Friday, December 31, 2021

The New Deal, Racism, and Imperialism


The New Deal, Racism, and Imperialism

Peter Schultz


            In his book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time,” Ira Katznelson asserts: “The ability of the New Deal to confront the era’s most heinous dictatorships by reshaping liberal democracy required accommodating the most violent and illiberal part of the political system, keeping the South inside the game of democracy.” [p. 25]


            This is most interesting in that Katznelson argues that US imperialism, an imperialism dedicated allegedly to promoting democracy throughout the world, required accommodating racism as it existed throughout the United States, but especially in the South. That is, triumphant nationalism fed racism, not vice versa. This suggests that to deal with, to undermine racism required and requires subverting US imperialism or its transcendent nationalism by which the US sees itself as the “exceptional nation,” one capable of reforming others and defeating “heinous dictatorships.” Thus, it is imperialism, not racism, that must be dealt with insofar as it was and is imperialism that required and requires “accommodating the most violent and illiberal parts” of the American political order. And, of course, these "most violent and illiberal parts" of our political order will change over time, even if they remain significantly racist. They could also take the form of "Islamophobia" or sexism.


            [A further question arises as well: Was this “accommodation” merely the result of calculation? Or does the compatibility of imperialism and "the most violent and illiberal parts of the political system" cut even deeper? Was this situation really an accommodation?] 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Aristotle and Plato: Teachers Not Politicians


Aristotle and Plato: Teachers Not Politicians

Peter Schultz


            I finally get it. That is, I get what political philosophy is. Politics, looked at philosophically, provides access to the permanent human questions and to human nature itself. It’s in the political arena that human beings reveal themselves, that their souls are revealed in all their complexity. And that complexity is reflected in the political world where there seem to be almost countless possibilities from among which humans choose how they wish to live.


            As such, political philosophy, as understood by Plato and Aristotle at least, does not culminate in a political agenda, in a recommendation for or a defense of a particular political order. So understood, political philosophy is a kind of contemplation, and it can be a most beneficial kind of contemplation insofar as human beings are political animals. Those who understand political philosophy as something like a practical endeavor, as an endeavor that points toward an embrace of a particular political agenda or a particular political order misunderstand what political philosophy, at its best, is. And this is the meaning of Pascal’s assertion – as well as of others – that Aristotle, for example, didn’t have a politics. Aristotle’s Politics is his contemplation about the political world, not a defense of this or that kind of political agenda or political order. To be an “Aristotelian,” if that is taken to me a partisan of a particular kind of politics or political order, misunderstands what Aristotle was about. In other words, Aristotle would not be “an Aristotelian,” just as Plato would not be “a Platonist.” For the Aristotelians and the Platonists have turned Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophizing into politics and have turned these philosophers into politicians of a high order but still into politicians. Aristotle and Plato were teachers, not politicians.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

American Exceptionalism: Understanding American Politics


American Exceptionalism: Understanding American Politics

Peter Schultz


            To understand American politics, it is necessary to get beyond the conventional wisdom that our political arena is characterized by an ever-recurring conflict between “the left” and “the right.” While there is such conflict, it is, at best, superficial and so it disappears at a moment’s notice. Recently, for example, the Congress passed a humongous “defense’ budget – it’s a war-making budget, not a defense budget – and “the left v. the right” conflict was nowhere to be seen. This phenomenon recurs regularly in our political drama, indicating that “left v. right” is not the real situation.


            The real situation is that our political elites – like most of the people they represent – are united by a commitment to American exceptionalism; that is, that the US is the exceptional nation in the world and should, therefore, control, manipulate, and exploit that world. All fo the sake of justice, peace, prosperity, and the American way. This might be best called a militant triumphalism, which celebrates our nation’s greatness, its political, economic, cultural, and military greatness. Of course, the Democrats accuse the Republicans of undermining this triumphalism with racist and sexist policies, while the Republicans accuse the Democrats of undermining it by way of socialistic policies. But both parties, both “left” and “right” embrace American exceptionalism as something to be celebrated. And neither party rejects the politics of greatness that underlay American politics. While Trump wanted to “make America great again” so too did the Democrats and have argued that they have succeeded by electing Joe Biden to replace Trump as president. Happy days are here again allegedly as American greatness has triumphed once again.


            And this is a situation that many people accept as a recurring one in American history. That is, the US, ever since it separated from the mother country, has avoided – seemingly at times at the last moment – political disaster by recovering her greatness via its democratic republic and impressive leadership. The Constitution replaced the fatally flawed Articles of Confederation, thereby replacing “weak government” with “strong government,” the kind of government that allowed the US to manifest its destiny by occupying and conquering territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even beyond. Greatness beckoned and our “Founders” responded proving our exceptionalism. Then Lincoln and the Republicans once again reclaimed America’s greatness by fighting the Civil War, saving the union and abolishing slavery. Then, as the US after the Civil War tended toward a plutocracy, the progressives came along and, eventually, by means of great presidents like TR, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, made America great again. And, of course, thanks to Woodrow Wilson, the US entered WW I and made the world “safe for democracy,” or so it was claimed. Then as the nation divided violently in the 60’s, LBJ declared and established, briefly, a “Great Society,” Nixon achieved “Peace with Honor” in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan rode out of the West to, once again, reclaim America’s greatness. After 9/11, said to be an “existential” threat to the homeland, George Bush rode to the rescue by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, triumphantly proclaiming America’s greatness, a triumph followed by the election of bi-racial president. And in 2020, the election of Joe Biden, displacing Donald Trump as president, proved once again that America “was back,” that it had once again become militantly triumphant.


            And yet this conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to have penetrated the consciousness of a good many people, who at present indicate little faith in our political institutions or our political elites. Lurking in the shadows of our conventional wisdom is doubt, even significant dissatisfaction despite America’s obvious greatness. But our elites, instead of wondering about the persuasiveness of the triumphant version of America’s history or wondering about the desirability of achieving greatness, have focused on those who are openly challenging the conventional narrative, dissenting and at times even causing civil unrest. These dissenters, who some like to call “blame America firsters,” have done so far to accuse the US of being guilty of war crimes and their leaders being war criminals, using purloined documents as evidence.


            In the face of such dissent, once again “the left” and “the right” have disappeared as they have come together to oppose, even criminalize, this dissent. For without a conviction that the US is the exceptional nation, American politics looks a lot like the politics one finds in many third world nations and its actions in the world do indeed look like criminal acts. The current regime depends upon the idea that America is an exceptional nation, even the exceptional nation. And were the “subversives” to succeed in undermining this myth, our elites know that their days would be numbered.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Francis Bacon's Ethic of Alienation


Francis Bacon’s Ethic of Alienation

Peter Schultz


            Theodore Roszak [Where the Wasteland Ends] points out that Bacon and others had “found a great truth: break faith with the environment, establish between yourself and it the alienative dichotomy called objectivity, and you will gain great power. Then nothing – no sense of fellowship or personal intimacy or strong belonging – will bar your access to the delicate mysteries of man and nature. Nothing will inhibit your ability to manipulate and exploit.” [p. 168, emphasis added]


            This ethic is what made modern science possible and so powerful. But it can also explain our politics. That is, break the link between politics and the community and the result is a great advance of power for those ruling. How break that link? By way of government; that is, by way of creating institutions that turn citizens into “the governed” or, as is often said these days, into clients. By severing the link between politics and the community via government, “Nothing will inhibit [the] ability [or check the desire] to manipulate and exploit” the governed. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist: “The first task [in creating a government] is to enable the government to control the governed and then [oblige] that government to control itself.” The government controls the governed primarily by embracing this ethic of alienation. Government is, as Madison implied, all about control; that is, it is all about manipulation and exploitation. The more powerful the government, the more pervasive the manipulation and exploitation.


            Within such an ethic, the governed become “mere things on which we exercise power. Between [those governing and us] there is no commerce of feelings, no exchange of sentiment or empathy. We [are known] only as … behavioral surface[s]….” Those governing “can remark coolly how interesting it is that [some] make sounds of protest, anguish, or despair….But [those governing, for the sake of objectivity should] make certain that their distress strikes no sympathetic cord – for….[the] project requires [those governing] to go no further than to record, to measure, to probe further, and to get on with the assigned job,” whether that job is educating human beings, incarcerating them, vaccinating them, or sending them to war. [pp. 168-69] This is what it means “to be realistic.”


            And this ethic of alienation proves to be very useful in liberating human beings to use their power with “energy and dispatch,” as Hamilton recommended in the Federalist. As Roszak points out, this ethic is “an excellent device for dealing with ‘behavioral organisms’ not only under the researcher’s eye in the laboratory, but under the bombsights of the military, under the guns of Murder Incorporated.” And it should come as no surprise that those doing the bombing eventually find themselves not in planes but in what might be called laboratories from whence they launch killer drones at digital representations on a screen, representations that can’t even be labeled “behavioral surfaces.” The bomb is launched and, poof, those digital representations are gone. It’s like a magic show, a deadly, inhuman magic show. From these laboratories, guided by the ethic of alienation, our military can make whole villages disappear. After which, those responsible will record, measure, probe further, and get on with the assigned job.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Listening While Malcolm X Laughs


Listening While Malcolm X Laughs

Peter Schultz


            In my sleep last night, I could hear Malcolm X laughing his ass off at the idea of Critical Race Theory (CRT). “What? White people now need and have a theory about racism in the United States. Are you fucking kidding me? Why would anyone but an ignoramus need a theory about racism, about “white privilege” in the United States?”


            And when I awoke, I realized why Malcolm X found CRT so laughable. As he and Martin Luther King, Jr. knew, what was needed in the United States was combat against racism, not a theory about racism. They both issued calls to action to combat racism, with Malcolm X saying he would wage combat against racism “by any means necessary,” and gave a most challenging speech entitled “The Ballot or the Bullet.” And while King chose to combat racism pacifistically, he knew that protests and political action were necessary, that racism had to fought, not theorized about.


            So, in light of these thoughts, I wondered: What purpose is served by CRT? That is, what purpose is served other than permitting white folks to confess and thereby cleanse themselves of racism, without having to do anything, without having to take any action to combat racism? And then it dawned on me: CRT is simply another example of white privilege and its acceptance as “radical” illustrates just how deeply white privilege is embedded in US society and especially in the minds and lives of white folks. And, of course, when CRT draws opposition and criticism, these same white folks can take pride in their alleged radicalness, all the while not disturbing the status quo much at all and without doing any other than espousing “a theory.”


            I guess this should be called “theoretical anti-racism,” although the irony is that in fact this theoretical anti-racism is just another manifestation of how pervasive racism is in the United States. Racism is so prevalent in the United States that it is, as the expression has it, hidden in plain sight. It even comes disguised as anti-racism. It is a most interesting situation.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Some Shit Schultz Says


Some “Shit” Schultz Says

Peter Schultz


            “If you live like Jesus,” my father said, “you should expect to be crucified.” Indeed. What my father sensed was that Jesus’s crucifixion was no aberration. It was the result of how he chose to live. Similarly, it may be said that Socrates’s trial, conviction, and death were not aberrations either. They were the result of how Socrates chose to live, i.e., philosophically.


            While we think of philosophy as an academic discipline or as an intellectual phenomenon, it isn’t. Rather, it is a way of being in the world; it is a way of life. And it is distinct from other ways of being in the world, e.g., being political or living what might be called “the political life.” Not only that but being philosophic brings the philosopher into conflict with those who are being political, as the trial, conviction, and death of Socrates illustrated. That Socrates accepted his fate indicates that he understood this.


            Aristotle argued that moral virtue was also a way of being in the world. For example, being courageous, being just are ways of being in the world. That is, for Aristotle, what we call morality was not following certain rules or prescriptions like “honesty is the best policy.” Aristotle’s take on moral virtue was not rule oriented; rather, it was a way of life, a way of being in the world, a way of being in the world that was the result of habits developed as human beings mature or age.  


            Similarly, Aristotle thought of politics in the same way. He spoke of “the political life” as a way of being in the world. It was a way of being characterized, most often, by thumotic passions rather than erotic passions, which has significant consequences for the kind of life the political life is. Leo Strauss claimed that Plato in The Republic had abstracted from eros, thereby presenting through Socrates a thumotic picture of the best regime. One can wonder, of course, what the political life would look like were the erotic to be included. Perhaps this is what Aristotle was doing in his Politics, analyzing the political life as it would appear were the erotic passions taken into account.


            In Aristotle’s political science, he analyzed political communities in terms of “regimes,” which are ways of being in the world. That is, Aristotle argued that democracies and oligarchies, as well as democrats and oligarchs, have different ways of being in the world. Or, one might say, that being reveals itself differently in democracies and oligarchies, just as being reveals itself differently in the political life and in the philosophic life. If being reveals itself more fully in the philosophic life, than it becomes a question of how to construct a political life that is open to philosophy, open to the fullest possible revelation of being. And what makes the best regime the best is that it is the regime that is most open to philosophy, and therefore it is the regime that should be prayed for. But, of course, the conflict between the political life and the philosophic life is enduring because the philosophic life will always be subversive and, as a result, always be endangered. As noted above, Socrates’s fate was not an aberration, just as Jesus’s fate was not an aberration.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Politcs, the Ambitious Few, and Making America Great Again


Politics, the Ambitious Few, and Making America Great Again

Peter Schultz


            “The ambitious,” “the few,” “the oligarchs,” those who Aristotle calls, euphemistically, “the gentlemen,” aren’t they the most dangerous politically? Isn’t Aristotle’s Politics addressed primarily to them? Aren’t Socrates’ interlocutors in The Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus, representative of the ambitious few? Didn’t Socrates want to tame their ambition, much as he opposed Periclean imperialism in Athens? Wasn’t the elevation of the ambitious few one phenomena most feared by the Anti-Federalists were the new, proposed constitution to be ratified?  


            And that constitution was written to appeal to the ambitious few, by creating a government that would appeal to them, appeal to their desires for fame and power. As Hamilton put it in the Federalist, the presidency was constructed to appeal to those who “love fame,” which was “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” Without term limits, the offices of the proposed government would appeal to the ambitious few, those most interested in creating an “extensive empire,” “from sea to shining sea” and beyond, as it came to be.


            Whereas it may be said that the Anti-Federalists wanted to establish a “small republic;” that is, a republic characterized by what might be called “small mindedness,” a mindedness not captured by dreams of glory, dreams of greatness, dreams of eternal fame. As Herbert Storing characterized the dissent of the Anti-Federalists: “Ambitious Federalists [were] captured by visions of ‘stately palaces’ and ‘dazzling ideas of glory, wealth, and power” [and] wanted us ‘to be like other nations.’” [p. 31, What the Anti-Federalists Were For] The Anti-Federalists saw in Hamilton’s scorn of their arguments “dangerous dreams of national glory.” As Patrick Henry put it in the Virginia ratifying convention: “If we admit this Consolidated Government, it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.’”


            As very few object to “making America great” these days, it would be useful to consider whether the pursuit of greatness is compatible with liberty, justice, or even decency. It may be that one of the most important things needed is to recover the thought of those who saw political greatness as a temptation best resisted.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Aristotle, Regimes, and American Politics


Aristotle, Regimes, and American Politics

Peter Schultz


            Aristotle’s political teaching revolves around what he called “regimes,” which were political phenomena that were the result or reflection of the outcome of battles for power waged by, most frequently, democrats and oligarchs. For Aristotle, it was the regime that made a polis what it was; that is, a democracy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, a monarchy, or a tyranny.


            According to Pangle, the Enlightenment political philosophers “reconceived politics” by referring to “the state,” which was the means of protecting “society.” As a result, “a new kind of political order, ‘liberal constitutionalism’ was constructed….” In this new order, “liberals” and “conservatives” replaced oligarchs and democrats as the contestants for power.


            Jim Hightower, e.g., has argued that that didn’t happen, that the basic political conflict was not between the “left,” the liberals and the “right” or the conservatives but was between “the top,” the wealthiest and most powerful, and “the others,” the less well-off and the less powerful. That is, when you look at what actually happens in the U.S., you can see that the political drama is still a matter, as Aristotle contended, of the few, the wealthy few, contesting for power with the many. US politics revolves around the conflict between the have-a-lots and the have-not-so-much, to put it crudely. The top seeks to control and the bottom, while the bottom seeks the power to control the top.


            Walter Karp is also distinguished by his looking at what is actually going on in the US, viz., that the few prosper at the expense of the many because the few, of both the liberal and the conservative varieties, collude to control the state. Illustration: Our elites, both liberal and conservative, marginalized Ralph Nader, just as earlier those same elites marginalized the populists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to maintain their control of the state.


            Aristotle’s political science illuminates what is actually going on better than conventional political science does because he thought in terms of “regimes,” and not in terms of “the state” and “society.” “The national security state,” e.g., obscures what is actually going on, viz., that the wealthy few are seeking to establish a “benevolent empire” that serves their interests and would establish what they conceive to be the best available regime. This helps to illuminate why such “mistakes” as the Vietnam War was not a “mistake.” The war was part of our oligarchs’ political agenda and was only ended when dissent threatened to undermine the oligarchy by bringing to power such people as George McGovern, RFK, or Eugene McCarthy. As dissent became more threatening our oligarchs had to pull together by nominating the likes of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon as presidential candidates in 1968, both of whom claimed to be “peace candidates.” Victory was forsaken for “peace with honor,” which Nixon claimed to have achieved and for which he was rewarded with a landslide victory in 1972 over – wait for it – George McGovern. So, the oligarchy prevailed after all, and the peace movement and New Left were for all practical purposes defeated. And the American people were apparently willing to call the war “a mistake,” so they didn’t have to consider what its savagery said about the nation’s regime and about them. And the oligarchic regime was eventually fortified by Ronald Reagan’s election, after which the Democrats fell in line behind Reagan’s politics, something they had not done for Jimmy Carter.


            Hightower and Karp are not progressives because they see the American political drama as repeated attempts by democrats to wrest control from oligarchs – and repeatedly being defeated or marginalized. This is a take on our politics that the oligarchy needs to suppress, replacing it with the progressive mythology that our elites are trying to improve life in the U.S. by combatting phenomena like crime, drugs, climate change, or pandemics. By this view, our elites are well-intentioned although they do make “mistakes,” even with some frequency, e.g., by allowing 9/11 to happen or allowing JFK to be assassinated. These “mistakes” need to be corrected of course; but because they are merely “mistakes’ they tell us nothing important about how we have chosen to live and to govern, about what we hold most dear and pursue with passion. For example, for progress to occur, it was thought that government must be “reinvented,” as Clinton and Gore put it. Or post 9/11, progress required that we go to “the dark side” because after 9/11 “nothing is the same.”


            If Aristotle was correct, if Hightower and Karp are correct, this progressivism is merely the cover story for our elites fortifying their rule. If Aristotle, Hightower, and Karp are correct, the post 9/11 drama of American politics hasn’t changed. It is still a drama of the few trying to lord it over the many and the many trying to resist such rule, only now this drama takes place within the war on terror, a war that should be understood politically, as one part of our oligarchs’ agenda. The war on terror, like the wars on crime and on drugs, needs to be understood politically; that is, needs to be understood as fortifying the rule of some, here the few, over others, here the many. 



NB: in chapter three Pangle points out that Aristotle replaces the patriot’s viewpoint - that the place and the people - define the polis with his argument about regimes. The patriot viewpoint lends itself to talk of a “homeland,” whereas Aristotle’s viewpoint underwrites our pledge of allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands. We owe our allegiance to a republic, not to a homeland. No republic, no allegiance required. 

The patriot viewpoint also underwrites the idea that our elites may be described as well-intentioned, because they are, allegedly, committed to the homeland and not to an oligarchy. As oligarchs they are not well-intentioned, but committed to suppressing the many-not-so-well-off when necessary to maintain their power, and it will always be necessary.  

Finally, Aristotle’s regime analysis is based on what we can see happening, ala’ Karp and Hightower. It is empirical, based on actions, not on intentions or the rhetoric of the elites. If a regime is producing more and more millionaires and billionaires, it’s obviously an oligarchy. And it is the oligarchy that should be opposed, rather than the abstraction “capitalism.” One can, obviously, oppose capitalism while supporting oligarchy, as this is precisely how the oligarchy has been and is preserved in the US.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

What is Wrong In/With the US?


What is Wrong In/With the US?

Peter Schultz


            For many, it’s white supremacy that is wrong with the US these days, or to put it more politely, the lack of diversity. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc., etc., etc., explain what is the matter with the US today. And from this perspective, Donald Trump looks like the coming of the apocalypse.


            Only this analysis doesn’t cut very deep into the US psyche and its politics. Sure, racism, sexism, etc., exist and are harmful but they are merely symptoms, signs of a dis-eased psyche and politics. And that dis-ease is the belief in progress. That is, our dis-ease is the idea that the human condition is malleable, that it can be manipulated and controlled by the calculated use of power – both political and technological – in order to ameliorate the human condition by producing a heaven on earth, a utopia, a brave new world, or a new world order under the tutelage of a benevolent despotism.


            It’s quite comfortable to blame our ills on racism, sexism, etc., because these phenomena are seen as aberrations which, once removed as they surely will be, will allow our utopia to flourish. In other words, the progressive project is fundamentally sound, even noble and beautiful, with only these vestiges of non- or anti-progressivism preventing us from reaching “the promise land.”


            The problem is clear: If in fact it is the progressive project itself that is the cause of our greatest ills, then attacking anti-progressivism will do nothing to cure our dis-eased way of life. In fact, by attacking anti-progressivism, it is guaranteed that our dis-eased way of life will be fortified.


            But are racism, sexism, etc. actually anti-progressive? Or are they merely reflections of, the by-products of progressivism in the sense of being ways of thinking that arise once we have embraced the idea that we are capable of almost limitless progress? That the latter is correct is confirmed by the fact that dissenters who reject, say, racism as the all-important determinant of our ills – as did eventually both Malcolm X and MLK – are more dangerous dissenters than those who did not. Malcolm X and MLK came to see that there was a savagery in the US that involved but transcended race. Their “demise” followed soon after their revelations. By focusing on racism, sexism, etc., progressives hide the flaws of their progressivism and, thereby, contribute to the dis-ease that is consuming the US.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

"Lock Him Up!" Putting Trump in Prison


“Lock Him Up!” Putting Trump in Prison

Peter Schultz


            The desire, which is understandable, of wanting to put Donald Trump in jail, to “lock him up,” as some chant, reflects a misconception about the problematic character of Trump. That Trump is a criminal may be true, but it isn’t what is most troubling about him and his politics. What is most troubling about Trump is how he reflects some of the worst aspects of American politics and society. That is, what is most troubling about Trump is the fact that although he may be a criminal, he is through and through an American. People who ignore this fact are unable to appreciate how flawed, how defective our politics and society are. They are also unable to counter Trump and the dangers he represents. In a strange way, they even help to perpetuate Trump’s popularity.


            Trump’s famous claim was “MAGA,’ Make America Great Again. Leaving aside the details of how Trump would accomplish this, it is necessary to ask a question most Americans haven’t asked: Is making America great again desirable? That is, generally speaking, what’s involved in making America great? What does it require? What does it promote? Of what is national greatness composed?


            Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind, is “nationalism.” That is, to make a nation great requires that that nation embrace nationalism. More precisely, it requires that such a nation see itself as exemplary, as exceptional. And it is interesting that underlying many critiques of Trump’s nationalism – thought to be of “white nationalism” variety – is an embrace of a resurgent nationalism, a resurgent embrace of the feeling that the United States is in fact exceptional. In fact, it is this feeling, it seems to me, that feeds much of the irritation, the intense dislike of Trump: He has undermined the feeling that we are an exceptional people. And this feeling has been inculcated in us at least since the Reagan presidency, when it was “morning in America” again and Reagan told us that we could “make the world anew.” And it is this feeling of exceptionalism that has helped justify our response to the attacks of 9/11, during which we and our allies have contributed to the deaths of more than a million people throughout the world.


            But is this feeling really what the United States needs today, whether on Trump’s terms or on the terms of his enemies? Richard Nixon once gave a speech in which he argued that not only was the United States living in a world where it would be impossible for it to maintain its hegemony, but also that this was a good thing. In other words, Nixon, unlike most other politicians of his day and now of ours, thought it would be a good thing if the United States did not seek greatness; that is, did not seek to impose its hegemony on the world. As Nixon knew, it was that desire, the desire for greatness, for hegemony that led to the war in Vietnam, a war Nixon always knew was not only a lost cause but even irrelevant given the undeniably forthcoming hegemony of China in Asia.


            Once Nixon was disposed of, along with his policies of détente with the Soviet Union and his opening to China, then we could get back to fortifying US hegemony in the world under Reagan and then under Papa Bush’s “New World Order.” Reagan and Bush’s agenda for fortifying US hegemony, fortifying its greatness, was continued by Bill Clinton and most forcefully by George “the Shrub” Bush and Dick Cheney. And even Obama did nothing to even hint that perhaps Richard Nixon was correct and that the time of America’s greatness was over and that this could be a good thing. Trump is merely playing the same old song, although it has a different beat since Obama and others are gone.


            Whether Trump committed criminal acts fades into insignificance in light of these questions: Should the United States seek national greatness? Is the continuation of America’s hegemony possible any longer? Even if possible, is that hegemony good for American society, with all the dislocations it requires in terms of government policies, which amount to the existence of “a national security state” with pervasive powers allowing for repression of dissent and the loss of privacy? We have spent trillions of dollars on our national security state while denying health insurance to millions of children and other Americans, even during a pandemic. Is this really how we want to live? Is it really how we should live? Is it really just to live this way? Trump, in his desire to make America great again, never raises these questions; but then many of his enemies also don’t raise these questions either. And, so, guess what? There is very little justice in the United States which feeds the demagoguery that surrounds us. And, of course, in that environment, Donald Trump, being a demagogue, has acquired a status that seems unexplainable to many decent folks. But it is explainable because Trump is just playing that “same old song, just with a different beat since [Reagan, et. al.] are gone.” But now it’s time to start playing a different song.

Friday, November 5, 2021

What Really Happened When Harry Met Sally


What Really Happened “When Harry Met Sally”

Peter Schultz


            In the movie, “When Harry Met Sally,” a or even the key scene is when Harry and Sally “sleep together” after Sally learned that her ex, Joe, is getting married. Afterwards, Sally is quite content, even perhaps ecstatic, while Harry is anything but happy and obviously can’t wait to bolt. Sally interprets this as Harry’s typical behavior of having sex and then leaving, which behavior led Sally to call Harry “an afront to every woman” in the famous deli scene.


            But Sally is wrong about what was going on with Harry after they “did it.” Harry didn’t want to bolt because he and Sally had sex. He wanted to bolt because he knew, at some level of consciousness, that they did not just have sex. They had made love. And this, lovemaking as opposed to just having sex, is what rattled Harry because, in all likelihood, Harry had very little experience making love as opposed to having sex. He had claimed that Sally had not had “great sex” in the diner scene, suggesting of course that he did. And his description to Sally about why he was getting married was as much about his being tired of the dating scene as it was about love.


            Harry is unprepared for making love in part because as a graduate of the University of Chicago – as in all likelihood a political science major (he is a political consultant in New York) – he has “a dark side.” In fact, Harry defines himself and his life by this dark side, telling Sally when they meet that he’s going to be ready to die while she will not. And part of Harry’s darkness is his conviction that men and women cannot be friends because “the sex thing always gets in the way.” In the world, as Harry understands it, love and friendship are illusionary. Sex is real – or so Harry likes to think – but love isn’t. Harry knew, he says, that Helen didn’t love him and that his marriage would fail. So, when love happens, when Harry actually makes love to Sally, he just wants to turn their lovemaking into sex so “we can get over this.” Experiencing love as Harry does with Sally overturns what he takes to be reality, a dark world where men and women cannot be friends, can’t care and care deeply for one another – as he warns Jess and Marie quite forcibly – can’t be in “love, actually.”


            Despite what Harry learned at the University of Chicago, the world, the real world, is open to the possibilities of friendship and life-long love. On the other hand, Sally, who is according to Harry “too busy being happy” to prepare for death, knows that she’s in love with Harry, knows that she has made love with him, and she refuses to let Harry demean what happened – “You took pity on me?! Fuck you!” [Slap!] – or to demean her: “I am not your consolation prize!”


            As Harry contemplates his life alone on New Year’s Eve, he realizes – especially when standing in Washington Park where he and Sally first parted – that “it had to be you.”  Harry realizes that he’s in love with Sally and has an epiphany: “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to begin as soon as possible!”  So, Harry, realizing that he’s in love with Sally, also realizes that love and friendship are possible, are real, and he’s ready not only to live but to share that life with Sally. Death is no longer Harry’s focus; rather it’s life, living, and loving.


            So, when Harry met Sally, Harry becomes, eventually, what the Greeks called a “real human being” (aner, which is genderless in the Greek) and not just a character in some dark drama that holds no promise of happiness. As dark as the world might be, the real world is open to the possibility of friendship, love, and happiness.

Monday, October 25, 2021

On That Secret Radical, Jane Austen


On That Secret Radical, Jane Austen

Peter Schultz


            The following was spurred in part by a book by Helena Kelly, Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, which is a book that should be read, despite its shortcomings. But to get to it.


            Jane Austen’s radicalness is two-fold. First, she saw the flaws, the deep flaws of English society, of the English aristocracy, of the English empire. As Kelly puts it in analyzing Emma: “There are more people who are going to be forced to crime, to become like gypsies.” [234] This is the crux of Austen’s radicalness for Kelly: her keen eye for the forces of history, e.g., enclosure, that were changing English life and not for the better.


            But Kelly misses the second part of Austen’s radicalness, viz., her recognition that the world is “magical,” that it offers the possibility of romance, of deep human connections for which there are no explanations as to origin, which are mysterious, even mystical. And, hence, Austen wrote romances. Go figure.


            Kelly writes regarding Austen’s novel Persuasion: “Persuasion … challenges us to think about history not as a smooth, orderly progression, but as disrupted, random, chaotic, filled with death and destruction, invasion and revolution.” [273] So, Kelly argues on Austen’s behalf, we humans are forced to go along with “the tide of history,” despite its dangers and its violence. There is, to use one of my favorite movie titles, “no way out.”


            But Kelly’s wrong regarding Austen. Jane Austen saw and wrote about the possibility of romance, i.e., she saw and wrote about the unalterable nature of human beings, a nature that allows them to step outside of history, so to speak, by accessing what may be called “magical places.” As Kelly points out, Emma is “uncoupled from history” as ‘’the time frame for Emma makes no sense at all.” Kelly’s right about Emma, but she misses the significance of this aspect of the novel. Because the novel is uncoupled from history, it is also uncoupled from England. That is, it speaks to and about the human condition. You could call it a “fairy tale.” After all, take note of Mr. Knightley’s name, who is Emma’s lover and eventual husband and co-ruler of Hartfield. Or you could all it philosophical, an exploration of the human condition in the imaginary village of Highbury.


            Of course, those who, unlike Kelly, see Jane Austen as a conservative spokesperson also miss her radicalness. They, like Kelly, see the world as a dangerous place but unlike Kelly they turn to established institutions and traditional values for security while navigating “the tide of history.” But because Jane Austen saw the world and human nature as open to the possibilities of romance, of “magic,” she was not constrained to go with “the tide of history” or to put her faith in deeply flawed established institutions – like the English aristocracy or its navy and empire – and similarly flawed traditional values.


            Jane Austen, as an artist, as a poet, drew her strength from romance and magic, which were as real as “death and destruction, invasion and revolution,” as real as “the tide of history.” Her imagination, her senses were sufficiently sharp to access parts of our world most people miss. And one reason Jane Austen is so treasured by so many is that through her they have some access, however momentary it proves to be, to the beauty of romance and magic, to the beauty of our world.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Strauss v. Straussians


Strauss v. the Straussians

Peter Schultz


            What Leo Strauss saw: the threat that the possibility of philosophy would be destroyed, leading to the disappearance of human beings; that is, beings seeking beauty, justice, love, or friendship. Strauss’s anti-communism was not political, but philosophical. His anti-communism wasn’t in the service of hegemony; it was in the service of philosophy or the possibility of the never-ending quest for truth. He sought to revive or fortify philosophy be resuscitating “the ancients,” trying to keep alive the never-ending debate between Jerusalem and Athens.


            Hegemony, Western or otherwise, threatens the possibility of philosophy because it is always tyrannical and, therefore, anti-philosophical. Hegemony cannot be obtained or maintained without recourse to propaganda and, of course, propaganda’s purpose is to curtail, even destroy the capacity for thinking and irony. Insofar as Straussians are seeking hegemony, and certainly more than a few of them are, they are in fact undermining Strauss’s philosophical project, replacing it with a political project that cannot be successful so long as philosophy survives.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Modernity and Politics: Lowering the Standards


Modernity and Politics: Lowering the Standards

Peter Schultz


            Machiavelli, who some say was the founder of modernity, wasn’t interested in “imaginary republics,” and was only interested, as he wrote in The Prince, “the effectual truth,” a phrase that tells us that Machiavelli knew that the effectual truth wasn’t the whole truth. What this means is that Machiavelli wasn’t interested in what some ancients called “the best regime,” a regime that existed only in speech, as in Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics. Machiavelli was willing to give up on the possibility of the best regime, replacing it with what may be called “legitimate regimes;” that is, regimes based on the consent of the governed.


            Of course, that these legitimate regimes would be despotic is not something that Machiavelli broadcast transparently, but that seems to be the crux of his political philosophy, as it was of other moderns, like Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The trick then for these moderns was to get the people to consent to this despotism, to accept it as legitimate and even as desirable. This is what it means to say that modern political philosophers lowered the goals of politics to guarantee success. To ensure the consent of the governed required that the reigning despotism be moderated or even humanized by ameliorating the human condition by means of liberating the acquisitive desires shared by almost all humans, by separating and balancing governmental powers so that neither the rich nor the poor could control the government. Constitutional government, in one sense, merely disguised despotism, a disguise that is revealed for what it is in times requiring extreme measures, like a “war on terror.”


            A troubling question arises, however, viz., to what extent can despotism be humanized? Unless one confuses “humanizing” with ‘’comfort” and “security,” it seems that despotisms cannot be humanized insofar as human beings have desires that rise above the desire for security and comfort. As a result of the lowering of the standards, modern nations resemble criminal conspiracies, as even Augustine knew. As such, they embrace injustice, ruthlessness, and even brutality for the sake of ameliorating the human condition. As Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince, inhuman cruelty underlies all successful political orders and the activities of the greatest political actors. As might be said today, “It is what it is.”


            This is what leads Thomas Pangle to raise the following questions in his book on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws: “does not Montesquieu’s political program, aimed at making life secure, eventually threaten to create a way of life no longer lovely or enjoyable enough to be seen as worth securing? Is it possible that at the root of the practical difficulties is the unalterable nature of man, animated by needs and longings that cannot be harmonized with the desire for security or equality?” [303-304]

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Events on the Road to US Hegemony


Events on the Road to US Hegemony

Peter Schultz


            US foreign policy may be characterized since the end of WW II as a quest for US hegemony in the world. Among other things, the US’s most significant opponents regarding its hegemony were all virtually destroyed by WW II, the USSR, Great Britain and its empire, France and its empire, Germany, with one exception, China, which had however undergone a Communist revolution that had decimated that nation. So, the temptation to seek hegemony would have been irresistible even if the US had not shown a desire for an empire since at least 1789. The following are significant signposts on the US’s road to hegemony.


            The use of atomic weapons to end WW II even though Japan was prepared to surrender if given assurances that it could retain its emperor, which after the attacks it was allowed to do.


            The creation of the conditions for war in the remnants of the French empire in “Indochina,” and especially in Vietnam.


            The isolation of Communist or “Red” China and a virtual US alliance with the Chinese on Taiwan.


            The election of Eisenhower as president and the elevation of the Dulles’ brothers, John Foster and Allan, to be the chief executives of US foreign policy.


            The assassination of John F. Kennedy when it became obvious, after he sabotaged the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and refused to attack Cuba during the missile crisis, that he would was not supportive of US hegemony.


            The ascension and then election of LBJ as president, who indicated his approval of US hegemony by reversing Kennedy’s policy of not committing US armed forces to the wars in Southeast Asia.


            The “silent coup” against Richard Nixon after his landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election because he – and Kissinger – rejected the desirability of US hegemony and sought détente with both the USSR and China, as well as withdrawal without victory in Vietnam.


            The subversion of Jimmy Carter’s presidency by both Republicans and Democrats – ala’ Ted Kennedy – because he too opposed US hegemony in favor of human rights, and as a result was labeled “a wimp.”


            The election of Ronald Reagan as president, who was surrounded by those favaoring US hegemony, who were labeled “neo-conservatives.”


            The election of former CIA head, George H.W. Bush, as president, who then virtually invited Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait so he, Bush, could proclaim the end of “the Vietnam syndrome” and the creation of “a new world order.”


            The election of Bill Clinton president in 1992 when it appeared that Bush might be threatened with impeachment for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, a scandal that made any reproachment with Iran impossible into the foreseeable future.


            The attacks of 9/11, facilitated or not by US agencies like the CIA, NSA, and the FBI, after Bush, Jr. had been “elected” president in 2000, attacks that allowed Bush to openly embrace his father’s “new world order,” which Dick Cheney described as “the dark side.” Bush was supported by both Republican and Democratic elites.


            The election of Barack Hussein Obama, who completed by legitimating Bush, Jr.’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, while expanding the war on terror by claiming that he and other presidents had the right to kill anyone, why where, at any time, for any reason(s). As if to legitimate Obama’s claims, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.


            The election and then the impeachments – twice – of Donald Trump who, although he proclaimed the desire to “make America great again,” indicated he did not embrace endless wars or nation-building.


            The election of Joe Biden, who would be touted as “saving America democracy,” especially after “the insurrection” of 1/6, while embracing US hegemony as a return to a rational foreign policy uninfluenced by Russia or China.


            And, yet, even after these events, the embrace of US hegemony remains suspect among large segments of the US population. These suspicions take the form of negative assessments of sitting presidents like Trump and now Biden, but they reflect not so much the very real limitations of these men as they do the very real limitations of the quest for US hegemony. And one has to wonder who is delusional, our elites or those who large swaths of the American people. But it is fair to say that the people are disillusioned while our elites are not. It should be interesting to see how this plays out as “time goes by” and “the fundamental things apply.”



Monday, October 4, 2021

Tony Soprano and History


Tony Soprano and History

Peter Schultz


            Modernity is defined by a progressive view of history. That is, as someone once said: “The arc of history bends toward justice.” So, as time passes, the human situation improves, “progress” is made and, at some point in the future, we will arrive at the end of history and reside in the promise land.


            Tony Soprano shared this view of history until his panic attacks planted the thought in his mind that history isn’t characterized by progress. In fact, “The Sopranos” opens with Tony visiting a therapist because he has the idea that his situation is characterized not by an ascent but by a descent, that the world of “organized crime” is dying. Dr. Melfi, his therapist, says that Tony isn’t alone, that many Americans feel the same way about the United States.


            Questions that arise as a result of these speculations are: What is to be done? Given the descent of organized crime and the U.S., what should be done? Should attempts be made to “make America great again,” or should a new road be taken, a new project launched? Or should the descent be allowed to continue until it reaches “rock bottom” and a new way becomes a necessity?


            In typical American fashion, Tony wants to try to stop the descent by “re-forming” the mafia, by recovering the old ways, the ways of the founding fathers – as it were – of the mafia. As the show goes on, however, this project only seems desirable by ignoring that these founders were, like Tony and his contemporaries, flawed and their organization was fatally flawed as well. “Omerta” wasn’t as universally practiced as Tony wants to think, just as his father was not the man Tony wants to believe he was. His father’s brutality extended at times beyond what was necessary or justified, and it even extended to Tony himself. To be sure, his father left Tony to deal with his mother’s cruelty on his own, while he, the father, played house with his mistress. Nonetheless, Tony persists in thinking his father made him a better man. But as shown by the results of Tony’s attempts to deal with his son, AJ, as his father dealt with him – AJ attempts suicide – Tony is delusional about how his father’s brutality affected him. Tony never was able to admit to Dr. Melfi or himself the effects of his having witnessed his father chop off a person’s finger, which Tony remembers as being a pinky.


            So, Tony’s project to “re-form” his mafia by recovering the practices of the founders was doomed from the start as it was, in fact, delusional. As the show progresses, this becomes clearer and clearer, e.g., in Tony’s relationship with Christopher, in his relationships with other “made men” like John and especially Phil Leotardo, and even in his relationships with Meadow and AJ, as well as with his sister and his uncle, Junior. Tony ends up pleading with Phil to humanely, a pleading that Phil ridicules. Vito is brutally murdered for being gay, illustrating both the flawed beginnings of the mafia as well as that humanitarian appeals, appeals to justice, have no place in the mafia. Even Christopher is forced to approve the murder of Adriana because she talked to the FBI, while he was trying to escape his situation either by way of drugs or by becoming a movie mogul. By the end, Tony even ends up accusing Melfi of being immoral when she decides – on less than persuasive grounds – she can no longer treat Tony. That accusation illustrates how desperate Tony has become in his attempt to redeem himself, his family, and his organization.


            Tony does not understand that from the beginning, the mafia was a fatally flawed project, one that could not last because its injustices were bound to infect the organization itself. And no enterprise can last without practicing justice amongst its members, even or especially criminal enterprises. Without justice, there will always be power struggles over who should be “boss.” In criminal enterprises like the mafia, these struggles will turn deadly, just as in other enterprises where justice is discounted or ignored the struggles will destroy careers and ruin reputations. The “reasons” or excuses for these struggles might be charges of disloyalty or sexual proclivities, but the problem is the fact that justice has been discounted or ignored all together.


[Whether this has relevance for the US today, I leave it to the reader to decide.]

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Tony Soprano and the American Dream


Tony Soprano and the American Dream

Peter Schultz


            There is an episode in the TV series, “The Sopranos,” the last one of the season, where as Tony is leaving Dr. Melfi’s office, his therapist, she says to him something like: “Well, when all is said and done, Tony, you are a just conventional man.” She means that Tony, like all Americans, wants the good life and the good life he wants is a life of family, friends, loved ones, prosperity and even wealth, and to live comfortably in a nice neighborhood like the one he is currently living in, South Caldwell, New Jersey.


            And this is quite true about Tony. But what Tony doesn’t get is that the way he lives makes the good life impossible. That is, given how Tony lives, no matter how hard he tries or how successful he becomes, he will never achieve the good life he desires. And it isn’t just that Tony is engaged in, along with some legitimate business enterprises [Bada Bing], criminal enterprises. Rather, it is that Tony’s world is a world that requires ruthlessness to succeed and acquire wealth. It is a world where success and longevity turn on the use of fraud and force, even at times deadly force.


            Tony’s world replicates then America’s world, a world that requires ruthlessness to succeed and prosper, as is evident from America’s political and commercial arenas. I can say with confidence that the academic world, where I spent my entire working life, is governed by ruthlessness as much as Tony’s world is. It is not as deadly as Tony’s world, to be sure, but one of its most common mantras is “Publish or perish.” And later in my career, as things changed, the mantra became “Publish and perish.” That is, perish academically or professionally. The latter change reflected the fact that tenure was being phased out at colleges and universities and so the struggle for professional success and longevity became even more intense, more ruthless. I am sure what is called “the business world” is no different.


            Some modern political philosophers thought that they could help construct a system based on fraud and force, a ruthless world, motivated by greed and fueled by vanity, governed by institutions meant to direct and control these vices and, thereby, achieve the good life, a life much like that desired by Tony Soprano and other Americans. They thought that “the ends justify the means” without considering enough that some means make some ends impossible to reach, regardless of time, effort, or progress.


            The Sopranos illustrate this phenomenon because time and again, just as Tony seems to have secured his family and their good life, the ruthlessness of his world intrudes and forces Tony to forego the good life he so strongly desires. And it isn’t just that there is criminality involved because life in “the mob” is ruthless independently of its criminal activity, stemming from the vanity, pride, and greed of “made men” and others. This is illustrated by some of the characters of the respectable world that Tony wants to share, e.g., Dr. Melfi’s own therapist who gets off on Tony and his “lifestyle” and the parish priest who uses Carmella to feed his appetites, both for food and, as Carmella puts when she calls him out at the end of season 1, “the whiff of sex!” That Tony’s children have been instructed to say that their father is in “waste management,” is most appropriate especially if the “wastes” referred to are those people that a ruthless American society has marginalized or repressed, thereby forcing them to turn to Tony and others like him who are willing to provide the kind of “services” they use to find some comfort  in the ruthless world that has helped debase them.


            Further, the ruthless world makes reaching the good life impossible because it abuses and debases those living in it. Tony, Junior, Janice, Carmella, AJ, Paulie, Christopher, Andreana, Vito, Bobby, have all been misshapen by the ruthless society they live in. Carmella is forced to put up with Tony’s repeated infidelities, while accepting gifts like fur coats, cars, and jewelry to offset and disguise the ugliness of her life. AJ eventually becomes extremely angry, thinking he “cares about the environment” in the conventional sense when, of course, he is angry about the life he has with his father and mother. That’s “the environment” he wants to change, just as that’s the environment Meadow wants to change by going to an Ivy League university, working in legal aid society to help the marginalized get justice, and becoming with a doctor or lawyer. And while she controls it better than AJ, she too is angry about the ruthless life she is forced to live, especially when it destroys two love affairs and one engagement.


            There is an interesting interlude, as it were, when Vito, who is discovered to be gay, flees New Jersey and ends up, accidentally, in a small town in New Hampshire living in a bed and breakfast and pretending to be writing a book. In this town, it is made clear, being gay is of no ill consequence, people are genuinely friendly, they don’t pry, and Vito falls in love with the man who runs a diner and works as a volunteer fireman. Vito even moves in with this man, but then one night flees back to Jersey without saying goodbye or leaving a note. When they finally speak by phone, Vito claims he couldn’t live without his children, but his lover says that’s a lie. “You missed the life, the excitement and the money.” Vito says: “Yeah, you’re right.” Then his lover says, “You’re sick. I never want to speak with you again” and hangs up. He’s right and he obviously wasn’t talking about Vito being gay. Vito’s sickness is the result of the ruthless lifestyle he’s been engaged in.


            The good life can only be reached in certain circumstances and those circumstances, present in that small town in New Hampshire, are not available in New Jersey, and not only unavailable to Tony and other made men. The modern project, as some like to call it, gave up the pursuit of the good life, thinking that human beings could be satisfied even if some of their most deeply felt desires would not be fulfilled, would in fact be marginalized and repressed. This is what is meant by those who argue that some modern political philosophers deliberately lowered the goal of political life in order to guarantee its realization. The good life was replaced and security and a bit of feeling free became the goals. The Sopranos is just one example of art that helps us to wonder if this sacrifice was worth it.