Aristotle and the Devices of Tyranny

In Book VII, we leave Aristotle on a terrible note, where he, like many a Greek, advises society to do things that sound dreadful to modern ears, such as exposing infants who have deformities. Eyugh. Mercy was not necessarily a virtue for Aristotle or others.

Students often ask me why I stay fascinated by the Greeks of 2000 years ago. There’s a lot to talk to about; for one, you understand our language much better if you know Greek and Latin.

And second…King Priam and Achilles…you got to be kidding me if you can’t read that and learn something abut the human condition.

Third, reading classical literature in its original language is now somewhat subversive, a smack in the eye towards where the university is going, which is becoming one giant business school where “The Knowledge That Matters” is the “Knowledge that Might Pay if You Please Your Corporate Masters Well Enough.” Learning a living language, which is a fine thing, for sure, and to be encouraged, can always be rationalized and instrumentalized: “Oh, you can work for This Industry if you know That Language.” Maybe I’d just like to make it easier to talk to my friends from Africa, or I’d like my brain to work better. For me.

Finally, ancient Greece and Roman are nice comparisons, and really attempting to learn those similarities and differences between the way they thought and they way we think has rewarded me again and again. You go into reading the ancients thinking that it’s all different; there’s no way that a people who, as a matter of routine, advocated for the death of deformed babies. And then you go through and read the material and find, again and again, writing which is utterly contemporary. Those moments are when I feel like I might actually catch a rare glimpse of the ideas that might actually be universal to humanity. It happens when I read a novel by an Indonesian writer, and it happens when I read those long dead.

As I finish off my special study if Aristotle, one little bit from Book V in the Politics that has to make one think about America of the past 30 years:

And it is a device of tyranny to make the subjects poor, so that a guard may not be kept, and also that the people being busy with their daily affairs may not have leisure to plot against their ruler. Instances of this are the pyramids in Egypt and the votive offerings of the Cypselids, and the building of the temple of Olympian Zeus by the Pisistratidae and of the temples at Samos, works of Polycrates (for all these undertakings produce the same effect, constant occupation and poverty among the subject people); and the levying of taxes, as at Syracuse (for in the reign of Dionysius the result of taxation used to be that in five years men had contributed the whole of their substance). Also the tyrant is a stirrer-up of war, with the deliberate purpose of keeping the people busy and also of making them constantly in need of a leader. Also whereas friends are a means of security to royalty, it is a mark of a tyrant to be extremely distrustful of his friends, on the ground that, while all have the wish, these chiefly have the power. Also the things that occur in connection with the final form of democracy are all favorable to tyranny—dominance of women in the homes, in order that they may carry abroad reports against the men, and lack of discipline among the slaves, for the same reason; for slaves and women do not plot against tyrants, and also, if they prosper under tyrannies, must feel well-disposed to them, and to democracies as well (for the common people also wishes to be sole ruler). Hence also the flatterer is in honor with both—with democracies the demagogue (for the demagogue is a flatterer of the people), and with the tyrants those who associate with them humbly, which is the task of flattery.

ZOMGosh! All that democracy, letting the wimmens control the house! Where will it end? And yet there’s a bunch of wisdom here, too, about the role of poverty in keeping people controlled, and the use of war as a means to isolate and control one’s own people.

One advantage of reading the Greek, as slow-going as it is for me, is that you get all Aristotle’s good misogyny words. Here he uses the phrase γυναικοκρατια τε περι τ`ας `οικιας for the “The rule of woman in the households”…γυναικοκρατια is even an ugly world in Greek, made even more so by that double K in the middle. Women in charge! Horrors.

Fortunately we seem highly unlikely from having to fret too much about that, 2,300 years later.

Hitler, Mussolini analogies are more important than Godwin’s Law leads one to think

I took a long time to respond to a FBoo post this morning and I decided to turn it into a blog post.

So the new round of “let’s incessantly discuss a certain celebrity candidate” seems to involve people dismissing analogies to Mussolini and Hitler because of Godwin’s Law.

Now, I really do like Mike Godwin’s writing, and he did us a solid by giving us a shorthand term to something one of my mentors credited to Michael Walzer: you can prove anything you want using Hitler. Walzer’s point was that Hitler was so extreme, and so terrifies us, that any moral argument you want to make either dominates or falls apart around analogies to Hitler. Why? Because most moral arguments concern about general conditions, about behavior in every life, society, or politics, and they are not about the extremes (unless one is Kant, and unless one has never read Wittgenstein or Rorty.) Now, I like to use extremes to bound arguments and use them as thought experiments, but they are often much less useful than we want them to be.

That said, I really do not want Godwin’s law to shame people away from thinking about or even invoking Hitler.

First of all, most people are not sufficiently versed in either a) politics or b) European History to make claims about what is or isn’t fascism in detail. Of course Donald Trump is not Hitler or Mussolini—those guys already lived, and every politician is a product of their time, place, etc. But people are afraid of Hitler, Mussolini, and fascism for damn good reasons including 1) their ascent to power was incremental, opportunistically drew on both sides of the political spectrum, and easier than I suspect anybody would have predicted it to be; and 2) the consequences should be unimaginable, but unfortunately are not. So in general, I am happy enough letting people dwell on Hitler, trying to figure out where the lines are between individualism and collectivism, patriotism and nationalism, etc etc.

I think it’s very, very dangerous to get into a comfortable model of thinking that “It can’t happen here.” The fact that people are worried about it happening…it’s good that people worry, that they use Hitler as a chastening idea. No, I don’t think you should let people get away with just throwing out the label and moving on–FoxNews looooooves to label people Nazis, and they of course associate Nazis wth lefties. This neither accurate or fair; I think they would have more grounds to do so with Mussolini and the Italian fascists who did start from the left, but both men exploited the fears of the right and the utopian desires of progressives simultaneously, so I have trouble sorting who is to blame. (Hint: lots of people; that’s one of the problems that should make our hearts stop with fear when we look at it closely. )

So all that said, I see definite fascistic tendencies in Trump’s style and rhetoric, and those deserve scrutiny, if only as a means to learn more about fascism as a political phenomenon.

Things I see in Trump that reflect elements of historical fascism, based on my read of the various histories I’ve read over the years:

  • Trump’s “enemy within” narrative based on derogative ethnic stereotypes;
  • his prelapsarian narratives about about how a once-great nation has now just turned into a giant mess who needs a strong man to fix it;
  • He emphasizes metaphors and emotions over practical arguments or reason. Every effective leader mixes these forms of rhetoric to varying degrees, and that is not a problem in my mind (Remember: “Hope”) but fascistic leaders emphasized emotions to the extreme, even becoming violent or belligerent if somebody questions their impressionistic claims about the world based on other ways of knowing or communicating;
  • Trump, like fascist leaders before him, exploits and inflames fears about foreigners;
  • He’s absolutely in his element in front of a large crowd; he’s masterful in front of his rallies, and he makes damn sure that anybody who might heckle, shame, disrupt or best him in front of that crowd is disciplined, either by encouraging his followers to be violent or using security to shut them down.
  • He openly brags about the extra-legal things he wants to do as president (like torture) and revels in the cheers that ensue, thereby creating opportunities to legitimate lawlessness.

Some of these are really scary and people are not being weenies with their concerns. If he convinced enough generals to go along with him…he could lead us to some damn dark places. Any leader can if we don’t critically examine what we are doing.

THAT’S WHY POLITICS IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE, and not some dirty word you think yourself somehow “above” because you’d rather focus on your family, your job, and your friends. If good people eschew politics, the people who step into the vacuum left are often not the people we want there.

I see Robert Paxton is getting quite a bit of press on this. He has somewhat overlapping, somewhat different views on Trump as a fascist you can see here.

Bibliography

Paxton, R. The Anatomy of Fascism.

Payne, Stanley G. Fascism: Comparison and Definition.

‘Splaining versus deliberation

I’ve been taking a little break from Aristotle this week to read more in the post-democracy theories in political science, and this literature is making me miss Aristotle. Not because it’s bad theory, by any means; it’s a very good set of ideas, quite useful for trying to understand planning, but, man, is it depressing. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s had that effect on me.

It’s particularly interesting during this presidential election season and the difficulties of mass deliberation via the Internet, where pundit after pundit has made broad statements about who should appeal to whom. These difficulties are too numerous to count, but one has simply been the tendency to confuse “splaining” with deliberation. The former is a cute term that has emerged from the resistance to power and privilege grabbing the role of “knower” and explaining to the lesser, marginal person what’s what because, of course, knowers know and dumb wommins and peoples with different skin tones and young peoples and old peoples just don’t know, not at all. Whether it’s liberals deciding that people who support Trump are idiots, Bernie Bros talking down to blacks about why they should like Bernie more than Hillary, or George Will condescending to Millennials who support Sanders because they “don’t remember the Soviet Union” as he conflates democratic socialism with Soviet-style communism…it’s all the same behavior, and it reflects a fundamental lack of humility on the part of the writer/speaker and a disrespect toward voters.

Deliberation, by contrast, involves exploration and reaching out to understand what other people know, what they understand, and how they view the candidates. Deliberation means taking responsibility for what you think candidates’ ideas represent and the consequences of those ideas for different policies and groups. I don’t think Donald Trump will work for working people, but others think he will. Why do they think that? I have no idea, but I would like to.

For the record, I do have major problems with the incivility Trump has brought into the campaign, and I can be very hard on civility as virtue in other contexts. The refrain we see quoted over and over about how Trump “Tells it like it is” strikes me as a juvenile and self-indulgent rationalization for “Trump hates all the people I do and I like that he has the power to insult them.” There is no political or social value to the slurs he has slung at women and people of color–none whatsoever. Liberty does not mean license, and nobody’s free speech is really impinged when a person is asked to be responsible, or kind, with what they say and how they say it. People running around the world whining about political correctness have done jack diddly to evidence that anybody has really suffered in any material way, let alone being jailed in the manner of real repression, from being asked to say “chair” instead of “chairman.”

Leaders should set a better tone than he has, no matter what you think about the policy implications of the ideas or the man himself. I loathed Ronald Reagen’s policies, but I admired what I saw of the man in his interpersonal conduct. I disliked many of Bill Clinton’s policies and disliked what I knew of him intensely. I didn’t like the way he seemed to treat people around him, at all.

I myself have wondered a great deal about Trump’s appeal, and I’ve not seen a single, convincing explanation from anybody–not from political science or popular press of “this is what his supporters are thinking.” The wonderful thing about perceived political outsiders, like Trump, is that you can make them into anything you want to in your mind. So the refrain of “he’ll do things differently” and “he won’t be beholden to elites” is fine, but we have no real idea what he will do as president because he doesn’t have a governing record to extrapolate from. We might try to import his managerial style from his business life into what we might envision him to be as a governing executive, but there are many instances of people who are successful leaders and managers in one context who do not flourish in other contexts.

One idea I have circled around has to do with all this reading in post-democracy. Celebrities tend to do very well in elections (not governance, but elections), whether it is Schwarzenegger, Reagen, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Ben Jones, Jesse Ventura, or, now, Donald Trump. I am not clear why, but it may have to do with the ready-made platform of celebrity; I know less than I would like to about the phenomenon of celebrity politics. In a post-democratic America, in a Baudrilliardian sense of the word, people perhaps believe that elites govern, and that’s that, and whoever they elect to the “big chair” will be dropped into that mire–and thus, they perceive that it doesn’t matter who gets elected. At least with celebrities, that person is entertaining.

Aristotle on whether Black voters should vote for Bernie or Hill

Charles Blow breaks it down in his column Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters. Just read it.

But here:

Tucked among all this Bernie-splaining by some supporters, it appears to me, is a not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage that I find so grossly offensive that it boggles the mind that such language should emanate from the mouths — or keyboards — of supposed progressives.

I wish I could write like that. Oh, and just shut your gobbyhole or keep your fingers quiet unless you are pointing out resources to read, ideas, data, or otherwise being useful. Deliberating a candidate’s position is quite different than telling somebody what their interests are or should be, particularly when a group of people, say, Black folks, have been telling us what their interests are for a long damn time and decidedly few mainstream political candidates have done much to listen or act on those interests. Some Black people continue to tell us about their interests with Black Lives Matter: how’s about we clean up the justice shitshow that are the innumerable police departments and practices that kill off Black people and let their killers go free?

That is an interest. And it’s being stated clear enough.

This kind of talking down happens frequently to voters; rural voters are dumb, and they don’t vote their interests, yada yada. It’s just exceptionally bad when Bernie supporters do it to Black voters because progressives should know better.

Lots of people seem to vote their values rather than their interests, or their pocketbook. And people’s interests and values change over time.

Even if you are voting your interests, Blow is also correct that many other judgements also influence how individuals evaluate leadership. It’s not just who has your interests in his or her heart: it’s also who might be able and willing to deliver. Good leadership is difficult, and thus evaluating good leadership is also difficult. And the future is a place and time we don’t know as much about as we’d like to.

There is so much good political theory on interests and representation that I don’t even know where to begin to list. One nice paper from Theodore Banditt (that I unfortunately can’t find a free pdf of) systematically lays out the various ways that political philosophers have described interest, and that one gets us a good reading list.

On to Aristotle and interests: In the Politics he notes that people are not good judges of interests when their own interests are in question, and it’s a good insight. I’m using the Rackham translation:

For instance, it is thought that justice is equality, and so it is, though not for everybody but only for those who are equals; and it is thought that inequality is just, for so indeed it is, though not for everybody, but for those who are unequal; but these partisans strip away the qualification of the persons concerned, and judge badly. And the cause of this is that they are themselves concerned in the decision, and perhaps most men are bad judges when their own interests are in question.

That last bit gets me–καὶ κρίνουσι κακῶς–“and judge badly.” Aristotle is a bit of a grind to read in Greek, at least for me, but this little addition makes me smile even in the original. You could also translate κακῶς as “wrongly”, but “badly” adds more punch to the English translation. κακῶς is a problem for me here, as it appears often in Greek, in both ancient text and New Testament, and like the English word “Bad”, it can mean quite a bit, ranging from evil to incompetence. Those, and just about everything in the range between them, are “bad” in English or get described as κακῶς in Greek. The context here suggests that κακῶς means incompetently.

He goes on to discuss what he has said in the EN before:

because men are bad judges where they themselves are concerned, but also, inasmuch as both parties put forward a plea that is just up to a certain point, they think that what they say is absolutely just.

People go wrong in their judgements of what just and what is equal because their interests blind them to other factors that matter in the adjudication of who is “equal” and what is “just.”

Bernie supporters want the Black vote, and thus the Black vote should vote with Bernie supporters.

Was Ronald Reagan America’s Pinkerton? USC Bedrosian discussion of Reagen’s White House

Our policy wonks read Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw At the Revolution , and we sat down to discuss it a few weeks ago. On the resulting podcast are USC Bedrosian faculty, staff, and students: Raphael Bostic, Donnajean Ward, Matt Young, and me.

I listened to our discussion the other day and came to two conclusions: 1) I get very boisterous discussing books and 2) I have always rather thought of Reagen a lot like the Pinkerton character in Madame Butterfly. Pinkerton is not, per se, a bad man. He is very charming, and he is courtly in his affections for Butterfly. But he ruins her anyway because he’s not a careful man, nor is he a thoughtful man. Even at the end, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that coming back to Butterfly, new wife in hand, to take her boy away will take everything Butterfly loves and give her no reason to live. This isn’t a merely cross-cultural blindness on Pinkerton’s part. At some point, all that stops being the winsome charm of a simple, devil-may-care fellow and starts being an unforgivable obtuseness in his character about the way the world works and what other people need.

And that’s a little how I feel about the Reagan legacy. Conservatives revere him as this marvelous leader who emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous 1960s to ‘make America great again.’ If Trump’s slogan sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a constant drumbeat for conservatives. Conservatives are in thrall to imagined past that was simple, clear, and linear, and so much better than today, and we could have that again, if only we did things differently, and progressives are in thrall to an imagined future where things could be so much better than today, if only we do these other things differently.

Nonetheless, when I think of Reagan I think of a truly charismatic leader that, by “simplifying” the issues, led us to two legacies just as socially and economically disastrous as anything the 1960s might have wrought:

1) Americans shouldn’t have to pay taxes at the same time they should engage in lots of foreign policy brinkmanship and intervention; and

2) A dollar spent on a social investment in an American is a hand-out to a unproductive person, and, thus, that is a dollar wasted. Rather, if we all just pull together and smile enough, things like need will go away with jes’ a l’il o’ that American gumption and go-gettiness.

Those two led major influences that Reagan legitimized, even if he didn’t invent them, have led the US into crippling levels of unproductive spending and unwillingness to have any serious discussion about social investments at all.

The first impression has led us into one, very expensive foreign entanglement after another, which leads to the US taking on what have turned out to be unproductive spending in blood and treasure. The second influence led to decades where social policy discussions were either one-sidedly stupid or nonexistent, which led to conditions where the possibilities for health care expansion allowed older Americans and the health sector to benefit, while younger Americans got less and less investment, and while I certainly do not want elderly people to be impoverished or to suffer ill health, dollars spent at the end of life are not at all the same economic investment as those made in young people.

And we can’t discuss either of these issues without people running around like their fannies are fire and yelling “SOCIALISM SOCIALISM SOCIALISM FACISM ERMERGERD FACISM YOU ARE JUST LIKE NAZI GERMANS.”

Bostic, in leading the discussion, seemed to want to discuss management; I wanted to discuss policy, and we seesaw the discussion back and forth in the discussion. I agree entirely that Reagan was a wonderful leader who did a great job at many things as president. But I also abhor the policy influences of that leadership. Trump has said, again and again, that people do not care about policy. I clearly do. Which leads me to some questions:

1. Do people vote for individuals trusting that their character is fine, and if that character is in general what they want it to be (in Reagen’s case, seemingly friendly, fatherly, determined, decisive, old-fashioned, decent) is that enough to say that a leader did his job by being those things? Was it enough for Reagan to make people feel hopeful again and to make them love America? That itself can’t have been easy.

2. Or do people–should people–vote for parties based on platforms, even though few people seem to know what platforms are and what they are for, and even though presidential leadership may lead far from platforms?

3. Or should people realize that the individual leaders they see standing on the stage come with a whole host of people. The people running for office aren’t just individuals, they are organizations. In Reagan’s case, that nice old man came equipped a horde of Chicago School Friedman’s acolytes whose dogma was “taxes baaaaaaaaad, markets goooooood” and hawks who believed themselves above democratic scrutiny in the name of democratic security, willing to experiment with the Laffer idea and other trickle-down theories without ever–ever–revisiting their policy experiments for potential failures once we had empirical results on the tax cuts? Is he responsible for them because he gave them “grandpa” cover? I rather think so.

For more of my discussion of the problems with doubling down on Laffer

Coates and the case for reparations

Ta-Nehisi Coates published an excellent explanation of the case for reparations to African Americans in the Atlantic. Here is the original article, which is excellent, except for the quote from Deuteronomy (read the quote from Locke instead) and here is a link to Coates discussing the contribution with Bill Moyers.

Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,” Clyde Ross told me. “It’s because of then.” In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated “Black Wall Street.” The past was not the past to them. “It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,” Ogletree told me. “I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, ‘We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”

For instances above, there is no real principled objection. I doubt we’ll ever manage to pull ourselves together enough to pay reparations for slavery; there are too many people in America whose families came long after slavery ended, and it’s too easy for people to get sidetracked on–as they have in the comments–the distance between those wrongs and contemporary conditions. But there are survivors and families that remember the many wrongs committed against African Americans that Coates outlines; we aren’t taking about paying money to the 5th generation removed of former slaves. In these instances, we still have people alive and their children who themselves lived through sharecropping, the slave labor of southern prisons, and property seizure; and we still have people alive who participated in those wrongs. There’s no principle of justice that denies them compensation for the real economic loss that these wrongs inflicted.

Blair Kelley over at the Root has collected a nice set of links to prior research on reparations, as well. He finishes with:

After all, how might we account for the cost of the scars Callie House wore on her back, the price of the terror of a lynched son or the value of a mortgage never granted? How could we begin to calculate the costs?

Actually, Randall Robinson attempted to get there with his book, published in 2001 but still in print, called The Debt. The point of reparations is that we can’t ever really compensate for the terror of a lynched son, and we know that. If we were just trying to cover economic loss, the gesture would be compensation–not reparation. The point of reparation is to acknowledge the wrongs have both a social and economic aspect, and that you aren’t walking away from either by a) flinging a check at somebody’s feet and walking off or b) apologizing and walking off…but sticking around, facing the wrong, and trying to recover.