The Dignity of Politics

Hannah Arendt on the Human Condition

Hannah Arendt would certainly not claim that our politics is dignified. To the contrary, she would be among the voices warning of the current risks to our democracy in its recent lurch toward autocracy. Arendt ranks high among the most important political theorists of the 20th century. Many of you may want to place her somewhere on the familiar left-right spectrum in political thought. You will be frustrated. She isn’t really interested in what we have traditionally thought of as right-wing or left-wing political ideologies. Her political thought is mainly developed in opposition to totalitarianism.

Arendt’s political thought is shaped by her formative experience as a survivor of Nazi Germany. She was a political activist against the rising power of the Nazis in the early 30s. She became a close student of rising anti-semitism and helped Jewish people escape from Germany. Her activism apparently struck a nerve since Arendt was detained and interrogated for 8 days by the Gestapo. It was clear that Germany was no longer safe for her, and she fled to France where she continued her work for the Jewish cause. In France she gave lectures and helped to organize the emigration of young Jewish people to Palestine. In 1940, in anticipation of the Nazi invasion of France, Arendt was interned in Paris along with other Jewish refugees from Germany. She was among 200 out of 7000 interned women who managed to escape. She eventually managed to leave France for the US in spite of lacking official papers. Arendt was a stateless refugee for 18 years. During this time, she thought and wrote extensively about the dehumanizing experience of the stateless refugee.

Arendt’s later political thought is best understood through the lens of her formative experience with Nazi totalitarianism.

On Totalitarianism

“On Totalitarianism” may be Arendt’s best-known theoretical work. The point of totalitarianism, as Arendt sees it, is to strip people of their dignity, humanity and individuality. It does so by pitting a dominant “us” against a marginalized “them.” It is most obviously the oppressed who’s dignity, freedom and individuality are stripped away under authoritarian systems. But then the oppressors are also homogenized and reduced to cogs in the oppressive machinery. No one is free under totalitarianism with the possible exception of the strong man or the great leader.

Arendt is well known for coining the expression “the banality of evil” in her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi architect of the death camps. The word “banal” means unoriginal, commonplace, obvious or boring. Many have misunderstood Arendt to be playing down evil. Quite controversially, Arendt did not find Eichmann monstrous. She found him mediocre, a small, thoughtless bureaucrat who was just following orders. The remarkable, radical and horrifying nature of evil under totalitarianism, in Arendt’s view, is that tolerating and participating in evil becomes normal, commonplace, banal.

Great evil doesn’t require evil intention or malicious demonic character in the context of totalitarianism. All the radical evil of the holocaust requires is for normal people to thoughtlessly follow directions. The racist ideology and propaganda of Nazism made this possible. But only because ordinary people like Eichmann and so many other Germans refused to think.

To think, here, is not merely to have thoughts. Eichman had plenty of cliched thoughts and even some clever distorted rationalizations for what he did. He wasn’t thoughtless out of stupidity. He simply didn’t bother to consider the consequence of his work for others. He wouldn’t reflect on the merit of the ideology he subscribed to or the justness of the directions he followed.

The Human Condition

In her less widely read later work “The Human Condition” Arendt lays out her vision of how well functioning communities can support the dignity of the person. The result is not a theory of the ideal state, or a governing philosophy, so much as an extended meditation on the sort of human life a well-functioning public realm can support. Of course, there are lots of warnings about hazards and obstacles to building such a public realm along the way.

Arendt finds dignity in politics when ordinary people can speak and act to shape their own communities, societies and destinies. Arendt’s mission in political theory is to explain what it takes to restore the dignity of politics. In her understanding of the political, this isn’t really about the behavior of our elected leaders. The point of politics is to create conditions where people can live in dignity as free and equal citizens in the public realm. She aims to cultivate a public realm where people are free to speak and act as themselves, under their own initiative, free from necessity, especially including the domination of others.

To work towards an understanding of what a dignified politics that would support human freedom would look like, it will help to examine how our human lives are conditioned. Arendt is suspicious of the idea of an essential human nature. Even if there is such a thing, for us to claim knowledge of it would be like “jumping over our own shadow.” So, talk of the human condition is to be carefully distinguished from talk of human nature.

Our lives are conditioned by all the things and people we encounter. We in turn condition the world and others. These conditioning influences vary in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the only things that condition human lives universally are our natality, our birth, and our mortality. Our natality introduces plurality to the human condition. Arendt’s notion of plurality isn’t our contemporary concept of pluralism. When we talk of pluralism we are generally referring to a plurality of identities along familiar lines of race, ethnicity, gender etc. Pluralism in this familiar sense still refers to broad groupings of individuals according to a rather narrow range of identities. The kind of plurality Arendt is concerned with is our uniqueness as individuals. Each of us comes into the world as something new conditioned at birth. Plurality for Arendt is concerned with who we are, not what we are. Seeing our individuality to fruition, on her view, is the highest priority of liberatory politics.

We are all born as unique individuals with our own unique contributions to make to the world and humanity. Our mortality sharply limits the opportunity for our individuality to have lasting impact in the world. We are conditioned by our mortality to transcend these limits by making lasting contributions to the world. Leading lives that are not isolated and ephemeral requires a public sphere where we interact with others and contribute something of ourselves to broader communities. So, Arendt’s idea of plurality, our uniqueness as individuals, does not lead to what we might now think of as individualism. Leading full and becoming human lives means entering communities, participating and helping to shape them, as individuals. We transcend our mortality by participating in a world populated by other people.

Arendt’s talk of the world here isn’t referring just to the natural world we occupy in the same way animals do. Rather, as humans conditioned by natality and mortality, we create and occupy the human world of artifact, technology and culture. We condition and are conditioned by this human world. Being fully human and leading an active life where we can transcend our biological morality demands that we create a human world where we can make a difference. This is the point of politics. The point of politics is to create and sustain communities and political structures where we can contribute something of ourselves to the future, where we can create and act in ways where we condition the world, as opposed to just being passively conditioned by it.

It’s worth noting, as Arendt anticipates, that the natural world is no longer something separate from the human world we create. We condition and are conditioned by all of nature at this point. Nature is artifactual as much our factories, political institutions and garbage dumps. All of the world is the human world, conditioned by our politics whether these are free and democratic, totalitarian or something else. Well before Rachel Carson, Arendt anticipates environmental consciousness.

Labor, Work and Action

We lead our active lives in one of three modes: Labor, Work, and Action

Labor consists of the activity that is necessitated by our biological needs as animals. We are compelled in the realm of labor and the life of labor is one we share with other animals.

Work, as Arendt uses the term, is the activity of making things. Here we act according to a plan to produce a certain product or outcome. Our activity is a means to a predetermined end in the realm of work. And our activity can proceed in relative isolation. By making things that outlast us, work offers some limited opportunity to transcend our mortality. But our work is what we do, not who we are. So, what we contribute to the world beyond our morality through work is a thing, hopefully useful, but not exactly ourselves.

When Arendt speaks of action, she is referring to activity that is not conditioned by biological necessity nor by the goal of making something according to a pre-ordained plan. Action and speech are the kinds of activity where we engage others in a way that is not conditioned by necessity, pre-ordained plans or domination. In action and speech we interact with others as free and equal people. Action proceeds from who we are. The realm of action and speech is where we reveal to the world who we are. We both condition our shared world and are conditioned by it through action and speech.

The point of politics, as Arendt sees it, is to create and sustain a public realm that supports action and speech, where we can contribute something of ourselves to a larger community. This will not be possible when some leader or some group imposes its will on society. Under totalitarianism, fascism, autocracy, or pick your term, politics is reduced to work, where some impose their pre-ordained plan on others. Action and speech are no longer possible in this condition. In this condition people are reduced to things, raw materials, or laborers. Those on the bottom of a totalitarian system are systematically stripped of their humanity and disposed of as things or waste products. But even those on top, the oppressors, are reduced to animality, functioning only as laborers, active only out of necessity, just following orders, not thinking.

Learning from the Navajo

Through 3rd and most of 4th grade, I lived in Ganado, in the Navajo nation. I don’t recall a paved road in town. Horses and dogs roamed free. So did children. My friends and playmates were all Navajo save for one other white kid, the only white kid other than my sister and I at my school. I picked up words and phrases of Navajo, now long forgotten. What I haven’t forgotten though, is an appreciation of Navajo humor. Jokes about the crazy white man were funny and deprecating, but not dehumanizing. Navajo humor was not unsympathetic to human folly. What made it funny was pointing out the ridiculousness of common place ridiculousness and just doing so accurately, without spite. Navajo wit is sharp and wry, but rarely bitter or recriminating.

This, I can now see, reflects a moral universe relatively free of self-righteousness and retributive thinking. Human foibles are part of nature. Seeing humans realistically means expecting flaws and mistakes as much as virtue in others. When things go wrong, try to fix them. Retributive punishment matters less in the Navajo view of things than mending breaches in the community. Justice is not about punishing offenders so much as it is about restoring what has been damaged.

In August of 2020, the US government executed Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo, over the objections of the Navajo Nation. His guilt was not at issue, but tribal sovereignty and what counts as justice according to the Navajo was. The national press focused mainly on the issue of defending tribal rights. That is all well and good. More to the point, to my mind, are the lessons we might take from the Navajo about the aims of justice.

Navajo Nation Covid 19 Relief Fund:

Critical Thinking Note 27: Trust and Identity

We are living through a period of deep mistrust. This is most obvious at the level of national politics where tens of millions of Americans distrust the results of our recent presidential election. But this national failure of trust is recapitulated at the level of communities and relationships as well. We have crises of distrust at BC. I personally have crises of distrust in my own family. The dynamics of trust and distrust are worth examining and I’ll take a preliminary pass at this here. In particular, I’ll look into the dynamics of trust through the lens of an analysis of identity offered by Christine Korsgaard.

Members of a religious community are likely to trust each other on the basis of a shared system of beliefs and values. These are commonly beliefs that define a system of shared values and norms of behavior. Fellow members of the religious community are then trustworthy because each knows what to expect from the others due to their shared beliefs, values and resulting norms of behavior. So, we may find a basis for trust in shared beliefs and values.

Membership in a religious community is an identity. The example of the religious community generalizes to many other identities we have; identities that, to a substantial degree, constitute who we are as individuals. To get clear on this idea, I’d dwell for a moment on what an identity is. An identity is not just some property that marks membership in a group. I am a member of the group of men who are over six foot tall. But this property of being a six foot plus male doesn’t define an identity in any interesting sense, much less so a basis for trust.

We talk a good deal about identity, but seldom lean on the notion enough to spill its contents. Christine Korsgaard, though, offers a developed account of identity that will be illuminating for our purposes here. In Self Constitution, Korsgaard proposes that an identity is a “role with a point,” defined by a package of normative standards. Identities are teleological, that is, oriented towards ends or goals. A specific identity consists of an arrangement of normative standards that guide us in how to think, act, and feel in accordance with the telos of that identity. This is not hard to illustrate in terms of, say, professional identities. The point of a doctor’s professional identity is to preserve life and heal. The ethical and procedural standards of the doctor’s profession work together in furthering the professional ends of doctors to preserve life and heal. Or more trivially, I’ll take the point of being a cyclist to be to ride fast, efficiently, and joyfully. For the sake of these ends, cyclists adopt a rather complex array of normative standards covering everything from seat height, to etiquette concerning when it’s acceptable, expected or forbidden to draft behind another rider, to how to signal your intentions to drivers, and so forth.

We can discern a practical connection to trust in the idea of an identity as a package of normative standards. Normative standards guide our actions. When we share an identity with another, we share some normative standards that can provide us with a good idea how we can expect each other to act, what intentions we are liable to endorse, and what results we will be happy with or disapproving of.

Korsgaard’s central thesis in Self Constitution, as the title would suggest, is that we constitute ourselves through the identities we adopt and the actions and attitudes that manifest these identities. A corollary of this thesis is that identities are always contingent upon our own endorsement of the associated normative standards. So, for instance, I am not really a doctor unless I endorse and guide my activity by the normative standards aimed at preserving life and healing. But then what, we should ask, about identities we are born into and can’t simply change. We are born into our race and biological sex, for instance. And surely these are identities.

Korsgaard doesn’t pursue this topic, but I have a few suggestions as to how she might. In both the case of race and gender, I think we have contested identities, cases where oppression consists in attempting to foist an identity on a person without their ascent. What I’m suggesting here is that oppression consists not just in controlling the behavior of another. That may be the fruit of oppression, but the root consists in imposing an unwanted identity on another, one that disrupts their integrity as persons. Oppressive power, of course, presents a significant obstacle to trust.

So, Blackness, in the context of anti-Black racism, gets defined in ways that are demeaning to Black people. A package of normative standards is foisted on people who would not choose them, given the option. Black identity is up to Black people. And in overcoming racism, it will be incumbent on the rest of us to recognize and honor Blackness as conceived by Black people.

The story is similar in the case of gender. Our society has long been one where certain normative standards of behavior and attitude are foisted on people purely in virtue of what sorts of reproductive organs they were born with. In this context homophobia and transphobia are tools of social control aimed at foisting cisgender behavioral norms on people regardless of their will. Movements for gay rights and transgender rights are aimed at redefining gender identities by changing their associated packages of behavioral norms in ways that respect the autonomy of individuals to constitute their own gender identities. Detaching behavioral norms in sex and love from biological endowment is central to advancing human autonomy in this realm.

So, if my suggested elaboration works, then perhaps Korsgaard provides us with a helpful way to think about identity and how identity can provide a basis for trust in particular. I can trust fellow cyclists to the degree that they adhere to the normative standards of cycling. We can trust our doctors to the degree that they adhere to the normative standards of the profession and its goal of preserving life and healing. Members of the religious community share trust on the basis of their shared belief system and the norms and values defined therein. Other identities, like racial and gender identities, are substantially more diverse, so high levels of trust may not be as easily assumed. But trust may be more easily established thanks to a shared identity, even those that encompass broad ranges of diversity. So I am taking trust as a basis for identity to provide us with sometimes a stronger and sometimes a weaker reason to trust. Reasons, in any case, that may be overridden by other considerations.

Trust in the case of personal love and friendship might seem different, but Korsgaard’s view of identity can be readily extended to models of personal love that involve identification with the beloved, as several do. Here, identification with the other is not based on membership in an identity group, it is constituted by caring about a particular whole person. When we care for another, we adopt the good of that person as a good or our own. Friends and lovers have a shared conception of the good that includes the interests, values and happiness of each other. In line with Korsgaard, friends and lovers create a shared identity through the appreciation and bestowal of value in each other.

But now for the dark side of identity. It can be part of the point of an identity to foster trust exclusively between in-group members. This is typically how cults work. It is not enough to trust the charismatic leader. Members must trust their leader to the exclusion of all outsiders. The cult community is defined by its elevation of and loyalty to the leader. This is the point of identity as a cult member. And this entails distrust of those who don’t follow the cult leader.

Slightly less extreme, the beliefs and norms that define some identities can be incomprehensible to those with other identities. A political ideology can make adherents of some other political ideologies seem incomprehensible, even evil. Trust will be hard to establish between people whose world views are so alien to each other as to make them incomprehensible. The critical ingredients for trust include some measure of mutual understanding. Traditionally, the main competing political perspectives in the US have been close cousins and grounds for shared understanding and trust have been substantial. It appears to many that prevalent political ideologies in the US have grown more extreme in recent years and room for mutual understanding has narrowed. But this could be an artifact of rhetoric that misrepresents the opposition as holding more extreme views than they do. Straw men abound in contemporary political discourse.

More generally, but still problematic, trust based on a shared identity has a natural limit in others who share that identity. Trust beyond members of the identity group must be built on some other foundation. Fortunately we have multiple identities. Where I can’t identify with another as a philosopher, I may yet find a basis for trust in our shared identities as cyclists. Our multiple and variously overlapping identities can, to varying degrees, extend networks of trust among a variety of people.

But then what about people with whom I share few if any of the sorts of specific practical identities we’ve discussed so far. Can there be some basis for trust even with people I have very little in common with? Well, at a minimum, I do share one identity with all people and that is personhood. Is this alone a basis for trust? I think so, and Korsgaard, who works in the broadly Kantian ethical tradition, would concur. I don’t need to assume any ambitious theory of human nature to get this idea off the ground. A very minimal one will do. As persons, we are all conscious, self aware, deliberative, valuers in the world. As such, we have our own will. Whether that will is free and what it might mean to have free will are further matters we needn’t settle here. Merely having a will of my own, one I can determine in accordance with my values and desires through my own deliberation, carries with it a recognition of my own importance. As conscious self aware beings, we identify with things that matter to us, and so my mattering comes along with things mattering to me. This is one way of formulating the basic Kantian insight that we have a kind of inherent moral worth that is grounded in our nature as persons. I may only have immediate awareness of my own own value as a person. But since this value attaches to personhood, mere logical consistency demands that I recognize all persons as having similar and equal moral worth.

Just this much, Kant thinks, is enough to ground his moral imperative that we must treat others as ends in themselves, never merely as means to our own ends. This can serve as a basis for trust, at least among others who recognize their own worth as persons and recognize us as fellow persons.

Regardless of what basis we have for trust, trust can be betrayed. This is not an argument for distrust. We have a basic human need for trusting relationships. But the specter of betrayed trust reminds us that that trust calls for a measure of courage. We can extend a measure of trust even when we lack strong bases for doing so. When that goes well, our basis for trust is bolstered. When things go badly, we may lose our courage and withdraw into suspicion. Trust on the basis of shared identities is just the starting point. From there we may weave the fabric of social bonds, or tear them apart.

Some Aphorisms from discussion of Thomas Chatterton Williams “A Game of Chance”

The futility of offending the offenders: We must speak out on behalf of the oppressed. Silence amounts to consent to their oppression. But, then there is the question of how to speak out when you see people treated badly. Our sense of justice often leads us to attack the attackers, and then we’ve joined the attacking game.

Another approach would be to be kind to the oppressed, express your sympathy and support for the oppressed and leave it at that. Being kind where is seems most called for isn’t taking sides or joining a battle. It gives the oppressors no cause for offense and will probably be more effective at getting them to better understand what they are doing than putting them on the defensive with accusation and blame. Indecency is implicitly called out when we model decent treatment of others ourselves.

Many will suggest we shouldn’t be concerned about offending the oppressor and perhaps the oppressor deserves to be offended (or worse). But then when was the last time you witnessed someone take offense without digging deeper into their own possibly quite misguided sense of righteousness? Offending the offenders can be emotionally satisfying, there seems to be some justice in it. The problem with offending the offenders is that it invariably results in escalation rather than getting through to the offender.

On cancel culture: Thoughtful conversation is easily shut down when people fear the consequences of inadvertent missteps. Without thoughtful conversation, mutual misunderstanding spreads and becomes entrenched. Then the prospects for people understanding, working out or respecting their differences is diminished and we wind up with hostility all round.

Tolerance: Valuing tolerance doesn’t mean we should tolerate anything, hate speech for example. We promote tolerance by not tolerating intolerance.

More generally, we promote freedom by regulating activity that undermines freedom. Traffic laws provide a helpful illustration here. You are more free to move around the city safely when people obey traffic signals and speed limits. (Now how might this apply to things like guns, carbon, or disregard for public health experts during a pandemic).

Accountability on the internet: Accountability isn’t the same thing as punishment. To give an account is to give an explanation. To hold someone accountable is to demand and explanation for some worrisome behavior. In criminal justice we hold someone accountable when we launch an investigation into that person’s actions or issue an indictment. Punishment only follows when an evaluation of the account offered warrants punishment.

As Williams points out, the opportunity to explain yourself is denied in internet cancel culture. And those doing the cancelling are shielded from any accountability themselves.

Kendi sets the Policy Agenda

Important Essay here: Kendi’s policy recommendations are made clear at the end.

“The abolition of slavery seemed as impossible in the 1850s as equality seems today. But just as the abolitionists of the 1850s demanded the immediate eradication of slavery, immediate equality must be the demand today. Abolish police violence. Abolish mass incarceration. Abolish the racial wealth gap and the gap in school funding. Abolish barriers to citizenship. Abolish voter suppression. Abolish health disparities. Not in 20 years. Not in 10 years. Now.”

Lots of work to do in this society fractured by inequality. Kendi seems to get the big pieces. Do let me know if you think he’s missed anything.

In How to be an Anti-Racist, Kendi points out that the crime rate among employed black males is about the same as that among employed white males. Unemployment causes crime. That suggests a pretty clear path to lower crime that does not involve police brutality, the inhumanity of mass incarceration and the massive expense of our criminal justice system.

Some will complain about the cost of transforming our society into a more humane, decent and equitable place. Not that the cost of sustaining an unequal unjust society is any kind of a bargain. In spite of the economic devastation of our current crises, the US remains the richest society the world has ever known. We can afford decent, hopeful and meaningful lives of all our citizens. For some perspective, let’s note that a 1.5% interest, each trillion we spend to capitalize black and Native American communities costs 15 billion per year to finance. That works out to less that $50 per person per year. Capitalize black and native communities in sustainable ways and we begin to redress long standing injustices while mitigating to some degree those we are now also imposing on the future.

Critical Thinking Note 23: An Exercise for Your Moral Imagination

Imagine your love is forbidden. Imagine that the kinds of relationships that animate your affection, bring meaning to your life and inspire your devotion are deemed taboo, intolerable, unacceptable to polite company in your society. If you happen to be LGBT or Q, this may be less an exercise of your imagination than mere contemplation of your reality. But those who are plain cisgendered heterosexuals like myself can still imagine this scenario. And anyone who does so with some compassion will have a clear sense right away of how tragic and unjust it is for one’s way of loving other persons to be forbidden.

Who and what we love is at the same time among the deepest expressions of who we are as persons, and binding of our own wills. We cannot simply choose who to love or not love. Attempts to do so tend not to go well. Love is both deeply personal and carries significant constraints on our own will. To find yourself held blameworthy or in contempt over who you love amounts to a moral condemnation of you as an individual, not for what you have willed or done, not for anything in your direct control, but simply for who you are. That people can be deserving of blame or contempt simply for being who they are is just not morally plausible. The notion can’t be squared with the moral sense we nearly all share.

Imagination in ethical inquiry is not just make believe. It is a tool for investigation. Ethics literature is richly populated by thought experiments, and literary references precisely because inquiry into morality is furthered by expanding the range and diversity of evidence our moral theories must ultimately account for.

The person who morally condemns LGBTQ people or the lives they lead on the basis of allegiance to some supposed infallible higher moral authority can do so only by obscuring their own moral sensibility. For instance, by ignoring the compelling evidence revealed in the thought experiment we began with. Simply deferring to authority has never been a reliable way of getting at the truth of things. Of course we do want to weigh the evidence of our senses against the assessments and arguments of more careful students than ourselves. Expertise is often helpful. But ultimately we ignore the evidence of our senses, including our moral sense, at our own peril. And, too often, at the peril of others as well.

Asylum Seekers at Christmas

Our national sentiment has hardened considerably against immigrants and refugees in recent years. Our fears have been stoked by fast and furious stereotyping and our attentions spans can barely accommodate the sort of narrative that more accurately represents the human stories of immigration or refuge seeking. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of a loving and forgiving refugee, approaches. There can be no more appropriate time to hear the stories of those seeking shelter from chaos, or simply a better life for their children. 

I’ll start with a relatively merry story from my own family. My in-laws now include a Syrian refugee. My wife’s third cousin, a vibrant and conscientious young nurse started volunteering in the refugee camps in Berlin a few years ago and took up with a bright, affable young man who had fled the violence in Syria. This young man doesn’t recognize terrorists and Islamic extremists as Muslim. He is just baffled at how anyone could so badly misunderstand the point of Islam. But as a young man of fighting age, neither the extremists nor the forces of Assad were inclined to give him the option of living peaceably. As a student in a government school, he was seen by the Assad Government as prime material for his armed forces. Rebels recognized this too, and saw him as soon to be against them if he wasn’t ready to join up with them. To obtain food for his family and avoid getting drafted, he obtained a fake military ID. This was risky move. It made him a target of militants against the government and put him at risk of execution if he got found out by government forces. So eventually, after seeing too many friends killed and being forced into hiding himself, he fled and wound up in Germany.

It was challenging for a few older members of my wife’s family when the young woman had a child with the Syrian man. But, his German has come along rapidly, and he’s well on the way towards winning them over. Being a good soccer player and a handy wrench with a BMW has helped him a good deal with the older men. A few more diaper changes would help him with the women in the family. He’s now integrating himself into his new homeland and my extended family. The very German culture of my wife’s family is hardly compromised. So there you go, turns out you can sustain German culture with Syrian babies.

It’s gratifying to have a relatively happy story of successful refuge seeking in my own family. But distressing to have so many frustrated ones so close to my own culture and nation. At our southern border a humanitarian crisis looms. Asylum seekers from Central America pile up in camps. It is legal for foreign nationals to present themselves at our international border seeking asylum. But our government has slowed processing of asylum pleas to prevent the entry of asylum seekers to our territory. Rallying in frustration a month before Christmas, asylum seekers were repelled with tear gas.

So what is the story of these people? Why would people walk thousands of miles from their homes to seek refuge in a country now infamously unwelcoming? These must be stories of desperation, but the politics of America First has drowned these stories. As we celebrate the birth of a refugee born thousands of years ago, we should find some time to hear the stories of asylum seekers at our own border today. I have catching up to do here, but for me these stories are much closer to home than the stories of Syrian refugees in Berlin.

I grew up in the presence of Latino gangs in the 70s. In my neighborhood in Mesa Arizona, it was the 8th Ave. Locos. There was machismo and mystique in it, but little violence. After school in the 70s, it was the sounds emanating from lowered mid 60s Chevys, primed and ready for paint for years on end, that introduced me to Shuggie Otis’ Strawberry Letter 23, The Eagles, Hotel California and lots of Carlos Santana. These remain in my mind as sounds of style, brotherhood, and self-esteem in the midst of prejudice. A Latino gang, then, was just a bunch of marginalized young men from the neighborhood that looked out for each other. 

Then came the Reagan era war on drugs and many of those young men were sent to prison. As a white kid, I had the good fortune of moving on to a different life. But as I lived adjacent to 70s Latino gang life, people in Central America were experiencing the brutality of the cold war, which was not really cold in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Central America was never highly prosperous and was always highly unequal. The struggle in the 70s of poor farmers for land reform and economic opportunity that would allow for merely a modest subsistence, combined with the ideological and armed interventions of the USSR and the USA, blossomed into a series of civil wars in the region that sent tides of immigrants fleeing chaos and violence north to the US. El Salvadorans established communities in Southern California and this was the birthplace of the now dreaded MS13 gang.

Originally, MS13 was not so different from the 8th Ave. Locos I grew up with. It was just a band of young men looking out for each other on the somewhat meaner streets of the LA area. But then came the war on drugs and mass incarceration. And in the 90s, mass deportation. A loosely organized population of men hardened off in US prisons was sent back to El Salvador, now a vulnerable fledgling democracy. In the context of poor populations, weak governments and the drug trade, gangs like MS 13 have spread across Central America and grown into a social movement of nihilistic sociopaths. Young men are pressured with violence into joining and then pressured to commit violence as members, facing only violence from the state if they try to escape the violence of gang life. Sociopaths are made, not born. Regard for lives of others is systematically stripped from young men in the pervasive and too frequently unavoidable trap of Central American gang life. The crisis is now to the point where “of the 20 countries in the world with the highest murder rates, 17 are Latin American.” This is what the desperate asylum seekers congregating at our southern border are fleeing.

It’s hard to miss our complicity in any honest account of the conditions that have brought a humanitarian crisis to our own border. As a well-to-do American taxpayer, I am implicated as well. But the guilt of the privileged is just another facet of privileged self-absorption, usually useless and often counterproductive. My task, our task, at Christmas especially and through the year, is to get over ourselves and exercise some compassion for the suffering. The people most vulnerable to gang violence aren’t relatively well-off Americans, but the people piled up at our doorstep. We get that when we see photos of mothers with children in tow, fleeing tear gas at the San Ysidro border crossing. As I try to exercise better informed and more rational compassion this Christmas season, what strikes me most vividly is that the most vulnerable are often the young men our leaders tell us to fear. I want to thank my new Syrian brother in Berlin for that insight.


Capitalism vs. Socialism: Why are we still having this debate?

Image result for capitalism vs socialism

My Intro to Philosophy text says very little about capitalism and socialism and this is mainly because these aren’t political philosophies so much as positions about how economies should be structured. Perhaps it is due for the following supplement.

Capitalism the view that the means of production should be privately owned. Socialism is the polar opposite, the view that is the view that the means of production should be publicly owned. That is the traditional meaning anyway, though we should note that “socialist” has for some decades been used as a general epithet by demagogues like Rush Limbaugh to insult anyone less conservative than they are. Some of those people, like Bernie Sanders, have taken to owning the insult. But don’t worry, Bernie doesn’t want the government to run Chick fil a.

Neither pure capitalism nor pure socialism has ever sustained a developed functioning economy for long. Every developed economy in the world has a substantial public sector and a usually larger private sector. The public sector is just that portion of the economy that is publicly controlled and financed ultimately through taxes and fees of one sort or another. The private sector is that portion of the economy that is controlled by private individuals or organizations and it is financed through private spending and investment.

We can see certain political philosophies aligned with socialism and capitalism respectively. Libertarian political philosophy would aim for the purest possible form of capitalism, where the public sector is limited to securing property rights, e.g. prosecuting fraud or theft. Communism would aim for the purest possible version of socialism, complete public ownership of all industry, for example.

Communism has been tried, and hasn’t done so well. Aside from squashing economic liberty for individuals, the completely state run economy isn’t responsive to market signals indicating demand for more of this or less of that. It also stifles innovation that boosts productivity, economic growth and increasing standards of living.

No country has been successful in implementing a completely state run economy. The entrepreneurial spirit is hard to suppress and where it’s been tried, doing so has only fostered the black market. For instance, my wife had relatives in the DDR, communist Eastern Germany. One was a doctor, who’s salary was no higher than his brothers who were blue collar workers. When re-unification happened, however, the doctor had a rather eye popping stash of East German marks to trade in. In addition to being a doctor, he was an avid gardener and he had built a small fortune propagating and selling exotic orchids he brought back from vacations in Cuba. A great many East Germans were and still are serious gardeners. I don’t find this surprising since, on Lockean terms, this is the most basic means of creating private property, through mixing your own labor with the stuff of the Earth.

So communism has been tried and its shortcomings are known through experience. Libertarianism though, is pretty much just theoretical. Perhaps fairly primitive underdeveloped economies like small agrarian villages of the old west were more or less libertarian. But libertarianism and the kind of pure capitalism it recommends has never been implemented on a larger scale in a more developed society. Every developed country around the world has a mixed economy, one that has a substantial public sector and a generally more substantial private sector. This is largely because there are many functions required in a developed society that the private market just isn’t going to take up on its own, like basic infrastructure and universal education. Even on a broadly Lockean approach, which heavily favors the private sector as a matter of personal economic liberty, a developed economy will require a significant public sector to manage and regulate the use of commonly held resources like roads, watersheds, air quality, public health and so on.

And so it is curious to me why we still have debates about socialism vs. capitalism. These are the extreme and unworkable poles on a spectrum of possible economic arrangements. The world has plenty of examples of highly prosperous, free and open societies and in every one of these cases we find mixed economies with both substantial private and public sectors. Indeed, when things are functioning well, these exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship. In our own, for instance, the public sector has a long history of generously funding basic research in science and technology. When new technological innovations get close enough to profitability in the market place, and only then, private capital funds new investment based on patents and brings new products to the market.

The machine you are working at is a prime example of this. Apple, Google and Microsoft have brought great products to the market that have boosted our productivity, improved our quality of life, and created lots of wealth along the way. But these companies are running the last stage of a relay race that began long ago in the public sector. The groundwork for IT as we know it was built with public sector support starting over a century ago (partly with the development of logic, remember Bertrand Russell?) and continuing into the present through university research, military research and development, and many other forms of support for technological development. The relationship between the private and public sector is generally cooperative. Research and development for things like better batteries or touch screens, for instance, has been funded by government grants (often connected to military and national security projects) and carried out by private IT corporations. In other instances, private corporations serve as contractors on government projects.

There is plenty of reasonable debate to be had concerning just how the public and private sectors should work together in this or that economic role. But the idea that one can do without the other is a non-starter.

In the context of such fruitful collaboration between government and private companies, the widespread anti-government sentiment we find in this country, especially on economic matters, strikes me as a kind of blinkered ingratitude. Beyond that, it is a hazard to the prosperity and standard of living we enjoy (witness the state of our roads and educational institutions).

Illiberal Political Philosophy

Image result for liberalism vs nationalism

Both what we popularly know as “liberalism” and “conservativism” are positions within a broader tradition of liberal political thought. We can understand a political philosophy as laying within that broader liberal tradition when it gives priority to the liberty of individuals as a political value. Illiberal political philosophies will just be those that reject the rights and liberties of individuals as being of paramount importance. I originally prefaced this chapter with a discussion of Plato to provide some historical perspective, some appreciation for how recent an ethical innovation it is to treat individual rights and liberties as important in political thought. Over the past few years, though, the broad tradition of liberal political thought that has guided this country since its inception, in both its “liberal” and “conservative” variants, has come under threat. So, a few cautionary words about illiberal ways of thought are in order.

Political observers have recently heard lots of talk about authoritarianism, populism, nationalism and other assorted “isms.” I’m not going to take up a detailed analysis of these here, but I do want to address an underlying current common among them. Authoritarianism, as the term suggests, prioritizes the will of an authority figure. But for an authority figure to gain and sustain power, he must have the support of a sizable chunk of the population. So, would-be authoritarians will need to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people and make themselves popular (and this is what populism is). So, populism can lead to authoritarianism, though that depends on the concerns of the people appealed to. If ordinary people to care most about individual rights and liberties and have some ability to defend themselves against the rhetorical trickery of a demagogue (a leader who appeals to people through emotion and prejudice rather than rational argument), then populism won’t provoke a turn away from individual rights and liberties. But people have concerns beyond individual rights and liberties and these can eclipse the tenets of liberalism.

We’d be hard pressed to explain how popular opinion could turn against the broad tradition of liberalism if varieties of illiberalism had nothing to offer people. Mass movements in support of nationalism (which prioritizes national interest over individual rights and liberties), offer the powerful appeal of a shared identity and the social cohesion of a common cause. Indeed, one of the classic criticisms of liberal political thought is that it fails to provide shared ideals that can be the basis of a sense of shared identity, purpose and community. Liberty alone is thin gruel for those seeking a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And prioritizing liberty as a political value requires taking a fairly neutral political stand on a broad range of other values and conceptions of the good life. Pushing a specific further set of values in the realm of politics as the basis of community and shared identity is bound to marginalize and threaten adherents of other value systems, But the whole point of liberal values like freedom of conscience is to avoid this.

Conservative political thinkers like Edmund Burke and the contemporary writer David Brooks have sought some middle ground, like upholding liberty as a primary political value while supporting the development of community built around shared values beyond the realm of politics.

Communism also held the appeal of a shared identity based on commonly held values to its adherents in its heyday. In direct opposition to liberal traditions, both communism and nationalism prioritize the good of a collective over concern for citizens as individuals. Fairly recent history is rife with examples of how collectivist thinking, both on the left in the form of communism and on the right in the form of nationalism, have licensed extreme brutality. I won’t pursue historical examples or details here. But it should come as no surprise that prioritizing collectives over individuals is liable to be pretty hard on individuals.

What I do want to say in the way of caution concerning collectivist ideologies of all stripes is mainly that collectives don’t suffer. The very idea of a collective is an abstraction. A collective has no existence beyond the individuals that make it up. And so, it is hard to see how a collective can have any value of its own. My intuition is roughly Kantian here. People have intrinsic moral worth. Not nations. America is not a human being. But we might consider making America humane again.



Race and Political Correctness

A few brilliant recent essays in the NY times on these topics. I’ve become a admirer of Charles Blow’s work lately. He illuminates some important points in moral psychology in this editorial. The key insight here is that moral injury and moral outrage are not the same thing and should probably be kept separate. Blow explains his lack of any sense of injury from racist comments as follows:

You see, racism is a moral corruption built on an intellectual fallacy and exists as a construction invented for the very purpose of violence. So, when people demonstrate that they subscribe to theories of racism, they have shown their hand, and I am immediately roused by the euphoric understanding that they are compromised, diminished and assailable. Instead of reducing me, their racism reduces them. That is the ironic, poetic justice of it.

Of course, one only has to think about it for a moment to find the enormous hole in the logic that racism morally weakens the object of the sickness rather than the possessor of the sickness.

Still, from a position of moral strength, Blow goes on to explain how he feels outraged by expressions of racism, especially from people in positions of power. One can be outraged at injustice without feeling victimized or playing the victim. It might be asking a bit much to expect reactionary voices to track this difference. But it remains important for the rest of us to track this difference. When moral outrage is intermingled with a sense of personal injury it becomes hard to focus on moral considerations that can appeal to the better nature of everyone without injecting special pleading for the dear self. Leading with a sense of injury can appeal to those who readily identify with us or our cause while at the same time creating deeper divisions between us and those we really need to be reaching. The injured don’t fight well, rhetorically or otherwise. The racist elements in our society get this at some level. The troll’s game is to undermine those working for justice by instilling a sense of injury in them. This is a game that can’t be won and is best not played. We do better when we fight for justice on the basis of justice and keep our wounds out of the arena.


Next, I’m happy to be learning from Lindy West about the chimera of Political Correctness. As a philosopher who does metaphysics, I love the “What is that?” questions. In several classroom discussions I’ve asked students just what political correctness is. Once we press past examples in seeking a more general account of the “essence” of political correctness, or some understanding of what political correctness is about, we’ve invariably settled on something to the effect that the point of political correctness is just to encourage treating different kinds of people with the sort of dignity and respect we’d expect for ourselves. Hard to see what anyone would find objectionable about this.

While I think this exercise has been useful and I’ll continue having this conversation with students, I can also see that it fails to diagnose the insidious rhetorical role talk of political correctness plays in our public discourse. Have I too been duped into treating political correctness as if it were a thing, the nature of which we might look into? Here’s Lindy:

The term “political correctness” (much like the slimy “pro-life”) is a right-wing neologism, a tactical bending of reality, an attempt to colonize the playing field, a bluff to lure dupes into dignifying propaganda. True to form, the credulous left adopted it wholesale in the early ’90s, electively embroiling us in three decades of bad-faith “debate” over whether discouraging white people from using racial slurs constitutes government censorship. Of course it doesn’t. Debate over. Treating anti-P.C. arguments as anything but a shell game props up the lie that it is somehow unfair to identify and point out racism, let alone fight to eradicate it. Pointing out and fighting to eradicate racism is how we build the racism-free world that all but racists profess to want.

The anti-P.C. set deliberately frames political correctness as a sovereign entity, separate from real human beings — like an advisory board or a nutritional label or a silly after-school club that one can heed or ignore with no moral implications — as though if we simply reject political correctness we can still have “Roseanne.” But the reality is that there’s no such thing as political correctness — it’s a rhetorical device to depersonalize oppression.

So, as a metaphysics guy, I must also profess my distaste for “re-ifying entities” (that is, making stuff up, or treating nothing as if it were something).