September 19, 2002

The 'Special Relationship' ...

The 'Special Relationship' ... With the Czechs: Vaclav Havel is in the States, to lend support to President Bush, raise money for flood-damage repair, deliver an anti-Communist speech on Radio Marti (!), get more politicians behind further NATO exprican pragmatist, sharing Hobbes's goal of feeing human beings from fear of death and the cruelty it engenders, says that the human goal must be to free human beings from being moved by death at all. They acknowledge that Rousseau is right. The individual human being must be purged of the effects of history. The pragmatic solution cannot be merely political or limited. It must transform all of human existence. Death must be drugged to death [hey! Prozac nation!]"

"This book, in large measure, concerns the question of whether self-conscious mortality, or language and awareness of death, is given to human beings by nature or acquired historically. **But perhaps most of all it is about love.** [Alexandre] Kojeve, following Rousseau, says that at history's end love, or specifically human eros, disappears [I sometimes fear this is right -- given the overwhelming narcissism of our generation and the almost complete absence of romance and love]. What remains is only the mechanical rutting of animals. Love is historical, not natural, and the experience of history is that we would be better off without it. Rorty indirectly but insistently agrees with this conclusion. The world he works to construct would be one without cruelty and so at least largely without love."

Cheers,
Robert

Posted by: Robert Light at September 19, 2002 06:41 PM

Robert -- I keep *telling* you I'm not a well-read fella ... you must not believe me.

First, about "yammering" -- since about mid-'93, or maybe even earlier, Havel has, much to the chagrin of many of his own staffers, used important diplomatic occasion after important diplomatic occasion to work through his concepts of the One, the Absolute Horizon, and suchlike. So, I mean "yammering" in a way of "talking, yet again, about a strange & possibly inappropriate subject during an important occasion." Now, that might be unfair to the guy (after all, it was a commemoration of Masaryk, who was a philosopher-president), but he's certainly pursued this topic in literally dozens of less-fitting forums.

I'm not sure I agree with your assertion that Havel considers himself a post-modernist, though I must confess that I don't really know jack-all about post-modernism. To the extent that post-modernism invites nihilism or even pessimism, the shoe does not fit Havel, I think. That the Mystery cannot be Solved (and that humans who believe it can are dangerous), seems to me to be a source of both glee and motivation for Havel. Life is a wonderful, brawling, mysterious jumble, and we all owe it to ourselves, and our varying concepts of Absolute Horizon, to place our shoulders on the wheel to make things better & help develop a Civil Society. Havel is not an anti-pragmatist (his fetishization of "non-political politics" notwithstanding), he's an anti-simpleton; i.e., he distrusts anyone who claims to have anything remotely close to the Answer.

This distrust, combined with his philisophical/spiritual journey & his sense of social-democratic "apolitics" (to coin an awkward phrase), has led him to some odd places. My old friend Chandler Rosenberger, now a professor at Boston U., has written several interesting essays on Havel's philosophy vis-a-vis his politics Try this one). Chandler leans to the right; for his counterpart on the left side, try Timothy Garton Ash's last few essays on the guy (too lazy to find a link; there's one chapter in the "History of the Present" book, if I recall right). Ash & Chandler both wrestle with Havel's weird ego, his philisophical underpinnings, and the strange dichotomy/hyprocrisy of his governance (& international leadership) squared with "non-political politics."

Maybe because I'm a college dropout from Long Beach who hasn't really read any philosophers, I do not share your concerns about "history's end" or the disappearance of eros. I'm confident that history's chugging right along, thank you, and eros is alive and well. I *don't* think "our generation" suffers from "overwhelming narcissism ... and the almost complete absence of romance and love" -- quite the contrary, the vast majority of people I know are generous, outward-looking, and positively swollen with romance and love. And most of the people I've met in the last 12 months via this weblog fit the same profile, though they may be conservative young TV addicts from the South, rather than weirdo ex-expat musicians living in Los Feliz.

So, to sum up: Havel's cool, I'm not so bright, Tony Pierce rocks, and I worry that you might be letting the pessimism get to you.

Treacher, what do you think?

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 19, 2002 07:56 PM

Havel's political essays are just what I would hope for from a European liberal (small-L) politician. He's not overly concerned with feel-goodnik dopeyness, etc.

And yeah, I've read a lot of 'em.

Posted by: Joe Giles at September 19, 2002 10:12 PM

Down-sizing Rousseau and Machiavelli and Marx to fit with Rorty - now that's just cruel. 'The professor of complacency', as some magazine (Atlantic?) nicely nabbed him. Some think he's a leftist, go figure.
As far as religious zealots in Islamic lands, is it really their tranquility, care-free lives that drive them to quasi-fascism? I'd guess: No. And who ever claimed it was the govt's job to free us from fear of death? Preventing an actual aberrant, wrongful death perhaps, but otherwise my fear of death better be my own damn business. As for their deciding we're better off without love - that would sure make for some unusual policy choices, wouldn't it?
I can't say I pity professors of govt who don't get invited by govt officials for chat if they write pap like that. Officials already know how to yammer that way. A lot of us folks would like officials to talk policy to us at least as much as principle (or silly spiritual fat-chewing), and to not talk down to us, and to shape their policy according to what the real world offers in observable fact, not ghosts and biblical twaddle. You can't even scrutinize their guiding principles when they get both vague and personal at the same time- must we care what Bush's "favorite philosopher" would make of Bush? I just wanna know how the tax cut is supposed to benefit Americans and why we're invading another country.

Posted by: Greg at September 20, 2002 07:49 AM

Hi Matt,

Wow, what a scolding on that one. And I accept your chastisement with respect to your "pessimism" statement, as I suppose I insinuated such a disposition in this and other discussion.

I don't doubt for a minute the existence of many fine, outward-looking, and genuinely altruistic people – many of whom you know either personally or through your sparkling website. I know many such individuals myself. And, yes, many are in our age group. Nor would I begrudge the whereabouts of many wonderful, good things to celebrate about society and the world; this isn't the place to get into it, but just living in this city alone is enough to keep one busy with the thrill of life. But my statement about narcissism and spiritual emptiness was simply an assessment of a comprehensive situation, one which in many ways leaves much to be desired. If nothing else, what I say is quite vindicated empirically. Simply taking into account the levels of depression, use of SSRI's, the levels of divorce, illegitimate child-births, single parent house-holds, spousal and child abuse: all these pathologies are, though improving in some respects, rather alarming.

Is this evident narcissism and spiritual emptiness the cause of these pathologies, or vice versa? Or does the etiology lurk elsewhere? Such insecurity and potential for misery is, I submit, sown in the very nature of man. No amount of do-good government or bio-technology will ever absolve us of the insecurity, the risk, of being human; this risk is what constitutes our freedom, liberty. But the protection against all risk – THE essence of big government – militates against this quality of our nature and sheds some light on the effectual truth of totalitarianism and modern tyranny and their horrifying consequences. Protection against all risk is an infinite process and something government, and modern science, does not know how and can’t do. And even if they could cure us of the insecurity our natures, it would leave us with nothing to do – automatons we truly would be, following pure physical laws of nature.

I would offer as an amelioration -- no **Answers** here -- a restoration of limited, self-government. But to do that requires making moral arguments, which libertarians refuse to make (they only make arguments with respect to efficiency, economy, and protection of contract). Limited government can be guided by the people and is energetic. What we have today is emphatically not limited government but obese government which, in the end, is not just wasteful, inefficient but immoral – for reasons adumbrated above.

Guess what? I’m tired and I’m going to bed. I promise to write more on this, Havel, etc.

With all best wishes,
Robert

Posted by: Robert Light at September 20, 2002 11:07 AM

[The above post, btw., was submitted last night but erroneously given under the wrong "comment" section -- no I don't go to bed at 11:07 AM]

Herr Gregor obviously hasn't been reading his Hobbes with proper care -- fear of violent death is THE passion Hobbes identifies as most common to all human beings and it is on this basis that modern liberalism is basically founded. According to Hobbes, human beings consent to government to alleviate their fear of death. It's simply a complex issue, one which I don't claim to fully understand and which is beyond the purview of e-mail discussion, so I'll leave it at that.

If you don't believe government officials see themselves as therapeutic administrators, then where have you been with respect to the policy prescriptions and sententious-cum-tendentious rhetoric of the Hillary Clintons of the world? (ah, her use of Michael Lerner's "the politics of meaning" -- ah, "it takes a village").
Nobody's downsizing Roussea, Marx, etc. to fit Rorty -- only that, via Lawler, I was alluding to a something they very much share in common -- the conquering of nature to relieve man's estate (which works up to a point; but we've bought this at a price), -- i.e. pragmatism, or the modern project loosely understood, as an incredible trendy emphasis on the "how to" rather than the "what is." C.S. Lewis discusses this in his beautiful, inimitable way in the Abolition of Man -- a book which, in my humble opinion, should be required reading of all intelligent people before coming to the hasty conclusion that whatever works is good, and that what is good is whatever is "pleasurable."

You write: "As for their deciding we're better off without love - that would sure make for some unusual policy choices, wouldn't it?" -- nobody is saying that government is or would contemplate legislating this. Simply, this is a comment on cultural changes that have unwittingly come about as a result of bad public policy and jurisprudence -- that is if you accept that a country's mores and culture are shaped by "what's on top" -- by who rules (Aristotle's argument which isn't refuted -- see esp. 3rd book of The Politics).

You write: "to shape their policy according to what the real world offers in observable fact, not ghosts and biblical twaddle." Yes, I basically agree with that. But again, do people who know *how to* know *what* it *is* they are doing??

Cordially,
Robert Light

Posted by: Robert Light at September 20, 2002 11:58 AM

Apropos of this whole discussion, see Wesley Smith's fine piece in the current NRO: http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-smith092002.asp

It may seem oblique, but it ties in with what "spiritual fat-chewers" such as Havel, Solzhenitsyn, or for that matter the American Founders, promulgate.

To assert that human nature has a certain dignity about it, such that we don't find among other *things* "out there", whether it be a cuttle-fish, birthday cake or a puppie-dog, is to traffick in a metaphysical assertion, whether one is aware of it or not. When people like Havel yammer about God or an "absolute horizon," [bracketing for a moment whether such utterances fit an occasion] I think it perfectly, yes, reasonable to affirm such speculation.

Moreover, the burden is upon our positivistic libertarians (libertoids, as Johah Goldberg calls them) -- really, reverse Marxists who see the world as just material, or "facts" as Greg states, to be worked upon -- to "prove" that there is nothing divine or transcendent about man. In any event, this argument hinges on the fulcrum of what "rights" really are -- and again, to even raise the question of _why_ human beings have rights, or a fundamental dignity unlike other species, is to beg a philosophic, and even metaphysical, question which natural science is not even remotely equipped to answer.

Best,
Robert

These two passages were rather salient, methinks:

"This intellectual intertwining is most evident in "personhood theory" — according to which rights come not from simply being human but rather from possessing relevant cognitive capacities."

and here:

"All three misanthropic ideologies — animal rights, "personhood" bioethics, and transhumanism — threaten universal human equality. Unfortunately, they have also arrived at a moment when traditional cultural norms concerning the sanctity of human life have been significantly undermined. And the future won't wait for us to regain our moral equilibrium. Genetic science is advancing at mach-speed."

Posted by: Robert Light at September 20, 2002 03:11 PM

Cuttle-fish?

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 20, 2002 04:18 PM

n. pl. cuttlefish or cut·tle·fish·es:
Any of various squidlike cephalopod marine mollusks of the genus Sepia that have ten arms and a calcareous internal shell and eject a dark inky fluid when in danger.

No hyphen! Just damn "cuttlefish"! Would ya believe it?

Those pesky little hyphens. Word to Moxie: Didn't find "penis-head" in the dic-tionary.

Cheers!
Robert

P.S. There's a famous painting, featuring, among other things, Plato and Aristotle -- think it's in the Vatican. Plato is reaching up to the heavens, Aristotle is reaching down to pick up a cuttlefish (one of the many animals he dissected in his many zoological pursuits). Allegorical of Aristotle, the biologist, being very grounded in the good ol' here and now.

Posted by: Robert Light at September 20, 2002 07:52 PM

Yo Robert,

I do think I know my Hobbes, not that anyone should care what I know. And I said "silly spirtitual fat-chewing", meaning not a convenient or rallying-point deism which has a good deal more to do with the founding of American liberalism such as you invoked. The silly stuff I meant is the slick way an official tries to rally us around their putative belief in god and whatnot. I don't care to know because it doesn't work for me and means they are pandering to a more specific subset of Americans (for popular, electoral support obviously), and the less time they waste on such things the better.

As for your suggestion "If you don't believe government officials see themselves as therapeutic administrators" - indeed I do, and was complaining that they see themselves that way. Do I really want Hilary Clinton -pro death penalty for starters - trying to work a therapeutic function upon myself? No, I don't. (And re ghosts, doesn't she communicate with them?) Policy I can criticize and try to understand, religious blather I can't understand unless I feel it too, and I don't. Secularism shouldn't be considered scary by ordinary Americans like me, but it should never be scary for our elected or unelected officials. That was my point (not a very interesting one probably.)

Posted by: Herr Gregor at September 21, 2002 02:47 PM
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Cuttle-fish?

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 20, 2002 04:18 PM

n. pl. cuttlefish or cut·tle·fish·es:
Any of various squidlike cephalopod marine mollusks of the genus Sepia that have ten arms and a calcareous internal shell and eject a dark inky fluid when in danger.

No hyphen! Just damn "cuttlefish"! Would ya believe it?

Those pesky little hyphens. Word to Moxie: Didn't find "penis-head" in the dic-tionary.

Cheers!
Robert

P.S. There's a famous painting, featuring, among other things, Plato and Aristotle -- think it's in the Vatican. Plato is reaching up to the heavens, Aristotle is reaching down to pick up a cuttlefish (one of the many animals he dissected in his many zoological pursuits). Allegorical of Aristotle, the biologist, being very grounded in the good ol' here and now.

Posted by: Robert Light at September 20, 2002 07:52 PM

Yo Robert,

I do think I know my Hobbes, not that anyone should care what I know. And I said "silly spirtitual fat-chewing", meaning not a convenient or rallying-point deism which has a good deal more to do with the founding of American liberalism such as you invoked. The silly stuff I meant is the slick way an official tries to rally us around their putative belief in god and whatnot. I don't care to know because it doesn't work for me and means they are pandering to a more specific subset of Americans (for popular, electoral support obviously), and the less time they waste on such things the better.

As for your suggestion "If you don't believe government officials see themselves as therapeutic administrators" - indeed I do, and was complaining that they see themselves that way. Do I really want Hilary Clinton -pro death penalty for starters - trying to work a therapeutic function upon myself? No, I don't. (And re ghosts, doesn't she communicate with them?) Policy I can criticize and try to understand, religious blather I can't understand unless I feel it too, and I don't. Secularism shouldn't be considered scary by ordinary Americans like me, but it should never be scary for our elected or unelected officials. That was my point (not a very interesting one probably.)

Posted by: Herr Gregor at September 21, 2002 02:47 PM
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