Sunday, June 28, 2015

All Or Nothing

Note:  The following was published on the Thought Catalog website in March.  The reason I am publishing it now is also the reason I will not submit to them in future.  Not only did they fail to notify me that it had been accepted, they altered my title without notice and presented the piece as though it were meant to be read literally rather than satirically.  In addition, it appears that they have no editors on staff, as my essay was published with a few quickly discernable errors that any professional editor would have spotted.  Nevertheless, here it is once more as it should have originally appeared.


Cheating in college? It's only a crime if you get caught, and if you're that sloppy you probably were never meant for college in the first place. It is an inevitability that another cheating scandal is just around the corner so let me forestall any outrage by highlighting the bright side: nothing proves more to the corporate world that you've got the right stuff than squeezing the last drop of profit out of the least amount of labor.

The cult of the free market makes for a sharp learning curve: the market demands X to be considered employable. If X cannot be obtained, well...there is no plan B sorry about your luck. Human feeling and necessities don't fit into the equation, what the market wants it wants, and it makes no allowances for a lack of means or just plain bad luck. It's perfectly understandable then that those who choose to cheat their way through college are doing the right thing. After all, what are the alternatives?

Many will be more fortunate. Dad or Uncle Jim will know someone who knows someone. Connections come in handy, especially if your grade point average isn't sparkling. If you're a member of Skull and Bones or know someone who was, even better. All that ritualized sodomy in the black hoods and the drinking of pigs blood from Geronimo's skull will have all been worth it when your secretary is doing “dictation” at your desk while you look out on Central Park from your corner office.

It is at this point that the defenders of Capital will cry foul. It's perfectly acceptable for those who have the means to be allowed to take advantage of them, isn't that the American way? Except it isn't. The American way is about giving everyone an equal chance, but if you've already got a leg up on the competition from the moment you're born, advantages you didn't work to obtain yourself, then the only reason you're sitting in that corner office has absolutely nothing to do with you. The only thing equal in this scenario is that you and the person without those advantages had lives equally rigged from the start. One for the top and the other in a race to the bottom.

Life isn't fair you say in a sudden about-face. Except, that this supposed equality of opportunity is the very lie that is perpetuated every day by politicians and bankers alike. It's called the Bootstrap Mantra. With a little hard work, anyone can pull themselves up and make things happen. But wait, didn't I just explain how you're daddy's connections got you that fine office at his friend's law firm with the pretty little secretary? When did you ever pull up anything but your pants from the floor?

At the end of the 18th Century, there was a man who documented a similar hypocrisy. As a young aristocrat he was shuffled off to live with his uncle for a time, an Abbe or member of the Catholic clergy, in other words, a man of God. While under his supervision he watched as his wayward uncle would seduce young women, engage in orgies, and occasionally fall foul of the authorities, get arrested, and then be just as quickly released due purely to his station in life. This young man soon learned that virtue is something that only the poor concern themselves with, and that if you want to get along in this world it's best to just do as you please. If you have not already guessed, this young aristocrats title was the Marquis de Sade.

Sade would later write a novel entitled Justine: Or The Misfortunes of Virtue, in which the heroine, a woman of supreme virtue and purity, meets with every conceivable disaster. Her trust is repeatedly taken advantage of, and even monks have no qualms about torturing and raping the young woman they had taken under their wing for protection. Eventually, the poor soul dies when struck by a lightning bolt. An absurd and ignominious end for virtue if there ever was one. Sade learned early that there are two kinds of rules, one for the rich, and another for the poor, and the poor take virtue too much to heart at their peril.


In the end the world Sade merely imagined is the world we have become. For those who cannot satisfy the demands of the market's lust there can be no hope, no salvation. Virtue is a nonsense word for fools and those who take advantage of fools. So by all means cheat, for success is the only true virtue, just as getting caught is the only sin.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Killing Rights

The following was previously published on OpEdNews.com.


If I suggested to you that to euthanize the mentally handicapped would be a boon to the tax payer your first question, after many understandable expletives, would perhaps be: who was I to decide who should live and die? And you would be right to ask, but a far larger and important question is never asked. When our government makes similar choices every day, when our ongoing wars have killed tens of thousands and at the state level we take the lives of inmates at regular intervals (and drones kill citizens without trial), why do we not ask the same of the state: what gives it the right?

The primary, and too obvious response, to this question is that ours is a democracy. We elect individuals who we believe represent us and our interest's in the government. But, whether we decide for ourselves or someone we elect decides for us, when is it ever right to kill? It is as though by deferring to a representative we have absolved ourselves of guilt like Pilate washing his hand's. But, more to the point, if it is only God to whom we grant the right of life and death (as is the assertion of so many Evangelicals) why do we invest such a God-like authority in the state?

It perhaps helps more than a little to examine the history behind the nation-state. We are living with a ghost, a holdover from the Middle Ages when church and state were the same and kings ruled by divine right. The state, so embodied in the ruler, was not to be questioned only obeyed. Like the Heavenly Father whom he represented, we were to have faith his law's were just and in our own best interest's like good and trusting children. And so we have remained, with a child's faith we no longer perceive that the adult affairs of government are any of our concern, and go back to watching what passes for journalism. For this same reason the bulk of the population feel themselves so disenfranchised that it is far simpler to defer to black and white partisan politics and vote mechanically if they vote at all. It is always someone else to blame for the state of the world, never themselves. After all, it is someone else who makes the decisions.

No matter how bad things become, it is never the forms but the individuals who fill them that deserve our wrath. The economy can crash, people may starve in the street, but to suggest that democracy is an illusion is blasphemy. As with the worship of the military, the worship of the state is an open secret. For as much as conservative groups may cry out against things like socialism and statism, they continue to venerate the state while simultaneously speaking it down. Obviously they're as much for statism as the liberals they decry. What really matters to them is who is in control, not that there is control.

I began by asking when is it ever right to kill, and I answered that this is a question we would put to the state in which we have granted God-like powers. Yet, if the state, which is little more than men and women like ourselves after all, is granted the power's of divinity how can mere mortals be trusted to wield the lightning?

Kings were once gods on earth who owned the land in theory if not in fact. God granted them such trust because God, they said, had conveniently granted it to them at birth. Those elected by men still own the land, that is property, but I see no reason to trust the prudence of presidents any more than the mercy of monarchs. And so we might conclude, whoever we grant the right to kill need not take away one's rights for they were never there to begin with. Thus, we go on just whistling in the dark while we keep our head's down.

Monday, March 16, 2015

No Girls Allowed: The Problem of Military Rape

The following was previously published on OpEdNews.com.


It's no secret the military has a problem with women. Not only is there a long documented history of misogynistic commentary from military elites, but the problem of rape has become too large to ignore.1 What then is to be done? Nothing. What can be done about an institution that is by its nature misogynistic, and whose purpose is purely to turn men into killers? Once you have opened such a door on human nature you may never close it again like some Pandora's Box to put away on a shelf when company comes to dinner.

My intent of course is not to defend such behavior, but not pretend it will be ameliorated either with special “sensitivity” training or weekend conferences on how to interact with female soldiers; things any sensible person is aware of and painlessly competent at doing in any other setting but this one. Unlike any other profession the profession of killing, and let us be honest for this is what it is, cannot afford failure for failure means death either for you or your comrades, or both. But it's this seriousness that makes compromise and half-measures as regards female participation criminally reckless if not impossible to carry out without grave consequences.

The effects of military combat are appalling. It has become increasingly well known that the number of suicides due to PTSD or, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, have escalated in recent years.2 This becomes understandable when you examine more deeply the effects of military training, the byproducts of which leave lasting scars even if a soldier never sees actual combat.3 To create a soldier, to take someone who has never killed and make killing second nature to them is to strip a person of their identity and then, through training, rebuild them to see that same lack of identity in turn in others.4

In addition, the effects of combat are ones that lead to a bonding between individuals that is unlike any other relationship. To depend upon the person next to you for your life creates an ethos of solidarity that can only exist between men in the stresses of war. As war by its nature has always been a masculine endeavor, one of conquest and dispassionate slaughter, it can only lead to an ethos that is rigidly masculine and antithetic to the feminine.

Such a bond between men can be classified as erotic in its intensity.5 It was not for nothing that in antiquity The Sacred Band of Thebes was viewed with the highest distinction.6 The Band was a legendary elite fighting force of 300 pairs of male lovers feared because it was believed that in the thick of battle they fought even harder than the standard soldier, both to defend their lover's, but also that they would refuse to retreat and shame themselves in that same lover's eyes.

Those who kill in battle perceive other men as inferior if they are not one of the proud few. Either they conceal a sense of divine hubris and superiority in which they are more deserving due to the enormity of the perceived service they provided, or they become emotionally disconnected from former friend's and relations who have not shared the experience. These qualities of male bonding, godlike disdain, and emotional disconnection are at the heart of what it means to kill as a profession, beside which the problem of rape in the military should appear not only as a non-mystery but should be understood as an inevitability.

The problem of women in combat will never be resolved until the dark nature of this institution is accepted for what it truly is, a factory for the manufacture of killers. As this topic is unlikely to be discussed honestly in the near future it may be best to add a final word of warning. It should always be kept in mind by those women who decide to serve their country by doing violence to others that there is always the tacit risk that that same violence may in turn redound upon themselves. Just as sudden death and brutal maiming have by tradition always been accepted risks that came with the job, now can be added to that bleak register the possibility of rape.
----



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rousseau on Language and Writing

The following is the Forward that was very kindly commissioned of me by my friend John for his latest book, Rousseau on Language and Writing.  It has been available for purchase for some months (you can find it on Amazon here) so this notice is more than a little late but, better late than never as they say.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau has always been a richly divisive thinker, the contradictions of his life almost displaying a split-personality. It is therefore fitting that this duality is mirrored by the essays gathered in this volume upon one of Rousseau’s lesser known works, the Essay on the Origin of Languages . Here Rousseau sought to argue, making wild and brilliant philological and sociological speculation along the way, that originally language developed in warm southern climes where it held a musical and emotional character that, with its migration to the north, would become more coldly rational and utilitarian. If we agree with this hypothesis, it may go a long way in explaining the decline of poetry from its period of greatest flowering in the antiquity of Greece, to its diminishment to the humble lyric of today. For Rousseau , ours is an age for the cold businessman’s prose of the account books not for the singing of epics.

It would be no stretch to claim that all of Rousseau’s work is one sustained attack upon inauthenticity in human relations. In this, the Essay on the Origin of Languages is just one small continuation of that project. We all wear masks, and language is just one more mask we wear to hide our true selves from one another. In the “linguistic turn” of twentieth century philosophy and the rise of the Analytic/ Continental divide , Rousseau was thus in a way prescient in reminding us that too often language can be as much a shield of self-protection as it is a means of conveying ideas. In a manner similar to C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, it becomes merely a tool of defense, where both parties talk past one another instead of genuinely engaging, as the recent commotion between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek might suggest. In this, Professors Barry Stocker and John Bolender have rendered a service in helping to spur just such a dialogue. Bolender, writing from the Analytic perspective, and Stocker from the Continental, have produced essays from their respective domains, each in turn then has contributed a separate essay upon these two original interpretations.

Barry Stocker gives us an absorbing study pairing Rousseau with Jacques Derrida, exploring a deconstructed investigation of the Essay. With a subtle and nuanced analysis Stocker explains that, due to the indeterminacy of language that a flawless definition of concepts such a liberty and community can never be achieved but that political language must remain in constant discussion with its self . John Bolender asks how does emotion in language create solidarity in a community and, further, challenges the Chomskian view against oratory as a positive and perhaps necessary force for political cohesion, speculative insights that present an excellent example of philosophy’s ability to offer new lines of scientific research and inquiry.

The book as a whole is a wonderful demonstration of the limitless possibilities that a great philosopher can elicit even two-hundred years after his death, and the still greater possibilities for cross fertilization and experimentation across the, perhaps, artificial gap of the so called Analytic/ Continental divide. Regardless, if this volume does not achieve its hoped for aim and ignite similar attempts at such dialogue, it remains a unique and stimulating exchange upon a much under-appreciated work by one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Selling Out or The Organic Capitalist

Update:  This essay was recently featured on the following blog: http://louisproyect.org/2015/01/22/ivory-tower-the-internets-own-boy-the-story-of-aaron-swartz/

The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture, or Hegemony, of a society that is influenced by the ruling class as an effective tool for social control.

I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the larger culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be brought out into the open and clarified.

At one end of the spectrum the potential organic intellectual accepts, while still young, the hegemonic propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education its self, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic certain skills are essential, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for afford-ability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, i.e. the student, or more often their parent's, who want an easy path for their child towards graduation.

One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses, and the sense in the student body of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is effectively stillborn because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, in compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an “education”, typically in business or some technical proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital's tree. In essence it is little more than vocational training with the pretension of a university degree.

The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling for that. It comes under the name of “selling out”, but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even noticed to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.

In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual for a large segment of the population, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attained all that they desired, they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as a somewhat disinterested observer critiquing what he or she has seen. With increasing popularity however, they reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital he begins to view capital's interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural non-coercive fashion capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.

There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of “fairness” in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee's expense. A sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have been an admirer of Eugene Debs.

Organic Capitalism is stealthy, the tools at its disposal almost limitless yet it can be overcome. With an improved standard of education and a higher education put within the grasp of even the most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the simple moral backbone to resist its temptations and see through its lies, such scenarios need not be an inevitability.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Gold Standard: A Philosophical Dialogue On the Nature of Poverty

Cast of Characters
Benjamin: A modern Socrates.
Pastor Fred: Pastor of the church which
has been robbed.
Scene
A street outside a church.
Time
Midday.

Benjamin, taking an afternoon walk, encounters Pastor Fred
sitting head in hands outside his church in apparent
distress.
BENJAMIN
Are you alright Fred? You look awful.
FRED
I’m not surprised. Someone broke into the church last
night and stole the big screen TV from the community
room.
BENJAMIN
I’m very sorry to hear that. However, if they needed
it that badly perhaps we should consider it an act of
desperation and forgive it as such.
FRED
Desperation!? How can a night time robbery, that was
obviously planned, be considered desperate? There is
plenty for those who know how to ask for it.
BENJAMIN
There is plenty enough that’s true. However, the way
it trickles down to those on the bottom is perhaps not
all that efficient.
FRED
It’s too efficient if you ask me. I pay enough in
taxes as it is, and those taxes pay to provide for the
poor.
BENJAMIN
Very true. And yet, even then it is hard to get by for
most. Only the smallest portion is allotted based on
what the government considers an acceptable standard of
living, while those who live with more than an
abundance are unwilling to part with even the smallest
percent.
FRED
That is only right, one should keep what one earns. Of
course we should give to the poor and needy, but not as
a legal obligation. It should come from the heart or
not at all.
BENJAMIN
This is well taken, and is a commendable ideal. How
would you implement it?
FRED
As it has always been done, through the church.
BENJAMIN
But Pastor, the churches already do this and yet
someone still felt compelled to steal your TV. If all
of their needs have been met, what may have motivated
their action’s?
FRED
Obviously the thieves were not content with what they
had been given. They were probably drug addicts.
BENJAMIN
How do you know they are drug addicts?
FRED
Well I don’t know, but it wouldn't surprise me.
BENJAMIN
Let us assume for the moment that they were not. Let
us assume that, like you they were angry.
FRED
What reasons would they have to be angry? I’m the one
who’s been robbed.
BENJAMIN
Perhaps it was the anger of frustration, the
frustration of a desire for luxuries they could no
longer afford with work being denied them.
FRED
That’s no excuse.
BENJAMIN
No, but it is not as easily dismissed. The addict we
assume cannot control himself, someone stealing sober
is acting out of more complicated motivations, or so at
least we can imagine. Is it not possible we jump to
the most convenient cliché to strengthen our own black
and white thinking?
FRED
Alright, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume
you’re right. It still doesn't change the fact that
they stole, and it still doesn't make it right.
BENJAMIN
I don’t claim a different set of reasons make it right,
only that the reasons may be more complicated than they
at first appear. Here, you once told me you were nearly
arrested for vagrancy. Tell me that story again.
FRED
I hardly see how that applies, but oh well. Some time
ago I was working late at the soup kitchen. While
preparing the food I managed to spill the larger half
of it on myself, soaking my clothes. I was forced to
change into some donated clothing that had seen better
days.
BENJAMIN
And what happened when you left for home that night?
FRED
I was stopped on the street by two police officers who
thought I was homeless. They didn't believe me at
first, but I managed to explain the odd circumstances.
BENJAMIN
But while you were still under suspicion, how did you
feel?
FRED
As though I had been stripped of my dignity, as though
I were less then human.
BENJAMIN
Exactly.
FRED
And how does that relate to the thieves?
BENJAMIN
It may not relate at all. But it does offer another
plausible explanation.
FRED
That they had lost their dignity?
BENJAMIN
Perhaps not so much lost it as found it
unrecognized. Perhaps when one is assumed to be
something repeatedly, out of exasperation one decides
to give into expectation and act the person the world
desires to see.
FRED
And what sort of indignities might they have
encountered, as I believe that is what you are getting
at?
BENJAMIN
Well, starting with the very churches you would have
dispense charity.
FRED
Do you mean to imply my church disrespects the poor!?
BENJAMIN
Certainly not. Your own church, I know, never turns a
man away, but there are those that do, or put
conditions upon God’s unlimited love. What happens
when the criteria for acceptability is not met? Where
then are the poor to go?
FRED
To Hell! Like the thieves who stole from my church.
BENJAMIN
Now Fred, I know you don’t mean that.
FRED
No I don’t. I’m just frustrated. It took months for
the congregation to save for that TV, now we must begin
all over again.
BENJAMIN
Yet, at least the loss is not irreplaceable. Your
congregation will recover quickly, whereas those who
stole from you have probably gained little to
compensate them for their effort by comparison.
FRED
You want to speak of effort, what of our effort’s? And
the efforts of everyone who works hard to earn a living
in the expected way? If a man cannot enjoy the fruits
of his brow then why bother collecting to begin with?
BENJAMIN
Perhaps the question is not why collect the fruits but
rather, need we collect so many? You and I have had
many talks about the history of the church. I’m sure
you remember our discussion of Luther. One of his
complaint’s against Rome was its acquisition of worldly
wealth.
FRED
I can see what you’re doing Benjamin. You mean to
accuse my church of the same vice. Don’t my
parishioner’s deserve a nice sanctuary and pleasant
surroundings?
BENJAMIN
I’m not making an accusation, just raising a point you
may not have considered.
FRED
I am well aware of the debates in the early church you
are alluding to. But the church serves a function in
the community of spiritual uplift. A shabby looking
church is something few would want a part of, or have
confidence in.
BENJAMIN
True, you have a point, but let me propose a different
thought. A few moments ago you were willing to condemn
the thieves to Hell, correct?
FRED
Yes, but I was speaking out of anger.
BENJAMIN
Precisely, in anger. Nevertheless, I’m sure you would
agree that the soul of someone, such as a murderer for
instance, is deserving of Hell?
FRED
I would certainly say I believe murderers to be in Hell
if anyone is.
BENJAMIN
Why is that?
FRED
Isn't it obvious? Murder is a terrible crime.
BENJAMIN
So you would agree that murder is a very great sin?
FRED
Of course.
BENJAMIN
And murder is a sin deserving of eternal punishment?
FRED
I would think more so than any other.
BENJAMIN
And theft is not?
FRED
I do not feel so.
BENJAMIN
But why?
FRED
Do I need to explain such a thing? When you take a
human life you presume to act like God, who alone can
decide questions of life and death.
BENJAMIN
Yet, if you were less the forgiving fellow I know you
to be, you could easily make such a judgment feel
appropriate, and could perhaps understand if any one of
your parishioners with similar anger made the same
condemnation?
FRED
I suppose that would be understandable, yes. But what
do you mean by all this?
BENJAMIN
What is the difference between a soul such as the
murderer and the thieves who stole the TV?
FRED
The magnitude of the crime of course. Theft is not the
same thing as taking a life.
BENJAMIN
And what is theft?
FRED
The taking of that which does not belong to us.
BENJAMIN
Just so.
FRED
What point are you trying to make?
BENJAMIN
That theft and murder are two different crimes.
FRED
We already know this.
BENJAMIN
But the implication is still unspoken.
FRED
Which is?
BENJAMIN
That a dispassionate observer would not condemn the
thief to Hell, but for the murderer would.
FRED
So in my anger you are saying I made a rush to
judgment. Yes, I will admit it was un-Christian of me,
but we are all imperfect.
BENJAMIN
Quite so, and we forgive the imperfections in others
that we find in ourselves more readily.
FRED
You mean to say that I’m a thief as well because I do
not give enough.
BENJAMIN
No, merely to suggest that, just as the dispassionate
person would not send the thief to Hell for theft, that
we cannot feel that what is stolen is of equal worth to
the thief. To murder is to take a life, to steal is
merely to take what is not our own.
FRED
But the murderer too takes what is not his.
BENJAMIN
True, but I doubt you would equate a human life with an
object, even less with something so abstract as money.
FRED
Where are you going with all this?
BENJAMIN
I’m getting there, I just wish to be sure we have come
to the same place together. What we have discovered
seems can be stated thus: what is owned by us is not
us. That we view an act such as murder or rape
differently than mere theft.
FRED
But it could be argued just the opposite, that what we
own is an extension of ourselves. When a man has built
a fine house for himself, is it not a part of him, of
the image he projects to others?
BENJAMIN
But Pastor, would that not be the sin of pride?
FRED
Pridefulness is indeed a sin, but only in excess. A
little pride taken in our appearance and
accomplishment’s is natural, and even perhaps
beneficial.
BENJAMIN
That is true, but it is pride in excess that I am
referring to.
FRED
And what of our labor? (If you wish to be
abstract.) Is that not something we own as well?
BENJAMIN
The capacity for labor is something we do possess but
not all possess equally, nor is it equally valued by
all. Like a talent, we may possess it, but a talent
for making pleasant sounds is of little value in the
land of the deaf.
FRED
If someone is unable to find work that’s why government
programs exist, and that’s what I pay taxes for.
BENJAMIN
“Are there no prisons? Are there no
workhouses?” Forgive me Fred, I couldn't resist. Let
me take a different approach. What did we determine in
the relationship between theft and murder?
FRED
That murder was a more serious crime than theft.
BENJAMIN
So we agreed that not all crimes are of equal weight?
FRED
I believe so, yes.
BENJAMIN
And I think you would agree that the judgment of a
crime should be impartial, and free from the emotions
of anger and disgust?
FRED
Certainly.
BENJAMIN
Well then, if we have determined that the magnitude of
a crime, as well as the image of that crime distorted
through the haze of anger are things we must consider,
would you then defend the hoarding of wealth?
FRED
Not in excess.
BENJAMIN
Would you then acknowledge that, if one has acquired
enough wealth to feed, clothe, and house himself
adequately, any more than this would constitute a sin?
FRED
Depending on the circumstances.
BENJAMIN
And what are those?
FRED
I don’t know. I would have to take it case by case.
BENJAMIN
But Fred, if we've already determined that crimes such
as murder and theft can immediately be recognized for
what they are, and with what severity we might judge
them, why so picky with the sin of greed? Let’s call a
spade a spade.
FRED
It’s not so black and white as that. It’s...
complicated.
BENJAMIN
Yes, it’s always complicated when it’s our own action’s
we are considering, funny how that is. The gold
standard is in the end the only standard, and a crime
becomes no crime at all if it’s big enough.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Silence Of Progress

Philosopher John Gray has a fitting name, and this disquisition on some of the unsettling aspects of his ideas perhaps goes a long way to explain my long silence.

In his most recent book, The Silence of Animals, Gray reiterates much of what he has said before. We are in thrall to a delusion established by the Enlightenment that society marches in a straight line from barbarism to increasing civility, as each generation demands more and more equality from the state. This is a black and white generalization that greatly simplifies the arguments, but it is the gist.

I have long been a student of Gray's polar opposite, the American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls is most famous for rehabilitating political philosophy in his master work “A Theory of Justice”, in which he laid down a series of fascinating arguments for the creation of a just society. Rawls started out in this book with enormous hope, as the young often do, but with time and experience his faith seemed to waiver. His later books are more considered, more focused than the broad scope of the first and, we learn that with increasing ill health, his hope that a truly just society was possible began to decline. When the greatest thinker on the nature of justice since antiquity begins to doubt its very possibility, then one must pause.

For many months I have indeed taken a long pause at this thought and its implications. At first I, like many liberal minded writers, dismissed Gray's thinking out of hand. Have we not had continuous progress in the twentieth century? Are not the civil rights movement, and even the recent victory for gays to marry, vindications of the Enlightenment ideal? These were the first thoughts to come to mind, but then I began to clean my rose tinted glasses. People of color are still grossly over represented in our prisons, and under represented everywhere else. The recent Supreme Court repeal of The Voting Rights Act is indeed a major setback for civil rights. A half African-American male sits in the White House, but his biography is no mirror for the average black experience. Think again about abortion. This victory, though forty years on, is still just news for millions of women. Many clinics have been legislated out of existence with clever legal slight of hand, and what clinics are available are often too distant to be of use. I am certain gay marriage will face similar retribution in the years to come.

Then add to these an even greater revelation. According to some recent studies the average citizen is so blinded by personal bias as to be incapable of objectivity. Another suggests the impossibility of teaching critical thinking skills. At first glance this second discovery may not appear so devastating, until you consider that our entire democracy if predicated upon the ideal of the informed citizenry, the belief that an educated electorate will always be able to sniff out deceit and vote for the best candidate. Instead, what many have long suspected appears at last validated, that our republic is merely an illusion, the product of propaganda and skillful marketing campaigns.

And so, it seems that history is not a straight line to some imagined progress, but rather a circle which brings us back around from whence we started. True, it could be argued we are still better off with this cycle of the wheel but for how much longer? If all things have their time when will extinction have its day? It has been possible for well over fifty years now to annihilate every living thing on the planet, and baring nuclear death, our own misuse of our earthly resources surely cannot continue without consequence. It appears as though we are walking a delicate foot bridge above an abyss, the ground we tread may feel stable and solid, but the reality still sits just beneath our feet.

What is one to do? As I become older, and I feel the uselessness of idealism, the wisdom of individuals who chose not to interact becomes more appealing. Montaigne lived in an age of chaos, one in which the state was divided against itself by rival religious factions, each absolutely certain of their own righteousness. Instead of throwing himself into such a maelstrom, he absented himself from public life to manage his estate and read and write peacefully in his library. Today such action might be viewed as cowardice, as a desire to escape one's duty to society. But what was his duty? Would his action's have had any conceivable effect upon the outcome? Probably not. The historical forces of his time were too great for such an insignificant soul to have been of the slightest aid. He was right I think to mind his own business, and we have the glory of the Essays as a result.

Going even further back into time one might summon up the shade of Cicero who, forced to abandon politics for a time, occupied himself by writing philosophy in the country. Perhaps he would have been wiser to remain in retirement, for when he returned to the podium of public life he would literally lose his head fighting against a zeitgeist even his eloquence could not tame. This hunger, this unquenchable need to be of consequence in the world perhaps best explains Cicero's disdain for Epicurus. Although he chastised the Greek thinker for hypocrisy in putting his name upon his books, it was Epicurus who counseled a retreat from the fray, the rat race of competition, to live in retirement and devote one's self to friendship and contemplation.

At his death, Epicurus donated his home known as “The Garden”, as a gift to his follower's so that they might continue to spread his message and look inward. For me this seems the best path, but it is one that only the independently wealthy may follow. To function properly for a group of individuals it would require either a piece of land set aside for the purpose, like The Garden and privately funded through some endowment, or self-sustainable like a farm, or for a group of fellow asylum seekers to put their own money in a communal pot and sacrifice their ego's for a greater good. Knowing human nature the latter is more feasible than the former, but just as rare. The wealthy who might fund such an undertaking are very often too much apart of the world to desire leaving it, especially if the bulk of the financial burden would rest upon themselves.

It is just this disparity between ends and means which makes one cry utopia and abandon the vision before it has even begun. Regardless, such societies have indeed existed. As sighted already, Epicurus and his Garden continued for many centuries after its founder's death, perhaps only ending with the rise of Christianity. Christianity then in turn, seeing the value of a quiet life of contemplation, founded the first monastic orders many of which continue to function to this day.

Thus for those weary of the world and its madness the models for sustainable seclusion, at least in theory, are there for those souls hardy and serious enough to attempt them. What do you say, any takers?