"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

"Let's All Be a Little Less Piggy"*

I'm always fascinated by these arguments, especially when they directly reference King and/or Gandhi:

People will behave better, Nussbaum argues, if we admit our vulnerability and work to create a society where everyone experiences less fear and uncertainty, and a greater sense of positive citizenship. She takes as her model the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and advocates a “mandatory program of youth national civil service” of three years’ duration. One of this program’s purposes would be to expose citizens at a relatively early age to “the diversity of people in their country,” and foster the sense that we all have a stake in each other’s well-being. She knows that most people consider such a program “politically impossible,” but “if people don’t talk about it, it certainly won’t be possible. So, I put my cards on the table.” These are the moments when Nussbaum seems most out of touch with the nation she inhabits. Even the wokest young Berner clamoring for socialism would surely balk at this prospect.

Yes, we would all balk.  This was the ideal of Brown v. Board, a Supreme Court holding now honored more in the breach than in the keeping.  The idea was that, when black and white children went to school together, racism would disappear.  Instead, white parents fled into private schools, or neighborhoods black families couldn't afford, and solved the problem of Brown by continuing the problem of Brown, even though now we have no "separate but equal" schools in America.

Nussbaum's argument reeks of Rawl's "Theory of Justice:"  if we all just understood our proper relationship to each other, we'd all realize we're in the same boat with the same problems, and we'd rationally reach a conclusion that benefits everyone equally.  Which, of course, is not at all what King and Gandhi advocated.  To begin with, while neither King nor Gandhi spurned reason, they started from a religious viewpoint:  Hinduism for Gandhi, Christianity for King.  So if we take their model of nonviolent activism, we have to take their method for making that non-violence effective, and that involves religion.  If you are going to reference King or Gandhi and say "Oh, we should do what they did!", then you have to consider what they did, and how they did it.  It wasn't just that they were non-violent, but how they were non-violent, and why they were non-violent.

I take it back:  Nussbaum's argument reeks of "Kumbayah."  You know, we all hold hands around the campfire and sing and the whole world will be healed.  Except that experience doesn't outlast the campfire, much less change hearts and minds.   I'm a bit of a cynic in the matter, actually, as I'm not sure what does change hearts and minds except relentless effort to be changed.  Dr. King described the process of his followers admitting their vulnerability:

We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Who among us is willing to do even that much?  Only a few people did when Dr. King was alive, but they were enough.  He died, and the non-violent movement he led died, too.  There is a huge amount of effort behind those simple words "We began a series of workshops on nonviolence."  Who among us would attend those diligently?  Much of the problem here is that Dr. King was promoting the power of powerlessness; and even the "young Berner" (Bernie supporter, I guess?) is interested in power, not powerlessness.

And the "mandatory program of youth national service."  Yeah, that'll work.  We already have a mandatory program involving youth:  it's called "public school."  I teach the products of that program every year.  Most of them appear rigidly resistant to it, and barely touched by it.  They haven't been shaped into people with open and curious minds, eager for knowledge and new ideas.  Mostly, they are resistant to even more education, even though, at the college level, education is no longer mandatory.  I know people who went through the Peace Corps; but they volunteered for that service, and were accepting of the challenges it posed to them.  Some people go to church voluntarily, and probably even today some do not (children).  Some are changed by the experience; but some are not.
Some realize, with or without church, that we have a stake in each other's well-being; some do not, and never will.  I'm not sure how we nurture that ideal, except on a very individual basis.  In the meantime, the product of a mandatory program of youth service is the very Trump supporters Nussbaum is concerned about.

If we're going to do this, we have to return to basics.  Western philosophy really began with Socrates, the teacher of Plato.  Interestingly, Socrates never espoused a program of thought that could be applied to everyone (Plato did that).  His approach was entirely personal, wholly individual.  The best dialogues are Socrates in conversation with one other person (well, except for the "Apology," where he takes on all the men of Athens; and he only persuades them to sentence him to death).  If you take his statements in "Crito" as valid, you could argue that Socrates saw himself as "work[ing] to create a society where everyone experiences less fear and uncertainty, and a greater sense of positive citizenship." (No, not Nussbaum's words, so I'm being a bit unfair to her.)  But Socrates did that on a personal basis, not on the basis of a described ideal everyone would subscribe to once they heard it.  In the "Euthyphro" Socrates destroys the idea that there is an "ideal" which can be known by all (or by anyone), and yet in "Crito" he avers that every individual must have an ideal that is the raison d'être of the individual's life.  But that is for the individual, not for the community.  But must we all follow the example of Socrates in order to live a just life in a just society?  And how would we do that?  How would we change our hearts and minds order to be as ironic as Socrates?  No, that certainly wouldn't work out well:

Irony...has no purpose, it's purpose is immanent in itself, a metaphysical purpose. The purpose is none other than irony itself. When an ironist exhibits himself as other than he actually is, it might seem that his purpose were to induce others to believe this. His actual purpose, however, is merely to feel free, and he is through irony....

With doubt the subject constantly seeks to penetrate the object, and his misfortune consists in the fact that the object constantly eludes him. With irony, on the other hand, the subject is always seeking to get outside the object and this he attains by becoming conscious at every moment that the object has no reality. With doubt the subject is witness to a war of conquest in which every phenomenon is destroyed, because the essence always resides behind the phenomenon. But with irony the subject constantly retires from the field and proceeds to talk every phenomenon out of its reality in order to save himself, that is, in order to preserve himself in his negative independence of everything....

For irony everything becomes nothingness, but nothingness may be taken in several ways. The speculative nothingness is that which at every moment is vanishing for concretion, since it is itself the demand for the concrete...The mystical nothingness is a nothingness for representation, a nothingness which yet is as full of content as the silence of the night is eloquent for one who has ears to hear. Finally, the ironic nothingness is that deathly stillness in which irony returns to 'haunt and jest' (this last word taken wholly ambiguously.)(Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, tr. Lee M. Capel (Bloomington, Indiana; Indiana University Press 1968, 273-75)

"Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation."  And irony is certainly not about whole sight; but religion, arguably, is.  It doesn't have to be; it is certainly used to be exclusive as much as it is used to be inclusive.  But the statement "let us reason together" is radically exclusive, as "reason" in that phrase is a highly restricted term. The reasoning of Aquinas is not the reasoning of Russell (as Wittgenstein well understood, though Russell didn't). Can religion bring us together? No; it can bring some of us, but certainly not all of us. But then, bring us together to do what? Wield power over Trump supporters? Or to effect the power of powerlessness?  The latter is more likely to increase the positive sense if our nation's diversity and foster a sense that we actually are all in this together. But how do you see that the first will be last and the last first outside of a vision of the basileia tou theou and the God of Mary's Magnificat who will reveal the hearts of the proud and cast the mighty from their thrones?

*Richard Nixon's Council of Economic Advisors pitiful attempt to rein in inflation by appealing to the angels of our better nature.


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