LEAVE IT BE

 

I think there might be some tension in my position.

‘Tension’ is the term professionalized philosophers have been trained to use in place of the less charitable terms ‘inconsistency’ or ‘contradiction’.

Okay, I think I might have inadvertently saddled myself with a contradiction, which I now have to try to repair.

I’ve taken the position that there’s no fact-of-the-matter as to whether, for example, a woman does or does not have the right to control her own reproductivity, save that fact-of-the-moment reflecting the equilibrium of political forces that have been brought to bear on the assignment of such rights. And yet at the same time, like everyone else, I seem hardwired to adjudicate such disputes with reference to some ontologically antinomous entities called principles.

There’d be no contradiction if I conceded that these principles, and any pretended realism about them, are themselves just one of the forces involved in arriving at this equilibrium. But the moment I concede that I can no longer keep a straight face when pressing any such appeal to principles. How likely am I to move the pro-Lifer by saying, “A body belongs to whose body it is,” and in the same breath add, “but of course I’m only uttering these sounds because I hear tell – go figure! – they sometimes move stupid people.”?

So I can only escape inconsistency by making the object-language/meta-language distinction. When I’m appealing to principles, I’m engaging in object-talk. When I’m taking a philosophical position about my appealing to principles, I’m engaging in meta-talk.

But as just demonstrated, meta-talk about object-talk takes the wind out of the sails of object-talk, So as a matter of psychological necessity I really can’t appeal to principles while simultaneously being aware of what I’m doing. So insofar as I have appealed to principles, I had to have self-effaced that awareness. I am not now self-effacing that awareness. But then neither am I now appealing to principles. For the duration of meeting the need to do so, I’ll have no choice but to self-efface this awareness once again.

This rescues my position, but at the terrible cost of empowering my interlocutor to defeat me at his leisure. He need not himself subscribe to this meta-understanding of what we’re doing when we’re appealing to principles. He need only remind me that I do.; and then my appeal to whatever principle I’ve appealed to disintegrates like a dried dandelion in the breeze. In short, I can be a spectator, but never a player, in the sturm und drang of flesh and blood human political discourse.

There is this thread hanging from the garment of such discourse. Wittgenstein understood this. Give it even a gentle tug and the entire garment unravels. The body politique thus denuded is defenseless against moral and political nihilism. So on pain of inviting the apocalypse, leave that thread be!

In the name of all that’s decent and holy, just leave it be.

THE NEXT FOURTEEN YEARS

 

In the words of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony, “The evil that men do live after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Fortunately it’s the opposite with political prognostications. No one remembers if you get it wrong. But if you get it right, you’re forever cited for being incredibly astute. So yes, it’s a cheat. But it’s only cheating if you can get caught. And as just argued, even if you can be, you won’t be. So here’s my risk-free prognostication for the next fourteen years.

Left and right, anti-Trump and pro-, are orthogonal cuts, though clearly there are orders of magnitude more people in the left-anti and right-pro quadrants than in the other two. The doctrinaire libertarians and anti-Trump Republicans, who make up the right-anti, don’t know where to cast their votes. And the doctrinaire socialists and pro-Trump Democrats, occupying the left-pro, find themselves similarly stymied. So both of these constituencies are out of the picture. This leaves the 2020 presidential to hang on three key contingencies:

1) who the Democrats put up against Trump,

2) who wins the media war between right wing pro-Trump Fox News on the one

side, and left wing MSNBC and anti-Trump CNN on the other, and

3) whether Trump will be evil enough, but also savvy enough, to start a winnable

but not-yet-won war.

The Democrats will need a candidate free of the kind of cement footware that sunk Hilary Clinton. Well let’s see. Joe Biden would clearly make the best President, but he’s probably too sensible to make the best candidate in this era of political infotainment. Bernie Sanders is too old, too pontifical, and too Jewish. Elizabeth Warren lacks the presence to command the enthusiasm needed for a Presidential campaign. Even the most misogynist racist can’t help but love Michele, but she’d be rightly seen as just a front for another eight years for her husband. Oprah would have to answer for every line in every book she ever recommended. And progressives would have to hold their noses for California Junior Senator Kamala Harris, whose tenure as Attorney General for that state did not speak well for her civil libertarian credentials.

That leaves Obama-clone Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kennedy-spawn Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts. I’d put my money on Booker for the nomination, because Kennedy will want to hold back until ‘24. But in the actual election I’d only bet the family farm on Kennedy. Whites won’t come out for Booker, but blacks will for Kennedy.

By holding Trump’s feet to the fire, CNN has only been doing its job. Unfortunately by doing its job in this age of all-news-is-partisan-news, it’s forfeited its former role as the non-partisan voice in America. So it would come down to CNN versus Fox if there was anyone who tunes into both. But there isn’t. Either you watch Fox because you’re with Trump, or you watch CNN because you’re agin’ him. There’s plenty of room for apathy in America, but none at all for fence-sitting.

But it does come down to which of the two can get out the vote by selling the importance of the outcome. Unless, that is, Americans can be offered, quite independently of policy, some one to get excited about. And that’s where a Jack or Robert Kennedy come back from the grave could be the king-maker.

Trump’s trump card, however, would be the same one played by George W. Just start a winnable but not-yet-won war. It wouldn’t have to be North Korea or Iran. There are plenty of provocable easy pickings out there. But I suspect Trump thinks he can win re-election as a shit-disturber, not as a commander-in-chief. Besides, a bomber jacket just isn’t his style.

So here’s my prediction. It’ll be Trump again in 2020 unless a) Kennedy can be inveigled to run four years ahead of schedule, and b) Trump makes the mistake of thinking he can emerge victorious without first having to start a war.

That said, 2024 looks like a shoe-in for the Democrats. This is because Mike Pence has about as much charisma as your tax accountant, and no new Republican face can emerge while Trump remains the face of the party. So it’s precisely as the Republican establishment worried it would be. A Trump presidency would render the party irrelevant while his presidency lasted, and then doom it for eight years thereafter. That’s both the beauty and the beast of American presidential electoral politics. Image matters. Policy? Not so much.

So if I were an American – which thankfully I’m not! – I’d pray for a) a Joe Kennedy challenge in 2020, and if Trump does realize he needs a winnable but not-yet-won war, that b) some saboteur on his staff recommends Denmark.

Anyhow, remember folks: if I’m right – which I probably won’t be – you heard it here first.

THE RECURSIVITY OF SELF-DOUBT

 

If I retired now – which not long ago, at sixty-eight, people would have thought was well overdue – how would my life change? I might have to tighten my belt a little, but probably by only one notch. I’d still have my wife, my kid and hers, my bro and hers, our friends, our cats, our dogs, my chess buddies, our theology reading group, our house, our car, a full fridge, our annual week of narrowboating on the canals in England, and our second home for the summers in our village overlooking the Amalfi coast. And I’d still read and think and talk and write.

But what would change is that to what I say and write, no one would pay me any mind, whereas now my students have no choice. It’s that now what I think matters – whereas then it wouldn’t – not because what I say and write is right, though it is, but because even if it weren’t, my students still have to respond to it.

This is a profoundly humbling thought. My self-esteem is entirely parasitic on my power over others. Well now, doesn’t that make me feel special?!

Thoughts that humble don’t bear thinking about. So instead what I have to tell myself – and so I do – is that whoever would replace me will be as stupid as my colleagues, who’ve proven their stupidity by having made no secret of thinking I am.

My only worry – and it’s really only a niggle – is that we once had a colleague, now thankfully retired, who I’m pretty sure thought exactly as I’m thinking now, and yet he really was stupid. So is it possible that …? No. How did Descartes put it? Ah yes, to doubt that I’m capable of thinking straight is just to shut down my thinking altogether.

We had another colleague who knew when he’d lost it, and did the honorable thing. But I don’t entirely trust myself to do likewise. So I’ve assigned one of my better students the unenviable task of telling me when it’s my time to fall on my sword. This requires a whole lot of trust in the judgment of others. And that in turn requires the wisdom to know that some things just do require a whole lot of trust in the judgment of others. Of course whether I’ll exhibit that wisdom when that time actually comes is another …

But hang on. What if that time has already come? What if I’ve fired the obviously malfunctioning canary in the coalmine, and replaced her with a sycophant more to my liking?

Is there a test one can perform to assure himself he’s still got it? In his First Meditation Descartes argued not. But in the Sixth he reversed himself and concluded there’s a coherence within waking and within dreaming – or in my case within having lost it – that’s not there between them. That would be helpful if I were experiencing some kind of disconnect between my thoughts. But when I’m dreaming I don’t, do I? And so if I were dreaming I wouldn’t, would I? So in the same way that there’s no way out of the global dream argument, neither is there a way out of having lost it, unless there are moments in which one hasn’t. But then, in those moments in which he hasn’t lost it, he’ll dismiss those moments in which he has as no big deal because they’re corrigible.

Am I having even these corrigible moments of having lost it? Absolutely not! Not once! Never!

DON QUIXOTE’S BLESSING

 

Why is it that some truths have to be learned over and over and over again? I suppose it’s because they’re just too hard to believe. I learned about fifteen years ago that many of the people I work with don’t share what I thought were the values we all share, because, well, surely we must! It turns out not that they don’t share my values. It’s that I don’t share theirs.

The difference between these seemingly equivalent propositions is who’s the odd man out. Turns out I am. So the question is not why they don’t share my values. It’s why I don’t share theirs. And the answer is I was just wrong about the values of the institution I was joining.

So about fifteen years ago – borrowing from Pierre Elliott Trudeau – I took what I call my “walk in the snow”. Like Trudeau, I could have resigned and found something else to do with the rest of my life. But why? Why not just do the job I thought I’d signed up for, and instead of trying to browbeat others into joining me, just leave them to their own devices? Which, to be fair, they’ve by and large left me to mine. It’s a resolution that’s not always easy to stick to. My own idiosyncratic values keep getting in the way. But it’s like any other resolution. Falling short is no excuse to stop trying.

Still, these occasional lapses are God-given opportunities, if only I’d take them, to rethink who needs to do the rethinking. I thought my colleagues didn’t understand there are solutions to collective action problems. As it turns out I didn’t understand that they don’t think these are actions that need to be taken in the first place.

Examples are legion, but the most recent has been the attack on academic freedom exemplified by the Tony Hall case. Tony is – I guess I should now say was – a colleague down the hall and around two corners. Tony’s an affable enough fellow, but not, perhaps, the sharpest pencil in the box. Tony is convinced 9/11 was an Israeli false flag operation.

Well, say I, that would be grounds to believe we Jews really are the most clever people on the planet. As if the official story wasn’t caper enough!

But apparently I’m the odd man out here. Most people, including Tony, view this charge as a criticism of the State of Israel. And apparently any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism, and so, by associative implicature, 9/11 Trutherism is Holocaust-denial.

Once again, odd man out. I just don’t get these connections.

In any event, the Zionist lobby seized upon this ‘indiscretion’ – and who could blame them? – to make Tony the standard bearer for everything up with which no publicly funded university should put, and demanded his immediate dismissal. The Administration – acting, as I say, on values I alone don’t share – acceded to this demand. The invertebrate faculty association came to Tony’s token defense, a war of attrition dragged on for almost two years, and finally, having taken its intended toll, Tony retired.

And all this time, like a fool, I was trying to come to Tony’s defense. Why? Because I thought at least he shared with me the value of academic freedom. Turns out that wasn’t it at all. Turns out for him it was his crusade against the neocons he’s convinced are ruling the world, not his right to crusade against them.

So now I just feel foolish. I understand that people get tired, especially people Tony’s and my age. That’s one of the reasons I’d long since resolved never to enter a fight I don’t have the stamina to win. And I’ve never wavered from that resolution. But the lesson I keep having to learn, over and over and over again, is never enter a fight for or along side an ally who hasn’t adopted a similar resolution.

Don Quixote never did figure out he was tilting at windmills. I suppose that was his blessing.

THE HAIDT HYPOTHESIS

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, quite convincingly, that a university can dedicate itself to the search for truth, or to the promotion of social justice, but not both.

Truth and justice are seldom about the same thing. But when they are, what’s true may not be just, and what’s just may not be true. Suppose it was true that the rest of us would be much better off if we could just rid ourselves of those damn _____, you fill in the blank. But I take it we’re all of a mind that genocide is just not on.

It’s also widely believed, at least in Turkey, that there’s no injustice in criminalizing the historicizing of the Armenian genocide, notwithstanding most Turks know full well what happened. Jesus taught that ‘the truth will set you free.” But often enough it’ll just bury you!

But there’s a more straightforward philosophical argument that can be appended to Haidt’s case, and it’s this:

There’s a fact-of-the-matter as to whether nineteen (mostly) Saudi young men did or did not hijack and pilot those planes on September 11, 2001. And that fact is, in theory at least, empirically discoverable. But there’s no such fact-of-the-matter as to whether a woman does or does not have the right to control her own reproductivity. That’s a political decision.

So it’s not that a truth-seeking university couldn’t or shouldn’t host a lively debate between 9/11 Truthers and the official story about what happened that morning. That’s what historians do. Nor is it that a justice-seeking university couldn’t or shouldn’t host a lively debate about whether the Start-by-Believing and #MeToo campaigns will or will not accrue to the empowerment of women. That’s what seekers after justice try to work out. But the two debates involve very different kinds of questions.

The historian – the good ones at least – will be looking at the evidence for and against some historical hypothesis, and let the chips fall where they may. The social justice seeker will be looking at the impact of some policy or program on those on whose behalf she’s looking. In short, he has his work, she hers. God is in His heaven, and all’s well with the world. Except that …

Except that the social justice seeker will also be looking at the impact on her political agenda of the historian’s or scientist’s pronouncements on these facts-of-the-matter. And therein lies the problem. At a social justice university, a pronouncement that undermines some political agenda will be rightly disallowed. For that matter, even a question the asking of which undermines that political agenda will be rightly disallowed. Thus, for example, at a social justice university questioning the Holocaust is Holocaust-denial, Holocaust-denial is anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is grounds for immediate dismissal.

Here’s a less dramatic case in point. Shortly after it opened, the Women’s Centre at my university launched an awareness campaign about violence against women, in the service of which it distributed a poster pointing out that 60% of the victims of domestic violence are women and children. But hang on. Doesn’t that mean that fully 40% of the victims of domestic violence are adult men? And since more than 20% of victims of this violence must surely be the children in the home, that means that the targets of domestic violence are more apt to be men than women. So whoever thought these posters would raise awareness of violence against women was either too stupid to draw this simple inference, or else she hoped others would be too stupid to draw it.

But now suppose that this stupidity had been brought to her attention. Would she have gone ahead with the posters and let the chips fall where they may? Certainly not. She would have suppressed the information, and been damn quick about it! That’s just the nature of advocacy. It’s not about what’s true. It’s about what works. And that’s just as it should be.

What she could have done, I suppose, is point out that because of the physical and political asymmetry between men and women, the subordinating effect of a man beating a women is orders of magnitude greater than that of a woman slapping a man. But though obviously true, and even more obviously relevant, that would be far too subtle for an eye-catching poster. So even though her point is a sound one, she either has to make it stupidly or not make it at all.

Haidt doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with a university dedicating itself to social justice, just as long as it’s upfront about it. He just thinks that if it is upfront, it won’t have very many takers. This is because employers aren’t usually looking for people who know what’s politically correct. They’re looking for people who have a better than random chance of knowing what’s true.

People trained at social justice universities like Yale get jobs at other social justice universities. People trained at the truth-seeking universities like the University of Chicago get jobs at other truth-seeking universities. Neither MSNBC nor Fox News recruits out of the University of Chicago. MSNBC recruits out of Yale, and it shows. Fox News recruits out of Ronald Reagan Elementary, and it shows.

The social network is currently engaged in what appears to be a winner-take-all culture war. It’s over bathrooms and pronouns, immigration and health care, gun control and abortion counseling … On the one side are the Alt-Right, who are, for now at least, united behind their new Fuhrer. On the other are the LGBTQQIP2SAAISA+, who are currently fighting amongst themselves about the politically correct ordering of these letters. Taking cover – because what else can they do? – are the Jonathan Haidts and Steven Pinkers, who can only wish a pox on both their houses.

Left and right, liberal and conservative, and cross-overs that boggle the mind of any non-aligned observer … Has it always been thus? I’m not old enough to say with any confidence. But I do remember the Sixties. We liberals won that one. That was two-steps-forward. So even if the Alt-Right takes us back a step, we’re still one ahead. So yes, God is in His heaven, and all’s well with the world. Except that …

Except that the university at which I work is currently poised between Haidt’s two models. Since it’s relatively small, its students predominantly rural, and not yet very racially diverse, the pressure for political correctness is much weaker than it is in larger universities in more cosmopolitan centers. But the fields surrounding it don’t entirely set it apart from the world beyond those fields. So a decision has to be made. And it has to be made clear.

But because, like at most universities, our Administration is made up of ex-academics turned bean-counters, and because members of faculty who should know better don’t, what we’re getting, and what our students are getting, is a hodgepodge of mixed signals. It would appear – and who can blame them? – that all the stakeholders want to have it both ways, notwithstanding Haidt’s admonition that they can’t. Neither mandate is being well served. As a result it’s just not a very good university.

I’m in the twilight of my career, and I’m not a believer in leaving a legacy. Que sera sera. But the future is ours to see.