Future, Present, & Past:



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~~ 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.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Business as usual: critique of cynical indecision


Writing my posts lately, I've been distracted by a rant building in my mind. Like everyone else with access to the news and a rudimentary conscience, I've been brooding over the ongoing travesty that is happening on the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Even tuning in, occasionally, to the live ecological snuff film B.P. is broadcasting.

Brooding? Well, sorta. More like, thinking about it off and on. In between appointments. Over coffee. While driving.

Even after all these weeks, my response is nothing like a well-proportioned argument. Nor is it, however, quite the eruption it wishes it could be. To be sure, it gears itself up. I want to thunder: Who is there who is, deep down, really surprised at this? Is there anyone, anyone at all, who thinks this wasn't bound to happen--who doesn't acknowledge that it was always, always, a question not of if, but of when.

I want to pound the table until it rattles the computer screen you're reading this on.

And yet. There's something deeply disingenuous about any such pounding. Why? Because I'm wrong? No, on the contrary, I want to say-- because I'm right. We did see it coming, or should have. There's no reason to be surprised. And, in my heart of hearts, I'm not surprised. And that's exactly why I've been driving to work, and life goes on, and somewhere at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Louisiana, a hole continues to hemorrhage petroleum, until the slick that has now risen to the surface may be seen from space.

Gradually, irrationally, inexorably, this slick has seeped into a broader context. The B.P. spill has become--for me--the latest in a parade of mortal shame, an impressionistic series of horror (impressionistic to me, the bewildered and frightened spectator, but not to the ones it is happening to). I suppose many people have such a roster. Mine includes: a Wal-Mart worker trampled to death the day after Thanksgiving by "shoppers" seeking "deals". A hooded prisoner, standing atop a crate, wires attached to him, terrified to move. Students gunned down by fellow students in high schools and colleges. Some may be able to see these each merely as separate incidents (which of course they are, particularly to those whose names are omitted here--the store clerk, the prisoner, the students), awful and perhaps mortally depressing, but not connected. I on the other hand look at such events and find myself stirred to a kind of vague paranoia, as hard to shake off as it is to defend, a sense that this is all symptomatic of something deeply festering and incredibly wrong. Something just under the surface and only occasionally (so far) rising into view, something we glimpse, shudder at, and then stop thinking about it because to really think about it would mean having to change how we live.

At times I want to say to whoever I can corner, "you don't understand! We are all implicated, submerged up to our crown chakras in this, it is not 'the bad people,' terrorists or rapists or CEOs or whoever out there, it's HERE (pointing to heart) inside us; school shootings, prison camps, and drowning polar bears are only the visible signs of something that is going on All the Time, and we all in our heart of hearts are just praying (to the god we don't believe in) that next time it won't be me, it won't be us, it won't be someone I love.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
So, famously, Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago. I'm leaving aside the vast problem of Solzhenitsyn's own thought--how antisemitic, how naïve, how etc. etc. Let the quotation, this one paragraph (the most many people ever know of The Gulag Archipelago) stand on its own for a moment.

But another voice in my head says: What does Abu Ghraib or Columbine or Wal-Mart have to do with the B.P. disaster? You're having an emotional reaction, a knee-jerk spasm of indignation at Everything That's Wrong, but let's hope cooler heads prevail when it comes to appointing judges or directing clean-up. The claim that everything is related and that the evils are systemic in nature is easy, too easy, to make, but what does it actually mean?

Does Solzhenitsyn mean that we are all responsible? And if so, is this why I feel such inertia? Or does this inertia simply find a convenient excuse in the sentiment that "we are all to blame"? In what measure is this a valid and real insight, and in what measure is it just another word for complacency and cynicism?

Tom Junod has said it very succinctly. Writing in Esquire of the oil spill, he said:
If it was seen as a threat to our way of our life, we'd know how to respond to it.
But it's not a threat to our way of life.
It is our way of life.
This came to mind when I read Graham Harman's thoughts. Harman wrote:
even more depressing than the accident itself is the thought that it might not even prove to be a turning point– that even something this bad could give way to business as usual.
I know what Harman means, I think; the creepy, creeping sense that outrage--not merely on the part of the President but on the part of the public--has just not been commensurate with the atrocity, leads to the depressing expectation that this, too, will prove to be just another "unfortunate incident." But my conclusion is a little different. Unfortunate incidents are business as usual. What is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is business as usual. It's not a threat to our way of life; it is our way of life.

But does this cynicism just paralyze?

There is passage from Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved that is sometimes quoted (for instance in ch. 42 of Jonathan Glover's sobering Humanity: a moral history of the twentieth century) as a contrast to Solzhenitsyn:
I do not know, and it does not interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed...and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.
A more recent victim, just as unwavering in her insistence on the objectivity of the difference between herself and her persecutors, is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose righteous indignation--against the Islamicist bigotry she has herself endured (and still endures, as her bodyguards and death threats must every day remind her)--Paul Berman contrasts with the urbane and "slippery" accommodationism of Tariq Ramadan. I don't think much of Berman's indignation, but if we need a more current instance of the difference between the spirit of these quotes by Levi and Solzhenitsyn, one need look no further than Hirsi Ali's stern either/or, and the both/ands of her multiculturalist critics.

To be sure, Levi also acknowledged a "Gray Zone" in which even victims' and murderers' choices are not so easy to judge; he famously refused to depict war criminals as an inhuman "absolute" evil: "Such total barbarity did not exist." And, on the other hand, I think of the line Solzhenitsyn sent to a New York editor: "Remember, there is such a thing as good and evil."

That is, just as Levi, even as he distinguished between murderers and victims, could also acknowledge a blur or a complicity between them, so too Solzhenitsyn, in saying that "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being," nonetheless insisted that there was a line.

As a kind of parenthetical observation, I want to add that this intersects with the ethical/aesthetic question I see in the issue of eternal objects. This renewed Platonism was inspired for me by Levinas, whose philosophy of encounter, his hyperbolic insistence on otherness-- "each of us is guilty for everyone before everyone, and I more than the others," as he often quotes from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov--seems in one way close in spirit (despite its insistence on guilt instead of innocence) to Primo Levi. This is because Levinas is insisting on an asymmetry in the encounter between I and Thou, an asymmetry in which ethics is irrefutably a commandment, a Thou shalt; one may disobey this command, but not evade it. On the other hand, the stress on mutual interdependence, the Buddha's pratītyasamutpāda is (in this one way) very close to Solzhenitsyn. And yet, there is a complication--for after all, one might think that the spirit of Dostoevsky's quote is closer to Solzhenitsyn in saying guilt is omnipresent. Faced with this bewildering nexus of responsibility, of questions about where I end and you begin, where my responsibility ends and B.P.'s starts--is it any wonder that cynicism looks like a refuge?

It strikes me that cynicism (in the modern, not ancient, sense) is the inversion or refusal of philosophy. And if this is so, America is the least philosophical of nations. Americans across the political "spectrum," if that's what it is, all feel this cynicism; I suspect that this is what lies behind our collective failure to snap the neck of British Petroleum. It isn't some CEO's head we should be calling for, it's the whole damn body politic. In fact, we are cynical because we're buying--we need--what they're selling. And we're not about to stop anytime soon. Not until the oil is lapping at our front door.

I know this is an "overreaction." And I reach, I fumble, for something more moderate.
Perhaps, I want to say, Solzhenitsyn can say "it was... only because of the way things worked out, that they were the executioners and we weren't"; I cannot. I don't know. And Levi can say, "I was an innocent victim and not a murderer"; I cannot. I don't know. Because it hasn't been up to me to choose. It's still hypothetical.

But it is not hypothetical. We can't be surprised. It has always been, it is still, not a question of if, but of when.

And yet, when is not the only question. It is a question of to whom. We will continue to pray that it won't be us, that it won't be someone we love. But it will be. It already is.

5 comments:

  1. Well you bought the Obama sizzle. I don't blame you really, it was either that or drill baby drill. Not of course that he isn't in thrall to the same forces which are far from occult. They went out there to drill in deep water because they were let and they were let because cheap and secure gas is an American imperative. It was a perfect time to promote the green alternative or to put the speech writers to work. Bryant who is a clever man was swayed by Obama's rhetoric, I on the other hand at a remove from the gush and the gusher see him in ordinary conversation or question and answer with the press to be remarkably halting and stilted. It's the lawyer thing, CYA at all times with a watertight form of words. Normal pols on the other hand will contradict themselves in the same sentence because they know that people take out of their utterances what they want to hear. My etymological dictionary has a definition for 'fudge' which discounts its origin in a certain 'lying Captain Fudge'.

    It will be plugged, the plug will be plugged. Wise people will say modern life has its inherent risks but think of the benefits. Executives of BP will commit the western form of harakiri, they will submit their resignations and receive the handshake which is golden. This is the politics of the latest atrocity.

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  2. It is a terrible tragedy and I'm willing to accept that we are all tainted by it in many ways. It is still way to early to tell how terrible it will be. That makes the back and forth chatter between the extremes meaningless at this point. I have a sad suspicion that when it is all tallied up we will all beg forgiveness from our children and grandchildren.

    It is my nature to be sanguine and I hold hope that some change will come from this. After all it is not technology or understanding that we lack, merely will. We have to have the will to change the political milieu.

    I'm a convinced capitalist. But what we have today, this greedy bi-opoly between government and corporations, is not capitalism, no more so than the Soviet Union was a communist state. What we have seen is the rise of Market Fundamentalism. It's the Chicago school of economics that best voices this belief system. Whereas Adam Smith saw virtue as a prerequisite for capitalism, the market fundamentalists believe that markets produce virtue. The disastrous result of this inversion is that rather than having gentlemen and ladies sit down and agree to fair and sustainable rules to the game, a process we call regulation, we have the persons who should be regulating forfeiting their responsibilities to a supernatural being they call the market. I hope we will come to accept that there is no such god.

    I'm actually a fan of George Soros on this topic. I was amused and somewhat gratified to see Glenn Beck attacking Soros last night as the evil mastermind that caused the disaster through his murky backroom maneuvering. That at least convinced me that I had drawn the battle lines correctly. Beck is a pretty good counter indicator of anything factual. Soros has funded a foundation which he hopes to develop as a counterbalance to the Cato institute and the American Enterprise Institute. Somebody needs to make the case that if we're going to be in bed with the market we shouldn't be confused about her virtues. She is not rational: she rages in greed and fear. She is not efficient: she is prone to wild excess just like nature herself. She does not have a super human intelligence: she is wonderful and amazingly sensitive but ultimately she emerges from our collective judgments and we have not yet become infallible.

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  3. Just a minor point: whenever it comes to applied ethics (such as: driving less and going more, producing less garbage, etc.), should not one prefer to do something rather than doing nothing at all, since one is paralysed by the incommensurability between what one *ought* to do and what one is willing to do?

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  4. dy0genes~~ you said: It is still way to early ...[this] makes the back and forth chatter between the extremes meaningless.
    This has a good deal to do with why I find it hard to articulate my response (reaction?). Part of what I'm feeling is a strong urge to, well, do something! This reminds me of why I got certified as an EMT, although I never worked as one. I had realized I was afraid, afraid of all sorts of things, and I decided to take some concrete step, not to make my fear go away but so that I could feel competent in the face of my fear. I am now fairly sure that if I passed a three-car collision, I could stop and keep someone alive and have them ready for transport, whereas before, I would have been worse than useless. My point in this autobiographical aside is not just that "education is the answer," but that taking a long hard look at what really scares us is the essential ground of any useful work. Being trained does not make me any less horrified about physical hurt, for instance, but I am able to face those situations in a calmer and more productive manner. My rant above is really just a scream, and by itself doesn't do much, but it's trying to edge towards asking the deeper questions about responsibility and what to do. This is a properly philosophical question: the big questions at precisely the sorest spot.

    Thanks also for this useful reminder about Smith's take on virtue and the market. I have mixed feelings about Soros but I respect him for his realism within the parameters of his world. Once upon a time I was deeply impressed by George Will's book Statecraft as Soulcraft, which argued (as I recall from 25 years' distance--I should re-read) that the virtue of her citizens cannot be a matter of indifference for a nation. The difficulty is that a particular vision of virtue is extra-legal and cannot be a function of a legal document like a constitution.

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  5. Elisa~~ welcome! I think doing something is preferable to doing nothing so long as "doing something" is not really an excuse for doing nothing. What I mean is that I have little patience with palliatives and steps that are meant only to make me feel better (though I grant that little is served by me just feeling bad, I believe (see my response to dy0genes) that being able to look one's "feeling bad" straight in the eye is the beginning of wisdom. So yes, I think we should do something rather than nothing-- My being an EMT will not prevent car accidents-- but it will turn into "part of the problem" as fast as you can say Paper or Plastic, if doing something turns into an escape from what you rightly call "the incommensurability between what one *ought* to do and what one is willing to do?", instead of a way of facing this incommensurability.

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