But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.
~ Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure“
(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 10, 2016.)
Like most of my readers, I am devastated by the 2016 American Presidential election results (and by the Congressional election results as well.) I have waited a few weeks to write about it so as not to be reacting too emotionally to the results. Since that time my usual focus on philosophy has faded into the background as the country in which I was born and lived all of my life finds itself in perhaps its greatest existential crisis. I hope that I am wrong, but the possibility of a fascist, authoritarian, banana republic with the power to inflict worldwide catastrophe is now a real possibility. At this time obtuse philosophical speculation feels superfluous and indulgent. So for the foreseeable future I will write about the grave situation in today’s America.
First, a bit about my background. I have followed politics closely since I was a small boy discussing the issues of the day with my father, who himself was an ardent student of politics. I grew up in the Midwest and my father was a blue-collar worker with a union job. I remember him first explaining to me that the Republican party of the 1960s in the USA was the party of the wealthy, while the Democratic party represented the populist alternative. (No doubt a lot has happened in the intervening 50 years, but to a large extent that analysis still holds true—Democrats give you affordable health-care, Republicans can’t wait to take it away.) I remember reveling in his stories about the honesty of Harry Truman, the intellect of Adlai Stevenson, the oratory of Everett Dirksen, and the whining of Richard Nixon‘s “last press conference.”
I also recall watching the entire TV coverage of both parties political conventions in 1964 at the age of 9, something I’d bet my contemporaries didn’t do. As an undergraduate I had courses in American government, American history, and political philosophy. Later, as a graduate student in philosophy, I had to pass oral exams on a required reading list that included: Plato’s The Republic; Aristotle’s Politics; Hobbes’ Leviathan; Locke’s Second Treatise of Government; Rousseau’s The Two Discourses and the Social Contract;Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right; Lenin’s The State and Revolution, and many others.
I also had a graduate seminar devoted to the study of the radical libertarian thinkers of the Austrian school of economics like Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was also required reading there. And, as a young assistant professor I taught a class called “American Political Thought,” where I read most of The Federalist papers and was introduced to, among others, the economist Milton Friedman.
I don’t claim to have mastered the above material, nor do I claim to specialize in political or economic philosophy. Thousands of scholars of political science, political philosophy and economics know infinitely more than I do about these subjects, so I’m not bragging. I simply want to suggest that I’m not a low information voter, and that I have some familiarity with various economic and philosophical theorizing.
Of course I recognize that in the USA today, acknowledging that you know even a little bit about a subject results in being labeled an elitist. My own take on this is that sometimes experts are too sure of themselves, sometimes people are jealous that others know more than they do, sometimes people can’t distinguish between a real expert and a fake one, and sometimes people are just ignorant. As for myself, I know almost nothing about auto mechanics, programming a computer, playing the piano, and a million other things, yet I’m happy to have experts fix my car, program my computer, or teach me how to play the piano if I am so inclined.
What I have done in the last year or so—as our political situation has become more dangerous—is read literally thousands of articles about the current state of politics from reputable and intellectually sophisticated sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, The Atlantic, and dozens of others. (Not from fake sources forwarded from facebook.) I’ve probably read more than a hundred in the weeks since the election. What I would like to do in the coming posts is summarize some of the best pieces I’ve read. As I go along, or at the end of that journey, I will try to reflect about what is most troubling in our current situation. Stay tuned if you’re interested.