Friday, June 22, 2012

Unpolitical political reflections

A lot of things I am brooding about, requiring to be spoken about all at once, but hard to be kept within the bounds of a post.

Things that happen. Europe in shambles. The failing American leadership at home and abroad.

Here it is a good summary of the European  crisis by an Italian journalist:
Crises have this of grand and terrible: unveil simulacra, rags flying all over. In few month this one dissolved the illusion of a unique money without government, without politics, without a common soul. All the elites appear worn out and peoples come back on the scene. With their memory and passion, their diffidence and grudge. Cultural and anthropological prejudices came back, and with them hatred. Come back national characters, to which global economy and the universal drive to consumption didn’t make a scratch.
Vainly POTUS complains for the repercussions the European crisis can have on American recovery (which one?), and urges European leaders to put their sheets together, so to say. Funny: the European crisis is undoubtedly endogenous, due to a common currency created without adequate institutional support in the ECB; but it was triggered from the United States, and it can't be said, in all honesty, that sheets there have been properly put together.

Out of metaphor, as far as the economy goes, POTUS doesn’t seems to know better than the European leaders. Moreover, he was elected as the harbinger of new hope, but it looks like he forgot that you can’t have hope without faith (and charity). So, once in office, he behaved like a father who knows best and is irritated when the children question his doings. Let the grownups work, he seemed to say, and have faith that they know what is good for you, and what to do about it. But people are not children, and, even with children in their process of growing up, it isn’t this the way that faith functions. It rather functions by inspiring people in knowing what is good by themselves, and empowering them to act on their own. It’s such an empowering that makes us speak of leadership.
There are, besides, books I’m reading, somehow bearing on what happens.

It has been sitting in my shelves for decades a book by the famous German writer Thomas Mann, Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, written in the last years of the First World War. I hadn’t picked it up again since I bought it and made a cursory reading of it. Not much remained in me from this reading, but when I was recently invited to speak about the “crisis of civilization”, I remembered it made a distinction between “civilization” and “culture”. So I took it, I dusted it, and read it again. And I was amazed by what I found.

Mann defended in that book the cause of Germany, over against other German writers and publicists who sided for France and England. It is ironic that the Germany of which Mann made the apology was at the end defeated with the help of Woodrow Wilson’s America, while later that same internal opposition which he lamented was to reproduce itself just the same precisely in America. A lot has happened in the meantime, circumstances have somewhat changed, but it remains the same opposition of two Europes, by now more evident in the USA than in the EU, with artists writers and publicists – today we should add TV and movie stars – blaming their country for all kind of evils, doing harm to an innocent  world. Mann called them literati of civilization

Amazing how the reasons of that old war in Mann’s account are the same of the angry partisanship that pervades our society, to the point (as I have often stressed in my posts) of a creeping civil war. Unvarying is the character of the parties involved, today like then. Mann put in evidence a different attitude toward the humanity common to all people. The literati of civilization criticize the traditional culture of their country for its discriminations, opposing to it an immediate claim of universal humanity to be implemented by political action: if people left to themselves tend to discriminate, so goes their reasoning, their human equality should be enforced by law. On the other side the same claim of universality is not immediate, but mediated by the appeal to that very culture in which the equal dignity of all men was affirmed.

Do I need to say on which side I stand, because true to the human condition? Without a cultural inheritance, we wouldn’t know how to discriminate what is equal and in what, as well as what is different and in what. Discriminating by itself is not a bad thing, it’s nothing else than judgment, the only difficulty being how to judge right. Indiscriminately opposing discrimination engenders a reign of confusion: tyrannically enhanced by the way of laws that confuse equality and justice, to ensure equality among… can I say men, or should I say people?

Another book I am reading came here to the fore as a possible description of the present situation: the Apokalypse of John. But on this I won’t add more.
At risk of sounding presumptuous, I think that our Western world, so called, is collapsing under utter intellectual confusion. Things that should be unifying – religion, law, science – are divisive, divided in themselves and set one against the other. Should I make a total description of the situation? Even this would fall under the effect of division. Books are there like on the stands of a super bookstore, to be picked up at will by different people to appeal to them in their claims. They make so different sets of “scriptures”, which some maintain as such, others mention just as harbingers of evidences.

The result? The vanishing of any public understanding of human affairs for which it could be claimed the name of science. Thus, because of this lack of a scientific understanding of things human, we are even incapable of agreement on what is that makes really “scientific” those human affairs that are the disciplines undoubtedly accredited as such, i.e. physics chemistry and biology.

An example? Well, the easiest one is that of evolution, which some oppose on the basis of the traditional creation doctrine drawn from the Bible, while for others it doesn’t even seem in need of defending. So if one – like myself – asks the latter for demonstrations of how evolution explains the present state of things, risks to obtain a spurning answer, and be branded as a backward denier of the scientific progress brought about by Darwin and his neo-Darwinian followers, with their books.

I could multiply the examples, so to cover the whole of the contemporary cultural positions in their confusion. But perhaps I can do without it, and limit myself to the core problem I recognize in that one example, as representative of the general question afflicting us: to fill the gap between our present subjective experience and the objective discourses we make to account for it, i.e. the gap between what we call “physical anthropology” and “cultural anthropology”. The latter speaks about men’s experience of coming to light and being educated in society; the first of men as biological organisms, identified as such independently from any social belonging. The theory of evolution should fill this gap, by accounting for how men passed from one state (called of “nature”) to the other (of “society” or “culture”). But it does no more than state what we knew already, that somehow it happened. That’s why I think that it is utterly unscientific – by whatever criterion of science we take.  

To say it bluntly, evolutionism hasn’t represented an evolution from myth to science, but, if anything, a return from science to myth. I know well that by saying so I have alienated possible readers who think otherwise, but, if they have counterarguments to propose, I am, however skeptical, available to listen to their reasons. I am afraid though that they wouldn’t be available in the same way, and would simply scorn me for refusing to recognize established scientific evidence: which is a way not to take into consideration the possibility that it might not be such. Because of this I speak of a return to myth. Like with the myths of old (otherwise a very respectable thing), a story is told to account for “us”, in the way “we” are today: in Mann’s words, all literati of civilization.

The point of contention remains hidden: i.e. the authority claimed in the name of “scriptures”, and by which “scriptures” themselves are inspired, being left out of reflection. The result is that the decision among different authorities is not reached through civil discourse, but it is left to the voting mechanism. By which are expressed preferences, variously determined by a rhetoric of an essentially sentimental appeal.

Funny, if we think that the idea of science was introduced by Plato precisely by submitting to a rational discrimination the different opinions on the right way of living. 



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If you ever decided to sell that Mann book, I am very interested.

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