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Wall St. Wankers September 30, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

For the past 40 years, and with tentacles reaching deep in our history, we have been gradually assimilated to a moral order that is collapsing before our eyes.


That moral order understands the strong, self-sufficient, aggressively competitive individual to be a moral ideal, and the Wall St. wankers who have made such a hash of things were the prime exemplars. This moral ideal was elaborated in the myth that the captains of industry and finance earned their fortunes because of their virtues–cunning, a powerful will, and their willingness to take great risks in order to reap great rewards explained their success. People like this don’t need an economic safety net. (That economic safety nets are only needed by the weak, ineffective, or stupid is a central belief of this moral paradigm.)


That such moral exemplars might be dishonest, vicious, and greedy was often grudgingly acknowledged, but as long as they voted for the Christian party (which was always spelled with an R) and mouthed platitudes about American Exceptionalism they were granted full moral authority.


And this is moral authority that flows from the top. The powerful and wealthy were justified in holding such moral authority because power, wealth, and self-sufficiency were the measure of virtue. (Yes, I know this is circular logic, but one should never accuse conservatives of committing the sin of logic.)


Of course, these Wall St. wankers, though cunning and strong willed, were not rugged, self-sufficient individuals—they are as dependent as the rest of us on infrastructure, social systems, and the largess of government–but the myth of self-sufficiency was an invisibility cloak that kept the truth from the incurious and distracted.


Increasingly, over the past few decades, the people elected and appointed to government have been proud brethren of this moral order, pledging obeisance to private industry while loathing government, their contempt made evident during the multiple catastrophes of the Bush Administration–Enron, Katrina, global warming denial, endless tax cuts, the evisceration of public education, and the corruption in every nook and cranny of government. To this craven bunch, only power and ideology matter. Win elections by any means necessary, and then govern with the conviction that government is irrelevant or harmful to the public interest. (McCain’s selection of Governor Palin is evidence that McCain is no different.)


 The downside of this is that, in the absence of government oversight, such a system really does depend on the virtue of the leaders of finance and industry. But there is no provision for building social conditions that give rise to virtue. Leaders are insulated from the consequences of their actions by political influence, enormous salaries, and golden parachutes even when they fail. They needn’t rely on the trust of the public and the public needn’t trust them. Their authority rests solely on their ability to give the people bread and circuses or the modern equivalent—high definition TV’s and expensive vacations


But because their moral virtue is a myth, this was bound to end badly and indeed it has.


The meltdown in the the financial markets is the direct result of right-wing economic philosophy and its belief that government regulations should be eviscerated in order that the vaunted “invisible hand” of market competition will make everyone better off. We discovered in the Great Depression of the 1930’s that this was nonsense—and it took liberals to bail us out of that jam. History appears to be repeating itself.


The current crisis completely undercuts the economic philosophy of contemporary conservatism. In the recent past, when the economy has suffered from high unemployment or the flight of jobs overseas, conservatives have always argued that cutting taxes and giving more money to the rich was the only answer because the wealth would trickle down and benefit ordinary people. The evidence is overwhelming that no such trickle ever took place. But there was a certain logic to it if you bought into the moral philosophy described above—give money to the virtuous rich and they will invest it in the great American worker. And that moral “kool aid” could be counted on to divert the public eyes when the dollars trickle out instead of down. But in this current crisis, they have no similar story to tell. Even in the fantasy world of conservative ideology, tax cuts cannot solve the credit crisis brought on by the deregulation policies that are central to right wing ideology, although this doesn’t stop them from mouthing the same tired platitudes since they have nothing else to sell.


As the economic order has collapsed, the moral order that supported the fantasy has been crushed by falling debris. The financial geniuses no longer look so smart or so self-sufficient.


To be replaced by what? The collapse of an economic theory is one thing; the collapse of a moral theory may be more serious. We can recapitalize banks, refurbish public coffers and dust off old ideas like infrastructure investment to goose the economy. But a loss of public trust cannot be so easily reconstituted.


As the public’s negative response to the Bush/Paulson bailout shows, the public is in a foul mood. For moral reasons, they are opposed to using public money to bail out the reckless behavior of Wall St. speculators–if they demanded their freedom to maximise profits on the way up, they should be free to lose them when the market collapses.

That is a sensible reaction except, if the financial system freezes up, it will be ordinary Americans, most who didn’t much benefit from the good times, who will lose their jobs, their pensions, and their homes. But they don’t trust government either because government has been systematically trashed by the people put in charge of it and they don’t trust economic experts because they seemed to be asleep at the wheel, themselves mesmorized by the sparkling virtue of wankers.


So the old “Randian” moral order has been replaced with a new one—everybody sucks.


But that doesn’t help much either. The lack of trust, which is a product of the old moral order’s authoritarianism, may prevent any new moral understanding from emerging since, without trust, morality cannot gain a foothold. The most serious question we must answer is: How can we rebuild that trust?


The new century will require a new America, but it is anyone’s guess what shape that will take.


Palin: Not Ready for Prime Time Redux September 27, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

Readers of this blog know that I am no neutral observer of this presidential election. But regardless of your political orientation or party affiliation, having Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency should scare the hell out of you.

Any of my students could give a more coherent answer than Palin to these simple questions asked by Katie Couric. She can’t put two sentences together that make sense.

A candidate who nominates her to be Vice-President is simply unqualified to be President.

The Stench of Rotting Flesh September 23, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

When I unwrap the fishwrap in the morning, the stench of rotting flesh is unmistakable. The decay of conservative “moral philosophy” is well advanced.


In the wake of the collapse of credit markets and the proposed 700 billion dollar taxpayer bailout of our banking system, many pundits have proclaimed the end of the era of massive deregulation, anti-government animus, and free-market fundamentalism begun in the Reagan administration. Maybe. But given the willingness on the part of the press and public to swallow any bromide with the word “freedom” in it, I’ll believe it when I see it.


But the larger question is whether we are nearing the demise of the twisted conservative “moral philosophy” that supports deregulation and anti-government animus. The current credit crisis and the proposed bailout being debated on Capitol Hill shine a light on its corpse.


The conservative war against evil has been selective in its judgment about government. For conservatives, government is competent and has legitimate authority when it is fighting wars, throwing people in jail, lecturing the poor about their sins, or feeding public money to global corporations. It is only incompetent and excessive when it turns to helping citizens live better lives.


The reason conservatives hate policies that help ordinary people is based on the concept of moral hazard. A moral hazard is an incentive for people to behave badly (or a disincentive to behave well). Conservatives believe that the government creates moral hazards when it develops programs that help ordinary people. Welfare and unemployment insurance encourages laziness, social security encourages carelessness about retirement planning, health insurance encourages unnecessary use of health resources, abortion and birth control encourage irresponsible sex, clean needle programs encourage drug addiction, consumer protection encourages consumer carelessness and lawsuits, and on and on. The entire conservative policy agenda can be understood as an attempt to avoid moral hazard. (The idea of moral hazard is an excessively simplistic view of human motivation, but I will save that discussion for another day.)


But these worries about moral hazard apply only to the poor or the unsuccessful. Conservatives are seldom concerned about moral hazards in the path of the wealthy and the powerful. They are so virtuous they don’t need regulation.


This double standard is obvious in the credit crisis. The mortgage finance industry created investment vehicles that sliced up mortgages and combined them to be sold multiple times in ways that enabled investors to realize enormous profit while taking on very little risk. And since they were taking on very little risk, no one had an incentive to make sure the underlying mortgages were sound. Meanwhile, conservatives steadily eviscerated regulations that would have provided oversight and transparency. In other words, our finance system has been operated as a giant ponzi scheme (imagine a chain letter festooned with dollars to be removed by each recipient) where the last one in, now apparently the taxpayer, is left holding the empty envelope. There are obvious, multiple moral hazards here in every transaction to which conservatives have been utterly indifferent.


The double standard is even more apparent in the bailout scheme. The proposal on the table is for the government to buy up all the bad mortgages (from healthy as well as failed banks) so banks can start lending money again. It is no surprise that no one is considering bailing out the people who are losing their homes, even though arguably that would be a less expensive way of stabilizing housing prices and increasing the value of assets held by investors. Why is that not being considered? Oh. It would create a moral hazard for ordinary people. If you bail them out today, the next time they buy a house they will be encouraged to get another mortgage they can’t afford. And in fact conservative pundits are trying to blame the whole thing on irresponsible homeowners and their liberal supporters instead of the people who created the moral hazard.


The “moral philosophy” behind this goes something like this. Everyone is competing for scarce resources and only strong, self-sufficient, highly motivated people will be successful. Therefore, material success is the measure of virtue. (Calvinism is still alive and well) The unsuccessful lack virtue and deserve their lot because their dependence on others is the result of their lack of discipline and will. And the virtuous should have authority over the weak since a strong will and capacity for self-sufficiency are necessary in combating evil. No moral hazard here. The virtuous don’t require oversight or regulation—they are a law unto themselves. (This, by the way, is why conservative ideology leads to fascism).


This is the belief system that stinks to high heaven, exposed as a self-deceptive tissue of lies by the collapse of credit markets. The captains of the financial industry and their enablers in government, largely but not exclusively Republicans, have a lot to answer for. Will they be held responsible? We will know in a few weeks.


The economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”


I doubt that even Galbraith could have imagined how deeply this collection of ideas has settled into the American psyche.

Disturbing September 23, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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A new poll helps explain Obama’s narrow lead despite the utter collapse of Republican ideology.

Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks—many calling them “lazy,” “violent” or responsible for their own troubles….

More than a third of all white Democrats and independents—voters Obama can’t win the White House without—agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don’t have such views….Just seven in 10 people who call themselves Democrats support Obama, compared to the 85 percent of self-identified Republicans who back McCain.

It is remarkable the extent to which people willingly sacrifice their self-interest to hold onto racial attitudes.

In Praise of Claus Deleuran September 20, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Who was Claus Deleuran? A man you should all have had the privilege of watching as he was moving toward the pinnacle of his career. He was an artist, a humorist, and a sweet, kind satirist, and I was lucky enough to get his comic strips cut out and mailed to me from family in Denmark every Sunday, then to get the volumes of his compiled strips for Christmas, and finally to get to correspond with him as I was writing my own books.

                He died in 1996, at the dreadfully young age of 49, from a cerebral hemorrhage, in the middle of his life’s project: Creating a comic strip in full color of the entire history of the world with primary focus on Denmark (because he was Danish, and published his strip in the Danish tabloid newspaper Ekstrabladet), so those who don’t really have a thirst for reading history books would get not only some knowledge of history, but would get to share his bubbling enthusiasm for weird facts and sweeping connections. Talk about the Danish penchant for satire—in his folksy style he managed to poke fun at all illustrious historical characters and traditions, but in an absolutely endearing way (of course you have to have a mindset that accepts satire as a legitimate option in order to appreciate his art. Offensive? Probably, yes, to some, at times. But what satire isn’t?). Reportedly he had a past as a professional satirist, but gave it up because he “didn’t like being mean.” He viewed himself as a curious child, and the series truly reads as if it was created by an intellectually highly advanced pre-teen. He had the innocence of a Hans Christian Andersen, and the same love of telling stories, but reflecting our complex modern world.

 Every year these strips would be compiled in hardbound volumes, which soon became collector’s items. Danish comic book fans found themselves becoming knowledgeable about world history and cultural philosophy. Historians found themselves laughing at stories that, when told by themselves, would put their students to sleep. I remember him doing a “sidebar” in one of his subplots (probably while telling the story of the Vikings) to explore the origin of the red elf cap, and tracing it back to a piece of clothing from the southern Russian steppes, with hilarious drawings. So now we, the readers, were wiser, and we had fun along the way. His project was to carry his majestic oeuvre up to modern times, but being as meticulous as he was, and being sidetracked by all kinds of funny factoids, he hadn’t reached much further than the Middle Ages. He thought he had time—as we all do. But that’s where the volumes end. And tucked inside the last volume on my shelf is a letter he wrote to me, with more funny factoids and ideas—a letter that’s very precious to me, the personal thoughts of a man with an amazingly philosophical grasp on what matters in life: Expand your horizon, learn to appreciate the humor and the depth in the mundane, and enjoy yourself while you can. And then he had the ability to share it with others.

                So why am I telling you all this? Because Deleuran’s art is having a second life now: An early comic book of his, The Journey to Saturn, has been transcribed into an animated feature film which will premiere in Denmark next week, and the trailer is available on this website. With a bit of luck we’ll get to see the film locally, but thanks to the Internet you can get acquainted with a corner of the mind of Deleuran, as it has been interpreted by the animators. The story has been updated to appeal to a post-9/11 audience, and looks to me to be a tad more political than Deleuran might have wanted it to be, but he would probably have approved of its high-tech irreverent raunchiness…

Stroking Satan’s Tummy September 17, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.

This week, as our economy slides ever closer to a precipice, John McCain first stated that the economic fundamentals were strong, then suggested we form a commission, and finally he blames the Wall Street bankers.


Wall Street bankers are guilty of grossly irresponsible behavior. But what enabled their irresponsibility was a lax regulatory regime that created incentives for this kind of behavior that was, in part,  instituted through the efforts of McCain, his chief economic advisor Phil Gramm, and the fab economic guru of Republicans, Alan Greenspan.

“A decade ago McCain pushed unsuccessfully for a moratorium on all federal regulations. Asked about that by the Wall Street Journal this spring, McCain said, ‘I’m always for less regulation. But I am aware of the view that there is a need for government oversight’….McCain added that given the subprime scandal, more regulations might ultimately be appropriate but, ‘I am fundamentally a deregulator. I’d like to see a lot of the unnecessary government regulations eliminated, not just a moratorium.’The Times also points out that among McCain’s top economic advisers are ‘two outspoken advocates of free market approaches, former Senator Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan,’ the former chief of the Fed….As we noted yesterday, Gramm authored a bill in 2000 that essentially stopped the government from regulating the derivatives and other fancy investments that have fueled the current crisis.”

From the early days of Reagan’s “greed is good” that launched the gambit of market deregulation to the current corporate kleptocracy where theft is part of a business plan, John McCain has been cheerleader and enabler.

As I noted in earlier posts, (here and here) Republican politics amounts to a phony game of identity politics and a shell game that mouths platitudes against evil while stroking Beelzebub on the tummy. And McCain’s response to the credit crisis fits this politics perfectly. McCain can’t end greed—no one can. And Wall St. bankers are supposed to be greedy. It is the government’s responsibility to supply the legal constraints that prevent greed from destroying the system. But instead of devising policies that create disincentives that would deter and punish greed, McCain’s solution to our problems is to rail against cultural elites—this week’s villain is investment bankers—and actively promote the culture that makes their shenanigans possible.


The rank hypocrisy of this man knows no limit.

Poisons for Profit: The Many Uses of Melamine September 14, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

We saw this coming, didn’t we? Those of us who followed the story last year of pets dying because of tainted pet food. And the tainted toothpaste. And the tainted paint on kids’ toy beads. And the tainted cough syrup. What these stories had as a common denominator was that the poisonous product ingredients came out of China. And a few days ago The New York Times reported that a new poisoning scandal has been added to the list, and this time it has entered the realm of human food: An infant formula has caused kidney failure (and one death reported so far) to more than 400 babies  in seven Chinese provinces.


Accidents can happen, wrong ingredients can make their way into the food chain, and it’s usually because of negligence—unforgivable negligence, sometimes, but not because of ill will. But in all the cases mentioned above we’re talking about deliberate product tampering—not, as we have become ready to suspect since 9/11, as a form of terrorism, which could certainly happen, but just the old run-of-the-mill human greed: Product tampering to make the product cheaper. But why would putting poison in pet and infant food even appear to be an option? The answer is melamine. In the present case melamine was added to diluted milk in the baby formula to make the milk appear undiluted. Melamine is a non-food ingredient used in plastics and furniture production, in particular shelving. But it is high in nitrogen, so when added to a food ingredient such as gluten, it makes the product appear richer in protein (and thus more nutritious) than it actually is. Melamine is, in effect, highly toxic, and once ingested it combines with other chemicals to produce cyanuric acid that attacks the kidneys. The smaller the creature who ingests this product, the faster it develops renal failure. Babies would be at high risk. Cats and small dogs died in the U.S. in late 2006-early 2007 by the hundreds, perhaps (anecdotally) by the thousands. Bigger dogs died, too, but some were lucky and survived, usually with kidney damage.  Melamine had been added to the gluten in a variety of pet foods, manufactured by American companies—but the gluten was imported from China. Other parts of the world experienced similar problems with Chinese melamine added to other animal food products. In the 1970s Italian researchers looked into the practice of adding melamine to cattle feed, because cows are big enough to actually process small amounts of melamine, but the researchers warned against it because of the ill effects on smaller creatures, or in larger amounts. I guess Chinese manufacturers didn’t read those reports—or perhaps they read them and liked the math…


In case you think this might be a political ploy to poison and undermine the evil capitalistic West, think again—this is probably greed more than politics (rather ironic, coming from a Communist realm): The poison merchants are selling their lethal products to their own people first—case in point, the babies with kidney ailments, who have so far been found only in China (but, as the NY Times article says, watch out for those Chinese infant formula products in ethnic stores!). It’s not the first time, either—in 2004 13 babies died in China from tainted baby formula, made by the same manufacturers.


This could take us into an interesting discussion about the history of the concept of human rights, natural rights, human dignity, and personhood, and the reduction of consumers/citizens to having mere instrumental value. Endangering lives through deception (human or otherwise) or downright condemning them to death for a quick profit is not unheard of, in any culture, but that doesn’t make it any more morally acceptable. In some political traditions this is instantly recognized (although not always practiced), in others it is not. China is apparently taking heed, in the wake of the pet food scandal—the Chinese government is now conducting its own investigation into the tainted baby formula. Could this be a sign of genuine concern for the consumers? A belated, welcome recognition of fundamental human dignity? Or a concern for the image of China in the world? Here we are, with almost everything that we wear, and use in our homes and offices having originated in China, and our economy inextricably interwoven with China. This may look like just another isolated Chinese problem, but the overall international implications are staggering…. I guess I’m looking for some media outrage…the blogos seems to be waking up.

“Nothing matters”: Why it matters September 12, 2008

Posted by Michael Kuttnauer in Philosophy, Political Philosophy.

In The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942), Mersault says “Nothing, nothing mattered. . . . ”  That widely-read assertion, that much-discussed mood, is a window on the modern West.  To see why “nothing matters” is an important thesis in the study of Western culture, let’s ask what it might mean.  When “matters” is considered as a verb it has the conotation, “be important or significant.”  Thus, to say “my son (or daughter) matters” is to affirm that he or she is important, significant.  To go further, it may also mean he or she has a worth that is ultimate or intrinsic.  Sometimes, but not always, something or someone matters when its worth is seen as given by a being outside of, and greater than itself.  Absent such a being, my child would have no worth, and would, ultimately, be insignificant. 

So, a natural way to think about Mersault’s enduring remark is to regard him as believing that there isn’t anything that really has ultimate significance of that sort: No object, no person, not the world itself has an inherent objective significance, an enduring value endowed by God.  My son, David, who happens to be of great interest to me is, nonetheless, of no final positive value in this temporally and spatially limitless cosmos, henceforth without a meaning-giver.  This prospect terrified Kierkegaard: “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passion produced everything . . . if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all — what then would life be but despair?”  Kierkegaard violently rejected such a prospect: “But therefore it is not thus. . . .” 

Mersault disagrees.  Nothing matters.

Nihilism is a term that may derive from Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century, coming into broad usage with the character Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and  Sons (1862).  In Germany, the term was associated with Nietzsche’s remark, “God is dead” (The Gay Science, 1882).  Mersault, a  twentieth century French Algerian, seems to be in that nihilistic tradition: if in the modern West God does not exist or is no use to us (“I had only a little time left and did not want to waste it on God”, Mersault says) there is no one to confer meaning.  Absent God, there is no ground for final value.  Absent value, nothing matters.  Subjective and intersubjective value are not denied: “I was assailed by memories of a life . . . in which I’d found the simplest and most lasting joys: the smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie’s dresses and the way she laughed.”   Imagining the guillotine that would end his short life for the pointless murder of the Arab youth, Mersault concludes, “I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”   

But transcendent meaning is denied.  Instead, the world is absurd.   Mersault recalls that “That evening Marie came by to see me and asked if I wanted to marry her.  I said it didn’t make any difference to me. . . . Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything. . . .”

The Stranger was published in France in 1942 during the Nazi occupation.  At the same time (1930s through 1960s) that Continental Existentialism nourished the idea of the absurd, the Logical Positivists of German-speaking and Anglo-American philosophy developed the Emotive theory of ethics.  That view argued that moral judments (“Hitler is bad,” “Playing by the rules is a duty”) were meaningless.  Carnap and the Vienna Circle, and Ayer in the UK and Charles Stevenson in America held that such judments are not informative but emotive.  They assert no facts about the world and are incapable of being either true or false.  Instead, they merely express the attitude of the speaker/writer and attempt to elicit a similar attitude from the auditor/reader.  Incapable of having truth-value, they are said to be “cognitively meaningless.”  It might be said that for the Positivists value judgments didn’t matter.

Inadvertently (Positivism and Existentialism, after all, were bitterly opposed philosophies), these two philosophies produced by mid-century a similar effect: each view asserted or implied that reason was insufficient for, or marginally relevant to, any discovery of objective, ultimate value.  Value was merely emotive and, in a sense, unreal.  But an old problem was left unsolved: there must be an antidote for despair and if secular reason leads us to nihilism, and is inadequate for the uncovering of the true and final meaning of life, then religion (or some other belief system) will answer instead.  So it was that — apart from science — anti-rationalistic, or non-rationalistic thought strongly reasserted itself in the twentieth century.  The post-Enlightenment culture of the Europeans and North Americans seemed at the close of World War II to have eroded the greatest hope of humankind.  The meaning of life seemed imperilled to a number of thougtful Westerners.  Some of those people worried that a meaning would be insisted upon, and if not by science, nor philosophy, then by less rational means.  After all, something had to matter.    


“Nothing matters” in Ancient Philosophy

If the history of ideas in the West could be given a kind of dialectical cast, then the “thesis” for Ancient philosophy might have been the Homeric tradition: a theocracy grounding ultimate meaning in gods (Zeus) or at least heroes (Achilles, Agamemnon).  The antithesis was Platonism and Greek moralism generally, a humanistic individualism when compared with the Homeric gods, demigods and heroes.  Platonism answered the question “What is Value?” (a) by denying it was determined by gods and (b) with the theory of Forms: Justice and other values (i) are realities, forms, subsisting independently of  deities and this world though (ii) participating in it and being an object of knowledge for its serious thinkers.  Justice matters because it is real.  But this antithesis to the previous theocentric outlook yields to a synthesis of atomism and despair in Lucretius.  Now the world is nothing but particles in motion: hope of a transcendent realm, and a final purpose for the world and life is superstition and vain.  So, from Homer through Platonism to Lucretius we witness a philosophy of God(s), superseded by one of objective value discovered by human reason, finally nullified by a soul-less materialism.  This dialectic is the first of two deicides in Western civilization. 

“Nothing matters” in Medieval/Modern Philosophy

The Christian Middle Ages combined with the Modern period of philosophy produced the next dialectical movement and the second murder of God.  Its thesis again was theocentric: the good is the City of God.  The meaning of life is the visio Dei.  But comes then the antithesis: the tragic conflict of simple piety with Modernity.  Even the philosophy of the pious Aquinas may have hinted at this: man in his material particularity must be acknowledged.  God is ultimate still, of course; but humanity, raised up by God, and newly informed by the insights of the pagan Greeks and Romans, is higher now.  This clash is depicted in the literature and philosophy of the early modern period, as reflected in literature by Cervantes, Shakespeare and Montaigne, on the one hand, in political philosophy by Machievelli, Hobbes and in pure  philosophy by Descartes.  Finally, of course, the scientific writers undermine theocentrism, Galileo and Newton, later on Darwin for biology and Marx in social science, followed by the depth psychology of Freud.  By 1900, the end of some fifteen centuries of Western development, from Augustine to Nietzsche, we can perhaps suggest that the final synthesis was a bit like a wasteland.  The tragedy of Godless Modernity, Kierkegaard’s formulation is worth repeating, is that at the heart of Reality, “a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all. . . .” 

As in the dialectic of the Ancient period, mentioned above, European civilization had moved from theocentrism to a renaissance of individualism and humanism, followed by disintegration, collapse.  As in the ancient world, God, again, is murdered.  The stage was set for a twentieth century post-modern reaction.  And that is what I will discuss in the third part of this essay.


The philosophical significance of the last century has yet to be written and in any case is beyond my ability.  In lieu of any such, I offer, as a kind of coda to the above, a mere sketch — and slight extrapolation — of what I take to be one hopeful post-war step toward a recovery of meaning in the present environment, the philosophy of Rawlsian liberalism.   Rawls’s liberalism (A Theory of Justice, 1971; Political Liberalism, 1993; The Law of Peoples, 1999) partly resuscitated the old view: justice, although not metaphysically real as it was in Plato, not divine as in Aquinas, did matter, after all.  A political form of justice was suggested.  I suggest that it might be seen as restoring, for the present period, a humanistic meaning or value of human life.  I stress that Rawls did not claim this on his own behalf.  In modernity, in democratic pluralism, if citizens agree, in spite of their deep, perpetual and irreconcilable religious and valuative differences, to render justice (or fairness) for everyone, that could be construed as an ideal of the common good  (Rawls’s interview with the liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal, reprinted in Rawls’s Collected Papers, Harvard, 2001 is helpful on this point).  For the heirs of the Enlightenment, why might that not constitute a meaning of life?  Justice is not, of course, the only thing citizens in a pluralistic society are working toward, but it’s the one thing around which they could be thought to be unified, or in Rawls’s words, “the single thing they’re all trying to do [together].”  They are unified because they, using only impartial reason, recognize the principles (liberty, equality) of our common modern morality and political format.  It is very widely felt that freedom and opportunity are the central political values of the modern world.  And if there is anything to that, it might be a small or large part of a great meaning for the contemporary period of historical development.  Modern meaning as citizen, free and equal. 

For some it is not enough, of course.  Many of the Right- and Left-Counter-Enlightenment critiques re-surface in opposition to Rawls.  But a sense of justice holding for equal liberty and equality for all, embraced by peoples of incompatible and even hostile religious ideologies living and voting together in the democracies and pluralistic societies of the present era, may suggest one element in a meaning of life that Mersault’s now-famous remark has seemed to everyone who has read The Stranger  unable to account for.  When one considers alternative foundations for a meaning of life, political liberalism may seem not weak. 

Whatever our theories of human being consist in, and however we like to understand the great traditions of Greek and Christian philosophy and modernity and post-modernity, the question, What does my life mean? does not go away.  Camus may be right: We are the creature that cannot cease longing for ultimate value and not finding it.  “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”  Today, to many of the Euro-Americans of the West, neither Athens nor Jerusalem seem to wholly assuage the need for meaning.  And nor does science.  Historical materialism is repudiated, and post-modernism sees no possibility of a reasoned solution.  Pragmatism flourishes in America, but it denies any intrinsic worth and is actually consistent with one possible interpretation of “nothing matters.” 


The West

Edward Said in his Orientalism argued that the western world had unfairly stereotyped the Orient, to its detriment.  Much discussion followed.  A generation after Said’s book, Buruma and Margalit published Occidentalism, the reverse of Said’s thesis.  Occidentalism claims that enemies of The West have stereotyped it, again unfairly and even dangerously since these antagonists sometimes say that “The West” must be made to pay for its sins.

A noteworthy feature of Occidentalism is its having originated not, as one might suppose, in the far or middle east, but in the west itself.  It is in the nineteenth century Naturphilosophie of Schelling that the imperative to overcome the “calculating mind” of the West and to restore the “organic” social life it displaced was formulated.  That kind of view resurfaced in later Russian anti-Modernists, notably Ivan Kireyevsky (1806-56) and Dostoevsky.  Their target: rationalism and reasonableness as pernicious elements in the Western outlook.  The blame, for Kireyesvsky, is Aristotle who, in championing the mean or average, in effect defended mediocrity.  These Romantics idealized no golden mean, of course; rather the heroic.  For the Romantics, German or Russian, The West was a culture of Handler — merchants — and not Helden —  heroes. 

Reactions against a western civilization that had rejected the heroic view of life or the “spiritual” for the insipid Aristotelian mean were well underway by the twentieth century in various parts of the world; by 1940, Russia, Germany and Japan were among the most important nations for the articulation of this reactionary movement.  But what is “the West” against which so many reacted?  Mainly a hemisphere?  Paris, and westward therefrom to England, Scotland, and North America where the Enlightenement reached its fullest apotheosis?  Debauchees and atheists?  The Beatles?  Or is it “heartless” Science? 

Perhaps the West is better conceived of as less a location, and less as celebrities or products, and not quite a strategic alliance such as NATO.  The West can be conceived of instead as a set of ideas, ideas found in the history of western philosophy and culture.  From Plato and Aristotle, the West has valued logos, which implies both the rationally explicable, and that part of us that rationally explains.  When reason is set against faith, there may be a drift toward secularism, as happened after the Middle Ages in the West.  Here is the root of the idea of science.  However, as secular reason rises in the early modern period, religious faith is less powerful.  The consequence is that both a scientific culture and the milieu of disappointment grow apace, at the expense of gullibility and tranquillity.  In politics, The American and French revolutions embodied the new idea of the individual and her rights, especially the right of liberty, deployed sometimes against forms of existing authority.  In the century just passed, from the “great illusion” of 1914-18 to the recent demand that “Western Civ has got to go” (Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence), yet other Western concepts have been resurrected and contested: nationalism, the high arts, and strict observance of morals and religion.  These then are some of the main ideas that go to make up the idea of The West.  Some are of firm opinion that certain of these ideas have occasioned an erosion of the sacred and the heroic, calling perhaps for more or less severe retribution against the blasphemers, God’s latest murderers. 

The secular West has been feared and demonized for a century and more.  Militant Islam is only the most recent and conspicuous of peoples disenchanted with our way of life.  Mein Kampf  rants against aspects of the modern western world.  Japanese of the Romantic Group and the Buddhist/Hegelian school assembled in Kyoto in July, 1942 to consider “how to overcome the modern.”  (The “modern” turned out to mean “the West.”)  The Soviet Union opposed Western freedoms as did the Maoists.  Perhaps a common theme in Nazi, Imperial Japanese, and Soviet, post-Soviet Russian and Communist Chinese ideologies is the view that the ascendent western world values the wrong things: for Germany and Japan virtue lay partly in tradtion, the past; for the communist regimes, in the future society of justice.  Modernity’s decadence was undoubted in that — by valuing the pursuit of happiness –it valued mainly the present.

Into this twentieth century ferment over ideas came radical Islam.  Humiliated by a West that had left it behind in everything, the jihadiis’ ideologues for decades emphasized and exaggerated the failings of the infidel civilization.  The West, it was found, was trying to murder the Almighty itself, desecrating the sacrosanct, defiling the brave, despoiling the sacred people and their territory.  Some concluded that was a capital offense.

A rhetoric that may lead not only to suicide or homicide and even genocide began to be heard from some of the devout, as in the 20s, 30s and 40s among dedicated Nazis, Japanese Imperialists, and Russian and Chinese Communists. 

Hence, contemporary Iran.  The Los Angeles Times of October 20, 2007, just following President Ahmadinejad’s U.S. visit to Columbia University, gives this quote from the Iranian chief of security forces Esmail Ahmadi-Moghadam, explaining Iran’s crackdown on Iranians who adhered to what the newspaper’s writers, Mostaghim and Daragahi called “Western cultural ways:” “‘Thanks to enforcing law and order, we are witnessing a dramatic reduction in homicides.'”  He spoke next of apparently West-inspired Iranians who had driven motorcycles recklessly.  They too were being dealt with.  He continued the central thesis: “‘[D]espite the nagging of the West-toxified critics who want Iranians to abandon their Islamic and national values and embrace rotten western values [Iranian] wrongdoing . . . has decreased [due to harsher punishment].'”

And which are the “rotten western values” foisted on the “West-toxified” Iranian subjects by those Occidentals?  “‘In the so-called cradle of the free and open society — the U.S. and Columbia University — they asked our respectable president, Why aren’t boozing, homosexuality and debauchery allowed in [Iran]?‘”  Such, apparently, are the principal values of the West and the chief legacy of the civilization of Aeschylus, Abraham, St. Thomas and Kant, of Isaac Newton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Abraham Linclon.

To Iranian anti-West rhetoric of recent times, one might add that of Russia since the Georgia affair.  From whatever nation or people, though, a salient question remains: what should we take from this sort of thing?  First, that Occidentalism is an ideology one of whose relevant theses is that the western world kills God and undermines values, destroying any meaning for our lives.  Second, as we contemplate old and newer political and moral forms of life in the modern democracies, we should not dismiss the legacy of nihilism and “nothing matters,” nor the plain fact that some detractors of the West assocatiate that view with our civilization and call for punishment (analogous to that given their own miscreant West-inspired motorcyclists) of what they take to be a decadent culture.  The 9-11 pilots almost certainly felt that the West was a disease and that it was spreading and had to be excised from humanity’s body.  This persistent animosity toward an important civilization, grounded in part on a belief that the philosophy or ideology of the West produces its decadence, make it apparent that the salience of Mersault’s dictum endures.  And that philosophical imagination  will be useful in reconstructing a meaning that is yet possible for our own time.  For the Modern West, prime inheritor of the Enlightenment ideas and values, something must matter, after all. 


Palin On Foreign Policy–Not Ready For Prime Time September 12, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
1 comment so far

Sarah Palin’s interview on ABC last night revealed how unqualified for national office she is. Juan Cole, historian and Middle East expert has a good summary:

“The interview was full of stock phrases she was made to memorize, and which she repeated over and over again when stumped. She knows nothing about how Iran is run, or about Pakistan, or about al-Qaeda, and even is ignorant of the Bush doctrine of preemptive warfare. It was a shockingly bad performance.”

It is worth reading in its entirety.

The Wealth Effect September 11, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
1 comment so far

A new study suggests that cities that have winning sports teams (the study tracked NFL teams) enjoy a $120 increase in per capita income.

“To the authors, the finding was evidence that all the psychic benefits of winning translate into a very modest but measurable economic boost. Fired up by their team, people are working just a little harder and longer; inflated with borrowed confidence, they are charming bosses and earning raises.”

Presumably cities with losing teams suffer the reverse effect. Does this hold for baseball teams as well? Are the Padres so bad this season that they have caused a world-wide recession?