Monday, May 23, 2011

Their Funeral/Our Trial, or, "What, Us Worry?"

[Note: I've started blogging at Daily Kos. Sometimes my "diaries" get attention. This one got none. It's either because it was inappropriate material or because it's a bit, um, advanced, or because I did it on the day of the supposed Rapture, and that was everyone's topic.]

If you are an intellectual and you feel free of anxiety, then I would like to know why. So far as I can tell, there is nothing but guilt for the moral intellectual in the United States.

I have a moral question that few will want to ponder and that none will be able to answer, I think. I sure as shootin' can't answer it. I feel like I did well to find a question that will ruin your day. Before I get to it, though, I need to make clear that what I am about to outline might be prophetic. It is possible that what I am talking about is the future rather than the present, and it could be the past for some sensitive souls. I cannot say, because in the United States at the present time it is not possible to discuss moral questions. The Internet has given us each a soap box and a funnel, but that just means a whole mass of barbaric yolps -- not discussion. I can prove that, too, if it's necessary for me to prove what we all know.

Before getting to the question ("Oh, do not ask what is it/ Let us go and make our visit") – and I promise not to play a coquette's or a writer's game with the point – I need to establish my usage of the term “moral.” I know that even the word is rejected by a good many people on the left, while, like toilet paper, it is used without respect to remove stains by "values" politicians on the right. For me, the word “moral” denotes a set of values that the individual believes to transcend the individual, the social, and the temporal. Thus, moral is what we believe to be good and evil, not right and wrong. It is right to stop at a stop sign, but it is good to feed a starving dog. The ethical and civic virtues depend upon context, while the moral ones do not.

Speak of morality and alienate our audiences, provoke arguments, invite lazy, retarded retreats into familiar lean-to's of belief, and it is received wisdom worthy of Flaubert's Dictionary that anyone who says the word is a fundamentalist trying to impose an antiquated scold's bridle on us or or a relativist trying to attack whatever is most dear. Speak of morality and make the gorge, discomfort, or disinterest rise.

It occurs to me that if this received opinion is correct, it is more of a reason to have the discussion than to avoid it.

[A digression follows. Therefore, imagine a lithograph of a nun wearing a cowboy hat on a prayer mat, while a cactus, needles capped by spent shell casings, stands sinister and an Oath Keeper with “Thor” tattooed on his knuckles smiles beatifically to the dexter.]

A result of the taboo on 'morality' for the left and middle of society has been the “religious illiteracy” that Mr. Prothero has documented so well. Another result is that we forfeit the discussion to those who will have it. Taboo creates fetish, after all. The more we make the Good unspeakable, the more sexy it becomes to those who wish us ill. We empower religion, especially, for the right, at the very same time that we surrender our voice and thus ensure that bigots are the only ones in the agora. The result is that most people think that “morality” is synonymous with religion. It isn't. Morality can be derived from religion. It most often is derived from religion. However, depending on definitions, all that is required for morality is a belief that some things are just right or wrong, no matter what, that the good and bad can be irreducible. Argue that passing on one's genes is the right thing because of fitness, that utilitarianism determines the right, that living and non-living matter are the same and that Nature's laws are right, that societies are systems and that the system's health is the greatest good – anything except “it depends on context” or “it is all up to the individual,” and you have argued a moral position, because you have argued that the good and bad extend beyond the individual's desires or the group's demands.

Basically, if it can make you uncomfortable, it may be morality.

Just because we disagree is no reason to be silent. If we are so afraid of having to clarify our assumptions, so nervous about trusting the other person to be calm, that we avoid the subject or claim that there is no truth but the temporary or relative, we end up giving the floor to the fundamentalists, the radicals, and the violent. This leaves us unable to call out their frauds. It makes us mute when we wish to converse and persuade the inexperienced to turn from the visions of fearful glory and martial virtue.

[End of digression. Onto the business of why you should feel horrible. Therefore, imagine that there is a photograph of Cicero with congestion and living Claritin Clear.]

Modernism. "Our virtues are fathered by unnatural vices," Robinson Jeffers said. Well, that's probably poop, but Modernism was certainly fathered that way.

I will abridge any long description of the rise of Modernism and only say that we in the Northern hemisphere of the Earth have, as our defining moment of the twentieth century, World War II. Before that, though, we had World War I. According to the Modernists themselves, who wouldn't shut up about it in their manifestos, they had no choice but do something drastic because of World War I. Rationalism had failed completely. Hegel's assurances, Arnold's assurances, science's confidences, that Progress was coming, that Civilization would lead us forward, had been gassed, died, bloated, and its corpse had exploded in No-Man's Land. Intellectuals after World War I got 1) sad, 2) cynical, and then 3) angry. They produced both the most original and skeptical thought of the century with one of their Cerebus heads and the birth of new vehemence and violence and mis-Utopianism with the other. They either questioned everything, including the unity of the self, in ever-spiraling questions of consciousness and mysticism, wondering if there was communication, or they had to devise a New Order that would not make such mistakes. Communism and Fascism both came from intellectuals rejecting the morality and civilization that “lead” to World War I. Then again, another set gave us the retreating movements. Revved up Theosophism, neo-Rosicrucianism, and tons of neo-nativist societies “discovering” the antiquity of their national tribes and paganism (the Geatish society, the Thule, the Golden Dawn) all retreated from reason in one direction, while others moved toward the hero cult or the truth of machines. Intellectuals were frenzied, desperate.
Well, golly. If that thesis is true, then what did World War II do?

It should have really, really set the world alight, right?

Well, no... and yes, maybe. It was a “good war.” For French, English, American, and even Italian intellectuals, World War II has a nicely drawn contour. Only after the bomb was moral philosophy awakened from its sleep. At that point, there was a searching into responsibility and the value of man as an animal. In France and Italy, the identity and culpability of the collaborator, the heroism and epistemology of the resistance (Sartre, most famously), the meaning of being a by-stander... these nagged and dogged, and some of the absurdism and nihilism and existentialist individualism of the 1950's and 1960's that we celebrate in America and the U.K. may mark a flight into private worlds where social morality no longer applies. However, other than a few moral philosophers like Niebuhr, who kept going on and on about sin, American and English thinkers fretted about tenure and q not q. Modernist skepticism stayed en vogue during the Cold War, because the Cold War kept raising questions about whether humans could be trusted to organize their own sock drawers.

[Since, by now, you're convinced that I'm never going to talk about us and why we should feel bad, here would be a truly diverting cartoon from the first run of “The Phantom,” where the hero instructs the natives on how to use an American revolver.]

I'm a coward, and I was doused in a mixed up form of Augustinianism early on in life, and so I have a big bucket of guilt on me from the start. I read famous philosophers hoping to find someone smarter than I who has gotten the answer. Like calls to like, they say, and so I have noticed that I am attracted, deeply, to those intellectuals who found themselves guilty of being near a crime in commission. So it is that I have been interested in how German intellectuals dealt with being the inter-war generation. One thing I see, over and over again, is that they grapple with the subject of guilt and responsibility of the individual as a component of the whole.

Now that question can't be answered directly. No one can say, directly, what our responsibility is for being near the crime. In fact, I would say that it's a problem that has been asked by many generations, from John Locke trying to figure out his responsibility for being in the regicide generation to us[here be footnotes], but philosophical discomfort is very useful, and the evasions help us. Thus, one of my favorite contemporary philosophers is Odo Marquard.

Dr. Marquard seems to have had the misfortune of receiving his Ph.D. during the “bad” time. Thus, he received his training from those philosophers whose names we do not pronounce. Is that his fault? His consciousness as a philosopher and professional was shaped by the post-war experience, which itself was dominated by the multi-year tribunal. Thus, in Abschied vom Prinzipiellen (Farewell to Matters of Principle [holy cow! they want $98 for it? Sheesh! it's really good, but $98?) we get my favorite contemporary philosophical essay, “Burdened and Disemburdened 18th Century Man and the Flight into Unindictability.” It's clear that the heavy question of guilt of mankind in the question of theodicy and the tribunal of philosophical questions of evil that Dr. Marquard discusses on the surface of his essay is a window into to a a question that is both wider than his historical moment and more deeply affecting than mere words.

The way he sees it, we humans could not say (Leibniz) that God created evil, and so we said that man did it. Well, if man made evil, then man can fix evil, and man is responsible. We, then, are on trial.

If humans created evil, then humans must answer to the tribunal, and the weight of this burden is such that we struggled to invent our social sciences to “presume not God to scan” and make “the proper study of mankind... man,” but we have been forced now to admit defeat. The world wars, the bomb, the germ warfare, the human experimentation, the eugenics... obviously, we have failed in fixing man. What, then, do psychologists, anthropologists, doctors, and others who went to fix evil do? They sweated. Thus, under swarms of qualifications, excuses, and demands that we look at our instruments and navels, we would give anything to not have to fix the problems of evil deeds. Indeed.

[I'm getting to the point now. Here is where we can collectively conjugate the verb “squirm”: I squirm, you squirm, we squirm.]

Aside from praising, awarding, and forgetting Arthur Koestler, we have known quite clearly that, as a democracy, and as a republican democracy, we could never suffer such monstrosities as Stalin or Hitler. Our lesson from World War II was about the individual. Could the individual who was president be insane? Could the “finger on the button” become Jack D. Ripper? Otherwise, we had little guilt and denied even that, especially when we hushed up questions about Hiroshima. The A-bomb is too horrible to visualize, and so we either turn it into an apocalypse (always with survivors) or fall back on Captain America. We need him now, we'd say.

In a democracy, if an administration violates our moral sense, we must vote against that administration and all who stand with it. We must ourselves stand for office. If our image of ourselves as Gary Cooper married to Donna Reed is under threat, we change things.

Here is my moral problem, then. We did that.
George W. Bush used torture and made torture legal. He decided, without legal authority other than usurpation, that the Geneva Conventions did not apply. He ordered that the Uniform Code of Military Justice not apply. His people began to spy on citizens. They decided to reinvent the dungeon in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. They decided that there were people who needed to commit no crime to be detained and have no trial to be guilty.

We voted. We stood for election, too. We voted for Barrack Obama because he said that he would end every one of those immoral (not merely illegal and unconstitutional) practices. However, he has not, and he will not. Bradley Manning is just one example of an immoral act taken by President Obama. The man has not been found guilty of anything, and yet he has been pronounced guilty and treated with Guantanamo styled tactics, which themselves are immoral and unconstitutional and illegal internationally. The crime he is charged with is barely a crime, and he hasn't been put on trial, much less convicted. Nevertheless, psychological torture takes place and then, on the grounds of psychological instability, restraints.

The shooting of Osama bin Laden is probably also immoral. Do not get me wrong: from a political point of view, bin Laden could not have been captured. Bin Laden as a prisoner would have been a toxin too great for any state body. However, shooting an unarmed man is either moral or immoral. It cannot change just because the person in question is really nasty. That we have sacrificed morality for political practicality is understandable, but it is not acceptable. Further, we find that he was shot because the mission that “got” him was part of a standing program called “Kill or Capture.” That it has a name tells us that it is routine. That it is routine tells us of the erosion of morality like the seabed beneath our feet. It is normal to preferentially kill, but, if necessary, capture persons.

So, folks, what is our guilt? We voted. We voted the way that should have accomplished the moral ends. The vote did not achieve it. How obligated are we now to do more? How obligated are we now to agitate?

If torture does not violate your moral sense, then look at the structure of our economy. Our economy is absurdly immoral at the moment and shows every sign of increasing its barbarism, and this adds to the immoral treatment of prisoners, the immoral distribution of wealth, the immoral abrogation of rights. We voted against it. We have shouted against it. We have even stood outside banks and protested against it. Is that enough? Do we sleep at night? Do we have guilt, complicity, or just despair?

Are we unindictable -- social engineers who simply need to analyze our own methods again, or are we all doubling our Zoloft? Why are our philosophers not writing exclusively about evil, responsibility, and value? How can we, of all times, be silent now?

It's true that we "did what we could." Or is it true? Would we indemnify another citizen of another nation who did as we have, or would we damn? How, then, do we deal?


The Geogre said...

Oh, and I'm "The Geogre" at DailyKos. I'm not sure that I'll stay, though. Some amazing responses to a pretty good essay showed a fundamental inability to perceive irony. It was weird.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why one would characterize this as "a pretty good essay" since it screams out in pain for an editor, but that aside, there are more fundamental problems with the content. First, if morality is defined as an immutable set of right or wrong, then we're begging the question of what those things are and how they're decided. Second, you seem overly eager to assume that disagreement is due to an inability to understand your point of view. Enlightened debate cannot proceed from such a fundamental fallacy.

The Geogre said...

Begging for an editor?

You believe then that there are typographical or grammatical errors, or you just think "too long?" If the former, you're invited to point them out. If the latter, your opinion is worth every bit as much as...oh... look... a picture!

I am sorry that you do not understand that a definition of what morality is different from demanding that all morality for all persons be ennumerated. I am not up to the latter task.

Morality differs from ethics how? If you believe they are the same, then you are on your own. You cannot participate in this discussion. That's it. That's your penalty.

You also, by the way, are way out in the cold in terms of philosophy, but you probably don't care. You are pursuing your *own* agenda and reading something other than the essay I have written.

This argument has nothing to do with some petty individual's mental fistula over high school rants on religion. This is about historical epochs and the morality (shared beliefs of good and evil, whether they're justified or not) of states and the influence that has on the states people.

There is no imputation that disagreement means misunderstanding, since this is not a polemic. This is an open question about why moral philosophy is not being practiced in an age where morality is in question.

Odo Marquard, who praises polytheism over monotheism, brings this question up and notes the drastic effect it has on the enlightenment. I note the effect it had on him, and I ask why we are silent now that we are in a moment of historical paralysis.

That you conclude something else is due to your own issues or reading skills, I'm afraid.