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Saturday, November 29, 2008

"The Emperor has no clothes" retort has no clothes

My college biology class was co-taught by an actual biology professor, who taught the actual science, and by a philosophy professor, who introduced us to the philosophy of science and to questions of ethics in scientific practice. On the last day of class, the philosophy professor admonished us to, "if the emperor has no clothes, say so."

Apparently, the jibe "the emperor has no clothes" refers to the supposedly brave and honorable tactic of calling a spade a spade, of speaking truth to power by pointing out what should be clear to everyone.

That's what I assumed, but then I actually read the Hans Christian Anderson story from which that retort is taken, "The Emperor's New Clothes." Apparently, a devious tailor enters town in the story and states that he has a cloth so fine that only the most noble could see it; to all others, it would be invisible. When the tailor "dresses" the Emperor in his new clothes, which of course no one can see, he is stark naked, yet neither he nor anyone else wants to admit they don't see the clothes. The Emperor goes on parade, and the spectators refuse to admit that they don't see the "clothes." Suddenly, a young kid in the crowd, who has no embarrassment about not seeing the extra fine cloth, cries out "The Emperor has no clothes!"

The story strikes me more as a parable on admitting the truth as we see it and NOT pointing out what everyone "knows" to be true. Ideally, the characters in the story should have not been so trusting of the tailor, and yet there's little reason (in view of their interactions with the tailor in the story, at least) why they should not believe him. People were afraid that they lacked the nobility of spirit to see what they thought was there. The young boy in the crowd was not afraid to admit to seeing what he didn't see. In other words, the people in the story are not to be criticized for not calling a spade a spade, but for refusing to admit they lacked the nobility of spirit necessary to see the clothes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Banning the Marriage Banns

Last night at a restaurant with some friends, the topic of conversation moved to the recent Proposition 8, which passed in California on election day and, if it stands, would forbid gay marriage within the state. Such a topic was not particularly controversial at this particular table, since we are all roughly of the opinion that banning gay marriage is a form of discrimination against gays and that discrimination against gays is wrong.

But one of my friends, an avowed Marxist-Trotskyite, advanced the further opinion that all marriage should be banned because marriages are merely--or at least ultimately--state sanctioned property relations that have their basis in the subjugation of women. He then cited what "we all know" to be the history of marriage and the vows which command the woman to agree to "love, honor and obey." He finished with an anecdote of someone he knew who "bought" a wife in Palestine/Israel (apparently that one example proves the general rule).

He stated his views so categorically and he gave such an impression of believing his views that I knew it would be difficult to talk with him. When someone's philosophy is so reductionist, they can't be talked to. So I offered only some minor objections and listened to the rest of the table opine on what they "knew" marriage to be.

Isn't marriage at least a little more complicated than as a vector for the subjugation of women? Sometimes, marriage can work to protect women in their property rights. Consider, for example, alimony requirements in cases of divorce. Of course, one may object that such requirements merely underscore the degree to which marriage is a set-piece of property relations; and also that celebrating the protections, such as they are, that women receive in marriage is merely buying into the rules behind those property relations . And one would be right. But it is not such a one-way street. Each of us lives in a world not entirely of our own making. We take the tools we have. Revision, reform, might be necessary and, where possible, desirable.

To the objection that one need not follow the property prescriptions of marriage and that marriage operates as a public affirmation of one's dedication to another in addition to (and in spite of and in contradiction of) any coercive property relations, my friend stated that doing so was akin to trying to improve slavery by being a kind master. (Those weren't his exact words, but his analogy was to slavery and involved the notion of someone trying to put a kind face on it.) Again, to this objection, I say that none of us lives in a world completely of our own making. For example, we were spending the evening at a restaurant that employs wage workers--a situation which my Trotskyite friend would heartily agree is one fraught with power relations meant to exploit the surplus value of one's labor--the mere fact that we were "nice" to our servers changes none of that.

The fact that he was as full-fledged a member of this property relation does not make him a hypocrite nor does it make him insincere. But it does illustrate that we cannot extract ourselves completely from such relations.

When it comes to marriage, as when it comes to a lot of things, there is simply a lot that we don't know.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

God's Gonna Cut You Down

President Bush, in a recent interview recapped in an article published on Yahoo news, admits that he made mistakes. The two the article mentions are his "mission accomplished" declaration shortly after the invasion or Iraq and his "bring 'em on" challenge to Iraqi insurgents. This is the first time that I'm aware of that Mr. Bush has publicly admitted mistakes. At any rate, the rest of the article comments on Mr. Bush's thoughts on his recent visit with President-elect Obama:

It was interesting to watch him go upstairs....He wanted to see where his little girls were going to sleep. Clearly, this guy is going to bring a sense of family to the White House, and I hope Laura and I did the same thing. But I believe he will, and I know his girls are on his mind and he wants to make sure that first and foremost, he is a good dad.
It is quite possible to see such comments as so much political hay. Anyone with a sense of public image--and I think Mr. Bush has a very strong sense of public image--knows that token expressions of humility and gracious acknowledgment of an opponent's virtues look good. But maybe his statements also signify a new, genuine humility.

I don't know and it's not my place 1) to decide if Mr. Bush has attained a new humility from performing his duties as president or 2) to judge Mr. Bush in that particular at any rate. Humility, to my mind the highest virtue (if properly defined), is an almost divine quality and only God (if he exists) has the prerogative to judge that quality.

As a random musing, however, I might state that it's possible that having a post that requires one to carry out any responsibility--let alone the office of the presidency--can be humbling, can create humility, a realization that one is not sufficient to oneself, nor "an island, entire unto itself." Maybe this is a positive development.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Army of Unalterable Law

Leon Fink has written a column for the Newsobserver in which he notes the awe-some feeling of joy and empowerment at the Grant Park celebration of Mr. Obama's victory:
For the first time I could remember, the power of a crowd seemed not merely unthreatening but positively intoxicating: We each felt connected to a power larger than ourselves and envisioned the world a better place than it is.

While this rally may have been much of what its supporters make it out to be--a democratic/Democratic moment of a new hope and a hope for new change--it is also an instance of a collectivist mentality that can have its malign, mobocratic effects. Mr. Obama's election seems to have reflected the hopes and aspirations of many who otherwise felt powerless. His election may yet provide substantive results to the good of the republic, but the election was also the product of a slick campaign, well-organized and heavily funded, well compromised and carefully worded. Mr. Obama's/Mr. Axelrod's strategy was simple and understandable: not to lose.

I believe my critique and words of caution ought to be well-heeded. Yet I cannot help recalling William Blake's admonition that

The questioner who sits so sly
Shall never know how to reply
And that

If the sun and moon should doubt
They'd immediately go out
There is hope, and there is realism. Hope, carried to an extreme and placed in an idol (be that idol a drug, a lover, or a politician), can descend into vicious fanaticism and self-righteous pride. Realism, carried to an extreme and placed in the idol of an immutable disbelief in the efficacy of action to improve society and to help others, can descend into a despairing cynicism and self-satisfied pride. I don't mean to go Ariostotelian on anyone, but either extreme is dangerous, and should we adhere to either too assiduously, our foot "shall slide in due time."

To throw yet another allusion and mixed metaphor into this hodgepodge, I might say that in such reflections on the Grant Park rally as provided by Mr. Fink, even a proto-cynic like myself can feel like the antagonist in George Meredith's sonnet, "Lucifer in Starlight". In that poem, Lucifer decides to take a trip away from his kingdom (the earth, the world) and when he attains the lower reaches of heaven,

....he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Institutional Constraints

Eric Posner has entered a very interesting (and in my view, correct) post at the Volokh Conspiracy about Mr. Obama's probable response to the arrogations of power to the presidency under Mr. Bush. In particular, Mr. Posner suggests that the new president will probably not openly repudiate assertions of executive privilege and executive power. He says, in part:

Veterans of the Clinton era know full well that unexpected circumstances require executive action where existing statutory authority is inadequate and adequate statutory authority is unforthcoming. Why tie Obama’s hands by repudiating the flexible standards that Bush lawyers have labored to enlarge? Obama should treasure this gift from the Bush administration rather than return it: it will come in handy when Republicans complain of executive overreaching over the next 4-8 years.
While I'm not sure I agree with Mr. Posner's normative assertion that "Obama should treasure this gift," I agree that the presidency seldom voluntarily cedes power. It might lose power (e.g., the War Powers Act, Truman at Youngstown, Mr. Clinton's impeachment), but it won't, usually, cede power. Even Thomas Jefferson, who had inveighed against the Alien and Sedition Acts, let them expire instead of asking the Congress to explicitly repeal them.

The new president will exercise a lot of power, but this exercise of power will take place within institutional constraints, pathways and incentives that will make his decisions resemble Mr. Bush's by and by.

Majority makes Might, Mandate makes Right

Much debate is going on over whether Mr. Obama's victory last Tuesday represents a "mandate" for his agenda or dissatisfaction with the Republican party's performance the last 7 and 3/4 years. The answer, probably, is a little bit of both, and the question settles on which characterization is most accurate.

Evidence of a mandate is found in Mr. Obama's garnering of about 53% of the popular vote and a large number of electoral college votes. Additionally, this map, which a friend has referred to me, suggests an even broader mandate, depending on how one interprets it. Further, circumstantial, evidence rests with the fact that Mr. Obama was quite clear about the tax plans he hopes to implement and about his health care plan. Presumably, anyone who voted for him (or against him) knew where he stood on these issues, and his victory represents approvals of his priorities.

Evidence of the "dissatisfaction with the Republicans" thesis rests in the lower than expected number of new House seats for the Democrats and the Democrats apparent failure to gain a "filibuster proof" majority in the Senate (although I suspect that even 60 Democratic seats in the Senate is only "filibuster proof" to the extent that these Senators can remain united). As for the claim that people knew who they were voting for, it is quite apparent that Mr. Obama will have much difficulty in enacting his domestic programs, and his foreign policy will probably (by my prediction) more closely resemble Mr. Bush's than one might have thought listening to Mr. Obama's campaign rhetoric.

Whether the victory is or is not a mandate, however, we must guard against the claim that rightness comes from majoritarianism: simply 53%, or 63%, or 93%, is not enough to prove that the "mandate" (if mandate it be) is the correct way to run the country.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bandwagon Effect

Notwithstanding my reservations about Mr. Obama and, especially, notwithstanding my prior declarations of my intent to vote for a third party, when I actually entered the booth on Tuesday, I cast my ballot for Messrs. Obama and Biden.


In the TV presentation of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," the Grinch, after stealing the town's presents, looks on as the townspeople celebrate the holiday without presents. They see the joy and excitement of being together in a community.

As I look at the pro-Obama celebrants, I cannot help but feeling that my fears about this new order, this new coalition are just so many gifts I have stolen from the Obama supporters and that these supporters are part of a community of interest and affection from which for some reason I am divorcing myself in the name of "realism" (or cynicism).

Mr. Obama's victory is quite exciting, quite surreal. I live in Chicago and the knowledge that the president elect lives within 10 miles or so of me is quite exciting. I had a chance to go to the rally, but had too much work to catch up on, so I didn't go. Watching the excitement on TV, however, was quite a thrill.

I have, in the last few posts, criticized some of the more exuberant Obama supporters. For some reason, even though I cannot escape the feeling of general excitement, I feel as if on the outside of things. I feel a dread that we might be approaching just a new orthodoxy, a new coalition of righteous indignation and righteous certitude that is similar in tone and style to the "compassionate conservative" hypocrisy we've had to endure the last 8 years or so.

Note, my fears are about "tone" and "style," not about substance. I believe--and I believe I am quite reasonable in believing, or at least hoping--that the substance of Mr. Obama's administration and the Democratic congress's enactments will be an improvement over the last 8 years, or even the last 16 years.

But, as is perhaps inevitable, any criticism of Mr. Obama's choices are likely to be labeled "fascist" or reactionary, no matter how well reasoned. The timbre of the criticism against Governor Palin is another side of that same coin.

Maybe it's my old age, but I have deep reservations about Mr. Obama's ability even though I am glad that he won. Something is not quite right. Events may bear me out.

I wonder whether my criticisms, while valid in their own way, are just so many paper-wrapped presents I have stolen. And now I look on while the sincere and warm-hearted supporters of Obama celebrate a victory.

UPDATE 9-7-09: I have modified the text of this post somewhat to omit some extraneous wording and "tighten" up the language.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Apotheosis of Tolerance

On Too Clever by Half, one of the commenter-"progressive" celebrants of Mr. Obama's victory has this to say about it:
Cool. I loved the screenshot with McCain's yellow-sickly grimace. Rest in peace, muh'fukkah. Now let's sit back and watch the Republican bloodletting begin.
And this, too:
The spewing of venom and fascist diarrhea will begin again as soon as he gets elected. Fortunately, it looks like he's as skillful as Bill at outmanoeuvering these sociopathic [expletive deleted] on the Right.
In fairness to Mr. Obama and most of his supporters, such bigotry is probably--at least in my anecdotal experience--a minority viewpoint. I wish to point out only that this commenter's indignation at any potential criticism of the president elect is "venom and fascist diarrhea" and that his characterization of Mr. McCain's visage as a "yellow-sickly grimace. Rest in peace...." (apparently wishing him to die) is indicative of the fact that even progressive liberals can be "haters."

"Meet the new boss,
"Same as the old boss."

Update: I don't mean to suggest that Too Clever by Half necessarily endorses the views expressed by this comment. But he doesn't disavow them.

A Class Act

If you haven't seen Mr. McCain's concession speech, it's a class act. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A "Historic" Presidential Race

So many people keep saying how this current presidential race is "historic." Now, I've studied history quite a long time, and not one textbook--none--even mentions the 2008 election.

....Same as the Old Boss

As I write, the polls are just beginning to open. There will be a new president, assuming, of course, that Mr. Bush voluntarily cedes power come January. (Even if he refuses, I suppose our civil society would be strong enough to successfully oppose this particular arrogation of power, even if it has not successfully resisted the others.) It looks as if Mr. Obama will win, although I, for one, am far from certain.

Whoever wins, it will be best to keep in mind the closing words from The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again": "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss." As I've said in a previous blog post, the presidency constrains its occupant to certain pathways, and he who wins will be constrained in his choices.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Moving the Ox to Wrath, or the Curious Toxicity of Bigotry

An aphorism about "bigotry," which has been repeated so often that it's become a cliche, asserts that bigotry hurts the bigot as much as, maybe more than, the object of bigotry. Cliche though it be, it speaks true and truly speaks what I haven't seen explored except as a cliche. My working definition of bigotry is the belief that one is superior to others generally and is above the faults of others in particular. It's a sickness that cuts straight to the heart and isolates the bigot from the fount of love that's theoretically available to all.

For some reason, this reminds me of Blake's words:

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

Tit for tat and hatred for hatred. Resentment against others makes everyone your enemy. I don't know exactly what I'm writing.