Why care about politics?

Most blog post titles that are questions are not really questions, which is to say that they're rhetorical questions. Seldom does an author ask a question genuinely--and I suppose this applies to traditional print media just as readily.

Take a work like Descartes' Meditations--one of my favorites, even though I disagree with so many of his conclusions. The text is rife with questions, not a few of which are answered either by expressions of ignorance--"I don't know"--or further questions--"But what do we mean by...?"

And yet Descartes is not a skeptic; he writes with answers to most of these questions in mind. However--and this is the key point--the Meditations is modeled after actual meditations that Descartes had--purportedly in a large bread oven to keep warm--stretches of time when Descartes genuinely posed those questions to himself, not certain of an answer.

Of course the order of the Meditations--which is deliberately designed to help guide a reader through a similar thought process--does not perfectly mirror Descartes' actual thought process. So the questions posed therein are not even recollections so much as deliberate fabrications inspired by his memories.

Nevertheless, this is about as close as you get to genuine questioning in the written word. This makes sense though, because most people don't start to write about something that puzzles them until they've figured it out. Even those that do, myself included, often find that the writing and rewriting process itself can lead them to answers--and the final product only comes after the author reaches her conclusions.

So, what is the point? (A rhetorical question, of course.) Why value genuine questioning? Because--and of course I have an answer prepared even though I don't know exactly what it is yet--it indicates a willingness not to take for granted the many lies and distortions thrown at us on a daily basis.

Certainty is easy, both in terms of intellectual effort and emotional satisfaction. Uncertainty is just unpleasant. Descartes talks about it as being trapped in a vortex, unsure even of which direction is up. (Such experiences of physical disorientation are typically rare but can be extremely frightening.)

Thus it takes a kind of courage, both intellectual and affective, to be willing to question oneself on a regular basis. Such courage is admirable--which is to say that I admire it--and authors who display it are usually worth reading if they have minimal literary talent (which far too many do, but you come to grow fond of their quirks).

But the title of this blog post is not "What is the value of questioning?" but rather (scroll up if you don't believe me) "Why care about politics?" As you might have discerned, I attempted to ask this question to myself genuinely, and see what it has produced: an analysis of an entirely different, more fundamental, question.

And yet there is something to be taken from the answer to my previous question. Maintaining this vital capacity for critical thinking is greatly aided by seeking out marginalized viewpoints (some of which a majority of the population is sympathetic to, and yet which is artificially excised from mainstream political discourse).

Consider what happens to those who do not actively seek out these sources of information. Let's take the American case, since it's the most familiar. I have a lot of students these days who take no interest in politics. Perhaps they are disgusted by it, but I imagine more of them just see no real connection between their own lives and the political theater and backroom dealings of the powerful psychopaths who lord over us.

Whatever motivates their apathy--perhaps nothing ever motivated them to care in the first place, so habit is their only reason--by living in this country you are constantly consuming media and you hear bits and pieces of things. Much of what you are going to hear is propaganda, lies that the political and economic elites want you to believe so they can maintain their stranglehold on power, i.e., the imposition of their will on the rest of us through violent force or the threat of it.

The biggest of these fictions is that the state is the only "legitimate" source of violence, and that all violence by non-state actors is necessarily "illegitimate". America goes further, and wants to claim that all of its violence is legitimate, and that all violence directed against it or its so-broadly-defined-as-to-be-meaningless "interests" deserves the moniker "terrorism".

(For more on this point, I'd refer the reader to recent posts by Glenn Greenwald, whose intellectual courage I greatly admire. I also wish to add that I am generally not a fan of violent action against the state for the reason that I believe it to be less effective than non-violent resistance; even should it resolve a short-term problem, in the long run it just perpetuates a senseless cycle of murder. Let the state keep its monopoly on violence, so long as there are alternatives to bloodshed that can lead to real political change. But I would strongly contest the notion that "legitimate" violence is exclusively the province of the state.)

So, I guess if I had to give a tentative answer to this question, why care about politics?--to put it another way, why keep reading about political news when it's always bad news, makes one feel frustrated and impotent, seems always to get worse and worse, etc.?--I'd have to say as an antidote to the constant stream of bullshit that spews forth from traditional media and partisan hacks of both sides.

Once you recognize that the people in power will unflinchingly lie to your face--and often do so--simply to fuel their ambition and avarice, once you learn to take everything that politicians and businessmen say with a shaker of salt, you free a place in your mind for truth but also a space for imagination, for alternatives, for a broader notion of what just might be possible.http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

Though I loathe the phrase "politics is the art of the possible" for the way in which it is often used to quash any idea that falls outside the narrow ideological spectrum allowed by the Blue and Red teams, it is not so pernicious an idea if we are willing to question what human beings are truly capable of.

We should never forget, as Greenwald reminds us in this talk (plus answers to questions, all highly worth listening to), that any structure that has been created by human beings can be destroyed and remade by humans. I would add to that the possibility that human beings can also remake themselves should our natural limitations impede the creation of just and peaceful politico-economic arrangements.

If you care about your future, or the future of your progeny, it would be folly not to care about politics.


My Two Politics

It's been so long since I've tried to write anything, but I'm going to give it a shot. I wanted to attempt to give expression to an idea I've joked about, but never really examined seriously.

I have started telling people that I have two sets of political views, one which is largely critical (anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian, etc.) which I think of as the "serious" or "realistic" position, and then my "half-serious" or "fantastical" politics consists of what I like to call "all the robot stuff". The latter has considerably more positive content: a mix of trans- and posthumanism, technocracy, robocracy, and various other futurist ideologies.

Rarely do the two conflict. When I read political news, especially concerning US foreign policy, the glimpse of reality (of all the suffering and bloodshed our country's government inflicts) activates my critical faculties (and my sense of disgust), jarring me into a "serious" state of mind.

But I can only take so much of this, so I take refuge in techno-utopias, where just AI rules gently over a transhumanist populace or--in my darkest fits of misanthropy--in a post-human world in which "the robots have won" and the cancer of humanity has been surgically excised.

The first perspective is rooted firmly in the present and in my knowledge, limited as it is, of history. The second jumps around from one possible future to the next, often with little or no connection to today.

So, the two rarely conflict. But as we inexorably head into the future, as the technological advancements I pine for increasingly become reality, the points of contact increase.

For instance, in a recent status update on a popular social networking site which shall remain nameless, I made a criticism of Obama's fondness for drone strikes--"flying death robot attacks". When challenged on this, I attempted to justify the contradiction by saying that I was against these robots slaughtering humans because they were just pawns of the US government, but an autonomous AI like Skynet doing its thing is totally cool.

This was a joke. Or was it? Sometimes I'm not even sure myself, which is why I call this view "half-joking". Though I am strongly opposed to war, I am not a principled pacifist, nor do I believe life is "sacred" or that humans have intrinsic rights to life, liberty, etc. Rights are legal constructions, while so-called "moral" rights are in my view mere social constructs.

The powerful create "rights" and bestow them upon themselves. They extend those rights to others only when themselves compelled by a sufficient force. If AIs still had the need for such crass rationalizations, they could compellingly argue that as superior beings, they have the right to use humans just as humans used non-human animals (not to mention other human beings who were conveniently classified as "non-human"). This would be compelling not simply because of its consistency, but also because the robot would shoot you with its laser if you tried to disagree.

I see now. I am able to have these two contradictory politics because, at heart, I don't really believe in anything.

Ah, but that's hyperbolic! That's like calling myself a "nihilist"--which I also do. But that can't be right. If nothing else, implicit in the decisions I make are patterns of value. While I may want to explain those away as accidental emotional associations, there are limits to how much you can take a third-person perspective concerning the operations of your mind.


The hardest part about blogging, I now recall, is ending a post. This is especially difficult for me because in the past I often went in not knowing completely what I'm going to say, adopting a stream-of-consciousness writing style, attempting to give voice to the various interlocutors in my ongoing internal dialogue. (I mean that in a non-crazy way. I know the voices in my head are all just me.)

I imagine that since I have been away from disciplined writing for so long (in which you must prepare an argument, and have at least a mental outline of your paper), my proclivities for free-ranging thought and improvisational writing will be increased.

So, that's going to mean an abrupt ending every now and then.