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Monday, January 22, 2018

A Case for Cynicism

In today's America, to make a case for cynicism seems to be an easy task.  Too easy.

We have become a nation of cynics with constant tweets about "fake news," near universal disbelief of political and corporate leaders, and growing distrust of institutions, governmental, religious, educational, business, press. This distrust and disbelief is destroying our union as a people and our souls as persons.  And cynicism is breeding despair and disengagement.

We need a revival of hope, a sense that we are all in this together, a remembrance of the teachings of great souls and the purpose of institutions established through great courage. We need to make a case against cynicism, not for it.

But the cynicism for which I want to make a case is the way of ancient philosophers who were attacked as "cynics" or dogs by the uneducated. A title Cynics accepted as "watchdogs" and "hounds" of truth.

Cynicism in Ancient Greece and Rome was founded by students of Socrates, became prevalent in the age of uncertainty between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and influenced Stoicism and Christianity as ways of life in distinction from those who curried wealth, power, and fame. It taught a way of happiness or human flourishing though reason attuned to nature, through indifference (adiaphora) to riches and authority, love of humanity especially those left out, free speech to power (parhesia), countercultural living or shamelessness (anaideia), and training exercises of body and soul.

Some scholars, historians and archeologists, demonstrate the link between the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and those of the Cynics--especially his having no place to lay his head, his traveling with only a knapsack on his back, his communion with nature, his relationship with the poor and the socially discarded. (See John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus and Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography.)

"None of this meant that a Cynic would retreat from society. Cynics were in fact to live in the full glare of the public's gaze and be quite indifferent in the face of any insults which might result from their unconventional behaviour. The Cynics are said to have invented the idea of cosmopolitanism: when he was asked where he came from, [the Cynic] Diogenes replied that he was "a citizen of the world, (kosmopolit√™s)."

"The ideal Cynic would evangelise; as the watchdog of humanity, they thought it their duty to hound people about the error of their ways. The example of the Cynic's life (and the use of the Cynic's biting satire) would dig up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions" (article in Wikipedia).

So maybe I come full circle and see the link between cynicisms. To mistrust and criticize the present customs, the churches' and corporations' domination of government, the role of money in politics, the measure of success as the accumulation of capital and authority, the hypocrisy of leaders, the abandonment of nature and science for the sake of profit is a worthy cynicism.  But unlike contemporary cynicism, it must lead to action, to speaking out truth to power, to attacking the wealth measure of success, to reforming our customs and institutions.

The courageous cynicism of philosophers is the antidote to the hopeless cynicism of modernity. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Who is a Citizen?

Who is a Citizen?

What makes a person a citizen?

Citizenship today is a misunderstood concept that affects the conduct of nations internally and externally, locally and globally. I dare to say that the understanding of and consequent policy towards citizenship is at the heart of the present malaise that we experience in Trumpian America. I also dare to say that immigration and citizenship policy is being wielded to deport true citizens by non-citizens including the chief executive officer of our Republic.

The US administration is ready to deport 800,000 young people who came to this country as children with their families. In addition, 100,000 unaccompanied teens from Central America are being targeted for deportation along with 10,000 Filipinos. Tens of thousands of Haitians 250,000 El Salvadorans, are losing protected status and are subject to deportation to states for which they have no allegiance.

To be a legal US citizen, you must be born here or naturalized. The requirements for citizenship, which started with “free white men,” have been broadened statutorily to include persons of all races and origins who have had lawful permanent residence for five years, demonstrate moral character, write and speak English, have basic knowledge of the history and laws of US government, and show commitment to the principles of the US Constitution.

A comprehensive immigration law was considered under the last two US administrations. This law would make persons, who have no proof or papers of citizenship, legal residents, and therefore not subject to deportation. But it was not enacted because it contained a “path to citizenship” which the Right considered amnesty and a reward for illegal behavior. It would also favor non-native and non-European refugees who will dilute American culture, language, and religion. Thus, millions of US residents, friends and neighbors, are without the protections of many other friends and neighbors. They are hesitant and even frightened to appear, much less to speak and act, in public.

Short history of citizenship

Citizenship, its meaning and rules, has developed from ancient times, some say starting with Israel’s covenant with God and the great civilizations of antiquity; others say the city-states of Greece, through the Roman Republic and Empire.  Presently in nation-states, each state decides the definition and eligibility of citizenship. Some require birth in the country to citizens of that country.  Some require legal residency of three to five years before application for naturalization. Some have racial, cultural, and religious requirements.

The word “citizen” like “city” comes from the Latin cives from which we get the word civilization. To be a cives of Rome was not a matter of living or being born in the city (urbs) of Rome. It was a matter of submitting and adhering to the rule of first the Republic and then the Empire through which goods were distributed, commerce protected, and interactions among peoples were governed. And this understanding carried down through the Middle Ages and into Modernity. The rulers, whether the Assembly, Emperor, Caliph, or Monarch, granted citizenship to their subjects.

But as people achieved “enlightenment,” they began to realize that power and sovereignty belonged to the People who in solidarity legitimated and formed the government and kept it accountable to the citizenry. Citoyen in the revolution establishing the French Republic was used to signify the common person as equal and the citizenry as responsible for the rule of the state. The People declared their own citizenry by organizing themselves into publics and republics. In a democratic republican form of government, citizens of all cultures are not subjects.  They are participants with the human right to assemble, speak, and act freely to shape their common space including its limits and its future.

Citizenship in the 21st Century

There are three “pure” forms of human social organization that compete today throughout the 21st Century world and US—and many hybrids. Each form has its own principle of organization and assessment of value relating to one of three fundamental human capacities.

The first is populist nationalism, a reaction back to tribal consciousness and behavior whose principle is traditional culture and which values right religion, morality, and race relating to the human capacity for imagination and remembrance through language. The second is transnational capitalism whose principle is economic expansion and whose highest value is capital acquisition relating to the human capacity for life through production and consumption. The third is democratic republicanism whose principle is equality over equity and which values, above all else, freedom relating to the human capacity to think and act in concert.

In populist nationalism, citizens are considered believers chosen apart from and opposed to barbarians or savages to protect their race and tradition. In transnational capitalism, citizens are considered producer-consumers taming and using nature through technology.  In democratic republicanism, citizens are considered autonomous persons, equal in dignity, acting together to create the good society. The principles of the first two are extrinsic located in supernatural forces or in external nature—gods and property. The third principle is intrinsic to human existence as it has emerged in the process of the universe.

These three forms are in tension as we consider our choices for the future of humankind. They conflict in our thinking regarding citizenship and our acts in regards immigrants and refugees, past, present, and future.

In the Twentieth Century, many democratic republics were formed on all continents; and the principles of democratic republicanism are articulated in the charter of the United Nations. Political observers and thinkers recognize that democratic republicanism in the United States of America, the French Republic, the Republic of Haiti, The Federal Republic of Germany, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Republic of South Africa, and perhaps all nations in the UN is more aspirational than actual. The US, in its founding in slavery and genocide, its Civil War so-called reconstruction, its 19th and 20th century capitalist expansion and colonial dealings in Africa and Latin America, and now today in the resurgence of white supremacy and national populism, is still more an idea than a reality. And yet language, symbols, practices, and even the institutions of democratic republicanism are real and still work to achieve the dream of liberty and justice for all that is founded on the nature and dignity of the human person.

The three marks of citizenship

In a democratic republic, citizenship means 1) civil behavior or civility, 2) public service or welfare, and 3) citizen action or politics.  Those of us who behave civilly with one another, who serve our neighbors and especially strangers to build community, and who engage in action with others to construct, refine, and reform the social structures for liberty and justice for all, are true citizens. Whatever our origins, religion, and culture and whether or not we carry legal identification, when we are civil, serve the public, and act for the common good, we are citizens pledging allegiance to the Republic for which we stand. The government (Congress, Courts, and President) does not make us citizens. We the citizens make government. That’s the idea of America as a democratic republic.

1.     Civility.  We define it as behaving in a civilized manner. The first act of civility is said to be recognizing another person as a person with all the dignity that personhood implies. It is saying hello to a stranger on the street. It is attempting to situate oneself within the other person and take on her point of view, feeling her joy and her pain. It is being open to new ways of seeing and singing the world with others. Welcoming, liberality, inclusiveness, openness, courtesy, respect, politeness, graciousness are all synonyms for civility.

2.     Civil Service. Service to the public includes defense of the Republic, fighting crime and oppression, protecting our neighbor when threatened, making up for our vulnerabilities. It means governmental service, local and national, paid and volunteer which strengthens the public and the relationships among the people and their institutions. It means voluntary association for a public purpose: education, aid, arts, the environment, safety, civil rights, health, and celebrations

3.     Citizen Action. Citizens have rights spelled out in the Constitution; but the assemble and act under their own authority with human rights. We the people decide who we are, how we organize and govern ourselves, and what our future shall be. We the people hold our representatives and our government accountable. We organize locally, regionally, nationally, and even worldwide—and we do so voluntarily without coercion through broad based community organizations, economic interest factions, geographical, age, or racial groups, and political parties of people who have been left out of decision-making. We organize for power. We become citizens through speech and action in concert. We become free by declaring our freedom and exercising it.

When Rosa Parks chose to go to jail instead of the back of the bus, when freedom riders suffered beatings coming off the bus in segregated terminals, when young men and women refused to move from whites only lunch counters in Nashville, even though they couldn’t get the legal papers that allowed them to vote, they were citizens—much more than the state officials and the white supremacists who opposed them.

In a democratic republic, the citizenry acting together is the author of all rights and rules. Citizen action, not religion, not race, not government, not church, not class, not wealth. Voting for propositions and for representatives is the first level of citizen action. But holding representatives and ourselves accountable through demonstrations, speeches, voter registration, strikes, and other symbolic acts before and after elections moves to the next level.

Education for citizenship.

Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the American Democratic Republic, knew and taught that the success of the Republic required first and foremost the abolition of slavery, even though he himself practiced it, freedom from religion, and public education. By public education, he did not mean government funded education. He meant education that was accessible to all equally through private and government support like the University of Virginia.  And most of all he meant the education of citizens into the sciences and the arts for being citizens, that is, for living as public persons and acting in public on behalf of the public.

Today, many of us citizens are astonished that we have political leaders, journalistic columnists, media pundits, and even teachers and preachers who offer stories, opinions, and policies without knowing history, without a public philosophy, and without critical thinking. In other words, we have political advisors, officials, and even a president who have not been educated in the basics of citizenship. And they are making the laws determining who is a citizen, who shall be deported, and who shall remain in our democratic Republic.

All citizens, starting with the youth, should be required to participate in public education. The elements of public education include teaching civics, modeling civility, performing civil service, and experiencing citizen action. The syllabus for public education and citizenship includes:

·      Local, national, and world history and political philosophy. This includes both promoting the ideals of citizenship in a democratic republic and critiquing the shortfalls and failures of a nation and world in living up to those ideals. The mythology of propaganda is accompanied by scientific history based on observation and evidence.
·      Training in civility—beginning with child caregivers starting with parents, teachers in elementary and high schools, and professors in all the sciences and arts who model civil behavior, demonstrate interest and participation in public affairs, and relate their disciplines to the common good.
·      Direct experience in public service. National service in the Military, the Peace Corps, Vista, the US Park Service, the Science Corps, the Urban and Rural Community Building Corps, and other services that build the material, natural, and social infrastructure of the nation. Participation in schools as community centers, teaching fellows, housing and community development interns.
·      Engagement in citizen action, civil rights, and economic development through nonprofit community organization institutes.


Naturalization is the recognition of our common humanity in nature, the dignity of each and every human being, their natural rights, and their responsibility to exercise and protect those rights.

Naturalization in a true democratic republic means a commitment to the idea that everyone is born with civil rights and responsibilities, the American idea. No one is illegal by natural law. What would the Citizenship and Naturalization Law of the USA be if the USA was truly a democratic Republic, not a transnational corporation to expand wealth nor a populist nationalist state to maintain a cultural belief system.  How do we craft our laws so that they conform to the idea of America and reach towards our aspirations?

Today, we confront the odd, even outrageous, situation in which many of our representatives in courts and congress and the chief executive officer of the government are making immigration law and deciding the meaning and rules of citizenship without being citizens themselves as understood in a true democratic republic. President Trump tweets the antithesis of civility. He has no record of public service until he became President. He opposes citizen action, including free speech and assembly unless it agrees with him. He fails all three marks of citizenship. Yet wielding the force of the military and the national police of ICE, he dares to deport people and break up families who have made the US home, pay taxes, perform civil service including defense, and engage in citizen action.

I declare my citizenship in solidarity with all “illegal aliens” and non-white immigrants who are indeed my fellow citizens. They behave civilly; they do public service; and they engage in citizen action.  I will gather and act with them until we are all recognized as citizens by the government that we authorize.

Rollie Smith 1-15-2018

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Does anything matter?

Do you sometimes wonder if anything matters? I do. That I guess is what makes me read, write, and like philosophy. I wouldn’t do philosophy if I did not believe that certain things really do matter and try to find them.  I believe it is important to get others to believe they matter too.

Thanks to the New Yorker, I came across a new philosopher--new to me, that is—Derek Parfit. He has, according to the article by Larissa MacFarquer, dealt with two major issues which have also been of concern to me throughout my life: the self in Reasons and Persons and moral truth in On What Matters. I began my dialogue with him through the many quotes and the analyses of the article. Therefore, what I write here is not a fair treatment of Parfit whose books I have not yet read.

The self that I experience and which is denoted by the name my parents gave me is not a separate, distinct, unchanging entity. It is a node of changing relationships that wavers and fluctuates between self-consciousness and objective experience. There is no conscious monad or substance enduring in the flow of subjective and objective experiences. “A self, it seems, is not all or nothing but the sort of thing that there can be more or less of.”

I am not who I was or will be. The self has memories of the past and projections of the future. But we have learned through neuro-science that none of those memories and projections are totally or even moderately accurate. Our bodily cells are being replaced daily. Our genes and memes are continually changing. There is a constant, though not perpetual, structure in our DNA. And we can discern a constant structure of the human way of being in the world. But that too evolves. In consciousness, we can detect a continuity between our past and future, but it is detected only in the present. It is ridiculous to try to extend the self before birth or after death as though it were a permanent entity.  It is also ridiculous to try to extend the self forever whether through religious belief or scientific technology—because at every moment the self is dying and becoming.

For some this perception of the self is depressing. For others, like Parfit (and me), it is liberating. It is consistent with a postmodern view that all things are constituted and defined by relationships. But in accepting the total relationality of process in the universe and in our selves within it, the big question is whether anything matters. Another way to put that question is whether there a moral truth?

As Parfit, reflecting on Ivan Karamazov’s insight, says “if there is no moral truth, then all things are permitted.” And we refuse to live in such a world or universe. Our search for understanding of our universe and of ourselves seems to cry for an unchanging truth, a fixed standard to live by.

Was it Oscar Wilde who said that character is an intersection of addictions? Better, I submit, the “true self,” character, or soul is an intersection of habits—good ones called virtues and bad ones called vices. And yet, what makes empathy and solidarity good? What makes narcissism and cruelty bad?

Parfit, like almost all philosophers, wants to develop a moral philosophy to guide our behaviors and actions. But more so to make human existence itself matter. The three moral philosophies he considers are deontology (also meta-ethics) represented by Kant, consequentialism (or utilitarianism) as put forward by Sedgewick, and consensualism (also social contractualism) whose main proponent I, not Parfit, considers Rawls. Parfit’s main effort is to put all of these together into one formula which expresses objective moral truth realizable by all humans. I think he succeeds as long as we distinguish the expression of that truth from the truth expressed.

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason finds the universal law or principle of human behavior and action in the universal capacity of humans to think. Sedgewick asserts that the basis of morality is assessment of the consequences of behavior and action. And Rawls suggests an implicit social contract among all persons. While students in each school have criticized and opposed each other, Parfit shows how each of these three doctrines imply and even require the others. Indeed, the position as to the good or evil of consequences (Sedgewick) is based on some judgment or intuition of the proper way to behave and act which can be expressed in a law or principle (Kant) to which humans together can agree upon (Rawls).

A progression in these three doctrines might be identified with the contractual or consensual being the final check on a truth based in nature (deontological) and judged by its fruits (consequentialism)—somewhat like peer review in science. It is expressed in the adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln: You can fool all the people some of the timeyou can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.” While that cannot be easily proven, it represents a faith in democratic republicanism.

There is a fourth doctrine represented by Parfit’s friend Bernard Williams who disdained any system of ethics and considered useless the attempt to discover some objective moral truth. This was Parfit’s encounter with postmodernism which he tried to include in moral reasoning, but could not. Or, maybe, would not. “Williams says that, rather than asking Socrates’ question ‘How ought we to live?’ we should ask, ‘What do I basically want?’ That, I believe, would be a disaster. There are better and worse ways to live.”

But there are two (at least) postmodernisms, one bleak and another hopeful. Yes, if there are no absolutes and everything is relative, meaning is ephemeral and there are no truths. There are even “alternate facts.” Lies are actualities. Every desire is permitted. For something to be right and true, I just have to want it that way.

But suppose that I, like Parfit, want what I do and think to be meaningful. Suppose I want objective, universal, moral, truths to govern human life and action. Without slipping back into a discredited modernism or a nostalgic premodern world, I can discover and even construct truth in relationships. Unlike bleak postmodernism, all things are not relative.  But all things, including me and my neighbors are relational.  And I can take responsibility for understanding, saying, and even building the relationships that constitute reality, truth, and meaning.
The second postmodern ethic values critical thinking, scientific method, and the relationships among all beings that make up our world and our universe. I submit that this hopeful postmodernism (which I prefer to label “transmodern” to distinguish it from a settled, finished position) is a fourth ethical theory that not only takes in the insights of deontology, utilitarianism, and consensualism, but also the critiques of modernity.

My main interests are politics: concerted action in public for social justice. Many philosophers, like Parfit, consider ethics as moral theory including the study of morality and the pursuit of moral truth. And they consider politics as the extension of ethics from the personal or individual to the social or communal. Aristotle wrote the Politics after he wrote the Nicomedian Ethics. Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason before he wrote the Critique of Practical Reason.

But I prefer to see the primacy of politics over ethics in time as well as in significance. That is something I will argue elsewhere to demonstrate its importance to humanity. I note it here mainly to identify what I see as a deficit in Parfit and many of the moral thinkers he engaged.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for the introduction to such a great teacher in dialogue with others. I hope that many will follow his lead with the faith that we can do better and will construct a better future.