Friday, December 29, 2023

The Strange Character of American Democracy


The Strange Character of American Democracy

Peter Schultz


            At times, like right now, the manipulative character of American politics is clearly visible. Now, with some states banning Trump from their presidential ballots, using almost inane arguments based on the 14th Amendment to justify their actions, the manipulative character of American elites is front and center. But it should be noted that such manipulations are, as a rule, characteristic of presidential elections.


            In 2000, of course, such manipulations were clearly visible when the Supreme Court, on a straight party vote, using specious reasoning, denied Al Gore the presidency by stopping recounts in Florida that would have made him president. But in 1960, less visible manipulations by Chicago Democrats like Mayor Daley, awarded the presidency to JFK over Richard Nixon, even while by the barest of margins Nixon had outpolled Kennedy in popular votes.


            Moreover, less visible manipulations decided presidential elections in 1968, 1980, 1992, and in 2016. Nor are such manipulations only recent as they also occurred in 1824 and 1876, when, respectively, Andrew Jackson and Samuel J. Tilden were denied the presidency by way of elite manipulations rather than by way of popular votes.


            As the elections of 2000, 2016, and 2020 illustrate, the electoral college facilitates such manipulative behavior. No state election for governor, anywhere or any time, has been decided by the kind of manipulations that have characterized presidential elections. Why? Because gubernatorial are decided by direct popular votes. It is immensely more difficult to “rig” direct popular elections than it is to “rig” elections involving features like the electoral college. In 1800, 1824, 1876, 1960, 2000, and 2016, the electoral college made the popular vote irrelevant, opening the way for elites to manipulatively decide those presidential elections. Throw in the elections of 1980 and 1992, and the elite manipulations involved, and you have an impressive list of presidential elections decided by the few rather than by the many.


            Perhaps such a list doesn’t subvert the all-too-common praise of “American democracy.” But it certainly puts a dent in it. Perhaps “Democracy dies in darkness,” as the Washington Post claims, but it most certainly dies when elites, the few, the oligarchs, are able to control presidential elections. Trump is said to be a threat to democracy, a charge not without substance. But those seeking to manipulate the upcoming presidential election are also a threat to democracy. And the thing is: Their threat, even though undemocratic, is thoroughly American.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Hitler's Virtue


Hitler's Virtue

Peter Schultz


Stuff bothering me: From something Thomas Pangle wrote in his Montesquieu book: “Virtue is not the goal of a republic; it is the means to the freedom or self-rule which is the goal. The fatherland (the community) does not exist for the sake of virtue, but rather virtue for the sake of the fatherland.” [57]


Having read Ullrich’s biography of Hitler, I wondered how Hitler understood this relationship. Most would say that he understood virtue as existing for the sake of the fatherland. But he also thought that by re-establishing of German greatness with his Third Reich, Germans would be virtuous once again. So, it would seem that Hitler, and maybe others, thought that the relationship between the fatherland and virtue was complimentary, so to speak.


But isn’t this true of all war lovers? They see war as serving virtue and the fatherland simultaneously. – check out, for example, Teddy Roosevelt’s recommendation in favor of war, to wit: “No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war.” And isn’t this what those who affirm the political think, that serving virtue and the fatherland are not only compatible but reinforcing? Hence, their goal is to mobilize politically.


So, this affirmation depends on a certain understanding of virtue, viz., that virtue is or culminates in power, strength, and ruling, i.e., control of yourself, your society, and even other societies. And this points to the most important issue is: What is human virtue? How is human virtue best understood? This is most important because it determines how or whether the fatherland and virtue are related.


Saying the virtue exists for the sake of the fatherland hides the issue of virtue itself as the issue of greatest importance. But because this is the issue of greatest importance, being virtuous isn’t as crucial as understanding what virtue is. Being morally virtuous isn’t as important as figuring out what it is, or isn’t. And, so, the intellectual virtues are then indispensable.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Americans and the Political

Americans and the Political

Peter Schultz


            The Americans pursued two tracks in Vietnam, limited war and “winning hearts and minds.” The American mistake was assuming that winning the war would win hearts and minds. And the basis of this mistake was thinking that hearts and minds can be won or changed politically when hearts and minds can only be “won” or changed philosophically. Moreover, the political is not only immune to, but is even hostile to philosophy. Witness the fate of Socrates, who as a philosopher posed a real threat to Athens and Athenian “hearts and minds.”


            The political is the realm of war, and of the inhuman cruelty war creates. Therefore, mobilizing politically leads to war and oppressive, i.e., anti-philosophic politics. Insofar as changing hearts and minds can only be done philosophically, then mobilizing politically will never change hearts and minds. In fact, as Socrates’ fate indicates, the more likely result of mobilizing the political will be fortification of the prevailing hearts and minds. The more that Socrates proved to be attractive to the young, the more necessary it seemed to the Athenian establishment to fortify that establishment by condemning him.


            What the Americans didn’t realize in Nam – and don’t realize elsewhere – was that by mobilizing Vietnam politically via war and occupation, they were fortifying the very “hearts and minds” they wanted to change. In other words, because the Americans were ignorant of the character of the political, they were never going to succeed in Vietnam so long as they waged war there, no matter how much blood they shed doing so. Human sacrifices fortify but never change “hearts and minds.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Stopping Genocide


Stopping Genocide

Peter Schultz


            In this piece by Craig Murray, he argues that the genocide in Gaza needs be stopped, as required by international law. But what is lost by labeling Israel’s war in Gaza “genocide?”


            Such a label obscures that what is going on in Gaza now has been going on, in one form or another, in Gaza for a long time, viz., Israel’s attempt to “remove” the Palestinians from land the Israelis want and claim as theirs. By labeling what is happening now “genocide,” it makes it seem that Israel is doing something now it wasn’t doing before. By labeling what is happening now “genocide,” the politics of the situation is hidden, making it appear that Israel is responding to the Hamas attacks of October 7th, when in fact it is merely continuing its long-standing policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Hamas.  


            This kind of thing goes on all the time, whereby the political context of events is disappeared, as it were. Particular events are thus made to appear to be extraordinary, thereby requiring what are presented as extraordinary responses. Only by ignoring its political context could 9/11, for example, be made to appear extraordinary, just as only by ignoring the political context could Pearl Harbor be made to appear extraordinary. Anyone aware of the political contexts of those events would not have been surprised by them. The same goes for the situation currently in Gaza and Israel, as the actions of both Hamas and Israel are merely a continuation of long-standing policies.


            Such analyses are quite melodramatic, giving them the appearance of being a movie script. And, as in the movies, the good guys and the bad guys are clearly identified, with the good guys being forced to respond to the bad guys with “guns a blazing,” or with all the fire power they possess while “collateral damage,” as it’s called, mounts. And another righteous war breaks out, with its death and destruction justified, whether such death and destruction are caused by either Hamas or Israel. And calls for peace seem hopelessly naïve, like voices of those lost in the wilderness.


            What is being labeled “genocide” is then the result, in large part, of ignoring the political context of the events in question. By ignoring the political, hiding it behind what amounts to a moral fable of good versus evil, we move inexorably toward war and toward the inhuman cruelty war always involves. By ignoring the political, we guarantee that what we label genocide will reoccur again and again. The way to stop genocide is by recognizing the political and realizing the need for political restraint rather than political mobilization.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Politics and Vicious Circles


Politics and Vicious Circles

Peter Schultz


            Political life creates vicious circles. The Nazis treated Jews as deplorables for social, political, and genetic reasons. Now the Israelis are treating Palestinians as deplorables for social, political, and genetic reasons. As we were reminded recently, deplorables abound in political life. No political society has ever existed without recognizing, categorizing, and defending against “aliens,” that is, the deplorables. And, so, on the level of politics, within the confines of political life, there is no way out.


            Which may be what led Plato to assert that “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Similarly, Machiavelli saw no way out; that is, he saw no way out unless humans came to understand that inhumanity is deeply embedded in, lies in the roots of political life.


            Some will say that what we are witnessing in Gaza and Israel today is madness. I, however, will just call it politics. 




            In reaction to Volker Ullrich’s Hitler. Focusing on the Jews in Nazi Germany hides the political. The Holocaust hides the political, thereby redeeming or affirming the political. Insofar as the political led to the Holocaust, this is disastrous. Talk about a vicious circle: affirming the political to avoid other holocausts will ultimately lead to more holocausts.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Politicians' Ignorance


Politicians’ Ignorance

Peter Schultz


            Politicians use their intelligence to hide their ignorance. That is, their realism, which makes them knowledgeable about all kinds of things, hides their ignorance of more important matters, such as, realism can never achieve its ends, will never succeed. What they know isn’t as important as what they don’t know. They will always end up “shooting the elephant,” in George Orwell’s phrase. This is the crux of what Fowler, in The Quiet American, calls Pyle’s “innocence.” Pyle is ignorant of the fact he is innocent and, therefore is, like a leper, deadly.


            The many are also innocent and ignorant, but are less dangerous than the few because they aren’t ambitious. They sense but don’t understand or fully appreciate how contingencies pervade the human condition. Hence, their cautious behavior, both in terms of their actions and their goals. Their circumstances render them immune to the pursuit of greatness for themselves. But those who pursue greatness, the few ambitious humans, those who lust after fame or immortality, can seduce the many to follow them, in large part because the many don’t realize how chance, how fate, how contingencies control human affairs. Their ignorance makes them susceptible to such seductions.


            What to do? One key would be not to provide the few with opportunities for such seductions. For example, don’t create offices or positions that offer the opportunity for the exercise of great power. Don’t create an office that appeals to those who are governed by “the love of fame,” and who would seek that fame by gaining such an office to undertake great projects meant to serve the public good. After all, it is only the ignorant who think such projects actually do serve the public good. Such ignorance combined with great political capacities is the nitroglycerin of political life, a combination that leads to death and destruction whenever it appears. It is not the many we need to fear; it is the few.


            Similarly, it is not the many the philosophers need to fear. It is the few because they sense that philosophers seek to subvert their grandiose plans. The many did not accuse Socrates, although they did convict him – barely. And even though Crito was not wise, Socrates was his friend and knew Crito intended him no harm. Socrates, the philosopher, cared for Crito and demonstrated that care by reconciling Crito to Athens despite Athens’ unjust treatment of himself. The philosopher, because he’s human, cares for the unphilosophic, even if or when it jeopardizes his or her life. Philosophic courage is indistinguishable from philosophic humanity. Hence, Socrates’ turn toward the human things was an erotic turn. Eros lifts us up where we belong. Not politics.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Ullrich's Hitler


Ullrich’s Hitler

Peter Schultz


            Volker Ullrich, in his book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, likes an analysis of Hitler written by Theodore Heuss in 1932, Hitler’s Way. The focus of Heuss’s analysis is what he labeled “the dual nature of the Nazi movement” and of Hitler himself.


            The movement was dual in that “Rationalistic power calculations coexist[ed] … with unbridled emotions.” Seems persuasive, but isn’t this what all political movements do essentially? Political movements appeal to popular or elite emotions while calculating how to get, maintain, or fortify their power. In fact, it might even be said that politics in general is characterized by an emotional rationality, and that this is in fact the nitroglycerin that leads to political explosions of the kind created by the Nazis. This is not Nazi politics; it is politics simply.  


            Regarding Hitler, Heuss claims he was a master manipulator of the people’s emotions, a mastery based on “psychological techniques” inspired by Hitler’s own “passion(s).”  But, again, isn’t this merely the same “chemical combo,” the same nitroglycerin that Heuss found lying at the heart of Nazi movement? It would seem so.


            Heuss also said, along with his emotional mastery, Hitler was merely “a politician who want[ed] power.” Of course he did, just like every other politician ever. If a person doesn’t want power, s/he doesn’t enter the political arena. And if s/he does want power, s/he enters the political arena. Seems almost self-evident, no?


            But Heuss goes on to say that Hitler’s respect for the law was merely “tactical.” Well, of course it was because law itself a merely a tactic that serves an existing order. In democracies, the laws serve democracy and democrats; in oligarchies, the laws serve oligarchy and the oligarchs; and in monarchies, the laws serve the monarchy and the monarchs. As is clear from campaigns for “law and order,” laws are tactics for maintaining an existing order. Hence, any politician who opposes the existing order, as Hitler did, will not, cannot unequivocally embrace the law(s). This is, again, just politics.


            Similarly, Heuss claimed that Hitler’s moderation was also merely tactical. Again, I must say that of course it was because, like law, moderation is merely a tactic, one that serves to maintain or fortify an existing order. Any politician, like Hitler himself, who opposes an existing order will not, cannot unequivocally embrace moderation. This is just politics.


Why is Heuss’s analysis worth deconstructing, as it were? Because when deconstructed, his analysis reveals one reason why political life so often moves toward extremism. In fact, Heuss’s analysis points us toward the conclusion that political life itself, that is, in all its forms, is essentially, congenitally extremist. And insofar as that’s the case, then the political task becomes taming political life, not affirming it in hopes of ameliorating the human condition.