Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Existential Grimness and Cornel West’s Catastrophic Compassion

Cornel West is an existential, Kierkegaardian Christian and progressive. His philosophy is summarized in The Supreme Love and Revolutionary Funk of Dr. Cornel West, Philosopher of the Blues, by Jeff Sharlit. See also West’s short video on “catastrophic love.”As Sharlit says, the “Westian turn” is that West ‘roots himself in what he calls “the night side of American democracy” so he’ll be ready for the dawn. He begins with anger so we can end with love.’ West speaks as a sort of postmodern prophet. However,
“To prophesy,” he [West] writes, “is not to predict an outcome but rather to identify concrete evils.” He’s concerned not with divine revelations but with what he sees as jazzlike improvisation, the radical hope he tempers with the tragic sensibility he takes from the blues. “I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind,” he says, “a jazzman in the world of the ideas”....The blues, West says, is the suffering that’s at the heart of the American story, both tragic and comic, darkly grandiose and absurdly mundane. Jazz is democracy...Jazz--improvisation--is his answer to things as they are, the negation of the status quo and thus the affirmation of another possibility.
For an appreciation of the tragic aspect of life, West recommends the 19th C. Italian poet Leopardi, who saw that the naturalism of Enlightenment philosophy gives rise to what West calls “the paradox of human freedom,” that we must resist oppression even as we acknowledge, as Sharlit puts it, ‘that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire,” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.” ’

West’s perspective is summarized in the title of his early book, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, in which he synthesizes
Marxism, Christianity, and a tragicomic African-American sensibility. Sharlit:
West believes in Marx’s radical critique of capital and empire, but he also believes in God. To West, Marxism without what he calls “the love ethic” is inhumane, just as Christianity without a systemic economic and political analysis is incomplete. And what would blackness contribute? Death; or, to put it another way, the blues, a sensibility both tragic and comic that was lacking in the utopianism of the left and the messianism of religion.
He advocates what he calls “prophetic pragmatism.” This is to say that West is interested more in political action than in academic debates, and that he regards theodicy as the chief obstacle to progressive action. As Sharlit says, West ‘locates the problem of theodicy not in the abstract of heaven but in the concrete of the world: “How do you really struggle against suffering in a loving way, to leave a legacy in which people would be able to accent their own loving possibility in the midst of so much evil?” ’

West is after what he calls “catastrophic love,” meaning loving-kindness or, as West puts it, “steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” a compassion, however, that’s rooted in an understanding of the tragedy of human life, of what I’ve called our existential predicament. West is directly impacted by one of the primary American catastrophes, which was the enslavement of Africans, and his Christianity requires that he focus on compassion for the poor and the downtrodden. As West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Sharlit explains: ‘justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he [West] believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he [West] continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.” That is, a society where there is justice--a vast, public loving-kindness--for all.’ Sharlit adds that ‘West is steadfastly anti-utopian. He thinks perfectionist illusions drive both religion and radicalism to murderous ends. He knows that love for all is a hopeless cause, that thus justice is a hopeless cause, too. Democracy? Not a chance. It’s a blues dream of a jazz impossibility. But still, he can’t help dreaming.’

This is the practical problem of evil: our religious and political ideals seems impossible to achieve. But West nevertheless prefers compassion to despair or bitterness. Thus he calls everyone his brothers and sisters and is quick to hug strangers and friends alike. As I see it, then, a Westian might read Rants Within the Undead God and say that what I’ve left out is a practical concern to help the poor, to correct injustice. It’s fine to remind ourselves that nature is a harsh place and that we’re all doomed to die, but not if this pessimism is unmitigated, not if it prevents progressive action. West overcomes his pessimism with Christian faith in the rightness of compassion, which drives him to fight against political and economic injustices. Like West (and Chris Hedges, another existential Christian), I’ve spoken of the injustices of oligarchy. But what resources, if any, do I offer in the field of political action? Have I drunk from the cup of bitterness, to which West refers in his video on catastrophic love? Should we succumb to despair and allow injustices to take their course, retreating from politics, as detached ascetics or outsiders? And is West’s Christian, African-American Marxism what I’d call an aesthetically respectable path to worthwhile political ends?

Kierkegaardian Liberalism

My response begins with a summary of what I say in such rants as Liberalism, Nietzsche and Liberalism, Liberalism and Libertarianism, and especially Should Liberals be Less Rational?. The gist of my take on liberalism is that modern liberalism has degenerated into a postmodern form, leading to what West, as a postmodern liberal, is forced to think of as the paradox of human freedom. Whereas a modern liberal, flush with Enlightenment ideology and confident in scientistic myths, wouldn’t hesitate to declare that the rational route to social progress is self-evident, the postmodern liberal can vouch for her political ideals only with duplicity or with much hemming and hawing. Rationalism has led, as Nietzsche predicted, to hyper-skepticism in modern societies, to a disenchantment of nature and a corresponding incredulity towards all metanarratives, which is as the French philosopher Lyotard said, the mark of the postmodern. The liberal continues to value equality, human rights, and fairness, but has lost any compelling justification for those values. That’s the root of why “liberal” is a dirty word in the US. Granted, conservatives demagogued and demonized their opponents, but liberals failed to pursue the course of annihilating the obvious evil at the heart of political conservatism (the unabashed preservation of dominance hierarchies), because liberals can no longer trust in their goal of social progress. Liberals can’t bring themselves to defend their name, let alone their ideals, and pragmatic Americans have no respect for such lack of self-confidence. 

In effect, Cornel West confronts this problem for liberalism, but his theological and existential construal of it obscures the fact that the liberal is in an especially precarious position. The problem, West says, is the more universal one of theodicy, that we must all find a way to overcome evil. But unlike rationalistic liberals, conservatives see nothing paradoxical about human freedom, because conservatives live in a fantasy world in which nature is still enchanted. Christian conservatives ignore the upshot of the Age of Reason and wallow in shameful theistic delusions, while libertarian, atheistic conservatives subscribe to an economic religion which deifies the cosmic creativity of the wild (free) marketplace and the avatars of that divine creative power, the oligarchs who triumph in the evolutionary struggle which is the ultimate creative process. (See Conservatism.) Postmodern liberals are energized by no such myths and their lot is the angst which is Reason’s curse. Liberals who hold onto a vestige of some mainstream religion typically can only pay lip service to its creed, because they’re more fervently committed to modern rationalism.

Now, West’s Christianity is the rare Kierkegaardian sort, which prescribes an irrational, absurdly dangerous leap of faith as the only way to overcome the despair of knowing the facts of our suffering and our mortality. In terms of political strategy, Christian liberalism, which reduces the religion to that blind faith, is likely to founder, especially when rationalists can move now from technoscientific strength to strength. Even if physicists may currently be reaching the limits of science, substituting open-ended string theory for a genuine Theory of Everything, a blind leap of faith in moral and political ideals seems not just absurd but gauche. Certainly, a liberal shouldn’t admit openly, in sophisticated postmodern society, that liberalism is based on compassion for the poor which in turn is justified by nothing but Kierkegaardian blind faith. Such a defense of liberalism would be torn asunder by savvy, pseudo-rational journalists before the defense could even reach the subterranean lairs of conservative beasts. This is to say that Kierkegaard doesn’t sit well with West’s professed pragmatism. It’s one thing to fuel political action with prophetic rhetoric which calls attention to concrete injustices, but it’s another if the prophet in question is Kierkegaard who concedes that theism, the liberal’s ultimate motivation, has no rational justification whatsoever.

But what of the more substantive question of whether Kierkegaardian liberalism is privately necessary, however publicly impractical this political philosophy may be? Kierkegaardian theism is consistent with what I’ve called postmodern liberalism. A postmodern liberal can’t subscribe to exoteric, literalistic theism, since that theism is plainly irrational and unlike the conservative, the liberal is afflicted with the capacity for shame, which compels her to respect the power of Reason. However, instead of subscribing to one-sided rationalism, which leads to the fallacy of scientism, the liberal can be an existentialist who understands that reason’s power is limited, especially for the adapted animals that we are. If all worldviews are ultimately irrational, resting on emotion, instinct, and faith, why not trust in constructive Christianity rather than in self-destructive Reason? This is the existential argument put forward at the end of the popular novel, The Life of Pi.

Consistency, however, is too minimal a standard for philosophical purposes. When deciding what to believe at the philosophical level, we’re inevitably guided by other values that help discount certain choices. One such value, the aesthetic one, derives from our instinctive (sexual) preference for beauty. Why didn’t Kierkegaard leap to faith in Hinduism rather than in Christianity? Obviously because he lived in 19th C. Denmark which was culturally Christian. That coincidence calls into question the notion that he exercised radical, absolute freedom in leaping from nothing to something. He began not with doubt about reason’s capacity to provide a satisfying philosophy, but with his differential familiarity with cultures. The same is true with respect to Cornel West: he grew up in an African-American culture which adopted European Christianity.

This is to say that the leap of faith can be clichéd and thus aesthetically suspect if it’s not truly blind or original. Originality is praiseworthy, according to the modern ideal of progress due to our divine creativity. But a truly despairing omega person, an outsider who knows not what to believe because she’s lost in lamentations for the death of God, won’t be caught with such a telltale bias. Her choice of a philosophy will be radical because she’ll be a genuinely alienated outcast, beginning her philosophical journey from nowhere in particular. She’ll be guided not by a fully-formed, presupposed ideology, but by her character, instincts, and experience. And as I said, that means she’ll have an aesthetic sense for which ideas feel right to her. As I show in Christian Crudities, Christianity may feel right within Christian culture, but not within a modern, rationalistic one.

Now, an existential philosopher, a radical who questions everything in pursuit of ultimate truth, can be expected to question Enlightenment philosophy along with all other cultures and ideologies, but questioning technoscience itself on non-normative grounds isn’t part of any search for knowledge. You can doubt the optional and especially dubious philosophies that crop up around technoscience, like scientism, naturalism, pragmatism, and social Darwinism, but no one who’s interested in knowledge can doubt the cognitive merit and power of scientific methods and their results. To that extent, modernism must now be presupposed along with the ideal of good taste in ideas. However, certain values seem to follow inevitably from that appreciation of technoscience, such as those of human ingenuity as a source of progress, and of intellectual adulthood, meaning self-knowledge and personal integrity which are antithetical to delusion. As I show in Christian Crudities, even from the most alienated, detached and aesthetic viewpoint, Christianity now looks especially foolish and degrading. What this means for Kierkegaard and Cornel West is that the proper suspicion of rationalism, which can be expected to lead at some point to a leap of faith to escape the pangs of angst, shouldn’t end in an embrace of Christianity--even when the leaper lives in a Christian culture, given that certain modern values presently trump Christian ones.

Solidarity, Pity, and Disgust

Leaving aside, then, West’s Christian basis for liberalism, what of the point that we should still seek justice for the downtrodden rather than renounce our public responsibilities, as bitter, postmodern ascetics and outsiders, leaving the field to the vile oligarchs and their pets? There are two main points I want to make in this connection, which I’ll address in turn. The first pertains to Leopardi’s philosophy of solidarity, the second to the irony of equal rights. West says in his interview with Sharlit that his favourite poem by Leopardi is The Broom, which is indeed a moving work. Leopardi’s main point there is that we humans ought to stick together, given that our common enemy is Mother Nature. Nature causes the majority of our grief, as symbolized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Instead of attacking each other, bringing all of us down like a wayward soldier who flails about on the battlefield and harms both friend and foe, we should unite and square off against inhumane natural forces. That, then, is a non-Christian reason for compassion, namely pity for all fellow sufferers at the hands of the undead god, the mercilessly evolving natural universe.

As I say at the end of Dialogue Between New and Spiritual Atheists, I too think that pity is a fitting basis for morality. However, pity goes hand in hand with disgust. In so far as our plight is pitiful, our victimhood is also disgusting. When we suffer from being thrown into the world, as the existentialist Heidegger says, and from being cursed with the accidental godlike power of reason which shows us too much of the universe for us to fulfill in good faith our primitive urge for happiness, we’re revealed as ugly creatures. Contrary to the secular humanistic philistines who vacuously mouth the meme that nature is a beautiful place, with humans being the most glorious and fortunate species, nature is comparable to a decaying zombie and humans to flies that zip absurdly from one spot to the next to burrow in and feast on undead flesh. Of course, much in nature is beautiful when compared to the well-proportioned human body which we instinctively prefer; thus, we’re biased to admire symmetry, averages, and other physical signs of health. But the overreaching application of that standard to scientific theories or to anything other than the sexual context is preposterous and worthy of ridicule. Nature is hideous and terrifying because of the grotesque disharmony between its mindlessness and the minds which nevertheless naturally evolve. (For more on this, see Curse of Reason.) 

What this means is that universal pity for our natural predicament should be mixed with disgust. Thus, sentimental compassion is as inappropriate as is the incapacity for shame or the predator’s egoistic dehumanization of his victims. What’s more inspiring, I think, is a grim camaraderie as depicted at the end of Stapledon’s First and Last Men or as surely felt on actual battlefields, by soldiers who’re forced to face death together. (See Postmodern Religion.) As Chris Hedges points out in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and as became apparent from the debacle of the neoconservatives’ war on Iraq, under Bush, war seems glorious only to psychopaths, chickenhawks, or academics who haven’t actually fought in any capacity, let alone in a war. Well-trained soldiers do indeed feel strong solidarity, banding together in the foxhole as they must to live through the hell of a military conflict. But their solidarity shouldn’t be sentimentalized or otherwise whitewashed: they desperately need to rely on each other because bullets whiz by them which could just as easily penetrate and maim their bodies. Any unity we might feel with all people, as equal in our victimization by Mother Nature, would be more like a harebrained scheme to preserve our sanity than a hero’s formulaic conviction that he fights on the side of absolute Right. After all, we’re not literally at war with natural forces, since they’re not deployed by any Mother Nature.

Leopardi’s human solidarity, then, can be based just as embarrassingly on anthropomorphism as can theism. Another way this moral pity can go wrong is if, instead of projecting human properties onto the rest of nature, we draw a Cartesian line between humans and everything else. If the world is an undead god, we’re the flies that inhabit that strange cadaver. After all, we’re also natural beings. Thus, we can develop into symbols of nature’s inhumanity, into oligarchs who rule over dominance hierarchies, the Great Chains of Being. Out of Christian sentiment, West will likely say that he ought to feel compassion for oligarchs as well as for their poor victims. And indeed, the tragedy of the existential insignificance of oligarchic hegemony renders the oligarch pitiful, to some extent. But the more fitting feelings are disgust for the oligarch’s betrayal of his fellow humans and for his sociopathic identification with the undead god; fear of the reality of the natural power over humanity which the oligarch’s supremacy represents; and despair because there seems no escape from our natural prison. The poor masses, too, are thoroughly natural creatures: not wholly innocent victims, but weak animals that nevertheless seek power, animals that are easily corrupted or manipulated and whose destruction is but a step in nature’s creative evolution.

Oligarchy and the Irony of Civil Rights

This brings me to my second point, which is in response to West’s interesting reminder in his video that African-Americans fought their oppression not by seeking revenge against whites, but by winning civil rights for all Americans. The Christian spirit of forgiveness caused these children of slaves to act not as animals, West would say, but as morally superior beings, and their compassion brought about genuine social progress. According to West, we should follow their lead and lean towards universal compassion rather than bitterness which exacerbates our plight, further alienating us.

I assume West’s historical narrative here is more or less accurate. Still, West has reason to doubt his prescription of unconditional compassion and human solidarity. This reason is provided by a case study of President Obama. As West points out, he campaigned for Obama, suspecting that Obama would succumb to temptation while in office and betray his liberal principles. As is clear from Obama’s foreign and economic policies, he has indeed so succumbed, aligning himself with the American oligarchs and managing the status quo as a nihilistic, “centrist” postmodern liberal. What must be especially galling to West is that Obama has done so little particularly for African-Americans, who’ve suffered the most from the fallout from the oligarchs’ recent economic games. For example, the June 2012 unemployment rate in the US remained stable among whites and Hispanics, but has increased only among African-Americans. (See this Business Insider article.) Far from tilting his administration towards the Christian goal of helping the poor, a disproportionate number of whom share the President’s skin colour, at least, Obama bailed out Wall Street, neglecting even to reframe the American economic debate with his bully pulpit (until his reelection campaign), let alone pursuing progressive policies--contrary to clueless conservatives who demonize Obama as a socialist without knowing what the word means.

So taking a long view, the liberation of slaves allowed an African-American eventually to become President and to govern as a figurehead for oligarchs, like so many other dead white guys. West himself has said as much, but he calls this merely a “setback” for the progressive movement, failing to appreciate the irony, I think. Although Obama is only one person whose behaviour hardly represents that of all African-Americans, his shedding of his liberal ideology at the behest of oligarchs can’t responsibly be interpreted as accidental. All signs point to the fact that Obama used to be a naïve (academic) liberal as a community organizer, before he taught constitutional law and ran for politics. As many commentators have noted, Obama campaigned for President with moderates and progressives like Volcker and Cornel West, only to ditch them at the outset of his time in office, populating his cabinet with pro-oligarchy, “free market” Clintonites like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. This was no accident, if only because of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, according to which oligarchy is natural and thus inevitable. Just try to manage a large group of people without centralizing power and delegating responsibility, thus creating a dominance hierarchy, and just try to exercise power as a saint instead of being corrupted by it. In effect, then, Obama benefited from the liberation of African-Americans in that he earned the right to become corrupted like any other powerful person. What sort of congratulations are in order?

Of course, African-Americans would prefer to be so betrayed by one of their own than to be slaves with no human rights; they’d prefer to vote for a puppet of oligarchs than to lack the right to vote in the first place. But once again, informed liberals should remind themselves that their ideals of liberty, justice and equality are delusions. Those who occupy the lower levels of the power hierarchy may change, but the hierarchy remains. The US freed its domestic slave labourers only to exploit wage slaves elsewhere, turning to South America, India, China, and the Middle East. Moreover, in the very basement of our power hierarchies are found the many nonhuman animal species that we domesticate (enslave) or extinguish. Even if all nations came together under a global government and social classes were abolished, we’d rely on our machines (private properties) to sustain our high standard of living, and these machines would eventually become sufficiently intelligent that our use of them would amount to enslavement.

Bitterness and Compassion

West may not be a naïve utopian with unrealistic political expectations, but publicly he’s an enthusiastic advocate of compassion and solidarity, condemning what he’d call counterproductive bitterness. Instead of drinking from the cup of bitterness, he says, we should forgive and show universal compassion. I’ve argued that the Christian justification for this is dubious and that the results of this Christian or humanitarian attitude are perfectly ironic and thus not in keeping with pragmatism. But what exactly is bitterness? Resentment, cynicism, stemming from indignation or in less righteous cases, from rationalization for one’s own regrets. If we’re speaking of our proper attitude towards natural forces, there’s nothing to resent, since there’s nothing personal about our natural victimization. Thus, as I said, ascetic detachment or grim humour is more appropriate. Grimness is sternness, an unyielding, harsh attitude befitting a soldier’s dire circumstances. The stress from wearing such a warrior’s face will likely overwhelm the average person, and so grimness should be leavened with gallows humour, like a bagpipes tune played on the battlefield.

Now which is superior, grim humour or West’s catastrophic loving-kindness? This may just reduce to a question of personal character, but unconditional compassion seems deluded without even addressing its Christian origin. To return to Lombardi’s metaphor, compassion has no room on the battlefield. With respect to our position in nature, we’re not literally at war, nor are we literally imprisoned, nor is nature literally undead. But natural forces are literally mindless and they therefore only accidentally create intelligent beings who suffer from their knowledge that they don’t belong in the natural world. Given our existential predicament, love along with happiness are misplaced. Suppose you show a homeless person compassion, offering him a blanket and a meal. You thus place a Band-Aid on a wound that will naturally run its course regardless or your intervention. You offer false hope that ignores the tragedy’s scope. If oligarchy is natural and so inevitable, there will always be poor masses at the bottom of the economic pyramid; as West says in the video, there’s always a catastrophe for the poor. But if this is just the nature of animal life, with no hope for a deus ex machina, why pretend that any of us is special enough that he or she deserves loving-kindness?

A homeless person is actually a fitting symbol for all of us, given the alienation caused by our liberating intelligence. We’re all homeless in the inhuman cosmos: our claims to own parts of the planet are laughably myopic; no god hears them. Of course, we are special in the sense that we’re very rare, but that’s the source of our existential problem, which calls for pity tinged with disgust, for awe, angst, dread, and grim humour, not loving-kindness--as though we have reason to hope that everything will work out in the end. West defines “compassion” as steadfast commitment to others’ well-being, and that’s the heart of the delusion right there, the notion that we should be well; happiness is for disembodied spirits in an ethereal heaven, not for homeless, trespassing animals that concoct fantasies to escape the horror of being what we are. West is pessimistic, but he still feels the need for compassion if only because he thinks this upbeat attitude is socially useful. It may well be, but so too are the existential emotions like grim acceptance of reality and the artist’s detached joy in creating a new world by way of conducting a doomed, foolhardy rebellion against the prior, natural one. 

Political Action

Finally, what about political action? Clearly, existential or mystical detachment can lead to asceticism, which is practically the opposite of a politically active outlook. Ascetics have sometimes been forced into political action, though, as in the cases of Hindus under Gandhi against the British Empire, Tibetan Buddhists against communist China, and indeed the early Gnostic Christians against the Roman Empire. Gandhi was outmaneuvered by the more modern Nehru who became independent India’s first Prime Minister, and in any case so-called mystically enlightened India has had a caste system, that is, a transparent dominance hierarchy, for thousands of years. The Tibetans suffered the worst during China’s Great Leap Forward, with hundreds of thousands killed and most of their monasteries destroyed. And as I show in Christian Chutzpah, the Gnostic Christians were outmaneuvered by the exoteric literalists who partnered with the very Empire that crushed Jesus.

As I say in my definition of Politics, politics is the exercise of vice in the covert maintenance of naturally unjust power structures. Mystics and other tenderhearted spiritual folk are infamously ill-suited to out-compete the bloodthirsty sociopaths in a political contest. Indeed, as naïve a liberal as Obama may once have been, he personally outmaneuvered Cornel West, the spiritual academic, exploiting him to please his base supporters. West will point to the success of the American civil rights movement under Martin Luther King, and once again I’ll agree that that improved the lives of African-Americans, but I’ll maintain that that success shouldn’t be idealized: it led to the grotesque ironies of Obama’s Presidency and to the externalization of US slave labour. In any case, the Messiah still hasn’t returned--no, Obama wasn’t the Messiah--and the American oligarchy endures like a mountain. 

All of this is to say only that if enlightened people deem political action necessary, they should expect the aesthetically worst-case scenario and the greatest ironies, including the well-known capacity for political entanglement to corrupt a noble character. The political realist would step in at this juncture and protest that this is the counsel of despair, a rationalization that saves face for the outsider who lacks the courage to take up real-life responsibilities. In the case of politics, these responsibilities would be those of the informed citizen who’s duty-bound to democratically oversee the government’s activities. This so-called realist who sneers at the idealist’s presumed cowardice and naivety demonstrates that their relative positions are actually reversed. No informed person can look at the US today and call it a functioning democratic republic. Yet that nation hardly descends into chaos: business commences, power is channeled, and a relatively high standard of living is maintained. That must be because some underlying power structure is actually operative in the US, namely a stealth oligarchy in which democratic oversight is irrelevant. The real-life civic responsibility of the American masses isn’t to pretend to control the government; it’s to do what George W. Bush was reckless enough to tell them to their face to do: to consume (like grazing cattle). They carried out that responsibility with such fervor that they went into severe debt; thus, the pecking order is maintained as the weaker masses sacrifice themselves for the greater glory of their true gods, the plutocrats and other insiders who profit from economic collapses as well as from booms, playing games with their pawns like the Olympian gods of yore.

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