"My Friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right." - from W.W.T.A.W.W.T.A.L., Raymond Carver (the Gordon Lish edited version)
It begins with an overheard phone conversation -
more accurately, a casually eavesdropped conversation of which the implicit ethical violations are mitigated, perhaps, by the fact that it is my wife on the phone in the next room, i.e., the living room, talking at such a volume as to be able to be heard clearly from any room in our house including the upstairs rooms and basement, which is always the case when she’s on the phone and, in fact, if she were on the front porch, even though it is enclosed by windows that are now screens-up, storm-windows-down her voice would echo off the houses in the neighborhood, giving the impression that her voice was omnidirectional, keeping in mind, of course, that it is only one half of the conversation that is being heard, although gleaning the gist of which, however, is not a problem (and it should be said that I have what I consider a normal smattering of voyeuristic and vicarious tendencies as part of a society that stares at one form or another of dot-matrix simulacra untold hours a day, consuming on average 34 Gigabytes of "information" daily, listening to conversations and "watching" the full spectrum of everything that defines banality incessantly, in my case, even as I doze off to sleep nightly, and that I don’t have any particular proclivities toward eavesdropping or, for that matter, spying on someone, although, truth be told, I don’t have any particular compunction against such activity either meaning that the aforementioned implicit ethical violations are not extant in my case). M. is talking to her sister who, apparently, has just finished talking to her (their) mother, i.e., my mother-in-law. As sometimes (often) happens when talking to "Mom", an amiable even mundane accounting of the ordinary days that just passed, interspersed with polite inquiry into her, i.e., "Mom’s" past week or the quotidian "how’s Dad doing?" may include a topical reference or, even, a simple pause, a stasis, a momentary lapse in restraint, that she senses as a vulnerability, a perfect place to interject a disparaging, right-wing, tea-partyish tirade against the prevailing powers that be. Her penchant for political ambushes is akin to a surprise shotgun blast full of buckshot to clear the varmints or neighborhood kids off the front porch. The prudent thing to do is to continue on with the obligatory niceties of the weekly phone call and steer into the usual palaver or employ a non sequitur and do not in any way acknowledge the politically polarizing diatribe that just took place, otherwise it’s on; and the exposed nerve of your outrage will be the focus of the ensuing merciless attack. I surmise, from the invectives on this end, that M.’s sister waded into the intractable waters of political conversation with "Mom" and is now venting with the only other sibling – there are two brothers who to a greater or lesser degree concur with their parents’ perspective on political issues (although, as I’ll discuss further, "issues" is not really the issue) – with what may be generically referred to, in this instance, as a progressive perspective on what we talk about when we talk about politics.
Though he never mentioned him by name, John Locke, in the second of his Two Treatises of Civil Government, reasoned against Thomas Hobbes’ assertion that civil society could only exist under the authoritarianism of an absolute sovereign. Both Locke and Hobbes, and later Jean-Jacques Rousseau, theorized about the ways societies formed states to maintain order in a "social contract", beginning with an examination of how individuals, left to their own "state of nature", i.e., natural tendencies, interact with other individuals. Hobbes saw life in this "state of nature" as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." He wrote that "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man" (Leviathan, ch. XIII). Hobbes asserts that "[t]he natural state of men, before they were joined in society, was a war, and not simply, but a war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes). John Locke viewed the "state of nature" as theoretical, a place from which to begin, a tabula rasa (which is how he described the nascent human mind - differing from Descartes in this sense) from which "natural law" arises and which is entirely different from "divine law"; Locke was deeply spiritual and said "divine law can be discovered only through God's special revelation and applies only to those to whom it is revealed and who God specifically indicates are to be bound." (plato.stanford.edu) Locke, as an empiricist, believed that humans learn through their experience and even in their "state of nature" honor their promises, and are basically peaceful and good. Unlike Hobbes, who thought that men cannot know good and evil, and in consequence can only live in peace together by subjection to the absolute power of a common master, Locke believed that humans know what is right and wrong, and are capable of knowing what is lawful and unlawful well enough to resolve conflicts but, unfortunately, do not always act according to that knowledge. He, Locke, believed that men have rights, that they are born free and are social creatures by their nature, and that the responsibility of the state is primarily to ensure that justice is done; all government is limited in its powers and exists only by the consent of the governed. By contrast, Hobbes believed that the "social contract" is a contract citizens make with each other to accept the rule of central authority, that this central authority is sovereign and itself not subject to "laws." Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, was also concerned with the relationship of man with society, which he addressed in The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right in which he began, "Man is born free but everywhere is in chains." Throughout his writings, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is most concerned with the mechanisms through which humans are forced to give up their liberty; we enter into "social contracts" to ensure protection of our rights, property, and happiness. Rousseau did not favor private property and considered the individual will subordinate to the "general (collective)will", essentially a popular sovereignty or rule of law. As Rousseau stated it, "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."
It should be noted, by the way, that M.’s mother (her sister’s mother, my mother-in-law) is a sweetheart, a loved, admired, revered (without hyperbole) mother and grandmother, despite her occasional argumentum ad hominems. M.’s parents were born into the U.S. Depression (they’re both in their early 80s and have more energy than I on my best day [an expression that really does not in any way describe the paucity of my existence] and are, as one may expect of octogenarians, wonderful conversationalists. They have endless stories, told endless times, and always to our (my wife and I, her sister and her husband, her brother B. and his wife and four children, and her brother M. and his wife and two children, as well as her brother M.’s wife’s mother) delight. The quandary of the two sisters (and their husbands) is the paradox of their (the parents’) middle class life and, as they (the sisters) remember it, non-ideological past. Perhaps it is just the pace of modern life and technology, combined with the rapid decline of middle class social norms and mores (do they even exist anymore?) that have the parents turning to Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Fox News, Glenn Beck, the tea partiers, et al, as their vox populi. The political and economic conditions that fuel their anger and frustration are part of the same dynamic that also angers and frustrates the two sisters, despite the fact that, from the perspective of who they vote for and why, the polarization could not be more radical. In effect, this American family is a microcosm of the American society writ large. The chasm the separates these seemingly diametrically opposed political views seems beyond breach. There are numerous factors involved, of course, in this political rift that has our nation so politically fractious. There are differences in generational perspectives: "making a living" twenty, thirty, forty years ago was a vastly different enterprise than it is today; regional perspectives: unemployed auto workers in Detroit may have a different view of government than Nebraskan farmers or New York investment bankers; and, of course, religious perspectives, which permeate all other philosophical deductions. However, our television and dot-matrix-saturated immediate-gratification-seeking culture reduces our discussion of "issues" to hyperventilating sound bytes, celebrity obsessed tawdriness, and nonstop screaming across the chasm of political recalcitrance. But what are we actually talking about?
Among other thinkers from the Enlightenment (or thereabouts) - most notably Denis Diderot, Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Adam Smith – Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau probably had the most influence upon our own Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and resulting work-in-progress form of government. Each began with an examination of the nature of "man", the idea of humans left to their own design in a "state of nature" and the how and why of the necessity for an eventual social contract or form of government. Each had a different view of what form that should take. The differences can not be overstated since they paradoxically not only form the basis of our government but also the basis of our divide. Should governments be designed to protect the people from themselves (Hobbes) or designed to protect the people from the government (Locke). Are individual rights sacrosanct or should the collective will predominate, as Rousseau prescribed? When we read Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s Treatises, or Rousseau’s Social Contract today we see the origins of our imperfect form of government, but we also see the anachronism inherent in each. Yet, in the days following Hurricane Katrina George Will quoted Thomas Hobbes to describe the city’s (New Orleans) "descent from chaos into barbarism" and wrote:
Hobbes said that in "the state of nature," meaning in the absence of a civil society sustained by government, mankind’s natural sociability, if any, is so tenuous that life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Thoughtful conservatives—meaning those whose conservatism arises from reflections deeper than an aversion to high marginal tax rates — are conservative because they understand how thin and perishable is the crust of civilization, and hence how always near society’s surface are the molten passions that must be checked by force when they cannot be tamed by socialization.
-Newsweek, from Leviathan in Louisiana, 9/12/05, George Will
This writer used Hobbes to illustrate a different view of conservatism(Bush as Leviathan). The point is that readers, like those who wrote our founding documents, as well as you and me, will take away different values from each of these thinkers. John Locke, for example, was such an influence upon Thomas Jefferson that he wrote, "Bacon, Locke and Newton..I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences." Locke also had a profound influence on Alexander Hamilton, whose views, ironically, would rival Jefferson’s and form the basis of many of our modern political differences. Unfortunately, our current political dialogues are not, for the most part, as well formed and based on a foundation of profound thought and careful consideration. What do we expect from government, from our representatives? What is a "just war" (Jus ad bellum)? Does the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan constitute a "just war" under this definition? What are our responsibilities as citizens? What is the "natural condition" of our species; do we devolve into a Lord of the Flies scenario without a "social contract?" What in our founding documents is influenced by Hobbes, by John Locke, or Rousseau? As citizens, as students, as teachers, shouldn’t these questions be answerable before we start hurling invectives at individuals or groups, or should we just go with our gut feelings?
In most ways – and please forgive the obviousness of this remark - the world would be unrecognizable to the Enlightenment thinkers. And it could be said that our dialectical imperatives have evolved exponentially since these thinkers were formulating their ideas on how to form a just and workable society. This is not a paradigm shift; this is a separate reality from the world they were writing about. The influences of global corporatism/capitalism (see Food, Inc. [both the film and the book], John Gray’s False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, as well as her other trenchant books, and this insightful article, for a start); the massive military-industrial complex that fuels our perpetual wars and hegemonic foreign policy (see Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, by Chalmers Johnson, and Blackwater:The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill, just two among many others); and the armies of (mostly corporate) lobbyists that control our legislative bodies (see So Damn Much Money, by Robert G. Kaiser, for one example) are barely visible through the blur of technological wizardry that bombards our retinas and whisks us about. Nevertheless, the basis upon which we must formulate our ideas for what to do about the intractable state of affairs in our political system and society as a whole must still begin with the basic questions of our "nature", our need for a "social contract", and what that contract should include. Is healthcare for every citizen a moral obligation of this social contract, a right, or a privilege for those who can afford it though a stratified capitalist system? How is profiting from essentially betting on people’s health and longevity via actuarial tables and logarithms (while investing their customers’ exorbitant premiums in risky derivatives) ethical, let alone legal? How do Evangelicals reconcile their views of abortion and capital punishment from a Christian perspective, or their predilection for unfettered capitalism with Christian doctrine that honors the poor? How should we think about taxes; are the services and protections they provide necessary or are we simply feeding a war chest? It seems our entrenched political positions are closer to team sport than dialectical reasoning. Our political "discussions" are shouting matches, ad hominem attacks, self-contradictory palaver, and sorely lacking in reasoned principle. Are we simply overwhelmed by the sudden epiphany that the planet has been silently, mostly clandestinely, methodically and systematically, efficiently, successfully, absolutely, and inexorably seized by a global corporate oligarchy? Could be.
It doesn’t help that even the most rational and logical dialectical examination of "corporatism" (from the side of the fence that sees it as anathema to a democratic republic) begins to sound like conspiracy theory after one main and, at the most, two subordinate clauses, yet the Third Way democrats come off as "centrists" and not as a cult. Moreover, there are the Republicans and tea party groups (they have not coalesced enough for upper case stature) that often sound as if they, at least, hate some of the same things as (many) progressives – the bailout of the financial industry (well, the Wall Street parts; well, some of the Wall Street players, etc.), the health care bill (as it stands), Chris Matthews (just the gratuitous kind of ad hominem that I was talking about and for which I now apologize). One thing to keep in mind: "All men are created equal" (in the United States Declaration of Independence sense, as in "self-evident"), but not all corporations are created equal (and here, again, I would recommend a reading of John Gray’s False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, who wherein said, "The Utopia of the global free market has not incurred a human cost in the way that communism did. Yet over time it may come to rival it in the suffering that it inflicts.") (I would also caution that the outcome of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission under consideration by the SCOTUS may make that observation moot.). We are born equal, we exist in a "state of nature", we seem to require and desire "social contracts"; let’s begin from there and have a considerate discussion, a dialectic, of how to proceed from here. There’s nothing wrong, however, with calling a scoundrel a scoundrel if you have the facts and reason on your side. I am certainly not merely advocating for civil discourse; the changes required are radical.
Raymond Carver’s story (and collection of stories under the same name), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was originally titled "Beginners" before being "changed" by the enigmatic and talented writer and former Esquire and Alfred A. Knopf editor Gordon Lish. Lish cut nearly half of Carver’s story and changed the ending – in fact, he changed ten of the thirteen endings in that collection. I have read these stories in their original edited versions as they were first released, and I have read them as Carver wrote them. In many, if not most, cases I prefer the results of Lish’s editing. But there are many beautiful passages in Carver’s unaltered manuscripts that have echoed in my memory, which, because they are not in the original versions that I got to know so well, seem as though I dreamt them or confused them with some other writer or some other story. It must have been tough to let go of those sentences and paragraphs, amazing to have found their form in the first place, so immutably connected to the unfathomable parts of the process itself. He must have believed he was giving something up for the greater good, for art. I’m not sure. And I’m not sure what it has to do with what I am trying to say about what we need to do in order to survive the madness.
"Sometimes you can hear the snow falling. If you’re quiet and your mind is clear and you’re at peace with yourself and all things, you can lay in the dark and hear it snow."
(from the unexpurgated version, "Beginners", of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love)