“Public Schools in Utopia”

by Sam Buntz

Recently, Allison Benedikt, writing in Slate, declared, “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person.”  I totally disagree with this—and not just with the broad generalization itself, but also with most of its underlying principles.  I don’t at all think Ms. Benedikt is a fool or particularly ill-intentioned—I just don’t believe she reasoned out the implications of what she was writing to a very profound degree.

Now, in the interests of fully disclosing my own history, I was educated at a private Montessori school up to fourth grade, and then attended public school until I graduated from high school.  So, I spent most of my education in the public system, took the good with the bad, and here I am.  I have no personal beef with public school, nor any bias in favor of private education.  What most concerns me are the principles at stake—namely, the classic dilemma of individual liberty opposed to the common good, but also the greater claim that having everyone participate in one system will somehow improve it.

Benedikt assumes that if we (voluntarily) sent every kid in America to public school, the public school system would ultimately improve over the course of generations.  She writes, “…it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”  The rest of the article proceeds by taking this assumption for granted—rather than attempting to defend it or even explain, exactly, the mechanism by which universal participation in one system of education will improve public education as a whole.  She says that even religious and behavioral or learning issues aren’t compelling reasons for a family to send their kids to private school—“compelling” being a pretty subjective term, as an Amish person in Lancaster County or a New York Hasidic Jew would obviously find religious reasons very compelling, and a parent with a child dealing with cerebral palsy or a dyslexia—disabilities the local public school might be woefully unequipped to deal with—would certainly find such reasons compelling, as well.

Benedikt’s argument—insofar as it is clearly articulated—also only makes sense if you’re willing to argue that people should sacrifice not only their own basic, human rights and interests (the integrity of their belief systems, the physical and mental well-being of their children) in the favor of a distant common good that might not benefit people with the same religious beliefs or medical difficulties, but would (in theory) generally benefit the average person to a possibly greater degree.  Even if this were true—and it isn’t—it’s ridiculous to ask someone to sacrifice their concern for their children or for the perpetuation of their religious beliefs because it possibly could benefit everybody generations later—or at least everyone who doesn’t have any specific concerns and falls squarely in the median zone of every statistical measurement.

Even if Benedikt were correct—and this would lead to a general increase in the common good—it would still be a morally unconscionable way of doing it, a classic case of bad means leading to a good end.  But the idea that a universal public education system, with total participation and with no rival private systems to compete with, could somehow manage to correct itself over time in favor of the general interest, seems extremely dubious to me.  It leaves out all that we’ve managed to learn about the perils of group-think, about the necessity of leaving big societal programs (like education) somewhat decentralized, so that, if the central system most people use (public education) doesn’t get something right—adopting a particular method to deal with a learning disability, for instance—one of the outlying systems or marginal systems (Catholic schools or Montessori schools or Waldorf schools or take-your-pick) might provide a better alternative.

If there’s only one system—or even just two or three—it will, I think, easily settle into stasis.  No energy can enter into it from outside—it ceases to be open to anything—and it will gradually grind down to as low a level as it can possibly reach, while still, technically, functioning.  That, to my mind, seems like a much more likely outcome of universal public education.  But having multiple systems—and the ever-abiding potential to create entirely new systems—would actually (for the aforementioned reasons) keep the public school system working at a higher level.  Benedikt assumes that universal participation means that, since every parent would have a stake in the system, all would pitch in to make sure it improves.  But, without other systems in which experimentation and innovation can occur, how does something truly new enter into the public school system?  How do improvements arise?  You can’t just materialize them magically—you need to have an element of competition, with different interests free to move in different directions, to see varying outcomes and measure them against each other.

The Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, argued that a real “Utopia” would not be some sort of utterly unified ideal society, but rather a state of liberty in which all parties were allowed to pursue their own “utopias”, creating different patterns of community and voluntary organization that would succeed or fail based on their ultimate value.  Ms. Benedikt—who I’m sure is well-intentioned, and who makes her argument in a tone that is pretty light, and not overly serious in the first place (even though we’re meant to take it seriously)— proposes the opposite state of affairs, while also disregarding the liberty and dignity of religious minorities and of those dealing with learning, medical, and behavioral disabilities.  I offer these remarks as a corrective and not as an attack, and I hope she—if she happens to read them, somehow—will reconsider her views.

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“Between the Party of Memory and the Party of Hope”

by Sam Buntz

“Rabbi Zusya said, ‘When I die, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’  I will be asked ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” – Martin Buber

In the contemporary liberal approach to education, the contribution of the past—the statements of Church Fathers and Founding Fathers and the assorted “Dead White Men” who dominated the cultural history of Europe and America—doesn’t particularly matter.  The goodness of the individual is, to some degree, assumed—the student just needs a little prodding and molding, helping him or her to get the facts straight.  With gentle social engineering—making sure, for instance, that people understand that racism and sexism are wrong (and they are wrong, certainly; that part of the approach is admirable) and de-conditioning them from their acquired habits as consumerists (less possible and less admirable)— you can ultimately live in a world that is very close to a utopia.  If you can correct the social code just a little bit (or even quite radically), you can ultimately nudge (or shove) society as whole towards making all the right choices, the assumption being that the well-educated people doing the nudging (or shoving) already know what the right choices are.  The liberal uses reason as a tool for planning or re-imagining the shape of society.  He or she (in the purity of theory) does not necessarily depend on a comparative analysis of societal or cultural shapes from the past, attempting to use them as models. One ought to generate the model entirely through the application of reason and empirical knowledge, detached from prior institutional or cultural frameworks.  Emerson referred to such liberals as comprising “The Party of Hope.”

The conservative approach to education is obviously totally different, almost the inverse.  At its worst, it takes the form of mental slavery to one ancient Book of Books or one unchangeable code—but, at its best, it involves an intense attempt to absorb and master the storehouse of acquired wisdom, putting the best that has already been thought and said into action.  Rather than vesting their hopes in a better future they can nudge people towards, the conservative puts his or her expectations into shared cultural memory.  Like Emerson said, the conservative is a member of “The Party of Memory.”  Frequently, however, this does not mean that memory is the key to liberating human beings—using knowledge of our origins to spark us into a fresh awareness of our present condition.  Rather, the conservative often means that we should be utterly obedient to tradition.  The strictures of a St. Augustine or the most original and verifiable sayings of a Final Prophet (without the tradition’s later refinements and interpretations) end up being the last and unquestioned guides for human conduct.

Of course, for myself, neither of these positions is acceptable.  I do agree with the basic, conservative idea that an education should center on an awareness of one’s past and one’s origins—but I don’t view that knowledge, knowledge of “The Tradition”, as something that should be completely (or even rather less completely) binding.  The point of knowing the tradition—of understanding the forces that shaped yourself and your society—is not to then slavishly offer one’s self to those forces.  Tradition is not something you obey—it’s something with which you match wits.  You are to absorb it utterly—to take every bit of wisdom it offers you, and to know its folly and its un-wisdom, as well.  While the liberal thinks that a good or truly new idea can only emerge from the present and instantaneous application of reason and empiricism, and the conservative thinks that a good or new idea can only be a resuscitated old idea, the third stance—which I consider a sort of Classical Liberal position—is to believe that a good or truly new idea can (and must) come into existence, but that it can only be fertilized in the soil of time—in the richness left by old ideas and insights, now possibly decayed, but still containing the ingredients needed to incubate a new realization, a new conquest of reality.

If one tries to dispel the specter of the past entirely, one reaches the extreme touched by the Bolsheviks or by Pol Pot, who tried to start the calendar over at Year One.  Attempting to use reason, without granting it access to the material of the cultural and political past, they ended up with an utterly monstrous society.  Consequently, were someone to attempt to dispense with the entirety of civilized Western or civilized Islamic thought—to live only in a medieval Catholic feudal order, or to live by the fundamentals of the Koran, as the Salafists do, without the aid of the entire history of Islamic jurisprudence to moderate one’s interpretation—one also ends up with something that would, by any humane moral and ethical standard, look pretty monstrous and absurd.

The Past Masters’ understanding and wisdom—from whatever cultural tradition—looms up as an affront to one’s own.  You see how much value the Canon has inside of it, and you—if you’re a person who can appreciate Genius and greatness when you see them—feel humbled.  But you also feel re-energized—the more you study, the more you notice things that seem off, that seem half-reasoned or discredited.  You begin to sense your own competence, your own ability to digest and assimilate these ideas, and develop a viewpoint peculiar to yourself.  As Paul Valery said (in a quote cited in another recent blog post—one I wrote on Bob Dylan), “A lion is made from digested sheep.”  Ultimately, the student—by which I mean any person questing for understanding, to know the true and the good—deals with the same heady realizations that challenged the Masters and Matrons of the past, the same sense of an inner power rising up, provoked by the apprehension of external greatness, of Genius.  In “As I Sat on Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Walt Whitman expressed this in a profound and highly memorable passage:

“I will confront these shows of the day and night,
I will know if I am to be less than they,
I will see if I am not as majestic as they,
I will see if I am not as subtle and real as they,
I will see if I am to be less generous than they,
I will see if I have no meaning, while the houses and ships have meaning,
I will see if the fishes and birds are to be enough for themselves,
and I am not to be enough for myself.

“I match my spirit against yours you orbs, growths, mountains, brutes,
Copious as you are I absorb you all in myself, and become the master
myself,

“America isolated yet embodying all, what is it finally except myself?
These States, what are they except myself?
I know now why the earth is gross, tantalizing, wicked—it is for my sake,
I take you specially to be mine, you terrible, rude forms.”

“The Return to the Source”

by Sam Buntz

I’m a big fan of Michael Apted’s documentary series, Up (although I haven’t seen the most recent installment yet).  The series began in the 1950s with “Seven Up”, looking at the lives and opinions of British seven-year-olds from a wide variety of backgrounds.  The director, Apted, proceeded to check in with them every seven years from then on, witnessing some surprising life changes.  I remember, somewhere around 42 Up, in which a number of the documentary’s subjects were discussing their recent divorces, Apted asked one of the couples who actually had stayed together what they thought the secret was.  They admitted that they would get mad at each other sometimes, but the husband (one of the original seven year-olds) said that the key was to always remember what it was like in the beginning, when you were getting to know each other.  And, somehow, that memory manages to filter into and re-enliven the present.

I think that’s a profound observation.  When you start to believe, with the best of the old philosophers, that “the greatest desire of every being is to return to its origin”, it has the potential to re-orient your whole worldview.  You start to see that forgetting one’s origins causes many of the most common difficulties, and the reverberations of the idea seem endless: personal, political, scientific, religious, sociological, psychological…  For instance, contemporary psychologists (not to mention old-school analysts like Freud and Jung) tend to search for the key to the present in the formative past.  And in the earlier period of psychoanalytic investigation, Freud said, “Wherever Id (the primitive source of desire) was, there the ego shall be.”  The entire psychoanalytic method thus lies in searching for primal, original attachments and desires that the patient hasn’t outgrown, while attempting to offer healthy substitutes.

The religious and mystical ramifications are pretty obvious as well.  A Zen Master once encouraged his disciple to meditate on the question, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”  In Christian spirituality, the notion is a potent one, with central luminaries like St. Augustine and Dante urging the soul to re-orient its desires away from the myriad objects of the material world and towards its source in God, and sin itself seems to be defined as forgetting that Origin.  The sense conveyed by Eastern and Western religious thinking is that without a connection to the fundamental sources of life, a human being becomes dry and dead, inhabiting a mechanical universe where everything seems to lack soul and substance. There is Jesus famous parable of the “True Vine”, where the branches that are connected to the vine of Christ, the Word, are filled with life—but withered flammability awaits the others.  In Hindu thought as well, it is the primal Brahman—Existence-Consciousness-Bliss and the ultimate origin of everything— that must be attained in order to find peace in life.  The same is basically true for ancient Greek philosophies like Neo-Platonism.

In the more worldly areas of inquiry, the search for the single, originating principle is also of pre-eminent concern.  The question of the ultimate nature of the laws of physics is inextricably tied-up with the universe’s origin in the Big Bang, and the conditions governing that primal event.  In political science, a huge debate has centered around what life would be like in an original or given state of nature—whether it would be “nasty, brutish, and short” as Thomas Hobbes put it, or a state of primitive freedom and goodness, as Jean Jacques Rousseau saw it.  The creation of constitutions and the development of common law are caught up with this broader dialogue.

The arts, too, quest endlessly for origins.  Harold Bloom, the Yale literary critic, said that, unlike the Freudians, who tried to substitute new enjoyments for the now-unobtainable ones to which the self originally became attached (like, for example, breast milk) the great poets are always reaching for a primordial bliss, not content with any substitute.  As Hart Crane put it, “I was promised an improved infancy,” and poets from Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens have sought to re-integrate the mind with the Nature it perceives and from which it once arose.  With other poets, this often takes the form of a semi-mystical quest, where the soul attempts to find succor in itself or in an Oversoul, the source of nourishment and the nourished-self finally being one and the same.

I mention all these different examples just to suggest the scope of the idea, the supreme relevance of a return to origins.  Regardless of your position on any issue, the question of the Beginning always looms up.  Men of the Enlightenment, like Rousseau, insisted on the primacy of human goodness in an initial state of contentment, whereas Christian teaching suggests that an origin in goodness (Creation by God) was replaced by an origin in sin (The Fall).  You can see it in the conservatives on the Supreme Court who appeal to the original meaning of the Constitution, as the Founders would’ve seen it, and in the liberals on the same court who appeal to certain primordial natural rights that transcend the Constitution’s ability to document them with too much precision.  The past is an inexhaustible source of fuel for the present, and anyone can learn more about themselves and profit philosophically by considering their origins.  In “East Coker”, T.S. Eliot wisely declared: “Home is where one starts from.  As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living… / Old men ought to be explorers / Here or there does not matter / We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion / …In my end, is my beginning.”

“ ‘Materialism is Fun’ ”

by Sam Buntz

One of the most difficult things for an intellectual to accept is the fact that most people are inevitably going to have primarily, or even entirely material interests.  Yet the intellectual who has trouble accepting this fact would, if he or she were subjected to scrutiny, probably turn out to have a preponderance of material concerns as well.  Since we live in a world that is, apparently, physical, it is the physical that ends up dominating our consciousness. I have friends who object, in the most strenuous terms, to certain commercials, which try to convince the average viewer that, say, owning the new Volvo will turn out to be a spiritual experience whilst offering transcendent images of fields of wheat or of a white horse galloping across a beach to help solidify the religious expectation in the viewer’s mind.  This doesn’t really bother me—except perhaps, during a few moments in the past, when I affected phony outrage for the benefit of an audience or out of boredom.

It’s the kind of thing Arthur Miller tried to say in Death of a Salesman.  While admittedly a very good play, Willy Loman’s tragedy isn’t that he bought into a false, materialistic idea of the American Dream, and that there was no wisdom available that might’ve saved him.  He did buy into a totally skewed vision of reality, but although Miller intends us to believe otherwise, Willy’s tragedy is really the tragedy of someone who never really wanted anything other than to be popular, well-liked, and affluent—to be Top Man.  We can sympathize with his predicament, but it seems absurd to state that America, despite the vast proliferation of crazy nihilistic nonsense (whether on the news, the internet, or anywhere), is a wasteland utterly bereft of any saving wisdom.  If you have even minimal access to a library or the Internet—and basically everybody does now—your curiosity will be rewarded.  A simple Google or Wikipedia search for “philosophy” or “psychology” or “religion”, will immediately yield dividends.

Yet a great many well-intentioned and very smart people have a problem with the exuberant materialism of American society—and I too have a problem with it on the level of personal principle.  But many critics want to go a step farther, attacking mass culture for brainwashing people into accepting a false set of values.  The values presented by mass culture are, from my perspective, probably pretty false overall, but I don’t believe anyone’s actually getting brainwashed, especially at a time like the present, where access to information regarding a wide variety of value systems is so widely available in America and in the Western World.  The critics usually go a step-further, proposing some sort of plan to de-program and re-educate the unwashed mob, under the guise of freeing them, which is what happens in every society where Communism has ever taken hold. Islamists and the Medieval Catholic Church also exemplify the coercive attempt to wean the supple-minded fool from his or her distractions, and even figures like Noam Chomsky make the same argument from a contemporary left-wing standpoint, attempting to argue that we’re all so hypnotized by corporate culture (which has its own conspiratorial elite running it from the shadows in some sort of supposedly unified way), that we can only be jarred out of our stupor by an anarcho-syndicalist revolt.

But all of these programs only succeed—since the self-appointed elite seeks to re-orient the attention of society towards that elite’s own interests—in creating a state of stasis, where the elite presents a new form of materialism (a mandated set of physical rituals or limited clothing-options, or forcing the collective-ownership of property or the banning of private employers) that substitutes for the numerous, conflicting material interests of the people.  Thus, we would end up living in a world where we are ordered around by stewards every bit as fallen and broken as we are, who have the arrogance to assume that their supposedly more refined version of materialism is better than the diverse versions of materialism adopted by the masses and the occasionally spiritual or truly intellectual worldview that also crops up from time to time.

It seems to me that, if someone wants to convince people to become interested in difficult pleasures—pleasures of the mind and the spirit—one needs to actually present those pleasures attractively, rather than finding a way to manage people towards them from above.  Most people are simply not going to be interested—which is legitimate—but a few people might start to pay attention.  And maybe they’ll get a few more people to pay attention.

I remember that, in college, a member of the opinion staff (of which I was another member) wrote an editorial entitled “Frats are Fun.”  At my college, a debate about the very popular frat system continually renews itself, and the opponents of the frat system often attacked it for encouraging shallow hedonism (I indulged in such attacks a couple of times—though somewhat reasonably, I think).  But the great point of “Frats are Fun”, because it was so obvious, is that people join a fraternity or a sorority because they find those things fun—not because they’re being brainwashed or coerced by campus culture, by some sort of mass delusion like in The Matrix or They Live.  The frat system there still really does have major problems, but I thought the author of “Frats are Fun” (I wish I could remember who it was) made a strong argument against the more zealous members of the anti-frat crowd.  They hadn’t provided something that could draw people’s attention the same way the Greek organizations could, and consequently they were resentful.  Of course, the article’s argument could also be used to attack people who weren’t resentful for bad reasons, and who actually had an honest beef with the rush process (I remember a overly huge amount of girls were always rejected from the Pan-Hellenic rush, for instance, and hazing was a large and persistent problem, not to mention the nationwide campus problem with sexual assault.)  But, ultimately, learning that some people find frats (or football or NASCAR or shopping for expensive purses) fun, while other people don’t, and accepting that, is one of the hallmarks of maturity.  Co-existing with that sort of materialism, while gently refusing to be seduced by it, provides a necessary challenge for the budding Sage.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s teacher, Mr. Antolini, tells him that he doesn’t want Holden to become someone who sits around in a bar, hating everyone who walks through the door and looks like they used to play football in college.  I think that intellectuals—especially, very high-class, cutting-edge social “theorists” and cultural critics—fall into this trap all too easily.  The best way to get the world to listen to your idea is to learn the basics of expressing it in an insinuatingly pleasing way, like tricking a baby into eating vegetables with ample doses of butter, or doing the “airplane” trick (where you pretend the spoon’s an airplane).  But the attempt to manage from above—whether by Marxists or by Neo-Cons—seems to be a self-defeating game.  A life led in the mind and spirit is, in my view, the ultimate end of humanity—but such a life evolves organically, pushing its stem through the dark richness of the material world, the matrix in which it grows and develops its being.

A Map for an Undiscovered Country

by Sam Buntz

In a blog post for the New York Times Opinionator, NYU Philosopher, Thomas Nagel, defends the idea that a purely material explanation of the universe will remain incomplete (“The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’”).  In order for science to reach a full account of the true nature of existence, says Nagel, it will need to find some way of talking about the non-physical, about Mind (or Spirit—but Nagel’s a philosopher, and philosophers prefer Mind.)  He says that no matter how thoroughly science may come to grasp objective reality, our subjective experience will still remain, in a sense, unexplained.  Nagel writes: “Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. I would add that even some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”

Most thinkers who argue for the materialist worldview (meaning the worldview that asserts that the only real substance is matter—not the worldview of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, though they’re not mutually exclusive positions), like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, believe that science will eventually find some way of talking about the subjective in physical terms, or that it already has.  But for Nagel (and I totally agree with him), it seems that this is a logical impossibility.  The rules of the game, as set up by those who espouse scientific-materialism, don’t really allow inquiry into subjective experience.  Nagel doesn’t spell it out, but I think this is because an investigation of subjective experience would require a method that is, overall, subjective—but comparatively so, searching through the varying accounts of different people’s subjective experiences (I mean, their subjective experiences of their own subjectivity), in order to reach conclusions that may be less concrete than those of physics, yet, perhaps, still very convincing.

But what would such a method look like?  I believe it would need to involve the analysis—and, preferably, the practice—of meditation.  In Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sufi, Christian, and Jewish forms of mysticism, one sees many different attempts to access the fundaments of being, to see the-one-who-sees, approaching the directly mental or spiritual nature of experience, beyond the limited physical conditions in which it occurs.  It is like the paradox of an eye attempting to swivel around to see itself—but a paradox that, evidently, solves itself at some point in the process. To provide an example of what such a subjective method would look like, the Hindu teacher, Ramana Maharshi, recommended continually asking the question “Who am I?”, attempting not just to pose the query, but to struggle to see the answer.  Eventually, this was to lead to a direct realization of the Self.  Even an avowed atheist polemicist, Sam Harris, has stated that mysticism is actually a “rational form of inquiry,” and practices Buddhist forms of meditation.

Years ago, thinkers like William James and Arthur Koestler probed into these forbidden regions without fear, and their investigations were especially valuable because neither one had a dogma to hamper them.  They were free to draw conclusions as they would.  Nagel has the same advantage—he does not accept any of the current religious explanations for reality, but he is more committed to discovering the truth than resting in a purely physical, self-regulating clockwork universe.  And his style and substance could hardly be mistaken for anything “New Age.”  Yet, while Koestler and James spent a lot of time screwing around with the paranormal, I think there’s little fear that Nagel will base his search for a principle of Mind on these shaky grounds.

But I think an investigation of the mystical experience, in a wholly scientific spirit, would do wonders for the study of philosophy, religion, and psychology.  People are already conducting it, but it has yet to take off in the world-at-large.  The idea already has seen some progress—for example, Harvard Medical School researchers were able to show that Tibetan Buddhist monks could actually control their body temperature through a certain meditation practice.  Yet, those researchers were mainly looking at the objective states in the monks’ brains—their analysis did not try to search out the realm of Mind.  Hopefully, a rigorous scientific sensibility can bring itself to bear on a comparative study of mystical experiences, without making assumptions religious or atheistic.  The consequences, I imagine, will not only have philosophical benefits—getting us closer to the truth—but practical benefits, as well.  Space, after all, is probably not the final frontier.  The vast terrain of the Self, despite the excursions of some early psychologists, remains, for the secular world, a largely undiscovered country, in need of an updated map.

Of Blue Dogs and Orange Bookers

by Sam Buntz

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”   -John Stuart Mill

“Politics in America are too partisan”—people keep muttering this sentence.  It happens to be true, and has been true for a long time, but not in the sense in which the accusation is usually levied.  Let’s not forget that, a little less than two hundred years ago, a Vice President of the United States (Aaron Burr) murdered a former Treasurer of the United States in a duel (Alexander Hamilton).  Albeit, that was due to a personal insult, but still—you can’t find, between political rivals, many tactics more partisan than murder.  When people say that politics have become “too partisan” they are usually in the process of making a very partisan point.  They tend to be saying something like, “The Republican Party is infested with Tea Party gun nuts” or “The Democrats are, at this point, complete Bolsheviks.”

In reality, I think the big problem isn’t so much the intensity and ferocity of party politics, but the increasing dogmatism and the proliferation of un-imaginative viewpoints found on both sides of the isle.  The parties have hardened their ideologies into somewhat brittle shells. There are still some independent-minded politicians out there—including very influential ones—but they’re in the definite minority.  Consider the decline in the membership of the Blue Dog Democrats, representing the more fiscally restrained members of the party: their numbers declined from 54 in 2008 to 27 in 2010 to just 14 members after the 2012 elections.  The Republican equivalent, The Mainstreet Partnership, has about 50 members in the House and Senate—which is, albeit, a bit more.  But I don’t believe it’s a particularly daring coalition.  After all, John McCain—who perhaps used to belong in such a coalition—is a leading member, and his strident interventionism (recall his pledge to stay in Iraq for “100 years” if necessary) doesn’t strike me as particularly valuable or moderate.  If anything, it seems that the past decade has demonstrated that we need to seek “‘Peace through strength’, not ‘War through strength,’” as Rand Paul reminded the Republicans a little while ago (paraphrasing Reagan.)

The civil and economic libertarianism of a Senator like Paul seems to me to be a more interesting counter-force in politics.  The popularly repeated smear that he’s an “isolationist” doesn’t have much basis in fact—and those who insist on repeating it should read his address to the Heritage Foundation, “Containment and Radical Islam.”  Despite the superficial partisanship of many congressmen, the actual ideology of both parties seems to have, at least in terms of foreign policy and civil liberties, clotted into a widespread affirmation of state-control and aggression overseas.  McCain and Lindsey Graham represent the large right-wing hawk contingent, in favor of any war at any time, and eager to abuse the faith of those who feel obliged to serve America in her foreign conflicts (like the loyal, honest warrior class of the South).  Although his rhetoric is softer, Obama doesn’t differ too radically from the “Kill ’Em All” people, and only Senator Paul and his allies seem to have a foreign policy that differs in any way from that of the President and his Neo-Con semi-allies.  Nowhere are the principles of Classical Liberalism evident, except in the libertarian positions adopted by some.  Senator Paul convincingly points out that the Executive Branch has virtually hi-jacked the war-making power from congress, consulting the U.N. and NATO before joining in the attack on Libya, but never bothering to ask for the approval of the representatives of the American people.

Hopefully, this stasis—superficially partisan, but overall, in agreement on ceding a great deal of control to the state, and on resolving conflicts through a pre-emptive, aggression-first approach—can be broken.  It might be informative to look at groups like the Liberal Democrats in England, who tend to take more fiscally conservative positions than the Labor Party and more socially liberal views than the Tories.  This is outlined in The Orange Book, a set of essays by the party’s leaders from 2004, detailing their platform, distancing themselves from the left-wing economic policies of previous Lib Dems, while re- dedicating themselves to social and civil liberties.  It may be true that American politics needs an Orange Book of its own…

No Self, No Merit, No Fame

(A Brief Note on Taoists and Libertarians)

by Sam Buntz

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.”

Tao Te Ching

Libertarian thinkers have already noted certain apparent similarities between their philosophy and that of the ancient Chinese wisdom teachers, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.  (For the record, many Western scholars claim Lao Tzu might not have existed and that his work was primarily a compilation of sayings.  They might have good reasons for reaching this conclusion, but I sometimes wonder if people one thousand years from now won’t wrongly claim T.S. Eliot or William Blake as invented personalities, as they have in the case of Homer, no less than Lao Tzu.)  Yet, it is difficult to corral the doctrines of, say, Ayn Rand, a common Libertarian idol, into the same pen as these Men of the Tao (Tao, for the benefit of the uninitiated, usually translated as “The Way”—though, according to Lao Tzu’s paradoxical saying, “The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.”)  Indeed, both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu praised “action-less action”, whether by the government or by anybody, but their meaning flowed from a different intellectual and spiritual vein than that of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Tea Party people.  Practically, many of the implications for government would be the same, but the Taoist Sages didn’t want to reduce the role of government in order to emancipate selfishness, and would’ve reacted with ironic amusement to the title and content of Ms. Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.

I think that Chuang Tzu would’ve thought that someone who talked a bit too much about the utter-sovereignty and centrality of self-interest had probably fallen off the wagon so long ago, as to have forgotten what the human spirit really is, identifying it with mere desire, or (so much the worse) the critical intellect.  According to the Taoists, the spirit doesn’t want anything—that grasping instinct springs from a source far dirtier than that of the pristine spirit, which would imitate the turtle, who, in one of Chuang Tzu’s tales, prefers to remain alive in the river’s mud than to be stuffed up dead on a shelf in the emperor’s palace.  The contented spirit simply “abides” (in a manner similar and dissimilar to that of the ever-abiding Dude from The Big Lebowski).  When Ayn Rand attacked the Libertarians for being “hippies of the Right” and associating with “anarchists and scum” she was attacking the most noble side of the Libertarian movement, it’s would-be Taoists, who follow (however un-gracefully) the non-method of wu wei, “effortless effort.”  She would’ve reacted with bilious scorn to Chuang Tzu’s wonderfully blithe affirmation: “Therefore, I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame.”

Of course, the Taoists weren’t talking about being couch potatoes—yet the reflective couch potato often discovers a wisdom more sublime than that of the frenetic hot-rodder.  Such is the fertility of stillness.  Yet, the crucial term is, after all, “effortless effort”, which is different from plain effortlessness, the abyss of dark inertia.  The followers of Chuang Tzu—insofar as such an individualist can be said to have voluntarily had “followers” rather than a free assortment of interested parties—did not (and do not) seek a “triumph of the will”, a victory attained by force over either nature of their fellow human beings.  Nor was theirs a path of proto-hippie self-indulgence, wallowing in easy pleasures and mistaking it for transcendence. Far from it! The Taoist path is one in which the critical mind—that which makes judgments and distinctions—attains the freedom to drop off or slow down.  It is a sublime wriggling out of the chrysalis, a rupture of the cocoon, precipitated without aggression.  The Tao—the way of that which is naturally so—simply keeps going, “a river flowing everywhere, like a sea” (in Wallace Stevens’ words) and events occur as they occur.  It is a practical mysticism, one that does not baffle the soul with over-many metaphysical complexities (although “religious Taoism” does have a very complex and beautiful metaphysics and cosmology—but I’m speaking more of Taoism as a philosophy.)

In Taoist thought, the critical intellect may have good intentions—like those of so many communists and authoritarians who thought they could manage us into utopia—but it is unable to carry them out without reducing its object to the conditions of the police state or the gulag.  There is a famous parable from Chuang Tzu, describing how “King Chaos” (“Chaos” being taken not in a pejorative sense, as in the West, but in the sense of the Unconditioned, the state in which the Tao flows without impediment) hosted two visiting kings (representing, I believe, the ratiocinative intellect, the time-bound mind) named “Sudden” and “Brief”.  Chaos entertained them very well, whenever they visited, and so they wished to re-pay him.  Noting that King Chaos did not have any of the five senses, the other two kings decided to drill him some eyes and ears, a nose and a mouth.  Seven days after this operation, we are informed, King Chaos died.  The parable brilliantly illustrates a truth that has personal as well as political ramifications.  The attempt of the critical mind to carve up and manage reality—whether it is reality as one’s own household or neighborhood or reality as a contemporary nation-state—fails.  The patient dies.  The parable implicitly counsels calm abiding, and an intuitive acceptance of the “spontaneous order” of reality (the term “spontaneous order” being used by the Austrian School economist, F.A. Hayek, to describe the order that develops within free markets of its own accord—a shadowy and perhaps less-than-perfect image of the kingdom of King Chaos.)

Oscar Wilde was a “socialist” or an “anarchist”—though apparently of the voluntary variety, and hence consistent with libertarian principles—in addition to being one of the first admirers of Chuang Tzu in the Western World.  Wilde wrote a fascinating review of one of the first translations of Chuang Tzu, wherein he presents and summarizes the sage’s vision of the Ideal State (existing, one can suppose, more as a form or guiding image, than as an achievable earthly nation—rather like Plato’s Republic, except utterly departing from the incipient totalitarianism of that political model):

“Yes; incredible as it may seem, this curious thinker looked back with a sigh of regret to a certain Golden Age when there were no competitive examinations, no wearisome educational systems, no missionaries, no penny dinners for the people, no Established Churches, no Humanitarian Societies, no dull lectures about one’s duty to one’s neighbour, and no tedious sermons about any subject at all. In those ideal days, he tells us, people loved each other without being conscious of charity, or writing to the newspapers about it. They were upright, and yet they never published books upon Altruism. As every man kept his knowledge to himself, the world escaped the curse of scepticism; and as every man kept his virtues to himself, nobody meddled in other people’s business. They lived simple and peaceful lives, and were contented with such food and raiment as they could get. Neighbouring districts were in sight, and ‘the cocks and dogs of one could be heard in the other,’ yet the people grew old and died without ever interchanging visits. There was no chattering about clever men, and no laudation of good men. The intolerable sense of obligation was unknown. The deeds of humanity left no trace, and their affairs were not made a burden for posterity by foolish historians.”

Wilde and Chuang Tzu provide an idealism that is refreshing.  I don’t believe that such a Golden Age is something attainable through external reforms—but that’s exactly the point.  The Man or Woman of the Tao finds himself or herself already living in the Golden Age, once the mania of critical organization falls away from the mind.  The Western Wit and the Eastern Sage both recognize that relaxation is blessed—the most truly creative state—whereas all that braces or restrains ought to be thoroughly damned.  Plenty of young idealists today call for the removal of taboos, but their obsession with these taboos often belies an over-consciousness of them.  The worst taboos exist inside the head—obstructions and blockages that impede the Tao.  In a weird though effective metaphor, Lao Tzu likens the sage to an infant: “It knows nothing of the union of the male and female / And yet its virile member stirs.”

Do I intend these observations to function as a program for society?  Obviously not, given how self-defeating it would be to turn wu wei into a social program, with committees and spaghetti dinners.  However, I do believe that a heady dose of Chuang Tzu would perform wonders in our world.  The would-be world reformers in our society seek to reform the world through the very methods that have consistently made it un-reformable.  The real state of peace and abiding dignity that everyone claims to be looking for was found by Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu in that state of “effortless effort”, that primordial non-method of wu wei. In an America troubled by schemes added upon schemes, by over-management and bureaucracy, by senseless aggression and circular criticisms—like every large country that has existed or every large country that ever will exist (at least, in this Iron Age)—the wisdom of the Taoist sages has the capacity to confound our categories, disrupt the casual course of reason and good sense, and (most importantly) calm us down.  It even has the potential to inject a word we so frequently bandy about—I mean, Liberty—with a new and radical meaning.  Since the ethic of liberty lies in non-coercion, what better philosophy to uphold it than a philosophy that supports non-coercion not only in the international arena, but in the overlapping realms of the body, the mind, and the soul?