Responsibility for One's Political Philosophy

William Brafford over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen remarks that “if you advocate for a political philosophy, taking responsibility means that you ask yourself: ‘what does it look like when this philosophy goes wrong?”’ I’d add that responsibility for one’s political philosophy also means recognizing that it was constructed by people in history and in response to particular political events and problems.

Political philosophers, like all philosophers, are distinguishable by not only the answers they give, but the questions they ask. As much as they responded to each other, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, for example, were exploring different questions and responding to different issues; they were not just giving their own answers to the same timeless questions or the unique questions of the age.

No political philosophy is the True Political Philosophy. None can be applied in all times, places, and circumstances. Even the best possible political philosophy will fail in its application. Even if pure, committed adherents to it get exactly what they want and the philosophy “goes right,” the philosophy will fall short, will exclude, will reach its limits, and will in some ways fail.

Responsibility here means taking responsibility — appropriately responding to — the limitations and consequences of one’s philosophy. Irresponsibility, then, means acting as though one’s political philosophy, if only applied rightly and by the right people, would be free of failure, limitations, or negative consequences. (VN)

Favorite Films of My Lifetime: 10-8

We now return to my series on my favorite films made in my lifetime. You can read the previous posts here, here, and here.

Writer and director Whit Stillman has made three movies, and all three are on my top ten. It’s difficult to say which of his I like the most. Metropolitan, his first film, I arbitrarily rank at number 10. The comedy of manners depicts the d├ębutante culture with what I’m told is perfect accuracy. The characters are all educated, but lacking in awareness and experience. They talk about intellectual figures like Charles Fourier and Jane Austin and about whether one has to actually read a novel to critique it or whether reading good literary criticism is sufficient to have an opinion on the primary text. Here’s a sample of the dialogue:



Hey, at least they have some idea of what they mean by the word “socialist”!

The Princess Bride is my number nine, but I love this movie so much it could easily be placed higher on the list. When my son gets a little older, we’ll be watching this with him religiously. I want him going to school and telling his friends to get used to disappointment and that he’s not left-handed and that they should fight each other like civilized people. I’ll tell him to ask the principal is he has six fingers on his right hand. Hehehehe. He may not be a popular kid, but he’ll be culturally literate, and no one will mess with him if he combines the wit and swordplay of Westley, the strength and rhymes of Fezzik, and the dedication and passion of Inigo.

I admire a lot though not all of Woody Allen’s movies. Love and Death, his parody of the Russian novel, is a hoot, but I usually prefer is more dramatic films. He strikes a perfect balance between comedy and drama in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen asks and explores the philosophical question of whether a normal guy, in this case a successful eye doctor, can commit a murder and not be bothered by the morality. Allen is challenging the notion that sin leads to misery, a notion I generally hold, but Allen has a way of challenging my core beliefs without being insulting or offending. Many of his stories strike me as means by which he grapples and struggles with important philosophical and theological questions. I don’t share his worldview, but I’m not sure if I can think of any other filmmaker who so regularly delves into the existential mysteries so deeply. Crimes and Misdemeanors should be required viewing in any philosophy or ethics class.

Buffy: Slaying and Saving

This weekend, my wife and I finished watching Joss Whedon’s television opus, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show of seven seasons which had taken over our evenings. I now hope to get more reading and writing done after our son goes to bed. We just have to fight the temptation to watch Angel, Dollhouse, or, once again, Buffy.

We’d seen a few episodes of Buffy here and there and were entertained, but hardly hooked. It was not until we started from the very beginning and watched the series in order that we recognized Whedon and company’s masterful storytelling. We knew Whedon’s genius from seeing Firefly, but the world of Buffy hadn’t tempted us the same way. I still think the short-lived western in space is a better work of art than Buffy, but Buffy deserves the praise and popularity it’s received. The show is smart, mythological, metaphorical, genuinely emotional, funny as hell, and morally dramatic. Don’t let the cheesy title or make-up fool you; Buffy is serious literary art.

Almost all of the characters are well defined, rounded, and memorable, but I have to say that I found Spike the most interesting. He’s the most humorous character, in my opinion, or at least among the funniest, but he is perhaps also the most developed and explored. He’s one of two vampires who regain their lost souls, but unlike Angel, who had his soul thrust upon him by a gypsy curse, Spike seeks his soul while still a demonic vampire. In the Buffy mythology, humans who become vampires retain their personalities and knowledge, but lose their souls, the core of their personhood. They are demons in human-like bodies, with a demon’s evil will and dark power.

When we first meet Spike, he’s researching a way to kill Buffy, whose fated vocation is slaying vampires and other demons. Spike has killed two slayers in his death, no easy feat even for a powerful vampire, but Buffy proves too powerful for him. He later teams up with Buffy, not out of any good motive, but for mutual benefit. He’s back to trying to kill her soon enough, though. In Season Four, the military, researching the demonic, places a computer chip in Spike’s brain that prevents him from attacking humans. This basically neuters him for almost the rest of the series; all of Spike’s various attempts to remove the chip fail.

We learn more about Spike’s past as the series progresses. Before he became a vampire, he was an overly sentimental and love-sick poet named William. His poetry was terrible and didn’t win him the heart of his beloved. He was mocked and scorned and ridiculed. Interestingly, even after be became a vampire, Spike seemed mostly motivated by love. He made his mother a vampire, wanting her to be with him forever. His actions in the second and third seasons revolve around his love for Drusilla, the vampire who sired him. As you might guess, Spike falls in love with Buffy. His love for Buffy ultimately leads him to undergo a series of tortures by a very powerful being who can give him back his soul.

Spike seems unique among vampires in that he becomes motivated by the good without possessing a soul. Perhaps other vampires are capable of this as well: the moral structure of Buffy isn’t entirely clear on this point. Demons are not spiritual entities or fallen angels, but ugly physical beings of immense strength that often have horns, scales, and multiple bumps. The mythology is more pagan than Christian. In any case, Spike’s story reveals a truth very much at home in the Christian imagination.

Buffy, like all vampire slayers, has superhuman strength which she uses to fight the forces of darkness, but her method of fighting evil is basically the same as the world’s typical way of fighting evil: she slays the evildoers. Spike’s story shows another, deeper, and ultimately more triumphant way of fighting evil: saving the evildoer. While several of Buffy’s friends would see Spike turned to ashes, Buffy sees in Spike hope for redemption, and she’s willing to risk their physical safety to give Spike the opportunity to become more human. What makes Season Seven’s final victory possible isn’t just the power of the slayer, the power to kill, but Spike’s act of loving self-sacrifice. His gift of self presents a greater and more fundamental triumph over evil than destroying evil men, vampires, and demons. Buffy’s vocation of slaying vampires is just, but also tragic. Spike shows that every slain vampire isn’t ultimately a victory, but a failure, a failure to redeem, a finality marked by the triumph of evil over a vampire. (VN)

Operation Enhance Kyle's Ego

A recent study by an esteemed peer-review journal found that while my humility knows no bounds, my ego could use a boost. So as not to ignore the unequivocal findings of science, Operation Enhance Kyle’s Ego is now underway.

This operation requires no great sacrifice on your part. Simply scroll down until you see “Followers” on the right column, click the “Follow” button, and follow the instructions. Doing this doesn’t really help you in any way – you can read my blog without following it – but it does help me by making me appear a popular fellow in the ‘sphere. A humble fellow like me should be popular. I set an example, you see. If nothing else, do it for the children. They are our future.

Ethicists and moral philosophers across the globe agree that following this blog is an objective moral imperative, so unless you want to be a moral relativist, start following today.

Obligations happen. This is one of them.

[Update]

A reliable source informs me that the fictional characters Sam and Dean Winchester of the TV series Supernatural, of which I've seen only clips, have expressed a desire to follow this blog, but are unfortunately prevented from doing so by virtue of their being fictional characters. Apparently they heard the word "alterity" and thought it had some paranormal meaning. No matter. What counts in their desire. While they cannot follow this blog, you can, so please, for their sake and the sake of all fictional characters unable to follow blogs, please sign up. Put a smile on their faces.

My Suspicion

The majority of those who hold a position one way or another on global warming do not possess scientific knowledge sufficient to defend the position, but believe the position is true because it is the position of a trusted authority.

Human Power and the Triumph of Evil

Should the warning attributed to Edmund Burke – that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing – itself cause us some concern? The answer depends on how we interpret the warning: in particular, what we mean by the implied “something” that good people must do else evil triumph.

We can find the idea that evil might triumph over the whole world at play in a contemporary collective imagination, an imagination fed by the fears of terrorism, weapons of mass murder, the social and economic collapse of civilization, foreign ideologies, and even political opponents. In the world created by this play of ideas, images, and fears, we narrate evil as something exterior to us that resides in our enemies, and we imagine ourselves and our instruments and our ideas as forming the necessary weaponry in the fight against evil. We see ourselves as the true hope for the world, as the knights who will deliver us all from evil’s triumph. We, the good people, are the solution to the problem of evil.

In the Christian imagination, evil is seen as something both caused by us, all of us, and something (yet not a thing) already present before we exercise our freedom, before we are even born. Evil corrupts us, makes us less that what we ought to be, and separates us from God. From the Christian standpoint, the solution to the problem of evil is grace: God’s power, not ours. The ultimate response to evil, the divine response, isn’t destruction or prevention, but salvation. Though we are not saviors, we may participate in God’s act of saving grace, in his plan of salvation. We can, alas, also refuse salvation and embrace our own destruction.

If we understand the “something” that good people must do as in some way participating in God’s power, as living a life nourished by grace and marked by the virtues, as fundamentally responding to evil as a terror from which only God can save us, then Burke’s warning is of no concern. May good people respond to evil. May our good deeds help prevent the triumph of evil. On the other hand, if by that “something” we mean trusting in our own powers to defeat evil, we will only help push us along toward evil’s triumph. (EC)

Religious Hermeneutics at Comedy Central

Stephen Colbert treats a controversy over the placement of a cross on public property with his typical playful comedy, but he touches on some matters of heavy hermeneutics, namely, questions about whether and how subjective interpretations of the cross contribute to its symbolic significance. Does the cross have an essentially religious meaning or is its religious significance merely historical? Is it possible to remove the Christian meaning from the cross and attach only a non-religious meaning to it? Colbert dances around these fascinating questions. Perhaps his jokes point us to some answers. (VN)

On the Meaning of Peace

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

- Humpty Dumpty, who, we learned today, has an apparent influence on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. (EC)

Education

"Don't smell it, then," says my son to me after I remark that his #2 smells really bad.

In other news, my son asked me to pause a Shakespeare movie so he could run to the potty. He didn't want to miss anything. Well, anything more than the scenes I don't let him watch. I am soooo having an influence on the lad. Greatness.

Understanding Death through Play

My son Jonathan informed me yesterday that one of his lifelong toys named Baby Edward had died. He prefaced this sad news by asking me where he could find the Jesus that we had received at the end of his sister Vivian’s funeral. I directed him to our home office and to my wife’s desk where the crucifix was temporarily kept. He took the crucifix to Baby Edward, had Jesus kiss what he said was the toy’s boo-boo, and informed me that Baby Edward was healed. Jonathan and I, along with a couple of the characters from Bob the Builder, then took turns holding the healed Baby Edward.

Like the rest of us, Jonathan is trying to make sense of his sister’s death. We’ve told him how Vivian’s soul is in Heaven while her body rests in the garden until the time that Jesus will heal her. A few days ago, Jonathan mused that he might bust into Heaven and bring Vivian back. I swear he hasn’t been watching the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with us.

It makes perfect sense to me that Jonathan tries to understand what cannot be understood through the act of play. While we adults may not play with toys – well, while other adults may not play with toys – we try to make sense of life’s tragic mysteries by telling stories, by creating fictions, forming myths, constructing symbols. The storyteller plays with words.

My wife and I are now faced with the question of how we respond to our three-year-old son’s playing and narrating. Do we want him entertaining the idea that Heaven is a place from which people ought to be saved? I would think not. It is strange, though perhaps not so strange, that just as we would ask if a story our son heard was in some sense true, we have to ask whether his play – a serious activity, to say the least – reflects the mysteries he is trying to understand. (MC)