Monday, June 17, 2024

Liberal Politics and Totalitarianism

 

Liberal Politics and Totalitarianism

Peter Schultz

 

                  Tim Weiner in his book Enemies on J. Edgar Hoover asserted that “Hoover conflated communism with … homosexuality.” Which led me to wonder: Why or how would anyone conflate a kind of politics with a kind of sexuality? What was going on in the mind of Hoover that led him to conflate communism with homosexuality? What did Hoover perceive to be the connection? It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

 

                  But then I wondered: Apparently, Hoover perceived both communism and homosexuality as deviant forms of human behavior because Hoover thought there was a natural order by which humans should live, both politically and sexually. And communism and homosexuality violated that order and, hence, both were deviant and should be stamped out.

 

                  But did Hoover appreciate the implications of his views? That is, because he was focused on communism and homosexuality, he failed to see that, by his views, the challenge, the human problem was not communism or homosexuality but was deviance. That is, it is deviance that needs to be stamped out and once stamping out deviance is the political project, the consequences, the political consequences are immense. In his ignorance of what he was actually about, Hoover didn’t realize that his project, both political and sexual, was as totalitarian as the projects of Stalin and Hitler because stamping out deviance requires total control. So, while it is accurate to label Hoover a racist and a homophobe, his even grander failing was his totalitarianism. He was, in principle, no different than Stalin or Hitler.

 

                  This points to the fact that within Hoover’s politics – and classical liberal politics as well –  is the temptation of totalitarianism. That totalitarianism might be more or less mild, or more or less harsh, but still, it is totalitarianism. Tocqueville called it “soft despotism,” while Aldous Huxley called it the “Brave New World” – and perhaps what Bush called “the New World Order” is related to such totalitarianism.

 

                  And I may add: While Hoover may have helped to defeat communism, to win the Cold War, as Weiner implies, he was incapable, given his most basic political principles, of defeating totalitarianism. In fact, given his most basic political principles, he facilitated totalitarianism. Once the political project is understood as stamping out deviance, the attraction of totalitarianism is almost irresistible, whether deviance be understood as communism, homosexuality, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, crime, drugs, or poverty. And so, totalitarianism will re-appear again and again in allegedly liberal, democratic orders, disguised as a “Cold War,” a war on terror, a war on crime, on drugs, on poverty, on communism, on covid, etc. The totalitarian temptation, coeval with political life, is embedded in modern, liberal, democratic politics.

 

 

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Everybody Who Is Gone Is Here

 

Everybody Who Is Gone Is Here

Peter Schultz

 

                  The above is the title of a book by Jonathan Blitzer on “The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis.” It’s about the crisis that the United States helped create by supporting death squads in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that led to thousands of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States.

 

                  It raises some interesting questions, e.g., which was humanizing this crisis, the Reagan administration or the sanctuary movement? The latter arose among volunteers who smuggled asylum seekers, those fearing death in their countries, into the United States and worked to get them legally situated in the US. They were breaking the law and so sought to create sanctuaries, both in churches and cities, where the dislocated would be safe and neither incarcerated nor deported back to their countries where they were likely to be killed.

 

                  Of course, the answer to the question is obvious: It was the sanctuary movement that was attempting to humanize what was a dehumanizing crisis, whereas the US government was helping to create that crisis. But then why do we believe that the government is humanizing when, again and again, it wages war, creating death, destruction, dislocation, and dispossession? Isn’t this quite an illusionary mindset? Why do we privilege governments while criminalizing humanizers?

 

                  The sanctuary movement, which was of course committing crimes, was more humanizing than the US government – and not only when Reagan was president. Which should alert us to the fact that governments don’t humanize; they criminalize and militarize. And, often, they criminalize those trying to humanize.

 

                  Criminalization and militarization are essential to government. Violence and repression are essential characteristics of government and of politics. “Affirming the political” means affirming violence and repression. Political virtue, patriotism, that is, is indistinguishable from affirming violence and repression. “This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it is the truth.”

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Politics, Moral Virtue, and Jane Austen

 

Politics, Moral Virtue, and Jane Austen

Peter Schultz

 

                  Let us say, as is commonly thought, that politics points humans in the direction of moral virtue. That is, through politics, humans are encouraged to be good or morally virtuous. For example, being an American is seen as being good or morally virtuous, just as is being Israel or being British and so on.

 

                  There is, in other words, a tendency to equate being political with being good or morally virtuous. Politicians, and especially powerful and popular politicians, are thought to be – despite some evidence to the contrary – good or morally virtuous human beings. And those who refuse to participate politically are thought to be wanting, to be irresponsible, or, in an older sense, “idiotic.”

 

                  But why then does politics so often lead to war and repression? Is it possible that being political, being morally virtuous leads to war and repression? Is there a tendency politically toward war and repression? And is it not so that the more intensely political that humans are, the stronger their tendency toward war and repression, a phenomenon not unheard of and even rather common? Perhaps there is nothing so deadly and dangerous as intensely political or morally virtuous human beings.

 

                  Insofar as this is true, we are presented with a strange situation. It implies that humans would benefit from “learning how to be able not to be good,” as Machiavelli put it in The Prince. Or, put differently, calculated or calibrated violence and repression is preferable to morally infused violence and repression. Using violence and repression in calculated ways is better than using violence and repression in moralistic ways. Politics and morality should be kept separate, a recommendation which is reflected these days by what Americans call “the separation of church and state.”

 

                  But given that politics points toward moral virtue as its goal, keeping them separate is no mean task. It would require a critique of moral virtue, a critique of the political, whereas humans, because we are political animals, are drawn to affirming the political, just as we humans are drawn toward moral virtue. Although they understand virtue differently, all humans want to be virtuous. And there is a tendency to think that were that to happen, our problems would be solved.

 

                  But perhaps it isn’t so. And while this may be “bad morals,” it might just well be the truth, as Jane Austen once wrote [Persuasion]. Was Austen aware of the limitations of moral virtue? That she was might be indicated by her veiled critiques of marriage, the family, British society, and even her heroines and heroes in her novels. Perhaps for Austen, it is the magic of romance, not moral virtue, that accounts for human happiness.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

The Perfect War: A Reconsideration

 

The Perfect War: A Reconsideration

Peter Schultz

 

                  I have been reconsidering The Perfect War, a book by William Gibson on the Vietnam War and its meaning.

 

                  A common question posed post-war was: Who lost Vietnam? Now, this question assumes that the war was there to be won, if waged correctly. So, in assessing the war and its loss, people look for mistakes or incompetence of one kind or another, because these explain why what should have happened didn’t happen.

 

                  There is, however, a more general assumption at work here, viz., that politics, done correctly, guarantees success. But what if that is wrong? That is, what if it is politics generally, “the political” even at its best that fails? If it is the political that leads to failure, then even a “perfect war,” that is, a war perfectly waged or conducted, will fail. No one lost the Vietnam War. Although perfectly waged, that war failed. It was doomed to fail, even before it began.

 

                  It is the political that needs to be questioned. The political itself needs to be questioned because it leads to war and repression and neither war nor repression will be successful, or if successful desirable. The greatest political achievements, say, the Roman or British empires, of the abolition of slavery in the United States, were built on war, repression, even terrrorism. Hence, “the political” should not be embraced or “affirmed.” The political and political elites should be contained, stymied, challenged, limited, disrespected, e.g., by someone like Socrates who sought deliberately and actively, i.e., in the marketplace, to subvert the Athenian political order.

 

                  This is the meaning of the expression that “Education is or should be a subversive activity.” One of the most important human activities isn’t being patriotic or being a good citizen. It’s being a good human being, which seems to necessarily involve being subversive.