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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Saturday, October 22, 2005

the pursuit of happiness

I am sick of cynics...folks on the left whose rhetorical purity and snide sarcasm are their most precious possessions.

There is no pure stand point.

When Billmon, a writer I deeply respect, dishes Judith Miller as a "cocksucker" here:

"The next time the Society of Professional Cocksuckers gets together, maybe they should present Judy with a Fifth Amendment award -- because the way things are going, she's may need it."

and Colin Powell as a "Nazi" here:

"That's not the "world's most loyal soldier" -- that's the world's biggest bullshit artist. Wrapped in a paler skin, Powell's personality wouldn't have seemed out of place on the German general staff, circa 1936."

it's a disgrace to the left, to the blogosphere as a whole, and it makes me physically ill. That is not my team. Count me out.

And those of my colleagues who tirelessly rant against the Democrats without once proposing or investing, even in word form, in an alternative...I count you in this "cabal" as well. We are better than this, and it is a perversion of idealism that it would focus on the baleful idiocies of those in power to the exclusion of using the imperfect tools at hand to make change.

My political start point, however imperfectly I live up to it, is this: we are in this together. It's that simple.

From that start point, however, flows a complex and interwoven politics of community. People will do what is best for their children, their communities and their own selves given the information that they have access to at any given time. People will choose to affiliate themselves in political and economic relationships on that basis...and they do so everyday in myriad ways. To make crass assumptions about this fabric, to ignore the thinking involved, and, specifically, to focus on the purity of the standpoint of a minority of intellectual elites, is ivory-towerism of the highest order. And, whether that stand point is expressed by Billmon's snark or Noam Chomsky's disdain for engagement, I reject it.

The allegiance of the "common man and woman" whether on the streets of Oakland or Buenos Aries or Lagos or Mumbai is an allegiance given, and, at times, coerced by prevailing hegemons...but it is an allegiance nonetheless: a political choice. As Colonel Wilkerson emphasized last Wednesday, it does matter what the people of Iraq think, and their stand point is very different from that entertained by left critics in the U.S. As a matter of fact, what Iraqis think, and what they decide with their actions, is a central question for all of us, because the course of history in Iraq will be shaped by the countless decisions and alliances made by its citizens in the context of U.S. hegemony and the politics of the region.

If Colin Powell or Colonel Wilkerson's critique of BushCo. moves us away from Bush's failed policy and the war in Iraq...I am all for it, and will engage it. If Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation helps topple BushCo. and makes it vulnerable to a mid-term intervention that favors a Democratic resurgance, I am for it, even as I start from a left stand point. If that makes me complicit, so be it. From my point of view, I already am, all of us are...and deeply so.

Plato vs. Aristotle

We political animals, humans, have always been torn between the Aristotelean pragmatic mean, and the Platonic ideal. We need both, and human society, even before those philosophers, drew from both mindsets. Our greatest and wisest thinkers, however, have always come back to an embrace of an Aristotelean "enlightened pragmatism"...an attempt to forge the best of our information and ideals with the situation at hand. This, at the end of the day, means imperfect solutions made with imperfect tools...even if those tools, like the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, were forged in the crucible of our ideals, and would be impossible to imagine without the work of Plato.

The sickness at the heart of Platonism, however, is the patronizing image of the masses huddled in ignorance in the dank cave...and the elitist...Chomsky-esque...presumption of owning access to the bright, clear light of the truth. In many ways Plato is the much darker, and more cynical of the two philosophers. Playing into his elitism...into his presumption of "knowing better" is a dangerous habit. To claim his stand point without regard for one's own deep political inter-connectedness and complicity in the structural evil of our times is a profound error. Simply to claim to see "a light" or "the light," and to use that light to critique the prevailing power structure is not, in my view, necessarily synonymous with working for human liberation.

Our job, as writers and readers, as thinkers and engaged political activists is not to find a "pure point" and then cloak ourselves in it. That is a mission for fools. (And, yes, that cuts both ways and applies to the stand point from which I choose to speak now, as well.) Seeking a pure stand point, in my view, ignores the very real struggle for the well-being of the organism called "humankind"...a struggle whose outcome, in an age of nuclear weapons and global warming, is very much subject to an unprecedented jeopardy.

The job of the political intellectual is to understand that the battle between pragmatism and idealism is one engaged every day on every street corner of the world....in every human heart...in countless practical, and not so practical ways. Humankind, as our framers understood, is engaged in a shared pursuit of happiness. We are in this together. We are all philosophers and politicians. None of us, as individuals, can provide for the happiness of our brothers and sisters alone, but we can fight for the context in which that "pursuit" is more possible, is made easier and more sure. We must build our polis here on the ground from the framework of our ideals and with the material at hand, knowing that any human acheivement will be, at the end of the day, just that, human...and, as Aristotle understood that word, always contingent and political.

Yes, left intellectuals must engage and critique nationalism and patriotism. We must engage entrenched power structures and the mindset of the military-industrial complex. We must also find a way to engage religious faith and traditional cultures and prevailing views in constructive terms. That is our mission. But the "jaundiced eye" we so often cast on prevailing power structures is just that...a reflection of a sickness in our own heart and analyses as well. In my view, left cynicism represents a deeply held fascination with the puppet masters in the cave working their evil ways. Of course, if we turned our "jaundiced eye" to our "enslaved brothers and sisters" watching the shadows on Plato's wall, we might see ourselves as well. We might even see that we, ourselves, play with those puppets at times. In fact, I am certain of that.

Complicity and contingency are the only human start points. Most people understand that deeply; it undergirds most human political thinking. Wisdom implies that we work from that understanding forward....for the greater good of all. There is no such thing as an inorganic political philosophy. Our reality is always embodied, literally, in our political, human start points...and the best choice we can hope for, as Aristotle emphasized, is the "wise one."

I am deeply sympathetic to the critique of power, but I am deeply suspicious of those who use that critique as a tool for divisiveness, self-exile and apathy. We are political beings. On its most simple and global level, that means that we are in this together. And we have an obligation to understand, not simply what is, on its face, "right and true," but the thought processes and decisions made every day by our brothers and sisters around the world in building that out in the very real, and very imperfect polis called humankind.

There is no monopoly on righteousness and the truth, nor is there a monopoly on the uses and practice of philosophy and politics. At the end of the day, in this respect, a cynical elitism is a poision on the soul of our times. For better and for worse, whether in Aristotle's polis or huddled in Plato's cave, we are very much in this together.



  • Well said, KO.

    By Blogger SimoneDB, at 11:55 AM  

  • Wow.

    I dunno -- I think it has its place. The cynicism, that is -- and I don't necessarily agree that namecalling ("cocksucker," et al) falls under "cynicism," but I take your meaning.

    I call myself a cynic.

    Others call me an idealist.

    How can these two traits or personality avenues coexist?

    How can they not?

    You said an awful lot, KO, and I agree with much of it. But, as is my wont, I've chosen to focus on those points with which I disagree -- or at least diverge slightly.

    Like, for instance, the reflexive "Democrat-bashers" on the left who opt out of providing alternatives. I think you know as well as I that sometimes -- OFTENTIMES, in my case -- a rant against the Democrats comes after several attempts -- several YEARS of attempts -- to have one's alternatives heard and, please god, TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

    They've been kicking me in the teeth too long and I'm fucking sick of it, man. It's an inch or so away, and I'm crawling toward the line in the sand that Podvin crossed a while back: one of these days, I'm going to take my last punch in the gut from my so-called Democratic representatives and become a Nader. I just might take my fucking bat and ball and go home, man.

    As Podvin says in the essay I just linked, the Democrats in office of late are FAR more afraid of offending the Right than of betraying the Left.

    And that is simply bullshit cowardice AND treason, in my book.

    Okay. So, back to the "providing alternatives/solutions" thing:

    Come on. Seriously? You don't think we've been providing solutions with our rants? Okay, maybe not WITH the rants; but how about all those essays on what OUGHT to be done? Name your issue, I've written about what's wrong, how it ought to be and HOW TO GET IT THAT WAY.

    Now, if you really mean VIABLE solutions, then I'll leave it to others to decide whether those I present in any given situation are actually viable. Certainly the people to whom I've been trying to present them don't think so -- but then, they're the self-same people the solutions would INJURE.

    Anyway.... I'm done for now. Loved the piece, don't misunderstand this response. Just... well, one can get tired of kudos and all. Nice to get a person's thoughts stirring, hmm?

    By Blogger Maryscott OConnor, at 12:16 PM  

  • I think you missed billmon's point about Colin Powell. Let me cut and paste it here:

    And what did Powell have to say about his protege's outburst? Absolutely nothing, except to make this sunny observation at a collegiate speaking engagement yesterday:

    ''If you stand back a bit,'' Powell told an audience at the University at Buffalo, ''you might see we have done very well in most parts of the world.''

    That's not the "world's most loyal soldier" -- that's the world's biggest bullshit artist. Wrapped in a paler skin, Powell's personality wouldn't have seemed out of place on the German general staff, circa 1936.

    --I don't think billmon is specifically comparing powell to a Nazi, but making a point about the negative side of loyalty when it's loyalty to wrongheaded people in power.

    In Women's Studies there's an old canard that we don't speak of 'feminism' but of 'feminisms'. Perhaps we can extend that, loosely, to the large community of left blogostan. There's a rhetorical place for satire and cynicism just as there's a place for building bridges and community. Indeed, one of the things that distinguishes left from right is that part of that satire and cynicism is self-directed.

    I take your overall point to be that we are all in the current mess--Iraq, global warming, corporate capitalism run amok, etc.--together, and we need constructive effort more than we need rhetorical delight in the disasters of our political adversaries. I also share your distaste for intellectual snobbery and agree that people deserve respect, simply as persons, apart from their political allegiences.

    It seems to me, however, that the more pressing problem of our time is not intellectual snobbery, but, rather, a total disregard for the work of scholars and intellectuals. Rather than policies carefully decided based on the input of scholars, analysts, data, etc. we have, for instance, the "cabal" Wilkerson speaks of. It's a given that if you're going to make a sound argument for a sound policy, you need to take into account possible counter arguments. And intellectual honesty sometimes requires admitting that you're wrong. I see the role of billmon et al. as raucously making these counterarguments audible to a sometimes seemingly deaf mainstream public sphere.

    Finally, rather than Plato OR Aristotle, why limit ourselves when we can benefit from both?

    By Blogger Myshkin, at 12:36 PM  

  • Billmon's point that this cozy little society of insiders is dangerous, and that the Bush's of the world depend on ineffective opposition from the Democrats and empowerment of a corrupted press, like Miller, is spot on.

    Nobody liked what Cassandra had to say, that her warnings and critiques were unwelcome.

    Cassandra was, of course, right, and so is Billmon.

    By Anonymous Madman in the Marketplace, at 5:04 PM  

  • re: msoc

    Thanks for that comment!

    I agree with your main points: that cynicism and idealism deeply intertwine...and that I paint with a broad brush a style of writing...whose proponents are no more or less engaged than anyone.

    Hell, I rant too...fwiw, that was a rant...and I feel betrayed by the Democratic Party too...and I am big tent as far as style of discourse goes with the exceptions of what I note below.

    I know that cynicism about power is more, not less, prevalent among people with less access to the levers of change. And, in the face of BushCo., cynical doubt and irony may be the most sane response most of us have..

    That being said, Billmon crossed a line for me with those two posts. Where I get off the boat is a kind of destructive discourse that absolutely cuts political opponents off from engagement and, rather than satirizes...almost dehumanizes. There's a difference.

    I don't think we have that luxury...and it isolates us exactly when we need to be broadening (not watering down...broadening) our message.

    MSOC, when you are honest about your struggle with the Democratic party...that's valuable in my view. And I've always taken your rants, and billmon's as well, to stand in for the earnest anger felt by thousands.

    But there is a fine line between the kind of "performance" we get on AM radio and a more earnest ranting....and I think the difference is honesty and vulnerability, on some level...an ability to possibly some day stand in the same room together and debate...versus a kind of demagoguery on the other hand...that just cuts off all possible discourse in a degrading manner.

    re: myshkin

    As you wrote your comment, I added the billmon quote and link.

    Thanks for your criticism. I think what I'm trying to do is synthesize by presenting an opposition...in both parts of my essay.

    ie. A rant that points up a critique of ranting.

    An opposition of two philosophies that points up how they might be used in tandem.

    The danger of the Aristotelean world view is its acceptance of the status quo. Aristotle did not oppose change, and his world view can encompass it...but he deeply accepted the way things were...and I should have mentioned that.

    As for billmon's "nazi" line. I don't think it was productive...in fact, I think, however foul one views Powell's actions and words...

    comparing Powell to a German General is more than racous in my view.

    Your point about academics...about "silencing" is well taken...as is your reminders that there are "blogisms" too.


    Oh. And thanks simonedb!! (cool handle.)

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 5:13 PM  

  • Colin Powell as a "Nazi"

    All you are doing here is displaying your historical ignorance. I'm afraid the rest of your rant isn't worth bothering with.


    By Anonymous billmon, at 6:03 PM  

  • re: billmon

    Fair enough.

    A member of the "German General Staff" in 1936 wouldn't have to be a "Nazi."

    I'm sure Colin Powell would take your post exactly the way you meant it, with all its shades of meaning.

    As for me, I think that comment was foul.

    As was using the "cocksucker" line on Judith Miller.

    I read your blog and respect you enough to expect more of you.

    It's pretty clear from your arrival here...that you don't read this blog. I don't expect you to, but it would be nice if you were clear about that...especially given your dismissal of my writing wholesale.

    re: madman

    I disagree. That's all.

    I think discourse that would preclude public debate...that is foul and dehumanizing...does no one any favors. It plays into a dangerous game and poisons the well. It bothers me to see some of our best writers go down this path.

    That's my sincere view. I'm not backing down from it.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 6:45 PM  

  • We're past the point of "debate" ... well into a period of political ferment. "Debate" can happen only when there is a agreed upon set of "rules". The right stopped playing by the rules, and the nasty gamesmenship, toadying and blind ambition of enablers like Miller and Powell deserves only scorn and harsh language.

    It's past time to get our rhetorical knuckles bloody.

    By Anonymous Madman in the Marketplace, at 7:23 PM  

  • i was always more fond of heraclitus than either aristotle or plato, but i think you nailed plato dead to rights here, kid. the republic made my skin crawl. a tendency to sneer at the sheeple in the cave is one of the biggest traps we face, here in the blogosphere.

    i'm not sure that all discourse needs to offer the opening for reconciliation with all people. i tend towards madman and maryscott's position in that i think some people are beyond the pale, and ought rightly to be demonized, even at the risk of dehumanization. the people who brought us to this place of death and lies are not worth reasoning with, and must be marginalized, even if it means being divisive and excessively snarky. i do not feel that there is much difference between some of the neocons and fascists and tyrants of ages past. i hate it that our world has come to the point where i can even say such a thing, but that is the way it looks to me.

    where i side with you is that i agree that such an opinion as i have just stated is a potentially dangerous thing, and can do a lot of damage if the number of people "dead to us" is expanded from war criminals and fascists (and no, i no longer think that word is hyperbole, sad to say) on the one hand to their active or passive supporters on the other. my parents are republicans, and buy into many of the lies that saturate our airwaves, so that keeps me honest about who are our "enemies" and who are people that we need to convince.

    lu xun, a early 20th century chinese writer and intellectual, likened it to being trapped inside an airtight iron box along with a bunch of sleeping people. you are all trapped, and will die of suffocation once the air is used up. the dilemma of the intellectual is whether to wake the people, so that we will die awake, or whether to just let them sleep,so at least they will not suffer.

    lu xun argued - and i agree - that it was better to wake them, in the hopes that together we might all find a way out of the box. the question at hand is how best to do so.

    By Anonymous wu ming, at 10:01 PM  

  • k/o I was wondering if you wouldn't mind expanding on Chomsky's "disdain for engagement".

    I know he doesn't partake much in the MSM outside of an occaisional op-ed in the NYT or an appearance on Bill Maher, but I thought part of this had to do with the MSM branding him as a sort of extremist.

    By Blogger Dean, at 9:51 AM  

  • Kid Oakland, you've tackled a very complex subject most admirably. I think this is an extremely thoughtful and artful piece of writing.

    By Anonymous justwondering, at 11:16 AM  

  • Why, ....thank you for such thoughtfulness.

    We really must elevate the dialog.

    By Blogger memberofthejury, at 4:34 PM  

  • Anonymous is because I don't remember what my login is and I can't stand not commenting on this...

    Cathy said....

    I love what you've writted KO.

    It's so hard to make clear what is meant when we see so little value in the cynicism that gets put out by out side.

    I'm not fed up? Sure, I am. I've been fed up. But, if we don't believe in possibilities, and people in politics then we need to quit following poltics and take up something else.

    This means giving the benefit of doubt, sometimes, hell, pretending not to notice things. But, it never ever has to mean not challenging, letting 'em get away with stuff, shutting up, being hoodwinked, being taken for granted, all the things that a lot of people seem to think it means if we don't sigh and bash Democrats with cynical prognostications about the future. Sometimes I read a rant and think, "Well, it's hopeless, eh? They don't care, they never will, it's all about money, power, whatever..." Then how do you keep thinking of politics as a way to change things. Expecting to find the perfect candidate? Or as you, KO, so brilliantly put it, 'rhetorical purity'?

    Rhetorical purity is as much BS to me as the pol who want say what I want to hear.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:15 PM  

  • so many of my favorite playthings (ideas) are in here I probably didn't read what you intended... but I enjoyed it.

    Good cautions for those of us that do engage in the critique.

    As for idealism vs. nitty gritty reality:

    there can not be sex without friction... so before we call friction a bad thing... let's give it more thought.

    did Adam and Eve LOSE their place in the garden? or did they actually choose more friction, for the adventurer understand harship's delight?

    I don't know, and I'm an atheist, so that's loaded.

    But, come one... sex needs friction... that's a good point isn't it?

    cheers kid.

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 3:07 PM  

  • madman,

    knuckles bloody.

    lets clarify this revolutionary talk... it feels nice... it even sounds nice when in a particular state of mind... but is that what you are advocating? a physical fight in the streets... that's our savior?

    or just metaphorical.

    frankly, I'm sick of postering and "metaphorical war"... our national conversation is not really a "war"... dkos not really an "army"... I'm sick of "fight fight fight"... that's not the solution, this is about evolving.

    we're past the time... sounds historically wrong to me... we are not past that time... we are ENTERING IT.

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 5:12 PM  

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