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

Monday, March 19, 2018

Existentialism – Revisiting Jean-Paul Sartre And Radical Individualism In An Age Of Collective Identity

No Exit, published in 1943, explores the principal idea associated with Sartrean existentialism, namely that man is an absolutely autonomous individual, determined by his own will alone, for whom his consequent separation from others facilitates infallible liberty and free choice.

At the heart of Sartre’s philosophy is the idea of Inherent Autonomy or the intrinsic order of individual independence. Natural rights are the foundation upon which an authentic society rests. All rights are possessed by human beings. Every action and decision is made purely by free will. With no transcendent force "fating" individuals, they are left to make their own decisions. Humans have no pre-defined purpose or future, but through the exercise of free will they become who they are (BATR.org).

Society is the enemy of the individual, and the state its worst exponent. Political and social institutions always are antithetical to personal expression.  It is their job to stifle individual will or subjugate it to the collective.

Most Americans continue persist in the notion that America is the freest place on earth and point to the diversity of outspoken political expression today.  No cause goes unnoticed, and demonstrations and protests for social change are common, persistent, and loud. As America becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, more open and expressive of alternate sexuality, more faithful and more agnostic, the demands for rights increases exponentially.  The more American society is subdivided, and the more the ethos of community rights replaces more universal moral values, the less free – according to Sartre’s definition of the term – we become.  The individual is subsumed within a collective culture and identity.  A man is not simply a man but a white man, a black man, a gay man, or a progressive man.  His character is defined by the norms of the group to which he belongs.  Disavowing allegiances, declaring oneself apolitical and asocial, belonging to no one, responsible to no one, and dutiful only to self and soul is considered apostasy. 

Yet Sartre never disavowed social responsibility.  He, like Jefferson, valued the individual first and foremost; but concluded that right actions could not be selfish but must be taken in the context of community well-being.  Jefferson, a student and exponent of the Enlightenment felt that individualism was at the heart of spiritual evolution.  Individualism meant nothing if it did not have a purpose – a purpose higher than simple satisfaction and one which reflected one’s relation to God. 

Sartre was not moved by such spiritual concerns nor for any traditional or ethical ones.  The interaction of one individual with others  had nothing to do with collective action, political mobilization, or social progress

Both Sartre and Kant's approaches are based upon the ultimate value of a strong notion of freedom. As Sartre points out, by choosing, an individual commits not only himself, but the whole of humanity. Although there are no a priori values for Sartre, the agent's choice creates values in the same way as the artist does in the aesthetic realm. The values thus created by a proper exercise of one’s freedom have a universal dimension, in that any other human being could make sense of them were he to be placed in my situation. There is therefore a universality that is expressed in particular forms in each authentic project. This is a manifestation of what Sartre later refers to as the 'singular universal' (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Sartre was criticized for his position on ‘ontological freedom’, but he never disavowed his particular and radical notions of individual freedom.

Famously, Sartre claimed the French public was as free as ever during the Nazi occupation. In Being and Nothingness, he passionately argued that even prisoners are free because they have the power of consciousness. A prisoner, though coerced, can choose how to react to his imprisonment. The prisoner is free because he controls his reaction to imprisonment: he may resist or acquiesce. Since there are no objective barriers to the will, the prison bars restrain me only if I form the will to escape. In a similar example, Sartre notes that a mountain is only a barrier if the individual wants to get on the other side but cannot (Encyclopedia, op.cit.)

In a recent essay, Latif Hussain Kazmi, in Sartre on Human Freedom and Creativity, suggests that Sartre’s philosophy has particular relevance today.

It provides a new conception of man, and a new outlook by making "human existence" the real frame of reference. For Sartre human reality or human subjectivity is the foundation of all thought and action. He says that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and consequently defines himself afterwards.

Hinduism is often criticized in the West for being deliberately unconscious of social justice.  The caste system, these critics say, permanently enslaves people within their own narrow community.  There is no fungibility among castes, no American version of entrepreneurial ambition, no possibility of changing the conditions of your birth.

Image result for images statue dancing shiva

Yet the caste system is far from the anti-progressive and backward system portrayed in the West.  It may not be socially progressive, but it is spiritually so.  The world is illusion, false temptations and blind alleys; and the only way to enlightenment is to ignore the illusions posing as reality, and to focus on the discipline and rigor prescribed in the Vedas.  The individual is central to this philosophy.  No compassion, good works, or social engagement has any spiritual benefit or use.  Only through a purposeful, individual, and personally conscious focus, can one attain higher levels of consciousness and being.

The comparisons between Sartre’s existentialism and Hinduism’s transcendental philosophy are striking.  Society and ascribed values mean nothing.  Value is not only derived only from the individual, but from each individual.

In many ways Protestant fundamentalism shares the view that salvation has nothing to do with good works but only with faith.  It is Jesus Christ in the final accounting who will determine who is saved and who is not.  His final balance sheet will be simple – who has believed in him and who has not, and from among them he will choose.

Image result for images martin luther

This philosophical, spiritual sense of individualism has been lost in today’s aggressive social collectivism.  In order for members of minority and/or oppressed groups to gain the rights they deserve, take their proper place in American society, and benefit from its opportunities is to deny their uniqueness and their existential individuality.  Each individual has a unique consciousness determined by genes and environment; and as Sartre has said the greatest – in fact only – contribution and individual can make is by the full, unhindered, and free expression of that unique nature.  To deny it is to negate the value of the individual.

Nietzsche took this principle to its logical extreme.  The only validation of the individual, he said, was the expression of pure will beyond good and evil.  In contrast to the willful ubermensch the members of the following herd will never realize who they are, what they are, and what power they have.

Image result for images nietzsche

America was free at its founding.  New Americans understood that their destiny was to know God, to survive, and to prosper.  Individual enterprise benefitted all because it tapped the most essential aspects of human nature; and while there would necessarily be competition among competing claims, the human collective would be better off.  Socialism distorted this fundamentalism and sought to turn millennia of human enterprise on its head.  The individual was to be no longer at the center of society but the complaisant tool of social collectives, the most important of which was government.  However, now that socialism has been dismissed, and the hope for a more productively independent and individualistic society increased, there has appeared a worse, more anti-individualist movement – progressivism, a political philosophy which is as collective and as strongly adherent to government interventionism as socialism was.

There is no doubt that ‘secular individualism- - a far cry from Sartre’s ‘ontological freedom’ – is disruptive to progressive ideals; but in their intention to tame naked individualism and to socialize the most anti-social elements of the country, progressives have pushed the country almost to a point of no return.  After a certain point, the moral, ethical, spiritual, and philosophical precepts that originate in individualism ( a la Sartre) become irrelevant and supernumerary.   We have not yet reached that point, but we are very, very close.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

It Didn’t Happen That Way! Faulty Memory, A Life Of Fake News, And An Overrated Search For The ‘Truth’

The story of Uncle Harry was told each Easter after the pasta and before the ham pie at the Grillo dinner table. One of the family’s black sheep, he was known for his debonair bella figura, silk foulards, silver-topped cane, and Italian shoes and also for his daring financial dealings.  It was Uncle Harry who had financed the Tomasso brothers and in return got Wall Street cover for his questionable Bahamian investments.  Uncle Harry who had been one of the first to spot a special new Hollywood talent, backed her first movie, became a silent partner in Warner Bros. foray into independent films, and had two children by her before he was dunned out of Hollywood by a jealous producer.  Uncle Harry who had boxed professionally in New Haven, rose in the rankings just below but thanks to Willie Pep, and retired undefeated but little known because of his more successful mentor.  Harry was now comfortably retired in Boca Raton with his mistress.

Image result for images italian easter dinnertable

None of this was completely true; but there were enough bits of truth to make the exaggerated stories plausible, so no one seem to notice how the stories changed little by little over many Easters.  The stories of Uncle Harry were like children’s bedtime stories, told over and over again - new silver buckle, harvest moon, friendly dwarf, and blackbird pie added or subtracted as long as the story line of Prince Michael and his Lady in Waiting never changed. The real Harry Grillo lived a long time ago and was a distant enough relation to have any real relevance to genealogy or family history, so no one minded how the stories changed with the teller; and in fact the Grillo family  basked in the annually burnished image of their long-ago deceased relative.  At the same time no one doubted that this boulevardier, squire, and Italian-American gentleman was as impressive as told.  The essence of Sir Harry was as true as a die, and the fanciful added bits and pieces – his roseate slippers like the Pope’s for example; or the Knights of Malta deaconship – only added to his allure, family pride, and sense of togetherness.

Image result for image dapper man victorian

Looked at through today’s censorious political lens, the stories of Uncle Harry would be fake news.  When and where had he been inducted into the Knights of Malta, fought with Willie Pep, invested in the Grand Caymans with what New York investment firm? A quick Google search would expose all the dodgy bits of Harry’s past, shame his relatives for their gullibility, and insist that his statue be taken down from Aunt Cecilia’s mantelpiece.  Yet, even he had been subjected to such harsh scrutiny, no one would be willing to discredit him.  He had become such an anti-hero in the Grillo family, that he would have to be rehabilitated through new recollections.  Perhaps the Knights of Malta was an exaggeration, but the Knights of Columbus’ honor to him as an exemplary Italian-American was almost as good and certainly as telling of his character.  Perhaps it was not Willie Pep that he fought, but Angelo Ponti, his cousin and promising welterweight mentioned at least once – fact – in the Sporting News.

In other words, Uncle Harry could never be expunged from the Grillo family history, and if the past had to be somewhat reconfigured to match what everyone knew were his probable exploits, then so much the better.  Of course no sharp lens was ever focused on Harry, so the Easter dinner tales went on for years; and whether or not the Harry Grillo of the first stories in 1957 at all resembled him in 1992 when the last of the New Haven Grillo clan died, it made no difference whatsoever.

Image result for logo knights of malta

Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, or Kurosawa’s Rashomon are perhaps the best-known stories of versions of the truth.   There is no such thing as actual fact, say these artists, only some approximation of it.  Eye-witnesses have been shown again and again to have very subjective notions of what they saw.  New research suggests that most memory is in fact ‘filled in’, elaborated subjectively from some actual event or image; but having little resemblance to the past.   Filling in was what the Grillo family had done for years.  There was an Uncle Harry – an authenticated, signed, and smiling sepia photograph was framed and hanged on Cecilia’s parlor wall – and he did box, invest, and dress well; but the rest of his persona was someone else’s imagination of what he should have been.

We Americans are  obsessed by the truth.  No matter how many politicians have been outed for their lies, misstatements, and distortions, we keep insisting that there is – there must be – an honest man somewhere; and if we are vigilant enough and insistent enough on upholding the highest standards of objectivity, even the most tricky and evasive will be held to account.  Thousands of hours are spent on investigative journalism, due diligence, and cross-referencing dates, names, and events with no significant results. We will never know for sure who spied on whom, who leaked what, who slept with whom, or who had his fingers in the cookie jar.  It is and will always be a matter of speculation.

Image result for images the ring and the book browning

Yet does the truth really matter? Why is living in a world of speculative half-truths and fantasy not enough?  Are our lives really any better off for our asymptotic search for the facts?  Why is that we accept a world of invention and subjectivity when it comes to Uncle Grillo; willingly suspend disbelief in novels which, taken as a whole, are revelatory and personally meaningful; and go about our business cruising the most fantastical world of social media? We shouldn’t care so much about the truth because for most of the day we live in a world where truth is suspended and in fact doesn’t matter.

The greatest truths in the world are religious we are told.  The theologians of the Early Church – Clement, Tertullian, and Eusebius – spent their entire academic lives using logic to prove the divinity of Jesus Christ and moreover to define it.  Of course the matter has never been put to rest.  There is no proof of anything in the New Testament, no matter how rigorously argued.  There are still Gnostics and other intellectual descendants of Second Century heretics who insist on the falsity of received Christian wisdom.  The second body of truths is that of history; but any research into the past reveals a bevy of interpretations and no concurrence on any other than the rudiments – where the battle was fought, or across what borders the Crusaders marched.  Real meaning – truth – of history is as evasive as it ever has been.

Image result for images tertullian

Meaning can be derived from image rather than fact; and subjectivity has as much validity.  How many people have made up their mind about Donald Trump because of his aggregate image?  Of course a player in  Las Vegas, Hollywood, and New York real estate must chase women, money, and manipulate the truth.  Why go any further?  Of course the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham are saintly men.  Their photo-op friendships with powerful men, rock stars, and footballers are only meant to publicize their message, reach the public, and touch a chord.  They are not Elmer Gantry, the fictional evangelist of self-serving ambition; nor real evangelical preachers as morally wobbly as any self-serving politician but whose message is truthful if they are not. 

We are all subjective and dismissive of anything which does not fit our personal puzzles.  We, despite our reason, objectivity, and reasonable judgment, are all Hollywood script writers of our own reality; and happy consumers of all that Hollywood has to offer when it comes time to relax.

The truth is overrated; and the search for it or an honest man while we could be otherwise engaged in very pleasant dreams, is nothing but high opportunity cost.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Mistresses Of Presidents - Trump, JFK, Clinton, Sarkozy, And Hollande–Times Change, Men Do Not

The mistress of Francois Mitterrand, former President of France, and his illegitimate daughter attended his funeral alongside his wife.  Few in France – the country that made the Cinq á Sept an institution – saw anything unusual about their attendance.  They were as much a part of Mitterrand’s life for decades, affairs are taken for granted in a sexually liberated country, and there could be no shame about a long relationship that was accepted if not admired and certainly fit within the country’s norms.

Image result for images mitterrand mistress and child at his funeral

President Francois Hollande’s mistress moved into the Elysees Palace, and although there were plenty of fireworks.  His ambitious former wife who had always planned to move into the Place with her husband but who had been shunted aside by an equally ambitious arriviste, was very unhappy, and the ménage a trois were Page One tabloid news for months.

Nicolas Sarkozy had his own very public affairs, and although they were even more sensational than Hollande’s and far from the tasteful affair of Mitterrand, only a few Frenchmen grumbled.  As Edward Cody of the Washington Post reported

Sarkozy opened the door to “Dallas” as he won the presidency and took office in 2007. More or less publicly, he was at the time struggling to prevent his second wife, Cecilia, a former model, from running off with a buttery-smooth event planner. He failed, and Cecilia left for a new life in New York. Within weeks of moving into the Elysees Palace, however, Sarkozy met Carla Bruni Tedeschi, another ex-model. After a swift courtship that included much-photographed excursions to Disneyland Paris and the ruins of Petra in Jordan, they were married, and the willowy Carla became a celebrity first lady — and later a celebrity mother.

Image result for images carla bruni

If there was any censure, it was over the American character of the affair rather than the affair itself.  France was used to sexual affairs, but nothing quite so much like a soap opera. 

Nevertheless, both Sarkozy and Hollande continued to govern France, both lost elections not because of their sex life but because of bad leadership, and both will be remembered more for their failed policies than their indiscretions.  Mitterrand by comparison is the elder statesman of the sexual adventure, tasteful, discreet, and temperate.

John F Kennedy was alleged to have had many mistresses, Marilyn Monroe among them.  Little was publicly known of his extramarital affairs while he was President.  The press considered it their responsibility to protect public figures’ private lives, and J.Edgar Hoover, then Director of the FBI was quite happy to keep the information quiet.  Knowing that Hoover was well aware of his infidelities, JFK allegedly went slow on civil rights to appease the man whom Washington insiders considered the most powerful player in the capital.

Image result for images marilyn monroe happy birthday mr president

The Secret Service knew quite well about Lyndon Johnson’s tomcatting, and it was reported that those in his security details not only covered for the President but facilitated his trysts.

The times have changed, and the press, the Congress, and the public went after Bill Clinton with a vengeance.  No more complicity and protection.   The President was fair game.  The country was transfixed and fascinated by Clinton’s feints and evasions, and because this was Puritan America and not libertine France, he knew that admission of sexual wandering would be tantamount to dismissal or at least political marginalization.  The country was at least spared an impeachment; but the fact that it was even considered showed how censorious and sexually inhibited Americans were.

Donald Trump is currently involved in a controversy over an alleged affair he had with a porn star before his election and suggestions have been made that he paid her hush money to keep quiet at a particularly delicate political time.   As in the case of Bill Clinton, Trump’s accusers are insisting that the President’s fault is not in his sexual pleasures but in his denials and obfuscations.  Yet everyone else knows that the real reason for the fuss is about sex.  Since the 2016 campaign Donald Trump has been accused of sexual predation, abuse, and misogyny; and his opponents see this as a chance to further discredit him.

The zeitgeist of the country has changed since the 60s, and America appears to be a more sexually open and tolerant society; yet a significant proportion of the country still regards marital infidelity as a sin, and more importantly a sign of moral failure.  If a President deceives his wife, then he is quite capable of deceiving the country.  Americans, therefore, are complicit in the sexual witch hunt.  This is the real difference between France and America.  We see infidelity as a sign of moral weakness, a turpitude that spills over into governance while the French most certainly do not.

What is not new is male sexual appetite.  Whether in France, America, or India – a highly conservative and religious country not unlike the United States – men stray, stray often, and stray continually.  Whether in the echelons of power or in the bushes, men are having sex with women other than their wives.

Henry Kissinger is perhaps best remembered for his aphorism, ‘Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’ not only because the annals of history are filled with the sexual exploits of kings, courtiers, popes, and emperors, but because he was openly proud of his own machismo. 

Image result for images henry kissinger power aphrodisiac

During the Clinton affair only Americans were morally upset by the President’s sexual adventures in the Oval Office.  Men from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia were not surprised at Clinton’s infidelity but found it ridiculous, smarmy, and definitely un-presidential.  Presidents can have any woman they want and bed them wherever and whenever; and the President of the United States only diddled and twaddled an intern under his desk.  Sex goes with the Presidential package, and only in America could that include only sexual incidentals.

Americans would certainly have been more understanding if Bill Clinton had been more like JFK and Sarkozy, involved with starlets and international beauties instead of trailer trash; yet the tale of Washington sex always seems to picked up on the cheap.  It was very much in keeping with our conflicted attitude towards sex that the former Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, frequented prostitutes and was dunned out of office because one such assignation was found out and revealed.  It is OK to go with prostitutes, to have online porn sex (laughable photos of another well-placed New Yorker, Anthony Weiner, recently made the rounds and he too was turned out of the House of Representatives), to have cheap girlfriends because that is really not infidelity.  Infidelity would be a betrayal of love and and affair of passion. 

Image result for images jfk sailing

For this reason, no one should be surprised at the presumed sexual delinquency of Donald Trump.  Of course he had sex with a porn star.  How could a man of glitz and cheap Las Vegas and reality television glamour do otherwise? Of course he has had affairs, but these do not and cannot challenge his proper, attentive, and respectful relationship with his wife.

So he may have paid hush money to keep his affair out of the news; and this too should not be news to anyone who has followed his career in two of the toughest businesses around – New York real estate and Hollywood – where money changes hands for all kinds of reasons.

In short, l’affaire Trump is simply not interesting.  Everything is in character, either Trump’s or America’s.  A powerful man with a take-no-prisoners attitude loose in a country still profoundly Calvinist who has cheap affairs is exactly the way the script should be written.