Monday, February 15, 2021

Angst Misbehavin'

How have philosophers, and others, come to dwell on such phenomena (if they may be called that) as angst, dread, nothingness, anxiety and other such foreboding--what, exactly?  Feelings? Things? States?  It seems to me a good question, as by my understanding these woeful conditions of mind are said to exist separate from any particular object.  That's what distinguishes them from fear, for example.  We fear something or someone in particular.  The angst, dread, etc. written of by philosophers, usually existentialists, have no particular object as they refer to life, living in general, or the world in general, all their constituents conspiring, as it were, to make us miserable in some profound sense.

Angst seems to have been created by that most melancholy of all Danes, Soren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard makes Hamlet seem positively jolly.  The author of such works as Fear and Loathing and Sickness unto Death wouldn't be the life of any party, except perhaps a burial party, at which he could, I suppose, cheer others present by making comments regarding the good fortune of the deceased to be quit of this vale of tears.

Kierkegaard was a (very sad) man of the 19th century, and it seems the concept of life and the world as full of woe and the relentless urge to expound on that subject in painful though not useful detail developed during the 19th and 20th centuries, at first at least through the efforts of Europeans.  I wonder why, and here provide a modest effort at an explanation, or the beginnings of one.

I think of ancient Western philosophy, and I know of no instance where the followers of Plato or Aristotle, the Stoics or Epicureans, or philosophers of any ancient school of which I know felt or described anything even nominally similar to angst, dread, anxiety or any other items in the cornucopia of woe posited by existentialists or nihilists, let alone anti-natalists who go them one better by not only decrying the world but contending it's so full of suffering that it is immoral to have children.  Even the Platonists and Neo-Platonists, who thought there was a realm beyond the imperfect world, to my knowledge didn't dread it as a whole.

Something must have happened to change this perception of the world so completely.  Ancient Western philosophy, like so much else, was stopped cold by the onset of Christianity, which later tried to assimilate it, though not all of it.  Christianity famously condemned the world and all that's in it, including we humans, as sinful and wicked.  Like certain ancient philosophers, they thought there was a higher realm.  But they thought that realm was available only to Christians, and very good Christians to boot.  The ancient pagan philosophers didn't think that the higher realm was available exclusively to any follower of any particular religion.

Christianity began to lose its grip on thinkers and intellectuals from about the 18th century on.  Many, like Voltaire, accepted a kind of Deism.  But subsequently, those no longer able to accept Christianity or a Christian god found it impossible, for some reason, to accept the world.  "Without God, anything is permissible" are the words used by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov.  Despite the fact that the ancients accepted the world as good, or at least not dreadful, without the need for believing in a personal deity like the one endorsed by Christianity, the intellectuals of the 19th and 20th century could not do so.  And so, for them, anything was possible.  There was no longer a guide for conduct, no standards to be applied, nothing good or bad, no purpose to life; we're deposited in the world for no reason, only to suffer.

If this hypothesis has any basis, it's striking the extent to which the absence of God, of standards, of morals derived from a creator, rendered the intellectuals of formerly Christian Europe hopeless and in despair.  The reaction to the Death of God was dramatic, even melodramatic.  The search for alternatives began, but these thinkers had been so convinced of the need for absolute knowledge and standards of conduct that the probable, the likely, the well established didn't suffice to assuage their concerns.  

And so nothing quite worked.  Nothing replaced Christianity.  Existentialism, nihilism, were unsatisfactory and fostered melancholy at best, angst, dread and anxiety at worst.  Some became mystics or quasi-mystics, seeing some form of redemption through nationalism and racist ideologies and belief in leaders amounting to demigods.

The result is many of us see the world as not only separate from us, but deadly to us.  We're outsiders without hope or function.  We have no place to go.  For everything, we're out of tune.  

Separate from the world, but not beyond it in any permanent sense.  Subject to it but incapable of remedying our lot or making things better for us or others, there being no God to tell us that's what we should do.  It seems a remarkably self-pitying, futile way to live.  If it is the result of a disenchantment with a particular religious view which became rationally unsupportable, however, there are ways to overcome that disenchantment, as the ancients knew but we have forgotten.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

On Purges and Cancel Culture

We live in a great Melodrama.  More and more we exaggerate ourselves and our lives.  We may have forgotten what drama and tragedy really are in our self-importance and self-pity.  We've experienced real ostracism and purges in the past, as practiced by authoritarian and totalitarian governments.  For example, the show trials held during Stalin's reign in the Soviet Union, or the Cultural Revolution in China.  At least for now, those who disagree with others aren't being sent to reeducation camps or the Gulag.  It's silly to compare the purges of the past to Cancel Culture.

"Cancel Culture" is a current catch-phrase, intended to describe the expression of outrage at particular views combined with conduct directed to suppress them, in various ways.  Predominately through boycott and efforts to assure the views in question aren't expressed through, e.g., cancellation (naturally enough) of appearances or opportunities for communication.  It apparently is most seen in the halls of academia but finds its way, as all things do, to the media, social and traditional, and is noted among those exercising the right of assembly, those in politics, those in entertainment.

The purported existence of Cancel Culture as a rampant "thing" has triggered claims that "free speech" is in danger, or that this "culture" is contrary to it.  "Free speech" itself is little understood by many, as I've complained more than once in this blog.  Commonly understood, "free speech" bears little resemblance to the legal right protected by the First Amendment, as it is instead apparently the belief many hold that each and everyone of us must be allowed to express whatever we may think or believe at any time and any place, no matter what it may be.

Cancel Culture sometimes seems to be associated with the need, at least in the academy, for "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" intended to protect those who may find certain speech or expression offensive, or provide them with warning allowing them to prepare to be offended.  Providing such things has also been subject to attack by the proponents of "free speech" and perhaps those who believe that providing such protection is unwise and impractical as people will be offensive in some manner to some of us at all times, and there should be no expectation of protection.

Cancel Culture as a "thing" is deplored primarily these days by those of the right-wing (I don't like to call such people "conservatives" as I think conservatism as a respectable political and social philosophy has all but expired in our Great Republic).  But it's difficult to take those of the right-wing we hear most of now all that seriously, except perhaps as purveyors of lunatic conspiracy theories, at which they excel.  It isn't that hard, either, to complain if lunacy is restricted.  In fact, it's hard, for me at least, to be concerned if bigotry, hate, ignorance, or incitement to violence isn't tolerated but is instead discouraged.

Here we reach the problems associated with championing unbridled free speech.  Some speech (meaning communication generally) is contemptible, just as people are contemptible.  Why must contemptible, hateful thought and expression be tolerated?  In what sense is it immoral to be intolerant of bigotry--of, for example, purveyors of Nazi ideology and those who praise the benefits of slavery and their promulgation of those views?

I don't think it is.  Nor do I see any benefit from protecting the expression of those views, unless that protection is needed to assure that government cannot suppress expression generally.  As a limitation of government power, freedom of expression is a necessary legal right.  Because the power of government may be wielded potentially by anyone, and what they may think is appropriate expression will vary, government's ability to restrict expression must be limited even if it means that government will not have the power to repress certain objectionable views.

It doesn't follow that people should be prevented from expressing outrage or disgust at the expression of certain positions, nor does it follow they should be prevented from taking steps available, legally, to object to and protest that expression.  It may well be that they may do so unwisely or unfairly, and nothing should prevent other people from pointing that out if they do so, provided they also do so legally.  

Some claim that "Big Tech" or social media shouldn't be allowed to prevent those who espouse certain views from using the services they provide.  It's contended their powers are so extensive now that they pose the same danger as does government when it comes to free speech.  

I don't see how that can be, though, if the use of the services they provide for expression and access to expression is voluntary, and other means of expression are available.  To the extent that is the case, then I don't think there can be a comparison.  There's nothing that requires us to be on Twitter or Facebook, let alone use them to communicate political or social views, let alone use them to access such views.  It's odd that those who believe in free markets should object to the freedom of owners of certain kinds of assets to impose rules for their use by others.  

There is no right to free speech outside of the First Amendment in this country.  That legal right is restricted.  The tendency to claim there is a right to free speech beyond that legal right simply fosters confusion, and at worst convinces some that they must be free to say whatever they want whenever they want.  Sadly, those who are convinced that is the case usually have nothing to say worth listening to.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

It's difficult to characterize the strange departure of that strange man, on January 20, 2021, from that position he's more or less occupied for the past four strange, chaotic, and shoddy-seeming years in the political/social life of our Republic.  It seemed rather shoddy itself, in the sense that it appeared poorly made--rather like what I suppose must be called his "farewell speech."  "Pathetic" or "sad" come to mind, given the small size of the crowd at hand and the expectations of some.  "Modest" might be a kinder description, but the man and his administration, and his followers, can only be described as immodest.  As he rambled and the curious selection of songs played--songs which apparently were standard at his political rallies--the spectacle created was far less than spectacular.  It was a muted, uninspiring send-off.  That much can be said.  

It seems clear that the riot at the Capitol in an effort to prevent ratification of the vote of the Electoral College was responsible for the subdued nature of the departure.  Was there a miscalculation, or a misunderstanding, of its impact or effects, or were those who provoked it content with its outcome?  Regardless, it changed everything in the political scene, for a time at least.

The title of this post is, of course, from T.S. Elliot's poem The Hollow Men.  Given the bombast, the Sturm und Drang of his tenure, it was reasonable enough to anticipate it would end with a bang.  If what is written about the beliefs of some of his fans is true, they certainly expected a bang, and perhaps even literally a bang or succession of bangs accompanying the seizure of power by him and his adherents, preventing the inauguration of a new president and providing for...what, exactly?  A regime of some sort.  It's astonishing what people can believe; what they can be convinced to believe, in this 21st century.  Having been lied to for so long by so many regarding the late election, though, their belief and resulting disbelief at its disappointment may be expected.  

So we witnessed, instead, a whimper.  Not the whimper Elliot wrote of, of course.  It seems appropriate that at the end of a poem filled with allusions to various and sundry great classical and literary works, already written, meandering to conclusion of weary resignation to a world in which moral and philosophical inspiration are absent, the world would end in a whimper.  

But the hollow men of Elliot's poem have only the fact that they're stuffed with straw in common with those denizens of the world created by Trumpery, or Trumpism.  Hollow they certainly are in being thoughtless, made of straw, like the scarecrow of Oz, without a brain. In that sense the impression given by the ceremony of a departure of scarecrows, of a diminishment of their significance when all was said and done and efforts at sabotage of an election failed, was satisfying and appropriate.

But these hollow men don't lack inspiration.  They're inspired but not by moral or philosophical concepts.  Instead they're inspired by fears of all kinds involving people unlike them, who they believe seek to end their way of life, their world, with a bang. They hoped for a bang of their own the day of the inauguration.  They didn't get it.  Their hopes ended with a whimper.

But if people are so easily led and fooled, the world may yet end in a bang. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

For What It's Worth, Redux

I think most if not all of us remember this song, i.e. For What It's Worth, by Buffalo Springfield.  Perhaps most, but certainly not all of us remember the year it came out as well--1967.  Also the year Sergeant Pepper came out.  The year of the summer of love.

The lyrics to this song seem applicable now, 53 years later.  There is a man with a gun "over there" and he's telling us we "got to beware."  But the man with a gun is a protestor now, telling those of us who're not protesting to beware.  It's a reversal of roles.  The protests of the 1960s were violent, sometimes.  But generally those protesting didn't do so while armed.  

The "far right" protester of today seems to want to protest with a firearm handy.   Or to have one handy while witnessing protests by others they think inappropriate.  We're told they do so to protect property and, presumably, the owners of property, which protection is unsolicited.  I'm a gun owner, but I confess I can't fathom why people think it appropriate to carry them around, particularly in a manner and at a time and place where they're certain to be noticed doing so.  Why are they marching with guns?  It seems not merely to show support for the Second Amendment by parading about clutching the arms they have the right to bear.  After all, it isn't merely the Second Amendment that prompts them to protest.  It's a number of other things, apparently.  Anything from an alleged conspiracy to commit election fraud or engage in child trafficking.  Why the guns, though?

Many have what seems to be a totemic regard for firearms here in our Glorious Union, and perhaps they feel that they should therefore be brandished, like the image of a saint in a parade on a holy day.  Or perhaps they're symbols of power, like the Arch of the Covenant carried into battle.  Perhaps they wish to intimidate those who watch them posture; perhaps they fear they won't be respected or even harmed, and so bring guns for protection against threats real or imagined.  Or perhaps they're a symbol of pride of sorts.  Pride in owning, or at least having, a gun?  That's not much of an achievement here.  Pride, then, in having something they may think is peculiarly American?  It may be so.

It seems clear that the right to have a gun isn't something that's generally considered to be a human right, or at least not such a right as to be memorialized in a nation's constitution, one of its founding documents.  So perhaps the gun is truly the symbol of the United States.  What, then, is the National Gun, though?  We have national birds, flags, animals, flowers; why not a national gun.  Something manufactured by Colt, Winchester or Remington, I assume.

"Paranoia strikes deep" is in the lyrics of the song.  Paranoia can readily be attributed to those who believe in massive election fraud regardless of evidence, the "deep state" and global, organized pedophilia. It's interesting to consider what paranoia was being referred to in the song, in 1967.  The paranoia of the protesters most probably wasn't.  Buffalo Springfield was made up of souls like Neil Young, whose sympathies would have been with the protesters of the 1960s.  Paranoia of the anti-protestors back then?  What did they have to be paranoid about, though?  Students and blacks taking over the government?  Anarchy?  Communism?

"Step out of line, the man (men?) come and take you away."  Who's stepping out of line, now?  "The line" is usually a standard or condition imposed by "the man", which is to say the government, those in control.  But where those who pose the threat claim to be protecting the "rightful" government, what line do we step out of?  

The protestors of the 1960s didn't purport to represent the government or "the man."  Arguably, they didn't even claim to represent "the people."  The armed protestors of today claim to represent the people, the nation, the true government.  The pretense is astounding, when you think of it. 

Is that pretense also peculiarly American?  The Founders took pains to justify their revolution, claiming that unjust laws warranted it.  The Founders weren't the poor, the downtrodden; they weren't slaves.  They were land owners, slave owners, lawyers, merchants, rich farmers.  It was a revolution of the well-off.  Is what we're seeing now a reaction by the well-off, the white and privileged, concerned that they may lose their place, through another kind of government action?

Friday, January 8, 2021

R. I. P. American Exceptionalism

Although it may still be possible to claim that the United States is, or may in the future be, the "shining city on a hill" the late Ronald Reagan would refer to now and then, that claim is less easy to make given recent events.

It's even more difficult, now, to make the claim that our Great Republic is remarkable and serves as an ideal for all other nations  because it's based on the rule of law, regularly holds free elections, is a bastion of democracy, based as it is on liberty, equality before the law, and unshakeable in its reliance on representative government.  It will be especially difficult to maintain, as we have in the past, America's moral authority when it comes to governance.

In truth, what we saw on Capitol Hill is what we've seen in other countries we've thought were flawed in various respects.  Speaking frankly, we saw what's taken place in nations we've believed were inferior to ours, nations less fortunate than ours is, less favored, less solid, less moral, less truthful, less just--the list goes on depending on the extent of our self-satisfaction and self-righteousness.  We saw what we find contemptible in others.  

So, it appears our bragging rights have been revoked.  Strangely, they've been revoked by people who have relished exercising those rights.  To all appearances, American Exceptionalism has been ended by those most inclined to insist it exists, and loudly.  It will be difficult to maintain that we're better than the rest of the world.

That ending may have serious consequences.  Some would say that the U.S. has never had good cause to purport to be morally superior than other nations, and that recent events have merely made its depravity evident.  Some claim that America's statements regarding its superior moral status have always been cynical and hypocritical.  But America has been respected and is considered a leader.  Friends and foes of the country will be inclined, now, to wonder whether it's entitled to respect and leadership.  If the nation is as subject to thugs assailing the government as any banana republic, why should it be considered better than such countries?  What right have we to speak of evil empires, or an axis of evil, or criticize elections elsewhere?  How can we pose as the friend and protector democracies? 

While simple explanations are satisfying and no doubt will be sought, it can't be the case that one flawed person and his willing lackeys are responsible for our diminishment.  They clearly have responsibility for what's taken place and may still take place.  It can be said, fairly, that they incited insurrection, and did so for selfish motives.  One wonders if they were motivated solely by the desire to remain in power, to make as much money as possible off the nation, or if they were also motivated by the fear of retaliation once they're out of power.  George Orwell predicted that the world would come to be dominated by millionaires (it would have to be "billionaires" now) and thugs.  For a time at least, our Glorious Union has been so dominated.  It can be hoped it won't be any longer, but that may be a fond hope.