Every Four Years Someone Is Lying to You

Every four years Americans have the opportunity to elect their new leader. These days electing a new president or re-electing the incumbent president is no big deal. But if you think about how much of history was dominated by monarchs and self-appointed rulers, you’d think that Americans should take the opportunity dare I say right to choose their leaders a little more seriously. However, despite our right to choose less than half of all eligible voters voted in the presidential election.

Thank God for pluralism or we’d never elect a president.

The funny thing about Americans and elections is that despite the fact that the numbers of regular voters seems to indicate a general lack of interest in the political process, people often complain about the quality of the candidates running for office. Americans often say that they don’t vote because there’s no one worth voting for. One reason why many Americans say no one is worth voting for is because politicians are  professional liars who will say anything to anyone to get elected.

It seems that when it comes to politicians, the American public wants a leader capable of telling the truth.

It also seems that a truth-telling politician is a bit of a contradiction. Or at least a creature as rare as a diamond or mythical like a unicorn.

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt writes that a functional society must have “a robust appreciation of the endlessly protean utility of the truth.”   If you think about it, an honest politician shouldn’t be regarded as an oxymoron. The truth is a necessary element for cultivating the kind of informed public that Thomas Jefferson says is necessary for maintaining a democracy. And on whole, the American public says we want a politician who won’t drown us in platitudes, repeat the same party-approved talking points or God forbid, lie right to our faces. In film and television, movies like Dave, The American President, The West Wing, The Distinguished Gentleman, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Bulworth demonstrate our desire for  a leader who tells the truth; someone the public can trust will tell them what the deal really is.
We say we want to elect someone like this:

That’s what we say we want. But is a truth-telling politician really what we want?

…. Or what we deserve?

If history (or philosophy) tells us anything, the answer to both questions is no.

Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton (one-third of Publius, authors of The Federalist Papers), wrote that “Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justness of their views…” require the power of secrecy to fulfill their duties while in office. The power of secrecy entails the power to withhold information from the public. The English political philosopher John Locke (whose political philosophy influenced the Founders) argued that executive  (presidential) discretionary powers exist without the approval of the legislative or the people, and that the executive for the sake of the public good may take action that runs counter to the will of the people.

Now, think about it. If the power of the government (the executive branch, anyway) includes the power to do what the public doesn’t want you to do, it might be fair to assume that some lying would be required on the part of the politician. Wait before you object, let me tell you this: Plato says not only is it fair to assume a politician is lying to the public, for the politician, lying to the people is essential.

In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that in order to ensure the loyalty of the people to the city, the people must be told a “needful falsehood” (or Noble Lie), a myth that ties the people to their home nation.* Socrates says:

Could we… somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being… some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?

The purpose of lying to the people, Socrates reasons, is to ensure harmony within the state. And as we all know, Plato says that without harmony, we cannot become philosopher-kings.*

You might be tempted to reject Plato’s we-need-to-think-philosophically-stuff and say that Plato’s lying-as-public-policy argument should remain in the ancient philosopher’s dustbin. Here’s the thing: the argument for lying to the public isn’t just an ancient philosopher’s idea. The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973), argued that the intent of lie is not outright deception or done with malevolent intent, but that lies are told for the purpose of instilling the people with good morals and fostering personal and civil enlightenment. If we think about lies done for the purpose of making society better, we might be inclined to want a politician who is inclined to lie to the people.

Maybe.

At least we can tell ourselves when a politician lies he’s really looking out for our philosophical well-being.

 

NOTES:

* If you’re familiar with the practice of political lies and politicians lying, you might be thinking what is the difference between Plato and Machiavelli. It may be important to distinguish Plato’s Noble Lies from Machiavellian lies, which are told with the intention of seizing or maintaining tyrannical power or for nefarious purposes.

* Ok, I’ll be honest here. Plato endorsed Noble Lies because he believed that some people (aka philosopher-kings) are smarter and more qualified to lead than Average Joe and Jane like you and me. The Noble Lie, Socrates says, is meant not only to convince the rabble that whatever class and/or occupation we have in life is dictated by the gods, but are also told with the belief that some people are not mentally adept enough to make their own political decisions.

* It is important to mention that not all of the Founding Fathers believed that it is essential to lie to the people. Thomas Jefferson believed that the truth should be plain for all of the people to see.

SOURCES:

Harry  G. Frankfurt. 2006. On Truth.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 15

Plato. 1968. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. Book III. 414 b-c

Publius. The Federalist Papers. 1961. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics. 422.

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Why the death of Gore Vidal is worse than you think

When people ask me what I do I often pause before I speak. I know that everyone thinks, but I always feel strange telling people that I’m a professional thinker. I find it hard to admit that I am a philosopher. Sometimes I think that people would rather hear that I’m on parole for armed robbery, sell kidnapped house pets to laboratories for medical research or run a Right-wing, anti-government militia group rather than to hear that I’ve made a career out of thinking.

Although given obvious factors it might be a little difficult convincing people that I’m a member of a Right-wing militia.

But now, I’m declaring this loudly and proudly: I like to think for a living. I am a philosopher.

Dare I call myself an intellectual.

I’m not trying to brag on myself or anything. I’m really not all that smart. I say this because we lost a brilliantly philosophical mind this year when Gore Vidal died.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

* If you haven’t read any of Gore Vidal’s stuff, I suggest that you stop reading this blog post right now and hustle your butt to a bookstore… or your could hustle your fingers to Amazon (or Wikipedia)… or better yet, just go to YouTube and type “Gore Vidal” in the search bar.

Don’t forget to come back and finish reading this post, though.

I suppose everyone has their first time stories about everything (get your mind out of the gutter!), and I certainly remember the first time I realized that there were people out there who liked to think.

Here’s what happened:

My radio had lost the signal from the local urban/hip-hop station I usually listened to every morning, and so I had to search the dial for something to listen to while I brushed my teeth (you see, there’s a Spanish radio station that has a signal that obliterates every other radio signal within a 1000 mile radius). It was the first time I had journeyed to the far left of the radio dial. That morning I stumbled on to Amy Goodman interviewing Gore Vidal on her radio show Democracy Now!.  This discovery was pretty amazing to me. I was convinced that the only people who got on TV or the radio had to be on MTV or on the cover of People magazine or good-looking — they certainly weren’t old or thought deep thinkers like Gore Vidal. And none of the people on MTV seemed to have a clue who Gore Vidal was.

Maybe Chris Hardwick did. He studied philosophy at UCLA.

You don’t have to think too hard to know that there’s something wrong with this. There was a time, long ago, in a galaxy far, far, away when people (called public intellectuals) did appear on daytime television.

This is a picture of the philosopher/logician Bertrand Russell being interviewed on British television in 1959

 

This is a picture of Barbara Walters interviewing the Kardashians in 2012. Need I remind you that Barbara Walters is an award winning journalist.

 

With a mainstream media that would rather cover celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Dina Lohan than to interview public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Peter van Inwagen, to say that the quality of participants the public discourse has declined is a bit of an understatement. Here is television host Bill Maher on why Americans are stupid:

The public complains that the American people are “stupid” and “uninformed”, yet we state that this is so knowing full well that an informed public requires an informed leadership.

Listen: Our Founding Father and 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, knew that a successfully democratic government requires an informed public. Jefferson wrote, “. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government…” and “that democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment. ” Of course, in Jefferson’s time the town crier shouted the day’s news in the streets — but the fact that no one physically stands in the public square does not mean that the public square is vacant, nor does it mean that the public does not need to be informed.

We tend to think that we have a choice between two extremes: brains or looks.* Ask anyone which they prefer. If you’re not anywhere near a philosophy class, the answer you’re sure to get is that people, on whole, prefer looks. In our celebrity-driven age, the choice is amplified: being smart is well and good, but what you really want is to be super hot. We aren’t shown people who are famous for being smart (or worse yet, intellectual). What we are shown is people who are famous for being famous or famous for their external qualities alone.

Valuing a person merely for one’s looks may be beneficial to the individual who is being valued for their looks, but it does nothing for the public as a whole. Being aware that Halle Berry is “super hot” does not enhance my capacity for rational thought. Nor does the fact that Channing Tatum has washboard abs make it any easier to understand modus ponens. The fact that intellectuals like Gore Vidal, Edward Said, and Howard Zinn are dying off after spending many years not on network television makes the fact that professional thinkers are no longer welcome invited even worse — once our aging public intellectuals are dead they will be replaced by Snooki, the Richards sisters from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and girls from The Bad Girls’ Club.

I’m going to guess right now that unless the topic of conversation is getting drunk or fighting, the level of intellectual thought won’t be very high.

I mean, really. For Pete’s sakes people, Noam Chomsky is 83 years old for goodness sakes! He hasn’t much time left!

Get that man on Watch What Happens Live right now!

 

* Ok, I’m not suggesting that a person cannot be both hot and intelligent. These qualities are not mutually exclusive. What I am saying, however, is that as a culture, we tend to value one quality over the other; which explains why a fellow like Bertrand Russell would not be chosen as one of Barbara Walters’ Most Fascinating People, and why the Kardashian family was.

There. I said it. Thomas Jefferson was an a**hole.

The presidential election is next month.

I’m not so sure who I’m going to vote for, if I’m even going to vote this time.

…. something to do with voting for the lesser of two evils.

That’s not saying much for my sense of patriotism.

Thinking about the upcoming election and the fact that the country celebrated its 236th birthday this year, I had intended, as a sign of my patriotic love for God and country, to write something in honor of our nation’s 236th birthday.

That would have been on the Fourth of July.

I ended up watching the Will Smith movie Independence Day on AMC instead.

And then I watched Jaws on DVD.

That movie takes place over Labor Day weekend, not the Fourth of July.

Quint’s USS Indianapolis monologue gets me every time.

I’m not going to post the clip. It’s something you’ve got to hunt down see for yourself.

….but let the picture below give you an idea of what I’m talking about).

check out the knife quint is holding. the was badass ’til the end

Anyhow, between watching Randy Quaid doing an absolutely bang-up job of chewing scenery as a UFO abductee-turned-nutty hero, and grousing at my neighbors, who despite a city-wide ban on firecrackers, insisted on lighting an arsenal’s worth of incendiary devices as close to my woefully dehydrated (and as dry as the sand dunes of Tatooine) front lawn as possible, I did take the time to contemplate a bit about what it means (to me) to be an American.

Wait, before I get to what I thought, I’ll tell you what scene got me going: it was the scene in Independence Day when Randy Quaid (I’m certain his character had a name but for the life of me I didn’t bother to remember what it was) flies his plane into the belly of the alien mother ship while shouting, “Remember me, boys?!?” I’m no professional film critic, but that scene is just about the best example of overacting (?) I’ve seen outside of a Nicholas Cage film.

But I digress…

This is what being an American made me think:

I thought that being an American and the nation’s founding (is nation supposed to be capitalized?), I realized that this is the image that every American is supposed to think of when we think of Independence Day:

the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776

You know, I actually do think of the signing of the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July (I’m not kidding, I do). I consider myself a patriotic American; I stand for the National Anthem (and more importantly, I know the words), I can find the United States on a world map, and I’ve memorized the Preamble of the Constitution.

By the way, it’s estimated that nearly 37% of Americans can’t find the U.S. on a world map — in case you might be thinking finding your current location on a map is not an impressive accomplishment.

But here’s the thing about thinking about one’s homeland: when you think about all the good things (hot dogs, baseball, guns and the constitutionally protected right to own them), you inevitably end up thinking about so many things that are bad. When I thought about the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence, the document that not only proclaimed that all men are created equal, but that every person is guaranteed (via the Creator) the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Don’t get me wrong, these are great things. Let me repeat — these are GREAT things. But, contemplating Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words tends to dredge up one, nagging detail about Mr. Jefferson — namely, Thomas Jefferson was a bit of a hypocrite.

In case you didn’t know, Thomas Jefferson, second president of the United States, and author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves.

In short, Thomas Jefferson believed that all men were created equal… except for the ones in the fields tending crops.

… and Sally Hemmings.

But that’s another story.

Now, I know this has all been said before. And there’s nothing wrong with maintaining that the Fourth of July shouldn’t be about dwelling on Jefferson’s (and a few other Founding Fathers) contradictions. But, if we want to appreciate what makes the greatest nation on earth the greatest nation God ever created (read appropriate amount of snark here), we must see things as they are — hypocritical warts and all.

Listen: The Founding Fathers were brilliant men. They were truly visionary in creating a constitutional republic based on the notion that a nation is to be by and for the people. But they were merely men. They were men who were influenced and shaped by the time, circumstances, and ideas by which they lived.

Some folks out there say that Jefferson was a bad guy for writing that all men are created equal and guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while he personally did not believe what he wrote. They ask how a man who believed in natural rights can not be a hypocrite when he was most assuredly aware that 95% of his fellow Americans were restricted from participating in the newly-minted American democracy. How could Thomas Jefferson simultaneously believe that some men possessed God-given rights while others were the property of other people?

This is why:

Jefferson, as well as many other Enlightenment thinkers, believed that nature (oops, Nature) was the basis of all rights. That is, men are born with certain (inalienable) rights and no man or government can take those rights away from him. This argument sounds good, especially when you’re petitioning the British Crown for independence. To declare to an oppressive monarch that every man has natural, God-given rights that even the King of England must respect is laying down the law pretty firmly, but there’s a problem when you claim that all rights are grounded in the natural law — nature often is an unfair bitch.

If you haven’t noticed, in nature, some animals are at the top of their food chain while other animals are merely prey to the dominant species. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle observed in The Politics:

For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient: from the hour of birth. Some are marked out for subjugation others for rule.

Aristotle also wrote:

So it is naturally with the male and the female; the one is superior, the other inferior; the one governs, the other is governed; and the same rule must necessarily hold good with respect to all mankind.

And:

The generality of men are naturally apt to be swayed by fear rather than reverence, and to refrain from evil rather because of the punishment that it brings than because of its own foulness.

Aristotle believed that in nature, weaker animals were subject to the will of dominant animals, and likewise among humans, weaker humans are subject to the will of dominant humans. Aristotle believed that weaker people were “natural” slaves, and that, as nature intends, natural slaves are meant to serve the will of their masters.

So what does this mean?

What this means is that, though we tell ourselves (and believe) that the United States is grounded upon principles of universal equality among men, a glimpse into the philosophy behind America’s Founding philosophers shows this is not the case. Our nation’s Founders were not inclined to (truly) believe that all men are created equal. Make no mistake; slavery (and the disenfranchisement of a large percentage of free white men) was no accident. Like Aristotle, Alexander Hamilton (who co-wrote The Federalist Papers, which, in turn, informed the Constitution) believed that some people are naturally fit to lead while others are fit to be governed. Some people, according to the Founders, simply lack the mental capacity to successfully govern themselves. Hamilton wrote, Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion. This is why Hamilton wrote that Men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation and men with characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue should be in charge of electing the president.

… and why it took the 17th Amendment to allow for the direct election of U.S. senators.

… and why we still have the Electoral College.

So what’s the point of all of this?

You see, if you haven’t realized it before… I mean, if you think that you’re a Founding Father type of person, ask yourself a couple of questions: do I own a toga? do I own a powdered wig? No?

Well then, when you vote don’t forget — it’s the lesser of two evils.

 

 

 

 

 

Some Lies Really Aren’t So Terrible: On Socrates’ Noble Lie In American Political Thought

“If a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous” –Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince “Lie often enough and boldly enough, and people will find it difficult not to believe you” — Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf Unless you’re a very strange person, most people would say that they would perfer an honest politician to a dishonest one. We say that we don’t like lies or the people who tell them. We tell ourselves that “honesty is a virtue” and believe that it is a sin to spread false witness Our Congress impeached President Clinton, not because he recieved oral sex from a White House intern, but because he lied about it under sworn testimony. We say that people who have no capacity for honesty do not belong in politics and we often sour on elected leaders who are shown to have betrayed the public trust. The Founders advocated a system of open government. Jefferson believed that, if the people are well-informed, they will be able to use their rational judgment to render right decisions concerning how government is run. An open system is essential to securing democracy. But, the seeds of the Enlightenment and the American system are rooted in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, including Socrates’ ideal city in The Republic. Both Socrates and the Founders sought to create a city based on the ultimate Good of the people. In his description of the ideal city, Socrates states that, in the interest of achieving a state of virtuousness (the Good), the loyalty of the people to the city must be secured. A state of loyalty must be created and maintained through the telling of stories or Noble Lies. These stories, Socrates claimed, would (if they are the correct kind of stories) ensure the undying loyalty of the people to the state. Socrates believed that lying has political usefulness. According to Socrates, a philosopher (who is by nature a lover of wisdom) loves Truth. The philosopher knows that, without Truth, man is unable to lead the kind of life that he is supposed to lead, which is, according to the ancients, the life of virtue and intellectual fufilment. Socrates also said that the aim of the state is the achievement of the Good and ultimately of the Happiness of the community as a whole. Like the Founders, Socrates believed that the city should be led by the wise. The goal of the wise ruler (in The Republic, the philosopher-king) is to create a city that promotes the public Good and wards off the threat of anarchy. However, a philosopher is a wise man, and a man who is wise is well aware of the value of a well placed lie. A wise man, unlike the garden-variety liar who may lie about trivial matters, knows how and when to lie. And, who is is lying to. The who is you and me. If the leader’s duty is to secure the public Good and to secure the loyalty of the people to the state, he needs to create the want to be loyal to the state. Socrates says the the leader does this by the telling of myths — what Socrates calls Noble Lies. Noble Lies, Socrates says, are no ordinary lies. Although Noble Lies are like ordinary lies in that Noble Lies are deliberate falsehoods that are told, unlike ordinary lies, Noble Lies are told for a specific purpose. Namely, Noble Lies are told to bind the loyalty of the people to the state. People, Socrates says, are prone to making bad political choices. Common people, according to Socrates, have a lack of knowledge of political affairs and are easily manipulated. People are incapable of making important political decisions without prejudice or impulsiveness. These lies are meant to command the obediance of the ruled. When it comes to matters concerning the obediance of the people, Socrates believed the there was no need to tell the people the exact truth.

Socrates says, “….could we… somehow construe one of those lies that come into being in the case of need … some noble lie, to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?” (The Republic, 414 b).

Noble Lies are not pure fabrications, but are tales of the right sort that will most effectively make people feel loyal to the state. Socrates says that the public must be taught the right sort of art, music, gymnastics (physical education), and the right sort of general education. This right sort of education, Socrates says, should be the type that stirs up feelings of patriotism. People, Socrates states, should feel that the state is their mother and should feel stronger emotional ties to their homeland than they should feel towards their biological families, friends, or lovers. But why is this so? Socrates says that there are certain qualities that rulers possess that the average citizen does not possess, namely those who rule possess the right kind of knowledge and wisdom that the average person does not have and cannot comprehend. Our own Founders believed that the best rulers were wise men, and that wise men (when at the head of the state) were likely to pursue the Good and Happiness of the people. Although our system is democratic, it is not without Noble Lies. The American political system is (supposedly) based on the idea of open government. A democracy, if it is to survive, requires a free exchange of ideas. These ideas are what the people act on — we vote on ideas, we vote for particular candidates based on their ideas. We say that American “values” embody the ideas of fairness, tolerance, liberty, and equality. It is important, then, that these ideas be presented accurately. But, the Founders also held apprehensions about the ability of the people to make rational decisions regarding the state. The American system is based on the idea of citizen participation. Unlike Socrates’ ideal city that is ruled by a philosopher-king, the United States is governed by elected representatives who legislate on behalf of the people.

In Federalist 71, Alexander Hamilton writes that government should not be swayed by “every sudden breeze of passion… every transient impulse the people may recieve from the hearts of men”. Hamilton continued, when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.

What Hamilton is saying is that the people are prone to thinking with their hearts more often than they think with their heads, and that a group of people who are not swayed by the same petty passions should lead. Hamilton, like Socrates, calls these people “guardians”.

In Federalist 63, Madison writes, ….suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can reagin authority over the public mind?

The Founders and the ancient Greeks liked the idea of the virtuous statesman who rules when the people cannot rule themselves. He has the authority to assume control over the state in the absence of wiser men. Now, Socrates says that the philosopher-king has the duty to tell Noble Lies to the people to secure their loyalty to the state. We would like to believe that our Constitution, which says that power rests in the will of the people, does not allow a ruler to assume control over government. This is not so. The Founders also believed that not only does the executive have the power over government, but that he should, from time to time, lie to the American public to secure obediance and loyalty to the state. In Federalist 70, Hamilton writes that the executive branch of government (the president) possesses certain duties that allow him to do his duties as president. These duties are: decision-making, activity, secrecy and dispatch. The ability for the executive to use decision and secrecy means that he possesses the right to lie to the people if the lie enables him to do his duty as president. If anyone believes that Americans do not tell themselves Noble Lies, here are a few ideas for you: we believe that this is the land of opportunity. We believe that any man, regardless of his station in life, his color, gender, or creed, can succeed and move ahead in society. This is a form of Noble Lie. Although it is true to an extent, we told ourselves this same “you can get it too, if you pick yourself up by your bootstraps” story when our society was not free and equal. It’s also worth noting certain patriotism-inducing myths such as George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross, and Uncle Sam.There is a reason why we call ourselves a “melting pot”– we’re supposed to see ourselves as “Americans” first, and as members of our own families or ethnic/racial group scond (or not at all). But, there are people who will say that lying, especially lies that rob a people of its ability to know what exactly its government is up to, is pernicious and that no good will come of lying to the people, be it noble or not. But, as Socrates observed, it’s not the lie that we need be mindful of, it is the intent of the lie and who is telling it. Socrates said that the ultimate goal of Noble Lies is to achieve the ultimate Good. Those who are telling the lies are not just kings but philosophers. Philosophers, Socrates believed, were virtuous men. So, a virtuous man wouldnot fell an inclination towards telling his people lies that are harmful, primarily because harmful lies detract from the common Good. Virtuous men do not tell unvirtuous lies. Lastly, as we’ve seen with the latest batch of released documents courtesy of WikiLeaks, telling the truth to everyone can have disturbing effects, especially in the realm of international relations. Everyone need not know everything. There are some things that people need not know. A world where all truth is told can be an unpleasant one at best and a dangerous one at the least. Lies are not all the same, and as Socrates argues, some lies are necessary. Lies are not pernicious because of their being lies, they are pernicious on account of their intent and to some degree, on who is telling them. A lie told for the sake of mere deception or to mislead is often wrong or even dangerous. But, a lie told to guide or to comfort, or a lie that is told for the sake of a greater Good can be conducive to achieving the greater Good. And this case, some lies really aren’t so terrible.

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.

You Say You Want A Revolution?

When I was a philosophy student, I participated in this shindig called “ethics bowl”. What ethics bowl isn’t as important than to say that I had a teammate who was an avowed anarchist. Really, he was. I don’t think that he was the type that wants to burn down buildings or wants chos and disorder as much as I think that he believed that people were better off governing themselves. I think that he believed, in the long run, governmental power was more pernicious than it is useful. There is a general feeling out there, not just among anarchists, but among Libertarians, Conservatives, even among Liberals and Progressives, that all government is in some way inherently bad. They are guided by the mantra “the government that governs best governs least”. As soon as governments gain power, they believe, man loses his freedom. These people are easy to spot. They’re the people who spell “government” GOVERNMENT. And a growing number of Americans see GOVERNMENT as a failure. This is not just a Tea Party sentiment. From Rush Limbaugh to the late Howard Zinn, not only are Americans (and their political spokespeople) distrustful of GOVERNMENT, they believe that government is at best incompetent and at worst dangerous. Ronald Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”. And the GOVERNMENT has wasted no time proving Reagan’s sentiment. Intelligence failures, the Katrina debacle, runaway deficit spending, crony capitalism, the potential ELE oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the expanding, invasive role into the lives of average Americans has a growing number of people not only agreeing with Reagan’s sentiment, but agreeing with Grover Norquist’s sentiment of wanting to shrink government to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub. The recent primary victory of Tea Party fav, and son of Ron Paul, Rand Paul, in Kentucky is a testiment to the fact that more Americans are thinking of their government as the GOVERNMENT. Maybe the people should be alone to rule themselves. This idea is by no means a new one. As Americans, we are raised with the notion that people are or should be, for the most part, able to care for themselves. This is the way man’s nature truly is, some say. Where we go wrong, is that we institute GOVERNMENT, that, given it’s nature to take freedom away, busies itself with making otherwise independent creatures wholly subservient and dependent on it. Listen to enough talk radio, and you’ll hear how we’re supposed to be. It actually sounds a little like Rousseau’s depiction of man in the state of nature. According to Rousseau, man, in the state of nature (that is, before civilization), cared for himself. He enjoyed unlimited freedom, and success depended upon his ability or own willingness to do for himself. Man, in his natural state, did not require supervision from an institutional authority. This is about as close to a Garden of Eden as man can get. However, like the fabeled Garden, Rousseau’s nature man did not exist. The story is an allegory, an idealized notion of how man should be — how man is in his heart (as we all feel the longing for total liberty). Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever tries to hang a seiling fan alone has discovered, there are some things that individuals simply cannot do for themselves. We cannot defend our borders as single people (although there are some people who believe this is possible), we need governments to secure our borders for us. A single man cannot fight against an entire nation. Therefore, we need governments to create armies to protect and defend us. We cannot survive alone in a world, where all fight against all, where Hobbes says that life is “nasty, brutish and short”. We need protection. We would rather give up some of our freedom in exchange for safety and security. This is why man agrees to be governed. We also know that no matter how much we try to educate some, there are people who simply will not or cannot not make rational decisions. Governments take all suggestions of how to govern and mitigate as to which course of action is the best for the people to take. The Founders were well aware of this fact. Just ask yourself why the franchise was so limited at the Nation’s founding? This is why Bentham believed that government should occasionally take an activist role. If the common good can be achieved by government occasionally acting as a GOVERNMENT, then the government should do so. And our government has certainly done so; the Reconstruction amendments following the Civil War, civil rights legislation, Supreme Court decisions reversing segregation, etc. Government should always be at the ready to reverse bad decision making when the people either cannot or will not do it themselves. Of course, the government does not have unlimited power. We may have forgotten this, but our government was created to protect our rights, not to grant them. The Rights of the People are not doled out by men in Washington, but handed to us by our Creator. Our Rights are inalienable (that means we can’t even give them away voluntarily). But, like government, our rights are not absolute. We can have them taken from us by way of due process. And we know that our rights end as soon as they infringe on the rights of another person. I cannot execute a person for walking across my property, even if I post a sign that says “No Tresspassing”. My rights to have an unmolested lawn do not overide another person’s right to life. At their heart, all governments require some degree of coersion to achieve their ends (which is protecting and promoting the common good). I think that this fact is what sets some people off about GOVERNMENT — it’s the fact that they feel compelled to do anything at all. You can feel the spirit of Rousseau’s nature man in your heart, but you have to recognize that if you wnat to live in a country of 300,000,000 people, you’re going to have to do some things that you don’t wan to do, and that you are definitely not always going to get what you want. Great political thinkers: Plato, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, the American Founders, even Reagan, recognized that government is necessary. American Founder (and big GOVERNMENT enthusiast) Alexander Hamilton, said if men were angels that governments wouldn’t be necessary. Well, men aren’t. Even Reagan said that the aim wasn’t to destroy government, but to find a way to make it work. The big question is how do we go about finding a government that protects liberty, serves the common good, promotes justice, and serves the wider group? The plain truth of the matter is that democracy is messy. It’s prone to tyranny and bad governance. But, as Winston Churchill observed, as bad as democracy is, it still beats out every other bad form of government. We the people are in charge of this democracy. This is why we cannot fully blame our elected politicians nor can we fully call ourselves blameless when government goes wrong. To run a successful government, it takes lots of responsibility and alot of homework. Our task is not to drown government, but to do as Reagan said and find a way to make it work. So, my advice for anyone who complains about how much they hate GOVERNMENT and how much they’s like to see the drowning, simply think of the places where the drowning has already taken place. And then ask yourself, is there some reason why you’re not already in Somalia?

Yes, Mr. Rotten. I Get the Feeling I’ve Been Cheated

Thinking about all this health “reform” debate. There are people out there eho are saying that they want their “country back” (from whom, I ask), and that we have to get back to the Constitution, whatever that means. I listen to what some of these people are saying, and sometimes I feel that some of them have no idea what they are talking about. I’ll be the first to admit here. I’m no scholar. I’m not an expert on the Constitution (although I’ve actually read it), nor am I in any position to dictate what and who can or cannot speak against or criticize the government. But, I do on occasion watch television, and I gotta say that there are some of us who really need to read before they speak.
 There’s a sentiment out there (both here and abroad) that Americans (of which I am one) are stupid. All one needs to do to confirm this is to go to YouTube and look for “stupid Americans”. When our global neighbors called former president Bush a “cowboy” they weren’t being friendly. I don’t think that most Americans are stupid. Misinformed, yes. Ignorant, definitely. Undereducated… my God yes! It may upset us to admit it, but there are people out there who are just plain apathetic. It’s not that they’re stupid people, it’s just that they don’t care. I don’t think that I’m stupid. And I take offense to anyone who says that “Americans” (as a blanket term) are. What I know that I am, however, is I am undereducated. I don’t think this was by accident, either. Call it a conspiracy theory, but I think that somewhere in my learning, someone decided that I had learned enough, and then proceded to stop teaching me and my generation. When I look back on my education, it started off well enough. Teachers stopped teaching. I know that it was this because I hadn’t lost the want to learn (that didn’t happen until high school).
Sure, my teachers were nice people, but they didn’t seem very motivated to do the thing that they had been hired to do (i.e. teach). By the time I got to high school, the want to learn anything had been bled out of me. No joke, during my US government class we watched The Price Is Right. This was the class where I was supposed to learn how to be a citizen, but instead I learned that the Navy guy always wins the final showcase. In fact, I don’t remember reading anything beyond the Preamble of the Constitution during my entire stay in public education. Funny, because so far as I’ve been able to tell, the Constitution is the owner’s manual for the country. The writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was an advocate of public education. In his Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Jefferson wrote what he felt that the objectives of a primary education should be. Jefferson wrote, ” To enable to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing… to improve by reading, his morals and faculties… to understand his duties to his neighbors and country… to know his rights”. Jefferson felt that the purpose of an education was to teach people how to be citizens. “To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend”. I don’t see how my teachers could have looked themselves in the mirror every morning knowing that they had in no way taught their charges how to operate such a complicated machine as the United States of America. Maybe it’s because vampires don’t have reflections (ha, ha).
I know that, if a child fails to learn, that oftentimes that child is blamed for not learning. But I know for a fact that at least until I hit the tenth grade that I wanted to learn. I loved reading. I still do. I remember that, when I was in elementary school, I used to win all sorts of RIF (reading is fundamental) awards, and I did it because if you read so many books during the school year, you’d get to pick out a book (for free!). But to say that my teachers were the ones that were lazy would be too easy. It was something beyond that. It seems that the unwillingness to teach went beyond one or two lazy teachers — it was systemic. Someone didn’t (or doesn’t) want us to learn. They say that stupid people are easy to control. That when a dictatorship takes over a country, they get rid of the intellectuals first because the intellectuals are the people who are most likely to question what the dictatorship is up to. But in a democracy, there’s the idea that everyone is equal. That everybody has a fair shot at success, no matter from what class a person comes from. If we work hard and we use our noggins, we can succeed. This sounds great, but there’s this little economic program that we adhere to called capitalism. And as we all know, one of the big ideas in capitalism is scarcity. If everyone gets everything, then nothing is scarce.
When you have an economy driven by want, people gotta want what they ain’t got. Which menas some people ain’t gonna get. So we can say that we’re a meritocracy and that all it takes is elbow grease and the right education to get ahead, but the problem is, is that somebody out there has to clean the toilets and wipe gramp’s butt at the nursing home. There has a disincentive to achieve built in the system. There has to be something that lets some get ahead and holds others back. But the real kicker is that nobody can know this. So we tell kids either a) that they can succeed no matter who they are or where they come from, or 2) (and I think this one happens more often than not) nothing. We simply stop educating them. Of course, we keep telling kids the old song and dance. The one I heard goes like this: Our democratic ideal are rooted in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment stressed a break-away from the beliefs of the dark ages (in superstitions and scholaticism) to beliefs in science and progress and that man is ruled by reason. Through his rational mind, man can progress. This sentiment is most supremely expressed by Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal”. Blah, blah, blah. We know now that when Jefferson wrote that he was only a fourth telling the truth. We know that as the man wrote one of the greatest documents conceived from a human mind, he was probably looking out of one of his many windows at Montecello, with a full view of the slaves that labored in his fields.
Of course, we know that in addition to Jefferson, that the Founders included the likes of James Madison, the “father” of the Constitution, and Alexander Hamilton, who, the more I read about, the more I’m a fan of Aaron Burr. Madison and Hamilton, who co-wrote the Federalist Papers with John Jay, believed that government was better rested in the hands of those who were fit to rule (think Plato’s philosopher-kings, here), rather than allowing the people to rule. Hamilton wrote,” …our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of the sheep”. Hamilton continues,”All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people… The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government…” This is what Hamilton, the dude on the $10 bill, thinks of us. Democracy didn’t get rid of the idea of an elite that rules while we, the rabble, sit passive like sheep, it merely hid it from view, and gave it a veneer of “choice”. My favorite founder, Alexander Hamilton wrote,” Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the public good?”.
Not to be outdone, James Madison believed that “the more capable” should rule government, and that government should be led by a “benevolent philosopher”. If the Enlightenment was at all inspired by the writings of the ancient Greeks, then for every Jefferson who wrote that the people should be educated to rule, there was a Madison or Hamilton who believed that to rule meant that one had to naturally be fit to do so. This idea hasn’t changed. When i use the word “rule”, I’m not talking about anything more than the ability of an individual to rule himself. Self-rule, believe it or not, is rooted in our ability to think for ourselves. And in turn, our ability to think for ourselves is rooted in our education. Of course, no one wants to admit that they believe in social Darwinism or that they believe in neo-platonist ideas of who is and who are not naturally fit to rule — especially if one is a politician. So as politicians worry about campaign contributions, whether or not someone will uncover their secrets (whatever they may be) or the diatribes of Glenn Beck, so-called intellectuals need no be so quiet.
Echoing the sentiments of Plato and Hamilton, Walter Lippman wrote “the public must be put in its place” and “responsible men… [must] live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildering herd”. People, according to Lippman, are “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders”, who have no business getting in the way of those who run society, namely the elite. But things aren’t so easily kept under control in the age of television and other multimedia. So how do you maintain an elite while people are able to figure out what you’re doing? Simple. it is accomplished by the manufacturing of consent (Edward Bernays said that the engineering of consent is the “very essence of the democratic process”). You don’t rule by the fist and the sword. You simply sway the public’s interest from the important things, like paying attention to exactly who is running their country, to paying attention to the latest feud between Jon and Kate or what “Speidi” is up to lately.
The Romans figured out that what the people really want is bread and circus. And that’s exactly what we get. All the while, we hear that we live in a democracy and that we have the right to choose, and so long as we work hard and play by the rules, we’ll get what we deserve. That’s what we are made to believe. We’re not educated with the idea in mind that we’ll be better choosers in elections, we’re educated so that we’ll be better choosers of the next American Idol (I know, people pick on American Idol alot. So what? Do you think that Simon Cowell cares one damn that I hate his show?). When you live in a country where students at the University of Michigan riot because they stopped serving beer on campus (this actually happened), it’s time to stop criticizing people like the French, who, when they riot, are actually rioting about something.
The point is that it is exactly as President Obama said, when we are content with being uneducated, we not only shortchange ourselves, we undermine our country as well. If we are going to own this democracy, and if we intend to participate in it, it is our obligation to know how she works.To be the informed citizenry that Jefferson wrote about. To understand that, when Jefferson wrote “We the People”, he meant all of us. We are not seperate from the government, but that the government is us. But then, none of what I’m saying hasn’t been said before. But it certainly is worth repeating.