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Churchill on landlords

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Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains — all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is affected by the labor and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet, by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived…The unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done.

— Winston Churchill, 1909

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Excerpt, literature, montaigne, notes, philosophy, prose, Uncategorized, writing

Montaigne on introspection

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If no one reads me,

have I wasted my time, entertaining myself for so many idle hours with such useful and agreeable thoughts? … I have no more made my book than my book has made me — a book consubstantial with its author …

Have I wasted my time by taking stock of myself so continually, so carefully? For those who go over themselves only in their minds and occasionally in speech do not penetrate to essentials in their examination as does a man who makes that his study, his work, and his trade, who binds himself to keep an enduring account, with all his faith, with all his strength.

Indeed, the most delightful pleasures are digested inwardly, avoid leaving any traces, and avoid the sight not only of the public but of any other person.

— Michel de Montaigne

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Essay, guns, literature, nonfiction, prose, religion, Truth, violence, writing

At war with the blind

Turns out the election of 2016 was a declaration of war. America is at war with itself and it’s not clear who is winning. We Americans didn’t recognize it for war at the time, but it’s clear now and clearer every day—with each childish act, each transgression by the populist president and the blind allegiance to him by those who turn the cheek to his lies, indecency, and hypocrisy. They’d rather not see the truth. It doesn’t conform to the reality they’ve invented.

Instead, they make excuses. They claim that journalism is their enemy; and in a way, they are right. Journalism is a purveyor of news—news is the running narrative of the current state of the world. Most news organizations rely on facts and truth to inform the public, to check authority and keep it from running wild with abandon. But these people are not concerned with facts and truth. Perhaps they never were.

They converse in small circles of their own, unable to communicate beyond their self-imposed borders. Their ideas are small; their speech hateful. To them, the mind is not a tool or weapon, but a liability. Their weapons of warfare: guns and faith in a god that would not recognize their warped idea of that god’s intended purpose or morality. Somewhere along the way, they decided their god had a white face and carried an assault rifle.

The religious right got the president they think is a crusader for their religion. But he’s not—he’s lying about being a practicing Christian just as he lies about everything else. The Christians think they have god on their side. I am a reformed Christian, so I know their sad story well. It’s a story in which they have owned the last two thousand years. Yet history is not on their side.

God and guns are their hallmarks, despite their lord and savior’s abhorrence to violence. If their Jesus were alive today they would not recognize him. They would ridicule him, persecute him, expel him, torture him, imprison him, murder him. Those on the Christian Right have deluded themselves. They look out at the world through veiled eyes and do everything possible to avoid seeing what’s really, truly there. They have the vision of a bat—their eyes do not work, and noise guides their focus. But whereas bats were cursed by nature with lack of eyesight, the blindness of the Christian Right is self-imposed.

The two sides prepare for battle in opposite ways. I prepare by improving my eyesight—by reading the sages, by keeping myself informed through reliable, proven news sources (not commentary). Most importantly, I prepare by thinking. As a journalist, I feel the declaration of war more intimately or personally than most. This is a war on truth and decency. The president and his blind followers bring their guns, their anger, their certainty that they are right to the battlefield. Where I come from, only people who couldn’t fight carried guns.

I bring the lessons of history and the sages who have lived through such battles and emerged victorious. Wisdom and open mindedness will always prevail against lies, intolerance, false patriotism, hypocrisy, violence, and indecency. I study the lessons of the past and sharpen my sword by lamplight every night. I urge you to do the same, and above all to participate in the civic discussion by spreading the truth you see all around you.

—Your brother and rebel for truth.

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Excerpt, philosophy, quote, Uncategorized, writing

Notes from Jan-Werner Müller

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From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.

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Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.[1]

Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.[2]

A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.[3]

Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.[4]

Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.[5]

While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.[6]

It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.[7]

Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.[8]


[1] 20

[2] 19-20

[3] 21

[4] 31-32

[5] 35

[6] 42

[7] 91

[8] 103

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Critchley, Excerpt, literature, nietzsche, nonfiction, notes, philosophy, prose, quote, writing

from Critchley

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Notes from Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance:

“The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism. Philosophical activity, by which I mean the free movement of thought and critical reflection, is defined by militant resistance to nihilism. That is, philosophy is defined by the thinking through of the fact that the basis of meaning has become meaningless. Our values are meaningless and require a Nietzschean ‘trans-valuation.’”[1]

“The human being has a reflective attitude towards its experiences and towards itself. This is why human beings are eccentric, because they live beyond limits set for them by nature by taking up a distance from their immediate experience. In living outside itself in its reflective activity, the human being achieves a break with nature.”[2]

“Ours is a universe where human relations have been reduced to naked self-interest, to unfeeling hard cash, and where all social life is guided by one imperative: conscience-less free trade; a life of open, unashamed, direct, and brutal exploitation.”[3]

“Some wrote in the 1970s that capitalism was over. On the contrary, capitalism under the guise of globalization is spreading its tentacles to every corner of the earth. If someone found a way of overcoming capitalism, then some corporation would doubtless buy the copyright and distribution rights.”[4]

“Politics is not rare or seldom, and to adopt such a position is defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, but they also invite militancy and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and imagination, an invitation for our ethical commitment and political resistance.”[5]

“No revolution will be generated out of systemic or structural laws. We are on our own and what we do is what we must do for ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunning. No ontology or eschatological philosophy is going to do it for us.”[6]

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, London, 2012.

[1] 2

[2] 86

[3] 96

[4] 98

[5] 131

[6] 132

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philosophy, prose, quote, Truth, voltaire, writing

Conversation with Voltaire c.2016

Voltaire

T: You ask what is tolerance? Tolerance is an objective.

V: It is the natural attribute of humanity. We are all formed of weakness and error: let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly.[1]

T: Easy for you to say. Things are tense here. You’re dead. I have a daughter now. The world is more confusing each month. I pace indoors, my mind a temple of intensity. Sleep is a luxury I cannot afford. I’d rather study and write—do my part to help solve our problems. Thus I look to sages like you for guidance.

V: It is said the present gives birth to the future. Events are linked to each other by an invisible fate.[2]

T: If this is a renaissance, it’s a morbid portent. It is as if the world is sick. America itself is ill with pervasive discontent.

V: There is no other remedy for this epidemic illness than the spirit of free thought, which, spreading little by little, finally softens men’s customs, and prevents the renewal of the disease.[3]

T: I agree, and in light of current events, in which communities of peace officers roam American neighborhoods like armies, in which whites can’t even agree that or are afraid to exalt that BLACK LIVES MATTER, another remedy beyond free thought is respect for our fellow men and women and the infinite potential inside them, for as you once wrote, “We should say to every individual: Remember thy dignity as a man!”[4] For I wake each morning and read the newspaper and often I cannot sit. I am physically pained at what I read.

V: This feeling of pain is indispensible to stimulate us to self-preservation. If we never experienced pain, we should be every moment injuring ourselves without perceiving it.[5]

T: Fanaticism has kidnapped the minds of men and women. Since we invented religion we have murdered in the name of it, and we continue to do so. Such fanaticism has spread into the political realm. Anger and fear dominate. People are afraid that if they don’t assert their convictions, they will be victimized. Moderation has evaporated in the overabundant breath of rhetoric. The people’s politics are exclusive rather than inclusive, derisive rather than unifying. History has shown us that such moments are regrettable.

V: Show these fanatics a little geometry, and they learn it quite easily. But strangely enough their minds are not thereby rectified. They perceive the truths of geometry, but it does not teach them to weigh probabilities. Their minds have set hard. They will reason in a topsy-turvy way all their lives and I am sorry for it.[6]

T: I’m not sorry for them. They get what they deserve. In America they only have two choices, candidates who appear at first glance to be siblings: A woman who, according to federal investigators, has been “extremely careless with information” at her privileged disposal, and a man who has been openly and dangerously intolerant of people that do not look or think like him. They pander and feed the public narcotic doses of false promise. These are perhaps the most tepid of charges against them.

V: So tell me, you who have travelled, who have read and observed, in which state, under what kind of government would you have liked to be born?[7]

T: I wave no flag and never will. I would have liked to be born WITH a government rather than UNDER one. The older I become, the more oppressive the weight of that government, the more necessary to shrug it from atop me.

V: Laws have proceeded in almost every state, from the interest of the legislator, from the urgency of the moment, from ignorance, from superstition, and have been made at random, irregularly, just as cities have been built.[8] In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one part of the citizens to give to the other.[9]

T: I’m afraid the stakes are much higher than money. Western culture’s priorities are grossly misaligned. Emphasis is erroneously placed on sports and entertainment and the people are utterly disengaged until a horror seizes their attention.

V: But where are they to be found who will dare speak out?[10]

T: They’re everywhere, unfortunately. What they have to say is often more harmful than helpful. I dare speak, but who will listen? For “it is far better to be silent than to increase the quantity of bad books.”[11]

V: It is impossible for society to subsist unless each member pays something toward the expenses of it, and everyone ought to pay.[12]

T: Yes, but “try to arouse activity in an indolent mass, to inspire a taste for music and poetry in one who lacks taste and an ear, and you will no more succeed than if you undertook to give sight to the blind.”[13] In people’s certainties of their beliefs, they stop searching and their ideas stagnate, become a cesspool. They are certain of their beliefs and that is enough; little else matters.

V: If you’d asked the entire world before Copernicus if the sun rose and set that day, everyone would have answered: We are absolutely certain of it. They were certain, and they were mistaken.[14]

T: All the more important that “[we] boldly and honestly say: How little it is that I truly know!”[15] Rather than shout their beliefs over another’s, why do they not close their mouths and listen? Why do they accuse rather than acknowledge?

V: This is the character of truth: it is of all time, for all men, it only has to show itself to be recognized, and one cannot argue against it: A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.[16]

T: So “who shall decide between these fanatics? The reasonable, impartial man who is learned in a knowledge not of words, the man free from prejudice and the lover of truth and justice—in short, a man who is not a foolish animal, and who does not think he is the angel.”[17] As I said, I look to you, but you were no angel. Harsh words against Muslims and Jews populate your texts.

V: It takes 20 years for a man to rise from the vegetative state in which he is in his mother’s womb to the state when the maturity of reason begins to appear. It has required 30 centuries to learn about his structure. It would need an eternity to learn something about his soul.[18] In the land of where the monster reigns, almost everyone is blind.[19]

T: I wonder what I do not see. Monsters abound in plain sight. Each week strikes a new terror worst than the last.

V: If there were only two men on Earth, how would they live together? They would assist each other, annoy each other, court each other, speak ill of each other, fight each other, be reconciled to each other, and neither be able to live with nor without each other.[20]

T: Some fighting is understandable, but why so freely kill each other? Across the world innocents are murdered as a means to an end, to espouse a statement or idea. Why not verbalize those statements and ideas? Why the fear of black men on behalf of the American police? And why the murderous retaliation upon the police when such actions force us retreating backward?

V: It is forbidden to kill.[21] To murder our brethren, can there be anything more horrible throughout nature?[22] We are told that human nature is perverse, that man is born a child of the devil, and wicked. Nothing could be more foolish. You are all born good. Witness how dreadful it is to corrupt the purity of your being. All mankind should be dealt with as all men individually.[23]

T: Still, there is too much. At times I am beaten down with it.

V: There is infinitely less wickedness on Earth than we are told or believe there is. There is still too much, no doubt. A melancholy mind which has suffered injustice sees the Earth covered with damned people.[24]

T: I don’t see them as damned. But “more than half the habitable world is still peopled with humans who live in a horrible state approaching pure nature, existing and clothing themselves with difficulty, scarcely enjoying the gift of speech, scarcely perceiving that they are unfortunate, and living and dying almost without knowing it.”[25] I’d like to help them find their voices. I’d like to level the playing field.

V: As men have received the gift of perfecting all that nature has granted them, they have perfected love.[26]

T: They have not perfected love. They have not perfected anything. Perfection does not exist. Perhaps it is all we can do to continue down this path of inquiry and reflection. Rest not, my dead friend. Your ideas are wide awake and eager for an audience. The fire burns inside me so it must burn elsewhere.

July 2016

 

Works

Besterman, Theodore, editor. Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, Penguin Books, 1972.

DuMont, E.R, editor. Philosophical Dictionary, from The Complete Works of Voltaire in 43 Volumes, St. Hubert Guild, 1901.

Redman, Ben Ray, editor. The Portable Voltaire, Viking Penguin, 1949.

 

[1] Redman, 212.

[2] Besterman, 109.

[3] Besterman, 203.

[4] Redman, 228.

[5] DuMont, vol. IX, page 265.

[6] Besterman, 189.

[7] Besterman, 192.

[8] Redman, 224.

[9] Redman, 225.

[10] Redman, 224.

[11] Redman, 223.

[12] DuMont, vol. X, page 174.

[13] Besterman, 76.

[14] Besterman, 106.

[15] Redman, 225.

[16] Redman, 198.

[17] Redman, 198.

[18] Redman, 160.

[19] Redman, 162.

[20] DuMont, vol. XIII, page 104.

[21] DuMont, vol. XIII page 106.

[22] DuMont, vol. XIV page 198.

[23] DuMont, vol. XIV page 215.

[24] Dumont, vol. XIV page 219.

[25] Redman, 225.

[26] Besterman, 30.

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