Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Getting Past the Fast Food Decoy

Nails it again
Paul Krugman identifies a fascinating and vexing problem--and that goes to the heart of what passes for "conservatism" in America and what is at the core of contemporary populism. What currently passes for conservatism in America  is a strange alliance between business-oriented voters driven by an aggressive, free-market ideology and those who suffer most from those policies, such as working-class whites. This latter group is guided primarily by fear, anxiety, and resentment that are the result of a (relative) loss of status and accelerated cultural change. Contempory consumer capitalism is one of the least conservative ideologies in the world, perhaps second only to Marxist-Leninism.  And yet so-called "values" voters have--until this past primary season--voted for candidates funded by the Koch brothers and their ideological fellow-travelers. 

When upheavals occur in the economic, political, or cultural spheres, people as a whole become spooked, like herd animals that can sense danger and are moved by a primal fear that can trigger panic. The minority of voters who voted for Donald were willing to place a hell of a big bet that he would do anything worthwhile and that he wouldn't do much greater harm than the status quo. Indeed, an astonishingly high number of Trump voters don't think he'll do a good job according to exit polls. A sense of desperation drove these decisions. 

The Republican Party, for many decades, but especially since the Goldwater insurrection, has served as not just the party of business, but also the party of fear and racial resentment. This trend has accelerated at an astonishing rate. While its ideology remained free-market fundamentalism,  its core of voters are motivated by anger, fear, and resentment. This sense of anger, fear, and resentment, apparent from so long ago, was a part of the reason that I left the Republican Party. I find anger, fear, and resentment are the worst guides to policy and conduct. Fear is intended to serve as a warning system, not as a guidance system; anger is designed to be a tool for dealing with immediate threats, not a permanent mode of perceiving the world,  nursed by repeatedly pushing its on-button. And resentment is the reaction of those who surrender to their reality by nursing grievance instead of taking action. The inferiority complex cultivated by many who want to call themselves conservative is--whatever its original justification--a crutch that has been adopted as a permanent fixture of their reality. 

All of this is not to say that middle America isn't suffering through difficult times. Growing income inequality, declining life expectancy, loss of quality schools and other government services, and the loss of quality jobs are among many problems that are all too real. Democrats know this, but they have been far too passive about these slowly unfolding disasters. However, Republican policies have been disastrous. See, for example, Sam Brownback's Kansas, or how Terry Branstad has presided over the slow, continued decline of Iowa via their pro-business, free-market ideologies that parade as conservative. Contrast these states with the relative prosperity of New York or California. In California, it is the Jesuit seminarian turned life-long Democratic politician, Jerry Brown, who has overseen a resurgence and not the movie star-turned-Republican governor, Arnold Schwartzenager. Somehow that message has been sold in those states, and they've benefited. 

So, we need to get past the fast food decoy and work with those who are alienated from the system to bring them back into the fold for the benefit of all Americans. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. 1 Human Nature by Reinhold Niebuhr

The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol 1: Human Nature
Written on the eve of the Second World War
From the 1920s to near the time of his death in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr was a leading voice among Christians in the United States, at least those within the mainline Protestant denominations. Niebuhr was a native of Missouri who became a Lutheran minister. Beginning with his time working in a parish in Detroit in the 1920s, Niebuhr experienced and strove to understand the problems and complexities of social injustice. His understanding of the world around him complimented a deep appreciation of the Christian and philosophical traditions of the West. His best-known work—and perhaps his greatest one—Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics was published in 1932. This book brought Niebuhr’s thought and outlook to the attention of many because of its mixture of social criticism, “realist” politics, and Christianity.

Niebuhr’s thought, however, was never fixed, and between his first publications at the end of the First World War to the advent of the Second, he changed a good deal.

... About midway in my ministry which extends roughly from the peace of Versailles [1919] to the peace of Munich [1938], measured in terms of Western history, I underwent a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas with which I ventured forth in 1915. I wrote a book [Does Civilization need Religion?], my first, in 1927 which ... contains almost all the theological windmills against which today I tilt my sword. These windmills must have tumbled shortly thereafter for every succeeding volume expresses a more and more explicit revolt against what is usually known as liberal culture. 
Niebuhr, Reinhold (April 26, 1939). "Ten Years That Shook My World". The Christian Century. in Baritz, Loren, ed. (1960). Sources of the American MindII. pp. 542–46.

In 1939, Niebuhr gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, an honor accorded to the foremost minds in theology and philosophy, a list that includes among his American predecessors, Josiah Royce, William James, and John Dewey. The two-volume collection of Niebuhr’s  lectures were published in 1940, and this gave Niebuhr an opportunity for a thorough reformation and account of this thinking. In 1998, the Modern Library listed The Nature and Destiny of Man as one of the top 100 non-fictions works of the 20th century. I can’t disagree (and I haven’t gotten to volume 2 yet!).

Volume 1 is entitled Human Nature. In it, Niebuhr patiently reveals and then dissects common attitudes toward human nature, ranging from Classical Greece and Rome, through modern rationalism, liberalism, Romanticism, and Marxism. Niebuhr doesn’t work with blunt words or assessments, but he calmly teases apart these different perspectives to expose their unique weaknesses. After this exposition and exposure, Niebuhr delves more deeply into the Christian tradition. Here, too, Niebuhr lays out alternatives and dispatches those he finds wanting. Reaching back to the New Testament sources and then on into the early Fathers (Irenaeus and Clement, just to name two), and on to Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther, he surveys the tradition fully. No figure is beyond scrutiny, each has his use. In the end, we get Niebuhr’s unique and persuasive take on the human condition.

Niebuhr is not a scold, but he doesn’t shy away from the problem of sin, including a good deal about the problem of original sin. Put most succinctly, Niebuhr’s Christian visions sees humankind as caught between the finitude of the body and the transcendence of the mind. This creates both pride and anxiety (Niebuhr references Kierkegaard several times in a German edition—this was, I think before Kierkegaard was published in English translation). Niebuhr finds pride to be the lynchpin of human sin, not sensuality (concupiscence, cupititas). Thus, Niebuhr concentrates less on the sins of human weakness than on the sins of human overweening. (Compare Dante’s ranking of the seven deadly sins on Mount Purgatory in his Purgatorio. Pride is at the bottom level; lust is closest to heaven. Pride, Envy, Wrath, Acedia (sloth), avarice, gluttony, lust. The first three are the nastiest. I think Dante and Niebuhr agree.) Niebuhr comes to a conclusion, as he often does, marked by paradox, uncertainty, and sometimes tragedy. Humankind must traverse a steep path.

One note of particular interest to me. Niebuhr briefly addresses the topic of self-deception, one that I find fascinating (because I’m so good at it?). Niebuhr delves deeply into the subject.

Our analysis of man’s sin of pride and self-love has consistently assumed that an element of deceit is involved in the self-glorification. This dishonesty must be regarded as concomitant, and not as the basis, of self-love. Man loves himself inordinately. Since his determinate existence does not deserve the devotion lavished upon it, it is obviously necessary to practice some deception in order to justify such excessive devotion. While deception is constantly directed against competing wills, seeking to secure their acceptance and validation of the self’s too generous opinion of itself, it primary purpose is to deceive, not others, but he self. The self must at any rate deceive itself first. It’s deception of other is partly an effort to convince itself against itself. The fact that this necessity exists is an important indication of the vestige of truth which abides with the self in all its confusion and which it must placate before it can act. The dishonesty of man is thus an interesting refutation of the doctrine of man’s total depravity. (203). . . . 
The dishonesty which is an inevitable concomitant of sin must be regarded neither as purely ignorance, nor yet as involving a conscious lie in each individual instance. The mechanism of deception is too completed to fit into the category of either pure ignorance or pure dishonesty. (204). . . . 
The deception of sin is rather a general state of confusion from which individual acts of deception arise. Yet the deception never becomes so completely a part of the self that it could be regarded as a condition of ignorance. In moments of crisis the true situation must be vividly revealed to the self, prompting it to despairing remorse or possibly to a more creation contrition. The despair of remorse is essentially the recognition of the lie involved in sin without any recognition of either the truth or the grace by which the confusion of dishonesty might be overcome. (205)
. . . .
This truth, which the self, even in its sin, never wholly obscures, is that the self, as finite and determinate, does not deserve unconditioned devotion. But through the deceptions are need they are never wholly convincing because the self is the only ego fully privy to the dishonesties by which it has hidden its own interest behind a fa├žade of general interest.
          The desperate effort to deceive others must, therefore be regarded as, on the whole, an attempt to aid the self in believing a pretention it cannot easily believe because it was itself the author of the deception. If other will only accept what the self cannot quite accept, the self as deceiver is given an ally against the self as deceived. All efforts to impress our fellowmen, our vanity, our display of power or goodness must, therefore, be regarded as revelations of the fact that sin creates the insecurity of the self by veiling its weakness with veils which may be torn aside. The self is afraid of being discovered in its nakedness behind these veils and being recognized as the author of the veiling deceptions. Thus sin compounds the insecurity of nature with a fresh insecurity of spirit. (206-207)

Compare this with the work of C. Terry Waner and the Arbinger Institute. This is a fundamental insight.

This book is not easy, although the exposition and discussion are thorough and straight forward. But it’s deep thought and challenges the reader at a personal level. Even if one is not a Christian or even a believer, just someone who wants more profound insights into the human condition, one would be hard-pressed to find a modern work so insightful and rewarding as this.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Hannah Arendt: The Conscious Pariah by Anne Heller

Product Details
"Conscious pariah" is an apt title

Of late I've been thinking a great deal about Hannah Arendt. I recall first reading her work Between Past and Future in the fall of 1974. I was fascinated and baffled. But the fascination overcame my bafflement to prompt me to go on to read all of her major works, and some lesser known works as well. I even sat in on an undergraduate class when I was in law school that was all about her work. Now, all these years later, I find it necessary to think once again about her powerful legacy. 

Heller's work is a short biography of Arendt. It does an admirable job of packing in a good deal about Arendt's life as well as providing some insight into her project. The book opens with the extremely controversial reports that she published of the Eichmann trial. In her New Yorker articles and the later book, she labeled Eichmann as "banal" and coined the term "the banality of evil." Some thought that she was in some way excusing Eichmann; she was not, and she concurred with the death penalty imposed upon him. The other great controversy in the book was her contention that Jewish councils in Eastern European ghettos aided the Nazis in organizing and executing the Holocaust. Arendt argued that a firmer, more principled resistance would have been more efficient. Her contention led some in the Jewish community to vilify her. The fact that she, too, was Jewish and that she'd worked in Zionist organizations before the war gave her no shelter. The idea that some Jewish leaders were in any way complicit in the Holocaust was too much for many. Arendt's point is one that must be considered by any person or organization that deals with an evil sovereign authority: to collaborate and thereby hope to ameliorate, or to resist and risk a higher, quicker body count. 

But while the Eichmann trial is the most famous instance in her career, I don't' believe it the most important. Her works The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Between Past and Future, On Revolution, and On Violence are all among the outstanding and exemplary works of political thought in the post-war era. Heller's biography is too light on these matters (and thus not a very helpful  consideration of her thought). Instead, Heller focuses a good deal on Arendt's relationship with Martin Heidegger, her teacher and, for a time in her youth, her lover. While not inconsequential, I'm not sure that a lot of attention to this relationship pays much in the way of dividends in coming to grips with Arendt's legacy. 

Heller's book provides a satisfactory introduction to Arendt's work, but don't be satisfied just to read this short biography. Read Arendt's works and experience a public display of a mind immersed deeply in thought and concern.