Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, December 7, 2018

And No, Not a "Conservative" either


Well, if anyone cared enough to read the whole of last post about Why I Am Not A (capital-P) "Progressive," the first thing I have to say is.... Why? Why would some one guy's "positions" be of the remotest interest? Sure, if you know me IRL, as the kids (used to) say, perhaps this kind of matters (and those are the ones I initially drafted this for, before I started getting all writer-y with it); but what could possibly be the fascination otherwise?

Here's one guess (though even here, "fascination" will be a strong word). Maybe you, too, are "not a Progressive" -- but, too, are not put off by my obvious hedging. If so, you too might also be "not a Conservative," and want to think a bit about how these things, or not-things, fit together. I will be of almost no assistance on the theoretical level, but maybe just enumerating examples will help -- ways in which positions don't match up with either "side" of this shadow-boxing match. We can extrapolate from the examples later, maybe.

I'm leaving completely out of account for the moment the "immediate context" of American politics -- our national case of the DTs. Going after the low-hanging fruit of the latest presidential tweet is impoverishing what was left of the smart liberal free press; we don't need more of that. That the current White House is a new low -- which is saying quite a lot -- is a point that I think needs no demonstration. That it has mouthed a number of points that were popular on the left within waking memory (especially in anti-globalist quarters) is less frequently mentioned, but I don't think this demonstrates anything beyond the administration's semi-incoherence and the way much of the left is a weathervane. In any case, I have been known to show up at demonstrations, sign petitions, and even strategically vote for Democrats lately -- all purely tactical decisions, which may be correct or mistaken or meaningless; but for the purposes of this post, I'm leaving the Narcissist-in-Chief off to one side. I hope he will soon be relegated there for everybody. (If and when that happens, we will see more clearly how much of a distraction from the real issues DT has been -- and how important this distraction will turn out to have been.) If the best the Left had to offer was "We're not D.T.," we would be in deep, deep trouble. Of course, we are in deep trouble anyway, but....

This is (a little) more brief than the last post, partly because that was a low bar, and partly because my critiques of the Left are internal critiques; these are made from without. I was raised in a conservative household in a conservative state (Utah), so I cannot take seriously the demonization of ordinary-folks conservatism (even the much-maligned "DT Supporter", though I was so proud of my home state for the lost-cause candidacy of Evan McMullin), and I still have a fondness for red-white-&-blue bunting, and small towns with lots of front porches; but I left the Republican Party behind even longer ago than I left the Democrats. If anything, I am more "small-c conservative" (not "further right") than most of the GOP; but I'm definitely "further left" (not "more liberal") than nearly every Democrat I know.

OK, then. If I'm not a Progressive, why not, the other thing, whatever that is? (Again, even more than last post, these positions here are not presented as full-blown arguments. They are, at most, indices. Or maybe symptoms. Note, too, the frequent recurrence of variations on the phrase "....but that is a different issue.")

1. I am an artist -- mostly a musician, but I do graphic art and, if you haven't noticed, a lot of writing too -- and sometimes art offends the shit out of people, with bad taste, irreverence, whatever. Oh well. I'm not saying the artist shouldn't care about codes, mores, standards, consequences, norms, canons, and so on; nor that being offended is somehow morally salutary or snaps a person out of their little cozy close-mindedness. I too have been turned off, offended, and repulsed by someone's "art." I'm just saying I would prefer that the law should pretty much stay the Hell out of this.

2. I have yet to see an account of social conflict that has persuaded me that the lion's share doesn't come down to class. (The closest has been Stan Goff, who argues that gender is even more basic, and sometimes he almost tips me over to his side.) This all by itself makes me a Marxist, in some senses. Though of course, aristocrats also know it comes down to class.

3. Speaking of Marx: Late-capitalist economics is clearly a pyramid scheme. I believe that human beings are free, and therefore we can decide to behave better; that we are not fated to be determined by the "laws" of the market. (This doesn't mean I think markets cannot be treated as an object of a kind of science).

4. I am a localist; I believe in community -- its value, its indispensibility, for the good life. You might think this makes me a likely conservative -- and in small-c terms, this is close enough to true; but by the same token, I am therefore in a certain sense not an "individualist," in the sense of the individual posited (or constructed) by Lockeanism, and thus the whole modern small-"l" liberal idea of modern society or can-do, go-it-alone pull-yrself-up-by-yr-bootstraps nonsense which underlies a certain sort of conservative critique of social safety nets. (I am not sure I want my safety nets to be administered by the state, but that's a separate question.)

5. I am deeply suspicious of profit motives, and the venality of power. As far as I am concerned, beyond a certain threshold, The Bigger, The Worse.

6. I am persuaded by the critiques that show how comfort here is too often underwritten by misery elsewhere; and I think that we are under spiritual obligation to change this. How we live with (engaging or evading) this responsibility isn't simple, but there is a difference between engagement and evasion.

7. Despite my remarks about Identity Politics, I am deeply sympathetic to critiques of racism on large scales and small, and I am disgusted by it whether it is overt or covert. I am likewise moved by complaints of women who have to deal with guys being jerks, and systemic arrangements that enable and abet this. And likewise by the obvious ick-recoil that gays and lesbians had to deal with in my youth. I supported marriage equality in civil terms because I believe (on more or less libertarian grounds) that mutually-consenting people can do what they want with each other. (Should they? is another question, but it isn't one that I want decided by legislation.) This is not the same as endorsing religious marriages as a sacrament for same-sex couples; if you believe in sacraments at all, you have a whole different set of considerations to include in such a query. (I.e., that's another other question.)

I do not idolize "Diversity" for its own sake, nor Equality either, but in my encounters with other people individually and other groups, I genuinely try to lead with my curiosity and openness and not with defensiveness. There is a place for defense; it's not up in front. In short, while I may have all sorts of criticisms about specific behaviors of minorities and marginalized groups, about the tactics of activism within / on behalf of those groups, and indeed about the theoretical ramifications of thinking in terms of "marginalized groups" as the go-to first and last theoretical stop -- reservations about all sorts of aspects of the typical Social Justice itinerary and its theoretical underpinnings -- I do want to ask myself hard questions, catch myself at residual prejudices, and cultivate empathy for people who have a different and difficult row to hoe. And those empathizing efforts make me want to cultivate kindness -- which is just, obviously, lacking when you listen to the defensive postures (and derisive snorts) on the right.

I am quite sure that "kindness" sounds to others, at times, either like a laughably/woefully inadequate response, or just the wrong word entirely for how I articulate my stances. That's a different matter; but I take it seriously. The biggest example these days seems to be so-called gender-nonconformity. Is it really necessary to underscore that people no matter how they comport themselves (i.e., how they "present") should be treated with dignity? It is true that not agreeing -- however tentatively -- with someone may itself be construed as an affront to their dignity; can, indeed, be characterized as questioning their right to exist. That is, however, no reason to throw the game and just forget about kindness and respect. If my stance is not accepted as respectful, I may not be able to control this; but I'm certainly not going to act disrespectfully by my lights.

8. I loathe trolls. (Lowest-grade Dada. Ugh.) Trolling I define (leaving aside, for now, the problematic question of actual propagandists or agents provocateurs) as willfully provoking the emotions of another for no reason other than to provoke; what is known as "fucking with people." (There can be such provocation that does have other, or further, rationale, and here the line can blur, but it does not vanish.) The troll is akin to the bullshitter -- they do not care about the correctness of their position; being right, or persuading someone, is not the point. But while the bullshitter is invested in seeming as if they are saying "something", and producing an effect of confusion or a vague impression that the bullshitter has said Something Important, the troll is invested in getting a rise out of the other side. This makes trolling (and this is not news) very much like bullying, and it brings out an icy fire of cold wrath in me. My severest judgment is reserved for cruelty and humiliation. I know humiliation from the other side; and I also know the temptation to it.

I see far more trolling on the "right" than on the "left." Since the troll qua troll does not care about the issue, it's an interesting question why one side of the binary attracts them more, and I think a prima facie case can be made for the argument that the Left, bleeding-heart that is is, makes itself an easy target. But n.b., since the troll doesn't care about the issue (the troll simply enjoys the spectacle of anti-racist righteous indignation; they are not making a principled case for the right to wear blackface), the troll can be accidentally associated with a an argument that has some abstract plausibility. Also, certain moves in serious argument (or in serious art -- see (1) above) can look like trolling, because sometimes an emotional effect -- even offense -- can be part of a set of argumentative (or artistic) moves. They cannot be the point of the argument, however. (The case of art can be interestingly different, but -- though this is a longer argument -- even here offense as the primary end undermines the integrity of art qua art, I think.)

9. I don't have a scientific degree, but I value the (loosely so-called) scientific method, and I am a scientific optimist in the sense that I think science is good. Technology... well, we can have that conversation. And the one about how to tell the difference or separate them. Anyway, what this means is that I don't foreclose (though I may be dubious about) the possibility of real solutions coming out of research; and I don't believe in "forbidden questions." (This can also set me apart from the left, of course, depending on which question we're talking about.)

10. I am, as mentioned, ambivalent about the military. I'm just dispositionally not a hawk, and lots on the right are -- unless they are isolationist, which I'm not either.

11. I'm genuinely unsure what to do about the oncoming ecological ruin that we have wrought, but I'm absolutely sure that the rapaciousness of industry and capital own the lion's share of the blame for the damage we could have seen (and indeed did see) coming. There may be plenty more blame to go around as well, but in this at least, we could have used for the last century some actual conservatism -- with, you know, some real conservation in it. And yes, desperate times make for desperate measures, and at this point I'd be happy to give the EPA carte blanche within certain to-be-determined (but broad) parameters.

12. I started out my explanation of Not Being a Progressive with an account of how and why I value existing goods over possible but imaginary ones; and I mentioned there that this can make me look like an apologist for the status quo. I'm not. And far less am I merely in the grip of nostalgia. I am religious, yes; I am a "traditionalist", yes (tradition refers to something real); but I'm neither a triumphalist nor a fundamentalist, for the very good reason that they are not traditional (that "real" that tradition is about is not "literal", it is more than literal -- though if pressed, I will take the humble submission of "literal" over the arrogant subtlety of "you know, spiritual" any day). I love culture, but culture, like everything human -- like everything created -- is temporary and passing. I understand nostalgia, and I do not think it is either stupid or inevitably "reactionary;" but I understand that it is nostalgia. As Ivan Illich said when facing similar charges of crypto-conservativism, "I'm not endorsing the past. It's past; it's gone. Even less am I endorsing the present." One should be able to speak well of the past without being accused of "wanting to turn the clock back," or some such foolishness. I can name, and mourn, what is being lost, try to salvage what can be salvaged, or even "stand athwart history yelling 'Stop!'", without trying to use the force of the state (as if there was anything "conservative" about that) to enforce a delusion.

13. I am not eager for, but I do expect, the Revolution. Probably too late.

The proper attitude to take towards that, however, is another post.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Why I am not a "Progressive"


Last post but one, I offered a kind of apologia for a weaselly apolitical politics, of a sort. Partly because it could have been mis-read as a defense of political indifference, I concluded with a promise to mention "some things to which I am not indifferent." The interest of such a list of positions is certainly limited, but my hope is to indicate some of my pre-existing biases or instincts which are supposedly more-or-less correlated with "Progressive" and "Conservative" labels in the current American political scene, and which (cumulatively) serve to dis-align me with either such wing. Why such correlations even happen is partly understandable, and partly at least explicable; but it is also partly opaque. After all, why should a general hawkish military stance be aligned with lip-service to balanced budgets ("fiscal responsibility"), an enthusiasm for charter schools, or a desire to repeal Roe v. Wade? Why should a high degree of comfort with proposals of bureaucratic "oversight" go along with championing gay marriage, or (supposed) anti-gerrymandering? I understand how these things have made common cause from time to time; what I don't grasp is why they are held to be deeply, philosophically aligned. I still don't have a full-blown theory of political coherence, descriptive or prescriptive. About five years ago, Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex offered a sketch, on a roughly sociological level, of such a rationale, and I think it's fairly good as such accounts go; it's purely descriptive but you gotta start somewhere. I'm not going to argue for or against Alexander's theory here, or offer an alternative, but I commend it as the beginning of a conversation. What I am going to do, in this post and the next, is toss out some positions -- some of them are close to what you'd call "policy" positions, others are much higher-altitude (or foundational, depending on your point of view). All they really have in common is that they are mine. These two posts are not an attempt at a coherent platform. They are just a sort of pile of pieces of an incomplete mosaic of some of my socio-political concerns. To show that the mosaic is even completable would be a further project, worthwhile (for me, anyway) but of far larger ambition. The "pieces" here are just picked up and described one by one. They are indices (not causes) of whatever it is that makes me feel alienated from, not at home with, and (sometimes) unable to talk with, those who call themselves Progressives (this post), or (next post) Conservatives. We'll see if anyone is still reading by then.

Well then: Why am I not a Progressive?

First off, what is it I'm claiming Not to be? Well, it's kinda vague, actually, since there's no one place where you go to see what "The" Progressive Platform is, but I have in mind here a cloud of attitudes, styles, and default positions, which quite possibly no single self-described Progressive actually maintains, but all of which I encounter routinely here in Blue-Bubble Seattle. Some of these positions are actually further left than mainstream Progressivism, but they're all more or less in the left-liberal or left-radical zeitgeist. If anyone wants to argue that I've got this wrong, I'm interested.

The following numbered points are not intended as single-sentence theses with some subsidiary commentary. Each one is, rather, a little cluster of concerns that are related (and sometimes also related among each other) but don't always reduce to a neat summary. The fact that I have called them "biases" above does not mean they are unconsidered, or held merely out of stubbornness or inertia. I've thought a lot, and continue to think, about each of them. But it will be obvious that no item below is presented here as a full-blown argument. Each is, at most, a statement of position from which an argument would be mounted, or for which an argument is called. Usually (and with some of the items more than others) I have included some of the pieces of what such an argument would be, and any one of them could be expanded into a full post, or more than one.

1: I value existing goods -- things and situations that are real, concrete, and working for people, even if imperfect; and so I always tend to ask: what are the costs to the imagined reform / innovation / shiny new thing you are proposing? Because the imaginary new thing -- no matter how "necessary" it is by someone's lights -- is not going to be as good, in some ways for sure and maybe in all ways, as the thing we actually have that is good.

This is essentially what is at play in people's concerns over (say) "gentrification" of a beloved old neighborhood; or in the "development" of a piece of "empty" land; or the replacement of one set of practices with another. I think liberals and further-left folk alike are often pretty cavalier, if not in outright denial, of those costs, though of course they are also ready to marshal a long list of such costs when it suits them. ("Gentrification" is sometimes one such.) Sometimes those costs are worth it; sometimes they are revealed to have been worth it in retrospect. It is rarely absolutely clear.

These questions arise in all sorts of situations. Should we build a mass-transit system? Seattle decided No, back in the 1960s, and arguably is now paying the price. The San Francisco Bay area decided Yes, and has a different set of problems. Should we ban salmon fishing to save Orca whales (another current question in my corner of the US) -- a question that has profound and immediate ramifications for the viability of native tribal culture? Should lobster fishing, or coal mining, or logging be banned? I don't say there can be no right answer about this, given the competing costs; I'm saying costs are real in any event.

In worrying about what gets lost, I am aware that this can look like status-quo'ism, or "privilege", from the outside. I take seriously the possibility that I could be missing something relevant -- this is just what is entailed by humility -- and that one reason I could be missing it is a degree of comfort. But that possibility is not the end of the conversation, and I do not like the frequent attempt to weaponize it.

This love of existing goods means that I am less ready to jump aboard with ideas that sound great, or even ideal. I believe in the inevitability of many, many unforeseen consequences of the best-laid-plans. Therefore, while I expect the Revolution, and not with dread, neither am I eager for it.

2. Related to the foregoing: I think Progressivism can be extremely casual about discarding cultural forms, in the name of (ostensible) justice or equity. I am an ecological conservationist (at least), and my ecological concerns go hand in hand with my cultural ones.

A good example of this is gender: after a lot of (still ongoing) reading, I just do not believe that most of the arguments against the so-called "gender binary" hold water (in fact, I often don't think they are even intended to hold water); but more than this, I think it is extremely perilous to try to eject a feature of cultural discourse -- the cultural ecology, if you will -- that has structured our experience since there was culture at all; and arguably since before we attained consciousness. A similar argument may be made (more limited in historical scope) about "marriage equality." The denial of the American left (liberal and radical), a few years ago, that this involved a "redefinition of marriage" was astounding to me. That's exactly what it was, and if people cannot see it, or do not have the courage to admit it, this merely bespeaks how gravely marooned we are from our own past, or how in thrall we are to rhetorical tactics that are indifferent to truth. Say that marriage has been redefined before; say that the past is well lost, if you like; but don't deny that it is real, and really different.

Now, on the off-chance that it might surprise you (having just read the above paragraph) to learn that I voted for same-sex legal marriages in the state of Washington, I want to respectfully submit that it is a mistake to extrapolate from high-altitude considerations to on-the-ground tactics -- or vice-versa. Alternatively, you may take it as a case study in how weaselly or vexing or "hard-to-pin-down" my "politics" is. Again, though, I swear this is not because I'm just that subtle and interesting -- or that I delight in being perverse. It's that the link between "theory" and "practice" is itself not straightforward.

The two foregoing examples (the "gender binary" and gay marriage) might imply that this critique about being casual with cultural forms has mainly to do with sex and gender. This is not the case; these examples (I have written somewhat about gender, at least indirectly, earlier this year) just happen to get so much attention that they are hard to ignore. (The reasons for this attention are doubtless interesting in their own right.) In fact, this critique of being cavalier about received cultural forms pertains (in my opinion) across all kinds of categories: art; commerce; property; class; etc. The short version of this is: Progressivism, probably as a function of its apparent prizing of egalitarianism above all, strikes me as being fundamentally (though often unconsciously) opposed to hierarchy. I am not so opposed. In fact I think this opposition is incoherent and impossible. (If I was developing arguments, here would be the place to venture into the very problematic distinction sometimes offered on the right between equality "of opportunity" and "of outcome," a distinction I think is too rough-and-ready to be of much help after the opening moves.)

3. Among these cultural forms is, above all, religion. I see a crucial place, an irreducible, central and non-negotiable place, for religion in human affairs, which when vacated leaves something like a cross between an amputee's stump and a black hole. This place is not the individual place of "worshiping according to one's conscience," though that is an acceptable if limping liberal modern shorthand if no other language is at hand. Because of this, I am fundamentally at odds with modernity, and therefore with progressivism which is in some sense its logical conclusion. I have often noticed that when you scratch a progressive you will find a fundamentalist -- usually an anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist. Even my good irreligious friends who acknowledge the over-the-top disdain and bile in the (no longer so "new") New Atheists ("Oh sure, Dawkins and Dennett are really abrasive about this," or even just "People don't need to be so fucking arrogant") do not really seem to me to grasp what I mean when I talk about faith. Doubtless most of the responsibility for this conversational impasse lies with me, if it is a question of responsibility.

I am a believer in -- not a fetishizer of -- tradition. Things that have been around for multiple generations probably are embedded in a cultural ecosystem in ways that escape immediate notice, especially when the ones who are doing (or not doing) the noticing are enamored of the latest loud fashion. This doesn't mean that traditions should enjoy some immune-to-critique status; but I think it is very short-sighted to be cavalier about them. For all this embeddedness, traditions are also, in a crucial sense, fragile. They can be broken in a single generation, and once they are gone, they are gone -- maybe rebootable (and this is not nothing), but no longer organically connected.

There's a practical, policy-impacting aspect to this orientation of mine: very often, in a contest between "religious values" and other interests, I'm going to side with the former. Of course such legal "victories" as these contests afford are Pyrrhic ("... according to one's conscience"), or, at best, temporary stays against defeat. But they may count for the individual.

4. For the better part of a decade I have found the excesses of "Identity Politics" frustrating, and increasingly impossible to engage -- hence, increasingly dangerous. (And please, see above (1) under remarks on "privilege".) I am deeply turned off by rebellion for its own sake, and I see this a lot -- under the just-enough excuse of righteous indignation. It's like going after low-hanging fruit by burning down the orchard -- the stupidest of both worlds. That these excesses are often turned against fellow, but not-woke-enough leftists, increasingly raises concerns that the Left is devouring itself; but they are also (of course) aimed against conservatives of whatever stripe, who are really looked upon as an enemy. We need to think about this. I think there is room for the idea of enmity, but this is the wrong place to look for it. Snark, tone-deafness, self-righteousness, disdain, and contempt are all at play in such characterizations, and it ought not take me pointing it out to see that they are wrong.

5. Here's an opportunity for some to exercise, or exorcise, your choice, some of that aforementioned self-righteousness. I do not condone the availability of abortion on demand, and I see the left as fairly incoherent on this matter. I am not exactly "pro-Life" (though I have used this as a self-description, it's really a placeholder, sort of like "worshipping according to one's conscience" (see above under (3)) -- in other words, not very good). As I read the history of this question, the notion of "Life" as it is deployed here is of very recent mint, and I am pretty persuaded by the genealogy Ivan Illich has traced for it; it is a kind of secular feel-good word, and possibly a kind of idol. In any case, my position here stems not from a high-level desire to honor Life, but from garden-variety a distaste for killing people. If there is any high-falutin' philosophical principle at work here it is a commitment to the irreducibility of personhood, a stance I found in kindergarten well summarized by Horton the elephant: A person's a person, no matter how small. There are, however, other small things besides small persons. Conveniently, Stan Goff has written recently on this, noting that in Christian and specifically Roman Catholic theology,
more than a thousand years after the Pentecost, the modern “fetus” had not yet been invented. The unborn were seen in two phases: pre-ensoulment and post-ensoulment. Ensoulment was signaled by the quickening, the sensation of the baby’s movement in the womb, something that happens as early as fifteen weeks into a pregnancy, and as late as twenty weeks. Abortion was not considered murder until after ensoulment, or the quickening.
That at some point abortion is the killing of a person I consider not up for debate -- at least, I really cannot imagine what would make me entertain such a debate. But the insistence that this point was the moment of conception is a very late development (see Goff's post for some orienting landmarks here), and I think it bears questioning whether the whole rationale for it is the "progress of science."

I am not a Roman Catholic and I do not take my thinking orders from the Magisterium; but I would understand if anyone suspected this. I am opposed to the death penalty, opposed to torture, deeply ambivalent about the "permissability" of suicide under any circumstances. (My stance on this pre-dates my brother's suicide, but of course there are all sorts of debates to be had on this question -- because, among other reasons, suicide is not just one thing.) I am undecided about the coherence of just-war theory, but in any case support only defensive -- or at most extremely surgical offensive, guerrilla-style -- strikes. My belief regarding combat (not just armed combat but yes, especially this) is that it ought to be like T'ai chi ch'üan -- you give your opponent the dance they need to trip themselves up and lay themselves flat. Sometimes that requires making contact, sometimes even making contact first, but you know the difference between doing this judiciously and doing it viciously. In my own life, while I may go back to being vegetarian, at present I eat because animals are killed; and even were I to go back to vegetarianism, given our economic and ecological realities, there is no end of the violence upon which I am indirectly implicated. Nonetheless, I cannot square my stance on violence with abortion on demand. I grant that in this fallen world sometimes the least-bad way forward -- at least by our lights -- is still violent. I would settle for the Clintonian line of abortion being "cheap, legal, and rare," but show me a Progressive who really means this (that's a serious request, I may have overlooked someone), and backs policy to realize the rare part. Because of tactical concerns (see (1) on "privilege") I tend to let the pro-life women do the talking on this one (a lot of words got cut out of this entry on the list before I posted), but the tactical question has not very much to do with the issue itself. I do not dispute that abortion has been historically, and especially recently, bound up with a hell of a lot of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny, because it obviously has. I'm also aware that this stance ought to commit me to other positions about women's health, childcare, and so on, and I'm down for those. And, because this issue is such dry tinder, I will add that not only do I not regard abortion as the same thing as "murder" (which in this case is a legal term, not a moral one). I know and love people who have had abortions or been party to them. I am deeply opposed to and repulsed by the shaming of anyone who has had an abortion, as I would be opposed to shaming military veterans (or, for that matter, convicted murderers.) This does not mean I am on board with recent name-it-claim-it-wear-it-on-a-T-shirt fashion; but people should be able to tell the truth without being derided.

6. Speaking of combat: I think Progressivism is a bit casual and blasé about Islamic terrorism, starting with a squirmy discomfort with calling it "Islamic terrorism," which needless to say is not a synonym for Islam. I'm not saying the Right, in whichever stance, has got this right either, but Progressives seem to me to lack much theoretical ground to stand on. Part of the reason is that the Left is just a little bit incapacitated when thinking about religion (see above under (3)), so it tries to change the subject to something else (this is happening right now in the minds of some readers of these very words). I don't think those other subjects are irrelevant. But leaving religion out (and for conflicting reasons at that) reveals a kind of bankruptcy.

7. On a related note, Progressives are also, in my experience, at best conflicted when it comes to the military. This is a conflictedness I happen to share, so I don't claim to have worked out a consistent stance here (let alone a "workable" one), but I think most Progressives shove this down into the memory hole with a pretense that they'll "deal with that later".

8. I think the far Left (Marxist and Anarchist alike) is often far too casual about the actual processes of production -- about what is involved in creating prosperity and thriving. I don't have a full-fledged account of this either, and I certainly share the critique of capitalist rapaciousness, but I'm unpersuaded by the positive accounts of economic growth or technological innovation offered on the further left, which suffer from a kind of reductionism that is just inevitable when you think culture is all a symptom of, well, blind material forces. On the nearer-left, among most "Progressives" who reject anarchism or Marxism, you find the opposite problem -- an under-theorizing of business as usual, a satisfaction with band-aids or an unreasonable hope in oversight and intervention, which all amount to kicking-the-can.

9. I am deeply turned off by collectivist superstructures. I'm enough of an individualist (despite what I said above about religion) to chafe at being told how to think -- or to act. When faced by need, I do not want my help (which I will sometimes willingly give) to be coerced. This means I'm less friendly to the idea of tax-funded and bureaucratically-managed social services than many progressives. I am, moreover, very skeptical of human over-reach, which has occasioned many of our current woes -- especially in other parts of the world where our best intentions led us to stage numerous interventions that fucked things up. (The establishment of obligatory charity and manifest-destiny noblesse oblige has been a moral catastrophe. See, on this point, Ivan Illich, who argues that such doing-good-in-the-third-world makes things worse pretty much every time, and more recently Anand Giridharadas who suggests that it's actually pretty self-serving.)

10. I believe in the relevance of Dunbar's number. I'm a localist. Which means I don't buy the tenability of large-scale "solutions". I also (for similar reasons) believe that certain utopian promises ("Universal Health Care") are likely to have promised way too much; others ("Universal Basic Income" -- though it seems better than many alternatives) are likely to create as many problems as they solve. That doesn't mean we can't dream big -- but we are mortal, and we need to 'fess up to this.

11. I find groupthink distasteful, and overweening confidence abetted by groupthink downright creepy. I don't always succeed, but I try hard to eschew the usual vocabulary for social and political questions; too often it serves as a substitute for thought. It conceals prejudices -- or wears them on its sleeve (which is worse). And, like all default settings, it is subject to parody; and when you live in a parodic age, it is best not to make oneself a target. (The young people I work with sense this parodic potential instinctively. They dutifully attend to the lessons in microaggression or the gender-spectrum that are placed before them by well-meaning adults who are trying to raise them to be on the right side of history; but in their off-hours, which I get to see as an after-school "supervisor," they veer towards parody, employing terms like "racist" or "oppressive" or "stereotype" or "identifies as ___" in as over-the-top a manner as they can. They also instinctively sense, and avoid, the border between this parody and mean-spiritedness.)

When the right parodies the left, when (say) the language of wokeness gets turned for comedic effect into a joke, it shows that the users of the language have not thought about the weak points. (Sometimes. Other times, it's just a bad joke.) Just because the take-down was of a straw man, does not mean you don't have a lot of straw yourself. That straw is the padding provided by shared assumptions, by having recourse to terms accepted by the like-minded; if your reaction to having those terms disregarded is simply "that's not funny," you may be right, but that rightness may still be getting in your way. I am genuinely perplexed about politics, in a way that (to judge by their "it's-just-obvious" tone) many Progressives are not. I am often persuaded by Nietzschean or Platonic critiques of democracy. But you don't have to be a name-dropping philosopher to be kind of sickened by the in- and out-grouping social dynamics of political tribalism, and to want to listen to the other side(s).

12. I am largely convinced that the story told by Progressivism about history is incoherent and in many ways in bad faith. To put things very baldly: Progressivism tells a Whig version of history -- what has happened was bound to happen, because Progress! -- which nevertheless casts itself as embattled and heroically striving against the Powers That Be. Each of these aspects of the tale seems to me extremely unlikely to be true without exception; together, they almost cancel each other out. It is clear to me that the "direction" called "progress" is often accidental, and not at all always progress towards what I call Good. On the other hand, for the last hundred and fifty or so years (at least in the so-called First World), "Progressivism" has in fact, as I read the record, been ascendant, and gradually consolidating its position, in a feedback loop between academia, government, media/entertainment, industry, and the military, with a little inter-caste warfare keeping things interesting.

That is not an argument, only the outline of an intuition (call it a prejudice if you like, I won't argue.) It would take a long excursus to spell out the whole critique, which would be complicated, and possibly (given the state of my thinking at present) involve contradictions or aporiae. That's politics for you.

*

OK, so there you have it, a sketch of where I see my significant divergences from Progressivism, with some addenda about other left-liberal and outright genuine Left positions thrown in for good measure.

These are critiques from within. I am not a capital-P Progressive, but if we are still using the Left-Right distinction (I don't see why we have to, but that's another argument), I am a man of the Left (OK, sure, I'm a "centrist," but a radical one). And, since I am not the smartest person on the Left, of course there are many other folks, who may well call themselves progressives, who share some variety of these criticisms. The worries about identity politics are becoming widespread; the critique of "callout culture" and the righteous indignation of various movements is gathering force. I know left-wingers who are pro-life, who are for genuinely responsible gun ownership, who are "fiscal conservatives," and so on.

So it's only fair to give some counter-point: Why am I not, then, that other thing, whatever it is, on the right?

Well... if you are still with me, stay tuned.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

What happened


I had been going to post two long lists of points on which I diverge from political "progressives" or "conservatives," but before I do that, I realized that today brings us the first Sunday of Advent, and tonight brings the first night of Hanukkah. This coinciding* of the youngest of the great Jewish festivals with the beginning of the Christian year made me consider again the relationship between the faiths.

Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the second Temple after its desecration by the Seleucids. It was the last great miracle story (though as I noted earlier, the story of the miraculous oil seems to first enter the documented tradition in the Talmud; it does not figure in the text of I or II Macabees) that would have been the heritage of the various sects of Judaism in the era of Jesus. This is important because Christianity and rabbinical Judaism are not really in the relation of daughter and mother, but rather of sister and sister. They are both descendants of the Temple cult and the ferment of Judaism in late antiquity which Josephus, for instance, describes as a congeries of competing groups (Zealots, Essenes, Sadducces, Pharisees, not to mention the Samaritans). The decisive parting of ways between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism can be traced to the crisis that befell the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, in 70 A.D. Until that catastrophe, Christians could reasonably be understood as a minority Jewish sect among others -- a sect who believed, and proclaimed across the ethnic divide, that the Anointed One had come and that this was of universal significance. Afterwards, their belief that the Messiah had come made them respond in a fundamentally different way to the loss of the cultic site than did the compilers of the Mishna. The latter are often interpreted as conservatives who were doing everything they could to salvage the practicability of tradition in a new, decentered context, while Christians blithely went out into the Empire and beyond freed from the shackles of a moribund legalism. But Margaret Barker has argued (suggestively and persuasively, to my mind) that Christianity was in a certain sense "more traditional" than its sister, and at least as closely linked to the Temple; in the liturgy, theology, and mysticism of the early church, Barker has traced the cosmological and ascetic grammar of Jerusalem Temple ritual. I have written almost nothing here on Barker (yet...) but she is one of a divergent handful of recent scholars whose work recuperates the importance of unwritten traditions in this seemingly most familiar of Western religions, Christianity. To be sure, not everyone in a academia is convinced by Barker -- she is, after all, proposing/enacting something of a revolution -- but for a fellow like me, who is an avowed Platonist with an eye to esotericism, this sort of thing is... interesting.

Even among early Christians, we may deduce that there were multiple possibilities, because several early Church Fathers write against "judaizers" like the Ebionites -- a group that seems to have held on to a number of ritual observances not unlike the Galatians whose regard for "the Law" so vexed St. Paul. This tendency resurfaces under different circumstances every so often, and it is of more than merely academic interest. In Jacob Taubes' lectures collected in The Political Theology of Paul he cites Guy Stroumsa on the same subject:
Guy Stroumsa from Jerusalem...is studying the sermons of Cyril of Jerusalem and came upon the fact that Cyril says 'Jews' when in fact he means 'Jewish Christians'. This is fourth century..... Today we have attestations of Jewish Christians going up to the 10th century in Arabic manuscripts. Which...revolutionizes the prehistory of Islam, because Mohammed didn't throw Jewish and Christian traditions together in his own head...but he very precisely soaked in Jewish Christian tradition.... (The Political Theology of Paul, p 42. The reference to Stroumsa is Gedaliahu Guy Stroumsa, " 'Vetus Israel'; les Juifs dans la litterature hierosolymitaine d'epoque byzantine," chapt 6 of Savoir et salut (Paris; Cerf 1992))
The crypto-Jews in late Renaissance/early modern Spain and elsewhere (sometimes called Marranos) wound up sometimes with a curious hybridized observances, some of which have lasted to the present day. But more recently, in the mid-19th century and ten again in the mid- and late-20th some Christians went the other way. Sometimes disaffected Western Protestants with an attraction to Judaism, sometimes ethnic Jewish converts who understandably felt the tug of their heritage, they come to identify as Jewish but also proclaims the messiahship of Jesus. Sometimes they are insistent that they are not notzrim but yehudim, though their practice can look like standard evangelical Christianity sometimes. As with Jews generally, there are different degrees of halakhic observance, and plenty of other diversity.

Not long ago, in the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, I thought about wearing, in solidarity with Jews but as a Christian, a little medallion -- a magen David with the cross in the center. Don't do it, said my wife; it's a symbol that comes out of messianic Judaism, and it won't read to Jews as a sign of solidarity, but as one of appropriation, or worse.

Oddly, an origin in messianic Judaism had not occurred to me -- I'd always regarded this cross-in-the-star to be effectively a Christian/Jewish version of the "Coexist" bumper sticker. (As it turns out, the sign has passed out of currency among messianic Jews -- the most usual one lately is a melding of the seven-branched candlestick and the ichthys, which is either found on some first-century artifacts, or forged to look like it is.)

As for the cross-in-the-star, although I'd hoped it would communicate my assertion of standing with Jews as a Christian and because I am a Christian, it's true that it does look, or can be read as, a symbol of religious colonization. My wife insisted, and I, of course, yielded in the face of her objections (she after all is the Jew I was most concerned to not offend!); but as I thought about it, I realized that my initial theological hesitancy had been borne out. Of course, one could raise any number of questions about messianic Judaism. Some adherents distinguish it very sharply from Christianity with what I assume is sincerity; others regard it as a doomed mash-up of competing orthodoxies, or as a trojan-horse missionary ploy, or as a weird religiously mediated political liaison between American zionism and evangelicalism. It may be all these in different cases. In others, it's clearly an effort akin to radical protestantism -- a back-to-roots effort to rediscover and re-identify with the earliest church (construing the "early church" along the lines of the Ebionites, more or less). My friend Duane Christensen was a thinker somewhat of along these lines.

Even were one to grant that messianic Judaism is an unambiguous affront to all Jews, it would clearly be a further step to regard the the cross-in-Star-of-David as an antisemitic sign. But it remains, I think, problematic, on purely Christian grounds. After all, what does it mean, exactly? I had been trying to say that Christianity only makes sense in the context of Judaism; that in a crucial sense you can't be a Christian without "being a Jew" first. Although I am sure many would quarrel with such a formulation, I certainly believe this -- but the sign with the cross inside the star does not quite communicate it. The cross is not, after all, an abstract glyph of Christianity; it is the picture of the instrument of the death of Jesus, the instrument by which (says the prayer during the Stations of the Cross) He has redeemed the world. But Jesus hangs on the cross under the superscription The King of the Jews.

In 1941 the Russian Orthodox priest Dmitri Klepinin was living in occupied France. As the persecution of Jews gained momentum, and what it meant became clear to any who had eyes, father Dimitri decided what to do. He was already involved, with Mother Maria Skobtsova, in a network of underground network for refugees and resistance figures, centered at the house for the poor run by Mother Maria. He began making out forged Christening certificates, enabling many Jews to escape. In February 1943 the Gestapo arrested him, Mother Maria, her son Yuri, and another worker, Elia Fondaminski. Part of the transcript of Fr, Ditiri's interrogation has been preserved:
Interrogator: And if we release you, will you promise never again to aid Jews?
Father Dimitri: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian, and must act as I must.
Interrogator, striking the priest across the face: Jew lover! How dare you talk of those pigs as being a Christian duty!
Father Dmitri, holding up the Cross on the chain around his neck: Do you recognize this Jew?
Father Dmitiri died a year later, in the Dora work camp. He and his three co-prisoners are commemorated in the Orthodox Church on July 20. Maria Skobtsova and Dmitiri Klepenin are named among the Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

It is sadly and scandalously true that the history of the Church and the Jews is stained by antisemitism; anyone who denies this is either in bad faith or woefully unaware. How then to express theologically the right sort of relationship, symbolically?

Strictly speaking, the sign that makes theological sense (Christianly speaking) would not be the Cross within the Star. What about the Star upon the Cross?

This sign might well also be imperfect. It could still be seen as an offensive appropriation, or as a jarring syncretism. There may be other worries. Given the fraughtness of politics it seems unlikely that any symbol is going to be unproblematic. But -- assuming the right understanding is in place -- this sign has one clear advantage, which a friend of mine put succinctly: "After all, that's what happened."

*Strictly speaking, it is a near-coinciding, since the Jewish day begins at sundown.

Monday, November 26, 2018

(a) Alienated, (b) Confused, (c) Honest, (d) Shifty, (e) All of the Above


This is the first of three posts which I originally began shaping not for the general public but for friends and family members who are understandably perplexed and occasionally vexed by my difficult-to-pin-down politics, which some have described as "weaselly," "shifty," and "hard-to-pin-down." Oh yeah, wait, that last one was me just now. But really, they could all be me, because I've changed my mind before, sometimes as many as six times before breakfast, and I usually skip breakfast. See what I mean? Shifty.

In short, I too am vexed by my politics; and it is important to note that my politics is not vexing because it is especially subtle or clever; it is vexing because it stems from certain basic predispositions which are not all in accord with each other, and because among these is the predisposition to ask, Yes, but on the other hand... This post and the two that follow are a sort of interim report on some of those predispositions, a snapshot of their current state in what is a continual, ongoing, semi-reflected-upon flux: semi-, because I always start with what I already believe, value, love; reflected-upon, because I know that my starting point is not magically right about everything, and besides, reflection is also one of the things I believe in, value, and love. I have posted this, rather than just circulate it among a few concerned-for-my-health loved ones, because it charts a degree of continuity with previous installments here, in a way that I think adds some context and where-the-metaphor-meets-the-bone urgency.

I am a philosopher first, and so when the rivalry between politics and philosophy comes to a head -- and politics and philosophy are always going to be rivals -- I am going to look for how philosophy can endure. Politics is just the art of finding (and trying to enact) the least bad solution. When least bad is kinda OK, really, philosophy will remind you not to get too comfy, and when least bad is still pretty fucking atrocious, philosophy will see you through, the way it did Confucius, or Boethius, or Miki Kiyoshi, or Alexandru Dragomir. (You can be an Emperor or a slave, but there is more kinship between Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus than between Marcus and Heliogabalus.)

Moreover, I have seen just how depressingly irritated people get when they are preoccupied by politics -- a fate I didn't want for myself. Both of these facts -- my first loyalty being to philosophy itself, and my observation of just how miserable politics could make people -- led me to put most of my attention elsewhere. In retrospect I can see that the cost of this attending-elsewhere was arguably lower for me than it might be for many; at the time, though, it was just what I was doing. I had positions, and preferences, and I (sometimes) voted, but I kept my distance from the ads and the campaigns.

But for a long time there was another side, a less philosophical side, to this distancing as well; I was alienated. I perceived that I was effectively powerless in the system as it is set up, and I chose to stay aloof -- and growingly cynical -- because this was less unpleasant than facing up to the reality of this disenfranchisement. My confrontation with this -- and auto-therapy for it -- is ongoing. What it does not and cannot involve, however, is refuge in imaginary scenarios about how "Voting Matters," or how "protesting makes a difference." (Voting can matter, and a protest may make a tactical difference in some cases; but fetishizing either of them just distracts.)

If I could -- and I still might, if God calls me -- I would organize an enormous Don't-Vote campaign which would involve showing up to the polls, markng your ballots on whatever small, local measures count, and then leaving the Presidential question BLANK. If a million -- or even a hundred thousand -- such ballots were turned in (along with an effective media campaign) -- this could (potentially, not inevitably) highlight the need for election reform much more pressingly than another Democratic win. It would surely put whoever "won" on notice that they had the opposite of a mandate.

What -- an anti-vote argument now?! Now, when we've seen how disastrous an election-gone-wrong can be, and when the midterms show just how crucial every single voter is?!

Answer: As I predicted during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, the one sure and certain result of that election has been the inflated sense of the consequences of elections. This has been borne out by the midterms' record voter turn-out. Here's the thing, friends: this national case of the DTs was decades in the making, little pressure-points being aggravated, and pressure building up slowly, slowly over time ... and yes, then the fault slipped. But the dramatic nature of the break when the camel finally collapses shouldn't blind anyone to the chronic and pervasive straw-piling that was going on, no matter who was "in control" of Congress or in the Oval Office. Yes, I am (in this) a pragmatist, and for certain purposes something of a seeming-centrist, so I believe in carefully and intelligently deploying the tools at ones disposal, including the vote if it looks plausible that it can be effective. But I also think that the vote could be Oh, So So So effective if it actually, like, worked. At all. As a voice of the people instead of a pretense to move some powerful people from one office into another office. (I know there are not theoretically perfect electoral models, but the first-past-the-post system is truly awful and more or less guarantees the worst of all worlds. I beg you to look into, and advocate for, range voting, ranked voting, or really, almost anything besides first-past-the-post. Start here, for example.) In any case -- do I think that right now is the perfect moment for an assault on defensive voting and the sham of "two"-party politics? I don't know. Do I think it is obvious that right now is the Worst. Time. Ever., for such an intervention? I don't. Maybe you could convince me.

I continue to read reports of Russian Trolls infesting the American electoral process. Aside from the beautiful surrealism of it all -- please, just pause for a moment to consider the phrase Russian Troll Farm, this title of a straight-to-video horror film, and the sheer bizarreness of seeing it in big black-and-white on the front page of the New York Times -- there's something a little mote-in-thy-brother's-eye about the whole ongoing story. Every time I hear about some social media giant being called on the carpet to answer for "not taking seriously" the threats to American democracy, I think, how about the online Plague of Bile that preceded this debacle by two decades? And when I hear of hackers who from St Petersburg or Volograd or Moscow sent out Fake News to "fan the flames of American incivility," I wonder to myself: are we saying that the problem of American incivility is... Russia?

From the always-intelligent Scott Alexander I cull ("cherry-pick," I am sure someone is saying) a single representative statistic from Pew research:
One of the best-known examples of racism is the “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” scenario where parents are scandalized about their child marrying someone of a different race. Pew has done some good work on this and found that only 23% of conservatives and 1% (!) of liberals admit they would be upset in this situation. But Pew also asked how parents would feel about their child marrying someone of a different political party. Now 30% of [consistent] conservatives and 23% of [consistent] liberals would get upset. Average them out, and you go from 12% upsetness rate for race to 27% upsetness rate for party – more than double.
Alienation is indeed painful, but I think I would rather be alienated than enlist in unending trench warfare on a seesaw. Or rather: this unending seesaw is the form of our alienation. If you want to deal with it, get off the seesaw.

Which does not mean, try to feign indifference; it means, stop thinking that any given position -- each thing you care about -- requires one to hop on one side or the other. The next two posts will mention some things to which I am not indifferent. But remember that above all, I am not indifferent to the ability to ask, "but on the other hand..." And this, Not out of perversity or perpetual indecision, but because this question naturally occurs to me. If there's anything more alienating than the seesaw, it's being told that your natural disposition makes you a traitor to both sides.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Unbelievable


Occasionally, for my sins, I spend a bit of time with some work to which I am fundamentally unsympathetic. This paper, "The Unbelievable Truth About Morality" by Bart Streumer, has been my most recent act of atonement.

Streumer's site mentions that it is "written for students", and indeed it is lacking a certain tediousness (or fastidiousness, if I'm feeling generous) that often characterizes the hair-splitting gotchas one often finds among the analytic clan. It is a very short precis of a book called Unbelievable Errors, which (to give my own gloss*) defends the claim that all (!!!) normative claims are effectively false (I would have said "meaningless," if I were playing the author's game, and this may or may not be important) because there are no "normative properties" and therefore normative claims cannot ever truly ascribe such properties to any acts. This claim is literally unbelievable (he says), because among normative claims one finds not only such sentences as "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" or "Act such that the maxim upon which you act could be willed to be a universal maxim," but also things like "You should believe this because...". Streumer engages, in short, in cheerfully sawing off his branch; but then he goes on to argue (!!!!!) that this unbelievability should count as evidence for his account being true. And he thinks this unbelievability is a good thing (no, I'm not kidding, he says "we should welcome it", which is a normative claim on (arguably) two counts) because it prevents the theory -- wait for it -- from undermining morality.

Yes, those are normative words in that last clause -- "should," "count", "evidence".... and oh yes, "true" and "good" as well. Yes, this is also my summary, but it is effectively what he writes.

In short, the paper irritated me. But the damndest thing kept happening, as I sat with my irritation. I kept thinking about it. I couldn't just set it aside, or (better) crumple it up. Nor was it just that I needed to nail down every last bit of what was irritating, in a sort of someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet bout of can't-let-it-go. For all that it made me scribble "No!" and "What?!" and "Is this coherent?" in the margins (and I am very sparing with accusations of "incoherence" -- one of the most over-used critiques in the business), I couldn't help but feel the paper was doing something right -- in the very moves that were irritating me, but more in the very esprit of the thing. (Yes, even analytic philosophy has esprit.) To be sure, one can pick apart the moves like "moral claims ascribe 'properties' (e.g., "wrongness")...", or say that these already miss the point, so that once you've begun this game, you are bound to wind up saying something perverse. I think that's true too -- but that's also not really the issue I was getting at. Perhaps a bit perversely myself, I felt as if Streumer has actually come weirdly close to something apt.

This is not just because of certain moves he makes along the way with which I am in agreement (e.g., he argues against non-congnitivism in morals -- he insists that a claim like "theft is wrong" means more than just a hearty and insistent emotional disapproval of theft -- as if it was thoroughly paraphrasable by something like "Theft -- ugh! how could one?!") I do agree with such moves, but that is just as incidental as my disagreement with others. He says something close to what Wittgenstein says in the Lecture on Ethics -- effectively, that ethics can't state meaningful propositions -- but he seems to say this in a blithely blasé way, as unlike the spirit of Wittgenstein -- the most morally serious of 20th c thinkers -- as I can imagine. I'm maddened by this but also feel driven to keep looking at it. Streumer in effect shows how -- on his premises -- the entire space of reasons implodes, leaving one with an inarticulate shrug -- and then he says, "huh!" And goes back to.... spinning reasons. I'm down with pressing philosophy to the point of the unsayable -- Wittgenstein again -- but the spectacle of Streumer whistling past the graveyard makes me crazy -- and yet, again, sort of fascinated. It's a remarkable instance of philosophy going wrong. There's something I admire about it, even -- the way I admired Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A hugely ambitious project of showing how ones project need not be undertaken, and yet everything just keeps going along.

Obviously, I do not think things can be left here; but, sophistry or not, there is something about the strong counter-intuitiveness that I like, even if I feel the conclusions (including that there can be no "conclusions") clearly cannot stand. You don't have to agree -- Streumer after all says you cannot -- but when paradox gets this spelled out, there's something fascinating going on. ("Since we must admit that philosophy is at odds with common sense," Ralph Barton Perry wrote, "let us make the most of it.") Streumer concludes -- again, in my own gloss, which he might take issue with -- that we hold whatever conclusions we hold for no reason, because there can be no "reasons". This "for no reason" conclusion of Streumer is an epistemological cousin of more than one ontological claim. Meillassoux holds the same thing about "why is there something rather than nothing," and one recalls as well Heidegger's citation (in The Principle of Reason) of Angelus Silesius -- "the rose blooms without a why". This is also what the SS guard told Primo Levi at Auschwitz -- "here, there is no why" (Survival in Auschwitz p 29). I am not the first to note this parallel, but it ought to give us pause -- the fact that the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao should not lead us into embracing just any absence of names. Philosophy must strive to rightly apportion our articulation and our inarticulateness -- which means, also, our struggle with the question of "right apportionment."

* Obviously my depiction of Streumer's project is, let us say, tendentious. And obviously I'm not walking anyone through the actual steps of his argument here. You want that, you'll have to read the book, or at least the paper. But while I have not worried much about giving every little nuance, I hope that I am not misrepresenting anything.

Friday, October 5, 2018

What I hope I would say


After enduring the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing last Thursday and Friday, with its ghastly and endless train of grandstanding, bluster, frothing indignation, tawdry scrounging and manipulation, all following one of the most painful and obviously heartfelt accounts of trauma I'd ever heard (and I used to volunteer on the Rape Crisis Line), I tried to shake it off -- it was one of those awful feelings for which the phrase I feel like I need a shower was made -- and headed to work at school. In the hallway, heading to the classroom, I bumped into a coworker. I always like talking with J. She's wise and deep and is very well apprised of the costs of trying to do your best. A veteran of many personal and political struggles for a decent society and a better deal for people who are left out, she has seen her share of setbacks and small victories, and knows what the long haul looks like. "How's it going?" I asked her as we passed in the hall. J. takes her time with most questions, but it seemed to me she was extra deliberate about answering this one. "Well...," she said at last. "I'm OK. Considering." There was no question what was being considered. But I was unprepared for what happened when she asked me, "And how are you?"

I said, "I'm -- ". That was all that could come out of my mouth. Suddenly my throat clenched, my eyes stung. I stammered and tried to form words, and then just looked at her helplessly, tears coming down my cheeks. Until that moment, I had had no idea those tears were even there. I was so grateful to her for being a person who I knew intuitively, without ever having thought about it, that I could show that to -- so that I could feel it myself. I'd known I was appalled. I hadn't known I was so sad.

This is what hasn't lifted in the days since -- an unremitting sorrow for the whole wretched mess. What Christine Blasey Ford showed us is just how broken and tangled and sharp and many are the pieces of what had been a working system of governance. How? By stepping in front of a committee that was one-half hostile, one-half eager to have her story for its own purposes, and saying:
"It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell the truth."
In other words: I'm not going to do your job for you; I'm just going say what happened.

As I thought back on her testimony -- what even those who would most like her to just go away have been forced to accept as transparently credible -- and on Judge Kavanaugh's statement of denial and his subsequent answers to questions, I found myself coming back to variations on this phrase of Kavanaugh's:
"Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time, but I have never done this to her or to anyone."
This is certainly what Republican leadership is retreating to: casting it all as a case of mistaken identity. And it is astonishing how quickly it took hold. For the first short while after Dr. Ford testified, it was evident from the reactions of even the pundits on Fox News that everyone had felt the force of her quiet self-possession and honesty. Within a day or so, though, this “we-believe-something-happened-but-just-not-like-that” narrative had taken root and driven out the emotional connection. To find this line even remotely believable, you have to dismiss the calm “One hundred percent” certainty with which Dr. Ford identified her assaulter. To reject it, you just have to ask yourself: what are the chances of a woman forgetting who attacked her? Really?

But the scenario kept worrying me -- as clearly it is meant to. It sows the seeds of "plausible deniability" for those who need to look (to voters? To themselves?) like they are listening to women and care, no really they care, while still getting the confirmation they want. To work, it doesn't need to be believable: it just needs to insinuate doubt, to provide cover. This supposed plausible deniability is what I want to seriously interrogate, by a thought-experiment.

Many think that Kavanaugh's obvious indignation and anger have disqualified him by showing him to be somehow not judicially impartial enough. I'm less sympathetic to this argument (on its own), because innocence has a right to indignation -- the argument casts Kavanaugh in an unwinnable situation -- but one hopes, in anyone of maturity, for a capacity to measure their real anger with real responsibility. Much stronger, but also much less spelled-out, is the argument that what we saw and heard in that statement and in those answers just did not look or sound like the stance of someone innocent. "Stronger," because it relies on what everyone can experience for themselves in re-watching the testimony; but also, obviously, subjective, and fraught with danger. Neither such judgment, nor any evidence that has been publicly produced, is sufficient to convict in a court of law. That's a good thing; and of course we need not be trying here to establish guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." Still, a growing chorus is saying, Look, the man just sounds guilty. I can and do share this judgment; but I'm also troubled by it. (Almost without exception it correlates with ideological opposition to Kavanaugh, which just overthrows any possibility of impartiality.) How do I know what guilt "looks like"? And what am I comparing it to? What would someone who was innocent actually sound like? What could such a statement be? I kept wondering.

So I tried to write one.

I've tried to imagine the raw and frightened but still responsible maturity that could say, This is false, but it must mean something that it has been said, and tries to engage, without reactivity, in light of that. It is a frankly Utopian exercise. But if Judge Kavanaugh had said something like this, things might feel differently now -- less broken, less vicious, less sad.

False accusations of assault are rare. I am entertaining a counterfactual, but not because I consider the scenario plausible. It beggars the imagination to try to come up with what could motivate Dr. Ford to lie, and the line that Republicans have retreated to -- “she's got the wrong guy” -- is a last, desperate, disingenuous defense. But concluding this implies that I can answer the question, OK, but what would count as a plausible statement from a wrongly-accused defendant? If you can hear Judge Kavanaugh's answers and say, That just doesn't sound innocent, there must be something you have in mind that those answers are not doing. That's what I have tried to imagine.

I wrote the first draft of this at white heat, and it's still not perfect. Probably it is not perfectible. I thank the women who have been my sounding-board and sometimes strongly cautioning editors as I thought out some revisions. A lot wound up, well-lost, on the cutting room floor. I should acknowledge that for some, including for three of the friends I asked, the very idea of someone "falsely accused" is itself just plain wrong as a hypothesis for this moment. Worries about this and other possible objections made an earlier draft of this introduction three times as long, but I'm trying not to be preemptively defensive.

The piece is also counterfactual in other senses -- in particular, as one friend who read it said, the speaker seems impossible. "There is no such person,” she said; “you've written a kind of woke saint." That may be; but if this post has any relevance beyond its occasion, it's in this picture. For the record: I am in no way as "woke," or as "saintly" (if those are the right words), as the speaker in this piece. Probably I share his faults, though.

*

Mr./ Madam Chairman, members of the committee,

With your permission I would like to address the bulk of my remarks primarily to N., who has named me as her assailant.

N.,

What happened to you was awful and unacceptable. You may not believe this coming from me, but it has to be said and cannot be said enough. You should not have had to endure that -- the fear, the shame (completely unwarranted yet real), the ongoing effects of trauma. You should not have to be reliving it now. No one should. You may not feel that I have the right to say this to you, but I feel it so strongly: I am so sorry that that happened.

I am not the person who assaulted you. I don't know who was. I so badly wish I did.

If I were that person, I don't know if I would have the courage to face you. I would be ashamed, and afraid. Even as it is, I am afraid, and confused, and, strangely, I also feel a kind of shame, for the ways in which I am implicated in a world where this happens. I don't know exactly what to do.

I am not your assailant. But I know that I'm part of the society where you were assaulted. It's a society that says -- and believes it means -- that this is not OK; and yet churns out a continuous stream of stories and pictures and songs that objectify women, glorify male sexual prowess, and eroticize violence, on scales large and small; that rewards men with sexual access to and dominance over women, and punishes women for complaint. And like that wider culture, I myself have both criticized this message, and yet benefited from it; there are ways in which I've even worked with it. Many people know on some level that it is wrong, and yet we feel somehow powerless to reverse it.

I do not believe that we can make our society perfect, or perfectly safe; but we have been woefully negligent, in part because we lack the courage or imagination to try to change it; in part because its arrangements profit some people (and I am such a person in some ways); and in part because we've looked away from the costs. The costs are real, and borne by real people. You are one of them. The assault you endured is an unacceptable cost.

I never imagined that the sexual violence of our culture, both real and sublimated, would one day put me in this position. It is a rude awakening; and to be sure, this sort of thing happens rarely enough. But what happened to you is different. Although it could not have been precisely predicted, its general likelihood could have been foreseen. It is part of a pattern that has gone on for generations and is reinforced by media, social and cultural mores, and convenient selective ignorance. This is what makes assaults like what you endured inevitable; why they are continuing; why they will happen today, this same day I am talking.

I know that you understand the gravity of the charge you've made; that you aren't gratuitously attacking me or trying to ruin my life. You are as sure as you can be that you are telling the truth, and doing the right thing.

You should not have to be quiet about being assaulted; and you shouldn't have to apologize for coming forward now. And if it is hard for you to believe what I am saying -- or maybe even frightening for you to hear it, or impossible for you to take it in -- I hope that you will be able to later. In the same way that you have to say, "This happened to me and he did it," I have to say, "I did not do it." Not "I'm not that kind of person," just, I didn't do that. I do have to say this -- even though it won't make a difference to many, many people.

After this, my name is going to be under a cloud, likely for the rest of my life, and possibly after my death. A few people will stand by me unquestioningly, to my astounded and infinite gratitude. But most people, even people who know me and respect me, are going to wonder,
Did he do that to her? Some of them will never say this aloud to me and I won't know, but I will wonder too. Others will cut me off forever, politely or not. I am likely to be denied many opportunities, starting with this job; and I'll be turned away from things I have hitherto enjoyed. I don't think you are bringing this about maliciously, casually, or unthinkingly, but it is true.

I don't think that this is fair, but it doesn't have to be fair. What happened to you was not fair. You've lived with it every day since then, and it must have had an incalculable effect on you -- I suspect that it's wrenched the way you could trust other people, what you say and don't say, how you hear songs and see movies and laugh or don't, at jokes. It's affected your decisions about what to wear, where to go, how late to stay out, what to eat or drink, how you feel when you are alone. You must have been blindsided by the memory of it over and over again.

It is so strange and saddening to me to think that in all of those memories of yours, my name and my face has been mixed up.

I did not do this thing to you, but I am angry that someone did, and I want to help you if I can. Since I am possibly the last person you want help from or could accept help from now, I have to put my efforts to work at bettering myself, and society at large, and leave any offer to you open without expectations. But even though I didn't ask for this to happen, chance has put me in your way, and this brings me a responsibility, as surely as if I happened past a frozen lake where you had fallen in. I don't know just how to face this duty to you carefully and responsibly, but I know that just being indignant is useless and will make things worse for both of us.

I want to understand why you think the person who assaulted you was me. I am not perfect -- I have sometimes treated others badly, and I have sometimes been selfish, and sexually selfish, in my treatment of women. To them I apologize, again, right now. But I still have to ask myself whether something I have done has made it possible for
you to see me as the likely culprit. I ought to learn from that if I can. It's very frightening to think about. I don't like looking at it; but it's part of the work that is ahead of me.

If you ever think you can face me in person, I will agree to meet you under circumstances of your choosing, with whatever other parties. If you just need me to hear you speak and not answer, I'll do that. I hope that you can also hear me speak to you but I won't assume that. This is a standing offer -- and request -- freely made.

Now I want also to address the person who did this to N. You may not know who you are; but if you are watching these hearings, I think you might be wondering, and able to guess. Maybe you know very well. Whoever you are, I know that, unless you have no feelings at all, you are experiencing something complicated, confusing, and frightening. Probably you are feeling stunned right now, like me, but also very, very differently from me -- a mixture of terror and relief, guilt and disbelief, and terrible shame.

You know that what's going on now is not right; that I ought not to be standing here accused of this. But much, much more, you know that what happened then, so many years ago, was not right. On some level, even if you have successfully "forgotten" it, it's been burdening you ever since.

You didn't mean for this to happen. But something can still be saved from it all. I promise you that if you reach out to me, the first thing I will say is
Thank you for being brave. No one else needs to be publicly shamed. We can work out the truth away from political agendas and media scrutiny. It will take a lot of hard work and good will. N. has been doing that work for years and years now. Don't you think it's time you got to it? I know you know what is the right thing to do.

To everyone else: About the job. Yes, I really, really wanted that job. Yes, I am sorry, frustrated, shocked, and at a loss. If you were hoping to see me appointed to this position, if you are disappointed too, I assure you, you are not as disappointed as me. I ask you, please, find some other outlet for your disappointment than belittling of those who report sexual assault; something other than spouting venom at your political opponents. If you want to make sure this doesn't happen again, please put your efforts towards addressing the cultural premises that make sexual assault so common. Our culture is deeply dysfunctional. None of us are entirely blameless. But sometimes there are victims whose experience is out of all proportion, and in this situation, I am
by definition not the first of these. There are other ways and other roles in which I can do my best. In any case, the job is very far from the most important thing here, for me. It was a great honor to be considered; but there are other good people for the job; I'm the only person who can do this.

To those of you who remain by my side not out of political affiliation but just because you believe me and love me -- or are with me regardless, or even have decided to forgive me for what you think I might have done -- Thank you. I don't blame you if you wonder, if you have your moments of doubt. But I am so grateful for your loyalty, beyond my expectations or deserving. Thank you -- an inadequate-sounding response for an impossible-to-ask support. Probably you do not know how much I depend upon you in this hour and beyond.

N., I hope you hear me; I hope in time you will believe me. I did not do the thing you say I did, but I hope you will keep healing from the trauma you've undergone. I hope we can reconcile, and I hope we can find out the truth; but I know I cannot make that happen by myself. Above all, I hope that we -- all of us -- can keep doing the difficult and real and crucial work, work that is hard but ultimately rewarding and repairing, of overcoming the conditions of culture that make sexual violence so common. As a nation, we can do better than that. Human beings can do better than that. I'm going to do my best to look to what I
can do.

Friday, September 28, 2018

"We cannot answer the questions if there is no longer a We to ask them" : Interview with R. Kevin Hill, part 2


This is Part 2 of my interview with R. Kevin Hill. See here for Part 1.

*

Skholiast: Speaking about the risks undertaken in folding the personal into philosophy, or philosophy out of the personal – as you say, this raises questions about the professionalization of philosophy – a recent thing, and arguably one that (to put it gently) has not helped. The idea and institution of tenure, for instance, was supposed to enable someone to think and say whatever, which could then be rejected or not; but the risk you speak of, the cost of being rejected, would in theory not be a cost to one’s livelihood, given one’s academic vocation. Philosophy has a particular interest in this because of its roots in being a gadfly, an inherently unpopular position. But do you think tenure is functioning that way?

R. Kevin Hill: I’ve never thought that tenure functions that way. First – a vanishingly small number of tenured academics have anything to say that would get them in trouble with anyone. Academic freedom is a wonderful thing, but I don’t see many people taking much advantage of it – let’s put it that way.

S.: Is this because academics just “all think alike,” – or, they’re all timid? – or – ?

R.K.H.: No. This is, again, a very personal observation, so all due caveats apply – the most important thing about tenure as an institution is not that if you get it, you cannot be fired, but that if you don’t get it, you have to be fired. Many non-academics are unaware of this, but it is standard practice in academia that you must be given tenure if you have been with an institution for a certain amount of time, so if they do not want you to receive tenure, you have to be let go. In principle, the rationale for this was to force the institution’s hand, to make it give tenure instead of working someone forever with no job security. But in practice, it creates an up-or-out rule: if you do not receive tenure, you get your one year and then you are gone. The nature of the job market is such that if you are denied tenure, the odds are very good that you will never get another tenure-track job again. So the lived experience of the institution of tenure for most academics is that it is a threat. You have spent much of your professional life leading up to the moment you receive tenure – speaking personally, this was twenty years from the time I entered graduate school – not thinking, Someday I will be able to say what I think, but rather, Someday my career may come to a complete end, because I failed to receive tenure. What might cause this? You don’t really know. Failure to live up to professional standards, yes, but of course there are going to be other factors that influence people’s perceptions, and you want to be well-behaved so that people want to be helpful to you, and so on – so the shadow of the tenure decision looming in the future has an enormously repressive and normalizing effect on junior faculty. To put it crudely, that pressure guarantees that almost anyone coming out the other side will have nothing harmful to say; they will have been so cowed during the years in graduate school, trying to obtain a tenure-track job, preparing for the ultimate tenure review – by the time you get tenure, they’ve beaten you.

S.: You’re saying, by that time, you’ve been conditioned.

R.K.H.: You have adapted to your saddle. I cannot help but think that this experience, which is very common, sheds light on why there is so little truly challenging speech coming from tenured academics. For me, it has kind of worked out that I can say what I want. But it’s very easy for me to imagine why it would not have worked out that way for many people. I certainly don’t feel I’ve taken to the saddle; but even for me, the whole process took some sharp edges off me.

S.: I listened recently to a panel discussion sponsored by Heterodox Academy; Samuel Abrams (of Sarah Lawrence College) told an anecdote about being called a racist on his second day of teaching, upon which he made up his mind to keep his head down and get tenure – and use it. One of the co-panelists – Nadine Strossen of the New York Law School and a former president of the ACLU – expressed dismay that so many tenured academics are “squandering” their opportunity. Your account here offers one theory of why this may be the case. And the fact that Heterodox Academy looks like a strange outlier, can get so much attention, and has as much work to do as it seems to have, suggests that something like what you say may be at play.

R.K.H.: I’m a supporter of Heterodox Academy; but the dynamics play out differently in philosophy. The experiences Jonathan Haidt had which led to his founding of Heterodox Academy were colored by the fact that his discipline is social psychology. What social psychologists do and what philosophers do is so different, that ideological bias and the repression of diversity plays out differently. In philosophy – and this is sad in a way – I think that most philosophers just don’t have anything particularly controversial to say. They don’t need to be repressed. If you spend your life becoming a Hume scholar, you aren’t going to suddenly explode with some controversial professional perspective on the passing show – your head is back in the eighteenth century.

S.: But I can’t help wanting to ask – for God’s sake, why not? Isn't our great exemplar Socrates? And Hume, for that matter, was indeed a controversialist. Sure, maybe if Hume were to publish today his work would fall just as stillborn from the press as it did in the eighteenth century; and there’s a kind of Straussian argument that might say, actually this is a good thing – philosophers ought to fly under the radar, and write “uncontroversial” work for other reasons. But might there not be something wrong with philosophy, if it never raises any eyebrows – or ire? Of course, there’s also a difference between Hume scholarship, and Humeanism. Or Nietzsche scholarship and Nietzscheanism, for that matter.

R.K.H.: Well, ultimately, this all has to do with the professionalization of philosophy. This goes back, in analytic philosophy, at least to Bertand Russell, and arguably to neo-Kantianism in the nineteenth century. Once you conceive of philosophy as something that belongs in a research university, because you can “do research” in it, (rolls eyes) – in which there is a division of labor and agreement about canonical methods, and then proceed to “research” various problems, this – I don’t want to say it kills the philosophical impulse, but it gives it a certain tendency, and limits it in specific ways.

S.: A scholastic tendency, in the worst sense.

R.K.H.: Now we also have this other community in philosophy – “Continental” philosophy as it is called – which oftentimes seems to position itself as an eternal critic of our society; but the criticism is all rather homogenous. So it turns out that there really is very little ideological diversity in academic philosophy in the U.S., and those who are asking the “forbidden questions” are mainly outsiders. There are a few who are academic philosophers, but those whose work has precipitated the so-called Free Speech Crisis, are largely not philosophers, and the things they want to talk about are not what most philosophers want to discuss, I think. Moreover, if philosophers do decide to talk about them, they may discover that there are powerful disincentives to do so; but those disincentives are not necessarily coming from tenure committees; they’re coming from Twitter. I’m thinking, for instance, about what happened recently to Rebecca Tuvel.

S.: She is the assistant professor at Rhodes University whose article in Hypatia comparing arguments about transgender and transracial experience generated such controversy. And what do you think those “forbidden questions” are?

R.K.H.: Well, the impression one has is that they are all related to what is called “Diversity.” Or, in other communities, “Identity Politics.” A fairly narrow band of concerns, but they are all topics we cannot, in the current environment, speak freely about. For various reasons, academia has been committed to affirmative action in admissions and hiring for a long time, and this has always been a tricky topic for the larger community. This practice is under more pressure now than it has been at any other time in my lifetime. Academia has to contend not only with its own internal norms, but with various legal requirements: anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action executive orders, judicial opinions. To understand the recent Free Speech controversies, you must go back to the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights Act itself included a prohibition on discrimination in employment based on race, gender, religion, national origin, and so on. At the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, I imagine that people’s understanding of discrimination was fairly crude; an African-American applies for a job, and the employer says, I’m sorry, we don’t hire black people.

S.: Perhaps they didn’t say that out loud to their face, but that’s what they were saying, and what they understood themselves to be saying.

R.K.H.: But in the 1970s – and this was initially more the case with sex discrimination than other kinds – a new, additional, conception of how one could experience discrimination began to be broached by the courts: hostile environment discrimination. And our culture’s whole conception of harassment, for example, is a product of this. There was no concept of sexual harassment such as we have it today, before the courts articulated this idea of discrimination via hostile environment.

In an employment setting, this notion generated a variety of new norms about how people must behave there. On balance, I would say, this was a good thing; people behave better in the workplace as a result. But most workplaces are not primarily operating to develop, exchange, and debate ideas. On a factory floor, if you stand on a soapbox and begin spouting a political or social opinion, however well- or ill-founded, you are probably not doing your job. The factory floor is not the place for expressing those opinions; and so your speech values are not likely to collide with anti-discrimination values.


S.: Though they may collide with the interests of your employer, if, say, they don’t want workers to organize. But it would take quite a stretch to construe this as a case grounded in anti-discrimination law.

R.K.H.: In a normal employment setting. But as soon as you import the notion of hostile environment into an academic setting, you open the door to a real conflict. Because the notion becomes that certain ideas, in and of themselves, can be interpreted as contributing to a hostile environment, and are thus discriminatory. The thought that we need to establish non-hostile environments in academia, basically for legal reasons, is a fairly recent one, and we have very little experience so far in nuancing, finessing, mediating, compromising, between the competing values of academia as a place where a wide range of ideas can be discussed and debated, and academia as a setting which should and must be non-discriminatory. We don’t know how to do it yet.

Most people don’t realize the full extent to which our current challenges in academia in this respect are driven by legal necessity. Conservatives, for instance, have this picture of academia as this hotbed of radicalism, anxious to suppress all dissenting opinions. It’s vastly exaggerated. But what is unappreciated is that academia doesn’t do what it wants to do, it does what it has to do.


S.: And that “has to,” that constraint, you are saying, is of a legal nature.

R.K.H.: It is. And one of the reasons that the climate in academia has changed so dramatically is that the legal climate has changed so dramatically. It was during the Obama administration when we got that notorious “Dear Colleague” letter. So Title IX prohibits discrimination in academic settings receiving federal funds. For decades, this mandate went almost entirely unenforced, so you would have never heard anyone say, Oh, we can’t do that – we might lose our federal finding. But the Obama administration decided to put the fear of God into people, and told them, Yes, you might indeed lose funding, if you are not doing what you’re supposed to do to assure that your setting is a non-discriminatory environment.

S.: This most famously involved lowering the standard of proof in cases of alleged sexual assault.

R.K.H.: One of the harshest ways, obviously, your setting can be hostile is if you actually experience sexual assault, and this is especially frequently the case for women. This legitimate concern for safety, to curb sexual violence on campuses, led to a new posture: you are not going to just keep getting federal funds no matter what you do as long as you assure us you are doing good things; we are going to make sure you try harder to do good things. This awakened people to the possibility that academia could be a locus of hostile environment discrimination, and that it urgently needs to avoid being so; and this resolve was hurriedly made, with the implicit assumption that we’ll figure out later how this impacts the free exchange of ideas. And we have not figured it out yet.

S.: But it’s very hard to wrestle with these questions and do this figuring-out; the very asking of the questions and figuring-it-out is easily construed as part of the problem; it raises the specter of hostility. The truth is, of course, academia can be a hostile environment, as this phrase is used. There is (or can be) a lot of especially egregious kinds of behavior; and, to make sure I avoid that, avoid contributing to the climate and culture where it can happen, avoid giving cover to those who do it, I have to query myself. I want, in short, to treat people decently, and to not just avoid being “part of the problem,” but to actively help build a context where the right thing happens more and more, more and more naturally. At the same time, thinking out loud about questions like this can all by itself feel dicey, or gives you the look of devil’s advocate, or a little too much like the devil. So this figuring-it-out-later – is it really working?

R.K.H.: We have no choice but to figure it out. Academia does not exist in a political vacuum; it’s a part of the larger society, and at the very least it depends on the good will of many people who are not part of it. It cannot be completely aloof to the desires, interests, values, beliefs, of that society. If society finds, or believes, that academia claims out of one side of its mouth to be the idea-generator, the place where knowledge happens, and out of the other side of its mouth that only certain ideas will be permitted, you will lose at least half of the community’s support. This has already started to happen.

It is a mischaracterizaton of Heterodox Academy, I think, to call it a stalking-horse for conservativism. I don’t think Haidt is a conservative at all. But he, and others like him, are recognizing that the academy is sawing at the branch it – they – are sitting on. They run the risk, if they create the impression of favoring only some parts of the ideological spectrum, that the larger society will say, You are not in the business of generating knowledge or ideas, or an environment of generating free discussion; you are just indoctrinating people, and maintaining an ideologically pure community. If academia were able to support itself, this might not be a problem; but it isn’t. It’s massively dependent upon federal funds, and thus indirectly dependent upon the people whose government it is. So we have to figure it out, because the other option, which would be to say, Better safe than sorry, and to avoid forever any idea that could ever possibly be construed as contributing to a hostile environment – that is not sustainable, unless the whole society is on the same page ideologically, which currently it clearly is not.


S.: And is not likely to be.

R.K.H.: But how we figure it out is unclear. I’m going to punt, and say: eventually the courts will have to figure it out, the same way that in earlier decades the courts had to figure out sexual harassment. And they will.

S.: Your own background is in law, as well as in philosophy. So of course, Hill would say this, yes?

R.K.H.: Well, the legal background may give me some awareness of features or issues which others may not be as aware of, but the real source of my stance is my belief that people respond to carrots and sticks. And in academia there are both.

S.: The courts are one venue in which carrots and sticks are applied; but so too is the court of public opinion.

R.K.H.: When universities woke up to the possibility of losing federal funds, that was one sort of stick. But when they did that, some conservatives began circulating this narrative of academia being an arena of thought-control rather than free exchange of ideas, and universities then have to contend with that.

S.: So, a question to you as both legal scholar and philosopher. As with most arguments about the “construction of concepts,” one would not want to say, for instance, that there was no such thing as a hostile environment before the courts articulated this phrase; or that there was no such thing as sexual discrimination or sexual harassment. But these legal formulae do get into our personal experience, construing it and causing us to construe it, in new ways. Sometimes one can say, they named the elephant in the room; and instead of saying “that strange gray shape I can see out of the corner of my eye,” we can say “Dumbo.” But it’s not always like that.

R.K.H.: The way I think of this is: there is a real world out there, a bedrock of real bodies moving around doing real things. But how we classify what we see is to a very large extent up to us. There is no doubt, for instance, that men were hitting on women in the workplace before Title VII, before the courts got involved in the 1970’s and minted the idea of hostile environment. There’s no question, stuff was happening, and it was bad stuff, and it was also “accepted” in a certain sense because of the balance of power of men and women in the workplace. But the concept of sexual harassment is a certain way of conceptualizing these tableaux. The tableaux are real. But our conceptualizations are really modes that were created by the law, and thus by the power of the state. Employers didn’t just decide out of the goodness of their hearts to ensure that people didn’t engage in sexual harassment. It was the prospect of legal liability and the need to protect themselves from it, which hits their bottom line and costs them money, that made employers make sure they inform employees of their duty with regard to sexual harassment. And since almost everyone is employed, at least in some fashion, some of the time, a federal law that does that is going to touch individual lives on a grand scale. It has transformed the culture; and I do believe it is the law itself that did the transforming, and not some sort of cultural shift reflected in the law.

S.: The old argument that one can’t “legislate morality” seems, on the face of it, to have been falsified many times. To the extent that we have a racially integrated society – a limited extent, clearly – this seems obviously (by now) the result of legislation and judicial decision. But aside from the fact that the “bottom line” is an economic reality and not just a legal one, I want to ask: surely, the pressure to enact a law comes from somewhere – from “we the people,” yes? – or some portion of the people; so in that sense there must also be a “cultural shift.”

R.K.H.: Well, yes in some sense. The courts didn’t start to think of sexual harassment until feminists started talking about it first. However, I would insist that flouting federal law has rather more serious consequences than merely ignoring what feminists say. Ultimately the genealogy here is going to be complicated, and go back in part to the entry of greater numbers of women into the workforce mid-century.

S.: One could speculate that whatever "legislation of morality" has transpired has been enacted not primarily by lawmakers but by universities, which have trained up the next generation of students to expect and accept certain premises. (Poor Shelley! the unacknowledged legislators would turn out not to be poets, but underpaid college instructors – at least this is clearly what they aspire to be.)

R.K.H.: No, I would deny that. Take the sexual assault on campus issue. People have been talking about that on campus since I started graduate school in 1987, if not longer. Nobody did a thing. President Obama has an advisory letter issued emphasizing that noncompliance with the requested standards can result in the loss of federal funding. Immediately everyone scrambles to comply. One thing that Marxist critique and Foucauldian critique alike emphasize far too little is that who holds the guns and what they want has an awful lot to do with what ultimately occurs.

S.: The guns, or the money, or the courts. And we can ask questions about this, as well as about the extent to which we agree that litigation is the best way to act upon these shifts. Do we want “the stick” of legal liability to shape us in this way? Another question: If we decide that the tableaux are real but our vocabularies for the tableaux are to a large degree up to us, and that there are different possible vocabularies, then we can also ask, how do we evaluate these vocabularies? But even to ask about different possible ways of speaking, is to call into question how we are speaking, which can make some people very uncomfortable. You mentioned Rebecca Tuvel earlier; I take her to have raised the question of how we deploy this notion of “social construction,” which is one element in such a vocabulary; and she seems to have discovered, in the aftermath, that there was an agreement – a tacit agreement – among the people she was addressing – that it could be deployed in one way, but that to deploy it in a different way was not just going to be questioned, but would be seen as a hostile act.

R.K.H.: I think what happened there had something to do with what I alluded to earlier: these two, largely non-overlapping, philosophical communities – so-called analytic philosophy, so-called Continental philosophy – a distinction people routinely deny exists, more or less proving that it does by the vigor with which they deny it. While I don’t know Professor Tuvel at all well, the impression I got from reading her paper was she was trained in the analytic tradition, in which thought experiments are the bread and butter – “suppose such and such; what would the consequences be? How does that challenge our intuitions about cases like these, or these?” And so on. By contrast, the Continental philosophical community has tended to be one of advocacy. It’s interested in critical inquiry, but inquiry guided by certain goals. There is less freedom to say, Well, let’s think this thought and see where that takes us; because the over-arching concern is: let’s make society better in the light of our understanding of these problems. I don’t think Professor Tuvel ever imagined that anyone would read the kind of prose she’s producing as offensive. It’s a shame; her questions are very interesting; and I see no hostility behind them. She was thinking through a line of thought; and asking, so why is it that we treat these two kinds of cases differently? If I recall, she doesn’t answer the question, but she certainly gives the reader the question. Meanwhile, though, these communities of advocacy are shocked and offended that their experiences of oppression are not being acknowledged or honored in the right way.

S.: Well, in part because the very assumption that raising the question would not be problematic is itself seen as – problematic!

R.K.H.: There have been attempts – I am the product of some of these – to adjudicate or navigate between Continental and analytic camps; but for the most part, they remain non-intersecting.

S.: How you characterize them makes me think that perhaps one of the things so puzzling – or worrisome to some – about the crowd that is loosely called “Straussians,” is that Straussians deploy Continental language that advocates in a very different direction from the left consensus of most continental philosophers; it’s a set of crossed signals that many find unsettling.

R.K.H.: Well, there have also been, for instance the conservative Catholic Heideggerians; clearly in the Continental tradition, but, like Heidegger himself, their sympathies and agendas are conservative. Straussians are a strange group though, partly because Strauss’ own teaching and influence was so mediated by political science departments.

S.: They are outside the philosophical academic mainstream, for sure. But they are not alone in getting into philosophy via subterranean paths. Strauss certainly laid claim to philosophy (even though he called himself a “scholar”); and so too did Derrida, whose influence in America was (and still is) strongest in English and literature departments. But the reason Strauss comes to mind here is a broader and more pertinent question. In that very interesting and problematic book The Closing of the American Mind, Strauss’ student Allan Bloom has a chapter called “The Nietzscheanization of the Left, or Vice-Versa,” pointing out how strange a development it was. You alluded earlier to the fact that there are valences of Nietzsche’s thinking that “nobody wants.” But nobody feels willing to throw Nietzsche overboard either.

R.K.H.: Yes. Nietzsche has rendered himself indispensable to us, somehow.

S.: This happened before Foucault, though I think Foucault was hugely instrumental in shaping the form our dependence takes now. If I had to make a very elementary crayon-scrawl of what I think that indispensability involves, I’d say it has to do with the link between power and morality, or ostensible morality, raising the question of law, and putting at the service of that link a rough-and-ready moral skepticism or relativism. Certain people very much want to have recourse to these tools; but they don’t like the tools being turned upon them. This is, for instance, what Tuvel discovered, though she wasn’t deploying (I don’t think) a Nietzschean argument; she was asking, if anti-essentialism is an admissible argument in the case of gender, why is it not in the case of ethnicity? Her mode of thinking was much more like Philippa Foot’s trolley problem. You pose a thought experiment, and no one gets bent out of shape –

R.K.H.: Right. No one thinks you are getting ready to run anyone over.

S.: – though I have encountered occasional criticism of the way the trolley problem is posed, for instance in terms of body-shaming. And I think those critiques have a point. Moreover, Elizabeth Anscombe – surely an analytic philosopher! – says someplace that certain moral hypotheticals are monstrous, and we make ourselves culpable when we “consider” them so breezily. But to say that is to posit some kind of access to something else, some standard of morality that is available -- maybe intuitively? – by which we would determine that something is beyond the pale. Now the opponents of this table-turning – the ones who deploy some vaguely Nietzschean arguments, or more likely just depend upon some vaguely lite-Nietzschean assumptions, in contesting some forms of power, but when they are asked to answer parallel critiques speak of “false equivalencies,” and say or imply: Just because your standards are relative does not mean mine are! – though it is never put so crudely, that’s what they’re claiming – are insisting: in the name of diversity, in the name of some kind of intuition of inclusivity or fairness, these things, these principles, we will declare beyond question. I often don’t know how to even point this out – let alone to query or evaluate it – without colliding with righteousness.

R.K.H.: Well, when I say “we need to figure this out,” and I refer to the courts, part of what I mean is that it isn’t any of these specific sub-groups or sub-cultures that will do the figuring –

S.: Not analytic or continental philosophers, not particular minorities or vested interests –

R.K.H.: – I mean: We, America, the larger collective – the political community we are – is going to have to figure these things out. And one of the nice things about this political community is that it is ideologically diverse. And there are all kinds of avenues by which people express themselves in this larger community – vastly more now, because of the internet, than even a few decades ago. And that makes it possible for all kinds of voices to enter the discussion, even if things do look fairly homogenous within a subculture (which is undeniable).

This leads me to a different set of concerns. To me, the most important thing, despite what I said in defense of Heterodox Academy, is not that there be a huge ideological spectrum represented within these settings – say, within a particular university. And we already have a huge amount of diversity in the larger community, so diversity there is not a concern. What I do worry about is our eroding sense that the larger community is a community.


S.: Yes. Not everyone agrees that the courts' decisions are “ours;” and not everyone finds “ideological diversity” “nice.” And what happens seems to be that all of these sub-communities can wind up excommunicating the others.

R.K.H.: We cannot answer the questions if there is no longer a We to ask them. That probably concerns me more than anything else; it looms in the background every time I discuss a political question. We have to be able to recognize that we stand on common ground in our very disagreement; that we occupy common political space; that we’re not in a war, we’re in a conversation. And the goal is not to annihilate each other but to discuss, from our respective and divergent vantage points, our common concerns. The scariest thing about our period historically, is that the sense of commonality across the spectrum seems to me to be at an all-time low.

S.: Well, there are those who seem to think it is a war, and to blame – though this is always the case in a war – the so-called “other side” for starting it. Marxism will say: in a class struggle, to call it a “conversation” is to be a tool of the oppressor. There are trans people who insist that their very “right to exist” is at issue. A while ago students at Evergreen College screamed at professors and administrators, We are not having a conversation with White Privilege. This objection is aimed at right and left alike, if indeed those terms mean anything now.

R.K.H.: There is a slogan – attributed to Voltaire, though likely incorrectly, at least in its most popular form: I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Articulating a principle like that presupposes that both parties referred to are and understand themselves to be “on the same side” in some sense. Otherwise why would I defend to the death your right to anything? If you are in the trenches shooting at me, I’m not going to defend to the death anything about you.

S.: I’m going to defend myself!

R.K.H.: But if I say, I disagree with you but I defend your right to say what you say, that presupposes that in some deep sense we are on the same side, we share a community, and that disagreement as a part of discussion is a possibility within that community.

S.: Perhaps even a crucial part of the shared project of that community.

R.K.H.: That’s what is eroding now – that sense of shared community across divergent perspectives.

S.: And a sense of humility, a sense that no one knows everything. So then – what do you make of the alleged need to permit free speech for everyone, in (almost) every case? The argument against this says that “Free speech for Nazis” hands the enemy the license and means to advocate for your own destruction. And perhaps it’s all very well, until it becomes plausible that they might win. In other words, you can afford to tolerate certain things, but when the risk becomes real, stop affording it! Whereas the other argument might be, that’s when – and maybe only when – we see what your actual principles are.

R.K.H.: Well, I think the former characterization is in some sense disingenuous. Why is it that, until quite recently, the champions of free speech were all liberals and progressives? The short answer is, those people experienced their speech acts as the ones that needed protection, because they were “speaking truth to power,” or they were articulating unpopular perspectives and they needed to extort from those who had the power the concession that they could speak anyway -- despite not having the power. (This is of course a very Nietzschean way of characterizing all of this.) I think that what has happened is not that free speech has become so dangerous and threatening that liberals and progressives are rethinking their commitment to free speech, but rather that they won. Now they are in power. And those in the positions of power have very little interest in tolerating dissent. So I think that the characterization of certain kinds of speech as too dangerous to be borne is somewhat in bad faith. Is education about to sink under the waves of a vast number of Nazis in academia? No, of course not. There’s perhaps, say, one Nazi in academia. Out of thousands and thousands of academics.

S.: But we need not just be speaking of academia, as you said a bit ago. We’re speaking, in some sense, of the whole body politic. Or we could be talking about visiting speakers to universities, or people standing on corners distributing pamphlets, or people with websites or facebook pages. But – I’m not sure I’d want to go to the wall for this, but there’s a possible figure/ground switch here, which is: you could say, the liberal culture that champions free expression actually has been ascendant, since at least the 70’s, maybe all the way back to FDR. This sort of tolerance-while-it’s-convenient is the position of the so-called coastal elites, the presuppositions of liberal culture fomented by the Ivy League and a few other universities, which have absolutely been entwined with state and economic power. It didn’t matter which party was in office – there was a natural systolic-diastolic rhythm between think-tanks and the halls of power – but they all knew what side their bread was buttered on. Now, if one accepts this scenario, the question arises: what could make the powers that be start to worry? I have believed since the mid-90s, that all meaningful protest has essentially evaporated, but the problem is doubtless much older. The huge Seattle WTO protests in 1999 meant nothing; worldwide protests against the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq were completely ineffectual, if measured by their stated aim. All dissent has been commodified. So: is there a crisis of free speech? Go ahead, speak away! The scenario you sketch is of a beleaguered vanguard of progressivism which eventually won, and after winning betrayed its noble origins. My alternative scenario suggests that progressivism was always ascendant, at least since the power feedback loop between the Ivy League and Washington; so its change of tune must have been due to something else. I don’t know what that might be -- assuming we accept this scenario.

R.K.H.: Well, your mention of the ’90s brings up something else significant. For a long time, the narrative of freedom said that something called “liberalism,” or “democracy,” was defined and celebrated in the 20th century by contrast with two different forms of totalitarianism. What made our struggles sacred ones was that we were struggling on behalf of liberalism against these. But take the adversary away, and you have American power triumphant; we don’t need to define ourselves in contrast to anything else. One of the ideological functions of liberal values is no longer with us. Then there is the slowly-increasing influence of anti-discrimination laws, and their migration into academic settings. Between these two things, free speech isn’t of much use to anyone anymore –

S.: In the short term!

R.K.H.: – except for conservatives who are trying to stick it to the so-called liberal elite.

S.: Your take on both society and philosophy, informed in some ways by Foucault, is still much more suspicious of or cautious with critique. In some of your personal writings, you describe for instance your experience with ordinary politics, and politicians who obviously struck you as decent people, not cowed by any conspiracy to make everyone think narrowly, nor swamped by unconsciously-held ideology. So, your own skepticism about power-structures still does not give critique the last word (at least by default), which I often experience with the Foucauldian left.

R.K.H.: The reason for this is that the vision of the world as a battlefield is not my basic vision. My basic vision of the world is much closer to Plato’s. Yes, there are battles, but they are battles between cities. My deepest commitment is to a kind of civic republicanism, to the question: what are the necessary conditions for a community to be free, in the sense that it governs itself? To answer these questions you must talk about culture and about institutions. But if everything is dissolved in the acid bath of critique, then there are no institutions, there is no culture, there is no city; there is no us. I don’t see a conflict between the liberalism that holds that the most important thing is the self-actualization of the individual, and the civic republicanism that holds that we are all in this together and must learn how to live so, with a shared culture and a shared set of institutions. I don’t see these as at odds with one another. Where the Nietzschean and Foucaultian tools are most useful is where something is not right, not functioning the way it ideally ought; but I have never abandoned the notion that there is a way that things should ideally function. So there is, looming in the background of my thinking, the idea – though not with Plato’s specific details or even his outline – that the first political question is, how should the city be governed? Which implies that there is a city, and governments. To characterize the city itself as a battlefield may be a useful tool for understanding certain processes. But people do not live on battlefields. Battlefields are places where people die.

S.: Deploying Nietzsche and Foucault in the service of a kind of Platonism – the platonizing of Nietzsche, or vice-versa – first of all makes me think you are closer to Strauss than you let on --

R.K.H.: And Heidegger, yes …

S.: -- and use these giants of the moderns, in what seems a characteristically ancient project.

R.K.H.: I think that is a fair characterization. When I think of any philosophical question, any concept, I try always to ask, what does this concept mean in concrete terms? What real material thing, perceptible in the world, are we speaking of in using this concept? When I think of politics, I find myself adverting to this image of a city, and all the things that must happen in it. This has been in the back of my mind for decades. I cannot, of course, justify the claim that the way human beings should live is in small cities; I don’t know how I would justify it. All I know is that, when I ask myself how should political institutions function, what are they for? – I view this through the lens of a free and self-governing city. And most of my contemporary concerns are seen through this lens. But –and I have truly come to believe this – part of the reason why our communities are so divided right now, is that our institutions have been captured, by people who do not reflect the interests and values of the larger community. We do not have a free and self-governing city called America; we have a bunch of disenfranchised people who don’t believe in their institutions and are being herded into highly polarized ideological conflicts as a form of distraction from this capture. Nietzschean-Foucaultian means can be useful, for understanding how did this capture happen, and what are its effects? But this is preliminary to and guided by a larger vision that asks, how are things supposed to be? And the answer is that we experience ourselves as a community, we have common institutions, and we conduct our differences and our discussions in the context of these.

I was starting to think this way before 2016, but the election in 2016 gave it a big boost. Government has largely migrated from discussions in the legislative branch to decisions in the executive, a development I find extremely troubling; and the two parties who effectively share a monopoly on politics in this country gave us in 2016 two candidates who pretty much nobody wanted. How did that happen? There is a recent study made by two political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, showing that the popularity of any proposed piece of legislation, and its likelihood of enactment, have zero correlation. Zero! If 100 percent of Americans think that a measure should become law, that is no reason at all to expect that it will; if zero percent of Americans think that a measure should become law, that is no reason to expect that it will not. What does, however, correlate with such likelihood is popularity among lobbyists. We do not control our government anymore. I have gradually, reluctantly, concluded this is the case, that it is a crisis, and that it explains the divisiveness and polarization of discourse – as instruments of distraction from that disenfranchisement, forms of substitute gratification. Parties cannot offer the American people governance; that is no longer what they are about. So they must offer emotional gratifications instead, and thus we must have culture wars that entertain and distract.


S.: So then, is governance happening? Or is all we have left a sort of blind blundering-forward by way of distraction and entertainment? Aside from citing critiques of the Gilens-Page study (critiques with which I don't necessarily concur), I can think of at least two ways to go to query the scenario you propose. One is to ask: So who are the bastards? By what steps, and with what malice aforethought, did they pull of this de facto coup? Or did it just kinda happen willy-nilly?

R.K.H.: The view I propose is a kind of structural view, about an arrangement that emerged not by design, but as the result of certain incentives that have long been in play. As any Marxist will tell you, you can have very dire circumstances on your hands as the result of structural features that nobody intends, dire enough to warrant extreme action.

S.: The other possible account I can improvise, then, touches on what you refer to when you said we’d been captured by those who do not share the interests of the community.

R.K.H.: Or may not even understand the community.

S.: Perhaps, though, we don’t know what community is. When people talk about the coastal elites, this is a cliche, but it gets at a disconnect between different centers of population and different centers of culture. And a non-conspiratorial explanation of this might be, or at least include, the observation that we’re simply too big. Perhaps the notion of “the United States of America” is one that was bound to founder, once you got beyond a certain critical mass.

R.K.H.: You are homing in on the quintessential Madisonian question. Can you have civic republicanism on this scale? And it’s a real question. Maybe you can’t.

S.: Deploying late-modern thinkers in an ancient project – this also seems in a sense like what the American founders attempted. The United States may be a unique attempt to do something that feels ancient, in a modern way. So it is unsurprising that the loci of your political thinking are with the founders, and with Reconstruction – the two eras when that had to happen as if from scratch: during and after the Revolution, and the Civil War, when much unfinished business of the founding came due. Are we now in a third crisis, which dawned more gradually, brought on by burgeoning populations and migrations? Perhaps the last time when anyone would have seen it as a crisis was during the Civil Rights era when the legacy of Reconstruction came to a boil. And now we see the question: whether it in fact is tenable. I don’t know the answer either.

R.K.H.: Well, federalist systems are always tricky; the Europeans are discovering this too. How do you honor the integrity of the local, while maintaining stable institutions that can coordinate on a large scale, and not have those institutions get so powerful that they suppress the diversity of the communities that comprise them? There’s a tendency in conservative thought, both in Europe and in the US, that stigmatizes the EU project as a terrible betrayal of the member nations, and so on; yet, if you were to analogize the member states of the EU with the member states of the US, the American system is infinitely more repressive. They have far more autonomy at the level of member-state than the US does. I don’t know yet what this tells us, but --

S.: Perhaps we see the United States as fait accompli, but the European Union as an agenda.

R.K.H.: It’s a project, yes; of ever-closer integration. But a project carried out with one eye on concerns for the autonomy of member-states, and that’s a difficult value to articulate in this country, because of the tragic way that it became entwined with issues of race.

S.: And later with many other “social justice” questions: marriage equality; abortion; and so on.

R.K.H.: So rediscovering the virtues of loose federations, semi-autonomous communities, while disentangling those issues, is also tricky. But ultimately desirable – if it’s possible. Because this capture to which I referred, clearly results from an excessive concentration of power in the federal government, and within the government, in the executive branch. And the way things are structured now, I believe, is not what anyone intended.

S.: On the blog Unqualified Reservations, which Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. “Mencius Moldbug,” wrote from 2007 to 2014, he too champions a sort of small-city-state vision, more or less on the model of companies "ruled" by CEOs. I don’t want to give Yarvin more than his due – being very smart is not everything – but his critique of democracy ought not to be just waved away. People forget, or ignore, just how critical of democracy Plato (and Nietzsche!) were – and Badiou and Zizek are, for reasons pretty much opposed to Yarvin. Yarvin is right that democracy is fragile – fatally so, he believes. But you point out, Madison and the other American founders knew it was fragile too. Yarvin’s imagined small city-states would not always be “republics” of course – in fact, he prefers autocracies, and likes to point to Singapore or Dubai – but really, he’d be satisfied to “let shareholders decide;” in other words to have a kind of democracy within certain bounds.

R.K.H.: I’ve read long stretches of Moldbug. It’s a frustrating experience because there is such an interweaving of insights with absurdities.

S.: Not unlike Nietzsche, some might say. The difference– well, one difference – being that Yarvin has not made himself indispensable. (He’d probably argue that “indispensability” on those terms is not something he would covet. And of course there’s the argument that many of those who regard Nietzsche in this way misread him in very disfiguring ways.)

R.K.H.: To your question though: we used to have such things as company towns. I’m sure there’s a reason why we don’t anymore! Bear in mind too that I use the concept of a small city-state as a heuristic, much the way Wittgenstein uses his “language games.”

S.: The way you describe the disintegration of American polity and the “capture” of US politics by forces inimical to it, seems to be a kind of centrifugal reaction (the fragmentation of our sense of "We") to a huge centripetal force (the concentration of Executive power). Is that too simple?

R.K.H.: The concentration of executive power greatly incentivizes special interests to seek control over it; and they are remarkably successful. The main reason is that the parties need their money to wage a modern campaign. I wouldn’t describe the result as centripetal or centrifugal; rather, as a bifurcation of the body politic brought about by a corrupt, competitive two party system which no longer can deliver anything substantial.

S.: To return to a Nietzschean prognosis: I take it you don’t expect the immanent arrival of the Übermensch to deliver us (and why would the Übermenschen be deliverers?). But what if – to come back to the question of decadence I raised earlier – we are just living in the twilight of the Zarathustra’s Last Men, the “inventors of happiness,” for – well, for a long time? Possibly even the last men – without happiness?

R.K.H.: One of the most striking experiences I had recently was returning to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and finding all sorts of parallels between Mill and Nietzsche with regard to individual development, eccentricity, social pressure, modernity, et cetera.

S.: A provocative pairing, Mill and Nietzsche. The Nietzscheanization of liberalism, or vice-versa!

R.K.H.: Such parallels are probably due to Mill being directly influenced by German thinkers. Implicit in Mill is this notion that a flourishing culture requires conditions necessary to the development of individuals. These conditions are what we call “liberalism” both in connection with institutions and with attitudes. Nietzsche’s concept of the superhuman is his somewhat grandiose way of talking about a flourishing culture and the culturally productive people who compose it. This suggests to me a kind of rapprochement between the two thinkers, and the way out of our current condition. And yet I think the way out is ultimately political.

S.: On how to discuss questions academically, balancing this with legal concerns about hostile environment, you said, we must and will figure it out. But on our larger political crisis, you sound less sure.

R.K.H.: No, I’m not particularly confident. Centralization is very hard to reverse, and doing so often requires either violence or profound systemic failure, like the Soviets experienced in the late 1980s. Neither of those are good options!

S.: Well, systemic failure – economic, ecological, or both – looks increasingly possible. And even this may not bring decentralization. In the short term it could easily occasion the opposite.

R.K.H.: I still hold out hope that we can figure things out as a political community, recognizing ideological differences, working through things, debating honestly and civilly – but we must address something that we have not satisfactorily addressed so far: the self-serving role of special interests in steering legislation and regulation. It used to be a lively topic among Democrats, and seems not to be anymore. One wonders why.

S.: Well, the powerful there know what is, and is not, to their immediate advantage. And as you say – they have, like their Republican counterparts, exchanged a role in governance for a role in public entertainment and a seat at the table power-brokering behind closed doors.

R.K.H.: But you can’t have civic republicanism if the city is for sale to the highest bidder.