Thursday, March 3, 2011

Falling Short


As we stand now in the third year of Barack Obama's presidency, the general shape of his and the nation's political vision have begun to emerge. There are the disillusioned blues, the angry reds, the "don't mess with my medicare" grays, and the vast majority, which feels increasingly bitter and marginalized. For liberals, it is the old story: disappointment and bewilderment. Obama has begun to morph into Obabush: foolishly courting "compromise" with conservatives who disrespect him at every opportunity, heap contempt on his achievements, and seem willing to see the country collapse economically again, rather than increase taxes for any reason, or on any group, individual or corporate. For 'conservatives', it is a new twist on the old paranoia: the Tea Party mentality--a strange amalgamation of grass roots ego-tripping, economic ignorance, right wing billionaire sponsors, John Birch society conspiracy theory, and legitimate worry about the level of federal debt obligations--has to all appearances captured the "G.O.P." A party that in the 1990s was characterized by social, economic, and military conservatism is now a party dominated by what can only be called ideological radicals--the bizarre military adventurism of the neo-cons which has us bleeding out our moral and financial well-being in Iraq and Afghanistan, now superseded by the "Know-nothing" libertarian anti-tax movement which incredibly has already forgotten that it was Wall Street, not the Federal Government, which gave us the Great Recession.

As Democrats yearn for a Harry Truman type who will fight the Republicans, win or lose, and condemn Obama for yielding again and again to his 'inner wimp,' it remains unclear where we are headed--but in general, uncertainty promotes fear and fear benefits conservatives. Obama has to hold on to the older white women, if he wants to retain the Presidency, and it may well be that he cannot do that as the "Angry Black Man" in the White House. In any case, it isn't his way. But he looked a little like Jimmy Carter the other night, scolding the Republicans for their intransigence, and he may well have played his hand badly with John Boehner, who for now has taken over the limelight. Barack, Barack, you've lost the reins of government. No matter how you slice it, that is not Presidential.

The problem is, there is truth on both sides. Bush (we forget the first stimulus was his) and Obama were unquestionably right to take the dramatic steps they did to counter-act the Financial Collapse; and Obama was morally right to push through the health care reform that expanded coverage to 30,000,000 citizens. These were actions to save the country, and to give dignity and some measure of equal opportunity to millions of people. But the country is now facing an absolute need to control the cost of entitlements, above all in the area of health care, and 'Obamacare' doesn't do it. We don't seem to be willing to face the facts about this matter. I know a woman who is now almost 80, who has had four major joint replacement operations, each costing over $80,000 in total expenses. Her medical bill before she dies will probably run upwards of $1,000,000. And she is not unusual. The technological advances which now offer amazing health options to people who only a generation ago would have been crippled are also amazingly expensive. How do we deal with this crisis? How do we face the fact we have to triage health care, distribute limited resources? The issue of long term health care costs is THE economic burden facing the country, but we still have not begun to face, much less resolve it. What is a just system of health care, and can--should--will we act to bring it about?

If the list continues, and we slip into a second recession, a Romney or Perry might win, which would lead the country yet further down the path to oligarchy and internal violence. Maybe Romney wouldn't be a disaster, but his party is. Or perhaps it would need that for Obama would somehow pull his party together, rally the reasonable middle and working class of the country against the Tea Party Mad Hatters, and their strange hatred of government and civility. What no one seems to realize is just how thin the economic ice has become, not only in the U.S. but in Europe and the rest of the world as well. The Greeks may yet bring us down, or start the slide, followed by Portugal and Spain. We lack the courage of our convictions. We lack the vision to see how to fix the future. Obama had a good thought, to work a massive deal with Boehner, but it fell apart, probably because our divisions and mistrusts are greater than our capacity for action, and the ship of state is moving on its own now, without a pilot at the helm.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

NOTE on Jan 14, 2011: The remark below on Obama's "moderation" vs. Palin's "cross-hairs" mapping seems erily relevant now, in the wake of the Gabby Giffords Arizona massacre and the debate about civility it has prompted--punctuated, as might be expected, by the shrill of Palin's "blood libel" comments.


It is perhaps the greatest and least appreciated political achievement of President Obama--his outstanding virtue as a political leader, the virtue of political moderation--that he is willing to risk and perhaps even sacrifice the victories he most seeks, as he showed with health care, to insure that his government is inclusive, not divisive, that he invites the 'loyal opposition' to play a role, seeks consensus, in a form that will not change the basic shape of his own legislative goals, but will moderate them. It is the greatest evidence of the essentially unpolitical, radically dogmatic and irresponsible stance of the populist Republican party of today that its leaders eschew any form of moderation, and indeed, even show contempt for it, along with contempt for their Democratic rivals. Can we imagine what the outcry would have been, had a member of Congress screamed "Liar!" at the President at the State of the Union Address in 1960 or 1980 or 2000?

What is most troubling in the current politics of kitsch and histrionic anger in American society is the way it connects with our mass democracy, and the form of mass media that has emerged in the 21st century. The precipitous decline in the 4th estate, both at the level of newspapers and now at the level of television news, the institution which had, at least to some extent, evolved in its professional code toward the function of providing both accurate and relevant political facts and in-depth, critical analysis to the public for informed decisions, is quickly being replaced by opinion media, symbolized by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, which is overtly ideological both in its selection and 'interpretation'--the word is 'spin' but the truth is distortion--of political facts. The world of the Creation Science museum in Louisville, KY, which presents a little girl in a diorama with a gentle squirrel and an equally gentle raptor dinosaur--the world of kitsch religion--now has its parallel in the accounts of the nation presented on the angry talk shows proliferating radio, t.v. and the internet. And the public appears to have a very strong appetite for this very stuff--commodified, Disneyfied 'news', hot-tempered opinions which give us Heroes and Villains we can label, opportunities for sound-bite opinions which 'answer' the problems of the day. Palinism.

I don't pretend to know where all of this is going, but some negative trends seem undeniable. As we move toward a more heterogeneous society in which the distance between the rich or well-to-do and poor or 'barely making it' continues to increase, and the group at the bottom grows larger, the prospects for social trust and deliberative democracy weaken. It is getting very black and white, rather than red and blue, which in principle at least both belong to the American flag. The more deeply entrenched political kitsch, ideological bigotry and economic corruption become in American political life, the less we are one nation, the more our politics will incorporate verbal, economic, and physical violence. The more we will abandon genuine politics, both liberal and conservative, that aims at differing conceptions of justice. The more we will experience anarchistic political terrorism, like the airplane flown into the IRS building last February, and blink. (Interesting, isn't it, how that more or less went completely unnoticed and has been almost completely forgotten by the national collective memory? We will know we are sliding into fascism if such violence grows and continues to be ignored.)

We have to pull back from this downward spiral somehow, but its populist appeal will only increase, if we do not find ways to educate ourselves and our children, such that we and they are unsatisfied with anything less than genuine rational engagement, not play-acting roles of wanna-be celebrities, be it in the world of art, of knowledge, or of politics and the common good. The problem is not merely that these media and political demagogues and sophists, who want to persuade and even be elected, but not govern, distort and debase the political process; the problem is that we are already very close to losing one of the two great American political parties to a form of political engagement that makes them incapable of democratic government, and this makes that party and even the country open to a kind of American fascism, which combines ideological anarchistic individualism with corporate dominance of the actual government and a readiness for Caesarism (General Petraeus?). The idea of a social contract is breaking down, and the Republicans seem to be ready to abandon it and well over half of their fellow citizens, including most poor whites. We are moving toward a society in which the politics of kitsch plays a greater and greater role, and the consequence is we not only know but care ever less about the real world in which we make political decisions.

But gosh! we don't need that kind of stuff when the soccer moms and their 45's run things, do we? So let's reload and put the cross-hairs on all those lefties who hate America and want to So-obamaize it, before they get the chance.

In the political world of the Ron Pauls, the Tea Party mad hatters and Sarah Palin, the problem is the Other. It is like the story of the priest, the rabbi and the Christian Scientist who were suddenly all in hell. The priest admitted that after communion he had a little wine, lusted for the housecleaner, and kabam! "Here I am." The rabbi admitted he was at a luncheon, lusted for a ham sandwich, and kabam! "Here I am." But when they asked the Christian Scientist why he was in hell, he answered, "I am not here." The party of Palin is "not here" when it comes to American government. It is a simulacra of politics, like the Brillo cans of Andy Warhol were a simulacra of art--until one day they were proclaimed as the highest art. Like Enron was the model corporate citizen. Like the bankers were the conservative foundation of a prosperous free market economy.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


The extraordinary popularity and appeal of Sarah Palin both disgusts and fascinates political observers, who have often been at a loss to explain it. I believe the explanation begins with the concept of kitsch, a word defined in common meaning as 'art' considered a tasteless copy or imitation that creates a kind of cartoon of genuine or high art, stripping it of its seriousness and higher purpose. Kitsch belongs to a world of commodities to be consumed, "eye candy" that reassures its viewers of a safe and simple world of childish images. Kitsch is not degrading in the same way that pornography is, but it has a similar effect of deadening the capacity for spiritual engagement with the world, an escapism that art renounces by challenging us to perceive it as it is, laden with thought and beauty.

Milan Kundera, in his postmodern novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, defined kitsch as "the absolute denial of shit," arguing that kitsch functions to exclude from our conception of the world everything that human beings find difficult to come to terms with, creating instead a childish, sanitized, "Disneyfied" view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." Kundera linked the desire for this type of consumable escapist world of images to totalitarianism, with its denial of the world of democratic politics--a world involving a plurality of perspectives that must be integrated through deliberation and negotiation, a world of complex social problems in which individualism and uncertainty and even irony are recognized as elements in the human condition, a world that cannot simply be divided, as the political world too easily is divided, into good and evil as us and them. Kitsch, because it does not merely deny but actually suppresses complexity, multiplicity, uncertainty, 'fallenness' and depth, renders its participants vulnerable to the kind of mass consciousness that totalitarian regimes play on, to fantasy roles against fantasy villains, and to the incitement to violence as the solution of political problems.

Kitsch is the great lie that complexity can be avoided, and that there are simple, happy answers that will give us all our pleasures without any sacrifice. It feeds the fat ego, reassures the hidden child. In politics, it is the world in which I can indulge my patriotic gore without sacrificing myself, my sons or daughters, my money or my conscience (by having to view the terror and agony of battle, civilian casualties, coffins of dead soldiers, war crimes, etc.). It is the world in which I get to rant about "irresponsible spending" but not make choices about what government services I want to cut. It is the world of racial and ethnic and class prejudice, which can occur in both directions, though it has more impact from the top looking down. It is a world in which uninsured abandoned mothers are all welfare queens, and unemployed workers--many victims of financial corruption at the highest levels--are all just lazy. It is above all the world in which faith in the political process--a process in which both liberals and conservatives have a vital and contributing voice--has succumbed to an attitude of entertainment, antipathy and excitement, rather than deliberation, human empathy, and sobriety.

All of us, liberals and conservatives, are prone to forms of kitsch, but in this era of the slow decline of American prosperity and power, which began more or less--and not entirely coincidentally--with the Vietnam War, kitsch politics has come to have a dominant role in the Republican party, affecting its capacity not only to serve as a participant in government, but to serve as the "loyal opposition." Republicanism, in becoming the party of anti-integration, fundamentalist religion, jingoist anti-internationalism and above all, political rant, teaches the mantra that Government itself is the enemy. What is sobering about this phenomenon, which otherwise might be laughable, is the intense self-righteous anger which its participants play at. The party of Eisenhower, who as it were won World War II, was taken over by our first actor president, who claimed the role of winning World War III, was taken over by a willful son of the Elite, who got to play the cowboy by starting his own war, GWII, is being taken over by a barbie doll, who wants to . . . what? Shut down the federal government? Go on a 'turkey-shoot' to get the SoObama-ites? (Does anyone think she might not use such phrases?)

to be continued

Sunday, February 14, 2010


My title echoes ironically Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”--ironically, because whereas Benjamin celebrated the democratizing aspect of mechanically reproduced art, and did not mourn the loss of “aura” associated with individual art objects, I believe something important is being lost to culture, both with 20th century technologizing of art--one thinks of Andy Warhol--and perhaps even more ominously with the 21st century technologizing of communication--the handheld, which Andy would have loved.

I did not say ‘art’ of dialogue, because dialogue partakes of three elements, each of which encompasses more than even the level of mastery implied by art: (i) philosophy, as the questioning pursuit of that at which we wonder, the uncanniness of life in whatever form it opens to us; (ii) friendship, the openness of human beings to mutual discovery, concern and even love; and (iii) courage, or perhaps better put virtue in general, though the willingness to expose one’s faiths to refutation and rejection, if not scorn, i.e. to suffer a kind of death of identity, is the first virtue we need for intellectual life, all life (and all love) arising out of and amidst the dying and the threatened.

I do not think of dialogue as mere conversation either, e.g. "My Dinner with Andre"; however dazzling the verbal performance, dialogue in my view must go to the heart; must seek the essence of things; must test and be tested for truth, whether the dialogue takes us into our beliefs and values about works of art, about religion, about ethics, about personal relationships, about personal decisions, about science or politics, whatever. You have to put yourself out there, say what you think--and you have to think, not just opine. And to be dialogue, you have to both think, and think together, which may involve open contestation, but cannot be driven simply by the will to win, or again it is not dialogue. And with this, you leave the world of mere life behind.

This is so unlike telegraphy, which approximates to the signalling communication of birds or other "communicative" animals. Text“: “I’m doing X. Want to join me?” “I feel Y. How about you?” Much of what we call "art" also falls into this signalling type of communication, and most of it is manipulative, an attempt to push your button to do X or Y.

Can dialogue exist, in a non-literary culture? I think perhaps not. There is conversation there, and music--bards of art forms in which the people sway and find themselves, but as a mass, as a herd, and that can be a powerful rhythm of natural life--but can there be a human life of reading and reflection without a world of books? And if there is no dialogue, are there really individual persons, or just ego-bodies on the run?

To rise up to the stage of dialogue, I have to put myself forth, potentially fully present, 'naked' to the other person. There is a kind of suspension of practical life, not unlike the suspension of disbelief (or perhaps more accurately, of belief) in viewing dramatic art. I enter one of those quasi-sacred spaces, a “kingdom of ends,” a cultural and intellectual place in which what I do is its own end, is for its own sake, not utility, not commerce, not ‘gain.’ And we have to work our way together into dialogue, which emerges slowly, as trust and commitment emerge, as we step foot by foot into the ring of personal exchange, opening ourselves to thought and wonder, seeking always the edge, the metaphysical boundaries we can reach, but not go beyond, as we are reflected back upon our human condition. Dialogue takes us out of our busyness into the presence of the gods, the realization of their death, and our solitude--but also, somehow, miraculously our redemption in the contact, two minds in inter-action, the revelation of us as individuals in our freedom together.

But such worlds of refuge are disrupted, and the intellectual life of a society in which such practices are still cultivated, such communities of discourse, by the tweets and twitters of hand-held devices, vibrating or emitting their whistles and bells. Constantly on call, we cannot 'give ourselves' to the kingdom of ends that is dialogue. It is an "act" of human agents and thinkers, a work of disclosure which itself interrupts the techno-world in which we are constantly in motion, dealing and trading in feelings, bodies, money, opinion.

We in this global Chinese-American 21st century derempt ourselves of nature, of the second nature of culture born of gods, and even of that human nature, in which logos -- the disclosing word -- exists for dialogue. Is this what postmodernists mean by the death of man?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Existential thought


I had a dream last night that has largely faded away, but one part of it somehow had to do with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. I have been troubled by Heidegger since I was in high school, when my favorite teacher handed me a copy of Being and Time and invited me to give it a try. I gave it back a couple days later, having found it more or less unintelligible, but returned to the book later and have been haunted by Heidegger's thought ever since.

The central and most interesting Heideggerean thought to me echoes a Heraclitean saying, "Nature loves to hide." This is the thought--the personal thought--that my life will end in death, that I will cease, like all of us mortals, to be. What Heidegger brings into focus is the realization that I can grasp this illuminating thought only on occasion, and that for the most part I live my life with the 'natural' assumption that I will go on forever, that all that exists is bounded within the framework of my time. The human nature in me is at ease within that concealment, that world of untruth.

Heidegger does much to describe the practical goal-directed structure of modern historical time lived within the human technological and social illusion, of preoccupation with the world of careers and mass media and political opinion and social values, of life that looks only obliquely and then averts its gaze from the existential revelation of personal death and meaning found, if at all, within the shadow of death. For Heidegger, the entire history of 'objective' philosophy--from Plato through Descartes and Kant to modern analytic and linguistic philosophy--has been written, no less than the history of religion, in the cave of inauthentic human nature. Against this, he seeks: a courageous mode of philosophizing--"thinking"--that exists in the other, almost blinding light; a resolute mode of human being that does not repress our limitedness, that does not rely on any of the multiplicity of opiates available to us to enable a truth-evasive, inauthentic life.

That is the first part of the story, which, like Sophocles' Herakles, is broken in two disjointed halves, with the second part more disturbing. Heidegger was a Nazi. He thought of democratic-capitalistic America and totalitarian-communistic Russia as on an ideological par. He lacked political sense and judgment. And every student of his thought has had to wonder, why? Is there an intrinsic connection between his 'metaphysical' thinking and his politics?

In one simple way, the answer seems to be "yes." This has to do with Heidegger's repudiation of science, epistemology and logic as the orienting ground from which philosophical thinking operates. Once you make these the ground, you commit yourself to the idea of a critical community of thinkers and inquirers, within which knowledge is revealed and tested, and to the skeptical notion of truth as a regulative idea, which can only be tentatively achieved. From that point there it is much easier to transition to the democratic idea of a political community of persons, within which the common good is deliberated and struggled for, a diverse and limited community in which persons are all regarded as having equal worth and the right to pursue their own happiness--as opposed to the idea of the individual as serving or participating in a more unified and dynamic community oriented to one general will and one dominating truth.

In the end, Heideggeran existentialism, however profound its insight into the 'historicity' of human being, however powerful its representation of our cultural blindness to the meaning of existence, fails as a life-philosophy, because it does not respect the plurality of human action. We are all and always beginners in this world, each with the right to make or re-make a life, find and persuade others of our truth. In his own pursuit of truth, Heidegger lost sight of the interpersonal ground within which not only truth, but also justice, must be contested.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I've been thinking lately about transitions, feeling strongly that I am in one, though just what form it will take is not yet determined. In any case, I have passed through most of the classicalpattern of ages of man, (1) infancy and childhood (2) youth, h.s. to college (3) young adulthood, late college, the army, grad school (4) adulthood, marriage and work (5) late adulthood/maturity, the past decade or so, and am moving into (6) early old age, with (7) retirement and (8) very old age, e.g. in a nursing home still to come.

The idea of basic transitions suggests there may be different arts of living for different stages of life. It is also relevant to the idea of personal self-knowledge: knowing that you are making or need to make the transition to a new way of conceiving yourself. It is certainly true that different categories of value are centrally important in different periods of one's life.

Erik Erikson breaks up the stages of life somewhat differently than I, linking them to specific "identity issues" that need to be resolved before a person can fully move into the next developmental stage in their life: (1) infancy - trust/mistrust (2) toddler - autonomy/shame & doubt (3) preschool - initiative/guilt (4) childhood - industry/inferiority (5) adolescence - identity/role confusion (6) young adulthood - intimacy/isolation (7) adulthood - generativity/stagnation (8) senior - integrity/despair, with the chief part of life falling in adulthood (25-65).

I find those categories useful, but am close to old age by his measure (I'm 63), entered into 'adulthood' later than he suggests, and have sought generativity rather differently in the past decade or so than I did in the earlier two decades of my adulthood, with a stronger emphasis on friendship and relations to others, a deeper sense of my mortality, and a conscious desire to shape my 'art of living.' I also sense the coming years until I retire and probably even beyond that will take significantly different forms, if I live to be as old as many of my ancestors (85-90).

This awareness of transition has pointed me toward the new future I have before me, even if I experience mature life autobiographically as one in which I have made many of the outwardly most basic decisions, even if I know my life by mere quantitative measure is mostly over. It no longer makes the same sense to think of time as enormously open, of the long run of my career and love and friendships, of grand ambitions.

But this has helped me to make each moment, each day more intense, at the same time when I am more relaxed about it. I give myself more fully to the kairos/opportunity with just this other person(s) than I did when I was in my 20's or 30's. Expecting and demanding less of people, in particular myself, I find I achieve more, relate better, even evoke more positive feelings and actions in others. My generativity does not depend on me alone. My integrity is more intact now than ever.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


In the summer of 1975, with my dissertation in philosophy due the next spring and having written exactly nothing, I removed myself to a cabin deep in the northern woods, where the borders of Vermont, New Hampshire and Canada meet. It was my intention to use the time and quiet, away from my girlfriend and our society, to compose myself and my thought, and return to school with a draft in hand.

The cabin belonged to a minister friend named David, who lived with his new wife Emily in the local village; he had invited me to use it and visit them, in the course of my time there. For myself, however, I merely sought isolation and work, and the first week or so, all went well, as I sought to accustom myself to the woods' silence and its odd noises at night. But by the second week things began to go south, as I could not run even a hundred yards without swarms of black flies descending on me, like poor Io stung by Hera's wrath. As for the noises, they turned out to be co-dwelling mice, and when I startled to find one on my chest one night, I lay traps, which now and then would snap, as sharp as any clock's alarm. On the tenth night, I heard a great pawing at the door, which I shouted away, only to hear a bellow and then glimpse through the window, in my fright, a black bear lumbering into the dark. Now I was no longer alone.

My discomfort with nature was not all that drove me back into town, however, for I was lonely, and my work was not going well. What was my thesis, anyway? A thousand books had been written on Aristotle, what could I add to that pile? So I drove each day for a week into town, to David's house, hoping to find him or Emily there, seeking some human companionship. But mostly they were away at their work, so I would return back to my dark cabin unhappy, and to ease and I thought perhaps loosen and inspire my mind, I smoked grass. But smoking in the day or night, I thought again of my hungry friend, and of the mice and the snakes they might attract, and the next day I took my stash to town, to listen to music on David's machine, and eat some cookies, and just relax.

Well, Emily came in and got upset, and she told David and he told me, in a kind but I felt preachy voice--had we not smoked together, back in our undergrad days?--that I could not come in their home on my own any more, and didn't I realize what his parishioners would think? I fled back to the woods, still a little stoned and burning of cheek. I went for a long walk, discovering the flies were not as bad in the late afternoon, and found my way to a pond, which sat nestled by a hill. I stripped, dove in and came up refreshed, sat at the edge and stared into the water. I returned every day it didn't rain from then on, and one afternoon, near the end of the summer, saw a large elk on the opposite shore.

So I had to adjust to my neighbors in the cabin, now my closest friends, and I took up my traps, and lay out small gifts, and watched them and their little children sometimes with my flashlight at night. As for the bear, I decided to cook at a fire outside at night, reasoning she would be put off by the flames, but I was also more careful now not to leave foodstuffs outside and to keep my door shut. I heard the bear once or twice again, but was not afraid. As for the humans, I ordered my day in better balance, devoting at least an hour from then on to letters, and composed an apology to Emily and Dave, which I dropped off one afternoon with a housegift and flowers, thinking I would miss them, but Emily was there, and we made up. Still, I decided to stay mostly by myself in the woods, coming in just weekly for Saturday dinner, and quit smoking weed.

The work took its own course, as I sketched out, in rough form, the respective roles I found in Aristotle's ethics to nature and nurture and personal choice, and developed a chapter on the ethics and virtues of shame and honor, compared to those of freedom. I concluded that Aristotle was compelled, like all of us, to harmonize his theory of political life with his quest for wisdom. The body intruded and set its bounds, we needed to fit to our nature, we were not our minds alone. I got the Ph.D. the following spring.