The Price of Hemlock

I was watching The View this morning. Rebbie Jackson, Michael Jackson’s sister was a guest. She talked about her new album and her work for bi-polar awareness, and of course she talked about her brother Michael. After The View went off, the local news at 11 came on. News of Charlie Sheen’s hospital visit. I know that, even before hearing the details about what happened, somewhere in the story, the words “porn star” or “stripper” are sure to play a part in the drama. While I was watching, I wondered, why am I so interested in this man’s life? Why do I care about about the Conrad Murray trial? If I think the man had anything to do with Michael Jackson’s death, it doesn’t matter. And my disgust with Charlie Sheen isn’t going to do a damn thing to change his behavior. It’s really a sad commentary about priorities. I know who these people are; I know about what drugs they take, who they’re fooling around with, and occasionally, via a sex tape, their O-face. Not too lng ago, Time magazine issued its list of the “100 most influential people in the world”. Alongside Brazillian president “Lula”, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama was Taylor Swift, Ashton Kutcher, and Lady Gaga. No doubt that Taylor Swift, Ashton Kutcher, and Lady Gaga are famous. And in their fields they may be influential, but are they truly among the 100 most influential people in the world? When we think influence, are we really talking about popularity or are we saying that these people affect life across the globe in an actual quantitative way? Or, if they are influential, could it be that their influence is heading us in the wrong direction?

Socrates was condemned to death for urging people to question the established orthodoxy. The Socratic tradition, the pursuit of truth, is embodied in the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, was the 17th and 18th century political, scientific, and philosophical movement wherein Europe emerged from the dark age of ignorance and superstition. Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hume, Kant, Adam Smith, Rousseau, and early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, believed that rationality was the key to progress, and re-evaluated the sciences, education, economics, the laws of nature, ethics, and philosophy to fit their new view of humanity and its relationship to the natural world. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the motto of the age should be “dare to know”. When the Enlightenment hit U.S. shores, the concept of natural rights influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. American statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson believed that a properly informed public will make rational decisions. Ok, what am I getting at? It’s this: we make decisions based on the quality of the information that we get. This is especially important in the area of politics, since whoever is chosen to lead affects the lives of the nation. But it’s difficult to get the right kind of information if my local news choses to cover Charlie Sheen’s hernia than cover something important, like explaining exactly why our economy continues to collapse or informing the local voting public as to who their congressional representatives are and how to reach them. The sad thing is, is that this reality, if you will, isn’t new. It’s been like this for years. And this fact has led me to ask, have we reched the end of the Enlightenment? Sure, we’ve got the Internet, I’m using it right now, and the Internet can deliver information at the click of a mouse. But, having lots of information readily available does not necessarily mean that I can say that I have knowledge. And it’s not just me… I live in a culture full of people for whom an abundance of information does not lead to knowledge. In fact, one could make the argument that our culture values knowledge less than we value trivial information.

The stuff that I as hearing on The View and about Charlie Sheen on the news is information. More to the point, it’s trivial. It’s the type of information that Chris Hedges says is a part of our “junk culture”. Junk culture, according to Chris Hedges, puts its emphasis on celebrity. It is shallow and unconcerned about questioning about life’s meaning. Academia, Hedges says, is a target of junk culture as junk culture is an assault on academia. I think that Chris Hedges is right. I remember when Al Gore was running for the presidency against George W. Bush, a frequent criticism of Gore was that he carried himself like a smarty pants. Is being smart and knowing it a bad thing? Is showing other people that you’re smart something to be held against you when you run for the presidency? I’m more than aware of the fact that there are people who are fans of Sarah Palin because she’s not a high-falutin’ Ivy leaguer like Barack Obama. Is this good? I’m certain that if we held Jefferson or Madison to the same standards that we hold now they would have never been elected to the presidency. But here’s the thing: The Enlightenment might have undid itself. It just may very well be the case that Enlightenment thinking is much like Karl Mark said of capitalism. That is, the Enlightenment might have within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Follow this closely: The Enlightenment emphacized reason. Through the use of one’s mind, one can discover truth. Philosophy spawned, among other things, the field of psychology. Psychology asked not what we reason, but how we reason. Freud’s psychoanalysis detailed certain fundamantal laws of human behavior, including the influence of subconscious drives on human behavior. The field of public relations (one of the founders of public relations was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud), using psychoanalysis, demonstrated how behavior can be manipulated by appealing to drives such as fear or sex. Public relations is closely associated with advertising, which is essential to a capitalist economy, which leads to a consumer culture, where product is associated with celebrity, which is by nature, shallow and decidedly un-academic. Altthough there is plenty to lament about the end of the Enlightenment, the end in itself may not be a bad thing. Let us not forget that some of the evils of history were also products of the Enightenment, namely the enslavement of Africans and the birth of eugenics. Let me explain how that works: 1) reason + science –> theory of evolution 2) evolution + reason (theory that some groups of people have better use of than others) –> social Darwinism 3) social Darwinism –> eugenics –> genocide, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, etc. Perhaps what is going on is a paradigm shift, a time when the orthodoxy is challenged and ways of thinking is changed drastically. Maybe what is to come is not so much of a dark period than a dim one. We might be heading towards an era where we start to correct unhealthy thinking, to lose elements of our culture that are destructive or counterproductive. The end of the Enlightenment isn’t necessarily an end to intellectualism, as Europe’s Dark Ages was an age when the works of the ancient philosophers were unknown to all but a small group of people. We might be in the process of shrugging off our relentless fascination with the self and celebrity that has until now passed for deep examination of the self and knowledge. We’re getting rid of the cult of the self that emerged when Enlightenment ideals were distorted. And who wouldn’t like to turn on the news and nothear the name Snooki?

Change You Can’t Believe In

     We’re 2 years into the Presidency of Obama. That’s cool and all, but I thought that when we elected the nation’s FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN PRESIDENT that things would be slightly different now. Things are pretty much the same. It’s like Bush never left office. I’m not entirely blaming the president. I know that there’s a bit to be upset about, and there are still more than a few people who think that he shouldn’t be in the office at all — but my problem, for the record, has more to do with the politics than my problem has to do with the president himself. I have a real bug up my keister when it comes to the political Left.
     Let’s be straight here, I don’t have a problem with the run-of-the-mill Joe or Jane liberal; afterall, I still call myself a Liberal. Unapologetically so. My beef, if you will, is with a smaller segment on the Left side of the political spectrum. They tend to call themselves “progressives”. I remember hearing Marilyn Manson talking about his experiences on the Ozzfest tour. He said that sometimes dealing with goth and metal fans was worse than dealing with people who weren’t into the metal scene. The problem was dogma. If you’re on the Ozzfest tour, there’s a certain aesthetic that you’re supposed to have. The music is supposed to sound like this or that… whatever set of rules had been approved by real metal fans. If you in any way deviate from that set of characteristics, you won’t get a warm welcome.
     Same goes for politics. If you say that your politics are on the Left, out come the referees with their rule books ad scorecards ready to tally your score. They have to see if your politics are in line with the pre-approved philosophy of what a Leftie is supposed to think (like). Since I like to think that I am a Liberal, I fancy the idea that I use my sense of reason to independently arrive at my own point of view. This is the way that I think that most Liberals think. This is the genesis of the problem.
See, when you come out to any group of supposed like-minded people, those people tend to get the feeling that they own you. If you’re hanging out with fellow Liberals and you don’t read Noam Chomsky, or you’re not with the save Darfur crowd, or that you’re having second thoughts about this whole global warming thing, you’re likely signing your own ideological death warrant. You probably won’t be invited to the next PDA rally. I’ve heard many Liberals say that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter have turned Lberal into a 4-letter word, but I say that the Left has done plenty of tarnishing on its own. You don’t gain too many fans to your point of view when one of your idols refers to the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks as “mini Eichmanns”. It doesn’t help you if the perception of your point of view isn’t “America first”, but “blame America first”.
      Look, I’m not a vegan. I’m pro death penalty. I’m for tighter borders and I’m a capitalist. Sometimes saying these things around my fellow Liberals isn’t a good idea. To some, my well-reasoned choices are a sign that I’m not a Liberal, but a neo-con knuckledragger. But I think this is exactly what Marilyn Manson was getting at. You can come up with your own take on what you believe — you can be as big a fan of Ozzy as anyone else out there, but because you’ve decided to go your own way you don’t belong. Liberals can bitch and moan about how much Conservatives have smeared them but you can’t complain when there are more than a few of you who mantain the Americans are nothing more than greedy, fat, uncultured, Walmart-trolling idiots. Portentious fingerwagging does not gain fans. You can’t win friends and influence Republicans if the same workers of the world you’re urging to unite are the same workers you’re saying are fat and stupid and the reason why things have gone wrong in the developing world.
      I’m not saying that all Liberals are always wrong. I like Thom Hartmann, and Jim Hightower. I listen to Ed Schutz and Stephanie Miller. I think that Dennis Kuchnich and Bernie Sanders are probably the only two members of Congress who are worth a damn. I lamented when Russ Feingold was unelected, but for pete’s sakes, you gotta realize that Liberals absolutely do not have to think alike! I hear Lefties say that they’re all into tolerance and diversity until your ideas diverge from theirs. I was talking to an Amy Goodman listener some time ago, and I said that I highly suspect that Mumia is in fact guilty of murdering the police officer (for which he was sentenced to death row). You would have thought that I had confessed to personally killing Anne Frank. I tried to explain that I thought that, even if he did do it, the crime did not warrant the death penalty, but the fact that I had insinuated the possibility the Mumia had committed murder was enough to end the conversation right then and there.
     I understand that to have a particular ideology you have to have some beliefs that adhere to a certain set of principles. But I also understand that I don’t have say that I’m into Arundhati Roy or yoga and recycling to prove to someone that I am what I say that I am. Although I am kinda glad that Olbermann left MSNBC.

Baa Baa Baa

This past month has been pretty exciting, eh? Lots of talk about conspiracies…. I was listening to the Alex Jones ahow a couple of days ago, and he was talking about the “V for Victory” campaign. He said that the remedy for 1984 is 1776, which may or may not be true. But what I started thinking about is the whole business of conspiracy theories in general.

In conspiracy circles, at least among some of the most eager of adherents, some, during their most vitriolic moments, often refer to the American people as “sheeple”. Sheep+people=sheeple. What they mean is that they think that most Americans follow whoever leads them like sheep. Most people are exactly as Nietzsche said, motivated by the “herd mentality”. The sentiment is that, after decades of being feed mind-numbing diets of MSG, aspertame, high fructose corn syrup, dumbed-down infotainment, and substandard political “leaders” the American public has been rendered passive, accepting whatever directive GOVERNMENT tells them, led like sheep to slaughter. Because most people are inclined to blindly follow any sweet-talking demagogue, following rather than questioning, many conspiracy theorists tell their cohorts to beware of the herd. It’s not just conspiracy theorists who have had this point of view.

Socrates and Nietzsche both rattled the cages of conformity. George Orwell wrote of a society led by “groupthink”. Right now, I’m hearing The Police song “Synchronicity II” in my head (listen to the 2nd verse). Everybody’s got their list of examples of herd mentality triumphing over common sense. If everybody jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you? This is a problem for us because Americans aren’t supposed to be conformists. We’re supposed to be a nation of self-sufficient, self-determined, self-made, rugged individuals. We’re a people who praise the self-made man who, with the sole support of his own bootstraps, pull themselves from the bottom rungs to the highest reaches of success. This is the American story. Of course, there’s plenty of philosophy to back this up: Rousseau wrote of the state of nature where man relied on his own smarts and autonomy to provide for himself. In fact, Rousseau wrote that man is by nature so independent, that he only need companionship for the brief duration that it requires to complete the reproductive act.

The deal is, is this totally independent man never existed. Nor does he exist now. When you think about it, the idea that man is by nature solitary sounds kind of counter intutitve. It seems that a creature that does not need anyone other than himself would never feel loneliness, but we do. In Sunday school, we’re taught that we’re our brother’s keepers, and that we will be judged by how we treat others. Getting in to Heaven is more of a group effort then we’d like to admit. We tell ourselves that people who spend too much time alone end up nutty. A lot of the talk, besides talk about conspiracy theories, about the unpleasantness in Arizona has been a lot of asking why no one that knew that dude did anything to get that guy help.

We might not want to admit it, perhaps for fear of being overtaken by the herd, but humans are herd animals. We call our herds families or society or our culture. We know that conformity is a good thing. If we did not conform, our social bonds would dissolve and we’d end up in the bad kind of anarchy. You know, the kind where only Mel Gibson can help us out anarchy. Americans are a label-loving society. And the fact that we are such conformists makes us all the easier to label. We love keeping up with the Joneses and hate being the odd man out. We say that we love those who march to the beat of a different drummer, but only if that person plays a tune that we like.

I don’t know if I’m coming up with anything revelatory here, but I noticed that even those who are down on the public at large on their onformity rely heavily on conformity when it comes to their own beliefs. Conspiracy theorists want to be heard. They want to be believed. Dare I say, they want to be followed. That’s why they put out videos, have radio shows, and go on TruTV talking about the goings on at Bohemian Grove. I don’t know how many people have seen this, but I’ve had the supreme displeasure of witnessing duelling conspiracy theorists (this one is easy to set up: find one friend that thinks that the WTC was brought down by explosives and one who does not. Sit back and watch the tempers flare and the sparks fly). I think that any conspiracy theorist would have to admit this, but it’s not the problem whether people are “sheeple” or not. What the issue is who they choose to follow. It’s whether you believe that we’re being assaulted by the New World Order or whether you choose to believe that nothing nefarious is afoot. Each side wants conformity to their point of view. To get the people to rise up and overthrow the puppet masters, you need people who will follow — that’s a brute fact.

You know, now that I’m thinking about it, there’s something else that seems quite odd about the whole 1984/1776 thing… In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother had a slogan, “Freedom is Slavery”. And the answer to Big Brother’s message is 1776. That’s of course, a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, where he wrote that all men have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. So, the solution is to follow the words of a man who actually owned slaves, right? I mean, 1984was just a book. But, then, that’s a whole other conversation.

Amazing What You’ll Find… When You Look

I never thought that I’d be saying that Sarah Palin is right about something, but when former Alaska governor and Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, was asked during an interview which of which of the founders was her favorite one. She answered, “all of them”. I don’t know if what she said wasn’t a bullshit answer (because it’s impossible to know exactly what’s inside someone’s head), or whether it is even possible to like all of the founding fathers, but I’m not exactly on the, “there goes that Palin being stupid again bandwagon”.

Some took her answer as a sign of her political ignorance; that Sarah palin is one of those way-too-many Americans who have no clue about their country’s political institutions, yet feels the need to prattle about them as if they’re an expert on all matters foreign and domestic — the type of people who, when you ask them who their favorite founding father is, answer, “all of them”. Like I said, I don’t know Palin personally, so I can’t speak to the degree of her political ignorance.

There are plenty of people who are extremely unaware of what their government does. I’m not even getting anywhere near the more obscure political questions like, “who are the 9 Supreme Court justices?” or, what year was the 16th Amendment passed, and why do some people object to its constitutionality, or, name your representative. Look, I know that there is a great deal about this country that I don’t know (and I have a political science degree). And I know that there are plenty of people who think that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution who are more politically active and know the ins and outs of the political process than people who have spent their academic careers studying government. By the way, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Now, because I had to write papers on the subject, I know that the Constitution was inspired not only by the Native American tribes, like the Iroquois, but also tips its hat to the philosophy of pre-Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. Not to mention, that the American public got its first gander at the Constitution through The Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, collectively known as Publius. And of course, Publius “borrowed” its name from one of the founders of the Roman republic, Publius Valerius Publicola.

I’d venture that most Americans are unaware of that fact. That’s kind of sad, because it’s really worth knowing. I can’t say for sure that Sarah Palin is one of them, but there are too many Americans who don’t know much about their government. There are too few people who are acquainted with American political philosophy and the nation’s owner’s manual, the Constitution, not even in civics class. I didn’t read the Constitution until I reached college. Seriously. I only know what I know now because I got myself a polysci degree ( I mention for the second time. Trust me, I’m not bragging). Given what I’ve heard from the mouths of people on both sides of the political spectrum, I’d say that there are plenty of other people who got cheated in civics class, just like me. There are people who say, “the Constitution says this” and “the founders said that”, and they have no idea what in the hell they’re talking about. All you do know is that they’re busy paraphrasing some Left or Right-wing talk show host who has no idea what they’re talking about. All you hear these days is regurgitated Glenn Beck, Noam Chomsky, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, or Amy Goodman. It’s frightening what people don’t know because they’ve not looked for themselves. There are people who are unaware not just of the basic how-to of the government, but are completely devoid of what the philosophy is behind the founding documents.

People might not think that it matters to know that Enlightenment philosophy (partially) influenced the Constitution, but it does matter more than we may think. It’s important to know where the ideas come from. It’s important to know that our founding fathers thought that a free and just government was the most obvious choice of government, despite what Socrates had to say about democracy. It’s important to know that, in the wake of the failure of the Articles of Confederation, the founders knew that a country cannot function without a strong central government (yes, I said a strong central government). Thomas Jefferson wrote that governments are created to protect the rights of men. Govenrment cannot secure rights if men do not feel secure enough to pursue the higher ends of his nature. Harry Jaffa says that the primary question of the American government was how to secure the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

By the way, it’s very fashionable to go about speaking as if a strong government is inherently bad. It is not. Jefferson and the Founders knew that a strong government is necessary to secure the ends of government, namely protecting the right of the people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. To enjoy any of our inalienable rights the people must (first) feel secure. The only way to ensure security is to have a strong centralized government. Of course, the intention isn’t that the government be so strong that the rights of the people are trampled over by a tyranical government. The founders were smart enough to provide for countermeasures — voting, free press, right to assemble, balance of power and judicial oversight, to name a few tricks in the bag, as Publius quotes Montesquieu, “there can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates” (Federalist 47).

So what does this have to do with Sarah Palin? The thing is, is that not all of the founders thought the same. Jefferson is a darling of the Libertarian set, who claim that the best government is the government that governs least. On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton was a fan of the elite who wanted to install Washington as a king. John Adams was a Christian. Benjamin Franklin was a member of the Hellfire Club, a organization infamously connected to the idea of hedonism as a way of life. They weren’t all the same, yet each has influenced how we, as a nation, have developed (for better or for worse) in to the nation we are at this point in our history.

When I look back at the contributions of the founders, how each has influenced what we have here right now, it is difficult to pick out just one. There is so much to admire in many of them. Perhaps sarah Palin wasn’t so much ignorant as she was taking a broader view. She might have appreciated the contributions of the founders as a whole, rather than nitpicking over which one is better, like ranking which character of Jersey Shore is your favorite or whether you think Brad and Angelina or Brad and Jennifer make a better couple. If this is indeed the case, it might do us all some good to be more like Sarah Palin. …… it might.