Political Innocence

Statue of Justice

Political Innocence

If each of us were sure we were right, we would never quarrel with anyone – much less break with friends – over politics. The politically-triggered quarrels, friendship breakages, civil-society breakdowns, result from our insecurity over what we think true in the conflict zones of public life. If we were truly secure, intellectually and morally, we would simply state our views and the reasons for them, and hold them just as long we didn’t hear a better argument refuting them.

Of course there is one fashionable view of conflicts, political or other, which is that there is no truth of the matter. The only thing at stake – ever – is power. Which means, if you can control the mic and the public stage via ad hominem argument or by any other fallacious move, just do it! There is no truth anyway!

Really? There isn’t?

Then how did you know THAT’S true?

Jerry and I are both trained philosophers. So, when time allows, we enjoy seminars – extended philosophical discussions – over breakfast.

The true aim of marriage is liberty of mind.

Sometimes, teaching Modern Philosophy, I would read that line aloud, from Spinoza’s Ethics, and my students would snort audibly. But they should stop snorting.

Liberty of mind has become as hard to get as sex used to be.

Just think a moment about what would be required for Liberty of Mind to flower: emotional security, mutual space allotted for each participant to pause and silently regather the scattered threads of her thought, time reciprocally allowed to breathe deeply and wait till a train of argument comes together, allowances made for evidence admittedly fragmentary, for hypotheses tried out that might not explain all the evidence, for thought experiments whose outcome isn’t rigged in advance and so on.

Some of these features share a character with erotic life: intensely desired, longed for over numbers of years and vast distances – finally as hard to find as the elusive Beloved in the Biblical Song of Songs.

Briefly, for what were we longing? For the space of friendship, where two or more persons, more dedicated to seeking the truth than winning the argument, can share the search.

I’ll just recap some of the steps Jerry and I traced at breakfast, and you’ll see what you think.  I’d been reading a book on ethics by a philosopher I greatly respect. Telling Jerry about it, I said that, to my surprise, the philosopher offers an unexpected brief for the Marxian theory of surplus value, which is that the employer’s profit is an ill-gotten gain because it has been stolen from labor — labor being the only economic thing of inherent value. Taken literally, that means that if two farmers grow apples, and one eats all his apples while the second farmer eats just half and uses the profit to buy a cider press, in terms of the labor theory of value, the second farmer has made an unjustifiable use of “surplus value.” It’s an ill-gotten gain. If now our second farmer improves his cider press to the point where he can start a cider factory, which draws labor off the farms for miles around, the eventual outcome seems both better and worse.

Better because (generalizing over many varieties of production) goods will be cheaper, new devices will be invented that save labor or deliver other benefits, people will enjoy higher wages and more freedom of choice to do with their wages what they will, and so on. Worse because people will be pulled from lives where their crafts expressed their talents. They will fall into work where they cannot recognize themselves in what they produce, for example because they’re on an assembly line and only make one piece of the finished product. In addition, they will leave the farm and go where the factory is, also leaving communities where they were known and the values were stable, deriving from inherited ways of life. In anonymous city housing, workers will feel alienated, disconnected from their work, from each other, from themselves.

Was this uprooting all tragic loss? Even fervent communitarians are often reluctant actually to go back, themselves, to traditional communities, and their fenced-in worlds of tyrannical gossip, their suppression of originality and difference — their inherited consensus from which there was no appeal. Women like me would be burned as witches in “traditional communities” (supposing they hadn’t already been burned as Jews).

I’ll take alienation, thanks anyway.

These travels through the economic hills and valleys brought Jerry and me to modern times and its unsatisfactory array of political/economic choices. Some politico-economic solutions are intolerable, others merely dubious. We went on, exploring some of the political and economic theories, for more time than I have space. For once, it was a Sunday morning that continued into Sunday afternoon. And every “solution” we came upon in thought ran into just the kinds of trouble that such purported solutions have actually run into in the real, recent history of humankind.

In my Reform Temple, one of the mantras often repeated is that our purpose as Jews is to “make the world a better place.”   Usually particular policies are being referenced. If the policies favored are implemented, they will greatly improve the world. And let’s not canvass unintended consequences. Let those be a surprise. Every time.

I’ll be glad if the world is no worse a place because of anything I do, but even that I can’t be sure of.

A few columns back, I mentioned a book I’ve run across, which purports to contain an “after life journal” by William James, the late nineteenth-century American philosopher. Since the voice sounds like James and is also very interesting, I’d like to cite it from time to time, but to do so would violate all the accepted scholarly protocols. I hesitate to risk it. (I don’t like trouble any more than anybody else.) Anyway, one of the things “James” reports from the afterlife is that, wherever he goes, he feels buoyed up by a sense of optimism and safety.

And well he might! He IS safe. They can’t kill you when you’re already dead!

Down here, we feel pretty unsafe, in this-world spaces and times, and that’s an accurate feeling. So what are we to do? I used to think, if I could only be bathed in Love – exuding Love from every pore – I’d be safe. Nobody would hurt me because they’d feel the waves of goodness emanating from me. They’d be disarmed, without thinking about it or realizing why.

One of the defects of utopian schemes is the belief that, if only the world were rearranged to suit the idealist’s blueprint, everyone would start exuding Love and Peace and we’d all be safe with each other.

What then would drive us to write novels or poems, to invent solutions for our impasses, to try to fathom ourselves and the depths of others, to know history, to know anything, to make our particular and irreplaceable friends?

Without the evil impulse

Nothing would get done.

So said the rabbis. If we can forgive ourselves, for who and what we really are, maybe we can get on with it – the job of living our true stories in this imperfect but real world.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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