Of Mice and Men and Other Things

Of Mice and Men and Other Things

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on June, 2011)

A Preamble

There are many fearful and wonderful things, but none is more fearful and wonderful than man. He makes his path over the storm-swept sea and harries old Earth with his plough. He takes the wild beasts captive and turns them into his servants. He has taught himself speech and wind-swift thought, and the habits that pertain to government. Against everything that confronts him he invents some resource – against death alone he has no resource. Antigone, Sophocles

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard

No philosophy of political or social institutions can be complete without articulating the philosophy of the subject. Hence this postscript to a recent series of sketches, “In Defense of Anarchism,” a four-part series.

I

True faith is a child of desperation born of human betrayal — desperation whose source is general human untrustworthiness realized. (“In God We Trust,” not in man, so says our legal tender.) And it’s no different with courage, itself an offspring of faith and a true measure thereof! 

Both result in emotional alienation, having to live one’s life in an emotional desert populated with humans. Couple this now with the alienation of the intellect, and the circle is nearly complete. I call it alienation of the spirit. 

Hegel was on the right track, trying to imbue statehood with the quality of the Spirit. The ideal he was after approximated the Kingdom of God.

Alienation, whether emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, is the natural condition of humankind. Durkheim called it anomie and identified it as the major cause of suicide. If you haven’t tasted it, you haven’t arrived!

Ayn Rand’s grave error was to accentuate the heroic at the expense of the tragic. By positing the individual vs. the collective as the battlefield of ideas, her characters were all too predictable and writ large. John Galt wasn’t a suffering hero, let alone a suffering servant, but a conqueror, glory and all, the stuff from which fairytales are made of. Like Hannah Arendt before her, Rand was overreacting to the evils of totalitarianism.

The atheist makes the same mistake. In taking the God concept out of the equation and ridding the grand human narrative of the tragic, she reduces the human story to a truncated, if not banal, story of mere survival, aesthetically unsatisfying to boot.

Sorry, Mr. Hitchens, but Aeschylus and the Greek epics of old rate higher with me than your resoluteness and razor-sharp logic.

II

What’s an alienated being to do when faced with the sea of alienation? What’s the proper stance? One conception of freedom is to be able to choose and to be true to one’s purpose (Isaac Asimov, I, Robot).

Thus restated, the question becomes: What freedoms are available to us, and what purposes?

III

Ms. Athena has suggested two distinct, though not mutually exclusive, possibilities: a warrior and a medic.1

I have a problem with that. The notion of collective guilt (St. Augustine, Dostoyevsky) weighs heavily on me; so does the proverb, Physician, heal thyself!

Perhaps Ms. Athena can tell us how the sick can keep on tending the sick, for I’d be all ears. To make her task easier, let’s make a crucial distinction between perfect love and less-than-perfect care. 

The former is predicated on one’s exclusion from the community. Not so with the latter! So yes, the warrior part — the role, the job description, etc. — is becoming more enticing by the minute. 

Besides, I know about the banality of evil. Resisting it comes naturally to me.

IV

An impeccable warrior

Again, one’s membership in the community, or non-membership, as the case may be, appears the decisive factor: non-membership makes perfection possible while membership seems to preclude it. 

But then again, perhaps being a warrior doesn’t call for the same kind of perfection as being a medic. Perhaps the requirements are less stringent. Either way, perfection seems possible, but only once you’re outside the community. Once you’re a part of it, you’re tainted. 

That’s why a terrorist, a modern-day term for an outlaw of old — think of the Robin Hood legend! — can be perfect in ways that a warrior cannot. He can be perfect in his love or hate of the community, just as God is perfect, while we humans, as willing or unwilling participants, cannot.

V

Giorgio Agamben had once remarked that no democracy is worth protecting or saving. And that if it needs either, it’s no longer a democracy.

Hold this thought if you dare. No people is worth protecting; no community, no human society, if it cannot stand on its own two feet. The same goes for individuals, wayward individuals.

The immediate implications of this philosophy are not only staggering but downright abhorrent. They argue against the natural inclination in all of us — against unconditional love and empathy. Being your brother’s keeper is one thing; tough love, the conservative’s rendition of the parable of the prodigal son, is another. To date, the latter carries a force not easily dispensed with.

VI

The moral may well be that while empathy is a lifelong stance, it’s not a fuzzy warm feeling in the pit of your stomach. I’d like to compare it to mercy as it relates to justice. It’s a mitigating factor, that’s all!

Everything else being equal, all are equally responsible and equally complicit for being beholden to artificial values, for in so doing, we’re only perpetuating human misery. Alternatively, one could speak here of varying degrees of guilt.

VII

That’s why I don’t hold material disparity as the greatest of all evils. Sure, it’s a by-product of human injustice, of putting oneself above all others, but so is everything else that’s wrong with the world. 

Besides, material parity is no guarantee that everything will be set aright. It’s not any precondition either, nor is there any reliable evidence to support the contention that individuals who have attained it will be morally superior in any discernible way. It’s the spiritual impoverishment, I contend, which lies at the root of the human malaise, and the symptoms are myriad. 

Apropos of wealth and riches, perhaps Aristotle had it right in that wealth’s value consisted of one’s ability to share it. The emphasis was on sharing. If it’s not shared, if it doesn’t contribute to the community’s general well-being, it’s nothing!

To amplify perhaps, it’s our relationship to wealth that seems to lie at the root of most of our social problems; and one could speak here of white-collar/corporate crime and ordinary crime as well. In the first instance, the motive is pure greed, enabled and made manifest by conditions that allow, if not promote, abuse of power. In the second, deprivation — the state of being excluded by the same system from all meaningful participation in communal well-being.

VIII

Diversity of views, opinions, and outlooks is a fact of life; tolerance of diversity, our greatest strength. Pluralism and tolerance of pluralism were some of the principles upon which this nation was founded. E Pluribus Unum wasn’t an empty phrase with which to adorn our once-finest coins but a living truth. It’s only out of plurality that a true union can emerge. 

If you put uniformity before plurality before the latter works its wonders, the odds are you’re into parochialism — a self-serving outlook whose only purpose is to enhance the group’s cohesiveness by playing to its fears and narrowly-defined interests. We should be mindful of the false prophets, for they abound in every walk of life, from politicians to well-meaning preachers. 

“Factions” and “factional politics” were Madisonian terms, and he wasn’t speaking with approbation. A true union consists of, alas, it can only be forged by our acceptance, if not absorption, of all the relevant differences and moving on. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies remains a powerful antidote to Plato’s heavy-handed blueprint for an orderly society in The Republic.

IX

That’s, in essence, my vision of an anarchistic, self-regulated community. Self-regulated is the operative term here, for it defines what I mean by anarchism to a T. By self-regulated, I don’t mean a community that issues edicts, well-intentioned as they may be — edicts which may purport to benefit the community at large by reforming its most wayward members. 

Apart from the well-proven impracticality of such endeavors, it smacks of authoritarianism. And if there is anything an anarchistic community is not, it’s that. 

That’s why prohibition is out — the prohibition against alcohol, against drugs, against prostitution and pornography, against fast foods, and what else have you. All of which, I say, amounts to a form of protection/ism.

X

We’re all responsible adults, are we not? We’re all willing, not unwitting, consumers of the things that harm us, from the trinkets we buy at a five-and-dime store to the food we eat, the movies we watch, the drugs we take. What’s the point, then, of trying to protect us from ourselves unless the object is to emasculate us, to make us subservient to the dictates of the nanny-state or some other power? 

This proposition is antithetical to the very tenets of anarchistic philosophy. Education is the key. 

You don’t change a person by trying to stop them from harming themselves. You change them by demonstrating that the kinds of things they crave, the values they espouse, the things they hold dear, the sort of life to which they aspire and try to actualize, that all those things are artificial. You change them by demonstrating that each one of us is programmed to act in predictable ways, that we’re all puppets on a string, that the system’s very survival is contingent on our so acting, never questioning, always obeying.

Want a simple answer? Eliminate the need, and you’ll have gone a long way towards licking the problem by rendering the corrupt system null and void. It can’t function without your active participation or passive acquiescence.

XI

Contrary to a common misconception, an anarchistic community doesn’t consist of weaklings but of well-formed, self-reliant individuals. Of course, no community can be self-reliant if its members aren’t; the two go hand in hand. Individuals are transformed, not reformed, in the context of communal living (it takes a village to raise a child!), but so is the community itself when inspired by some of its members. 

It’s a two-way process, somewhat akin to trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps; no easy undertaking by any means. The object is to reach the critical mass reflecting the right kind of mindset.

Perhaps I’m unduly influenced here by Western philosophical tradition and peculiarly Western moral concepts, perhaps not. I disagree, however, with William E. Connolly, who, after Nietzsche, is willing to replace an ethic of command with one of cultivation. 

Nothing wrong with the latter, but Connolly is all too quick to reduce the gist of Greek moral teachings to Kant’s categorical imperative. I’d rather speak here of an ethic of virtue, already a dilution of sorts of the Greek term arête — the pursuit of excellence. And virtue is a transcultural quality, methinks.

Hence another descriptor for a would-be anarchistic, self-regulated community: it’s a virtuous community as well!

XII

I suppose I must respect the executive decision against ever revisiting the subject matter of the recent expulsion of a small number of writers from our Blogcritics midst, let alone discussing it at length. 

In any case, my hands are tied. Still, it makes me doubly grateful to the management for allowing me to make even this ill-defined, albeit topical, an allusion to these personae non-gratae while wrapping up my modest series of essays.

But seriously, folks, censorship has no place in the kind of community I envisage. One should hope that someday we shall all muster the necessary courage and live up to our trade name, our nom de plume. Meanwhile, I find it ironic that as we pride ourselves on being critical of virtually every subject under the sun, noticeable by its conspicuous absence is self-criticism. 

How can we hope to change the world if we can’t change ourselves?

XIII

Individual sovereignty and interdependence, personal freedoms and a sense of interconnectedness, empathy and accountability, a sense of community and a sense of self, tolerance of diversity while striving for unity — each forms the dialectic of a self-regulated, anarchistic community, the tension!

They ought to be our guiding principles as well.

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