Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We Built This City on Peace, Love, and Understanding: Why I Am Not a Liberal

Many months ago I had a discussion with a liberal-minded man I shall simply refer to, in homage to Aquinas' Aristotle, The Professor. In this discussion, we proposed different aims of government. I was passionately defending wisdom as the chief virtue of government officials, appealing to the likes of Plato and Aristotle. I took my time, pressing the point to its fullest, and as I did, The Professor slowly gathered a glimmer in his eye like a power-hitter about to slug one out of the ballpark. As I was wrapping up my plea to sophia, I was offset by a feeling that my argument was going to receive a mortal blow. As I finished my breath, asking – I thought rhetorically – is anything superior to wisdom, with unflappable gravitas he responded he could think of something better: love. This brilliant move of disputative judo left me winded and contentedly acquiescent: the master had landed his pedagogical blow and the only way to win is not to play.

I want to revisit the idea of a government that seeks to love its citizens and persuade my readers that this is perhaps the most fundamental proposition put forth by liberal political theory. To begin, I use the term liberalism as shorthand for 'Social liberalism' and thus distinguish it from classical liberal thought. Expanding on this notion, my working definition of liberal will tacitly assume that liberal proponents have favorable notions of Positive Rights. A definition of love also deserves to be raised. By love, I take The Professor to mean a government which wants the best for its citizens (and thus, does not seek its own self interest). This love is best expressed in the political philosophy of John Rawls, most specifically in his Veil of Ignorance thought experiment. As simply as I can put it, the Veil of Ignorance states that we ought to build a society that all people would agree upon if we had no idea beforehand what station we would have in life.

Ostensibly, a government wanting the best for its citizenry is a noble thing. Jonah Goldberg summed up modern liberal thought by saying on

At the philosophical level, at the level of Rawls…the fundamental dogma is…government should do good where it can, when it can, whatever it can. That's liberalism. The only principled restraint on liberalism is the pragmatic judgment of really smart liberals. And if really smart liberals think they can make the country better, or fix the country, or improve the lot of people, then there's no reason the government shouldn't do it. (1:09:00)

Here, I become sympathetic to their cause. Liberals are in favor of things that sound really great: universal healthcare, education and welfare sound like pretty great things to me. But Goldberg goes on to say that liberals provide a false dichotomy and like Goldberg, I have a different vision for the role of government contra The Professor.

Earlier in the Goldberg/Beinart Debate, Jonah elucidates on how, during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, John McCain wanted to fix the government, while Barack Obama wanted to fix America's soul – [which are] "two different things." Implicit in the notion of a "loving government" is the idea that there is no limit in which the government ought not to extend its caritas. (One caveat: liberals say, as did Beinart, government ought to stay out of people's bedrooms, which as far as I can ascertain, is because the greatest good a liberal can imagine in sexual relationships is one unencumbered by the regulations of the state. I would argue that this cannot sustain itself if the government introduces itself into the health of its citizens, but I won't address that unless asked.) If the government really loves you, like a mother it will want to keep you healthy with medicare; if the government really loves you, like a father it will want to keep you safe and away from guns; if the government really loves you, like a church and a friend it will give you a bed to sleep on and food to eat when you fall on hard times.

My problem with all of this is that we have some pretty dark words in our language for love that is forced and unrequested. What I want to impress upon my readers is that liberalism has an ends and means problem. The end is uncomfortable: There is no free lunch. All this love comes at the cost of the taxpayer. We have become quite docile with the idea of government taking money from its citizens without their approval. This leads to the means problem: they do this at the end of a gun barrel. Contrary to what Harry Reid might have you believe, taxes are coercive. There's an old joke told at my family's dinner table that says that if you don't believe the government cares about you, try not paying your taxes and see how quickly they take notice. The government loves you so much they will take from the rich and give to the poor. Don't forget to tip them for the service. This all assumes that the government is both less corrupt and more efficient than the efforts of private citizens – it is not.

I want the government works on the opposite principle: I want a government to fear its citizens, not love them. Keep people safe, enforce contracts, and I'll find my own love. If the government wants to love me, I want a restraining order. Returning to my beginning argument, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and in politics the people ought to be Lord God Almighty.

Occasionally when having this discussion with Christians, they justify government taxation and wealth redistribution by saying the Old Testament concerns itself with the poor, allowing them to glean the fields for leftovers (Lev 19:9-10;
23:22; Deut 24:19-22
) so they might have something. Yet, they never discuss something much more fundamental: the Tenth Commandment.

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Why, when God was presumably short on space and wanted to keep things concise, mention the neighbor's donkey? I think the answer is quite obvious: if you want your neighbor's donkey, get one of your own!


You'll Shoot Your Eye Out: A Political Philosophy Unto Death

The Professor had another comment for me. He said I would not do well in my "ideal" world, that is, a sink or swim world where the losers of society are dependent on the goodwill of other individuals and winners are not determined by governments. He's correct, I would not do well in that system – which is why I'm right. Tertullian said of Christianity that he believed because it was absurd. Likewise, I am not a liberal because it appeals to my disposition. Robert Nozick predicted in Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? that "intellectuals who were 'late bloomers' in school would not have developed the same sense of entitlement to the very highest rewards; therefore, a lower percentage of the late-bloomer intellectuals will be anti-capitalist than of the early bloomers." I won't claim I am an intellectual, but I will claim this is true for me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Houstonian Philosophy: Seeking Wisdom in Pop Music

Deep philosophical insight taken from Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know

There’s a boy I know, he’s the one I dream of

At the start of the song, Whitney introduces us to the Cartesian dilemma. She is contrasting knowledge with the dream state. As the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi pondered a dream, he could not be sure if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The song, at its core, is an epistemological exploration. It also foreshadows a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, but perhaps a transformation into a butterfly instead of an Ungeziefer.

Looks into my eyes, takes me to the clouds above

Esse est percipi. By being perceived by another, realization was found. Ms. Houston is also evoking the notion of the Observer Effect, whereby the mere act of observing an act changes the phenomenon being perceived. By relating this experience to a transcendental effect may either be an epiphenomenon, by which she cannot relay the experience back to its first cause; or, she is invoking an application of the Heisenberg Principle, perhaps going so far as to say she exists in two places, akin to Young’s double-slit experiment. There are, in fact, “more thing in heaven and earth than are dreamed up” in our philosophies, insofar as Whitney Houston is concerned.

Ooh I lose control, can’t seem to get enough

Like much of her verse, this is a clever nod to the importance of mastering one’s passions. The Chariot Allegory of Plato demonstrates to all those seeking the Good that a balance must be found between reason and appetite. When this balance is not achieved, one may achieve a kind of gluttony of vice. Such a nod is also reminiscent of Achilles, who lacked such mastering “the accursed rage, which brought pain to thousands of the Achaeans,” or Helen, who compelled others to such debasement, whose “face launched a thousand ships. And burnt the topless towers of Ilium.”

When I wake from dreaming, tell me is it really love

This is a reflection of the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell, where she is obviously a poor actor in the monomyth of Sleeping Beauty, waiting for her prince to wake her from her slumber. She also seems to be dealing with the somewhat taboo of incest, because not only is her “love” the waking agent, but is the one imposing the definition of love upon the “beloved.” This stems from a Nietzschean slave morality or Freud’s Electra Complex.


How will I know (dont trust your feelings)
How will I know
How will I know (love can be deceiving)
How will I know
How will I know if he really loves me

The Greek Chorus come into play, employing a theatrical convention to introduce the citizens of the polis and what might be termed “communal” or “common” folk wisdom, a layover from Puritanical or Victorian social mores. Whitney Houston must now try to reconcile, via Hegelian synthesis, internal predilections all the while navigating external prohibitions and superstitions.

I say a prayer with every heart beat

As Benedick would say, “there’s a double meaning in that.” The beating is not merely the repetitious beating of a living heart, but a prayer to be released from this Sisyphean struggle of seeking and not obtaining knowledge or control over passions. There are no atheists in foxholes, and the last refuge of a sinner’s flagellations of the world is to face God in prayer. This seeming “skyhook” turn may also be a sleight against God, for it’s well known that drug users can often feel their own heartbeat due to increased bloodflow to the circulatory system: therefore, Marxian rejection of religion as being the “opiate of the masses” may also be in play here.

I fall in love whenever we meet

The darkest part of the song occurs here, describing her plight as a fall, or descent into the unknown. God, the “Hound of Heaven” is now on her coattails, and she now has encountered Kierkegaard’s abyss. This of course requires a leap, but a leap into what? Now she is “condemned to be free” depicting a profound and deep-seated spiritual condition of insecurity and despair in the individual. By “meeting” this person, she also must confront her “being-in-the-world” and must choose for others. This emotion has the dual demand of facing her choice being alone in the universe, and immediately acknowledging there is no subject-object division: there is no “Other.”

I’m asking you what you know about these things

Finally, we see a turn towards the light. She is now, however imperfectly, seeking wisdom. She realizes she must ask another, perhaps employing a Socratic dialectic to achieve knowledge. Now Whitney Houston has found wisdom by “admitting she is not wise” and put herself under the tutelage of someone with a superior soul.

How will I know if he’s thinking of me

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir would be most disappointed with this turn of events. Not only has Houston turned to the old Patristic values of authoritarian, top-down hierarchy, but willfully accepts the role as object in relationship to the man. Now she has become defined by his “thinking” of her, taking on a secondary, dependent role. She also implies that she is now “mysterious” so as to merit a demanding degree of thought to the man. Is she now to make him meals, bear his children and give up on her dreams of a career?

I try to phone but I’m too shy (can’t speak)

Phone technology is a simple metaphor for our desire to contact the gods. Now that we have no oracles to consult, we must invent objects that will transfer messages from the immortal ones. Of course, anytime we approach divinity, it often brings a terror, causing physical manifestations such as muteness. The phone is also a modern technology, therefore this is a commentary on futurism and how much science has progressed, we are shy and silent to know both the future of science and ourselves. Dare she stick her tongue out at the Crystal Ediface? Finally, this mimics the blush of Thrasymachus. She has been reckless until now, but has, after encountering wisdom, found the ability to blush and find humility.

Falling in love is all bitter sweet

This love is strong why do I feel weak

Nearing the climax of her journey, she sees the paradox of her intellectual travails. Does she want to be sugar or taste sugar? Does she want to be strong and independent, or submissive and supportive? She has a kind of Taoist enlightening: she has found herself emptied, and this the source of her fullness. She goes about looking for her beloved, examining doubt, questioning the crowds, seeking wisdom of a sage, and finds truth in the non-action (wu wei) of self. Like Dorothy, she finds there is no place like home, that is, the home of her Atman.

Oh, wake me, I’m shaking, wish I had you near me now
Said there’s no mistaking, what I feel is really love

At last, the epiphany has been found and knowledge of self and the world has been found. Full circle, like Descartes she knows what she feels is love just as Rene Descartes knew that he doubts. Shaking, she knows she must deal with the reality of returning to the Cave, apart from the nearness she had to the Form that brought self-realization. She says, “wake me” for now she must return to the Cave, but not with the slumber of soul she once had, but must fight against the dimness of the Cave. But, she can hold one thing for sure: she has seen the Good and “there’s no mistaking” after the fact. Like Edna Pontellier, her shaking is a shaking off the chains of oppression.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Grim Mandango – Does Putting on the New Man Mean I Have to Wear a Tie?

We Can Rebuild Him. We Have the Technology.

Yesterday I was perusing a feminist blog, because I’m regarded for my strong pro-feminism outlook. About a month ago, the eponymous Pink Scare wrote on George Sodini and the 2009 Collier Township shooting in a blog titled Pro-sex? Anti-porn? Where do I fall? Among the things she had to say on the topic were

Men all over the internet expressed horror at what he did, but expressed that they understood what he was talking about…. What's clear is that a lot of men think they have a right or entitlement to have sex with women, simply for being alive….

I was one of the men she addresses, who felt torn between feelings of consternation and empathy. Under no circumstances do I condone what he did and he was undoubtedly a sick man who needed to either get psychiatric help or turn the gun on himself before he did on twelve others. After reading online his journal, however, I felt pity for him. Pink Scare said it’s clear men think they are entitled to sex; I told her she was overly simplistic in her analysis. Even more, however, I can’t help but feel there’s a cultural insensitivity for the plight of men. At, one person attacked a poster who was trying to demonstrate the negative effects of patriarchy on men with “Alright, buddy, man up. Stop whining about how feminists aren't doing anything and start your own god**** movement. You've made some good points, but you are moving into whiny douchebag territory” (emphasis mine). This was said to someone who agreed with the feminist agenda.

All of this got me thinking about being a man in the 21st century. I’m a devout cynic and have developed a tin ear to the predicament of “the oppressed” because it seems to turn out good for one group at the expense of another. I remember hearing recently about a Jewish man, whose family had endured the Holocaust, being critical of how Palestinians were treated by the Jewish people in the Middle East because they had applied the maxim “Never Again” only to themselves. Similarly, I remember being at a dinner party and made a faux pas in making what was thought to be a racist joke – it was actually a joke about the poor, but that’s not important here. Later I was told by a female that she was more bothered by racist jokes than sexist ones. I later came across this quotation by Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way.

I completely agree with Stanton and take it further: all prejudice to me is equal in offense if equal in degree. To not be considered for a job, to be mocked, or to be exploited because of sexual orientation, age, weight, or appearance are all equally contemptuous in my estimation. There is no “better or worse way” to demean another human being.

Ya'll don't know what it's like, being male, middle class and white.

Not to play the martyr – for men are hardly doing as badly as black people or women did, you know, basically forever – but the circumstances of injustice against my gender have inspired more sadness than anger in me. Even if I thought it could be effective, there were never any fantasies of a Lysistratan ultimatum to requisition parity. When I first began looking into this subject, I came across some rather lengthy videos by Warren Farrell. At the time I was introduced to Farrell I was fearful of becoming a woman hater, and I felt that would be completely unproductive in my life. (I was also afraid of being misunderstood or judged by others – fears which are just as alive and awake now.) But Farrell said something that encouraged me: “Men aren’t being heard because women aren’t listening; men aren’t being heard because they aren’t speaking.” I have since found a peace that obviously eluded Sodini. My heart goes out to people like him: I don’t think the prescription is as simple as “give men sex,” but I wonder if we might do better than mere scapegoating.

As a gender, men must come vis-à-vis the issue of death early on. Signing up to be eligible for the draft is just one milestone in a young man’s life where he must encounter his own mortality. More mundanely, however, men are fully aware of this in the realm of sex. Simply put, eggs are expensive; sperm is cheap – and by extension, so are women and men. Servicing the procreative the needs of the human tribe can be more than adequately filled by a handful of virile alpha males. One of the most fortuitous turn of events in human history for most men was the advent of resource-demanding children, no longer leaving the majority of men without recourse for their biological imperative.

Returning to Pink Scare’s blog, she laments the current state of affairs in eros. She sees Sodini’s woman-hating rage in a continuum, with bad sex comedies making light of the “tag ‘em and bag ‘em” machismo at the other end with men’s objectification in pornography falling in between. For this feminist, though, I pose this question: Is this perhaps not, at least in part, feminism’s making? In the past, we may have had more parity than is currently perceived: women traded sex for security and men traded wealth for sexual access. Men provided three key functions for a woman: income, physical security, and the ability to father and raise children. Our society can now circumvent a great deal of those three things, for women are now free to earn incomes, be protected by police forces, and conceive with IVF technology. The question is now before us, to quote Maureen Dowd, Are Men Necessary? What I’ve been trying to say from the start is, I question how necessary we ever really were.

With bony hands I hold my partner,
on soulless feet we cross the floor.
The music stops as if to answer,
an empty knocking at the door.
It seems his skin was sweet as mango,
when last I held him to my breast.
But now we dance this grim fandango,
and will four years before we rest.

To what degree might we say all these poorly manufactured jokes and movies are men’s sexual swan song? Flannery O’Connor famous dictum is that “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures. By distortion, like a Picasso or an auto stereogram, a corny romantic comedy allows us to encounter the Other, our aegis down, and return to the bromidic having both seen and still seeing.

One critique I have of feminism is why I hear nothing of men’s portrayal in media. From Homer Simpson to Peter Griffin to Everybody Loves Raymond, men are portrayed and buffoons. My feelings are summed up on the issue here and here. Maybe men and women aren’t meant to want the same things and see things the same way. Women can now do with their bodies what they want and restrict men’s access – and this is very important to my view of the world – that means that there will be losers in the game of love. There always have been losers, but now these losers don’t have to turn to prostitutes, but can look up pornography on the world-wide web, a sex-substitute that makes men feel powerful and wanted in the ways men want to be powerful and wanted. Historically, men fought wars and saw women as toys. Now women call the shots in their own lives and men are now relegated to being sexual “servants and supplicants,” to quote Christopher Hitchens, which we always were. Women have utter control in a relationship and repeatedly put the brakes on men’s advances, and we wonder why Halo and football are so popular.

To recap, men’s lives are cheap, we have to face repeated rejection, told to “suck it up” when we fail in life, and must beg for the thing we want most from women. Isn’t it a wonder there aren’t more Sodinis? I remember watching some video bemoaning the effects of pornography with some freshmen Christian girls in the Central College chapel. They found the notion of what men do with porn gross. Though I hate to be insensitive and try to genuflect to people’s fragile sensitivities as often as I can, maybe asceticism isn’t realistic. One beef I have with the faith of my youth is the over-feminization of the ecclesia.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling - William Butler Yeats

As I said before, I’m a committed believer in cynicism and really hold humanity to the lowest of standards. I am, however, a bit of a futurist, and think some of humanity's problems may be improved upon with time and technology. The escapist in me wonders if maybe we can, in fact, build a better man, improve upon him, and not be bondslaves to our genes and the environment that produced them. Then I came across a video of Harvard professor Michael Sandel on the subject of cosmetic genetic engineering. They were discussing whether or not parents should be able to select genes for their children that enhanced their lifestyles, such as genes for height. Dr. Sandel said,

When people choose to answer society’s prejudices by changing themselves or their children, what they are doing is leaving those prejudices in place. So, if we respond to the prejudice in favor of tall people in our society, not by challenging those prejudices, socially, politically, taking them on, but by simply making ourselves or our children taller, to fit the prejudice, we’ve really caved into that prejudice.

The effect is, we think we are freeing ourselves by using technology and high-tech, but what we’re really doing is leaving in place unquestioned, unchallenged prejudices that could be otherwise. So it seems to me that the truer freedom is to try and ask ourselves and debate as citizens of all our societies, What sort of rewards should go with what sorts of traits and contributions? And the more we devote ourselves to just trying to figure out how to save ourselves, and to equip our children to compete in a world where the reward system may be unjust in many ways, the more likely we are to leave in place unquestioned those prejudices. And so, I think rather than trying to change ourselves to fit the world, we should try to change the world to make it more hospitable to the strengths and also the imperfections of the human beings we are.

Which is why I wrote this for you.