3.23.2010

Mizpah, Mizpah, Mizpah...

I've been really struggling to stay engaged in the "mainstream" of contemporary political and cultural discourse for the past year or so. I can't say whether this has to do with moving to the Bible Belt, or with having a child, or whether I just have good rational reasons for my alienation. In any case, with the exception of my academic papers, which necessarily have to be acceptable to an academic audience, I'm about through with that audience.

It's not a matter of despair--this pulling away isn't the result of a frustration or anything like that. I just don't share the fundamental values of mainstream academics. Phrases like "progress" and "social justice" really are empty phantasms to me. All of the talk about ethics and moral obligation--most of it generated by French atheists--seems so much prattle and masturbation to me now.

Even in the realm of religious discourse, I have difficulty going along with the academic interpretations. We may look at Acts 4, the same text, together:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
But where my progressive friends see a progressive political movement there, I see an unlegislated, anarcho-libertarian groundswell of moral sentiment.

See it's not that I disagree on the ends, or even the means; I disagree on the definitions. When you say "Justice," you think in terms of tax dollars and collective enterprise and large-scale shifts in culture. I only think of having the patience to stay an extra half-hour after office hours, without complaining or resenting, because a student is running late. You think of injustice abroad; I think of it in myself. Whereas most academics take voting very seriously, as the highest kind of moral question, I'm aloof with Thoreau:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.
Maybe it's not even that we disagree, but only that I'm tired of talking about it. Somewhere--I know I've read this--Socrates says something like, "A little philosophy in a man's youth is a good thing; but too much into adulthood can be a detriment." Or better still, take my friend's not-ironic-enough quote from John Locke:
Be sure not to let your son be bred up in the art and formality of disputing, either practicing it himself, or admiring it in others; unless, instead of an able man, you desire to have him an insignificant wrangler, opiniator in discourse, and priding himself in contradicting others; or which is worse, questioning everything, and thinking there is no such thing as truth to be sought, but only victory in disputing.
For Wrangler, that's funny and old-fashioned. From my view, it's crystalline wisdom. Fundamental, foundational, disagreements, everywhere I look. I guess I feel like I'll be on my way now, off to practice what I sought for so long. I wrote an aphorism once that went: "The Devil loves to talk about ethics." In an effort to avoid falling into that very trap, I'm going to clam up for a while.

I've blogged something like a thousand pages in the past six years. I have six readers to show for it. Ya'll know what I think by now.

[Leaving myself room for flex: if I do return, the content will probably be a little annoying... pictures of my baby, personal stories, reflections on my spiritual practice, announcements about my church, etc.]

7 comments:

pure_sophist_monster said...

What is the blogosphere equivalent of hemlock?

Pax Rhetorica.

Ed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wishydig said...

"You think of injustice abroad; I think of it in myself."

this belief is your worst.

Casey said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Michael. I'll work on it.

Kevin said...

"You think of injustice abroad; I think of it in myself."

This belief is your best.

Burke is quite good on this point (in a passage I cannot now find). Dostoyevsky nails this, both in his political 'Devils' (in which locates the source of failed political systems in individual sin)and in this fine bit from "Brothers..."


"I love Humanity...but the more I love Humanity in general, the
less I love man in particular. In my dreams...I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of Humanity...and yet....it has always happened that the more I detest men individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity."

Dostoyevsky saw this 'telescopic virtue'--a virtue that begins, not with responsibilities, but demands--which begins not as a critique of oneself, but in accusations launched at 'the world'--that is, at others--as a necessary element for full-blow 'Socialism'. The Socialist, after all, needs Humanity to trump humans. For he can only do good for Humanity by first doing things TO individual people (because such moralists offer the assets of others in the name of charity, they must first justify taking them--i.e. in order to do FOR he must first do TO).

He (Dosty) also foresaw that, at its worst, telescopic virtue never alights--too lofty for that!--i.e. one can enslave each individual person in the name of Society, The People, the Democratic Republic of.... or some erstwhile 'ethical' entity equally empty. Of course, not all telescopic virtue goes that far...but then, not all acorns grow to be oaks either--so that is hardly an argument for this particular acorn. Anyway... Dostoyevsky takes his cues from Jesus here, (as, I think, Emerson does) who simply had no time for System, and recognized that ethics, if it is not to become monstrous, machinelike-- has to be anchored in face-to-face relations.

So much for Dostoyevsky. For my part, any ethical outlook which begins by looking at oneself and one's own responsibilities to this or that particular person is a step away from telescopic virtue and its machinery and a step towards ethical health.

fenhopper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wishydig said...

it's nice to see, kevin, that you want to support casey in his primary
goal, to search for injustice in himself, and turn to justice in
himself.

i support that too.

but i know many of the people he's talking about, and i've always
disagreed with his occasional belief that they don't do the same.

he might even occasionally say that of me. that, i have no business
disagreeing with.