05 April 2011

PRINCIPLES AND POLITIKS

I. German philosophy after Luther has been a total catastrophe. Some of the more notable ideational grandchildren of the heresiarch would include Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger. I guess Locke, Descartes and Rousseau could be added to the mix. Still, when it comes to the philosophical causations behind the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent spread of Marxism, Nazism, the 1960s Counterculture Revolution (to name a few), the line inevitably traces back to the bravado of a yappity German monk. True, there were precursors like Jan Hus. But he got barbequed. It was with Luther that the revolt against authority became "formally declared", so to speak. The German forward-thrusters that followed are mere footnotes and they owe most everything to Marty. Marx: "Once it was the monk's brain in which the revolution began, now it is the philosopher's".[1]

II. As you can probably tell, I'm no fan of German philosophy. The absolutist immanentism that characterizes much of it always has given me a big time stomach ache. Nonetheless, I will give credit where it is due when coming across the occasional insightful statement. In a essay entitled On the Tragic, the German phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928) noted:
If we are observing a certain action which is realizing a high value, and then see in that same action that it is working towards the undermining of the very existence of the being it is helping, then we receive the most complete and clearest of tragic impressions.[2]
Keep this in mind and we go from the Faustian danger-world of German philosophy to the safe and unexciting esoterics of recent Canadian political history. Yes, quite a jump but, hey, I figured an eye-catching lead-in was warranted.

III. Scheler's statement on tragedy is quoted because it captures the essence of two political fiascos, now long forgotten by most. They involved Canadian flags and the GST (Goods and Services Tax, currently the HST). But why recall these when the future will in all likelihood have enough political fiascos of its own? Political fiascos are myriad however their regularity of occurrence are invariably the consequence one factor: the neglect if principles, of which the succession of time has no impact whatsoever.

IV. Perhaps some of you Canucks remember this lady:

That would be Sheila Copps, of political royalty from the smoke-plumed skies of Hamilton, Ontario. She's had quite a history with the Liberals, known for her infighting propensities. Sheels also advocated the usual leftoid mantras, such as "rights" for whatever ostensibly victimized group, trendy environmental causes, and so forth. She kind of reminds me of Iggy.

V. In an endeavour to promote national unity, the federal government launched "Flag Day" early in 1996 to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the introduction of the Canadian flag, the red and white with a maple leaf (white, blue and red ensign flags were used prior to 1965). For the Federalists, like the then Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, the event was deemed helpful in the effort to bolster the sense of national unity. Remember, all of this was happening in the wake of the Québéc Referendum of October 1995, immediately after the Secessionists nearly won the vote. So tensions were still running high into 1996. As for the other Solitude - if one was a Separatist, like Gaston Leroux, Bloc Québécois Heritage Critic at the time, the initiative was castigated as feigned patriotism, part of a Federalist agenda that will inevitably fail at enrapturing the entire Canadian populace into thinking that Québéc might not (eventually) disengage itself from the remainder of the country which does not, so it is still claimed, comprehend the importance of French language and culture.

VI. It could be argued that both sides were justified during the affair. Sheels, who spearheaded the campaign, was perhaps well-intentioned and truly hoped that it might have in some way instilled a stronger sense of national unity into the Canadian mindset. Nothing wrong with that. Alas, well-intentioned does not equal well-conceived. Conversely, M. Leroux and the Separatists were also not without justification when they argued that such an appeal to a purely reactive form of patriotism would not have affected la cause, the unwavering goal of the Bloc Québécois, namely separation. I mean, come on, the 31st anniversary. In the context of flag waving as an obvious stop gap measure, he had a point.

VII. Now there is nothing inimical about patriotism, so long as it distances itself from nationalist jingoism. Though it is trivial to see that all objectivity dissipates when an entreaty is made solely to the emotions of the population, which I took the flag campaign to be, not so much as patriotism. Both the Separatists and Federalists were liable here. Regardless of the kind of emotion experienced, feelings are shortlasting. In extreme cases, subjectivism and frenetic delusion can ensue if such lapses of mind are left unchecked. The strong emotions engendered during the affair (i.e. the call for Canadians to acquire and wave flags as a sign of love of country, or the platform of defiance against any submission to Federalist concessions by the Separatists) were reactions and not founded upon any objective principle. Principles are invariant whereas states of mind are always transitory, and these two should never be confused with each other.

VIII. Unfortunately, emotionalism overtook rationality during the "One in a Million National Flag" campaign. For it was in the swirl of animadversions where the tragedy enucleated. It was here that, as Scheler wrote, "a certain action which is realizing a high value" is "undermining the very existence of the being it is helping". Copps assured everyone that the Heritage department was capable of absorbing the cost of purchasing 500,000 flags (available "free" to the public). The cost? An exorbitant 20 mill. M. Leroux estimated a value of $45 million after the factoring in administrative costs.[3] Tragic, indeed. The noble effort of working toward a stronger national unity was fostered at the impractical expense of the taxpaying public. A quick calculation with the $20 million dollar amount shows that about 665 people could have been employed for one year, assuming a $30,000 salary.

IX. To justify the expense Sheels said this: "The fact that the Bloc Québécois is absolutely incensed about this program obviously means that it must be having some effect".[4] Yet whether or not the Bloc assented to the flag program was extraneous to the issue. If some other program were inaugurated - say television advertisements, another rally in Ottawa, the distribution of leaflets and posters - the Separatists would still have voiced their dissatisfaction, irrespective of costs. The situation was one of a war of political philosophies, not of expenditure. The fact remains that the $20 million cost was an imprudent use of the taxpayers money. The principle of responsible and just apportionment of publicly-supplied monies was supplanted by an emotional entrancement, a whim of little effect, an ephemeral medicament to the Québéc separation crisis at the time. The "high value" of national unity had been ignored by taking the citizen tax dollar for granted.

X. That was the first tragic impression I noted. The second one also happened in 1996 yet it was connected to a pledge made a few years prior. During the 1993 federal election campaign the Liberals promised to eliminate the GST if elected into power. At the time I was doubtful whether a fair share of Canadians believed the pledge. Evidently, I was wrong. The Chrétien government came into being. Now Copps, you might recall, assured us that she would terminate her government position if the GST was not annulled. The GST, of course, was still overshadowing while the Liberals were a fair way into their term, and it appeared as though Copps' pact with the public had been disremembered by all. Not so. Time, in the brutality of its progression, finally caught up with Sheels. She had to, at last, resolve her principled promise versus political ambition.

XI. Voices in the background began to remind her that the GST was still looming, and there were no indications that the tax was going to be abolished. What was our dear lady to do? Should she leave the luxuriant fields of Ottawa, return to Hamilton, and stand by her admirable vow? Or was she to compromise her principles and retain membership in the parliamentary arena? It was an either-or conundrum. Or was it? Her solution to this seemingly irresolvable predicament was this: simply transform her circumstance from either-or to neither-nor. Brilliant. For she would neither have to relinquish her privileged post nor incite detestation in the public mindset by contravening her noble pledge that involved the adherence to a principle. How? Resign and then give some time (GST). By abdicating the promise is accomplished... or so it would seem. She then returned to Hamilton and the warm embrace of its denizens. The job was done. Now wait a while, a very little while. Sheels was then re-elected in the Hamilton East riding. The next day a political cartoon in the Toronto Sun called Hamiltonians "buttheads". Soonafter Copps was offered a position in the cabinet by the PM.

XII. A guarantee based on principle was presented to Canadians and nonchalantly abandoned for personal ambition. The time span between her departure from Ottawa and back again was effectively immeasurable. The purpose of vacating her post was not a vacation, nor was it a stance against the government's refusal to nullify the GST. Her goal was simply to garner a high level federal appointment. Regardless of Copp's temporary retirement so as to authenticate her trustworthiness, principles were dispensed. The praiseworthy act of leaving Ottawa if an promise did not reach actualization (the attainment of a "high value", in Scheler's phrase) was usurped by that disassociated from the public good. Personal propensity overtook impersonal principle, emotions overtook right reason.

XIII. Easily, the state of political affairs in a country or civilization, ancient and modern, is an outward expression of the inner condition of man. If it is proclaimed, later indoctrinated, and thereafter believed that human reason is somehow impaired, and that sentimentality is the locus of the human condition (we can thank our modernist intelligentsia for this), then the exteriorization of this inward aspect will result in subjective worldview where the ability to demonstrate a truth is directly proportional to emotional intensity, not reason. This is not to deify a rigorist rationalism, say of the kind we find in most Humanist organizations today, which are more so gnostic cults on par with Rosicrucianism than defenders of common sense (that is another story). Rather, it must be acknowledged that reason is particular to man, that it points to the good. Thomas Aquinas: "The affective state begins when the intellectual operation is finished".[5] That is, reason precedes emotion or feeling. The latter is secondary to, and is distinct from, the former. I was annoyed (an emotional response) with Copps actions with respect to the flag campaign and the GST fiasco after I understood (reasoned out) the opportunism involved.

XIV. The purpose of summarizing these two political affairs was underscore an all-encompassing dilemma. It is an old one, resounding from time immemorial. This dilemma has to do with an individual's adherence to principles, of matching word with deed. "Real politiks", it might be answered, "is too complex, too vicious, and already too corrupt for such an old fashioned notion to be effectual or pertinent. Just admit the fact, my innocent and idealistic dreamer, that man is by nature a emotionally-charged political animal with the Nietzschean predisposition for a will to power. You may think my worldview is a denial of individual freewill, you may say that I use the word 'nature' as a euphemism for 'fate', but your counterargument belongs to a archaic mentality. Your outlook is akin to the people of Laputa in Swift’s Gulliver's Travels, who have 'one of their Eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the Zenith'.[6] You place too much reliance on reason. You speak politics, not real politiks".

XV. That kind of retort is an escapist routine, a leisurely and self-accommodating way of evading personal responsibility. Just because principles have not always been complied to in the long course of history does not in the least neutralize their workability. To lie or slander or delude, for example, have always been wrong in the law. These interdictions are rooted in principle, not effectuation. They pertain to something being so and not on the action as such which transgresses it. Basically, the issue relates to the ought (reason, primary) contra the want (emotions, secondary), and the error, which is philosophical, is a consequence of that diehard mix-up between the intellect and the will. The philosopher criminal here is without doubt Immanuel Kant, who, once denying objective reality and locking all cognition within the self, prioritized the will and feeling over the intellect. In its socio-political incarnation, we find the aftermath in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). The latter, no surprise, referred to Kant as a "remarkable man", rightly predicting in 1841 that his "system of thought will long remain one of the landmarks in the history of philosophical speculation".[7] Mill wrote in his essay Utilitarianism:
If we have intellectual instincts, leading us to judge in a particular way, as well as animal instincts that prompt us to act in a particular way, there is no necessity that the former should be more infallible in their sphere than the latter in theirs... But though it is one thing to believe that we have natural feelings, and another to acknowledge them as an ultimate criterion of conduct, these two opinions are very closely connected in point of fact.[8]
The "ultimate criterion of conduct" (i.e. principles) and "natural feelings" may be "closely connected". However, this does not, as discussed above, occlude the real distinction between principles and feelings. Neither does it imply that they are equivalent, as Mill attempted to establish. But is this not how utilitarianism works?, i.e. "if its desirable to you, do it", "if expedient, then it is good".

XVI. Again, a principle is permanent and the flow of time cannot intrude on this verity. If a politician's activities do not accord with principles, does this suggest that principles themselves are redundant? If there are no fixed principles, how would it be possible to really discriminate and judge between right and wrong, good or evil? Are principles, then, the ghosts of a lost morality haunting the ambiguous milieu of Political Correctness? Does it then follow that principles should mutate into personal desires or that they should be modified into slogans to suit the always transient character of the signs of the times? Leaders rise and fall, new political parties enter the arena while others dissolve, more crises arise into the forefront, old disputes still necessitate amelioration. Although political conditions perpetually change, it does not preclude the criterion of responsible conduct. Let's end with good ole Aristotle:
Governments which have regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms.[9]
Painful words in this era of political opportunism. Currently, it seems that this truism is made to be a solecism. Still, principles apply, regardless if submission to them may seem as nothing when contrasted with the swamp of self-interest and accommodationism predominating in contemporary political affairs.


NOTES / REFERENCES

1. K. Marx, "Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in Karl Marx, Selected Writings, ed. D. McLellan (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 69.

2. M. Scheler, "On the Tragic", trans. B Stambler, Cross Currents, Winter 1954, vol. IV, pp. 178-191.

3. "Copps defends flag giveaway plan", Toronto Star, August 30, 1996, p. A14, cols. 4-6.

4. Ibid.

5. De veritate, q. 10, art. 11, ad. 6.

6. J. Swift, The Annotated Gulliver's Travels (New York: Clarkson N. Potter Publishers Incorporated, 1980), pt. 3, ch. 2, p. 146. Annotations by Isaac Asimov.

7. J.S. Mill, "Utilitarianism" in On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford University Press, 1991), pt. i, p. 134. Originally published in 1861.

8. Ibid., pt. v, p. 176.

9. Politics, bk. II, ch. 7 (trans. B. Jowett) in Aristotle, On Man and the Universe (Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black Incorporated, 1943), p. 296.

Share/Bookmark

7 comments:

christopher said...

"For it was in the swirl of animadversions where the tragedy enucleated." - sentence of the year LOL

TH2 said...

Yes, over the top. I must stop doing those heavy drugs.

AllenT said...

Only 20 Million (Canadian I assume) for the flags 45 million total for the flags? That sounds like a drop in the bucket compared to the porkbarrelling down here. Although I suspect this is not an exception up there either,

I love the connection between Luther & modern philosophy. The damage may have been done by German philosphers, but it has, as this article shows, spread far beyond Germany.

& while the names may be different, a lot of the same thing is going on down here as well.

TH2 said...

It is a drop in the bucket, or 1/10 perhaps, as our total population is approximately 10% of the US total.

SanctusBelle said...

"If it is proclaimed, later indoctrinated, and thereafter believed that human reason is somehow impaired, and that sentimentality is the locus of the human condition (we can thank our modernist intelligentsia for this), then the exteriorization of this inward aspect will result in subjective worldview where the ability to demonstrate a truth is directly proportional to emotional intensity, not reason."

Brilliant. TH2 - I enjoy your blog more than my eagerly awaited New Oxford Review. You are smarter and more witty. Keep them coming.

Sanctus Belle

TH2 said...

My dear Sanctus, thank you. I am humbled. Yet know that yours truly is but a lowly compiler.

virspeluncaeorthodoxae said...

TH2 you're making me feel lazy, you even supply endnotes. :-)

Post a Comment