Tag Archives: uncertainty

A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

Serious Conversations, 12

In a brief Twitter essay on Richard Spencer’s claim that the Nazi salutes at his “Hail Trump” speech were “clearly done in the spirit of irony and exuberance,” New Republic editor Jeet Heer quoted a few sentences from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew that resonated with some of the writing I’ve done on the conversational stance and what makes a conversation serious (especially this post and this one). So I went back to Sartre’s 1944 text and read for context.

Here, our “post-truth” crisis looks more like a raging pandemic of bad faith:

How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it. He never sees very clearly where he is going; he is “open”; he may even appear to be hesitant. But there are people who are attracted by the durability of a stone. They wish to be massive and impenetrable; they wish not to change. Where, indeed, would change take them? We have here a basic fear of oneself and of truth. What frightens them is not the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation. It is as if their own existence were in continual suspension. But they wish to exist all at once and right away. They do not want any acquired opinions; they want them to be innate. Since they are afraid of reasoning, they wish to lead the kind of life wherein reasoning and research play only a subordinate role, wherein one seeks only what he has already found, wherein one becomes only what he already was. This is nothing but passion. Only a strong emotional bias can give a lightning-like certainty; it alone can hold reason in leash; it alone can remain impervious to experience and last for a whole lifetime.

The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons. How entirely at ease he feels as a result. How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew appear to him. He has placed himself on other ground from the beginning. If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse. I mentioned awhile back some remarks by anti‐Semites, all of them absurd: “I hate Jews because they make servants insubordinate, because a Jewish furrier robbed me, etc.” Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.

Those wishing to read more can download a PDF of Sartre’s text — in the translation by George J. Becker, with an introduction by Michael Walzer — here.

Hope of a Livable Human Future – Some Context

Hope keeps open a space for agency between the impossible and the fantastical; without it, the small window in time remaining for us to tackle climate change is already closed.

Catriona McKinnon’s 2014 paper “Climate Change: Against Despair” offers some philosophical framing for the totally unscientific liveable human future survey I conducted a while back. Recognizing “the instrumental value of hope in securing effective agency,” McKinnon argues that personal despair about tackling climate change through personal emissions is not justified, whether we take the position that our efforts will not be efficacious (“whatever I do will make no difference”) or the view that “I am unable to make a difference.”

The first of these positions creates a sorites paradox: if climate change is anthropogenic, then some individual acts must have contributed to it; so saying that whatever I do will make no difference commits me to a contradiction, which I ought to abandon. It’s enough for me to be uncertain what contribution my emissions make to climate change, as “uncertainty provides the context for hope rather than despair.”

To then say, as people often do, that whatever I do will not make anthropogenic climate change any worse than it already is, or that my personal emissions contribute imperceptibly to climate change, is only to rehearse the specious argument that “a large number of acts make a morally relevant difference, but each individual act makes no difference at all.”

This line of argument also suggests a way out of the despairing point of view that I am unable to make a difference. If we concede that personal emissions make some difference, or that it’s false that no personal emissions make any difference, “then if a person were to try to reduce her carbon footprint, and not give up, then she could succeed with respect to making a difference on climate change.”

Again, it may be impossible to tell whether my activity will tend to make a difference, or much of a difference, but the important point is that I would be unjustified in saying I am unable to make any difference. So in this case, “what despair amounts to…is the judgement that I can make no difference because I am unwilling to make a difference.” If I am unwilling to do what I can do about climate change, if I am ready to give up, then I should be prepared to argue — I am not sure how — that I am not obliged to do what I can and that personal despair should in my everyday life override moral considerations.

People In the Way

It’s good to see that Jane Catherine Lotter’s obituary in the Seattle Times has gone “viral” — whatever that is supposed to mean anymore. I suppose if something in the culture — a meme, a song, a fad or a bit of slang — manages to reach me, it must have pretty wide circulation: I don’t keep up.

Lotter wrote it herself, as she was slowly dying, noting that “one of the few advantages of having Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary.” She faced death with humor, courage and grace.

I was especially struck by what Lotter had to say to her children, Tessa and Riley. “May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.” I’ve certainly come across the thought before; I suppose we all have. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and don’t come to obituaries looking for poetic or philosophical originality. Besides, it’s more interesting to reflect on the reasons why the thought has stayed with me over the past few days.

First, because I have been trying to get a big new project together, and I always struggle when starting a new project to take the little steps that will get me to the big place I see in the distance. When I am struck by an idea, excited by a project, or even when the first words of a piece of writing come to me, I can easily forget that eureka is just the start of the journey. I am impatient and I want to rush ahead; I look for shortcuts, end up taking detours and don’t take in the sights because I am so focused on where I think I am heading. And since I never end up exactly where I first intend to go, I would learn a lot more if I would allow myself to experience the trip.

It gets worse than that. Every difficulty I encounter seems like some kind of grand injustice the universe, or some evil deceiver, has visited upon me. Every time I stumble or fail to make progress — which is more often than I care to admit — I risk falling into the trap of blaming myself, thinking I have betrayed myself, or just feeling sorry for myself because I am up against insurmountable odds. When others don’t see things my way or express doubts, or don’t sufficiently rally to the idea in which I have fully invested my ego and imagination, or simply say they don’t get it, whatever it may be, they can become my persecutors and enemies, even though their intentions may have been friendly.

I am exaggerating (a little) to make a point: the emotion that takes over at such moments is powerful and undeniable. At root, I suspect, these feelings stem from a sense of vulnerability: new ideas, new plans, new projects — all make you newly vulnerable, because they are disorienting and will more likely than not fail.

The pursuit of an idea, a plan or a path entails great moral risk, especially when we come up against others. Just consider how often you hear, or how often you think, that people are in the way. It’s hard not to feel this way, at some point, if you live in New York City. I’m heading down the stairs to the subway platform, and someone in front of me is moving slowly, lumbering, limping, tired, breathing heavily, grunting, dragging a granny cart or leading a toddler down the stairs, cute little step by adorable little step by sweet little step. I can hear the train coming into the station. Not the train: my train. Get out of my way! On the sidewalk, badly dressed, slow-witted tourists, sweating and bloated with their deep-fried lunch, walk four and five across, gawking and without any sense of direction. Single file! Don’t know how to merge at the Holland Tunnel? Honk! People line up six, twelve, twenty-four deep at checkouts, taxi stands, restaurants — nearly everywhere you go. End of the line.

So in our rush, in our huff, when we are inspired, wired and just plain tired, we reduce people to inanimate objects or obstacles in our way. That puts us in the same moral ballpark as seeing people as means to our ends, instruments of our will — the outrage is that they are not mere extensions of our will — but it’s a little more sociopathic and depraved. People in the way need to be shoved aside, eliminated or made to disappear. They are not human beings but mere blocks; they might as well be sawhorses, sandbags or Jersey barriers — and it’s all the more irritating that they are not cast from concrete and set down by government order; they are alive, with all the appearances and behaviors of intelligent humanity, and yet they are very much in the way.

Sometimes we say that people are in the way when they are not even there, in front of us; they are in the way because they are obstinate, or don’t see things our way, or because they are creating difficulties of one kind or another. This is the more interesting case, and it involves risk of a different magnitude. For starters, it’s a strange abuse of language to talk about these people being “in the way” when there is no way apparent — no road, no staircase, no sidewalk or path. We speak as if there is a single orientation in the world — as if there were a way, the way, my way, as if the right way for all people were established by one person’s willing it. My way or the highway. Why doesn’t she get with the program? “The way” even has a whiff of providence about it, as if it reflected some higher order, and echoes of messianic religious vocabulary.

It also suggests we know where we are going — which of course we do not. And this is perhaps the greatest risk we run: to think that we know the path before we have traveled it, and that we have secured our ends simply because we have set out toward them. Stephen Covey advised highly effective people to start with the outcome they want to achieve, but the more important lesson is that you are most likely to achieve something other than what you set out to do. That’s a basic truth about human action, and a pretty good reason to set your sights on something other than being highly effective. This is especially so if you think of yourself as a leader. The leader who cannot or will not admit his vulnerability and uncertainty about the best way forward will probably just end up getting in everybody’s way.

Thucydides on Catastrophe and Lawlessness

On the plague of Athens in 430 BC. History of the Peloponnesian War (2.52): “the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” Thucydides continues (2.53, Warner trans.):

In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness (ἀνομίας). Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless but now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before then they had used to keep dark. Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life.

What’s Wrong With Howard Schultz’s Proposal To Save America From Itself?

A letter from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been making the rounds, asking other CEOs to join with him and “forgo all political contributions until Congress and the President return to Washington and deliver a fiscally-disciplined, long-term debt and deficit plan to the American people.”

The idea has gained plenty of admirers: “thousands of Americans – both CEOs and everyday citizens” (as CNN puts it) have contacted Schultz to express their support. Joe Nocera dedicated his entire column in the Times last week to Schultz’s proposal, praising the boycott as “hardheaded and practical, the kind of idea you would expect from a good businessman”.

That it is. But its virtues are also its limitations. Schultz wants to tackle a very big, very difficult problem: what he calls “the lack of cooperation and irresponsibility among elected officials as they have put partisan agendas before the people’s agenda. This is not the leadership we have come to expect, nor deserve.”

We can debate that last point: the current crop of ineffectual cowards in Washington might be exactly the leadership we have come to expect and deserve. Be that as it may, I am a little suspicious of grassroots movements in which angry “everyday citizens” find themselves in cahoots with angry CEOs; and it seems odd that we are being asked to entrust “the people’s agenda” to Schultz and his gang of CEOs – who may be well-meaning, but whose agenda (it seems fair to say) may not exactly match up with the aspirations and priorities of everyday citizens, or at least those of us who don’t happen to be leading multibillion-dollar multinationals.

I know that Starbucks bristles at the suggestion that multibillion-dollar companies might not always put the interests of its people, its “baristas” and “partners,” front and center. (But just a couple of weeks ago, baristas in Chile went on hunger strike because the company refused to negotiate with them over wages.) And I understand that Schultz prides himself on being a good CEO – one who has done well by doing good. He is, in fact, regularly singled out for praise by the business press as a CEO who defies the “the power-hungry stereotype,” and who will put the long-term good of his employees, his company or the environment over short-term advantage. (That’s the story Motley Fool’s Alyce Lomax told just last week in a Howard Schultz puff piece on AOL’s Daily Finance site.)

I’m not questioning Schultz’s good intentions. But the effort he’s mounted so far has a whiff of benevolent corporate paternalism about it; and the prospect of well-meaning CEOs around the country banding together on behalf of all the little people to fight political paralysis in Washington DC should — at least — give us pause. It sounds like a bloodless coup in the making, a plutocrats’ putsch.

There is something absurd here as well: aided and abetted by a pliant and misguided Supreme Court, corporate interests have already hijacked the political process; now they plan to withhold ransom payments until the ineffectual cowards we elected to represent and defend our interests – the public interest – deliver the economy back to them in sound condition, and deliver them from all “uncertainty.” Then they will create jobs. (Be sure to read Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of the uncertainty canard here.)

That said, the real trouble with Schultz’s proposal is not its presumption or its absurdity or its patronizing benevolence. The real trouble here is that Schultz fails to see the big picture, the broad agenda, the scope of the problem we face right now. Like most political and corporate leaders, he sees the people’s agenda – and the country’s uncertain prospects — through the narrow lens of jobs and economic growth. And while jobs and sustainable economic growth are undeniably important, and can be made to serve the public interest, the public interest can’t be reduced merely to those things; they may sometimes even be at odds with the public interest, as they sometimes are in human rights, labor or environmental disputes.

Real prosperity can’t be measured simply in terms of economic growth or high employment figures. I fear that what we have here is a failure to imagine the American future as anything more than a sunny financial forecast, the country as anything more than a happy work camp.