Archive for the ‘Community’ Category
At today’s Congressional Hearing:
“We are meeting today at a high point of public anger,” said Mr. Liddy, a former chief executive of Allstate who was installed as A.I.G.’s chief when the Federal Reserve announced its rescue package. “I share that anger. As a businessman of some 37 years, I have seen the good side of capitalism. Over the last few months, in reviewing how A.I.G. had been run in prior years, I have also seen evidence of its bad side.” NY Times, March 18, 2009.
I watched a good portion of Edward M. Liddy’s testimony before Congress today. I hadn’t planned to. I got caught up. Liddy took on the job of CEO at A.I.G. for 1 dollar a year. He appears to be a man sincerely dedicated to the service of his country. However, while by no means clueless about the possible reaction of the American people to the AIG bonuses, he did not realize that his arguments amounted to telling the American people that we had been blackmailed. If he hadn’t agreed to pay the executives of the compromised division their bonuses, they would have walked, AIG would have tanked, and our economy would have headed into a death spiral. Or so he claimed. Liddy needed to retain these folks. And he could only do so by paying out millions. (Yes, he made it clear time and again that there were contracts that had to be honored, but as congressmen pointed out, the company could have chosen not to pay and accepted the possibility of being sued.)
“Of the 418 employees who received bonuses, 298 got more than $100,000, according to the New York attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo. The highest bonus was $6.4 million, and 6 other employees received more than $4 million. Fifteen other people received bonuses of more than $2 million and 51 received $1 million to $2 million.” NY Times, March 18, 2009
The danger to the nation due to a complete financial collapse is far greater than the danger of terrorism. And this is just what Liddy was claiming might happen if these executives walked and AIG tanked. So we have people dying in the fight against terrorism, but we have others insisting on the entire amounts of their bonuses in order to cooperate and prevent financial ruin. As patriotic Americans (that is, those who are Americans), they should have offered to work for a small portion of what they were being paid, especially the top earning executives.
Each contract with each employee had its own unique structure, reported Liddy. They simply couldn’t hold back the funds. However, today he reported that he has asked the executives to return 50% of the money. They don’t have to, but as good Americans they might. (Why didn’t he ask this of them last week? or a month ago? or ask for more?) Think about this, as you think about all those who are on the street without jobs, including Wall Street people. Think about the sense of entitlement that these AIG executives have. Think about why so many of us didn’t see this sense of entitlement as dangerous to the well-being of our nation until very recently.
The American people have been sold a bill of goods for almost two generations now, and it goes something like this: if we take advantage of the magic of the market, if we just look out for number 1, the free market will reward us as a nation. Yes, there are folks in the military who sacrifice, and there are those who volunteer for civilian service, but at the end of the day we serve our country and communities best by seeking our own fortunes.
I am putting this too starkly you say? Perhaps. But it became the mantra of Wall Street. And as they once said about GM, what’s good for Wall Street is good for America. Just watch those 401k’s grow, and never take any money out of them. The market always makes a profit in the long run. (Of course what they forget to tell you is that the long run can be very long indeed.)
The party’s almost over, as so many have declared. The party, however, is not just about living the high life in good financial times. The party is about having a set of beliefs that comfort and aid us in getting on in the world. And one set of these beliefs has involved the goodness of capitalism and the free market. We have spoken about them as if they are gods. They are not. Capitalism can be an exceedingly productive economic system, but only when operating under proper guidance and regulation. There are no free lunches and there are no entirely free markets. Believing so is exceedingly dangerous, especially when this ideology replaces our common sense about the sacrifices and labors required to build and maintain communities and a nation.
Here is a prediction: the culture wars will be left by the wayside as we enter a seemingly new land, the land of the tactically minded chief executive, whose tactics are the tip of a philosophical iceberg. The executive is Obama and the iceberg is Pragmatism.
Comments regarding Obama’s pragmatism constitute something of a cottage industry. These discussions usually involve contrasting Obama’s pragmatism, for example, in choosing his cabinet, with the ideological approach of Bush and the neo-cons. Here the term pragmatism is meant to denote political flexibility, comfort with the expedient, and a willingness to compromise. For critics it is meant to suggest an unprincipled orientation toward questions of great moment. Given Obama’s willingness to label himself a pragmatist, many have been mystified by his commitment to specific values, finding him not only unclassifiable in accepted political categories, but mystifying as a person. For example, in a recent article in Harpers, “The American Void,” Simon Critchley treats Obama as, well, a void. He just can’t figure the guy out. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere (PBS site), there is nothing strange about Obama’s political views for those who are familiar with the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism or the Social Gospel Movement. Interestingly, Critchley makes much of Obama’s mother being an anthropologist, but what he fails to mention is that Ann Dunham’s thesis director was Alice G. Dewey, John Dewey’s granddaughter. (John Dewey was perhaps the most famous Pragmatist of the twentieth century.) This is no accident. Obama’s thought and practice can be located in the tradition of American Pragmatism (pragmatism with a capital P) and in the liberal Social Gospel Movement that was influential in Chicago during the early part of the 20th century. The latter is still influential in some Chicago churches and community groups, especially those that would have most engaged Obama’s attention as a community organizer.
One of the few commentators who has begun to tease out the differences between Obama’s pragmatisms is Chris Hayes. He writes in The Nation, “Pragmatism in common usage may mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it’s also the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. What unites the two senses of the word is a shared skepticism toward certainties derived from abstractions–one that is welcome and bracing after eight years of a failed, faith-based presidency. . . . And if there’s a silver thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins in this school of thought. Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey….For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of ‘variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation.’ ” The Nation, Dec 10, 2008
Hayes is moving in the right direction. I would take his claims a step further. There is no understanding of Obama without an understanding of Pragmatism. Take for instance the question of whether one can have principles and still be a pragmatist. From the vantage point of philosophical Pragmatism, the question is non-starter. The use of principles to address philosophical and political issues extends back to Plato and Aristotle, and migrates through Kant’s deontological ethics into the twentieth century. But the Pragmatist wants to bypass this mode of thinking, one that requires us to believe that affirming values requires a principled affirmation of values. Principles are in fact problematic and counterproductive. Dewey, for example, railed against Kant during WWI, claiming that the rigidity of his ethics of principled imperatives was reflected in the dictatorial and undemocratic mindset of the German regime. People who believe in democracy should be suspicious of permanent truths and principles. As Hannah Arendt argues, debate is at the heart of political life, and Truth (with a capital “T”) kills debate. (Obama’s father was a man of principle to the point of stubbornness. He had a failed career and a led a troubled life. It is hard to read Dreams of My Father and not conclude that Obama came away from his “journey” with a lasting distaste for principles. His mother, on the other hand, was the epitome of a Deweyan in her love of experience, experimentation, novelty, change, and belief in the transformational power of education.)
In the “Epilogue” to Dreams of My Father, Obama reports a conversation that he and his sister, Auma, had with Dr. Rukia Odero, a professor of history. A central question in the discussion: how should Africans adapt to the values that Westerners have brought to Africa? That Obama chose to report the conversation is telling. Rukia, I would argue, is meant to give voice to Obama’s views. She states, “I suspect that we can’t pretend that the contradictions of our situation don’t exist. All we can do is choose.” And after discussing the complexities of the issue of female circumcision, she goes on to say, “You cannot have rule of law and then exempt certain members of your clan. What to do? Again you choose. If you make the wrong choice, then you learn from your mistakes. You see what works.” (Dreams from My Father, New York: Crown, 2004, p. 434) “Seeing what works” is indeed the mantra of Pragmatism. Yet as in existentialism, this doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel the weight of moral and political decisions. It means that one can’t appeal to principles in advance to justify one’s decisions or “what works.”
But doesn’t being a pragmatist, in both senses of the term, just make Obama a relativist? No doubt for the ideologically committed, those who fear a leader without a moral compass, this would be a central concern. But once again this is to frame the issue in the wrong fashion. Relativism is a problem for moral absolutists. Without a lasting commitment to absolutes, there isn’t a problem of relativism. Instead there is the problem of deciding what values to hold. To frame the discussion in terms of absolutism versus relativism is already to accept the framework of the religious right, which is what the Republicans have been notoriously successful in doing for two generations. However, the choice is not between absolutism and relativism. It is between different values. Commitments to values arise from numerous sources, including thoughtful deliberation and prudential considerations. And it is in the realm of “prudence” that one finds a symmetry between upper and lower case pragmatism. For the Pragmatist prudential considerations do not always trump other values, but sometimes they do, because prudence or tactical maneuvering may be required to realize successfully a greater good. As a matter of fact, a thoughtful political agent doesn’t make dogmatic, read absolutistic, decisions in advance regarding what values and tactics may be the most vital and relevant.
The culture wars have depended on disagreements over specific values and the belief that principles are central to morality. Or at least this is the way that the religious right has sought to frame the controversy, a perception that neo-cons have used to reinforce their political agendas. When Obama speaks of being post-ideological, of being a pragmatist, I read him as trying to address logjams over values by avoiding divisive discourses based on principles. How does one accomplish this? Well, one way is to sound as if one is not ideological, for example, by showing flexibility on specific moral and political questions. By so doing Obama is not simply maneuvering. He is not being disingenuous. He is behaving as if he is a committed Pragmatist, and as such he is seeking to change the ground rules for political discourse.
Obama may very well succeed with a little help from his (several million) friends, and realities on the ground, namely, a serious financial crisis that suddenly has life-long, dogmatic free-marketers running for cover. He may also succeed because he is attuned to something very basic about the American psyche. It is no accident that Pragmatism is the most significant philosophy that America has produced. There is something deeply American about it. But is it Left, Right, or Center? Once again, this is to ask a misleading question. Its tent is large enough to contain persons from across the American political spectrum, if one judges political commitments by specific values. Yet in an American context Obama’s Pragmatism presents a much greater challenge to the ideological Right than to the ideological Left. How so? If the conversation is shifted away from absolutes, the Right in America will lose the ground from which it has hurled its most potent missiles. Some on the Right are beginning to recognize the threat that Obama poses. Some still believe that they can bring back the days of the culture wars. The latter, however, are predicated on the “principled versus pragmatist” distinction, one that is becoming less consequential with each passing day. So, I wish the dogmatic Right lots of luck. They will need it. As for the non-dogmatic Right, if debate is crucial to a thriving democracy, I wish them well, and so does the Pragmatist Obama.
Obama on pragmatism (with a small p) and the dangers of certainty (which relates to philosophical Pragmatism).
UPDATE, January 5, 2010: I discovered through a reader’s comment that this video is no longer available. I don’t know when it was made unavailable or why its presence on YouTube constitutes a use violation. I assume that NBC must have pulled it. It was a nice clip because it showed the kind of fallibilist sensibility that one finds in Pragmatism.
UPDATE (April 16th, 2011). This is somewhat quirky piece that I wrote when UP@NIGHT was called “Mitchell Aboulafia.” I had decided to use my name as a title for a new blog because so much of what was being written on the web was under the cover of pseudonyms. As I argue below, although there is indeed a place for pseudonyms, they were (and are) being overused. Eventually I decided that “Mitchell Aboulafia” simply wasn’t going to cut it as a name for a blog. However, my name is still displayed on the front page of UP@NIGHT. (I have thought of deleting this post, but as a professional philosopher I have found it difficult excise a post called Why “Mitchell Aboulafia?” It’s a question that I have pondered too often, both ontologically and psychologically. And one that just makes sense.)
Don’t get too excited. I am not about to engage in any metaphysical or psychological speculations regarding the person by the name of Mitchell Aboulafia, as wildly illuminating as such speculations might be. I am here to discuss the eponymous blog by the name of “Mitchell Aboulafia.” Since you are here, you know that this blog exists. And yes, there is also an actual person with this handle. He wants you to know that naming this blog, “Mitchell Aboulafia,” was not due to narcissism. (Well, at least it wasn’t the major reason.) No, it was related to claims made in two blogs readers can find below, “The Devil Made Me Do It: Blogosphere, Stop Hiding Behind Pseudonyms,” and “Obama, It’s the Name Stupid.”
You see, Mitchell Aboulafia, the person, has been under the impression for some time that a person should be judged by their actions and words. Unfortunately, the Blogosphere appears to be infected by a new kind of virus, pseudonymism, which produces a psychological condition that allows people to say the most extraordinarily unthoughtful things because they know that people don’t know who they are.
Now don’t get me wrong, as I argue below, there are certainly good reasons to use pseudonyms. And sometimes you don’t need a good reason for using one. It’s just fun. (I know. I know. Worf, pictured above in all his Klingon majesty, would not find using pseudonyms acceptable. A violation of the Klingon code of honor. But Clark Kent/Superman would understand. He’s from Krypton and America, planets worlds apart, and even as the man of steel he needs our understanding and at minimum dual citizenship and a pseudonym. But which is the pseudonym, “Superman” or “Clark Kent?”)
But speaking of fun, a funny thing happened after I posted the “The Devil Made Me Do It…” on a few public web sites. I got very little response. No one seemed to care. Well, perhaps my writing wasn’t incisive enough. Yet from the comments that I did receive, I don’t think that this was the problem. People didn’t want to bother about the issue. And if they did respond, with several noteworthy exceptions, they generally gave pretty lame reasons for not using their own names.
Below are the major reasons people gave for not using their own names, and how Mitchell Aboulafia would respond. Bear in mind that there are at least two good reasons for using your own name on blogs and commentaries: 1) it commits you to what you are saying in a way that a pseudonym does not. You can be called on what you say, and you may have to defend your words, which is a good thing. 2) You can’t build (political) communities if the actors are pretending to be someone else. At some point you need to show your face, figuratively or literally.
1. I am employed in place in which I would be retaliated against if I used my real name.
Completely legitimate. If there is a real possibility of retaliation for speaking your mind on the web, don’t use your own name. Period.
2. There are a lot of maniacs out there. Who knows what they will do to me.
Aboulafia doesn’t think that the maniac problem is quite as great as many people think, just like there isn’t nearly as much crime as people think. However, there is no question that women are more vulnerable than men to harassment and abuse in our culture. So, don’t use your real name if you are genuinely concerned and feel threatened. (But also keep in mind that generalized fear is one way of keeping a population from being active politically.)
3. Names are sort of old hat. What’s really important are the ideas.
Ah, as someone who has taught philosophy for oh so many years, all I can say is: if only this were true. The fact is that disembodied ideas are actually not all that effective. Yes, every once and a while they can make a difference, especially in places like contemporary China, where the regime does not permit a free exchange of ideas. But what are really effective are ideas that are connected to voices, people, who are respected and ideas that are discussed in communities. Yet it’s very difficult to form a community with people who won’t say who they really are. And it’s pretty difficult to develop a respected voice if you remain unknown. (Notice how often those who start becoming influential on the Web under a pseudonym switch to their real names.) Well, you might say, the web is a new form of interaction where ideas circulate as memes that catch on. I say: good luck if you are waiting for ideas attached to pseudonyms to become memes. No doubt it happens. But people also win the lottery.
4. Don’t rain on our parade. The web is a new way of interacting and in this world who you are (title, rank) is not really important. We are dealing with a paradigm shift here.
I am sympathetic to the democratic spirit, but this is a misguided version of it. Utopian, as a matter of fact. If names are really unimportant on the web because titles and rank have been transcended, then why not use your own name? And if we haven’t transcended the importance of titles and rank on the web, then how is not using your name going to be of assistance? The people who have influence will continue to use their names. The powerful don’t need pseudonyms. The haves, have a name. And the have nots, don’t want to use theirs. So you end up reinforcing a system that you claim to oppose by using pseudonyms, that is, in terms of power and influence the playing field remains what it is. (Yes, every once in a while an influential individual will use a pseudonym for various reasons, but this doesn’t undermine the basic point. This is the exception, not the rule.)
5. It doesn’t matter anyway because someone can always make up a name that sounds real and how would you know.
Oh, this is really weak stuff. The issue is not whether people can get away with using names that pretend to be real names. The issue is whether you will feel committed to what you are doing if you pull off a scam of this sort. You won’t. (Hey, and as a reader, I care if I am being lied to.) Further, you can’t build (political) communities on fabricated names.
Okay, I could go on. But that’s enough for now. The bottom line is that if people want to play, fine. But don’t make up a lot of high-minded, paradigm, shape shifting reasons to justify this behavior. And consider what you are losing by not committing yourself to your own words, which may require coming out of the closet and using your own name.
Oh, and if all else fails, and you are really worried about crazies coming after you if you use your own name, you can always follow my lead. Hire the two guys next to the good-looking one at the top of this blog. (And don’t ask, which good-looking guy? Why do you think the blog is called “Mitchell Aboulafia.”)