Here’s a different analogy, meant to be a little closer to the truth than the last one.
Imagine a tough neighborhood, say in the Bronx. The police are all on permanent holiday. Chaos ensues — rioting, looting, etc. — but eventually a few gangs emerge as dominant, and one in particular is truly Dominant. They exploit the neighborhood in every way they can — loan sharking, extortion, intimidation. The other strong gangs often act in cooperation with them, since they get a cut of the action.
Despite the power of the Dominant, some lesser gangs fight back. It is not that they are noble or anything; they simply hate the Dominant’s power, would like more action for themselves, and perhaps disagree ideologically with the Dominant’s beliefs. They can’t really challenge the Dominant’s power, but they can sure be a nuisance.
Say what you like about the Dominant’s loathsome practices. The fact remains that the stability offered under their rule is in many ways preferable to the neighbors than the chaos of the lesser gangs’ acts of terrorism.
Now suppose you become the captain of the Dominants. What will you do with your power? You could simply retreat and let everyone do their own thing. Bad idea. The natural result would be even more chaos, and eventually a different gang would become dominant, and there’s no reason to think they’d be any better than you.
Probably, you’d think this way: I need to use my power to keep order and stability in the neighborhood, as much as I can. When I see obvious unstable elements, I will annihilate them, and try to set up my own operations in their place (or operations of my buddy gangs). Generally, I’ll try to make the stability I offer as attractive as I can to all other gangs, since that’s likely to reduce the incentive to be unruly. But the bottom line, of course, has to be the dominance of the Dominant: without that, no stability.
I think the most interesting idea Barnett (again, blog here) puts forward is the procedure for deciding when an ‘unstable element’ (read: Iraq, Sudan, N. Korea) needs to be annihilated. He leaves it to the UN Security Council to indict them; then the G-8 serves as an executive body to say precisely what needs to be done; then the US military handles the dirty work (who else?); and then, immediately following, a US-led international systems administration force — what he calls “a pistol-packing Peace Corps” — sweeps in to stabilize and rebuild. The resulting country will be obviously pro-US and pro-G-8 — that’s the idea: the Dominant stays dominant. But also stable, democratic (or nearly so), and to some degree ‘free’.
I can’t say how realistic Barnett’s proposal is, since it seems to me that sometimes the Dominant is simply going to want to flex its muscle and take over an economy — or back some other lesser gang who is doing this — without being governed by the UN or even the G-8: there is a lot of money to be made in supplying wars, of course.
Still, this seems like a recipe for a better situation than what we’re now experiencing. Bush really bungled Iraq — no significant international buy-in, not enough of an effort to rebuild. But if it had been handled along Barnett’s lines, there would be more of a stable country there, and with much better prospects than what was there before. (Or? Do I know what I’m talking about?) What if a process like this had been followed at the outbreak of the most recent violence in central Africa?
I have been reading Tom Barnett’s latest book, Blueprint for Action (see his blog here). He is much more hawkish than I have been, but then again knows a helluva lot more than I do about the international situation. It’s forced me to try to educate myself a little bit about foreign policy matters — though I’ll be the first to admit I’m as stupid and naive as someone can be about this stuff.
Anyway, his view of the relation between US and the rest of the world seems to me captured by the following analogy. I plan to offer a different analogy in a Part 2 post.
Imagine a classroom of 30 students. The teacher is gone, never to return. Let’s say 10 students are model students — mature, together, courteous. Another 10 are just the opposite — unruly, rude, belligerent. The other 10 are “swing,” meaning they’ll sometimes join the Civilized and other times play with the Unruly. Suppose you are a member of the Civilized — indeed, a leader in that group. What should you do?
You could urge your group to band together and try to ignore the Unruly. You could let the Swings join or quit as they please. And you could hope you’ll be left alone. Fat chance.
Or, you could actively encourage the Swings to join you and gain further strength in numbers. You’ll do this through diplomacy and helping them with whatever it is they want to do.
But you’ll also have to do something about the Unruly. What can you do? You can try diplomacy, like with the Swings, but this won’t always work. Barnett’s idea is this. You get active. You pick on ones you think are ripe targets, and you and some other Civilized members can corner them and say, “Why don’t you join us? If you do, we won’t beat the crap out of you.” If they resist, you beat the crap out of them, and continue doing so until they are ready to join. Once they join, you be sure to give them all the connections and incentives to stay in — now they are friends. Then on to the next Unruly, and so on.
The plan, in the end, is to get everyone Civilized. If you don’t, there will always be problems.
So how fair is this analogy?
I’m pleased to report that Understanding Rationalism is now in the top 409,000 in sales at amazon.com! Woo-hoo! When will the movie be out?!
I have been looking for a site that provides meaty information about Presidential candidates’ views, and this might be it. You can see the voting records and summaries of remarks made by each candidate on various issues. Be sure to scroll toward the bottom of each candidate’s page, since there is a useful summary of their stance on key issues.
The Nz book is coming along. I have a draft of the “Overture,” which is an overview of his life and philosophy; a draft of “Act I,” which is about the misty romantic metaphysics lying being Birth of Tragedy and Untimely Meditations — roughly, the idea is that Greek drama and Wagnerian opera both have the power to disclose the tragedy of human existence and offer us a reconciliation to it; and I’m partway through a draft of “Act II,” which covers Nz’s break with the misty metaphysics and Wagner and his turn toward naturalism in Human, all too Human.
I spend some time trying to explain what naturalism is. Here’s my idea: take the Kantian distinction between appearances (everything causally related in space and time) and things in themselves (ultimate reality, outside of space and time), do away with the things in themselves, and you’ve got naturalism. That seems too easy, though, so I wonder what I am missing. Maybe something about method — how the empirical sciences determine what counts as real? But that doesn’t sound right, since the empirical sciences undergo massive change, and I don’t want to end up saying electrons didn’t exist in 1500!
Once there was a man in a forest with a hammer, nails, and 23 pieces of lumber. The forest was thick and it was hard to see through it. So he started hammering some of the lumber onto a nearby tree, and made a ladder. He used up all 23 pieces, and wasn’t very far up the tree, so he climbed down and took out the first rung and climbed back up and nailed it at the top of the ladder. Then he climbed back down and took out the second rung and climbed back up and put that at the top, and so on, and he kept clambering down and up and down and up again until he was about as high as he could go. The view of the whole forest was very satisfying, so he used the lumber to build a tree house up there.
Life was nice for a little while but then the man started to think carefully. He had just picked a tree at random. He could have picked some other tree. Another tree would give him a different view of the forest, one he probably couldn’t even imagine from where he was now. What to do? It was a long way to the ground from where he was. So he started to take apart his tree house, using each board for a ladder rung once again, and worked his way down the tree, down and up and down again, until he was on the ground. Then he picked another tree. And he did the same damn thing. But guess what? He started thinking carefully, and wanted to see the forest from yet another tree, so (you guessed it) he worked his way down that tree, and then picked another tree and went up that one, and then another, etc..
He managed to go up six and a half different trees. Halfway up the seventh, one of the boards he was using, weakened from being hammered through again and again, broke into little pieces and fell to the ground. It wasn’t long before the other boards followed suit. And finally the one he was standing on broke and he fell to the ground and died.
Plato wrote: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Here is an interesting review of a book which links up to the question of culture. Apparently, the book claims that academics in cultural studies have brought a kind of “democracy” to the study of culture, which is good in some ways, since no one is likely to get excluded, but bad in some ways, since no one is likely to get excluded. I probably am a snob with the good fortune of belonging to the culture currently in reign (wait… what ‘culture’? what ‘reign’?) but it seems to me this is true. Educated audiences — people who should know better — are so concerned now, nearly paranoid, over the injustice of not paying attention to other cultural voices that they’ve fallen into the mode of thinking that any attempt at cultural insight is something that needs to be given its due. So if you want to study Tolstoy or the history of Barbies or Wagner or the viewpoint of the ‘Other’ as evidenced in sitcoms or Woolf or the political hegemonies reflected by the placement of cans on grocery shelves, hell, go for it, it is all equal, and saying otherwise is a form of tyranny.
Well, bullshit, I say. And bullshit again. Thinking well is hard to do, and that’s why we should value it when it happens and discourage people from deluding themselves into thinking they’ve done it when they haven’t, lest the prize get lost in muddy waters. I can see I’m starting to lose myself in broader issues, so I’ll leave off here, and go into the corner and fume.
Mike asked about my view regarding Nz’s view toward other people. (Or “the Other” as some people like to say, but I’m not sure what that means if it doesn’t means “other people”). So here goes.
Biographically, Nz wasn’t always a loner. He had a small circle of friends in high school, joined a fraternity in college (and even fought a duel!), went out drinking and carousing, wrote many letters to friends, proposed marriage once or twice, probably visited brothels. He proposed living with friends at various points and forming elite philosophical communities, and he always welcomed visits and made many friends in his travels. But, for all that, he was a lonely guy. He really wanted a second self, a comrade to make his journey with him. But his journey was so intense that no one else wanted to dedicate their lives to it. His expectations were too high, I think, and they certainly were never met. One of his hardest struggles was his attempt to overcome his need for others and be content in solitude.
I think this means that his loneliness did exert a strong pull over his philosophy. He writes often of the free spirits, which are basically his imaginary playmates, or the friends he wished he had. He frequently also writes of the friendship among overmen or higher men or whatnot, and it is clear he thinks that is a necessary and wonderful thing. And, holy smokes, did he have things to say about women. But it is a case of “presence by absence,” or his concern for other people showing by his relative loneliness. He really needed other people, that’s clear, since if they weren’t available, he went ahead and created them for himself!
I think I’m probably not seeing the larger significance of “the question of the Other,” so you’ll have to enlighten me.
Here is a link to a long and excellent essay about the different worlds of professor and student of today. The first couple paragraphs set the stage:
At the beginning of school last fall, I ran into a student on the University of Virginia Lawn, not far from the famous statue of Homer instructing an admiring pupil. Homer’s student is in a toga. Mine was wearing wraparound sunglasses like Bono’s, black jeans, and a red T-shirt emblazoned with Chinese characters in white. Over his shoulder he carried his laptop.
We asked each other the usual question: What did you do over the summer? What he did, as I recall, was a brief internship at a well-regarded Internet publication, a six-country swing though Europe, then back to enjoy his family and home, reconnect with high-school friends, and work on recording a rock CD. What had I done? I had written five drafts of a chapter for a book on the last two years of Sigmund Freud’s life. I had traveled to Crozet, a few miles away, to get pizza. I’d sojourned overnight in Virginia Beach, the day after I woke up distressed because I couldn’t figure out how to begin my chapter. I’d driven to the beach, figured it out (I thought), and then I’d come home. My young friend looked at me with a mixture of awe and compassion. I felt a little like one of those aged men of the earth who populate Wordsworth’s poetry. One of them, the Old Cumberland Beggar, goes so slowly that you never actually see him move, but if you return to the spot where you first encountered him two hours past, lo, he has gone a little way down the road. The footprints are there to prove it.
Lately I’ve been working on a chapter on what I’d call “Act 1″ in Nz’s life, in which he attempted to bring about a “cultural revolution” of sorts. To motivate the question, I felt I had to begin by examining culture more intuitively, before seeing the heavy burden Nz was to place upon it. Here is what I wrote:
“Many of us see culture as a high level of entertainment. Low level entertainment includes cheap novels, television, pop music, stock car racing, and pizza. High level entertainment, or so-called culture, includes novels that are hard to read, foreign films, string quartets, modern dance, and haute cuisine. Whether one goes for low entertainment or high entertainment is supposed to be correlated roughly with the level of one’s education. There is no law saying this must be the case, and it often is not, but anyone can appreciate how surprising, charming, or even funny it is to imagine a busboy who loves Verdi, or a philosopher who loves demolition derbies. As unprincipled and silly as it may be, we do distinguish lowbrow from highbrow, and we usually associate “culture” with the highest brows of all.
“Now this is totally wrong, and not because demolition derbies are inherently just as valuable as opera. It is wrong because culture has nothing to do with entertainment. Culture is the means by which a society connects itself with the problems of being human. We already know what some of those problems are – death, loneliness, and insignificance. These are problems that everyone has, of course, regardless of income or educational status. The only choice we have is whether we want to try to face them or ignore them. If we choose to confront them, explore them, and possibly reconcile ourselves to them, then we make culture. If we choose to change the subject, then we make entertainment. A cheap novel, a string quartet, a television show, and a modern dance may all be culture, or they may not. It depends on what they are aiming at. Are they trying to entertain us, or are they trying to open us up to the a richer inner world of struggle and doubt? Do they take aim at our surface, or at our core?
“How does a work take aim at our core? To employ a formula: it has to grab the impersonal part of us in a very personal way. The impersonal part of us is the part we have just in virtue of being human, confronting the sorts of things any human will have to confront: love, war, fear, triumph, illness, death, jealousy, trust, risk, community, loneliness, children, beauty, boredom, doubt, disappointment, revelation, insight, sex, hope, power, helplessness, obligation, delight, frustration … and so on. It is not the part of us that occupies a starring role in most of our attention in daily activities, like visiting the dentist, maintaining a minimum balance in a checking account, and finding the car keys. It is not the part of us that is addressed in works of psychology, if those works target specific kinds of people or syndromes or conditions which need one sort or another of clinical attention. It is the part of us we can see in others, no matter when or where they live, as we all go through the business of living and dying. It is impersonal in the sense that it is no more mine than yours, no more specific to one person than another.
“But the successful work of culture targets this impersonal part of us in a personal way. Through drama, images, music, and metaphors we are coaxed into shedding the outer facts of our lives, losing ourselves in the works, and confronting elements of human reality without concerning ourselves with the specific ways they crop up in our own lives. When we experience Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, for instance, we are not moved to worry so much about his own situation (dead father, murderous uncle), nor about our own specific situation (fill in the blank), but about the general situation we all share: would it be better not to live than to live at the mercy of misfortune? If the work really works, this is not a dry academic question. It is a question that feels urgent to us, as a personal question does, but it addresses us no more than it does any other human being.”