The End of All Politics

In The End of Racial Politics, I talked about how imagining racial harmony and racial equality today means shedding racial politics in all its forms – liberal, conservative, or other.  I’d like to extend that as far as it will go: Politics is dead. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie-based anti-Establishment movement was arguably more about leveraging lifestyle choices than political choices – “dropping out” of the Establishment culture of war, money, and machines, and testing new creative freedoms through sexuality, drugs, what to think, say, and wear, how to set up alternative living arrangements – but it was still able to use a liberal politics to advance things like racial and gender harmony and to open up things that had been closed. But sometime during the 1980s, “identity politics” reached critical mass in liberal academia, and the long slow death of politics as a tool of social liberation set in. We have now reached a point where politics on the left and right are equally about defining and defending your demographic turf and not about bringing people together. Whether Jon Stewart (whom I generally agree with) on the left or Rush Limbaugh (whom I don’t) on the right, it’s about proving how right you are and how wrong the other side is: us versus them. And the whole vocabulary of racial and gender politics, left and right, has taken on that us versus them mentality. Both sides have become expert at drawing lines in the sand, both now put an equal premium on stifling dissent, and both have long given up the mission of getting people to celebrate each other across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and political preferences. It’s suddenly a long way back to the revolutionary sentiment of 1969, captured by Jeffrey Shurtleff’s stage suggestion to the crowd at Woodstock that the hippie revolution was different from other revolutions “in that we have no enemies.”

Without politics, all we have is the human heart and human imagination. We need a movement outside the scope of the political spectrum that starts with those two capacities. We need to “drop out” of politics, “turn on” the heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other. When you go out into the street today, forget everything you learned about politics, especially if you went to college. Forget about how you’ve been trained into this or that posture of political belligerence. Start relating to each other, regardless of racial, gender, and other divides, with just the human heart and human imagination. Without politics, we might just rediscover the redemptive power of imagining ourselves into the other’s shoes. We might find that it was just those political superstructures, left and right, that each in their own way had us insisting upon differences that prevented us from doing so. Maybe the Age of Aquarius is still dawning. But we have to cast off the entire political spectrum like a snakeskin to get there.

Camus’s Stranger: Hero or Sociopath

Probably the most important hurdle of reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger is to resist the temptation to see Meursault as hero or villain. We’re not “supposed” to identify with him or against him. He just demonstrates in every thought and action the absurdity of the world. The trial puts this in perspective. The prosecutor creates one narrative about Meursault’s murder of the Arab. The defense attorney creates an entirely different narrative about Meursault’s murder. Both create logical narratives, but both are completely wrong – there is no logical narrative that explains any of Meursault’s actions (not his homicidal outburst, nor his passive agreement to marry Marie even though love explicitly “meant nothing” to him [52], nor his passive agreement to help Raymond lure his girlfriend back for another beating after he’d already bloodied her once [38]). The oft-noted comment that he is absolutely honest is strikingly true at times, as in his discussions of his mother’s death and of marriage and of his case, but oddly untrue at other times, as in the totally motiveless deceits he perpetrates with Raymond (luring the girlfriend back for another beating and then attesting to Raymond’s blameless behavior at the police station [60]). Another oft-noted comment is that he comes to terms with his life once he fully realizes the absolute indifference of the universe. This one seems true enough at the end. But I detect a misguided inclination among readers to treat him as a role model or absurd hero, an admirable rebel against society and its phony ways. This, I think, is a mistake. He did, after all, randomly kill “an Arab” without the slightest thought before or after to the human consequences of that deed, he did quite nonchalantly agree to help Raymond brutalize a woman he’d never met, he admittedly feels little or no emotion for his mother or for the woman he sleeps with, etc., etc. Even if intellectually you are the most hardened existentialist, this is not the kind of “hero” you want your daughter to bring home for dinner.

If you want an absurd hero, you might start with the existentialist dilemma. Recognize that the universe is irrational, amoral, and utterly indifferent to human life. Your own life is meaningless and your death will not ruffle the cosmic indifference. Now what do you do? Meursault brings us to the question but he gives us no model for how to respond. The Fool in King Lear might be an absurd hero in that he does seem to recognize the irremediable indifference of the universe and yet tries to inject some clarity and empathy into Lear’s world, not because this will make the universe more meaningful or morally intelligible, but merely because of the local comfort it may give to Lear. Or the Dalai Lama might illustrate the path of the absurd hero in his injunction to act with compassion even though our actions will never alter the fact that suffering is built into the human condition. Although Meursault’s character is a perfect vehicle for bringing the absurd (existentialist) world view into focus, his utter lack of compassion, his complete indifference to suffering caused by his own actions, may illustrate a kind of human predicament but cannot seriously be called a “heroic” response to the existential dilemma. At least the Fool makes the absurd choice to behave morally in a world where moral behavior makes no sense. Meursault’s indifference is, if anything, a logical response to the indifferent world, and does not warrant the badge of absurd hero.

Perhaps then Meursault is the exemplar of life after the age of God. Nietzsche pronounced God dead, opined that this placed at least the most thoughtful of us beyond good and evil, and found this to be a liberation of the human spirit. Dostoevsky and more recent Christians agree that the absence of God places us beyond good and evil, but they are far less upbeat about it, fearing a dystopia where we can do anything at all to our fellow human beings without scruple. The humanist stakes out a third position by denying the shared premise of Nietzsche and the Christians (the premise that without God we are beyond good and evil and all things are permissible). The humanist finds great moral value in human actions even in, or especially in, the absence of God. Treating people kindly and attending to the human consequences of one’s actions have their own intrinsic values irrespective of divine rewards or punishment. In this tripolar scheme, I’d say that Camus’s personal philosophy tends toward the Nietzchean and his personal actions in life tended toward the humanistic, but, ironically, The Stranger seems to best illustrate the Christian point of view – that without a belief in God or any traditional morality, we, like Meursault, become detached from our own lives and indifferent to others, incapable of compassion but quite capable of brutalizing women and killing others on a whim without any sense of wrong-doing. It is easy to see Meursault in this sense as an exemplar not of the human predicament en masse but merely of the sociopathic mindset (not deliberately evil but just wholly indifferent to the human consequences of one’s actions – more a descendant of Dickens’s Harthouse than of Shakespeare’s Iago).  And what better theme for the contemporary Christian than the sociopathic dystopia of life without God?

A Defense of Plato

Dear MT,

Per your comparisons, I don’t think Plato is as eager as Nietzsche or Kierkegaard (or perhaps MT) to separate men into two groups and condemn the ignorant masses. Plato’s myth of the cave is more about PROCESS than about passing judgment on the ignorant. It’s sort of like a rational correlative to the Buddhist process of enlightenment. We ALL resist the truth when it first dazzles us and we’re used to shadows. Plato’s myth is about the process we ALL have to go through if we want to achieve enlightenment. And yes, some are not strong enough, some have to turn back. But for Plato I think all rational beings have the capacity if they can find the fortitude. And he quite explicitly says that the enlightened ones should go back and help those who are still in the cave. In this sense he’s more Buddhist and less condescending than Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (especially Nietzsche in my estimation). In this process-orientation, Plato is actually not far from Aristotle’s notion of entelechy, where all things strive unconsciously toward their ideal destination, like the acorn strives toward becoming the oak. In fact, the wedge between Plato and Aristotle is somewhat forced. They have different emphases, yes, but they share a lot of fundamentals. Aristotle learned his Plato well.

In metaphysics, I think your resistance to Plato is a resistance to a straw man version of Plato – as if his formal world is like the Christian God with the beard who sits somewhere in physical space. I find it hard to believe Plato would be so naïve. He is just saying, in the cave and elsewhere, that there is an intellectual reality, a kind of Jungian collective unconscious, which is a hidden prerequisite to all the contingent truths we find in our everyday (transitory) reality. Whether we realize it or not (and most of us don’t), the contingent truths we structure our daily lives by would not be intelligible were they not undergirded by that collective unconsciousness, that conceptual substrate of deeper truths. And the deeper we dig, the closer we get to eternal truths and the more deeply we understand the prerequisites of our surface knowledge.

So you’re right that your idea of a perfect car may not match my idea of a perfect car, but were it not for some abstract concept of perfection implicitly acknowledged by both of us, neither of us could have ANY idea of a perfect car. The concept of perfection is a presupposed premise of your idea and my idea. So now we can talk about a concept of perfection that, albeit abstract, is a necessary prerequisite to our contingent and various concrete ideas. Now we can ponder things at a deeper level, and delve dialectically deeper into the roots of our own consciousness. That’s what Plato is all about.

Re politics, of course Plato’s politics does sort men, but the sorting is not as damning as in Nietzsche. He just says that few men will find their way out of the cave and stay out, and those should be our leaders. And he is undemocratic in the sense that he seems to believe that order requires hierarchy – a practical consideration more than an existential judgment about master and slave races a la Nietzsche. We moderns tend to dismiss hierarchy as a prerequisite to political order, but go back just to the late 18th-century Enlightenment and you will still find strong and intelligent voices (e.g., Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson) arguing that without hierarchy is chaos. So I don’t agree with Plato here, but I’ll give him a pass on politics. (From what I hear, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new book, Plato at the Googleplex, presses Plato harder on the human implications of his politics, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.) Anyway, as I’ve said, I don’t think politics is the most compelling branch of his philosophy, but I still agree with Bertrand Russell’s mentor, Alfred North Whitehead, that “Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.”

And with due respect to Nietzsche’s wit, I think Plato would be the more amiable drinking companion.


Without God

Without God, all things are permissible.

This is a recurring idea in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and it gets a lot of airplay today in social media and popular culture. The problem with this supposed argument for Christianity is that it seems uniquely designed to make the humanist look better than the Christian. If you tell me that without God we would have no reason to behave morally, aren’t you telling me that in your heart you would just as soon screw me but refrain only out of fear of God? Doesn’t this make the humanist — who is nice to others because of a heartfelt recognition of the intrinsic value of being nice — more admirable, more noble, more trustworthy in a pinch? (This is not an attack on Christianity en masse, just on a troubling line of reasoning employed by some Christians.)

Interestingly, Nietzsche may make an equal and opposite mistake. (Perhaps my readers who are more up on Nietzsche can affirm or deny or elaborate.) Nietzsche also suggests that God’s demise puts us “beyond good and evil,” but unlike our Christian interlocutor, he sees this as a good thing, a liberation of the human spirit from dogmatic ethical constraints (at least for those who are strong enough to handle the implications). The problem is that Nietzsche’s conclusion, like the Christian’s, rests on the premise that morality (or systems of good and evil) founder, or devolve into purely personal prejudices, in the absence of God.

Our humanist combatant of the first paragraph disputes this premise, arguing that rational principles and intuitive sympathies can provide a basis for ethics equal or stronger than any God-based ethic. I can’t say for sure that our humanist is correct, but I can say that in times of moral crisis I’d rather have her at my side than Nietzsche or the Christian of our example (although I might opt for Nietzsche when a crisis of wit is at hand).