Political Life Contra Salvation

The seclusion of the church has become a tool that has dulled the political acumen and the weapon for the oppressed. There was a time when churches were the harbingers of social justice. Now they often prefer tax exempt status over empowering their congregants. To provide clarity, there was a time that churches fought loudly for the political favor in the black community. Leaders like MLK and Malcolm X stemmed from very politically active churches (*Nation of Islam is a quasi-church in my mind and now bears some strange resemblances to prosperity gospel groups). Their harm was inextricably linked with their ability to lift up others with them. Now, we get souls who laud themselves and their money. Prosperity gospel, that prayer and God chooses who should be rich, generates an inwardness that was not a mainstream approach to religion until the rise of televangelism. Now it haunts the religious community around every corner. Even to the point that yoga isn’t safe. Bikram yoga is an excruciating practice where you engage in yogic practice in a 100+ degrees Fahrenheit room. It spread like wildfire and though many are there for the exercise portion it also carries a religious engagement similar to prayer. Its founder is now on the lam from the law for sexual assault and tax evasion. He believed his own hype and had some outlandish words and beliefs.

Joel Osteen, the sole weasel to escape from Roger Rabbit’s world, has established an elaborate series of machinations to funnel money into his own pockets. His narrow skull filled with gleaning teeth can be seen at Wal-Marts across the US. Preaching an independence that suggests an inward and isolationist approach is his “shtick”. Essentially saying your problems are just God testing you, go further inward and you will work your own way out. Oh, and most importantly, give money to me because God wants me to thrive. The gall. The shamelessness. Yet, people give. Osteen has a net worth of about 40-60 million. He claims that there is no need to be ashamed about being rich. I guess when you are that rich, you can swallow the pride. Not someone who brings good into the world. Certainly not to the public at large. And, easy as it would be to criticize so many other elements, including his time working under Judge Doom, we must admonish him for the looking inward instead of engaging the injustices of this world. Not even willing to open his vast megachurch in Houston to help those suffering immediately after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the city. Yet, the power of shame can only sway Joel so much. He opened after the internet barraged him with criticism but he persisted on making excuses.

If I were to say what these congregations are good for, it would seemingly be only in their ability to further fleece the government for tax purposes.  Perhaps the inward turn from the churches at large was because they were simply afraid to lose their tax exempt status. If that is the case, then money has triumphed over salvation.

 

 

Freedom is Freedom is Freedom: Gerald MacCallum’s Singular Concept of Liberty

In a previous post, I discussed Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty (or freedom). Here I will discuss Gerald MacCallum’s objection to it.

MacCallum doesn’t think that negative and positive liberty are two distinct concepts. Rather, he thinks that there is only one concept and that it’s a mistake to characterize liberty, as Berlin does, as either one of two “dyadic relations” – “freedom from” (negative liberty) and “freedom to” (positive liberty).

MacCallum says that freedom is always a “triadic relation” in which someone is free from some constraint to do (or not do) something. All discussions of freedom, he argues, can be fit into the following format: “X is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z,” where “x ranges over agents, y ranges over such ‘preventing conditions’ as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance.”

So, MacCallum preserves the structure of Berlin’s negative liberty as the freedom from interference, but he applies it to positive liberty as well. All obstacles to a person’s liberty, according to MacCallum, are simply constraints – internal or external – on his capacity to act according to his wishes.

On one hand, this view seems to successfully collapse Berlin’s distinct notions of positive and negative liberty into one concept. If anything that hinders liberty can be conceptualized as a constraint, whether it is internal or external, then there is no useful distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty. Under MacCallum’s formulation, it doesn’t matter whether an individual’s actions are interfered with by another agent or by his or her own inner psychological capacities. Both are instances in which the individual’s liberty is constrained by something.

On the other hand, it’s possible to view Berlin’s distinction as consistent with MacCallum’s formulation. Although MacCallum suggests that Berlin sees negative and positive liberty as mutually exclusive, Berlin’s distinction doesn’t eliminate the possibility of common ground between the two conceptions. Negative and positive liberty can be seen as different aspects of an overarching concept of liberty, but aspects that are, nonetheless, incommensurable. In Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, George Crowder notes that instead of sharing a single essence, as MacCallum’s formulation seems to imply, negative and positive liberty could be seen as belonging to a family of concepts with an underlying commonality.

And even if all impediments to liberty can be viewed simply as constraints, this doesn’t rule out a conceptual distinction between internal and external constraints.

Imagine a man who wants to leave his home, drive to the grocery store, and buy some tomatoes. He can’t leave, though, because he’s been taken hostage by a masked gunman. Now imagine another man with the same desire for tomatoes who can’t fulfill it because he can’t remember how to get to the store. Under MacCallum’s formulation of liberty, there is very little difference between the ways in which these two men are unfree. They’re both subject to some constraint on their capacity to act in accordance with their wishes. And it doesn’t seem to matter that one man’s constraint is a limitation within his head and the other man’s constraint is a gun to his.

Still, the two constraints do appear to differ in at least one important way.

Even if the men are constrained to the same extent, and thus are unfree to the same extent, the man taken captive has been violated by another person. He feels like he’s been wronged – because he has been. The man whose memory has failed him hasn’t been wronged in any meaningful way – unless you believe in some notion of cosmic injustice – and he’s unlikely to feel otherwise. There’s something different, something worse, about being blocked by another person from doing what you want to do.

It is therefore at the disjuncture between the experiential aspects of internal and external constraints, and between the ways in which the idea of being wronged applies to each, where a wedge can be driven between the two types of constraints.

MacCallum may be right that all obstacles to liberty can be conceptualized as constraints, but Berlin is right that not all liberty is the same.

This post was adapted from my bioethics master’s thesis: “The Moral Significance of Non-Autonomous Refusals of Medical Treatment.”

The Liberty Bell’s Crack: Isaiah Berlin and Two Concepts of Liberty

Which Liberty?

It’s hard to find someone who is against liberty, but it’s easy to find disagreement about what the term “liberty” means.

Imagine a conspiracy theorist who is convinced that government agents are blasting mind-controlling waves into his apartment. To keep the government out of his head, he lines his walls, floor, and ceiling with aluminum foil. To be safe, he also lines his baseball cap with the foil and watches television from inside a foil-lined refrigerator box placed strategically in the center of his living room, as far away from the windows as possible. Is this man free?

In one sense, yes. No one is stopping him from protecting himself from non-existent waves by lining his home and himself with kitchen packaging. In another sense, no. The man’s behavior is exceptionally irrational. He is so divorced from reality that he can’t recognize and act in his true interests.

The man’s story highlights two dominant notions of liberty (or freedom, a term which is normally used interchangeably with liberty) that have occupied philosophers and others for centuries: negative liberty and positive liberty. He enjoys negative liberty because there is no external interference with his actions, but he lacks positive liberty because he lacks rational control over his own desires and actions.

The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin drew perhaps the most explicit distinction between positive and negative liberty in his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” But Berlin didn’t merely articulate the distinction between these two conceptions. He exposed a tension between them, arguing that positive liberty often perverts the concept of liberty so much that it doesn’t resemble liberty at all.

Negative Liberty

Negative liberty, according to Berlin, is “simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.” The central obstacle to negative liberty is coercion, and a measurement of someone’s negative liberty is the degree to which he or she is free from coercion: “If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum requirement, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.”

Berlin is clear, however, that for interference with an individual’s activities to be coercion, the source of the interference must be human. He maintains that “[people] lack political liberty or freedom only if [they] are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings” and that “mere incapacity to obtain a goal is not lack of political freedom.”

Because negative liberty requires only that someone be free from coercion by other humans, it relies on a minimalist conception of human agency. There is no requirement that he possess certain internal capacities or values for him to be entitled to non-interference by others. Negative liberty presumes an entitlement to non-interference, and it imposes an obligation on everyone to refrain from obstructing others’ actions.

It is negative liberty, and the concomitant notion that one’s right to non-interference doesn’t depend upon the possession of other capacities, goals, or values, that the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill defends in his book On Liberty:

His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

Positive Liberty

Liberty in the positive sense, according to Berlin, is the freedom accompanied by being one’s own master. It represents freedom from “nature” or one’s “own ‘unbridled’ passions.” It involves, among other things, the “higher,” rational self achieving mastery over the lower self, the self that is dominated by irrational desires and impulses.

This idea of an individual having two selves, a rational, ideal self and an empirical self, is fundamental to positive liberty. Regarding the two selves that are inherent to this notion of liberty, Berlin says the following:

This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or ‘autonomous’ self, or with my self ‘at its best’; which is then contrasted with irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my ‘empirical’ or ‘heteronomous’ self, swept by every gust of desire and passion, needing to be rigidly disciplined if it is ever to rise to the full height of its ‘real’ nature.

As you can see, fundamental to this version of liberty is a higher form of agency than that required by negative liberty. Positive liberty requires certain essential capacities or conditions, which may vary according to the particular form of positive liberty being endorsed, that are, by definition, required for an individual to be considered free. The common assumption underlying this line of thought, according to Berlin, is “that the rational ends of our ‘true’ natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong.”

The Relationship Between Postive and Negative Liberty

The danger of the notion of positive liberty, according to Berlin, is that it divides the individual into two selves: the true, or rational, self and the empirical self, which is subject to the irrational passions and desires that need to be controlled or contained. Once this metaphorical bifurcation of the self has occurred, he argues, the door is open to the infringement upon people’s empirical wishes and desires in the name of their ‘true’ selves – or their own freedom:

What, at most, this entails is that they would not resist me if they were rational and as wise as I and understood their interests as I do. But I may go on to claim a good deal more than this. I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because there exists within them an occult entity – their latent rational will, or their true purpose – and this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their ‘real’ self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their real selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true,’ albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.

In Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, George Crowder calls Berlin’s argument the “inversion thesis” because the idea is that the notion of positive liberty allows the concept of liberty to be inverted into its very opposite. Coercion can be justified under the rubric of positive liberty because it is purported to be more consistent with liberty than the individual’s actual wishes. Crowder points out that there is a strong undercurrent in Berlin’s thesis that the logic of positive liberty ought to make us suspicious because the idea itself exposes it to the potential for authoritarian corruption.

Berlin is not wholeheartedly against coercion for a person’s own good, however. He’s more worried about the imposition of certain philosophical ideals on someone in the name of his own freedom. The positively unfree person, with his “poor earthly body and foolish mind” might expressly reject what he is being coerced to do, but since his empirical body is not truly free, he is not really being coerced. Instead, his higher self has willed it, “not indeed consciously, not as he seems in everyday life, but in his role as a rational self which his empirical self may not know.”

What Berlin is criticizing is the view that the tension between someone’s expressed desires and a specific conception of his own good can be relieved by opining that coercion is permissible because, in the coerced person’s current empirical configuration, he is not free anyway. This is a distortion of what freedom is, according to Berlin. “Enough manipulation with the definition of man,” he says, “and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes.” As John Christman put it, for Berlin, “to label as ‘freedom’ the mastery of the ‘lower’ desires by the higher capacities of morality and virtue, not to mention by the supposedly superior wisdom of a general will, marked a treacherous tilt toward the justification of centralized power under the guise of moral superiority.”

Berlin’s ideas are not without their critics. In two follow-up posts, I discuss Gerald McCallum’s view that the distinction between positive and negative liberty can be collapsed and John Christman’s argument that positive liberty doesn’t necessarily open the door for authoritarianism.

This post was adapted from my bioethics master’s thesis: “The Moral Significance of Non-Autonomous Refusals of Medical Treatment.”

Law and Morality

It’s hard to pin down how exactly the law relates to morality.

Some people believe that acting ethically means simply following the law. If it’s legal, then it’s ethical, they say. Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals this view to be preposterous. Lying and breaking promises are legal in many contexts, but they’re nearly universally regarded as unethical. Paying workers the legal minimum wage is legal, but failing to pay workers a living wage is seen by some as immoral. Abortion has been legal since the early 1970’s, but many people still thinks it’s immoral. And discrimination based on race used to be legal, but laws outlawing it were passed because it was deemed immoral.

Law and morality do not always coincide. Sometimes the legal action isn’t the ethical one. People who realize this might have a counter-mantra: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s ethical. This is more a sophisticated perspective than the one simply conflating law and ethics.

According to this perspective, acting legally is not necessarily acting ethically, but it is necessary for acting ethically. The law is the minimum requirement, but morality may require people to go above and beyond their basic legal obligations. From this perspective, paying employees at least the minimum wage is necessary for acting ethically, but morality may require that they be paid enough to support themselves and their families. Similarly, non-discrimination may be the minimum requirement, but one might think that actively recruiting and integrating minorities into the workplace is a moral imperative.

The notion that legal behavior is a necessary condition for ethical behavior seems to be a good general rule. Most illegal acts are indeed unethical. But what about the old laws prohibiting the education of slaves? Or anti-miscegenation laws criminalizing interracial marriage, which were on the books in some US states until the 1960s? It’s hard to argue that people who broke these laws necessarily acted unethically.

You could say that these laws are themselves immoral and that this places them in a different category than generally accepted laws. This is probably true. These legal obligations do indeed create dubious moral commitments. But how can you say that the moral commitments are dubious if law and morality are intertwined to the extent that one can’t act ethically without acting legally?

And aren’t there some conditions under which breaking a generally accepted law might be illegal but still the right thing to do?

What about breaking a generally accepted law to save a life? What if a man, after exhausting all other options, stole a cancer treatment to save his wife’s life? The legal bases for property rights and the prohibition against theft are generally accepted, and in most other contexts, the man would be condemned as both unethical and a criminal. But stealing the treatment to save his wife’s life seems, at the very least, morally acceptable. This type of situation suggests a counter-mantra to those who believe legality is a prerequisite for ethicality: Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it’s unethical.

This counter-mantra doesn’t suggest that the law is irrelevant to ethics. Most of the time, it’s completely relevant. Good laws are, generally speaking, or perhaps ideally speaking, a codification of our morality.

But the connection between law and morality is complex, and there may be no general rule that captures how the two are relates.

Sometimes, actions that are perfectly legal are nonetheless unethical. Other times, morality requires that we not only follow the law but that we go above and beyond our positive legal obligations. Yet, there are also those times when breaking the law is at least morally permissible.

There are also cases in which we are morally obligated to follow immoral laws, such as when defiance would be considerably more harmful than compliance. We live in a pluralistic society where laws are created democratically, so we can’t just flout all the laws we think are immoral – morality is hardly ever that black and white anyway. And respect for the rule of law is necessary for the stability of our society, so there should be a pretty high threshold for determining that breaking a law is morally obligatory.

If there is a mantra that adequately describes the relationship between law and morality, it goes something like this: It depends on the circumstances. 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother Night and the Call for Sincerity

Howard Campbell is a fictional character in the Kurt Vonnegut novel, “Mother Night”. This text has its protagonist appear to be a reprehensible soul. An American turned Nazi propagandist who we later find is working as a double agent. His charisma laden speeches are used to inspire der Volker and to provide hidden messages to the American forces. When the story begins Howard Campbell is in an Israeli holding cell – awaiting trial for his crimes as a Nazi. We learn the truth through his story.

There are so many great Kurt Vonnegut books. Why does this book mean to much to me? One quote resonates: “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

Even when I was reading the book, there drew some parallels to the various demagoguery on cable news. Almost a decade later, that quote comes home to roost. This story, much like Vonnegut’s carries some humor though.

Infowars grew to popularity in the early 2000’s and pushed conspiracy theories of all sorts. At its helm was a man named Alex Jones. He appeared to be a very zany personality that professed insane amounts of virility with deep understanding of the forces managing the world.

He is a character straight out of a wrestling promo. Until recently, it was so hard to glean anything else about this foolish being. His machismo runs rampant in the supplements he endorses. Brandishing a torso followed with explanations of how we can boost one’s manliness, muscles and, most importantly, attraction from the opposite sex.

His abrasive nature has helped push some joyful food for conspiracists such as: 9/11 was an inside job, Justice Anthony Scalia was murdered, and labeling the Newton shooting as a false flag. The last one has enabled a constant harassment of the victim’s families. An immeasurable agony inflicted by a talking head. Emboldened souls even take to calling and accusing the parents of faking everything – even their mourning.

The strongest of men. The most insightful person in media. Dodging any and all provocateurs.

Then he got divorced.

We bore witness to the travesty of his life and the struggle to contain his act. While in the courtroom, he was unable to answer simple questions and blamed a bowl of chili. The southwestern comfort food. His wife accused him of general foolishness that could only be permitted by a caricature of a man. Twelve years of marriage with someone as braggadocios as Alex Jones would garner some “interesting” tales. I am certain more tales will come.

One of the most prudent elements that came from when Jones’ lawyer. The lawyer conceded that Alex Jones’ radio and video personality was just that: a personality. What does that actually mean for our hero? He immediately released a video saying the lawyer was wrong! That it was just kabuki theater and to disregard the lawyer’s statement.

Should we get deep insights into the woes of personalities? Yes. Absolutely. The unmitigated power provided to the charlatans can only be mitigated by the light of their flaws. While Jones may be a family man, when he is not behind the microphone, his listeners/viewers can never be so certain. They can picture him as the champion for their ideology but he can see it as just something he does.

Vonnegut’s character seems to struggle. He loses his love, his freedom, and his integrity. Unlike a fictional character, I don’t have the privilege to know what resides in the hearts of men.  So, I am not sure what grew first and who is real anymore: Alex Jones or Alex Jones. Regardless, it doesn’t seem that he was sufficiently careful enough in his pretending.

 

Keep An Eye on the Rearview

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”

That’s Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s message in his new book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. If we can learn anything from the past, it’s that democracies can collapse. It happened in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and then again after the Soviets began spreading authoritarian communism in the 1940s.

American democracy is no less vulnerable to tyrannical forces, Snyder warns. “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

The short 126-page treatise – written in reaction to Donald Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office – looks at failed European democracies to highlight the “deep sources of tyranny” and offer ways to resist them:

Do not obey in advance. Defend institutions. Believe in truth. Contribute to good causes. Listen for dangerous words. Be as courageous as you can.

Inspired as it may be by Trumpian politics, On Tyranny is useful guide for defending democratic governance in any political era. As Snyder notes, looking to past democracies’ failures is an American tradition. As they built our country, the Founding Fathers considered the ways ancient democracies and republics declined. “The good news is that we can draw upon more recent and relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome,” Snyder writes. “The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.”

The actionable steps for defending our democratic institutions make up the bulk of On Tyranny, but Snyder’s big critique is of Americans’ relationship to history. It’s not just that we don’t know any; it’s that we’re dangerously anti-historical.

In the epilogue, Snyder observes that until recently the politics of inevitability – “the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy” – dominated American political thinking. After communism in eastern Europe ended, and the salience of its, and fascism’s and Nazism’s, destruction lessened, the myth of the “end of history” took hold. This misguided belief in the march toward ever-greater progress made us vulnerable, Snyder writes, because it “opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.”

Snyder isn’t being particularly shrewd here. Commentators have explicitly endorsed versions of the politics of inevitability. After the Cold War, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote the aptly titled article “The End of History?” (which was later expanded into a book, The End of History and the Last Man) arguing that history may have indeed reached its final chapter. In the “End of History?” he writes the following:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

This is a teleological conception of the world – it views history as unfolding according to some preordained end or purpose. Marxism had its own teleology, the inevitable rise of a socialist utopia, based on Karl Marx’s materialist rewriting of Hegelian dialectics. After Marxism took a geopolitical blow in the early 1990s, Fukuyama reclaimed Hegelianism from Marx and argued that mankind’s ideological evolution had reached its true end: Liberal democracy had triumphed, and no alternatives could possibly replace it.

But Snyder isn’t referring just to the prophecies of erudite theorists like Fukuyama. He’s pointing the finger at everyone. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he writes, Americans and other liberals “drew the wrong conclusion: Rather than rejecting teleologies, we imagined that our own story was true.” We fell into a “self-induced intellectual coma” that constrained our imaginations, that barred from consideration a future with anything but liberal democracy.

A more recent way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. It’s historically oriented, but it has a suspect relationship with historical facts, Snyder writes. It yearns for a nonexistent past; it exalts periods that were dreadful in reality. And it views everything through a lens of victimization. “Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation.”

National populists endorse the politics of eternity. They revere the era in which democracies seemed most threatened and their rivals, the Nazis and the Soviets, seemed unstoppable. Brexit advocates, the National Front in France, the leaders of Russia, Poland, and Hungary, and the current American president, Snyder points out, all want to go back to some past epoch they imagine having been great.

“In the politics of eternity,” Snyder writes, “the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures.” And the emphasis on national victimhood dampens any urge to self-correct:

Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate?

If the politics of inevitability is like an intellectual coma, the politics of eternity is like hypnosis: We stare at the spinning vortex of cyclical myth until we fall into a trance – and then we do something shocking at someone else’s orders.

The risk of shifting from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity is real, Snyder writes. We’re in danger of passing “from a naïve and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.” When the myth of inevitable progress is shattered, people will look for another way of making sense of the world, and the smoothest path is from inevitability to eternity. “If you once believed that everything turns out well in the end, you can be persuaded that nothing turns out well in the end.”

The only thing that stands in the way of these anti-historical orientations, Snyder says, is history itself. “To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something.”

 

Reflecting Politics: Image Making and Falsities

Hannah Arendt was a mid-century German thinker that witnessed humanity at its worst. As a consequence, her writings carry a profundity that I rarely found in the many authors I have read. I can lay out several prophetic examples encountered in her texts. Given the political climate, I will pull from her seminal essay, “Lying in Politics” which is found in the collection, Crises of the Republic.

Arendt laments the chance for “image-makers” to inject themselves into politics. Lobbyists and advertising men would possess a shared disinterest in things of actual politics and instead focus on the “image” of politics. The result is a politician whose image is refined to reflect a pious family man who votes against his constituents’ interests on the regular. The subterfuge from the Mad Men image consultants has driven us to accept this political farce at its face value or provided a deep doubt about the merits of ANY politician.

She anticipated the one of modern political crisis: destruction of a shared and knowable world. Specifically, this quote gives credence to this topic:

“The point is reached when the audience to which the lies are addressed is forced to disregard altogether the distinguishing line between truth and falsehood in order to be able to survive.” (Crises of the Republic 7)

When we meld image making with a disbelief there leaves only so much mental capacity to challenge. Our perception of reality, “truths”, can’t be easily parsed. We either accept an image maker’s tale or we distrust the entire world.

Yet, modern political discourse has generated another framework for survival. The tribalism of right-wing conservatism has lived within this dichotomous reality. The espousal of lies from these sources protects their observers from acknowledging shifts in modern living.  Shifting demographics and waning labor prospects have been successfully hidden by political conservatives. Also, no longer are the viewers/listeners/constituents the majority, and they most certainly are being fleeced media/politicans – the industries generated by their disregarding of truth.We see now, there are no coal jobs to bring back, robots aren’t going to resign and give you a factory job again. The pruned politician weaves this lie into every stump speech. Empowers the people who will insure their (re)election and the politician hops away in a overly polished SUV. Not a fleck of dirt.

 

 

 

Mitch McConnell is Ugly

Any philosophical answer you seek can be found in the writings of Fredriech Nietzsche. Many accuse him of a deep Antisemitism, blatant misogyny, or just being a syphilitic madman based on his writings. His panache leads to multiple varied interpretations. I interpret him as a broker for crisis – the crisis of being human and all its comorbidities. His fascination with what it is to be alive, human, and how we are to maneuver in this world provide some philosophical answers for me.

I also find solace in his writings about how power becomes a transactional event that is often built upon anti-ethical exchanges. Nietzsche blamed an early event in Western Civilization for the way power came to be in its anti-ethical state: the rise of Socrates.

Nietzsche says the following: By birth, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was plebeian. We are told, and can see in sculptures of him, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation.  (Twilight of the Idols 3)

The weight of this statement is that Socrates had no power within “just” his existence. Being born of the lower classes was traditionally enough to condemn any individual to that class for the entirety of their life. Coupled with his “imperfect” appearance he was doomed to linger as just another Grecian.

Nietzsche thought that this combination moved Socrates to respond in a way that gave him an entry way to becoming powerful: subversion. Socrates moved the goal posts for what was good and we reside in the territory – particularly in the academic and Democratic worlds – where logic and rationality are the exegesis for power. Outthink, out speak, and out-moralize all your opponents and you have “begot that Socratic idea that reason and virtue equal happiness” (Twilight of the Idols  5)

The previous paragraph can lead to a profound analysis, entire thesis and books have been written on the subject, but I am here for a more applicable purpose.

Mitch McConnell is ugly. He was born a sickly child (Polio) and is still a sickly man – he was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve due to optic neuritis. Yet, he is a man that has relished in the subversion of power. The sickly child who is now, for all intents and purposes the most powerful man in Washington. Looming over the Senate with his baritone voice and drooping face, he has provided a cynicism and Sophistry unmatched even by Paul Ryan (he deserves his own critiques as do most politicians).

This bending of the logic, and appealing to rationality to serve one’s own interest is not a new trick for politicians. Yet, for some reason Mitch does it so well.

Which brings us to the question: why does Mitch McConnell’s ugliness matter? It is in the same vein as Socrates. There is a shrewdness to Mitch that appears to mirror the Socratic approach. I have no doubt that behind closed doors, Mitch knows and declares what he is. This exchange between Socrates and a “foreigner” tells all:

This foreigner told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum — that he harbored in himself all the worst vices and appetites. And Socrates merely answered: “You know me, sir!”- Twilight of the Idols 3

The awareness carried by Socrates is carried in almost all those subvert systems. This is not a man who would light up the room with his charisma; his charms are found only in his ability to use a false-footed argument to stop real political movement that doesn’t suit his desires. If it directly benefits his agenda, he can get it done with a shameless approach.

McConnell has advocated for unrestricted flow of “dark money” into politics his entire career. He has even helped lead two Supreme Court decisions that assist in his goals: McConnell v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Amounting corporate buy-in as a free speech issue is an absurdist argument that is pique Sophistry. We can deride McConnell’s own logic on this very point by enlisting this quote: “The Constitution of this country was not a rough draft. It was not a rough draft and we should not treat it as such.” This quote alone, when corporations and lobbyists didn’t exist at the time of the Constitution’s drafting, would provide a logical blow to his push for those fields. But, the joy of Sophistry is its fluidness. He will not be held accountable. How can he? He has assisted in destroying the idea of meaning and shame in America.

Once America bottoms out, Lord knows when that will happen, there will have to be a reckoning. I doubt the hemlock would be Mitch’s way out. He will likely perish rich, powerful, and persistently ugly. Our true mission will be to prevent any historical figures from generating reverie towards any of McConnell’s action. Once he is gone, we should condemn that era as one where we lost so much. The damage that McConnell’s ugliness wracked upon our system can only be “cured” if we sentence him. Parallels between Socrates and McConnell show again in Nietzsche: he forced Athens to sentence him. “Socrates is no physician,” he said softly to himself, “here death alone is the physician. Socrates himself has only been sick a long time.” Twilight of the Idols 12

Perhaps, unlike Greece, which fell deep into the decadent Night that Nietzsche accused Socrates of exemplifying not long after Socrates’ rise, we are past our Nightfall. The Dawn, hopefully, fast approaches.