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Friday, April 29, 2016

Freedom--libertarian, liberal, progressive

This morning while discussing philosophy with Chris and Mohammed we talked about freedom. Especially in regards to the state. Mohammed said that he appreciates the increase in freedoms that have been developing from the abolition of slavery to the ability to marry the one you love. But couldn't freedom go too far? Aren't some conservative values important to keep? Don't we need some limits, some structure, even some rules?

So this led us to a discussion on the meaning of "freedom," as in the phrase "freedom and justice for all."

Freedom for the libertarian is freedom "from restraint."  It means the absence of restrictions. Don't tread on me! Give me liberty or give me death! This is why capitalism unfettered seems to go along with democracy. The whole role of government is to protect private interests including property. Let the free market rein meaning no regulations. Let people acting for their own self-interest make society work at least for winners who would dominate the losers. This is the mind to which Reagan appealed and now Trump and Cruz. The best government is least government. Nurturing people to help is a disservice to them and to the community. Even religion for Ayn Rand was bad when it put moral restrictions on self-interest. We need to go back to the state of nature before the state of government.

Freedom for the liberal is freedom "to be." That is, you can be who you want to be. This means  that society through its institutions, including the Leviathon State, should ensure fairness, keep order and stability, and remove the obstacles to the pursuit of happiness. While we sometimes distinguish liberal from conservative today, this is a rather late distinction. In many countries, liberal means conservative--just not libertarian. The assumption behind both is that there are invariable values and rights. There are sacrosanct ideals to which we should be marching and right ideas out there according to which we should be acting and requiring the behavior of all citizens. These ideals are handed down by authority (tradition) or are discovered in nature (science).

Freedom for the progressive is freedom "to act."  That is, freedom = power. And power is the ability to act with others to shape one's personal life and common world. Freedom for the progressive is a continuous process of liberation connected to equality as equity--not equality as sameness. This is why progressives understand economic inequality or class struggle as underlying, and so more important than, racial, ethic, sexual, and age identities. Progressives by focussing on equity want to remove obstacles, like libertarians, but those obstacles that hold any people back from full participation. And like liberals and conservatives, progressives have ideas and ideals; but they see humanity making and choosing these ideas and ideals. Progressives are in a never-ending process of liberation attempting to balance liberty and structure. History for progressives does not end. History is a progressive changing of boundaries through a dialectic in and among publics.

When I look at the political dialectic in the US today, I see that both dominant parties are expressions of liberalism--Republicans more tending to libertarianism except in foreign affairs, military might, personal morality, and criminal justice; Democrats more tending to progressivism except in global economic inclusion and transnationalism.

I believe that we can use this same analysis for the concept of "justice" since justice is the social order that promotes human freedom. Is that order based on private self-interest, or on natural or supernatural values, or on collective discovery and decision making that safeguard both the private and public spheres of human existence?

I believe that we are often using the same words with very different meanings of our relations with one another. That leads to confusion and often blocks interaction--especially when we  put people in camps, on other sides, and treat them as hostile.

The meaning of philosophy and political thinking is different for a libertarian, or a liberal/conservative, or a progressive. The libertarian sees philosophy (e.g. objectivism) as a release from restraints, i.e. a means to release those of us who are forced to watch the shadows on the wall of the cave (Plato). The liberal sees philosophy as passing down right doctrine and discovering in nature the accumulated truths of humanity (Aristotle). The progressive sees philosophy as a way to engage persons in doubting, criticizing, and questioning what has been passed down in order to dispel the illusions of common sense (Socrates).




Monday, April 25, 2016

Progressives and Populists

Yesterday I read two columns, one by right wing columnist George Will and the other by left wing columnist Robert Reich, both of which mis-take what it means to be progressive.

George, who should have stuck to sports reporting where he is actually quite good, is the great stereotyper when it comes to politics and philosophy. In his article he gives "four tenets of progressivism: 
  1. history has a destination. 
  2. progressives uniquely discern it. 
  3. politics should be democratic but peripheral to governance, which is the responsibility of experts scientifically administering the regulatory state. 
  4. enlightened progressives should enforce limits on speech in order to prevent thinking unhelpful to history’s progressive unfolding.
Now I realize the definition of "hogwash." All four of those tenets are spurious and demonstrate that George knows not what or whereof he speaks.

We progressives believe that history has no meaning except that which we collectively give it. The end of history is when the human species goes extinct, now made probable by climate change and nuclear war. To paraphrase one of George's devils: our job is not just to study history, but also to make it. 

It also seems that George does not recognize the distinction and separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. He may be a Republican but he is not very republican since he does not acknowledge the role of free publics in establishing vision and goals along with the importance of an unencumbered and, yes, scientific administration. I suggest he read another conservative writer whom I admire greatly Francis Fukuyama (Political Order and Political Decay) who demonstrates that one of the main reasons for America's decay is precisely George's mistaken notion of government that leads to the intrusion of individual politicians and their lobbyists in administration. 

As to enforcing limits of speech as a tenet of progressivism, George, that is just silly and not at all worthy of comment. Because of your ideology, you just don't want to accept science and the rule of evidence.

Now for Reich. He on the other hand is saying that populists of the right and the left are now reaching si liar conclusions because of the public's disgust of establishment politics run by big money and corporations. He is admirably searching for common ground, but is unwittingly promoting the kind of movement Jacksonian populism that could lead, as Fukuyama points out, to a weak federal state and to weak international organizations (as George himself wants). Such populism isWe certainly a politics of fear and hate that permits demagoguery along with cronyism and corruption. 

My own reluctance, Robert, about your and labor's opposition to the TPP and other free trade agreements is that it continues to promote the nationalism (e.g. American exceptionalism) that is dividing and destroying the earth. I see progressivism as much different and better than populism. And if free trade (with negotiated rules related to the environment and labor) and advanced technology does away with low-skilled jobs but is combined with a guaranteed basic income and free graduate education for all administered by a strong, competent bureaucracy, I am for it. That is a progressive's dream that I think has no chance of being acceptable to the conservative right. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Boethius and the new adventure

Poor Boethius! He has fallen far from a high and mighty position of wealth and power to that of a lowly felon falsely framed for treason, and awaits his execution. Alas, felled by the fickleness of Fortune and the fecklessness of Fate, he flies into the folds of Filosofy. He was, as they say today, totally f---ed!

And so he wrote his "Consolations of Philosophy" (AD 523). The work is a model for an old man living in constant reminder of his mortality. Like me?!

And now I have found Pierre Hadot who has rediscovered philosophy as a way of life and presents the spiritual exercises of philosophy anew. Hadot corrects the christianizing-metaphysicizing of philosophy which would have us believe in or hope for some other realm outside our own. This defrocked priest demonstrates that we can face the absurdity of life in our death sentence by a search for meaning. And we can do so with total honesty and acceptance of the world as it is, not necessarily avoiding myth and fantasy but at the same time recognizing and dispelling their illusions.

I would argue that the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in which I was raised where the retreatant uses her imagination to enter into the lifestyle and character of Jesus is mode of entry into such a philosophic way of life. Especially if the retreatant encounters a Jesus before Christianity, for example, as interpreted by the historian Crossan, a Jesus within the tradition of Zeno and the Skeptics and in relation to Buddha and Socrates.

So like Boethius, while awaiting death in my country club old folks home, I choose to continue my path up Mount Wisdom to meaning. And therefore I begin a new project (among my many others) which I call "The Adventure of Philosophy" though I realize that the project and even the title has been already taken. But do not we all have to take it in our own way and in our own words? I think so. But I shall explore that assumption also.

I write my adventure for the new students of philosophy in community college like Christopher or Mohammed who have befriended us while they work part time as waiters in our country club dining room. But most of all I write up my adventure for me so as to keep knowing what I am thinking and to keep thinking at all.

As one of my guides once told me, I am condemned to meaning.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Liberals and Radicals

What you most loath in others is what you loath in yourself, a wise person once said. Well I loath liberals. And I loath the liberal in myself.

In the eye of the civil rights hurricane, I participated in the struggle by learning to organize in poor communities, the first one in Detroit made up of poor whites from Appalachia, Spanish speaking brown people from Puerto Rico, and black people emigrated from the South. I went on to Chicago to learn more about poverty in America just as Johnson's War of Poverty was beginning to be waged. It was at this time I learned about how people, especially housing marketeers and their financial institutional bankers, used race to make huge profits. Profits that were usually encouraged by local governments and guaranteed by federal policy.

Lula Boles was a leader of an organizing team in a large public housing complex in which I was working. She asked me to attend with her team a meeting of a black lawyers group. The room was crowded with lots of good, fiery speeches about racism in Chicago. Then one speaker got up to attack racism and saw me--the only white guy in the place. (I define white as a person of predominantly European descent, black as a person who claims their African descent.) He laid into me as representing all the sins that white people have committed on blacks. I've been attacked before and wasn't even going to acknowledge such foolishness; but I could see that our team was very uncomfortable. So, unusual for me, I spoke up. I told him that he was talking bullshit and that I refused to accept being a sacrificial victim for the sins of the white man. I said that instead of falling for the Man's ploy to pit poor whites against poor blacks, we should be out organizing against those who were wielding the power to put anyone down and leave anyone out. My team exploded with applause and so did the whole audience. I later recognized that part of the appreciation was not just the analysis I laid out. It was because I was willing to be an equal and to treat the speaker as an equal and not pander or patronize.

This is when I learned to loath liberals and began my quest to become a radical. Here is the difference for me--in black and white.

Liberals focus on culture and social attitudes. Liberals are more interested in cultural identity rights including ethnicity, race, sex, sexual orientation. White liberals are nice to and understanding with black people. Black liberals learn well how to use guilt to game white liberals and black folk. They accept their role as tokens and use that role to control the conversation and become the expert in race relations. Preachers, both white and black, are often the best at using race to keep their priveleged positions. White and black liberals talk a lot about race but don't do much to change the institutional foundations of racism.  They consider racism a matter of getting along with people. They are more into process than results. They are more into identity politics than class politics. They may speak radically about inequities in wealth and power, but do not organize with others to actually change the arrangements of wealth and power in the social order. That takes a different kind off thinking, a different kind of analysis, and a different kind of organizing. A radical one.

Radicals of every stripe and color focus on class and fight for equality and power for the poor and working class. They fight to reduce the influence of wealth in politics, for the ability of the poor and working class to have equal rights and power, to unionize and organize across ethnic and national lines, to remove the obstacles to full participation in the political economy. Radicals are color blind. They realize that cultural identity is important in human affairs, including religion, ethnicity, sex, age, and sexual orientation. But they also know that these are often screens and even distractions to get people to focus on cultural identity and human relations rather than economic justice. Radicals are more interested in the practice which is making some people more equal than others, rather than the supremacist language of the ignorant.

Presently I am working to retain diversity in the DC gentrifying neighborhood in which I work. I think a community is better when it is diverse. Some define strong community as stable, predictable, and without tension--like the small rural village in the American fantasy. I define strong community as creative, interesting, and challenging. That's what diversity in race, sex, language, sexual orientation, income and wealth, young and old, lucky and unlucky, atheist and religious, right and left bring to communities. But the way to achieve diversity is not by making everyone a cultural libertarian. It is by seeing and acknowledging what is keeping anyone from getting ahead or gaining respect: the conditions, practices, and especially the structures of society, usually not apparent, that work to profit some and rob others. How is the market now working and money now flowing to include some, but not others.

I believe that it is by organizing community groups with vision that build power to effect change in that market and the flow of money that will stop the new segregation that is now dividing America and destroying our democracy.

No one is more aware of the importance of ideas and language than I am. And I am all for changing the culture within which unjust actions spring and are rationalized. Yes, I know that race matters as do black lives. And I know that there are hateful bullies out there who stereotype and stir fear and violence.

But my own recent experiences in promoting diversity and in the recent political campaigns tell me that there are also lots of guilty liberals out there, black and white, who are well-intentioned (See these two books for and by liberals) but use their guilt to condone and conceal the cause of inequity, including racism, in institutions often being headed by nice white and black liberals. And when I do that, it makes me sick.






Monday, April 18, 2016

Why I'm not an atheist.

My belief system does not admit of supernatural entities and places. I have no gods nor causes nor places outside nature. When asked, I say I am not a religious believer. But that does not mean I am an atheist.

I understand why there are those who insist on being named atheists in order to distinguish themselves from "true believers," god-is-on-my-siders, religionists who argue from sacred scripture and divine authority for the evils of sexism, racism, white supremacy, national superiority, power by violence, and exclusion of others. Or they insist on being called atheists because they see the need for critical thinking, continuous inquiry, scientific skepticism, and openness to new ideas. Many reformers and rebels against the subjugation of the vulnerable were considered atheists. And many now accept that title and teach atheism as a belief system in solidarity with those reformers and rebels.

God, Paradise, Truth, Good, Freedom, Justice, and Beauty are concepts. Like all words, they are figures of speech, analogies, symbols. Images of our imagination. While these notions can be used to spread ignorance, to separate people, and to hold us back, they can also be used to help us grow and prosper as persons and as a people.

And that is why I will not call myself an atheist. For me to be a "real atheist" or a "true believer" is a failure of imagination. God, Paradise, Truth, Good, Freedom, Justice, and Beauty are images, but not without meaning. All are here in us as persons and as a people as we struggle together by accepting the world we have inherited with all its blemishes and acting now to leave the world for our children's children. So I can worship God, enter Paradise, find Truth, enjoy Justice, and discover Beauty best when I accept my desire to know in ignorance, express my hope for community in division, pursue my search for liberation in oppression, and my attempt to preserve our earth and embrace our universe.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Why I want Sanders to lose the election

(Note: This is a sorta rewriting of my last two entries.)

Yes, I contributed to his campaign. Yes, I will vote for him in the Maryland primary. But I want Bernie Sanders to lose the election.

Why? Because I believe in democratic republicanism over populist democracy.

Populism is focused on one issue or common enemy. It is often hooked up to electoral politics rather than building a base of autonomous power among people bringing together many issues and a more sophisticated analysis of those issues. Populists generally wind up giving away their power to demagogues who rule in their name to relieve their fears and satisfy their anger without subjecting their opinions to critique in the public space. This is why demagogues also want to suppress or control the press and put down dissent.

A republic is an organization of interacting publics. And a public consists of people acting together to shape the common good. A public is a town hall meeting, a council or conference, a settlement house or neighborhood center, a civic association or community organization. Often publics are gathered in geographic districts or connected to committees related to government. In publics, personal interests are achieved by being connected with others to create an agenda by which all can live and thrive. The republican education of critical thinking citizens occurs in public schools and through experience in civic affairs.

We've seen populist governments, left and right, recently in Russia, Latin America, and Jacksonland southern states. And we could probably point to elements of demagoguery at all levels of American government where the people elect their masters and leave the public space to them. When publics fail and people have only private opinions recorded in Gallup polls or even in mass votes, unchallenged by critical thinking or public discussion, we have the situation which rulers use to get and keep control.

We ask how did a silent majority permit the KKK lynchings of African Americans? The Know Nothing persecution of Catholic and Jewish immigrants? The concentration camp internment of Japanese Americans? The witch hunts of McCarthy? The mass incarcerations of Black Americans? 

The silent majority is silent because it is afraid. It becomes noisy when it blames "outsiders" for threatening their way of life. But silent or noisy it is a "mass"--unsullied by liberal education or community service where one touches other views and cultures and share their suffering with others not like them. Populists are not organized in publics, but in parties and special interest movements.

President Obama tried to maintain a community-based organizing process that would turn his electoral populist movement into autonomous community organizations. But that was impossible because the Organization for Action (OFA) was really an extension of his campaign. I believe the same would happen if Sanders were elected.  The popular movement might continue but the power arrangements would pretty much stay the same.

Now Sanders is no demagogue  Suppose he is not elected but continues his revolution. Say he works with a collective leadership (including perhaps the former community organizer now in the Oval Office) through experienced community organizing efforts now underway in neighborhoods, churches, worker groups, and schools, maybe we could see a real revolution. A revolution that would build local power for smart growth, living wages, preserved wilderness, water, air, and climate, universal health care and education, affordable housing for all, immigrant rights, and an equal starting point for all regardless of ethnicity, religion, culture, and sex.

For example, the Next Systems Project is trying to rethink and reframe the political-economy for the U.S. But they lack the local political organizing to make it happen.

The assumption of democratic republicanism is that most people, if educated in the skills of critical thinking and civic participation, will understand the obstacles and illusions that hold them back. And they will do the right thing. They will no longer be members of the populist silent majority or noisy mass which operates on the ignorance that promotes fear and hate of others.

Go Bernie, go!



Tuesday, April 5, 2016

More on Populism

Populists (see last blog) generally wind up giving away their power to demagogues who rule in their name to relieve their fears and satisfy their anger without subjecting their opinions to critique in the public space. This is why demagogues also want to suppress or control the press and put down dissent.

The Tea Party is a good example of this. Like the 19th century Know-Nothings (the American Party), they fear and oppose outsiders and blame them for their ills. Populism is focused on a single issue or enemy and is often hooked up to electoral politics rather than building a base of autonomous power among people bringing together many issues and a more sophisticated analysis of those issues.

We ask how did we permit the KKK lynchings of African Americans? The Know Nothing persecution of Catholic and Jewish immigrants? The concentration camp internment of Japanese Americans?  The witch hunts of McCarthy? How can so many now be supporting Trump and Cruz in their efforts to stop immigrants and refugees? The silent majority is silent because it is afraid. It becomes noisy when it despises "outsiders" who threaten their way of life. But silent or noisy it is a "mass"--unsullied by liberal education or community service where one touches "aliens," other views and cultures, and share their suffering with others not like them. In short they are not organized in publics but in parties and special interest movements.

Obama tried to maintain a community-based organizing process that would turn his electoral movement into autonomous community organizations. But that was impossible because the Organization for Action (OFA) was really an extension of his campaign. I believe the same would happen if Sanders were elected.  The popular movement might continue but the power arrangements would pretty much stay the same.

However, if Sanders is not elected, if he worked with a collective leadership through experienced community organizing efforts (e.g. PICO, NPA, IAF, Black Lives Matters, Occupy Wall Street, progressive unions and churches), maybe we could see a real revolution. A revolution that would build local power for smart growth, living wages, preserved wilderness, water, air, and climate, universal health care and education, affordable housing for all, immigrant rights, and an equal starting point for all regardless of ethnicity, religion, culture, and sex. The Next Systems Project is trying to rethink and reframe the political-economy for the U.S. But we still lack the local political organizing to make it happen.

The assumption of democratic republicanism is that most people, if educated in the skills of critical thinking and civic participation, will understand the obstacles and illusions that hold them back; and they will do the right thing. They will no longer be members of the populist silent majority which operates on the ignorance that promotes fear and hate of others.

I hope we can try out that assumption.