News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: January 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" I

There are few characters in world literature as evil as Shakespeare's Richard III. Yet, to see his evil unfold we run the risk of assuming that the evil will manifest itself in words and gestures that are too easily discovered. Richard's personality and actions belie this easy perception. And that is, perhaps, the genius of Shakespeare's artistic rendering of this evil. In many ways, Richard is the paradigmatic evil modern man. His power machinations, while wholly Machiavellian, exhibit spiritual qualities that Shakespeare's study points to.

Gloucester: Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes. -- Act I, Sc. 1
One can ask whether Richard is not simply a study of Machiavellian cynicism and vertu. Based mostly on the common understanding of Machiavelli's book, The Prince, this understanding sees the politician as a rapacious individual willing to go to any extreme to satiate his or her thirst for power. (I will not go into historigraphical studies that add a more nuanced reading of Machiavelli, especially his republican writings, as expatiated by Skinner and Pocock.)

I think there's much to the common-sense perception of Richard's evil. Its portrayal in art can be very powerful and chilling to see unfold. Yet, like much art, the freezing of evil in a moment or series of moments often exaggerates features of evil that make it grotesque and ultimately deceptive. As much fiction does, art can even sexify evil. This statement does not apply to fiction alone, though. Even news accounts can present evil in such a way that it takes on this attractive quality.

Simone Weil and Kierkegaard discuss this often overlooked tendency of literature. Without going into an analysis, I think Kierkegaard's statement about the "sympathetic antipathy" to the strange and weird makes sense. Writers can exploit this feature of the human psyche to varying degrees, depending on talent and ethical concerns. Kierkegaard himself uses the full panoply of fear and horror to create a spiritual space where the reader finds possibilities open up for different ethical and religious stances toward life.

Something of the horror that great artists can evoke is shown in the following speech of Richard III in Henry VI.

The entire production here is geared to heighten the terrifying aspects of the speech. While highly effective and aesthetically pleasing, the performance and production is so grotesque that it pulls one out of the ordinary in such a way that it is otherworldly. Obviously, this can be the purpose of art: to open up realms of possibility that give insight into our own and others' psyches.

Yet, the obverse of this type of production is that it makes evil or life in general so unreal that we cannot see evil in its mundane everydayness. This can go so far that, as Weil points out, evil becomes alluring and "sexy." From the Marquis de Sade to Anne Rice, the attraction of such artistic renditions obscures the ethical questions posed by the actions portrayed. Commenting on de Sade, for example, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz noted that his de Sade's work is effectively a manual on criminality.

For his part, Georg Lukacs theorized that the reason for much of this failure in ethics is the result of artistic presentation that disregards sociological, historical, and philosophical questions. For Lukacs, the realistic novel addresses these deficiencies. Basing him or herself on an understanding of historical awareness, the novelist can bring in elements that undermine the tendency of art to spectacle and moral indifference.

I will not go into the theoretical aspects of these questions in the following sections. Instead, I will look at the opening scene from Shakespeare's Richard III, specifically his opening speech. I will first do so from within the context of these comments. I will then end with comments by Kierkegaard that places the psychological type of Richard as indicative of an aspect of modern capitalist false consciousness. Read more!

Monday, January 14, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" II: Invisibility

The question about illusion and reality, the inside versus the outside of why a person acts morally or not goes back to Plato. In Republic, Glaucon--one of Socrates' questioners--asks the Greek wise man how we could ever know whether someone is really good. We can't really look into someone's soul--or whatever--after all, so how can we ever know that someone "means it" when they act justly? They might do something good, or apparently so, but that act could be part of a series of acts that end in something bad. After all, Hitler did bring Germany out of economic and social catastrophe, right?

Plato's question about the "really" good is further elaborated in the dialog when Glaucon asks about the nature of justice and suggests that if we could follow people "in imagination," we'd see that their motives were far from pure or sincere. Glaucon tells Socrates:

But as for the second point, that those who practise it do so unwillingly and from want of power to commit injustice--we shall be most likely to apprehend that if we entertain some such supposition as this in thought: [359c] if we grant to each, the just and the unjust, licence and power to do whatever he pleases, and then accompany them in imagination and see whither his desire will conduct each. We should then catch the just man in the very act of resorting to the same conduct as the unjust man because of the self-advantage which every creature by its nature pursues as a good, while by the convention of law1 it is forcibly diverted to paying honor to 'equality.' The license that I mean would be most nearly such as would result from supposing them to have the power [359d] which men say once came to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. -- Plato, Republic
The allusion to Gyges refers to a man who discovers a ring that makes him invisible. Glaucon notes that people--everyone, it is assumed--, once released from social conventions and laws, would exploit this situation and commit forbidden and immoral acts.

The myth about the ring of Gyges is a variant of the proverbial fly-on-the wall. Were we to become flies and observe others, what hypocrisy and dissimulation would we find? Wouldn't we want to visit Ms. Goody-two-shoe's apartment and see whether she's as good as she puts out in public? In a world with stories of church leaders and good husbands who turn out to be serial killers, the shadowland that most people inhabit when it comes to dealing with their passions, faults, fantasies, and frailties belies the idea that people can act purely and without self-interest.

The relationship with how art depicts reality is pertinent here. The artist can plumb the imagination and bring to light those secret passions that others might not wish to see exposed. Great artists like Shakespeare portray the dialectic between act and motive, and the disjunction between the two becomes great art in their hands. While the question is a favorite theme of aesthetic theoreticians and even of artists like Borges, the relationship that the question has to morality is often elided if not disregarded altogether. Borges, for example, often takes his Schopenhauerian aesthetics for granted and simply sees the metaphysical conundrum posed by reality and fiction as subsuming ethical questions in the aesthetic experience of terror and paradox.

Shakespeare's Richard III (Earl of Gloucester) seems to be a complete study in this disjunction between reality and illusion. Richard is the Magus of reality--the sleight-of-mind artist who can divert attention from his true intent and put a dagger in the ribs as your attention is diverted. He is a master psychologist and knows how to play the heart strings of gullibility and vanity, disgust and shame, pride and cowardice. Yet it is too simplistic to characterize Gloucester's actions in only utilitarian terms. I will argue later that a Kierkegaardian analysis provides more insight into this character's actions. In this regard, I hope to elicit a broader perspective on Gloucester's brand of evil than the utilitarian or even the Machiavellian vs. Christian framework allows.

There is a chilling scene in Ian McKellen's portrayal of Richard that brings the "looking into the mind" of evil to birth in the viewer in a powerful way. The beginning words of the play are staged in such a way that--unlike in Olivier's version for example--we are moved from an objective, public speech listening to Richard speak to himself in the public restroom. The final words of the speech are spoken by McKellen in front of the public bathroom mirror.

The idea that this should occur in a bathroom is a stroke of genius on the director's part, I suggest. It displaces the viewer from the grand and mighty festivities of the jet set, omni-powerful and beautiful in the prior scenes and relegates it to the most plebeian space that everyone recognizes. The place where many of our bodily functions are in full display in all their disgust and privacy, where our full humanity exposes itself to us in its mundane shame and animality, where we can't hide from ourselves, is a powerful image.

This links to many subthemes that Richard's own rage at his humanity play on. In an extraordinarily powerful way, we see Richard, a man who has seen human disgust and shame at work in his very existence, reveal himself in his true milieu. In the place where we dread to tread, where we have to face ourselves in all our nudity and animality, Richard sharpens his plan and his blade of bitterness gleams brightly.

I have written before about the theme of disgust, especially in relationship to Martha Nussbaum's book on that subject. One of her theses is that disgust originates in a primitive reaction to our own humanity or animal nature. While it might seem that Richard has in some way transcended this disgust at his own deformity, I will argue later that it his rage at his own physical defects that drives him to destroy not only others but himself. This analysis will eventuate in a reference to Kierkegaard's work, The Sickness Unto Death, especially his schematic on despair.

The scene in the bathroom displays another feature. It comes while Richard speaks to his own image. Then in a truly harrowing gesture, he looks behind his shoulder, finally recognizing the presence of the observer--us. For me, at least, this scene is harrowing because I was sucked into the film convention that gives us the illusion that we, the audience, see them but they do not see us. The short moment of recognition that we have been seen by the observed object is disconcerting to say the least.

This gesture of recognition on Gloucester's part: does it make us confidants or co-conspirators? Are we to witness evil take place to learn its secret machinations or to live out in fantasy those secret desires for vengeance we might all harbor? On a deeper level, are we Gloucester's confreres because we ourselves not only find shame in our secret deformities--whether physical, psychological, or social--but also seek to avenge them on a world and a power, nature, that has made us so?

Gloucester is the epitome of illusion--of performing evil while doing apparent good. The scene depicted here clues us into the secret of Gloucester's intent. Like the fly-on-the wall we will witness evil as it unfolds, confidant to its inner workings, geared in to its windings and turns as it maneuvers through the world. The question becomes, however, whether we simply watch Richard's bloody deeds as though they are just another instance of a monster or whether we find in ourselves those same desires and deception that motivate his vast power project of illusion.

As witnesses to this project, we must decide how much the illusion redoubles itself in our own imaginations. Do we let the acid of the picture as it is etched in our souls reveal those secret reservoirs of resentment and revenge that we nurture so secretly and often unconsciously?

The idea of a nation of voyeurs and spectators goes back to Plato. In his famous allegory of the Cave, Plato describes the uninitiated and ignorant masses as living lives of passive spectatorship in a world populated by shadows. Philosophy breaks the chains of this slavery and ultimately leads the seeker to see the Real. Simone Weil update the allegory in political terms, likening the slaves to modern day film goers undergoing indoctrination via propaganda.

It is debatable that Shakespeare had such intentions in mind in his use of the soliloquy. It is not simply a literary technique in his hands, however, and in Richard III we find it used to powerful psychological effect. The fact that we watch Richard's evil plans unfold, as though looking over his misshapen shoulder, makes us complicit in a way that expands Aristotle's notion of catharsis in a profoundly disturbing way.

Kierkegaard analyzed the spectator society in depth. Basing his analysis on sociological concepts, he sees the spectator as a phenomenon endemic to modern capitalist false consciousness. Kierkegaard sees the psychological foundations for this in the human propensity to identify with others and thereby form self-identity. In modern society, the result of this is envy and much of modern psychological resentment and other ethical and moral behavior originates in this envious viewing.

The idea that we can be invisible to others, thereby losing ourselves in a world where moral culpability is lost has many sources. For Kierkegaard, Richard III epitomizes the modern self-conscious ego in its violent ferocity rebelling against the facts of environmental and genetic givenness. The existential situation we all face, in all our fragility, drives us to seek anonymity and invisibility from the stare of others. We seek to cloak ourselves in a secret world of envious self-deceit.

Richard's self-consciousness of his faults and his rebellion against the facts of his physical and social condition is simply the condition of the modern human writ large. For Kierkegaard, this complex of psychological, social, moral, and political concerns is schematized as despair. In the following, I will expand on this concept and describe further how Richard's actions render despair in a prototypical manner. Read more!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" III: The Architecture of Despair

The idea of invisibility seems to be something primitive enough to the human psyche as to ask what it is that seeks to hide, from whom, and why. In the preceding sections, I noted that Shakespeare's Richard III exploits the chasm between what others see someone do and say and the underlying reasons or motives that might be impelling to do so. The notion of an interior space or thing existing apart from an external world has come under philosophical attack.

Without going into the details of this important debate, I will simply assume in the following that the chasm exists, in whatever way it does. In doing so, I will continue focusing on Gloucester, but this time from Kierkegaard's reflective psychology. This psychology breaks from the traditional notion of a separate entity that somehow exists apart from social, biological, and political forces active in human life.

[I]t is inconceivable that it has not already happened that by a generatio aequivoca [self-procreation] our generation has itself given birth to its hero, the demon, who ruthlessly puts on the dreadful theatrical piece that makes the whole generation laugh and forget that it is laughing at itself. Indeed, what other value does existence have than to be laughed at--when one has already attained the highest by the age of twenty. -- Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trns. Hongs, p. 101
Gloucester is a man eaten to the core by resentment and hatred of those whose image of him makes into a less-than-human stump of a man. Cursed by life itself with a deformity that moves others to laugh in secret, Gloucester marshals his formidable self-awareness and profound understanding of psychology to turn that comic effect he produces in others onto the laughers themselves. He attacks human hypocrisy and social convention, turning it on its head, gutting the seamy underbelly of self-deception and lies that people tell themselves.

Within the microcosm of the play, it is difficult to apply the ferocity of Gloucester's actions in their social, political, and individual dimensions. What is especially difficult is seeing how the individual act embodies these dimensions in such a way that we are for the most unconscious of their influence. Gloucester's self-consciousness can be frightening in this respect. Perhaps gaining insight from his position at the margins of society, as well as his being the brunt of jokes and ridicule, he

In some ways, Gloucester is the prototypical Shakespearean fool, a person who sees the hypocrisies and vanities of life and turns his insight into jokes and irony. While it is true that Gloucester laughs at existence, his immense Machiavellian skills and thirst for power turn his actions into a horrible and terrifying joke that would threaten to turn creation itself into a farce. He wants to harness that laughter and derision thrown at him throughout his life and turn it back onto others not simply as bon mots or fool's wit but siege engines undermining the foundations that support the very beliefs we tell use to organize and channel reality into easily understood concepts and values.

Something of the farce that Gloucester tries to make of life and the continuing joke he sees life as comes, I think, in the following scene depicting his death.

Gloucester has seen into the nothing, that abyss at the core of existence where all is allowed and nothing is real except the stand a human takes. It is Kierkegaard who has schematized these psychological processes. Contrary to much of western philosophy, Kierkegaard's analysis of self-formation in relationship to social, religious, and ideological constructs undermines the notion that these are somehow eternal. The self, or whatever it is that human consciousness of itself is to be called, is a task that finds no certainty in anything other than its own desire for or flight from the freedom to exist.

Gloucester demolishes the crutches and sophistry we depend on to keep ourselves from seeing that abyss or appropriating the responsibility to make ourselves who we are. For Kierkegaard, the tendency of most humans is to react in terror at the thought that the social conventions that support us are only provisional constructs. While we are attracted to this freedom, we also fear it and run as far away as we can in the opposite direction, grasping at every banister or jetsam and flotsam that might float our way to keep us from having to face this freedom. We then lose ourselves in innumerable ways in mindless and senseless behavior.

These remarks about Gloucester lead in a direction that some might find unexpected, at least from within the psychology of capitalism (more about this later) that Kierkegaard undertakes. That is, Kierkegaard takes this notion of absolute freedom as a preliminary stage in living an authentic life. Anything less is simply one or another form of self-deceit, according to Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard recognizes the genius that is Gloucester. Yet, as he is more than willing to admit, this genius is demonic. It is so not because it's a dumb or ignorant person who has no self-awareness. Instead, it is a demonic genius that is self-aware not only of its foibles but of the very freedom and power that gives it this self-awareness.

For Kierkegaard, humans are bio-psychic assemblages which can be constructed in varying degrees of adaptation to the social and physical environments. What brings these pieces together, so to speak, is a sense or awareness that the freedom to put them together resides in the person whose various components--the biological, historical, and physical processes--form not just the world outside but our own attitude to that world.

For Kierkegaard, this self-awareness of the various sides to what is to be human is called the self. It is a recognition and understanding of the relationship between the physical and psychological sides of human being. A key aspect of this awareness is the need to maintain a balance between these elements. They represent not only the very biological processes known from empirical study but also the values and beliefs that one builds up based on experiences of limitation and freedom, dream and reality, possibility and necessity. This self attempts to balance the various needs, desires and memories into a viable being in pursuit of happiness.

But the self is not simply a combination of the physical and psychological. There is also the very background against which this self acts and finds itself. For the various elements described above will lead only to a fragmented being without a guiding pattern, without the love and friendship that complete the whole. This pattern or guiding pattern is the other in whose face I find myself being seen and recognized for who I want to be and believe I am. Much like the android in the movie Blade Runner, the creature wishes to know its creator. For humans, these are family. When they are left, those we look to to acknowledge us and to whom we look to gain status and patterns of molding our behavior are friends and heroes.

The disrelationship of any of these elements causes despair. This notion is often associated with situations where we have no recourse to attaining something, whether that be safety, health, or goods. For Kierkegaard, however, the spiritual dimension of despair relates to the entire relationship humans form with their world, others, and themselves. Since the self is a relationship of various elements, internal and external, despair can occur at any level. People exhibit more and more despair and therefore suffer more the higher one attains consciousness of the factors comprising the self and the responsibility you have in coordinating them.

I will discuss the notion of an image and the role in plays in forming the self in the following section. This is significant especially in the context of political and historical factors that contribute to who we are. In the process, I hope to show how Gloucester exhibits that type of despair that is prototypical in a capitalist society. Read more!

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" IVa: Despair and Tabula Rasa

The last section left open the question about how or why Gloucester might be in despair. Even were the schematic of anxiety and despair that Kierkegaard constructs true, whether Gloucester is in despair is highly questionable and counter-intuitive. Isn't he a dynamo of anger? Isn't he in constant motion to destroy and wreak havoc?

Granted, maybe, he acts like a man possessed by envy and hatred, even evil. His control of his circumstances and his manipulation of reality and illusion is immensely conscious and disturbing. But despair--doesn't despair mean someone who is the victim of circumstances rather than their master?

Laurence Olivier's portrayal of Gloucester emphasizes this world-domineering, Machiavellian Gloucester. In the following clip, you find the deformed Gloucester laying out his plan for assuming royal power in cold, almost clinical detachment. His passion rises to heaven but it is a the passionate outburst of a ravening objective beast that only humans can be.

Hence it is that there can be two forms of despair properly so called. If the human self had constituted itself, there could be a question only of one form, that of not willing to be one’s own self, of willing to get rid of oneself, but there would be no question of despairingly willing to be oneself. This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that [p]ower which constituted the whole relation. Indeed, so far is it from being true that this second form of despair (despair at willing to be one’s own self) denotes only a particular kind of despair, that on the contrary all despair can in the last analysis be reduced to this. If a man in despair is as he thinks conscious of his despair, ... and if by himself and by himself only he would abolish the despair, then by all the labor he expends he is only laboring himself deeper into a deeper despair. -- Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death1
This notoriously difficult statement from Kierkegaard's pseudonym, Anti-Climacus, contains an algebraic description of the despair that Gloucester manifests. As Kierkegaard notes, we often assume that someone in despair is a victim. They suffer at the hands of external events. They cry out from the depths for help. Whether by their own decision or by accident, they suffer pain and for no fault of their own. They suffer passively.

Yet Kierkegaard also says that those who act to mold and shape events can be in despair. 2 Counter-intuitively, it seems, a person in despair can indeed act from despair in a way that gives the impression, the illusion one could say, that they are in control of events. When I am in control I bring to bear the resources of the psyche to shape the world of things into a place where I find security and prosperity, shelter from mortality. The man of action, the usurper seems intensely in control and s/he is master of fortune, seducer of men and women, molder of history itself.

For sure, it's not uncommon to say that someone acts out of despair. If I face financial ruin, I might embezzle funds out of despair to save myself. Or I might kill myself to forestall further physical or psychological pain. This appears in Kierkegaard's quote above. Suicide is a way out for a self that is in disrelationship with the side of its social being, where it undergo the pain and suffering associated with social opprobrium.

Kierkegaard is keen to point out that it's the self--the process that relates the two sides of human being and attempts to balance them--that is in imbalance, out of whack. This being out of whack, though, occurs not simply because I am unrealistic by placing too much emphasis on imagined possibilities, for example, whereas my circumstances constrain and impose limitations. The imbalance occurs because the way that the self takes this fantastic being and relates to others outside my self in a fantastic way. And as long as I do so, I live in a fantasy world of my own creation.

The person considering suicide wants not just to be rid of their physiological being; they want to be rid of their self. In another place, Kierkegaard emphasizes that it is this self, what we have come to understand as our psychological side, that the suicide despairs over, not the physiological being per se. I despair of being the person I am, not who or what I want to be. I want to be happy but events overwhelm me. I want to be rich but I am poor. I want to be beautiful but I am not. Who I want to be, which ultimately means who I am, and the fact that I am not that person causes me to despair.

The monitoring and coordinating process, the self, can be conscious at various levels of awareness of those things that come into play to help me or derail me from being who I want to be. We can see this in the fact that things influence us in ways that we don't at first recognize. After these experiences we understand that we were not conscious of determining factors--whether psychological or external--things and their role in forming me.

After a crisis, for example, I see that I acted for reasons that were self-deceptive or short-sighted. While there are different levels or degrees of consciousness; while I can understand why I do what I do in varying degrees of rational and emotional clarity, I can never understand outside of space/time, as many scientists and philosophers trying to be scientists seem to imply we can. We cannot, contrary to della Miradola's ecstatic theo-philosophy become either angels or gods. This lack of ultimate distance is cause for despair. I realize that i do not have the control that i though I did in determining who I am.

We are always in time/space, always engrossed by the world, enmeshed in a play of various forces that encompass external and internal dimensions. Crises bring this inability to grasp the world in its entirety to the fore. In cases where these crises cause suffering or where what I thought might happen and what does actually occur clash, I find that the entity I call my self stands questioned to its core.

In cases of extreme crisis, where this rupture between self-understandings is most catastrophic, I find that I cannot abide the person I am or have become. I might therefore seek to be rid of the self that I am but don't want. The underlying assumption here is that there is a self that is given, a being that somehow exists before I was born. We are beings given, as noted, in biological, historical, and environmental factors.

We often forget about the givenness, the social, cultural, and other facts of our existence that determine how we think and act. The Enlightenment notion that I am born a blank slate, a tabula rasa, is so prevalent as an underlying assumption for how I relate to who and how I am that it informs what choices and decisions I can make in being who I am.

This conception of a self infinitely varied and changeable forms a foundation stone of the modern state and its cultural background. We grow up believing that all we have to do to be happy is to change ourselves, gain some means of self-transformation and thereby redefine myself, as the pop psychology so prevalent in consumer culture puts it.

In the context of Richard III, we see this notion of change and rebellion against the givenness in full play. Gloucester is a man who is misshapen from birth. Yet through intelligence, will, and imagination he has designed a plan to demolish all obstacles such as accidents of birth that stand in the way of his gaining the crown. He understands the variability of human nature, knows how to simulate love when he hates, feign sorrow when he exults over someone else's suffering, play the fool to distract from the knife that lays bare in his hand.

He will do anything and everything to attain power. Yet, if the preceding is correct, he is not simply an unleashed force of nature that does what it is naturally designed to do, as a Nietzschean might say, but is instead manifesting a state of being that is ultimately self-deceptive about itself.

In the next section, I will continue this discussion about despair, relating it to the Enlightenment notion of the tabula rasa and the politics of despair.

1 The Lowrie translation capitalizes the word power; the Hong trns. does not. The non-capitalized version reflects the text. It is not obvious that Kierkegaard is necessarily speaking of God here, as the Lowrie upper case would imply. I say this, because Kierkegaard notes later that humans often identify as powers other entities that are not divine.

2 The following remarks about active despair build on Hannay's exegesis of Sickness Unto Death. See, for example, the introduction to his own translation of that book.Back To Text Read more!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Underestimating the Xtians

Conventional wisdom of the talking heads is that Huckabee's win seems a fluke. Many of these commentators on the left, like Chris Matthews, say that unlike Iowa, the rest of the country has less evangelical voters. Therefore, Huckabee will not do as well and is probably just a one-hit wonder.

Chris Matthews laughed at Huckabee's lack of current affairs knowledge last night on MSNBC. I think Huckabee might have the last laugh here. For it seems that Matthews is as blind as a bat when it comes to understanding the breadth and depth of the evangelical population. For instance, just in April, the NYT reported:

Johnson and his fellow Christian right activists speak of "values voters," but most of these voters are evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals have a disproportionate part in what pollsters call the "God gap" between the two parties. They make up a quarter of the population—around 75 million people—and a far higher percentage of them are frequent churchgoers than are mainline Protestants and Catholics. Furthermore, the group as a whole has for a decade voted Republican in much greater proportion than the other two groups. In 2000, 68 percent of evangelicals voted for George Bush; in 2004, 78 percent of them did. Last summer, polls showed that the war in Iraq, corruption, and the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina had brought the evangelicals' approval ratings for Bush and the GOP down by twenty points in just two years. But on the last Election Day they turned out in their usual numbers, and over 70 percent of them voted for Republican congressional candidates. White evangelicals have, in other words, become the GOP's most reliable constituency, and they normally provide about a third of the Republican votes.
Where do people like Matthews think all of these people live? I imagine that he and others think they are distributed throuout backwoods and rural America, so-called Red America. It is my experience, though, that the evangelical movement is far and wide and includes urban areas as much as those traditionally believed by the Left to be "religious."

Perhaps someone has done more in-depth demographic analysis of the geographical distribution of evangelicals. I am open to correction and perhaps will do some research on it myself in the next few days.

Matthews and others like him seem to have no clue about Huckabee's appeal. I think Howard Fineman gets it, He even coined a phrase that I imagine he will begin using in his articles, :the politics of intimacy." Huckabee is a charming, disarming person in his interviews. He diverts attention away from polarizing stereotypes and runs hits at the center of the humanity of his questioners.

This is a new take and powerful tack on how to deal with the media and seems especially suited to media-centered coverage. For now, I will coin my own term for Huckabee's approach. He is the "Being There" candidate. Much like Chauncey Phillips in the novel and film of that name, he evokes a sense of sincerity and disingenuousness that belies cynicism so rampant among the media pundits.

Update via Washington Note: Not exactly an objective view but effective anti-Huckabee ad.

Read more!