"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Ugliness Of Believing You’re Right–The Sanctimony Of Political Conviction

It is no surprise that this election (2016) is filled with invective, scurrilous charges, and challenges to personal integrity.  Politics in America has never been for the timid, and a quick glance at American electoral history shows that a lot worse came before. In 1828 Andrew Jackson's divorced wife was called all sorts of lewd names by his opponents. In retaliation, Jackson claimed that incumbent John Quincy Adams had once tried to offer his maid as a concubine to Russian Czar Alexander I.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were two of the "pioneers" of political slandering in the United States.  Kerwin Stint’s (CNN) (8/22/08) wrote in his article "Founding Fathers' Dirty Campaign":
Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.
Mudslinging, muck-raking, and smear tactics have always been part of the American dialogue.  Only when Richard Nixon got caught with his hand in the political till did the nation wake up to electoral abuses.  As the country became more moralistic and concerned with ‘doing the right thing’, it chose to no longer ignore the sexual libertinage of Martin Luther King or John F Kennedy, the drunken antics of Senators and Congressmen ‘in high spirits’ whether in the Capitol or in the Reflecting Pool.  Elected representatives would have their feet held to the fire and burned at the political stake if their transgressions were serious enough.

Of course, the peccadilloes and grosser behavior did not stop, but now became fodder for the tabloid press.  Sexual Lotharios, deviants, adulterers, and pornography addicts were now fair game.  Smarmy politicians were now outed in games lf catch-me-if-you-can.  Gary Hart, once a presidential contender, dared the press to catch him in an adulterous like, seriously misread their umbrage and the mood of the people, and was dunned out of public life.   The media have had a field day with lying, deceitful, duplicitous politicians, their tearful apologies, and the melodrama of stand-by-me wives.
In this era of mini-surveillance, cameras and IPhones fewer politicians are willing to take the absurd risks they did in the past, and Americans have surprisingly become even more moralistic and morally superior.  Although every President in recent memory – with the unsurprising exception of Richard Nixon – has had his paramours, mistresses, and cinq-a-septs  we have come to demand and expect sexual probity and good behavior.  Both George W  Bush were apparently good, loyal devoted husbands.

It is now is harder than ever to uncover sexual dalliances, and as hard as Republicans may try it is very hard to pin financial misfeasance and tricky dealings on any candidate.  Accountants are simply too good, paper trails can wind maddeningly around back on themselves, and deniability in a smart politician is easy.
What is left? Lying is now the cause celebre of American politics.  Just like sexual straying, lying in America is pervasive and seemingly innate not only in politicians but in all of us.  This shared imperfection does nothing to quiet the demand for truth, honesty, and forthrightness.  No matter how we may lie, deceive, cheat, and meander in our personal lives, we insist on a higher moral standard.
The issue in this campaign is that the political establishment has never met a man like Donald Trump who distorts, invents, or twists the facts deliberately, knowingly, and convincingly.  He knows that his followers could care less about facts, ledgers, balance sheets, and traceable quotes; and care only for what he means.  In fact they are better deconstructionists than the best Duke University academics.  It’s not what Trump says.  It’s what he means.
This obvious fact does not stay the baying hounds of the Left who keep insisting on holding him to the facts.  Liberal newspapers and think tanks have mobilized thousands of researchers to track Trump’s every word, to publish inaccuracies, deceptions, and out-and-out lies.
No one pays attention and Trump’s poll numbers keep rising.  Despite the increasing frustration and exasperation of the Left, he may well win the election.

The only response liberals can muster is sanctimony – a righteous indignation against what they see is a lying, deceitful, untrustworthy demon.  A holy, moral, and very sanctimonious campaign against Donald Trump is being waged in the mainstream media, at Georgetown dinner parties, and on Facebook. 
It is as though a little duplicity here and there was never in liberals’ electoral armory.   Hillary Clinton should no better than to attack The Donald for his lack of transparency when her own husband drove the country crazy with his “It depends on what is is”, and “I did not have sex with that woman”.  Or her own waffling and evasiveness on every scandal from Whitewater to Benghazi to emails and her health.
There is no crime in lying in America,  and although some perjury carries penalties, everyone does it.  Workers like to their bosses, corporate executives lie to their staffs and their shareholders, husbands and wives lie to each other, children lie to their parents.
Lying as become so common, tolerated, and accepted, that there is only a level playing field in America if everyone lies, and everyone seems to at every opportunity. 
Yale Medical School professor Dr. Diane Komp in her book Anatomy of a Lie raises an interesting explanation to the now common phenomenon of lying in America.  Perhaps it is not the lying star figures who influence us, but we who influence them:
"I began to wonder about the possibility that my own seemingly harmless white lies had an impact on the world, that maybe, instead of there being a trickle-down effect when people in exalted positions or in public life lie, there is a trickle-up effect," Komp explained in a recent interview. "In other words, maybe the cultural trend in lying begins with those of us who are not in positions of power, rather than the other way around. Maybe the 'trivial' lies that most of us tell without any real pricks on our conscience do matter." (Yale News, 1998)
This makes a lot of sense because all of us know liars.  Our parents have lied to us. We have lied to our children, and they to us.  We do our best to hide our errors and misdemeanors at work.  We lie to our wives and husbands about our indiscretions.  We cheat on our income tax, have no qualms about defending our rights dishonestly, bend or even invent the facts when it comes to resumes, job interviews, and performance reviews.
She goes on to suggest why people tell lies:
To protect themselves from punishment or embarrassment, to protect their own fantasies about themselves, and to protect the feelings -- or, in extreme cases, the lives -- of others, she says. Regardless of the purpose, "the desire to assume control over another human heart is the basis of most human lies”.
Every thinker  from Augustine to Immanuel Kant to Sisela  Bok have considered the morality of lying and/or its social dynamics.  Lying is nothing new.  Which is why sanctimony is so surprising.  Why, given the fact that lying is endemic and common to us all, are we so quick to judge others and worse, hold some to a higher standard?
It is quite right to call out Donald Trump on those factual statements which are untrue or misleading – a matter of correcting the record and setting it straight.  Pinning truth down, however,  is a very tricky business indeed; and it would seem  far better to craft one’s own version of the truth than try to call out the lies of an opponent.
Be that as it may, there is no place for sanctimony, a ‘those who live in glass houses’ casuistry.  Given our human inclination for deception, wouldn’t it be more seemly to grant politicians a little leeway?  Challenge the facts by all means, but call your opponent a liar?  Hardly, and certainly not a bald-faced, unrepentant, arrogant, destructive one.
Literature, perceptual psychology, cognitive science all have recorded the inability of people to agree on what they see.  Rashomon, The Ring and the Book, and The Alexandria Quartet are but a few books about the impossibility of concluding fact.  Everyone’s perception varies, is subjective and untrustworthy.  Add that to our all-to-human penchant for lying, then one should quite reasonably give a little slack to others when it comes to the ‘truth’.

Perhaps the political Left is given more to sanctimony because of  pride in logical analysis, rationality, and reason.  ‘On the one hand, on the other’ is not a sign of muddle for progressives but sound reasonable judgment.  The Right understand human nature, what is innate and what is not, how we are hardwired and not, and that we are likely to behave just as we have always done.  Ironically a  bit more rational and less idealistic than the Left, certainly.
Sanctimony is unseemly, off-putting, distasteful and, given all the above, quite ignorant and unnecessary.  It is worse than lying, for it celebrates something which is not innate or hardwired.  We don’t have to be so sniffy and angry.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bring Back The Monarchy! Democracy Is Outmoded And Broken

Democracy is looking a bit frayed these days.  Winston Churchill noted that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others which have been tried from time to time”, but only 70 years have passed since his confidently optimistic statement; and more and more people in the United States and abroad are wondering whether we are stubbornly holding on to a political philosophy which has had its day.

It certainly looks like democracy is broken.  Violent protest – without the fundamental core values that animated civil disobedience during the War in Vietnam and the Civil Rights era – has taken over many metropolitan areas.   In previous years there was a distinct moral point to protest.  Vietnam was an unjust war based on a shaky understanding of history, a cavalier brutality which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.  Rolling Thunder was a vengeful, spiteful, and frustrated attempt to bring a small nation with legitimate political aspirations, to its knees.   There was a point to the protests against it.

A hundred years had passed since the end of the Civil War, and yet by the late 1960s, Jim Crow was a pervasive as it ever was.  The South was still a militantly segregationist land, and few in either the North or South were disposed to true black liberation.  The freedom rides, sit-ins, marches, and assemblies made sense because, although they disrupted the status quo and provoked violence, they were well within the acceptable limits of the democratic process.

The race riots of the 60s in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Washington, DC are back with a vengeance.  The 14th Street Corridor in the District, the epicenter of the violence in 1968 is just now fully recovered but the memories of the firebombs, shooting, and mass destruction of whole neighborhoods not only still remain but are returning with a vengeance.

The temperate democratic process seems ill-suited to violent protests whose legitimate starting point – questionable police action within minority communities – has been lost in a wash of anti-white and anti-police hatred.  Worse, these riots have been reflexive, based not on the facts (police departments and individual officers have been exonerated by the courts in Baltimore and other cities), but on emotional presumption.  The white cops had to be wrong given the decades of police abuse in black neighborhoods.  Hysteria built on emotion built on frustration and anger, built on a hundred years of seemingly insoluble problems has caused chaos, a disregard for law, social probity, and community integrity.

Race relations, despite a black President in the Oval Office are – or at least seem to be - worse than ever.

Much has been made of income inequality in America with the top percentiles holding a disproportionate share of the wealth.  While incomes have been rising, particularly among the middle- and lower-middle class, there is a perception that the United States, if not quite an economic oligarchy, is close to it.  Wall Street scandals and complicity in the near ruinous downfall of the financial system, have all added to the view that the American economy is top-heavy, ruled by insiders with cozy relationships to government, and insulated from the needs of working Americans.
The credibility of Congress is at its lowest level for decades and for good reason.  Political obstructionism is the go-to tactic in partisan war, compromise a thing of the distant past, and decisions influenced by wealthy donors and powerful lobbyists.

The current (2016) presidential campaign – one of the most divisive campaigns in recent memory – is not a one-off but a spawn of this democratic dysfunctionality.  Donald Trump has tapped into the frustrations of the white middle class which feels besieged by government interventionism.  Deeply-held social, moral, and religious values are being swept aside by the progressive juggernaut.  Not only do these voters feel economically and socially marginalized, but feel increasingly put upon by arrogant secularists who dismiss their concerns out of hand.

It may be that this period of divisiveness and social resentment will pass; that troubling problems of race, income inequality, and failing public education, and a general dumbing down of the electorate will be resolved.  It may also be, however, that the entire democratic system needs structural reform.
There are some who feel that American-style democracy will never recover from this political chaos.  Redesigning the architecture, rejiggering the laws of the land, adjusting capitalism will never be enough.  Bring back the monarchy!

Dostoevsky wrote in The Grand Inquisitor chapters of The Brothers Karamazov that people don’t want the free will that Jesus offered in his defiant rejection of the Devil’s offers.  Men want only ‘mystery, miracles, and authority’ and will willingly give up free choice and individual expression for them.  This, Dostoevsky went, enabled the institution of a venal, manipulative, and authoritarian Church and denied humanity of the divine promises made by Christ.

He was right, of course; and he was not the first nor the last to consider the banal, uneducated aspirations of most men.  Our own Alexander Hamilton fought Jefferson in heated arguments about the rights of man.  Jefferson wanted a populist democracy in which the majority was not only right but wise.  Hamilton knew that the opposite was true; and that unless America was led by aristocratic, highly-educated, wealthy men, it would fall into chaos.  The Senate was the weak compromise made between the two.

Democracy of course is a very new idea, and for millennia societies were ruled by kings, queens, emperors, and popes. Regal courts were always the centers of learning, art, architecture, and science.  It was understood well before the statistical concept of the bell curve, that only a small percentage of any given population would be born with the intellectual gifts to create and lead; the strong will and desire to defend and expand territory; and the social savvy to maneuver the treacherous waters of palace politics. 

The rest of society would produce according to its abilities.  There would always be a warrior class, a merchant class, and a working class.  There was no point to increased access to society’s lower echelons, for there were very few from them would ever make the grade.   The result of such a concentration of ability, talent, will, ambition, and strength has produced Athens, Rome, Persepolis, Constantinople, the great dynasties of Egypt, India, and China.

India’s much reviled caste system is an excellent example of this rational realism.  Hindu society was always divided.  The priestly caste ruled, the warrior caste defended, the merchant class facilitated trade and commerce, and the lower castes labored.  Not only was this system similar to those of Western empires, it was codified and justified by it.  Remaining in one’s caste with no mobility was not an unjust penalty but an opportunity.  The road to spiritual enlightenment is far easier to travel if it is unencumbered by meaningless, illusory ambitions.

It is not surprising to see the world reconfiguring along ethnic and religious lines.  China has insisted on ethnic homogeneity or at least absolute integration of minorities within the majority Han culture.  It has equally insisted on maintaining strong central authority.  A country of over a billion-and-a-half people, many of whom are still low-income and low-status cannot afford the time or energy to manage a pluralistic democracy – especially when it looks like that in the United States.

Perhaps most importantly, Chinese culture is still Confucian – highly ordered, organized, respectful of order and authority, and following millennia-old moral and ethical principles.   By comparison, the United States

Russia’s President Putin has made no bones about his designs to restore Russia to the glories and power of its imperial past.  The ethnic Russian-speaking majority must be consolidated, strengthened, and reassembled.  Democracy is a non-issue for a strong leader for whom endless debate – American-style – over narrow parochial ambitions is irrelevant and disruptive.

ISIS, whatever its fortunes, simply gave a militant posture to long-held pan-Islamist sentiments.  The idea of a religious caliphate ruled according to sharia law and traditional Muslim principles is not new.  Many traditional, conservative Muslims espouse the idea of religious uniformity if not hegemony.  The division of church and state is an irrelevant issue, since God’s law will always be supreme.  Iran is not an anomaly.

Europe, already fractured by Islamic separatism,  is becoming destabilized by waves of Muslim refugees from the Middle East.  While many may be religiously moderate, there is little doubt that the demands for cultural separatism already seen in France, will increase.  Assimilation may be the hope of secular Germans, but the social reality will be far from it.

A democracy in which significant numbers of citizens and residents refuse to abide by democratic, secular rules is no longer a liberal democracy.  France seems entirely befuddled by recent events.  It is proud of and wishes to retain its policy of laicism – We are All French – but its chances of so doing seem unlikely if not remote. 

Either the new configuration of Europe is drawn along religious federal lines – states within states to accommodate the new separatism – or government regimes become more and more authoritarian, demanding as Russia and China have done absolute compliance to national majority norms.   The latter is the more likely.

Many years ago, long before the Afghan wars but at a time of ethnic rivalry and warfare, many thought that the best political option would be to restore the monarchy – bring back the King.   Monarchs have impeccable national pedigrees, with family lines going back a thousand years.  They represent the people in a cultural historical way – i.e. with far more legitimacy than a government elected under suspect circumstances, by an uneducated electorate, and for only a few years at a time.  National unity has always had a cultural cast.

The United States of course has no monarch to bring back; but we are no different from any other people who only want mystery, miracles, and authority to help orient and guide our lives.  Liberal democracy and market economics are procedural values.  They lack the deep moral authority of Confucius or radical Islam.  America has no underlying cultural principles.  We have no storied imperial or dynastic past like Russia or China.  We are a Christian country but irregularly so, unlike Indians for whom Hinduism guides every aspect of religious and secular life, or Islam guides Iranians.

‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ are abstract terms – means to an end in a country without any real ends; and now in this end-game period of democracy, this lack of a moral, philosophical, cultural, or imperial anchor is very evident.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Aristotle And Plato Were Elite White Slaveowners–Discount Their Influence On Christianity

In an otherwise ordinary course at a well-known American Protestant seminary the professor, discussing the influence of Greek thought on the work of Origen, Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and other early church thinkers, advised the class to remember whose these Greeks were.  Both Aristotle and Plato were white, slave-holding members of the aristocracy, and their intellectual contributions to the origins of Christianity must be discounted, for they deprive Jesus Christ of his Mosaic roots, his Judaism, his poverty, and his ethnic identity.

There is no doubt that culture influences thought, and the products of one age necessarily differ from those of another. Copernicus changed an entire worldview.  Once the earth was no longer the center of the universe, neither were the men who lived on it.  Philosophers, theologians, and dramatists all wrote differently after Copernicus.  Darwin influenced far more than evolutionary biology; and after his discoveries it was much harder to dismiss the concept of an innate, ineluctable human nature, programmed to survive at all costs.   Before Darwin, nature was capricious.  If anything it was influenced by the will of God and certainly not as random and mechanistic as he later claimed.

Shakespeare was clearly influenced by Machiavelli.  There are some direct references to ‘Machiavel’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor (“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”.  Many characters in his plays – Iago, Richard III, and Edmund are very Machiavellian in their amoral, willful pursuit of power.   Characters like Macbeth, not innately Machiavellian, becomes one after his fortunes turn; and his political ambitions are unbounded by any moral considerations.

Shakespeare certainly knew of Thomas Digges and Giordano Bruno, scientists and philosophers who were early advocates of Copernicus and heliocentrism but who took his theories even farther to suggest an infinitely expanding universe.
Thomas Digges escaped persecution from the time of the publication of his revolutionary ideas to the end of his life in 1595. This was an extraordinary feat in an age of political and religious intolerance, when the House of Tudor was in constant dread of Catholicism and war with Spain, when Sir Walter Raleigh and his cohorts in the so-called "School of Night" fell under suspicion of atheism, and when one of England's leading mathematicians, Thomas Harriot, was imprisoned simply because his work was sponsored by Raleigh.
It would not have gone unnoticed in England in the final years of the writing of Hamlet that the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who had lectured extensively there and on the Continent and had been captured by the Inquisition, was consigned to the flames for assorted impieties, including his advocacy in 1584 of an Infinite Universe (Peter Usher, The Oxfordian, 2002)
Usher goes on to suggest that Shakespeare’s reference to astronomy in Hamlet could only have come from the kind of observations made by Copernicus, Digges, and Bruno.
Shakespeare, who may have adopted an allegorical pen name to protect his own identity, may have acted in a similar fashion to protect the Digges family by using the allegory to disguise the empirical evidence for the New Astronomy. Indeed when Hamlet is viewed in the light of this cosmic cosmic allegory, we may see him withholding information on the New Astronomy even from his best friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Authors writing in the age of Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg have certainly been influenced by their cosmology of relativity and probability. If the molecular and universal world is so unknowable and unpredictable, then what then of human nature.

At the same time culture defines scientific discovery.   Newton’s discovery were brilliant but they came necessarily out of the early Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rational discipline it embodied.

Given the fact that culture does indeed influence thought – even the most brilliant – does this in any way alter the critical assessment of the individual insights of a work of literature, philosophy, or art?   Aristotle was influenced by Plato who in turn was influenced by Socrates, but each of these philosophers created unique insights – as did Shakespeare, Nietzsche, or the Existentialists.  They were products of their environment, but intelligent, versatile, and creative enough to either translate it in unique ways, illustrate its significance and impact, perceive its future implications, or see far beyond its limitations.

To the point of the theology professor’s argument – what difference does it make to Aristotle’s philosophy that he was a member of the educated aristocracy, that he was a white male, and that he was a slave owner?  None whatsoever.  While it is obvious that neither he nor any other thinker has ever created independent of cultural context, this context is characterized by major intellectual influences – Machiavelli, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, Nietzsche, Christianity, Imperialism – not by ordinary, routine, unremarkable aspects of historical life.

Of course Aristotle was privileged, otherwise he would have been a slave, not an educated aristocrat.  Of course he was male and white because for centuries before and after Greece, this sexual and racial pre-eminence was the norm.  In other words, his social position, status, and relationship to the rest of society is irrelevant to the evolution of his philosophical thought.

Aristotle’s cultural milieu affected non-academic aspects of his life as it would any man.  Aristotle encouraged Alexander toward eastern conquest and his attitude towards Persia.  At one point he counsels Alexander to be "a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as after friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants". 

Aristotle not surprisingly is ‘ethnocentric’, a product both of his age and his social class; but one would be hard put to find traces of this ethnocentricity in Metaphysics.  While personality, character, family, and experience can never be discounted in Aristotle’s thinking,  his genius was in his ability to look at the world in terms of abstract, universal principles.

Nietzsche and his mentor Schopenhauer were both from privileged backgrounds and immersed in a rich social and academic milieu; but there was nothing surprisingly different about their views of social class or status.  Such configurations were given in the 19th century, and their thinking of the nature of will and human determination was necessarily based on their observations of life, but more an exercise in abstraction. 

While Nietzsche may have harbored class sentiments which led him to classify most people as simple members of The Herd, his insights about the indomitability of Will as the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world were unique abstract creations.  He was influenced by both Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner as well as by his own life, but his unique take on the world – as dramatically contrary as was that of Machiavelli three hundred years earlier – was his own.

In other words it makes no point to parse the personal history and social milieu of either Nietzsche or Aristotle.  It is enough to understand and appreciate their philosophies and their any applications.
The approach of the theology professor is classically post-modern and  deconstructionist.  Since all ideas emerge from within a social, economic, and cultural milieu, these are the elements which define them.  One cannot look at the products of philosophers and judge them only for what they are but how they were derived.  The milieu becomes more important that the ideas themselves.

This narrow lens necessarily and deliberately devalues the individuality of ideas and their genius.  Suggesting that because early Christianity was influenced by the works of slave-owning (racist), white (elitist), males (gender-dominant) and that one should turn instead to the pre-eminent importance of the Mosaic tradition, Judaism, the the realities of daily life Palestine to understand the true significance of Jesus Christ, is intellectual revisionism and political myopia at its worst.

The seminary professor is not alone in his revisionism.  In the first class on the Old Testament, the instructor made it clear that students were to ignore critic writing before the Twentieth Century, for their criticism would necessarily ignore race, gender, and ethnicity as determining factors in Biblical interpretation.   Only with a modern and more enlightened perspective could one possibly understand the Bible and its continuing relevance to today.  In one fiat the instructor swept away any notion of historical relevance. 

Post-modern scholars apply the same criteria to Shakespeare.  There is no reason, they say, to read the literary criticism of  Samuel Johnson who was shaped by 18th century intellectualism and far removed from the social and cultural imperatives of today.

There is a place for studying the cultural milieu in which a writer or philosopher produced his works; but less for evaluating the importance or relevance of his ideas – the essence of criticism – that providing an interesting but peripheral commentary on his working life.

By raising biography and cultural and social history to a status equal to the essential ideas of a work diminishes and denies their universality.  Although deconstructionists do not admit any such thing, only the most doctrinaire can dismiss Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Kant, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Bach as derivative and their works no different from any other ‘texts’.

It is disturbing to see how such post-modernist thought has infected both theology and Biblical exegesis, for it denies the philosophical importance of early church theologians, and puts an asterisk beside the names of the greatest.

Once the theology professor and the instructor of the Old Testament went on record in their first classes, endorsing facile deconstructionism, an asterisk automatically was put next to their courses.  Meaning? Stay away.