Bob Schwartz

Category: Philosophy

They wanted a postmodern president (though they didn’t know it). They got him.

Postmodernism (aka pomo), a wide-ranging and pervasive intellectual concept and movement, is hard to talk about precisely. Many minds have contributed to its complexity, many others have transformed it into a pop culture referent. Its usage grew vague, as it came to try to mean whatever anyone wants to say it means: everything to everyone, nothing to no one. What’s more confounding is that in many quarters, it has now been left behind as an old-fashioned and uncool intellectual fad, even though it is only a few decades old.

Nevertheless, it may turn out to be a useful analytical tool, as we are increasingly drowning in two questions: Where are we and how did we get here?

One attempt at a succinct definition of postmodernism:

A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tried to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

Postmodernism is “post” because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called “modern” mind.

From the PBS show Faith & Reason

Did some people “want” a pomo president? In some ways, yes. Let’s assume we can’t stand still, as individuals, as nations, as societies. Which we can’t. Whatever modern moment we reached, it turned out to be unsatisfying for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. One reaction is to want to “get back” to an earlier point. But that is impossible; there is never going back. If you can’t go back, and refuse to continue on the current path, why not, essentially, throw it all away—all the “modern” thinking and principles that got you where you didn’t want to be.

And so, pomo Trump. Defying objective truth, defying explanation, defying principles. The intellectuals who gave us postmodernism believed it to be a way of looking at the world. They also knew that, like existentialism, its wholesale adoption as practice rather than theory was problematic. Like a tree without roots, a house without foundation.

In contemplating those questions—where are we and how did we get here—we are through the postmodern looking glass. The other even more important question—how do we get out of here—is the most important question of the age.

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The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire

I cannot fully explain James Hillman in this space, not briefly, not at all. If there is a badge, it might say psychologist, or Jungian psychologist, but that would be misleading, limiting and wrong. Thomas Moore, in his Prologue to The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire, begins with this:

James Hillman is an artist of psychology. If it sounds odd to call a psychologist an artist, then you, the reader, know your task as you take up this anthology. You will be challenged all along the way to rethink, to re-vision, and to reimagine. The difficulty in reading Hillman is not to learn a new bag of techniques or a new conceptual system. Hillman demands nothing short of a new way of thinking. He takes psychoanalysis out of the context of medicine and health, not only in the obvious ways, rejecting the medical model, but in subtle ways: asking us to give up fantasies of cure, repair, growth, self-improvement, understanding, and well-being as primary motives for psychological work. He is more a painter than a physician, more a musician than a social scientist, and more an alchemist than a traditional philosopher.

Hillman has written many books and articles, but A Blue Fire, made up of short passages from many works, is what to read to get the essence. Choosing a representative excerpt is impossible, since it is bound to miss most other points Hillman makes. But the excerpt below, covering the nature of illiteracy, silence and imagination, is close to my heart, and to some of our life in 2018: “An education that in any way neglects imagination is an education into psychopathy. It is an education that results in a sociopathic society of manipulations. We learn how to deal with others and become a society of dealers.”


Why have we as a nation become more and more illiterate? We blame television and the computer, but they are not causes. They are results of a prior condition that invited them in. They arrived to fill a gap. When imaginative ability declines, other ways to communicate appear. These ways work even though they too are dyslexic in structure: simultaneity of bits, odd juxtapositions, messages that do not move linearly from left to right. Yet television and personal computers communicate.

Evidently, reading does not depend solely on the ordering of words or the ordering of letters in the words. Indeed, poets use dyslexic structures deliberately. Reading depends on the psyche’s capacity to enter imagination. Reading is more like dreaming, which, too, goes on in silence. Our illiteracy reflects our educative process away from the silent grounds of reading: silent study halls and quiet periods, solitary homework, learning by heart, listening through a whole class without interruptions, writing an essay exam in longhand, drawing from nature instead of lab experiments. This long neglect of imaginational conditions that foster reading—Sputnik and the new math; social problems and social relatedness; mecentered motivation; the confusion of information with knowledge, of opinion with judgment, and trivia with sources; communications as messages by telephone calls and answering machines rather than as letter writing in silence; learning to speak up without first having something learned to say; multiple choice and scoring as a test of comprehension—has produced illiteracy.

The human person as a data bank does not need to read more than functionally. A data bank deciding yes or no on the basis of feedback (i.e., reinforcement) need not imagine beyond getting, storing, and spending. Just get the instructions right; never mind the content. Learn the how rather than the what with its qualities, values, and subtleties. Then the human agent becomes an incarnated credit card performing the religious rituals of consumerism. You need only be able to sign your name in the space marked Xy like an immigrant, like a slave, or a …

Or a psychopath. Descriptions of psychopathy, or sociopathic personalities, speak of their inability to imagine the other. Psychopaths are well able to size up situations and charm people. They perceive, assess, and relate, making use of any opportunity. Hence their successful manipulations of others. But the psychopath is far less able to imagine the other beyond a fantasy of usefulness, the other as a true interiority with his or her own needs, intentions, and feelings. An education that in any way neglects imagination is an education into psychopathy. It is an education that results in a sociopathic society of manipulations. We learn how to deal with others and become a society of dealers.

James Hillman
“Right to Remain Silent”
Journal of Humanistic Education and Development (1988)

Politely Ask Trump to Resign

The majority of Americans think that Trump is a threat to civility, to honesty, to American values, democracy and institutions, and to American and global peace and progress. As one new and untried tactic, we should simply, politely and plainly ask him to resign.

This is not a replacement for any of the other ongoing approaches, including investigation of his wrongdoing, ridicule, humor, and calls for impeachment or action under the 25th amendment. And of course, voting.

It is, however, a civilized way of doing something it is increasingly hard to do: be a better and more civilized person than Trump himself. It is hard not to fall into the sinkhole of being as terrible as our worst nemesis—that is an ancient theme. The pragmatic fact is that it is sometimes unavoidable, if the better is to triumph over the lesser. But when that happens, we are in danger of being just as bad, and our remaining upright and our job of healing and recovering is made that much more difficult.

So let us ask Trump to resign, politely explaining the many reasons it is best for America and Americans, and for the world. Of course he will not do it or consider it, and will mock it, since in his mind any show of decency and quiet reason is a show of weakness. Instead, though, it is a small demonstration that we still believe that decency is a show of strength. Which is something we are understandably starting to forget.

Note:

As is my practice, I asked the I Ching about this proposal. It is appropriate to do that for two reasons. The I Ching itself is in part a philosophical response to centuries of national political changes in China, cataclysms that make a few years of Trump look like a picnic. Second, China itself in 2018 still uses the I Ching for guidance. So why shouldn’t we?

The I Ching says (Alfred Huang translation):

59
Huan • Dispersing

NAME AND STRUCTURE

Originally Huan meant ice breaks, melts, and vanishes. Later on, it came to mean to separate and scatter.

Sequence of the Gua: After happiness and joyfulness, there comes dispersing. Thus, after Joyful, Dispersing follows.

The ideograph of Huan expresses its original meaning. The image on the left represents water. It resembles the primary gua for Water, turned vertically. On the top right is a knife, and on the bottom are two hands with fingers and arms. In the middle are two pieces of ice. Taken as a whole, this ideograph pictures a knife used to break up the ice, with two hands separating the pieces of ice. The ice melts and becomes water, at last dispersing and vanishing. The structure of the gua is Wind   above, Water   below. The wind blows over the water and disperses the waves. The inner gua is Water; its attribute is danger. It symbolizes one’s vital energy blocked within. The outer gua is Wind; its attribute is penetration. Penetrating and breaking the blockage leads to dispersion.

Decision

Dispersing.
Prosperous and smooth.
The king arrives at the temple.
Favorable to cross great rivers.
Favorable to be steadfast and upright.

Commentary on the Decision

Dispersing.
Prosperous and smooth.
The firm comes without hindrance.
The yielding is at the proper place.
It goes out to meet its similarity above.
The king arrives at the temple.
He is in the central place.
Favorable to cross great rivers.
The merit comes from mounting on the wood.

Commentary on the Symbol

The wind moves over the water.
An image of Dispersing.
In correspondence with this,
The ancient king offers sacrifice to the Lord of Heaven
And establishes temples.

SIGNIFICANCE

The gua takes the image of the wind moving over the water to demonstrate the act of dispersing people’s resentment. During the time of dispersing, having a leader with wisdom and foresight is crucial. The king approaching his temple gives us an image of his connection with the spiritual world. Crossing great rivers signifies the hardship and difficulty of the work. Steadfastness and uprightness should be the virtue of a great leader. He has self-confidence, so he is able to live and work in peace. The host of the gua is the solid line at the fifth place. This line represents the king who approaches his temple to connect himself with the Lord of Heaven. During the time of dispersing he is the only one who, in the honored place, is able to establish order throughout his nation. The fourth line represents the king’s minister, while the second line is his officer. They faithfully assist the king to unite the people in the time of dispersing.

During King Wen’s sitting in stillness he meditated upon joyfulness and dispersion. After people had been joyful, their energy dispersed, and their focus was scattered. At such a time, a leader with wisdom and foresight was needed. He arrived at his temple and communicated with the deity. His sincerity and trustworthiness encouraged people to work in full cooperation and with unity of purpose. The Duke of Zhou narrates that to be of help at such a time, one should have the speed of a strong horse. Dispersing self-serving groups led to a union as solid as a mound.

Heschel on Politicians

“I consider the heart of the problem of human existence is to fight against mendacity, against lying. I would like to use a word which may be too often used, but it’s still the most important word—and that is “honesty,” or “sincerity,” or “trust.””

“I am against the word “politician.” I have great respect for the word “statesman.” It’s very interesting, the word “statesman” is not used. “Politician” is used. “Statesman” is a great word….The task of a statesman is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interests. To be a leader.”

From an interview with Abraham Joshua Heschel at the University of Notre Dame in 1967, published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, essays by Heschel.

Q: Your esteem for religious colleagues is greater than your esteem for politicians. I think you once said that the most depressing word in the English language is “politician.” Politicians are necessary, aren’t they? Why disparage them?

A: No, I’m not against politicians in their vocation. I’m against politicians in their tactics. Against the very meaning, the semantic meaning of the word “politician.”

Now let me elaborate. It may take me two minutes to explain it to you. I consider the heart of the problem of human existence is to fight against mendacity, against lying. I would like to use a word which may be too often used, but it’s still the most important word—and that is “honesty,” or “sincerity,” or “trust.”

The tragedy of our time is, we don’t trust each other. The Golden Rule today is not “Love thy neighbor as thyself” but “Suspect thy neighbor as thyself.” We suspect all politicians because we know in advance they don’t mean what they say and they don’t say what they mean.

Q: Is that justified? That suspicion?

A: Ask the people in the country. You’re asking me? I’m only one citizen. I have only one vote.

If you go to the country and ask them, “What do you think of politicians?,” they’ll say a politician is a synonym for a person who is not necessarily truthful. Right? Do you mind my elegant way of speaking?

We have a type of politician today—I suppose we’ve always had, and I don’t want to identify anyone—who tells us that he is doing what the peoples want. And, in fact, that may be so. Of course, that doesn’t reach to the question of leadership. Should our leaders give us what we want, or is there some other role?

I think there is another role. By the way, I am against the word “politician.” I have great respect for the word “statesman.” It’s very interesting, the word “statesman” is not used. “Politician” is used. “Statesman” is a great word.

Now, about doing what the people want—I’ll tell you what the people want. One of the major inclinations in every human being is a desire to be deceived. Self-deception is a major disease.

Q: To be told what one wants to hear?

A: Yes. You want to be deceived.

The task of a statesman is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interests. To be a leader.

The great question of today is mendacity. We live in a world full of lies. And the tragedy that our young people—or maybe it’s good—the young people have discovered how many lies are uttered daily and every moment. They can’t stand it. If there’s anything they despise, it’s someone who is phony, false rhetoric. We call it “credibility gap”—what we mean really is lying.

“In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in a mask of failure.”

This isn’t about baseball, though the quote is from a baseball writer. Bill James is not just a superb writer; he is a thinker whose analysis of the game has changed baseball more than any other thinker has ever changed any game. You can look it up.

This is about optimism and hope. I was reading The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (a 998-page volume whose title alone should tell you just how thoughtful Bill James is). He describes Robin Yount, who as of the time of publication James considered the Number 4 shortstop in baseball history:

Robin Yount (1974–1993, 2856 G, 251 1406 .285)

Robin Yount was a major league regular when he was 18 years old. We always wondered how good he would be, how much he would improve. In 1978, after Yount had been in the major leagues four years, he held out in the spring, mulling over whether he wanted to be a baseball player, or whether he really wanted to be a professional golfer.

When that happened, I wrote him off as a player who would never become a star. If he can’t even figure out whether he wants to be a baseball player or a golfer, I reasoned, he’s never going to be an outstanding player.

Yount was unhappy about suggestions that the Brewers would move him to the outfield. According to Dan Okrent in Nine Innings, “Yount didn’t merely reject the suggestion; he brooded about it, resented it, and lost himself in self-doubt. Members of the front office… saw Yount’s reaction as immature sulking.”

But as soon as he returned to baseball, Yount became a better player than he had been before; his career got traction from the moment he returned. What I didn’t see at the time was that Yount was in the process of making a commitment to baseball. Before he had his golf holiday, he was there every day, he was playing baseball every day, but on a certain level he wasn’t participating; he was wondering whether this was really the sport that he should be playing. What looked like indecision or sulking was really the process of making a decision.

This is often true. What Watergate was about was not the corruption of government, as most people thought, but rather, the establishment of new and higher standards of ethical conduct. Almost all scandals, I think, result not from the invention of new evils, but from the imposition of new ethical standards. Same thing with Yount; he wasn’t backing away from baseball; he was just putting the bit in his teeth, accepting new responsibilities. In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in a mask of failure. (emphasis added)

Yesh Me’ayin (Creatio Ex Nihilo)

Ayin

Yesh Me’ayin (Creatio Ex Nihilo)

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Nothing.

©

To Understand America 2018, Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland now. Again if it’s been a while, and definitely now if for the first time.

Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898) was famously creative as a mathematician and logician. He wove puzzles and tortured logic all through his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Puzzles and tortured logic seem likely to be a major component of America in 2018, as they were in 2017.

The leadership and the citizens of Wonderland are variously tyrannical, illogical, stupid, or just plain bizarre. Alice literally does not fit in. While she is only a child, she has more sense than everyone she meets combined.

If I had a news network like CNN, I’d interrupt the futile attempts to understand and explain what’s going on by having different news anchors read aloud one chapter from Alice in Wonderland every day. It would actually be more constructive—and more fun—than just listening to their trying to making sense of the nonsensical.

If Trump’s tweets were taken from Alice in Wonderland, would we know the difference? Would he?

Some Trump/Alice tweets:

We must have a trial. Really this morning I have nothing to do. With no jury or judge I’ll be Judge. I’ll be jury. I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.

We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. A dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.

Be what you would seem to be. Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

You have no right to think. Just about as much right as pigs have to fly. I give you fair warning either you or your head must be off. Take your choice!

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.

Umberto Eco: Ur-Fascism

Celebrated Italian author and scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016)  published an article in 1995 entitled Ur-Fascism .

Eco grew up during the time of Mussolini. In the article, he jumps from memories of that experience to describe some varieties of fascism and other types of totalitarianism. Not all are well-defined fascism, he says, but he does identify the core characteristics of what he calls Ur-Fascism.

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

Eco goes on to list 14 features of Ur-Fascism. This is the excerpted list; please read the article for an expanded explanation. And as you read it, please consider which of those features you might be seeing now.

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition….As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism….In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection.

4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies….Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter….Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Eco closes with this:

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.

Is Zero A Number?

O zero
You fool me all the time
Pretending to be something
When you’re nothing

Civilization

Inscribed on the winding sidewalk of the park:

The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops, but the kind of man that the country turns out.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude, 1870