31 January 2008

Break Time: Hum along with Glenn

Honesty? Ethics in rhetoric? My head hurts. I need a break. Do you? Check this out. It's about 47 minutes long and takes a few moments to load. Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations. Let it play in the background while you read my blog—or surf elsewhere.
Boring? Breathtaking? Tedious? Platonic ideal of (musical) beauty, that is to say 'as good as it gets...EVER'? You tell me.

30 January 2008


Let's take stock for a moment:

1. Plutocrat$ determine which politicians are allowed to rise to candidacy

2. Demagogues tend to win elections

Is that an accurate assessment of the current state of our politics? Too cynical? Not cynical enough? If so, where does that leave us? Is there any hope? Has anybody seen an honest man (or woman) around these parts?

Socrates is wise

The whole politics thing is baffling to me. So much of what goes on in campaigning is based on emotional appeals. Images are created and marketed, or branded—think of the 'W' campaign, particularly in 2004, targeted particularly to the aspirant middle class—while opposing images are tarnished—think of the Kerry 'flip-flopper' and 'coward, hippie, war-protester' assault that same year. In 2000, George Bush was marketed as the guy most Americans would like to have a beer with, while Al Gore could never overcome the 'stuffed-shirt, policy wonk' image he was cast as.

Candidates must have policies. And they, or their retainers, must have thought these policies through (you'd think). There is a certain rationality to whatever policies they have; whether it is 'this is the policy we need to hold to correct a certain problem' or 'this is the policy we need to hold to get elected' or 'this is the policy that best serves the interests of our constituents and pleases our partisans.' These are all rational, practical political calculations. And, indeed, certain people pay attention to these things and make decisions based on them.

But it seems to me that the vast majority of the American electorate is ignorant of the actual policies and positions of the candidates seeking office. They are easily fooled by the emotional appeals of the images sold to them by those seeking office—if they care, or even vote. One partisan analysis of this feature of American politics struck me as spot on: Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas looks at the reasons rural, agrarian Kansans voted against their own economic interests and sided with plutocratic Republicans in the 2000 election. Another analysis, this one by a psychologist, Drew Westen's The Political Brain, agrees that emotional appeals to values—the use of rhetoric—has been a major factor in swaying elections in recent campaigns because our brains are hard-wired to be susceptible to our gut-level responses. And George Lakoff, a linguistics professor, has demonstrated how political marketers (can) use "frames" in their craft—the careful selection of words and terms for their connotations, allusions, and emotional appeal—to communicate subtle values that appeal not to the brain but the gut (or heart).

Lest you think I'm being overly partisan here, Frank Luntz, the conservative Republican pollster and consultant, has written a major book on precisely this topic: Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear.

If that all feels like too much reading, you can see Lakoff, Westen, and Luntz discussing these issues in a terrific forum from the New York Public Library back last November here.

But if you want to get back to the roots of this age-old issue, you need look no further than Plato's depiction of Socrates in his debates with the sophists—the teachers of rhetoric and political oratory of his day.
The opinion of the majority about knowledge is that it is not anything strong, which can control and rule a man; they don't look at it that way at all, but think that often a man who possesses knowledge is ruled not by it but by something else, in one case passion, in another pleasure, in another pain, sometimes lust, very often fear... . Protagoras 352b3-9.

Bottom line: The appeal to the emotions—to greed or fear, pleasure or pain, love or hatred—is strong medicine and often causes people to vote against their own rational interests (knowledge).

This leaves us with the question for future postings: Is demagogy the best or, indeed, the only way to win a heavily contested election in this country?

29 January 2008

What Rough Beast...Indeed

Now I hear you saying: "Leviathan, Nessie, and now Yeats again? (And for those of you paying close attention Nicholas Moseley and Richard Goldschmidt—but more about that later). Dude, you're all over the map. Don't tell me you're going to try to bring them all together in one post?"

Well, not precisely. But the upshot of the last several posts is leading us to ask whether there really is some sort of fundamental change afoot in the West, especially in the U.S. While thinking about the current elections here in the U.S., I ran across the following article on "Plutonomics"—and no it has nothing to do with:


or even:

'PLUTOCRACY' is a big word that simply means the politics of the country is controlled by big money. It comes from the ancient Greek words for 'wealth' (ploutos) and 'power' (kratos). Is plutonomics the rough beast (secular and economic, not in Yeats's cryptic, mythological sense) slouching to be born? Is plutocracy the true future of our civilization? Is that what is taking shape before our very eyes?

At least one former Republican, Kevin Phillips, thinks so:
Well, the plutocracy ... and I think we have one now and we didn't, 12 years ago when I wrote THE POLITICS OF RICH AND POOR is when money has ceased just entertaining itself with leveraged buyouts and all the stuff they did in the '80s, and really takes over politics, and takes it over on both sides when money not only talks, money screams. When you start developing philosophies in which giving a check is a First Amendment right. That's incredible. But what you've got is that this is what money has done. It's produced the fusion of money and government. And that is plutocracy.

And one economist, James K. Galbraith, has asked what I believe is the right question: if that's the case and plutocracy is the new world order, where then is our Teddy Roosevelt?

28 January 2008


The wisdom of government is best understood by thinking about its absence. Why do we need government? Why do we even put up with the political class—including the fourth estate?

The great theorist on this matter is Thomas Hobbes whose Leviathan told us that without society our lives would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." We would find ourselves living in what he called the "state of nature"—the "war of all against all."

The point of civilization, as the name implies, is to civilize us. A number of novels have explored this theme: William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Cormac McCarthy's The Road (I know, I know—but if it's any consolation I've read all his other books and read this the day it was published, long before Oprah's legions even heard about it.), Jose Saramago's Blindness, and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow to name a few of the better ones (not to mention the aforeblogged Disgrace).

There is the flavor of pessimism about the human condition in all these works—or unflinching realism, depending on your point of view—tempered with some hope for the future. Certainly, Christianity, with its focus on 'original sin' fuels this belief in our 'fallenness' and human fallibility. On the religious view, however, our only hope for redemption lies in the afterlife. Still, these unbridled subterranean forces of our own nature—these hopeful monsters— need to be kept in check. This is the function of civilization and government is merely the regulation and maintenance of civilization.

27 January 2008

Election Year: Change?

Here, in the U.S., this is an election year. One of the big issues is change. There seems to be an outcry for change from the status quo. Some say the status quo we need change from is the regime of the past seven years—the Bush/Cheney regime. Others say it is from the past fifteen years, somehow likening the Clinton presidency to that of Bush.

The common thread is that there can be change within the system given our form of government.

I'm not so sure.

Why? See, e.g., here. Though ostensibly we have freedom of choice between (usually) the representatives of two parties, these candidates can only sail through the process on the winds of big money. And the only change in sight appears to be this:

Politics: How to govern this mess?

We in the West have experimented with a number of political systems: radical democracy of ancient Greek city-states, the republic of Rome, the empire likewise, theocracies, anarchies, kingdoms, democratic republics, parliamentary democracies, colonial empires, military dictatorships, fascism, communism, loose alliances and leagues, and the list could go on.

So, again, we ask: where does that leave us? What form of government is best? Is it perhaps too late in the game to ask such a question? Is any one form suitable for the entire world?

22 January 2008


So, where does that leave us? Is the center falling apart? (Again? So soon?)

One writer who's addressed this question is J.M. Coetzee. In his novel Disgrace, he tells the story of a literature professor, David Lurie, who has been reduced to teaching something called Communications. Still and all, he believes he has a good life. The story is about how his life falls apart.

The overarching dramatic theme of the novel deals with his sexual, animal nature. The first part shows his predilection for a certain prostitute whom he visits regularly. One day he sees her on the street and follows her. She spots him and refuses to entertain his business any more. The chapter is cringe-inducing as he has a private detective track her down. No other prostitute suffices.

The next part finds Lurie seducing a beautiful young student. Eventually, her boyfriend and family get involved and charges are laid at the university. Against advice, he refuses to defend himself and leaves the school. Everyone, his ex-wife and the reader included, thinks he's being stubbornly stupid.

He seeks his daughter out on a farm in rural South Africa. One afternoon, they are attacked by a couple of men. He is beaten and locked in a bathroom while she is, presumably, gang-raped.

After trying to make amends with his ex-wife and the family of the student, Lurie ends up staying in the rural area near his daughter, working in a humane shelter helping to ease the euthanasia of stray dogs and dispose of their bodies and, significantly, having a romping affair with his unattractive married co-worker. His equally stubborn and now pregnant daughter winds up seeking the protection of her former farmhand.

The novel is much more complex than this little summary, but it serves to illustrate the point. Lurie's sexual nature is responsible for his disgrace (losing his job at the university) but also for his ultimate redemption. In some senses—and I know this will be controversial—the ending is comic: Lurie winds up having sex with the wife of one of the locals on the floor of the dog shelter. He also accepts the idea of mortality; he knows he cannot save all the dogs who must die, even the one he feels for. He can only make what remains of their life and their passing more humane and comfortable. In this, he finds peace and, dare I say it, grace!

Other motifs in the novel include politics and music and the ethics of animal rights (we'll blog later on Peter Singer's philosophy), but to me the overwhelming impact of the book lies in Lurie's recognition of his own humanity, i.e., his mortality, and how he comes to deal with it. The key dramatic points (reversal, rising action, climax, denouement) are all tied in with this theme of sexuality. For my money, Disgrace is the most important and best novel I have read in the last quarter century. And, quite possibly, it can serve to point us in the direction of the new center: our common human nature as mortal, sexual beings, creatures on the earth.

For more on Disgrace, check out The Complete Review's page on the book. Michael Orthofer's site is a tremendous clearinghouse for reviews on significant books.

21 January 2008


Sameness: e pluribus unum. From the many, one. This is the project of the Enlightenment. Reason —> Empire.

It seems, in the battle between faith and reason, reason has led us into the same sort of political cul de sac that faith led us into earlier; there is a tendency in the political arts toward totalitarianism, whether it is faith-based or rational.

Into this breach steps a French philosopher named Jacques Derrida. He wrote a virtually unreadable paper called "Differance". With an 'a'. The gist of it is a challenge to these constructivist programs.

Others, of course, picked up the flaws in this totalizing tendency of Western thought beginning with Gödel's "On Formally Undecidable Propositions" and picking up with Wittgenstein's own self-critical Philosophical Investigations. How you get from a critique of the completeness of axiom-driven mathematical systems (Gödel) and a critique of linguistic philosophy in terms of "language games" and "forms of life" (Wittgenstein) to the fractiousness of deconstructionism and from there to any kind of statement about Western wisdom and contemporary politics is beyond the scope of a simple blog post.

The point is these are the origins of what is often called 'post-modernism' in academics: that is, the breakdown of totalizing systems and the emphasis on interest-based critiques such as Marxism (classism), feminism, racialism, queer theory, Freudian analysis, etc.

Bottom line: The situation we find ourselves in, nowadays, is more a celebration of differences, than of our sameness. Out of the many, MANY. Not unity, but diversity.

18 January 2008

More Silence. Or less.

Look at the seventh update to WFMU's Sixty Second Song Remix Contest (mp3s) for the shortened version of Cage's 4'33". It had to be. Give it a listen.

(Thanks, Ken, from a long-time listener, first time linker-upper.)


"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Wittgentstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Let's see, that's the quote we left you with last time. You want to know who really understood silence? Sure, I would accept the Buddha as an answer, or even Lao Tsu—good answers both; but those aren't quite the ones I had in mind. No. Someone who really understood the concept of silence in all its full ramifications was Stalin! Yes. If you did not agree with Stalin, you were silenced (exiled, sent to a gulag, disappeared, humiliated, assassinated, executed, etc.). And, thus, he did not have to speak about you. Perfectly rational.

Surely, that isn't what Wittgenstein meant (and, of course, subsequently repudiated) in the Tractatus, though, at the time, he felt it was the answer to (or at least the correct approach to answering) all the intractable questions of philosophy.

Is monomanical ideology (a/k/a sameness, conformity, totalitarianism) necessarily the natural outcome of reason and rationality? Its desideratum? When philosophy searches its soul, this is a question it must confront—especially in light of the brutal history of the mid-20th Century.

Maybe John Cage intuitively sensed this problem: "There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot." — John Cage, from Silence. See also 4'33" here and here.

16 January 2008


Reason? You want reason? Go here. Read. Go on. Take your time. Think about it. Read it again. Then get back to me for further investigations.

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Faith vs. Reason

I hear you asking—well, I pretend I hear you asking...I don't actually hear your voices out there or anything like that...that's just a way of saying 'I'm entertaining a potential objection that I imagine someone reading the thread of this blog might raise'—now, where was I? Oh, yeah, I hear you asking: "So, does that mean Reason wins?" By that, of course, you mean in the ages old conflict between faith and reason, especially in light of the comments I've made about the disreputability of faith and principles, etc.

Good question!

15 January 2008

Poetry Break


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats

14 January 2008

Leap of Faith

Let's say the point of view of this blog is agnostic with respect to Codes and Principles. Does that make it agnostic with respect to the theism vs. atheism dispute? Probably, yes. It takes a leap of faith to say either that there is or there is not a god (or gods).

Christians say that the eyewitness accounts of the incarnate Christ provide definitive proof of God's existence once and for all. Some atheists claim the existence of evil in the world prove that no such God can exist. Other proofs abound. None, ultimately, conclusive (except to believers/non-believers—let's call them adherents or proponents); all requiring faith! It's been awhile since I read Kierkegaard, but I'm not sure even he picked up on this view that even atheism requires a leap of faith. Of course, I could be wrong.

I'm only human.

Still, for purposes of getting at The Wisdom of the West, I'll bear in mind that our society tolerates both theism and atheism—within certain bounds. The debate rages, and will continue to do so.

10 January 2008

Or, What's Worse, A Relativist!

No, no. Not that kind of relativist.

THAT kind!

Oh, My God, You're a Nihilist

In my opinion...

So, if there are choices among principles and no one code is ultimately authoritative (even if/especially when it claims to be so), then are we really only left with mere opinions for rules for deciding how to act?

And if holding principles necessarily leads to conflict and war, is that so bad?

If principles are mere opinions...

"Nothing grounds our practices, nothing legitimizes them, nothing shows them to be in touch with the way things are," says Richard Rorty in "From Logic to Language to Play." (1986).

09 January 2008

Whose line is it anyway?

What?! You want me to improvise?

Principles and Allegiances

As a corollary of the previous entry, can we say that principles necessarily have allegiances? That is to say, if someone says you should act in accordance with such-and-such a principle (for example, "don't covet your neighbors's wife or ass"), that person is suggesting your acts be 'controlled' or 'guided' by one of the competing Codes we talked about (i.e., the Ten Commandments) because that principle has an allegiance or connection with that Code.

Allegiances to divergent Codes—a/k/a acting in accordance with a specific set of principles—is a source of conflict, especially where the Codes are mutually exclusive by definition. For example, Christians, at base, assert there is no other means of salvation than through the saving work of God through his Son, Jesus the Incarnate Christ, as set forth in, variously, the Gospels, the tradition, the authority of the Church, etc. Muslims, similarly, assert that there can be no salvation short of the inculcation of Sharia law—its own set of principles. There's not a lot of overlap there; in fact, there is none I can see.

Then, there's the principle near and dear to the Ron Paul faithful: 'that government which governs least, governs best.' Of course, the conflict between this principle and the principle that government should even up the playing field of opportunity by helping those who are least able to help themselves, helped fuel the extreme ideological warfare of the 20th Century.

Thus, when push comes to shove, as a result of principled action (taken to extremes, radicalized, enforced, etc.) there must be wars. Conflict spills over, radicalizes, erupts.

What does this do for Kant's categorical imperative? It says: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." I will only act in a principled way (in accordance with my deeply held principles). What's more, it should become a universal law that everybody should act in accordance with his/her deeply held principles. Inevitable conflict results. And war. I'm not sure that's what Kant wanted or intended. (Set aside arguments about normative vs. meta-languages for a moment.)

So, are principles bad things as a general rule?

The Problem with Principles

Principles: What are they? What do we do with them? How many of them are there? Where do they come from? How do we tell when they apply? How do know they are any good?

As soon as we start talking about principles ("conservative principles", "principled argument", etc.), we run into trouble. People talk like they exist out there somewhere and all we have to do is make use of them. Of course, this implies that we're dummies or somehow morally deficient if we don't. Or, it implies that we only have to analyze our own decisions and actions to divine which principles motivated our actions. It also implies that there are good principles and bad principles (ones we should use and ones we shouldn't).

As a start, let's say that there isn't really any one set of principles that cover all our life experiences. Some argue for the Torah, others for the teachings of Jesus, even others for the Koran. But there are also Analects, Vedas, Sayings, Teachings, Ways, Dialogues, etc. Setting aside for the moment that few if any of these are of truly "Western" origin (as we've titled our little blog), there is some wisdom in seeking principles in these sources not least because they have been adopted and implemented by Western societies for ages. But that is beside the point. There is simply no one 'Code' (as in the sense of a legal code) that incorporates all necessary principles for the conduct of life within it.

There are competing codes—many having similar and even identical principles—but no one comprehensive code that is complete and consistent in that it contains all and only those principles necessary for anyone to draw on in making any given decision.

07 January 2008

Back at it, sort of

I didn't really ponder the question I said I would over my break. Did anyone? I did find this interesting link. I hope to explore it more during the coming days and possibly comment there.

The problem, I think, is that the idea (first principles vs. change) as stated was simply too abstract for meaningful consideration. It didn't have any traction with day-to-day reality. That, in a nutshell, is also the problem with the concept of 'wisdom' and something I hope to avoid in this blog.

I suppose when we think of someone who is wise, we think of someone who has good judgment, someone who gives us good advice in response to a specific problem we might be experiencing.

Sometimes, it is someone who helps us see the principle on the basis of which we should act when dealing with our problems. For example, love your neighbor as yourself. That, at first glance, seems like a wise thing.

But even if we know the principle according to which we should act, we often don't know how to put it into practice. That is a matter of judgment. Judgment, to me, is making a decision after taking into account all the relevant factors and weighing them with respect to whatever consequences we can reasonably expect might flow from that decision.

So, maybe wisdom has something to do with understanding some basic principles and exercising good judgment. That feels like a start.

Any comments?