in themselves
a whole epoch, and can justly be credited with feats that they did not
actually perform. In writing of Soviet foreign policy and its supposed
objectives, he touches an even more mystical note:

“’Starting from the magnetic core of the Eurasian heartland, the Soviet
power, like the reality of the One of Neo-Platonism overflowing in the
descending series of the emanative progression, flows outward, west into
Europe, south into the Near East, east into China, already lapping the
shores of the Atlantic, the Yellow and China Seas, the Mediterranean, and
the Persian Gulf. As the undifferentiated One, in its progression,
descends through the stages of Mind, Soul, and Matter, and then through
its fatal Return back to itself; so does the Soviet power, emanating from
the integrally totalitarian centre, proceed outwards by Absorption (the
Baltics, Bessarabia, Bukovina, East Poland), Domination (Finland, the
Balkans, Mongolia, North China and, tomorrow, Germany), Orienting
Influence (Italy, France, Turkey, Iran, Central and south China. . .),
until it is dissipated in MH ON, the outer material sphere, beyond the
Eurasian boundaries, of momentary Appeasement and Infiltration (England,
the United States).”

            And then Orwell continues as follows:

“It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting A CONTINUATION
OF THE THING THAT IS HAPPENING. Now the tendency to do this is not simply
a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by
taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in
cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully
separable from cowardice…Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”

            Aron’s anti-Communism could be seen then as merely an illustration of what Orwell labels here “a major mental disease,” a dis-ease that afflicts managerial types, intellectual types, professorial types because they engage in “the worship of power.” And for Orwell, the or one antidote to this dis-ease is democracy:  

“Fortunately the "managers" are not so invincible as Burnham believes. It
is curious how persistently, in THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION, he ignores the
advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country….The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the USSR while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all
your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.”
[Emphasis added.]

            For Orwell, it is not “the common man” who is governed by unrestrained passion so much as it is the intelligentsia. And, after all, this makes a certain amount of sense because “common men” are, willy nilly, more aware that the limitations imposed on human beings are inescapable. “Common men” do not dwell in “ivory towers,” entertaining “big theories” because they don’t have the time. What “common man” would ever think up something like a “war of terrorism” and think that such an undertaking stood any chance of success? It is the common men who want one day to be pretty much like other days, who want to be secure in their neighborhoods, who want to be paid a livable wage earned at a decent job and little more.  The managerial types look into the future and see nirvana – thanks of course to them – while the common man knows that “in the long run we are all dead.” As I heard said once: City planners generally don’t provide cemeteries in their planned cities!

            In brief, one need not be a coward or historically detached to question Aron’s anti-Communism. One simply might be “common.” One might simply need some "common sense."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Magic of Politics

The Magic of Politics

“Senate Democrats said Monday that they would try for the fifth time in two months to raise taxes on top earners to pay for legislation that would reduce Social Security payroll taxes, as President Obama sought to keep Congressional Republicans on the defensive, asserting that their intransigence could cause a tax increase for tens of millions of American workers.

“With Republican and Democratic leaders deadlocked over the issue in both chambers, two senators offered a bipartisan compromise that they said could help break the impasse before Congress adjourns for the year.

“The proposal, devised by Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, would extend the current payroll tax cut for employees and reduce the employer’s share of the payroll tax as well. It would also provide additional money for highways, bridges and other job-creating transportation projects.

“It would offset the cost with a 2 percent surtax on income in excess of $1 million a year, but would carve out protection for many small-business owners who report business income on their personal tax returns.

“One of the primary objections to a surtax on very wealthy people has been its impact on small business,” said Ms. Collins, the only Republican who crossed the aisle and voted to take up the Democrats’ payroll tax bill last week. “That concern resonated with me. The fact that we have been able, in a bipartisan way, to come up with a means of protecting small businesses is potentially a breakthrough.” [If no one thought of this previously, it is because they did not want to think of it! “Breakthrough?” Yes, if you are a mental midget!]

“Mrs. McCaskill said the fact of a bipartisan agreement on the explosive issue of taxes was remarkable — “a huge part of the battle right now.” From the New York Times, December 5, 2011

You know, it is always hard to understand just what is happening in D.C. and this is not, for me, unintentional. While our politicians like to look like they are incompetent, they are not. In fact, they are very competent, only they are competent at hiding what it is they are actually doing. They are like magicians and for anyone interested there is a wonderful novel by Tim O’Brien entitled In The Lake of the Woods that enlightened me to this dimension of politics and politicians. The protagonist is a man named John Wade, who has taught himself magic and, when he goes to Vietnam, his fellow soldiers nickname “the Sorcerer.” And indeed he is as he can even make whole villages disappear! And this got me thinking: Isn’t this what politicians sell us all of the time, “magic?” “Hey, elect me and I will make poverty, drug use, left behind children, crime, illiteracy, racism, sexism…..disappear! I am a magician; I am the Sorcerer!”

Of course, this is not what our politicians are really doing. For O’Brien, they are playing out their “private issues” in the public arena, searching for love and affection, perhaps even redemption. I suspect that while this is true, it is not the whole story. They are also preserving the status quo, which means preserving above all else their own power and privileges, and the power and privileges of those who share them and, hence, understand them. Incompetence is more forgivable than manipulation for self-interested reasons and for the well-off and, as a result, our politicians don’t mind looking incompetent. [Ronald Reagan was a master at this magic show. “Golly gee, I did not suspect those Marines would get attacked!” Even Bobby Kennedy played at this game: “Gee, why did my brother, Jack, get killed? I didn’t realize that if you try to kill others they might try to kill you. I am so sorry!”]

The problematic phenomenon in D.C. is not incompetence; it is oligarchy, a carefully nurtured and concealed oligarchy. And one that treats us as if we were mushrooms: We are kept in the dark and fed shit!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Politics and Fanaticism

Politics and Fanaticism
P. Schultz
December 5, 2011

            I am listening to a CD book, Brothers in Arms, as I drive back and forth to Bridgewater State University, a book about Bobby and Jack Kennedy and Fidel and Raul Castro. There isn’t much in the book about Raul. But many stories are told, not all of them true I would imagine but one stood out today. After JFK had been killed and his body transported back to D.C., Bobby was heard to cry out, when alone in his room, “Why? Oh, God why?”

            Well, Bobby, there is a reason why: Namely, that you and Jack thought you could kill Castro and destroy his revolution and you played fast and loose in order to get this done. Several times you and Jack tried to have Fidel killed, thinking it necessary to “fight fire with fire.” What you forgot is that when you play with fire, you can and probably will, eventually, get burned. There is no mystery here, Bobby, no reason to try to plumb the depths of some divine plan. It was tit for tat and Fidel “said,” as it were, along with Mae West: “Well, if you are going to go tit for tat with me, you better have a lot tat!” Or as Willie Nelson sings: “Just a little old fashioned justice going round; It really ain’t hard to understand, if you’re gonna dance you gotta pay the band. Just a little old fashioned justice going round.”

            But there is something more to this drama, a something that plays itself out in American politics frequently. In my last post, on Aristotle and his understanding of the political world, I argued that the fact that there is no regime, no political order, where all govern – and, hence, no policies that can comprehend the good of everyone – reflects another fact, viz., that there is no comprehensive good that is available to human beings. Even or especially what many deem to be the “highest good,” a life of philosophy, is not available to all and, in fact, is not even good for all. Hence, let us say that aristocracy, literally the rule of the best, is the best regime – an argument attributed to Aristotle all the time but of which I am skeptical. But even if this is so, this regime is not best for everyone; in fact, it may not even be good for everyone. [Aristotle indicates that he thought that there would be slavery even in the best regime.]

            Why is this important and what does it have to do with fanaticism? Well, it seems to me that fanaticism is only possible to the extent that one thinks that there is a good that is comprehensive; that is, that there is a good that is good for all human beings all the time everywhere. It is something like this – I hesitate to call it a “thought” – that makes it possible for human beings to think that they can get to the good through less than good means, even through bloody and inhuman means. If you seriously believe, for example, that American values are universal, good for all people everywhere all the time, then it is possible for you to endorse or even engage in brutality for the sake of universalizing these values. Fanaticism feeds on a “commitment” to what is perceived to be “the good,” that is, “the good” which is good for all everywhere. “We will pay any price, bear any burden,” as JFK said, to save the world. But is this not fanaticism? And isn’t it fanaticism to declare a desire to rid the world of evil or of “the axis of evil?”

            I recently read a book entitled Socratic Citizenship in which the author argues that Socrates’ conception of citizenship of the best kind did not involve an intense commitment to a political order or to political action. Rather, Socrates thought that the best kind of citizenship was of a restraining character, that the best citizens were those who encouraged the powers that be to “slow down,” to deliberate, to think before acting. From this it might be said that Socrates was convinced that all politics, all policies, all political actions involved, always and everywhere, injustice. The larger the political action, the more comprehensive the policies pursued, the greater the injustice. And, for Socrates, human beings need to avoid, first and foremost, committing injustices because for him committing an injustice was worse than being treated unjustly.

            Fanaticism is concomitant with political life because all political actions are oriented toward the good. Hence, to combat fanaticism successfully requires more than political action. Human beings have to come to understand the importance of limits and this is an understanding that is not easily taught in the political arena. The Kennedy’s, Bobby and Jack, never learned the importance of limits and, as a result, they became fanatics – just like Fidel and Raul. And it was this fanaticism that led, not surprisingly, to their demise. “It really ain’t hard to understand: if you’re gonna dance, you gotta pay the band. Just a little old fashioned karma comin’ down.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Aristotle and [American] Politics

Aristotle and [American] Politics
P. Schultz
December 2, 2011

            I was educated by men who were convinced that Aristotle was an important source for understanding politics and political life. However, the lessons that they drew from Aristotle were (a) his teaching, allegedly, on the innate inequality of human beings, with some human beings labeled as superior and others labeled inferior. Of course, we did not dispute this argument because we just assumed that we were among the superior human beings. Then, another Aristotelian lesson was that politics, at its best, was about virtue and the inculcation of virtue by means of an aristocratic “government.” Again, because we just assumed we were the virtuous ones, we did not dispute this argument too readily, if at all.

            Now, I must say that I still agree with the idea that Aristotle is indispensable for understanding politics but for different reasons than those stated above. First, Aristotle is clear that all forms of political rule are defective or partial. That is, according to Aristotle’s famous scheme of “regimes” there are six regimes, that is, pairs of regimes led by the one, the few, or the many. Note should be taken that for Aristotle, all or “the people” as we like to say never rule! There is no such thing as the rule of all or of “the people,” for Aristotle. All forms of rule are partial, therefore, and in that sense defective because when push comes to shove, as it always does, those with power will rule for the their own benefit because they cannot rule for the benefit of all. Aristotle makes it clear then that there is no such phenomenon as rule for the benefit of all. And I believe this means, ultimately, that there is no good that is comprehensive, that is, good equally for all human beings. And this Greek is said by many to be an “idealist.” Some “idealist.” Even “the good” is partial.

            Secondly, Aristotle makes it clear that the most common regimes are oligarchy and democracy; that is, the rule of the few rich or the rule of the many not rich. And he also makes clear that political life is, by and large, characterized by vibrations or vacillations between these two opposed and competing political ways of being. Sometimes the few rich hold sway and other times the many not rich hold sway. And this is the stuff of politics as most human beings experience it. So, for Aristotle, our distinction between “liberals” and “conservatives,” which we take to be the most fundamental of political divisions, is obfuscating, and perhaps intentionally so. Think about it. What better way to try to escape the constant vibrations, the constant battles between the rich and the not rich than to replace this dichotomy with another “dichotomy,” one that directs our attention away from the rich-not rich division, a division which easily leads to violet disagreements? And if this disguise or displacement leads, most times, to the rule of the rich or the better off, what is the harm in that? After all, isn’t it the rich, the better off, who should control the levers of power? Are they not the responsible parties, the mature ones, the ones who are not governed by envy? And besides, even if they are governed by greed, doesn’t “greed work?”  

            But if Aristotle’s analysis of political life is correct, then it must be said that our political categories merely disguise without displacing the most basic of political divisions, that of the few rich and the many not rich. Some might think this argument is confirmed by the intensity with which some contest anyone who seems to talk about “class” as if it were the motivating force of our politics. The intensity of the opposition to such talk reflects an awareness, maybe only unconscious, that such talk threatens to upset “the apple cart,” as it were, by laying bare the real but suppressed and disguised conflict that is going on in our – and indeed in every – political society. Such talk is dangerous, just as is talk that no good in comprehensive in the sense of being able to satisfy or fulfill all human beings. But is this not what the argument that the supreme good is accessible only to a few implies?

            So, as I see it, Aristotle’s politics, his analysis of political life is still relevant. But it is also dangerous, even subversive of our current way of being political. This is not a lesson I was taught with sufficient clarity. Or perhaps I was, only it took me some time to discover or uncover the lessons Aristotle would teach us.