Monday, November 10, 2008

the rational clarity of history

The US election 2008 was historic. Despite some irregularities, it was no sham; it was an election. The vote was counted, unlike 2000, and polling data matched voting records, unlike 2004. Also unlike 2004 in Florida, electronic voting finally permitted paper receipts.

The election marks the return to constitutional values and a retreat from the abyss approached since 2000. It also marks a U-turn over respect for humanity. The past eight years had seen oil warfare, secret arrests, wanton torture, special rendition, and the buildup of concentration camps. My old friend Urs from the Bavarian Forest had one word for the US policies of the Bush junta: menschenverachtend -- policies contemptuous of human beings.

Now there is hope the USA will ease back into the civilized world of universal human rights, not just human rights for Christians, Jews, and rich people. Of course inhumanity remains an American status quo for the time being: globally, America has become prison planet, with more folks under lockdown than anywhere else on Earth, and locally, USF Professor Sami Al-Arian continues to do time in a gringo jail for having committed the sin of being Muslim and Palestinian. And Bush, still in power for two months, may well sign a few more execution orders at home and order a few more air raids abroad.

Yet the U-turn is happening. It also concerns the future of humanity. It is safe to say that American exceptionalism over global warming will now end and that president-elect Obama won't enter the annals of history as the climate changer in chief his predecessor had been.

It's amazing to surf world media and read how the whole planet is breathing a huge sigh of relief. It's the relief of worried onlookers who watch Americans recover from an eight year stretch of insanity.

More mixed, both good and bad, are the news for American Thought. Philosophers like to look at what they're doing as abstract work of no political consequence. And who knows which way causality flows, from the polis to the philosophers, or the other way around. But it's clear that most US philosophers didn't cover themselves with glory in the past eight years. And to the extent that they were standing in the sidelines, they had aided and abetted, or at least cheered on, the Bushist spectacle of menschenverachtende policies.

Sure, if any of my colleagues happen to read this, they'd shake their heads, shrug off these charges, and roll their eyes (again) at the Mad Hun. And granted, most of the colleagues in the field consider themselves "liberal" (whatever that means) and oppose Bushist policies. But, at the same time, they are implicated in the Bushist legacy both in practice and in theory. In practice, in that American philosophers with paychecks tend to buy wholesale into the consumerist lifestyle that Bushism encourages and represents--they live in the suburbs; they own houses; they drive cars; they are collectors, and they pray at the altar of free-wheeling capitalism. In practice, American philosophers represent consumerist conventions.

And in theory, because Bushism has been the first truly postmodern government in American history. In Bushism, truth was in the eye of the beholder; facts were negotiable; scientific findings were to be treated with a "healthy" dose of skepticism; and moral problems tended to have at least two sides. And that's just what many of my colleagues argue in their seminars and in their books. It's been the zeitgeist. Was it surprising that eventually some students of Plato's Republic, Hume's Treatise, Derrida's L'écriture et la différence, and Rorty's Mirror of Nature would take the ideas found there and use them, à la Karl Rove, in their political consequence?

The problem with a philosophical case against the violations of human rights and the perpetration of climate change that the world has come to associate with Bushist America is that making such a case would require a philosopher to be dogmatic and to come out as a Wolffian and as an absolutist. But American philosophers espouse an antithetical mentality: dogmatism is wacko, while skepticism is tough-minded intelligence; Hume is a famous historical figure taught everywhere, while Wolff is unknown (pdf); absolutism is dismissed, while relativism is always good for class discussion or a book chapter.

Thus, on human rights, for instance, American thinkers tend to be largely in favor but lace such favor with doubt. If we caught Bin Laden's advisor, should we not torture the next 9-11 plan out of him? Puzzles of this sort make conventional philosophers frown into their tea cups and mumble something about 'difficult' and 'hard problems'.

As one result, here at USF, from 2001 to 2008, the Mad Hun was the only faculty who taught an anti-government course, the Tao of War, whose point consisted in the comparison of Bush and Hitler, and whose grading requirement consisted in the analysis of past and present strategic failures in light of daoist military manuals. Colleagues taught pro-establishment topics such as the philosopher-kings of Plato's Republic and the ways of doubting in Hume's Treatise -- and looked the other way when the Mad Hun raved on.

As another result, the topic of climate has met with curious resistance in American philosophy during the same time period. In 2004 I first raised the subject in faculty meetings, my words were met with polite coughs and quiet snickers. In 2005 Katrina contra New Orleans opened minds enought to entertain the possibility of a climate conference, but it would take yet another year before this was possible. In the 2006 conference half of the faculty participated; the other half pointedly stayed away. (My esteemed colleague colleague Charles Guignon wanted to join in but was indisposed.) Among those who did participate, two of the inhouse presenters gave papers on unrelated subjects that didn't mention the offending terms ("global warming," "climate change") with a single breath, while one of the faculty panelists -- an ethicist no less -- openly rejected climatology findings. In 2007 I asked the former presidents of the Florida Philosophical Association to issue a call for papers on climate for the next annual meeting, and while my colleagues at the FPA found my request "interesting" they also denied it. Even in 2008, this resistance continued, and at USF, an associate dean of the honors college vetoed the plan for a regular climate seminar.

But all this are small potatoes. Historic is that the Gringo Square of Flawed Cognition has suffered a crucial blow. And contrary to what some historians might think, history is not messy, but in the end, historical verdicts are rational and clear. The crash of turbo capitalism raises questions about Adam Smith. The fall of Sarah Palin raises questions about the Baby Jesus. The failure of Bushism overall raises questions about Ayn Rand. And the defeat of the climate skeptics raises questions about David Hume. Now, hopefully, we can throw out bad philosophies with the trash and pray that the American Disenlightenment has come to an end.

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