Archives for category: Social Criticism

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems like old news, despite the fact that its consequences are a series of ongoing tragedies across the globe. However, the Iraq war is important because it represents the quintessential farce of American intervention abroad. Not because of the false pretenses that began the invasion, not because of the war profiteering of private mercenary companies and arms manufacturers, not because of oil market manipulation, not because of America’s previous support for the dictator, nor any other controversy that makes the doves among us shake our heads in disbelief. The farcical nature of the Iraq war is embodied in the trial of Saddam Hussein.

Maximilien Robespierre was a vocal member of the Jacobin Club during the French Revolution that overthrew King Louis the XVI, and boy, did he have opinions about overthrowing tyrants! In one instance, there was a movement to provide ol’ Louis with a trial. Robespierre had this to say:

When a nation has been forced to the right of insurrection, it returns to the state of nature in relation to the tyrant. How can the tyrant invoke the social pact? He has annihilated it. The nation can still keep it, if it thinks fit, for everything concerning relations between citizens; but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely where the tyrant is concerned; it places them reciprocally in a state of war. Courts and legal proceedings are only for members of the same side.

If government is the structure which defines the laws, and a government which is popularly considered illegitimate is put on trial under the basis of its own laws, a contradiction appears. Now, Robespierre is discussing the revolution within his own country, and America intervened in Iraq, which means that the laws to which the Iraqi government were held to account were not its own. A civilizing mission to instill sovereign democracy is founded upon an act that essentially removes Iraqi sovereignty by imposing foreign determination. Now, Saddam was tried by a tribunal of five Iraqi judges, but their biases make it unclear as to the extent of American persuasion. If there is none, the problem reverts to its original form. The idea of a lawful resolution in an act that is by definition unlawful is nonsensical, doubly-so when those intervening are associated with neither. Which brings us to point number two.

Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts. If it is for their salvation that they take arms against their oppressors, how can they be made to adopt a way of punishing them that would pose a new danger to themselves?

The very nature of a trial implies a possibility of innocence. If King Louis, and Saddam Hussein for that matter, could be innocent, then what of the revolution that deposed them? How many families incurred death and dismemberment for the innocence of their respective despot? The dyad of a revolution and a trial is paradoxical because one type of judgement cannot exist side by side next to the other. If the police needed to kill thousands of people (with varying degrees of culpability) in order to arrest one man, putting that man on trial would delegitimize the entire institution of policing. How could Iraq possibly be invaded if Saddam Hussein was presumed innocent, a necessity in any fair trial? In one stroke, a trial abolishes all validity of the revolution and essentially resurrects the rights of the tyrant.

But of course, the American invasion of Iraq wasn’t a revolution. It was a civilizing mission to bring democracy and human rights to a beleaguered people. Trials are civilized. If Saddam Hussein had simply been executed, it would have been nothing more than a coup. The story matters in order for the appearance of legitimacy to be maintained, even if the actions taken necessarily contradict that legitimacy. The War on Terror (with its apparent function of producing more terrorists) can continue under the guise of America’s benevolence, if a bit bungling at times. That is the story of America.

The interesting thing about Donald Trump and his administration is that the dog-whistle that has been an intricate part of American politics for so long has finally been abandoned. No longer are immigrants taking our jobs, they are wild bands of invading criminals, rapists, and animals. No longer do we need to frame Muslims as a binary between moderates and extremists, they are all extremists. No longer are countries invaded “for their own good,” but now it seems like Donald Trump is going to invade Venezuela just because he wants to.

Previously, Trump has stated explicitly that countries that receive the beneficence of American intervention should recuperate the country with oil. Perhaps now that he is president his rhetoric might have changed, but no. His pick for National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has gone on record saying that the goal in Venezuela is to get American oil companies investing in and producing Venezuelan oil. John Bolton, notably, replaced H.R. McMaster who was against military intervention in the region. I don’t want to say that the Iraqi invasion was solely about oil because I’m certainly no scholar on the subject and have seen conflicting accounts, but the invasion of Venezuela will be because those directing it have said it will. No more false pretenses, I suppose.

The veneer has finally been scratched away. The farce has reverted back to the tragedy. Given Trump’s propensity to say and do openly what was merely under the surface for so long, I’m curious if and when Venezuela is invaded, whether or not Maduro will get a trial.

When people think of Canada, they think of hockey, needless apologizing, and Tim Horton’s coffee because associating national identity with a corporation couldn’t possibly be the worst idea ever. None of these are things I would call “values,” however. Canadian values are a funny thing. Mostly because Canada is an abstract social construct that only has the meaning humanity gives it, and as a social construct, cannot actually have values. It’s like saying money has values. Usually this is why the concept of Canadian values doesn’t come up very often. The only people silly enough to consistently ascribe values to their nation are Americans, and that’s mostly due to the fact that America has been desperately trying to anthropomorphize itself throughout its entire history.

crying eagle

Things Americans value, as depicted by this image: weeping openly, nature, and destroying their own flag

But north of the border, we do try every now and again. Our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to dictate “shared values” that supersede any nationalistic urges, claiming that, “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice” are what unite us, rather than any hard-line Canadian identity. It sounds nice, right? I’m not Canadian because of any geographic truth about my birth and current living locale (the traditional construct of nation being the socially agreed upon borders drawn haphazardly across the globe which demarcate which laws you are compelled to follow), but now I’m Canadian because of my patriotic adherence to this list that Trudeau made up… or had written for him. Either way, it’s essentially nonsense.

However, when most people think about Canadian values, they think of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian Values Test” which would forbid any incoming immigrants and refugees from entry lest they agree to certain “values;” values presumably widely contrasted to any Liberal leader’s version of them. The lunacy of pan-Canadian values aside, people were mostly in favour of broad, incredibly vague, yet still hypocritical values being enforced at the border.

border crossing

We are open, compassionate, just, and respectful people. You need to be just like us in order to come in. (Yes, I know this is the American border under Trump. We have our own hypocrisies, they’re just more difficult to find in a Google Image Search relevant to immigrants or refugees)

Why is there pressure from political organizations to promote absolute values within the citizenry? It makes no sense from a practical viewpoint. Laws are the enforceable side of values, but nobody is going to go beyond that to enforce “openness” and “respect” as laws because more often than not those spouting these platitudes are those most likely to disregard them. They’re also impossible to define. Is it respectful to respect a woman’s right to choose, or to respect the life which began at conception? Values are individualistic and subjective to the point where they are entirely meaningless on any kind of macro scale.

Politicians and their pundits aren’t actually speaking about values when they discuss values because, as discussed, that is a meaningless prospect. What they are talking about is purity. Values aren’t the thing; everyone being the same is the thing. We want a country that is untainted by foreign aspects that will defile the sanctity of our nation. We only want those who are like us. We don’t want to be infested by those… types. If this sounds like dog-whistle racism, well, who can say?

purity

Can you imagine some foreign elements contaminating this water? Society is just like that. If anything foreign is introduced, it poisons us all. It’s not racism. This metaphor is incontrovertible.

Purity has its defenders. Jonathan Haidt suggests that the divide between conservatives and liberals is predicated on their different moral foundations. Liberals predominantly adhere to a creed of reducing harm and emphasizing fairness, while conservatives focus on harm and fairness as well, but introduce respect for authority, in-group coherence, and purity into their moral baseline. This is why the harrumphing about “values” usually comes from conservative talking points.

Except coming up with something that conservatives typically agree on and deciding that must make it “moral” (a surprisingly relativistic understanding of morality, considering the accusations of relativism usually come from the conservative aisle) isn’t ethically valid. Morality is the systemic regulation of our relationship to the Other. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas states that our individual freedom must justify itself in the face of the Other. “Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent.” All alone, morality cannot exist and our actions are infinitely free, but when we come across someone new, we realize that our actions mean something in a relationship, and the ignorance of that relationship can only be exploitative. Purity is the necessary exclusion of the Other. It literally cannot be a moral foundation because it precludes the very existence of a moral relationship.

people interacting

In order for me to interact morally with you, I need a “you” to interact with

Unfortunately, politicians bring up values to pander to immoral standards of social purity because they don’t want to talk about the stuff that actually matters: policy decisions. The more we’re all talking about abstract, unfounded notions of pan-national values, the less we’re talking about taxes, environmental policy, and the housing crisis. I don’t have to promise something that you can call me out on when I fail to deliver; I just need to stroke your underlying xenophobic fears, and I’ll get elected. All I need is the right kind of rhetoric. If my polling numbers go down, I can just ramp up the rhetoric because rhetoric doesn’t require any kind of meaningful follow through.

So. What have we learned. Purity is the opposite of morality. Macro-level values are meaningless. And if anyone ever brings up these things in a political debate, it’s because they really don’t want to be talking about the concrete things they’re actually planning on doing. Also they’re probably a smidge racist.

Famed existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was all about dat ass. I mean, not really. Only for about half a book. Within that half a book he created a philosophical outlook that drew its inspiration from Don Juan, the eternal seeker of dat ass. The aesthete, personified by Don Juan, is compelled to constantly seek pleasure; an unquenchable hedonist lifestyle. This is not an obsessive addiction to poon under which Don Juan suffers, it is an authentic choice made with genuine intent. This is how Don Juan chooses to live his life. This authenticity manifests itself when Don Juan continues to chase tail even in the face of fatal consequences. It’s not that he can’t stop, Bro just won’t stop.

kierkegaard

I use the misogynistic manipulation of hundreds of women to make a point. 

The aesthete is not limited to lethal amounts of promiscuity. Sex is just an easy metaphor for any kind of pleasure. Kierkegaard follows up the story of Don Juan with a series of diary entries by a man who meticulously creates a scenario where a woman falls madly in love with him toward the ultimate aim of marriage. Of course, he leaves before the wedding because love was the conquest to be won, and must be won yet again in the next town. Settling down is antithetical to the aesthete who must repetitiously manifest their pleasure until, presumably, the happy ending.

Which brings us to Meredith Grey. Meredith Grey can never settle down. Meredith and Derek Shepherd are constantly on again and off again because they are not allowed under the premise of the serial drama to have functional peace between them. She and Doctor McDreamy are faced with an impossible relationship goal because they live in a universe built on the principles of the aesthete. Never settle. Always seek new pleasures. If it seems like things are on the verge of structured and maintainable happiness, BAM! Car crash! Meredith must begin anew.

greys-anatomy-meredith-grey-750x522-1453493365-e1530361335898

ANGUISH!

It is the same with every serial. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby would never be able to actually meet “The Mother” until ratings began to drop. The promise of the show needed to be constantly pushed back in order for the hedonic loop to continue. It’s not that the characters themselves are modern manifestations of the aesthete, but that the nature of the show itself builds those principles into the foundation of the universe. No character is immune because they exist under the scripted laws of serial television where stability is seen as stagnation and stagnation means cancellation.

The aesthete is not condemned as a morally reprehensible lifestyle choice. It is an option among others on how to live life in the face of existential dread. One cannot sink into nihilistic despair if they never stop gamboling around long enough to pay attention. Kierkegaard would certainly not place it at the top of his list as far as options go, similarly to how the Hindus do not admonish those on the path of desire despite its own lower status. It is a way of life to grow out of, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

Hot-Dog-Legs

Hot dog legs may be a smidge immature, but condemnation just seems a bit pretentious

There is still a problem with the television serial as a manifestation of the aesthete. It’s not necessarily its celebration and propagation of the philosophical aesthetic lifestyle, as its immaturity is not a serious enough criticism of its value to dismiss it. The problem arises in the vicarious living that television encourages. Our Don Juan hopefuls may never reach even the fairly low peak of the aesthete lifestyle if they spend their time sitting and watching Barney Stinson live out Kierkegaard’s guilty pleasure on their TV set.

We can understand Kierkegaard’s aesthete through our television screens, but we can’t live it. We get sucked into the hedonic loop without even the benefit of the hedonist pleasure that would otherwise accompany it. We escape nihilistic despair through distraction, certainly, but we escape it without doing any actual living. We escape through death.