Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Privy Secrets of the Heart

I understand why John McCain supports the administration even though the Bush’s people have repeatedly treated him with contempt. A man harboring presidential ambitions can’t afford too much self-respect and can only murmur, like Wonder Warthog in an old head Comix, “Fortunately, my superpowers don’t include pride.” The spectacle of Arlen Specter defending Bush is harder to stomach. What kind of creature is so benighted as to not be inspired to a little integrity by the approach of his own death?
A Job Opening for Philistines

The assumption is that the difficult philosophers are hiding a secret in all those tortured phrases, but I’m inclined to think that the complexity of the presentation is necessary because of the simplicity of the content. That doesn’t mean that a Foucault or a Heidegger has nothing important to tell us—far from it—or that their jargon was just a marketing device, though it was certainly that too. Mystification is evidence of a lack of self-confidence as if just blurting it out would reveal that one had nothing worthwhile to say. But such doubts are inevitable. We normally judge the worth of an idea by comparing it to other ideas we already value. A radically new thought cannot be recognized at all, even or especially by the one who thinks it first.
Just as Bush is learning that it’s not enough to nail the evil part to count as an evil genius, I have to admit that I’m not a secular humanist because, though I’m certainly secular, I’m no humanist. It’s not that I think that very much of great interest is going on without human participation, but that’s a bit like admitting that phone calls wouldn’t amount to much without the switchboard. The attempt to imagine that the whole drama of reality is staged in the intimate theater of the private mind strikes me as the fundamental error of the last couple of centuries, and the materialist version of the mistake is no improvement. You can’t cram the cosmos in a cranium anymore than you shoehorn heaven and earth in a sensorium. The world is not in MAN (note the caps). Men and women are in the world, a rather elementary fact, you’d think; but people still persist in thinking that psychology is somehow the master science and that everything takes place two inches behind their right eye. Au contraire, as William Blake never said, where nature (and history) is not, man is barren.

It may be that the anthropological prejudice is changing. That the Dewey Decimal System shelves books on psychology in the same subdivision with philosophy already seems a little quaint and 19th Century. Why not lump philosophy in with mechanical engineering or taxidermy instead? What does the investigation of fundamental truths have to do with a ragged bundle of therapeutic cults and orphaned research traditions? People with Ph.D.s in psychology may do all sorts of worthwhile things; but to go on claiming that any of them are of great theoretical or strategic importance would be simply hobbyhorsical, a quirk comparable to that of the dentist in V who understood everything in terms of root canal. I also take it as a good sign that Psychology Today, which was a highly visible and influential magazine in the 60s and 70s, is utterly obscure these days—I was amazed to discover they still bother to print it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Naked Reverse

I’m not saying that observant believers are all immoral, but I do note that traditional Christianity treats people as career criminals who are barely restrained from violence and fraud by human or supernatural sanction. You have to wonder if the folks who subscribe to this understanding of the human condition aren’t generalizing from their own case. Do you really want somebody who thinks of themselves like that taking care of your children? It’s one thing to be realistic about your own failings, quite another to cast oneself as the protagonist of an endless soapbox opera of sin and repentance. Maybe you really are more loathsome than a spider. If so, speak for yourself.

For the record, talk about morality doesn’t have to be addressed to the transgressor. Secular ethics, which recognizes human fallibility and weakness but assumes that the moral actor is responsible for his or her own actions, is a very different enterprise than pop religious ethics. Instead of focusing on “how do I keep from doing wrong?”—a question that assumes that we already know what to do—it addresses the more fundamental question of “what should I do?” because in a world without oracles we are responsible for deciding that, too. While the religious identify with the role of the servant, whose virtue comes down at last to obedience, the upright unbelievers think of themselves as authorities, individuals whose moral burden is all the greater precisely because, if only by default, they actually are responsible.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Put Not Your Faith in Princes…

Isn’t necessarily a dig at princes. Like everything else, treachery and triangulation can be overdone; but politics isn’t about noble gestures. Indeed, in the context of a struggle for power, the noble gesture is just another P.R. tactic; and principled leaders sometimes have to be trimmers in order to accomplish what needs to be done. Which is why I haven’t been automatically hostile when the Congressional Democrats have spoken with exaggerated moderation about the Bush Administration. Whether or not it is a good idea to push for censure now, it probably wouldn’t have been politic in 2002, though the unwisdom if not the illegality of Republican policies was already perfectly clear. Fact was, it wasn’t clear to a frightened and passive population. And even when I think that the public is ready to hear some plain talk for a change, I remind myself that it might actual happen that somebody else’s judgment about these things is better that my own. All that said, the continuing timidity of the Democrats no longer makes strategic sense to me. Or rather, it is perfectly sensible, but only on the assumption that it is a strategy pursued for aims I do not share in a game I wish our leaders weren’t playing.

I don’t blame the politicians for attempting to put together a winning coalition, but it pains me to recognize yet again that Congress’ real constituents are not the voters but the individuals, families, and organizations that pay them off with bribes and campaign contributions. The true constitution of our state is rather similar to the charter of a corporation in which one has as many votes as shares. It doesn’t matter very often what the citizens as a whole think—and Bush and his policies are vastly unpopular—so long as there is no consensus among the real electorate, the boni homines of what may soon be referred to as the Late Republic in more ways than one. The mealy-mouthed calls for an investigation of the President’s wiretapping exploits makes no legal sense—since he admitted his crimes, there’s nothing to investigate—but the interests that count, though not necessarily happy about what’s going on, are terrified of rocking the boat. The Democrat’s craven excess of caution is aimed at winning them over, not the public. The public is very ready to listen. Indeed, that’s what scares the political classes most.