Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace
Exegesis presents the reader with a fundamental problem in adjudicating between Phronesis and authority. At once there is the question of source, which is a modern question, and one that only became an issue in the eighteenth century. It is not surprising that the question revolving around the existence of the divine is said to be an ‘eighteenth century question.’ Only in Monty Python and in certain parochial college campuses would one ever find today a ‘debate’ with such a question at stake. At the same time, God’s death does not immediately or necessarily imply that God is now also non-existent. This is an imputation culled from our own mortal life and thus there is no basis to infer that what apparently happens to us has also befallen a deity. Further, just because one god is dead does not mean that all are, or perhaps the transcendental Being is in fact no more but Its emissaries live on in some manner befitting to their status as successors. For the evangelical, for instance, one might assuage but perhaps also caution, by declaring that though God is dead, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is.
The interpretation of text used to be understood as wholly a problem concerning scripture, but Ast and Schleiermacher, in the 1820s, generalized both exegetical and thence also eschatological work to include all texts, ancient and modern, sourced in every discourse and thus courageously following through on Kant’s refusal to stop writing about religion, as the Prussian state had demanded he do about a generation earlier. All of us are indebted to these three thinkers specifically upon this issue which is, at its heart, an issue of ethics. ‘Practical wisdom’, Aristotle’s ‘Phronesis’, is a working conception that includes the dialogue between interpretation and sense, both ‘common’ and scientific. What passed for science in the Hellenistic period was longer on empiricism than it was on rationalism, but it was a start. For the eighteenth century, vaulted into a new worldview thanks in part to the new sciences, from Galileo to Vico and onward, the career of interpretation was in some sense predestined to generalize itself, for who in their dignified and modern mind would care to admit, and thence to submit, only scripture to such a crucial process? Even in our own day, wherein print books are on the wane, one has to go a long way to encounter a household wherein only the Bible is present.
This said, one does not have to travel near as far to encounter a living human being whose sense of eminent and ultimate authority adheres to this or that holy book, whatever the credo involved. This, for me, is more a disconnect at the level of literacy than anything else. As such, it is not as serious a problem as it might at first appear. If the vast majority of interpretation occurs at the level of highly scripted popular culture and that in a very few genres of textuality – in fiction, crime or mystery, romance, fantasy-adventure; in non-fiction, popular economics and commerce, gardening, cooking; and finally, biography or memoir as an uneasy amalgam of the two – scripture takes on a more predominant role than it otherwise would. Given the beauty of its prose and the compelling character of its narratives, from the Gospels to the Upanishads and back again, such texts present to us not only world-systems and choate beliefs which hang together as long as their basic premises are accepted without too much skeptical scrutiny, but as well, a sense that something more noble is possible for human culture, it is easy to understand why they remain of interest to many. If all there were to textual life was a choice between Hollywood and the Gospels, Bollywood and the Bhagavad Gita, I myself would choose the sacred route every time.
But in fact this is a false dichotomy. And the fault lies not with either the producers of low culture in each social reality, whether America or India or elsewhere or the odd theologian who hopes to keep the ‘higher’ culture relevant, but rather within the systems of education that are supposed to provide a third eye, a third way, that threads the narrow needle between Hexis and Praxis, the other members of the Aristotelian trinity of ‘outlooks’ or ways of encountering the world. Regrettably, even the universities treat their knowledge as a mere extension of the Praxis outlined in the school system, rather than what it actually is: a radically different way of understanding that leads to practical wisdom. These three terms exist in a dialectical relationship with one another. Hexis, or custom, is the thesis. It is what is common to all members hailing from a specific culture and time period. Though this was more true in 1945 than perhaps it is today, Schutz was nevertheless near the mark when he commented that if one was living in a native English speaking country, one would be at a tremendous disadvantage if one was not ‘osmotically’ familiar with both the Bible and Shakespeare, if only through epigrams and ‘sound bites’. Even if the source of custom includes actual texts, these sensibilities have percolated into commonplace consciousness in a serious enough manner to have become one with it. Post-secondary education, especially in the liberal arts, is supposed to provide more than what a mere technical education is responsible for; more than a specialized Praxis, the antithesis. Increasingly, the entirety of the education system is geared into providing for young people only technique, and indeed, it was one of the variables that pushed me to leave the university behind. Concurrent with market pressures and the sense that one must work to live – ironically, a scriptural sentiment – students flock to these technical programs on the promise of a job, any job. The combination of the forces of globalization only make this mood more desperate. To be young today is to face a dangerous series of tests to this regard, without respect to the stressors that face any youth simply because of the life phase they are in. To this end, Phronesis is the ethical sublation of custom and practical theory. It takes from them the knowing of both and translates, uplifts, and transcends their respective limitations. It is the ‘sign’ which has been constructed out of, but also transfigured from, the signified of Hexis and the signifier of Praxis. Without the dialectic, the only signage available to us as interpreters of the world is that of Caesar and his palace on the one hand, and the prophet and his temple on the other. They are antinomous by nature, and cannot be reconciled let alone transfigured and put to creative use without the hermeneutics of generalized exegetical work.
Increasingly the difference between a school and a storefront is more difficult to discern. Perhaps a circle is closing in upon itself, as at first, the difference between a school and a temple was almost nil. The university is, in its origins, a child of the monastery and not the laboratory, which hardly existed, even though Mantua, Padua, and a little later, Cambridge and Oxford, were early on often centered around medical discourse. Even today, with a view to earning money beyond tuition, certain universities require their first year students to live on campus in dormitories, as if this were akin to a normal school from the Victorian era. The palace and the temple thus reassert themselves at the expense of the lab and the library. Each school maintains ‘codes’ of conduct for its students, which are supposedly only based on the wider legal system and civil behavior, but can be traced back into the murkier sign systems of both religion and capital alike. Our contemporary king is the king of diamonds, even if Phronesis still tells us that the elemental human condition is a dialogue between love and death, hearts and spades, and the wisdom that is at our disposal to adjudicate between them may be found under the rubric of the King of clubs, or knowledge. To abandon this exegetical work – its sacred character too was generalized by modern hermeneutics – in the pursuit of praxis alone is to deny one’s human character. Rendering supplication only to the palace or only to the temple requires of us not only the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, as James pointed out, but as well the resignation that the world is itself nothing more than a conflict between the material and the supposed immaterial realms.
If there were Gods of custom, their vision encompassed each question of existence that could be imagined at the time. If there was a universal question regarding the meaningfulness of the human condition, there was a universal source from which could be understood some kind of response, if not necessarily an ultimate certainty. When the character of the conception of certainty was altered by the new sciences and the new philosophies, the new politics and the new mode of production, the authority of a new universal source of meaning did not follow along. We remain perplexed by this lacunae, which is something of an unexpected tear in fabric of the soul of humankind. We stare down at ourselves, noting this deep textile fluttering with each breath. It makes us blink, but raising our heads once again, we begin to understand that it is this very injury that has brought the world into a much more focused light. Though we must resist projecting our own distress into and onto the world at large, we also have an opportunity to empathize, not only with another like myself, oneself as another, but also with a cosmos, oddly familiar to us, that orders itself out of the happenstance of a disheveled deity and a half-knowing wisdom alike.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
Gender: the Ever-Bending Story
Beauty has little to do with desire.
– Marcel Proust
A romantic notion of the performance of gender, attached to any age or aesthetic, would simply be to suggest that we are attempting, in our mortal and fragile manner, to approach the concept of Beauty. We are to be the beautiful embodied, and this is our sole and singular desire. From the mimicry of fashion, the downward percolation of haute-couture, the adulation of celebrity, the fitness regimes that claim that sixty is the new forty and so on – is thereby twenty the new twelve? Our delayed ethical maturity rates support this other claim at least – such a desire to become and if possible, remain, beautiful, animates much of even popular health discourse. Not an ounce of wasted fat. Sadly, perhaps, few of us attain these heady heights, especially as we age. We are another version of the 99% movement, more or less asexual, displaying genders of uncertain registry, possessing only tattered proof of ownership, gradually weaning ourselves away from glamour.
Though this sensibility maintains a certain surface tension between ideals and realities, it is still a gloss on another, more elemental sense that the limits of mortality place upon us. Rather than simply a desire for the Beautiful, more deeply as well as more simply, we are driven by a basic will to life. We understand that health, in general, lends itself to longevity. That the figure is enhanced by the physique is of secondary import only. And yet, if the prime mover is an attempt not so much at Beauty per se, with neither Truth nor the Good necessarily following along from this, but rather at Godhead itself, it is also true to say that living better has it charms when juxtaposed with simply living longer.
The bodies of the Greek pantheon, for example, are both cliché as well as inspiring what Sontag in our own time referred to as the ‘fascist aesthetic’. Riefenstahl was her particular target, and at the time, this latter duly replied ‘I cannot imagine how someone so smart can be so stupid’. On both counts, the rest of us are guilty. We ape the esthetic of eugenics whilst pretending unawareness of the fascist methods it takes to attain it. It is also a ‘look’ underpinned by health and hygiene, and neither erotism nor even sexuality qua sexuality. In a word, a hot body is a better reproductive machine. It is changing population dynamics, altered political franchises, and transitional personal identities that support the more realistic analytic of the study of gender taken into the social world rather than being left to the wider latitudes and sometimes deadpan platitudes of the world of literature.
This said, if we compare the eugenics height-weight charts of the 1930s with the insurance driven charts of our own day, it is clear that we have lost some weight, as it were. This is a good thing in the sense that women should not be defined by their reproductive physiology and men should not be defined by their ability to carry around the gears of war. Let the latter play out this pre-nuclear destiny in video games, let the former simply adopt. Gender and sex have never been in a one-to-one correspondence with one another. They are regularly completely separate conceptions and thus give forth conflicting sensibilities. ‘Born a woman, born a man’ is someone’s paean to a dubious nostalgia. Who this ‘someone’ may be in today’s world is certainly of interest, but what students of this topic tell us is that it is more of a ‘what’ than a specifically definable ‘who’. Foucault’s conception of ‘bio-power’ is likely the most powerful analytic tool we have to lens these phenomena. Of its relationship to the ability to wage wars of both attrition and obliteration, he states: “But the existence in question is no longer the juridical existence of sovereignty; at stake is the biological existence of a population. If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.” (1978:137 ). Any State which is losing population will have more repressive laws against both LGBTQ2 and abortion; Russia and Poland are obvious examples. If a State has too many people, such as India, laws are loosened to these regards, as we have also recently observed. Within the confines of national boundaries, the same argument covers the actions of waning subcultures or those dominant. Evangelical Protestants have maintained and even succeeded in growing their franchise by teaching against non-heterosexual identities and displaying a vigorous opposition to abortion, this in spite of the fact that it is working and middle class married white women who abort the vast majority of fetuses – simply due to personal constraints of finance and time as well as perhaps, an incipient sense that they are not vessels of mere reproduction after all – and in spite of the fact LGBTQ2 numbers represent an insignificant portion of sectarian franchises. The logic of desire alone argues that the subaltern should be commending post haste alternate sexual identities and practices for the dominant culture, their enemies, instead of making blanket statements that all of us should eschew the bending of gender and sexuality alike.
This straying from rationality also overtakes a strictly biopower approach, for once again, if the goal is political dominance in a democracy, one’s enemies should be encouraged to abort, to be gay etc. and to generally practice a hedonism that will never lead to stable family and reproductive relationships. Given that this is manifestly not what we observe, it may be the case that subalterns already know that their enemies will not heed their advice, so they can rest in preaching to the choir, hoping that at least these latter will in fact do so. In lesser democracies, governments have more ability to impose restrictions and cast to the historical winds any opposition. Even so, there are ways to counter such Herodian measures. If one is expected to add to the population of one’s homeland in the effort to make it more powerful as a military figure, or to help insulate it against the otherwise necessary importation of immigrant labour pools – which in turns heralds a latent ethnicism; the proverbial ‘fear of a ‘black’ planet’ – one can simply practice safer sex. It is of interest that while this is an oft impotent cliché in the education of youth, we do not so much hear a peep of it regarding adults, especially those in conjugal relations. Speaking of the hygiene of eugenics, it was the Reich’s ideal to reproduce as rapidly as possible, hence the gaudy medals given out to the mothers who bore the most children per annum. One suspects Russia, for instance, of providing more vulgar trophies, this time for the men, given the paucity of laws against domestic and child abuse in that country. Zhivym boitsam pochot i chest’, don’t want to marry, settle down and have kids? Well, here, guys, do whatever you want to your women (and children) and the State will turn a blind eye to it. How’s that for a deal?
While it is also sadly likely the case that many men in all nations would find such an offer attractive – why should there be opportunities for this kind of recreation as performance in the theaters of abuse that include aspects of the sex industry as well as the far more real abuses that yet take place in some schools in certain countries and in most homes around the world if this were not the case? – it is also plausible to suggest that the more public LGBTQ2 phenomena is suggestive of a transition away from not only the bourgeois family and its repressed esthetic of binary erotism but even more importantly, from the call of duty the homeland has customarily represented. Nuclear weapons have provided an ironic egress from both of these structured strictures. On the one hand, vast armies are no longer required to wage war. On the other, everyone is now a warrior, however passive, for in contemporary global war, all perish and not merely those who serve. It may raise eyebrows to declare a direct relation between weapons of mass destruction and the wider advent of the LGBTQ2, but this is, to me, quite clear.
The key to using this aesthetic and ethical disconnect to the advantage of overcoming the cause and working more intimately with the effect is to ensure that no matter the local cultural source of youth, the new ideology of global interrelations and dialogue be taught as the commanding presence in educational processes. Yes, this too is an argument, but it rests in the service of life. For the first time in the history of gender-bending, those who on the face of it mean to become comfortable with their extant bodies through gender transition or other methods, also have this wider calling. Their example must teach the rest of us how to overcome the dual and allied forces of State and Family. I think that those who resist LGBTQ2 persons are aware of this very threat, even though their response is too steeped in Hexis to attain a specific rationality. The rhetoric that a god is displeased with alternate sexual identities cannot possibly resonate in a diverse world of many creeds and creditors. No, the best defense against non-binary gender is to simply have as many children as possible within the subculture in question and then teach them about man and woman as they were ‘meant’ to be. Ignore whatever else is going on and hope that the rest of us will simply die out for lack of reproductive potential, in another irony, kind of the like the Shakers. Now, will the women of Poland, of Russia, or for that matter, of Texas and Utah, comply?
I would like to doubt it. There is an alliance between feminism and ‘genderism’, for lack of a better term. So the only other tactic that can be employed by a waning culture is to try to convince at least some of the rest of us to join in. Men, are you feeling a little ‘incel’ these days? Join us! We have young women aplenty eager to serve you, and we too will look the other way if you enjoy disciplining them (and their children) in some old-world fashion. A number of threads in VoyForums, for example, attest to this marketing and its grim results, which are celebrated as if domestic abuse were a common good. On the other side, the rest of us, however asexual and denuded of our own desires, must put our remaining energies into curtailing all such activities to their null point, while accessing the spirit of Antigone but transcending her choice, which in turn may mean simply destroying the sources which promote, and continue to promote, the inhumane ideals of family and state alike.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
Paris Hilton; My Heroine
In the politically conservative state of Utah this week, a major decision in the legal realm has paved the way for a far greater oversight of institutions catering to ‘troubled teens’. These sites are the contemporary guise of the now defunct asylum system, and one can hope that they will eventually suffer the same demise. The Utah ruling opens up a transformation to this regard across the United States, and the celebrity Ms. Hilton’s testimony was crucial in pushing it forward. A true heroine, Ms. Hilton suffered sundry abuse at one of these institutions, to which she was sent by her parents at age seventeen to ostensibly curb her ‘incessant partying’.
This is the key trope in yet another front within the wider ambit of the ineptly named ‘culture wars’. There is, in fact, nothing cultural about this conflict. It is a war against fascism, pure and simple, the same war that was waged against the Reich. Though at base a female-perspective riff on Robert Heinlein’s novella ‘If this goes on…’, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale should be enough for those who lack imagination to picture the society the so-called ‘Christian’ right desires to suffer upon the rest of us. They want to turn the entire world into an institution for ‘troubled’ youth. Never mind that their version of Christianity is a fraud, cooked up by the second Great Awakening Barnums and Baileys of the day. Never mind that in wider US law children and youth are not considered to be worthy of many human rights including the right not to be physically assaulted by their parents and yet in nineteen states, their teachers as well. Never mind that such wider laws are mostly unquestioned and that eighty percent of Americans still use physical coercion in child raising. Ms. Hilton’s victory remains a victory.
Not only is it admirable by way of the courage it must have taken for her to speak out publicly about the intimate abuse she suffered while in ‘care’, iterated by many others who were sent involuntarily to this same institution, but it is also of the utmost that lawmakers were so moved by this courage – shown both by her teenage self in actually undergoing and enduring such abuse as well as her adult self in being able to narrate it and thus expose this loathsome criminality – to take necessary action. The next step would be to shut these places down in their entirety.
When I was a professor in the USA for six years, I co-founded and then led the community service learning programs at two universities. A number of rehabilitation sites for youth were on my list of placements for my students. I accepted their applications after having studied their practices with all due rigor. The narratives my students later related to myself and their peers were grim, but these sites took in court referenced youth who had been found guilty of sexual assault, common assault, and other forms of juvenile mayhem that were actually against the law and did in fact endanger others. Not one of the inmates of these facilities had been forced by non-legal entities into incarceration, unlike Ms. Hilton. Now this is not to say that my experiential learning sites were above reproach. The methods of restraining violent youth were themselves violent, but rather of necessity, however regrettably. Pharmaceuticals were proscribed and administered to persons as young as ten for violence and even to quell libidinal drives. Indeed, many of the abuses that Ms. Hilton reports being a daily fetish in the non-court ordered sites were practiced as therapeutic interventions in the ones that contained court-ordered youth.
But therein lies the precise difference between such facilities. In the service learning sites within my ken, health professionals and judges were the sources of both placement and treatment. In the types of sites that the new Utah legal oversights will adjudicate, parents, pastors, teachers and other very dubious and non-professional authorities are the sources of the reference, placement, and ‘treatment’ once placed. And it is this line, between that of the discursively and legally responsible professional and the mere moralist, the line that turns lawful incarceration into abduction and forcible confinement, the line that turns treatment into abuse, that must not be crossed.
In volume three of my adventure trilogy, ‘Queen of Hearts’, Melissa Daniels, Guinevere’s contemporary sister, reflects on how their parents had regularly threatened to send her herself to one of these camps for ‘troubled teens’, and how many of those that were sent to them were once wards of the state:
“All that horseshit about magical swords and their relationship to their wielders tired me out. I felt the same way about animals, come to think of it. Equine therapy? That was one of the patent things those fucking evangelicals had set up for girls like me. Advertising how many of their wards – signed over by their parents sometimes for years at a time, including authority to discipline ‘if needed’ – had been adopted. They were in the business of saving souls, bless them; those of ‘wayward’ girls, girls with addictions, ‘attitude’ problems, ‘troubled teens’, now that was a favorite phrase. Fuck them all. And I will. [ ] We’ve already started. What we really needed to do, if we were to face a holy army of self-righteous regressives, was to raise an unholy one in return. Free all those so-called wayward girls and have them join with us. Get them back to their violent roots. Yes, freedom. Saving souls my fucking ass. All they were doing was taking opportunistic advantage to manipulate lost souls into their ever-bleeding franchise. It was simple demographics, thence simple politics. They could never get their regressive agenda tabled fully because there simply weren’t enough of them to do it. Compensate the loss of girls like me, well, boys too, by co-opting once wards of the state into their wider coven. Counsel them, pray with them, play with horses with them, swim and work-out and even paddle them when necessary. Wouldn’t you know it, I had been this close to having been sent to one of those ‘schools’ myself. Gwynne had herself never been threatened with it, but I had, once a month, for a couple of years. As soon as I had turned twelve, which was apparently the starting age these places accepted, mom and dad had showed me their websites. The girls all smiles, of course. Horses? Not my thing.”
This character no doubt has an axe to grind, given her own personal upbringing, but in essence her argument is correct. Placement sites for non-court ordered youth are like concentration camps with the goal of conversion and recruitment for the war latter day fascists desire to wage upon the rest of us. Though it would be a waste of infrastructure, I am tempted to borrow a phrase from the Reich myself, and suggest that this network of schools, camps, and other facilities simply be ‘levelled with the earth’, just as has been done with the vast majority of the now defunct asylum system.
I once had a lengthy sit on the tarmac at the Minneapolis International Airport. To my right, just off the ever expanding system of runways and service roads, was a cluster of Victorian buildings, standing starkly against the staring moonlight. It was a long abandoned Sanatorium, lower floors bricked in or covered over with aging plywood, the upper floor windows’ plate glass sometimes shattered by the intrepid vandal, the remaining sockets looking an abject absurdity that had transformed the once private madness of a lost soul into the unreason of an entire discourse. The irony of allying oneself with the history of psychopathology in order to hopefully defeat a yet more evil outlook does not escape us. Even so, as with Tuberculosis, Hysteria, Cancer and AIDS, the movement from morals to science is crucial. Without it, the abuses endured by Ms. Hilton and hundreds of thousands like her will only continue apace. I agree that teens need to spend less time partying, but not for the reasons the fascists intend. No, rather youth need to recruit themselves into a war against those very forces which threaten all of our present freedoms and more ominously, all of those freedoms that yet may come.
Social Philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
Some Overlooked Genres of Domestic Terrorism
The trinity of revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century produced much to which we are in debt. Modern democracy, the triumph of reason, mass production are, in a word, the summa of the fruits of this still recent period of human consciousness. Each has its flaws, but it is overdone to simply restate that industry is destroying the planet, that enfranchisement has its disappointing limits, that some dreams of reason indeed produce monsters.
Yet it is the very insidiousness of such dreams that is their true terror. They overlay our society and ourselves, and thus they are most often overlooked. This isn’t a blame game, for no single person is responsible. But there are those who, upon finding themselves in groups of apparently like-minded others, fall for their weakest aspects of their specific characters, just as we as a society might do in times of wider crisis.
The pedigree of ‘concerned citizenry’ dates back to the confluence of the bourgeois coming of age, the 1820s and 1830s. This is the world of Jane Austen, of George Elliot, of Stendhal and for that matter, of Schubert. But great art has a way of hovering above the push and pull of daily life, even if, in all of its radical presence – witness for instance Muller’s famous line from Schubert’s Winterreise; ‘If there are no gods upon the earth, then we ourselves are gods’ – it subverts and overcomes the norms and forms of staid civility and ‘proper behavior’. To one’s sense is another’s sensibility, perhaps. Even so, the efflorescence of a new kind of outlook was on the make, that of the emerging middle classes. It is sage to note that even at the height of this class’s self-consciousness, say the Ward Cleaver tinged c. 1960 or so, only about 60% of American families conformed to the ‘nuclear’ ideal, an apropos adjective, given this other steadily enlarging skeleton in the post-war closet.
Not long after the institution of mass public liberal arts schooling for merchant-class children, coming in part due to the efforts of the first incarnation of ‘bored housewives’ sans internet, the separation of the mentally ill, the criminally insane, and the plain criminal by Pinel, and the inaugural feminism of Harriet Martineau, close friend and intellectual comrade of John Stuart Mill, there appeared the ‘child saving movement’. From factory to school, it represented, at base, a delay in the death sentence of wage slavery. Yet it was also the beginning of the idea that children were not mere chattel. From this point we have, more or less in historical succession, the temperance movement, the suffragettes, the fight against polio etc., including the ‘march of dimes’, and on into our own time. These latter-day saints shall go unnamed here, for wariness of their possible litigiousness, latent or blatant.
Prudence aside, it is rather a kind of possessive prudishness coupled, to use a word advisedly, with a dark desire to express sexual predation upon young people that drives much of contemporary, if overlooked, domestic terrorism. These are grass-roots movements – though some may be in receipt of public funding, shame on us – and thus differ from the sources which spawn events such as sending young people home to change clothes because their apparel was too titillating for school staff members and administrators to control their own longings. The public castigation of youth in this way is a distended and indirect form of surrogate rape; young women are the ‘special victims’ of these assaults. Perhaps the script-writers of CSI might look into these acts if only for a fresh episode. No, these grass-roots groups are not functionaries of State terrorism, as are the schools, but rather have their own agenda, which often seeks to contravene the law as it is, once again, especially in relation to youth. ‘Parents’ rights’ or ‘parental advocacy’ groups are part of this ilk, as are groups claiming they act for the ‘protection’ of children. NGO’s that are currently seeking to ban various forms of pornography fit this bill to a tee, whether or not their motivation is directly ‘religious’. More than attempting to control the freedom of youth, they ultimately seek a wider control over the freedom of all.
But these are not the only overlooked terrorists on the domestic front. We also read of yet another Olympic gymnastics coach accused of much more direct sexual assault, who promptly committed suicide when he was exposed. The easy way out, or perhaps he realized that any penalty the State might render would be too good for the likes of him. We are inclined to agree if the latter was the actual case. This is another pattern; adults who desire to work intimately with youth might well be suspect. Thus coaching and sports organizations fall also under this subcutaneous rubric of potential terrorist threats. After all, part of the very definition of terrorism includes the intent to provoke fear and cause injury or even death to regular persons somehow associated with the ideals this or that group wishes to destroy. Young people’s psyches are destroyed by such coaches, sports parents, media – both public and private – which ‘celebrates’ the accomplishments of young athletes with little enough attention paid to how they became so skilled at their respective games.
But by far the social institution that is responsible for the most per capita acts of domestic terrorism is the family itself. Ninety-five percent of child abuse of all types occurs within its bounds. This normative scene of violence is only heightened, worsened, during a health crisis that forces family members in too close quarters for lengthy amounts of time. This statistic alone puts to rest the incessant decoy of parental groups who, aside from expressing their own desires to control youth, need to provide both cover for and distraction against their ongoing prevarications of the general condition of almost all youth. Counseling programs and social work degrees that focus their curricula on ‘family-based’ solutions are also thus missing the mark, both empirically and ethically, and could be included on the terrorist list.
So, just for the sake of expositional organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, what then do we have?
1. Parent’s groups: whether shilling for greater ‘rights’, advocating for more influence in the schools – surely the most proverbial Canadian case centered round the farcical revolving door of the Abbotsford school board the 1980s and 1990s, where the province periodically fired it only to have it re-elected – or seeking to ‘protect’ children from everyone else but the most statistically real villains, parents groups retain the air of bourgeois hypocrisy better than any other genre of domestic terrorist.
2. Training organizations for youth coaching and sports, including those more informally associated with churches: A combination of the will to exert a fascist control over young people – how many times have I witnessed, even on a casual walk with my wife, some coach or official yelling at a young person, right up in their face, using a physically threatening stance? (Let’s not even speak of the parents on the sidelines) – and a patent voyeurism, given the scanty athletic gear for youth in most sports, these ‘adults’ are somewhere down the same road as the now notorious Olympic gymnastics coaches. The fetish surrounding ‘organized sports’ being somehow ‘character building’ for kids is utter nonsense. What they actually teach is competition, the disdain for the weakest link, and that bullying can be internalized and turned against your opponents. Here’s some simple advice to those with an inclination to coach youth sports; find something better to do, if you can.
3. The family: It has been two centuries of this much vaunted and now nostalgia driven NGO and it is high time it was consigned to the dustbin of a history which aborted itself at the very moment its dreams might have risen above its monsters. I’m open to discuss novel options.
No doubt this list could be extended to include Norman Rockwellian scout leaders and volunteers and ‘ gender conversion therapists’- those latter’s activities soon to be banned in Canada – but aside from that, when it comes to thinking about domestic terrorism, the usual suspects of ‘Alt-right’, Neo-Nazism et al, or the yet more rare ‘revolutionary’ groups whose heyday was the 1970s, just doesn’t cut it either in terms of actual influence or sheer numbers of persons involved. No, rather the groups and institutions listed here are far more dangerous, act to act, event to event, than anything some utterly marginal ‘ideological’ group could ever muster. The grass-roots terrorists adorn themselves with a rhetoric designed to appeal to all of us who actually practice all the things we are not supposed to practice, including in Canada, what can be called Section 43 violations. They have widespread political support, simply because it is in the character of politics to be cowardly in the face of the mob. They align themselves with the prevailing winds of ressentiment and nostalgia alike, both hallmarks of a fraudulent anxiety that seeks to assuage our deeper misgivings about how we yet provide for our children, such as we may do, on the backs of all those who cannot do the same. It is one thing to sheepishly go about one’s business and work for a better world for all, but to take the penumbra of our desires for control and lust and dress them up in the wooly-eyed vestments of both vanity and vindictiveness places us beyond redemption.
If it is the case that human reason does sometimes produce not so much monsters per se but rather monstrosities and perhaps, pace Muller, yet monstrous gods, this is not the whole story. Democracy was strengthened by the first feminist groups, children were placed on the long road to attaining fully human rights – though very few nations have yet reached this ideal – drug and alcohol abuse eventually became a topic of health discourse rather than of that moral, and various diseases were overcome. Even so, we must ask after the costs of these changes, for no ‘good in itself’ can function as a social good without addressing the entirety of each historical process. There are events which are evil in principle – the residential schools, for instance – and knowing this, we tend to desire to balance such a reality with the idea that there must also be things which are in principle nothing but good. This is, for the greatest part, simply not so. Coming to terms with this social fact, confronting those who maintain and promote underhanded desires flanked by a masked militia of neo-fascist domestic euphemisms – ‘protection’, ‘discipline’, ‘teamwork’, ‘character’, ‘family values’, etc. – and fighting back against the too-soothing directives of these NGO’s and others will in fact make our society more democratic, by way of extending an holistic human freedom to its most vulnerable members.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
On the Act of Understanding the Other
“…we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.” (Dahlberg-Acton 1906:202 ).
The great challenge of our own age, that which imagines itself as verging upon post-historical, remains an historical challenge. The shock of the other, her very existence, both promotes this challenge into an orbit that appears dauntingly distant, but also demotes the value of taking up this challenge as something unworthy of our collective efforts. For the other is at first no friend. And yet the stakes could not be higher. Even in Lord Acton’s period, which is still very much our own as modulated from imperial colonialism to economic neo-colonialism, from biopower presumed to biopower desired, from sex to gender, from race to ethnicity, from labor-based classes to those status-based and so on, people were well aware of the historical cost, not so much of misunderstanding, but of deliberate disagreement for the sake of political opportunism and messianistic adoration. Like moving to the relative minor from the nineteenth century’s dominant major key, our own time has been modulated by these structural forces so that the otherness of the other is much more apparent to us, and much more troubling. There no longer is a ‘white man’s burden’, and if anything, fashionable discourse says to us the opposite: that the white man has imposed a burden upon the world that reaches out from beyond his own recently dug grave. Yet it was this very personage who invented the concept of understanding, after many painstaking millennia. Almost all of our philosophical ideas which aid us in coming to both the understanding of the other and what is also of the utmost, one’s own self-understanding, emerge from the ethics of the West, authored and thought out loud by the best of what is often considered a bad lot.
If this sounds apologetic in any way, it is because abandoning this discourse means that we are thrown back over into a pre-modernity that is too sure of itself; its religious beliefs, its sense of social order, its political reason, its morality. The Enlightenment, the penultimate fruit of the tree of reason that was first planted some 2.6K years ago in Greece, is the source of historical understanding and also that ethical, for it goes beyond the sense that tolerance alone is a good enough showing to otherness as a principle, just as it makes larger the compassion that was to be shown, in Christian ethics, to the other as an individual. This is one of the reasons why Acton refers to understanding the other as an ‘art’. Art simultaneously participates in the universal and the individual. It brings the cosmos to the person without presuming to personalize it. It allows the intimate to experience the infinite without aggrandizing what occurs between persons into a universal force. Similarly the art of self-understanding, which too must attain a new intimacy in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous world, let alone the incomparably larger cosmos.
If this is an ideal, let me suggest that before one can attain art, one must task oneself with the more modest act. The act of understanding the other is a beginning, but in our own day, even this appears to be often absent. We hear popular writers speaking of ‘reaching out’ to one another, of tolerance, compassion, even acceptance, but are any of these, or can any combinations thereof, truly generate an authentic understanding of the other as a vehicle for otherness? Here, I am using the term to connote neither the untoward nor the uncanny as such. Yes, both are present in the encounter with the other insofar as the first may be the case if we fail to understand something of her – she may end up presenting a threat to our own parochialism, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – and the second occurs simply because of the shock of realizing that another human being can in fact be so different from me that I am stretched to recognize her as human. The untoward is what we seek to avoid, but the uncanny cannot be expunged. We simply have to accept this in ourselves through the other as part of the act of understanding. For otherness also resides within, from the metaphoric rhetoric of the unconscious life, to the role stress and conflict that occupies our waking hours. It is quite enough most of the time and for most of us, to nod again to Acton, to ‘make out our own meanings’, oft enough without any help at all, from either friend and certainly not from foe.
Just so, just now, we see that friend and foe are becoming all too clear, so much so that if one is not the one, one is the other. This is the very essence of pre-modernity in all of its diverse organizational forms. From hunting and gathering, through horticulture and agrarian means of production, the stranger could not be one of us. It is a long-germinating resonance of the second Great Awakening period (c.1790-1840) in the USA that American politics – ironically heralded as the most ingenious, reasoned and liberating if experimental dynamic in world history by De Tocqueville at the very moment it was about to turn inward and fold back upon itself – has seemingly regressed into a bipolar pre-modernity; one is either friend or foe and there is nothing, and more importantly, no one, in between.
The art of understanding is the culmination of a series of acts which direct themselves toward a sense of self-recognition, thence further, toward a more risky comprehension that the other really is her own person who is under no obligation to agree with me about anything at all. Coming to terms with the other is at first a mere political exercise, but right now we appear to be lacking even this. Such terms are necessary in order for a society to function in its basic sense. We do seem to be starting at a zero point, or rather, restarting. This is due to the fact that what were originally very small populations west of the Alleghenies – it is important to note that the first railhead through this range was only accomplished in 1857 – grew at a rate similar to their political disenfranchisement. When agriculture and ranching became themselves marginal to the emerging industrial economy, these Americans had already girded themselves with a century of ‘awakened’ ideas. If the Puritans were intolerant and neurotic, those whom they pushed westward were idealistic and victimized. This victimology, present from the moment the new republic recognized itself in a post-colonial core, urban, commercial, capitalist, and seeking its own culture, has come down to us as a wider Western culture as the song of all those who suffer from yet larger forces; chief amongst them, globalization. But while Western economies are downshifted by the intense competition afforded by yet further others – those yet more distant and far more strange than even the neighbor who votes for the other party – the deeper source of marginality is the very history of internal colonization and the sheer geography of a land unlike anything one’s ancestors could have imagined. A big land required a big god, required a big man, required a big stick. But did it require a big State, a big heart, a big purse? Perhaps in contradiction with itself, the USA got all of those aspects of largeness, amongst others. ‘Very well, I contain multitudes’, Whitman famously writes at the moment the Alleghenies were pierced by the new industry. Whitman is known as the first truly modern American artist precisely because he recognizes the other inside of himself. In our own age, and contrary to any idea that emanated from that previous, otherness is not something distant, obscure, inhuman, and necessarily defined by existential threat, of whatever nature the corresponding variables may have been in one historical context to the next. But both the language and the countenance of this Great Awakening promoted the old ideas once again to the fore. With just as great an irony, the nation that was once the radical hope of the enlightened world in two centuries would risk becoming a caricature of itself.
This is why the act of understanding the other must come before that very other, in reaction to our malicious mocking and vindictive vitriol, makes herself into the very caricature we had all along presumed her to be. The rioters at DC were the self-fulfilling prophecy imagined by all those who had marginalized them over the decades. We tend to make our own enemies, most especially, of ourselves. This is why the act precedes the art, just as an apprenticeship comes before any supposed mastery. We are not asking each other to become such masters overnight. Rather, we are proposing the modest endeavor of authentically trying to comprehend what the other really needs, what they think of the world, who they imagine themselves to be. That this is the essence of any human relationship should not be lost on us. For the others are also married, are also working, are also trying to ‘make their own meaning’ in the face of powerfully anonymous forces which are far beyond any individual’s control. The sense that globalization is alone the wedge that drives the West apart from itself is simply another way of pushing off on a yet stranger other the responsibility for self-understanding. If my neighbor is, after all, not my enemy, then the Chinese person is, the Indian person, the Muslim. These ‘strangers at the gates’, to allude to Kipling once again, have, like the rioters, found their way into our way of life. But they are who they are, and not caricatures, not neighbors in the narrow sense. So we must extend the sense of self-understanding, and the only manner of doing so is by augmenting what was originally a religious ethics with that of post-religious thought.
In book three of my new trilogy, the newly conjoined Queen Guinevere’s final words to the major narrative heroine, telling her at once of the state of her own lover as well as the state of our contemporary love in general, are as follows: “She is alive but you must not delay. The power she has is munificent, but the power they have is not based on one soul, however great. It is known that Dvorak said of Brahms, ‘such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing.’ Take heed of this mischance, modernity, and choose carefully your nothing.” Our conception of love, and who is worthy of it, are endangered. It is because we have severe doubts regarding our own worthiness and on both counts; are we deserving of love and our we the ones who can love? ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ always carried this deeper caveat: it assumes one can love oneself. This is the ‘as’. Then again, to imagine that only we are worthy of love, our own or that of another, is to conflate the abstract ethic with the practical act. It is to submerge a revolutionary sensibility back into a revelationary discourse. What is appropriately ‘revealed’ by relatively freeing ethics from metaphysics is not religion but rather otherness, both internal to self and external in the other to self. Loving oneself includes the task of understanding that we are not one thing, singular, stable, secure in our knowledge of the world. Our global rivals have shed their own parochiality enough to step onto the world stage. Is it either reasonable or ethical that we shrink back before their example and turn inward, replacing what they were with ourselves?
Enjoin then the act of understanding, which discloses to one’s own being not merely the presence of the other as if she were a distraction or an annoyance, a threat mortal or otherwise, but in fact the authenticity of humanity in its diversity and in its similarity. For in the end we are both like and unlike the other. We may also like and dislike them, just as we already know that we too are likeable on one day, the other on another. Choosing carefully our unbelief includes the ability to comprehend that belief of some sort remains relevant. Even so, of whatever ethic it may promote, the otherness of the other, the difference within, must become a part thereof. The currently faithless faith in ourselves travels with us only until we reach the limen over which otherness dwells. Today, that threshold is what separates the neighbor that must be, and not the stranger that she has previously been.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
In Defence of Pornography as a Theatre of Human Freedom
In the Mad-TV satire ‘What Men Want’, a woman steps into the original Mel Gibson role as the gender-reversed script ambles along its expected course, this time with the woman being able to hear the men’s innermost thoughts in her own head. The answer is simple, and in one scene, where the narrator says farewell to her dying grandfather, she intones: ‘I’ll miss you grandpa’. He replies, ‘I’ll miss you too, sweetie – (then silently) But not as much as I’ll miss porn!’. For men in particular this could be interpreted as a ‘me too’ moment, but however that may be, I will argue in the following why society as a whole might well miss pornography and erotica more than we may at first imagine.
My experience with pornography-erotica, call it what you will, tells me I am consuming an aspect of base culture. As theatre, mostly plotless and with acting culled from an underground high school yearbook activity, it receives a solid ‘D’ rating. As sex itself, it is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and attempts to win one over – whatever that may entail – with grandstanding (mostly) youth showing off. It is no surprise that, as with athletics, anything that so intensely involves the body as a physical vehicle should be the basic preserve of youth. And sadly, in our society, this is mostly what youth have to offer; their pristine and charming physiques. Pornography is in all aspects juvenile, from its representations of youth by those far older to its motives. It is at source about money and not about sex, so it is also essentially dishonest. Given this, why defend it at all?
Though it cannot be defended as an aesthetic object, I suggest that it must be defended as an ethical one. At first, this seems a contradiction. While art is likely the highest expression of human freedom, attaining a status that transcends even history by communicating perennial truths of the human condition to and from diverse periods and variations thereof, the portrayal of sexuality alone speaks at best only of desire and passion. What is missing in pornography is the Gestalt of humanity; its passions, some certainly present, but also its compassions, which are wholly absent; its desires yes, but also alongside, its anxieties. It is therefore also not an ethical ‘object’. But what pornography does contain is a potent ethical objection to the self-imposed limitations we humans have a tendency to exert upon ourselves and others. Working from the simple premise that if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out – turn off the e-device but only for thine own self – any ethical objection to that which serves to place social norms and institutional orders into perspective must be applied first to one’s own self-understanding. As soon as it attempts to dictate what others shalt or shalt not do it strays over the line of ethics and into the space of fascism. And this is precisely the line that any call for the policing of the viewing of pornography based on age-related limits is doing.
Creeping fascism always plays the same tired game, and it is astonishing that, given recent history, we are still attracted to it. ‘I’m not trying to shut the porn industry down, I’m only trying to protect our children.’ In Canada, anyone twelve years old and above is legally entitled to have actual sex. There are a few reasonable age restrictions between twelve to fifteen, but the principal is clear. Youth (12-17) is its own category under Canadian law, as distinct from children (2-11). The fact that youth are no longer subject to being forced into surrogate sex with adults through corporal punishment underscores this separation. France remains a rare European country that has not banned this practice, so is it surprising that it is one country cited in the above article that seeks to ban viewing of sexual material by minors? For the French, apparently, youth are to remain sexual objects in the service of adults and can have little or no sexual agency of their own. Canadians are better than that, and by ‘better’, I mean, more ethical. The call to criminalize youth sexuality is both a regression and an expression of adult ressentiment specifically against the hard fact of the loss of our own youth and the future of humanity more generally. But by calling attention to the nostalgic and altogether deliberately naïve idea that young people are somehow not sexual beings and need to be ‘protected’ from sexuality until they are eighteen, the fascist attempts to take on the guise of guardian angel. ‘Save the children!’ He cries, from themselves, from evil adults, from evil itself!
Anyone who agrees with this kind of suggestion is committing the ethical error of projecting one’s own vain desires onto young persons. Pornography too exhibits these desires – ‘discipline’ sites are the most obvious expression thereof; why else would we be attracted to the idea that youthful looking actors should portray the very minors we are supposedly seeking to protect? Why would such roles always be those that require such discipline: physical, sexual, and political? – and in so doing it provides young people with an important insight: we adults want to harm you because you represent all that we have lost, including beauty, guilelessness, openness, and spirit. We might even hate you, but alas, direct hate crime is already illegal in Canada and thus we must express our dark passions in another way: limit your freedom, your sexual liberation, your mischievous fun. Portray you as disobedient pests who, if you can no longer be beaten in reality, at least you can be allegorized as being beaten in virtuality. Just so, to suppress your knowledge of how we actually think of you is one of the core reasons for banning youth access to pornography.
All fascists fear exposure of their true desires. These include ultimate control and the possession of a singular authority. They too know God is dead, but unlike more modest persons, they’re quite willing to fill in with the hope of making it a permanent situation. Hence the real ‘creeps’ in our society are not so much the relatively rare on-line child ‘groomers’ or molesters but rather the much less rare closet fascist who shows us just enough flesh so that we are distracted from noting the bones in behind him. He always begins with seemingly the most reasonable premise and this ‘foot in the door’ technique is also dishonest: ‘our children are vulnerable’ (And why so? Because we tend to control and baby them beyond their years lived). He uses seemingly reasonable analogies which turn out to be spurious: ‘films have limited access’ (In public only. Anyone can view an R-rated film without the fear of invasive criminalization in private and internet viewing is always already in private). He leaves out his true demands: ‘I’m only talking violent porn, here’ (in age-restricting porn sites you lose access to all porn, not just the minor percentage of it that might qualify as ‘violent’). He represents himself as reasonable: ‘I know this is a delicate topic’ (So was the so-called Jewish Question). The limits which are in place walk the actually delicate line between impinging upon hard-won and truly fragile democratic freedoms and the advice of child development experts and discourses: here’s some warnings and judge accordingly; some children might be disturbed by this or that material, others not, or yet some parents themselves might be warned off. Indeed, if I were to support age-restrictions on sexual material I would place them between the ages of 12 and 40. Anyone under or over those ages would not be permitted to view it. On the one hand because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, childhood ends at age 12 in important and specifically sexual ways – their definition of pedophilia, for instance, runs as ‘having a prurient interest in children under twelve’ – and on the other, mature adults need to focus on saving the planet and its life, including one another. Enough distraction, enough fantasy. Pornography is an education, of sorts, and it is at best trite to state that reality and fantasy are seldom the same thing. The world is in the shape it is in not because youth cannot distinguish between the two of them. Ask yourself why it took a sixteen year old with a disability to call our wider attention to the climate crisis? Ask your very much adult stockbroker, financier, captain of industry, or wonder of wonders, politician, why it wasn’t they who provided such an alert, amongst others. And then we can ask why yet other adults willingly take on the role of domineering Lydias – a role that is, with ironic relish, only barely admissible within the fantasy of discipline-oriented pornography – intent on correcting our bad habits without respect to our freedoms. An educative pornography might well include titles such as the all too obvious ‘Handmaid’s Tail’ by Marguerite Göttwood, in which such self-proclaimed defenders of ‘morality’ can bare yet more of their sorry selves.
If one wanted to construct a genuine ethical argument against the decoys of contemporary social life, pornography included, I would be the first to entertain it. It would first have to outline the activities sanctioned by society that distract us from both the existential profundity of human life as well as the future of our collective existence. These are: organized sports (ironically a ‘must’ for youth, supposedly), all non-critical entertainment fictions and video games (Atwood not included), erotica/pornography, holidays both consumer and religious – and, speaking of reality and fantasy, is it really the case that we can distinguish such days? – conspiracy ‘theories’ of all kinds, obsessions with speculative, if, in principle interesting, topics such as extraterrestrial intelligence and ‘paranormal’ events, and the like. At the top of such a list of unethical attempts to divert our attention from serious global conditions would be our neurotic compulsion to rationalize our resentment of youth.
If made, such an argument would be valid across the ethical board. But the message we send to both present-day youth and future society alike is that we, bereft of both conscience and foresight, have instead opted to suppress the curiosity, the spirit, the very existential verve of young people who, robbed of their nascent capacity to think for themselves through schools, media, and portions of the legal apparatus perhaps to be extended, will be unable to avoid the very fate we have already set out for them. This satisfies us as well, for it will not be we ourselves who have to live in the denuded future of a well-raped Earth. Youth will pay simply for being young.
The call to limit youthful experience of the world in any way, no matter how juvenile the material or knowledge, only adds to the sense that we have given up on an ethical human future. Shutting it down ahead of time, exerting a pre-emptive strike against the coming freedom of world youth, is the evil privilege of adulthood. And adults are, in fact, old enough to know that we either use it or lose it. We betray our truer selves as maliciously resentful oversized children in its use.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
Who was that Unmasked Man?
The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.
Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?
The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.
But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?
We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.
Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.
That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.
Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl
The deep contempt with which the still noble world of antiquity treated the Christian belongs just where the instinctual repugnance for the Jews belongs today: it is the hatred of the free and self-confident classes for those who make their way forward unobtrusively and combine shy, awkward gestures with an absurd sense of self-worth. (Nietzsche, notebook 10, Autumn, 1887, italics original).
In the spring of 1995 I shared some BC ferry seats with German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and her long time partner Horst Kettner. They were simply two unobtrusive members of a large tour bus filled with Germans visiting Vancouver Island. What little of the language I had at the time told me they were discussing local scuba diving and underwater marine film, which was then the vogue in her varied film making career. We stared at one another for a few moments when we debarked but I was far too shy to say anything, assuming her English was as poor as was my French. I had seen, a few months beforehand, the documentary ‘Power of the Image’ which was an awkward biography of her professional life, though it allowed me to immediately identify them aside from the conversation at hand. Knowing who she was imparted to her a presence that no one else in my experience has possessed. Of course, this was as much a projection as anything to do with a larger history. I was so taken aback at this encounter that I spoke of it with no one for many years, and it faded from memory.
But it ‘never goes away’, just as Sir Ian McKellen’s character in Stephen King’s ‘Apt Pupil’ reminded the young protagonist regarding fascist yearnings. That hour or so on the ferry was silently awkward and in the end, irrelevant to anything in my personal life at the time. Now, a quarter century later and some seventeen years after her death in 2003, I only find myself returning to it given my own recent work on the fascism of meanings in fantasy writing and in liberal humanistic philosophy. I never had agreed with Sontag, whom I use regularly as a source, that Riefenstahl’s directing somehow embodied the so-called ‘fascist aesthetic’. No, we do, as a whole, embody such a form. The sub-title to the 2-part ‘Olympia’, Riefenstahl’s film devoted to the 1936 Summer Games – the version that invented the torch run, amongst other ongoing things – is loosely given as ‘festival (or celebration) of peoples, festival of beauty’ which is essentially what the Olympics are and have always been. Riefenstahl nailed it because she herself as a youth had embodied these qualities, as judged by the esthetics of the time. Not, aesthetics, which is the more serious and formal term for the philosophical study of art forms. There is no fascist ‘aesthetic’, even as there remains an undeniable fascist esthetic – the look of beauty, its identity, its genders, its glamor and the ressentiment that attends to its every move. The supermodel of today is the Christian of the first century Levant, the fashion critic, the Jew.
Nietzsche’s texts were notoriously reconstituted by the Reich, but not all his work needed such over-writing. Hitler was both shy, awkward, and oddly unassuming, in both his sensibilities and in his gestures. They come across today as absurdities, and John Cleese makes a better ‘Mr. Hilter’ than did Hitler himself. Daily overcoming social anxiety, Hitler memorized his speeches, endlessly practicing his body language and facial expressions in front of the mirror, and one can only imagine resenting his inconsequential stature, provincial birthright and all the rest of it. It is a feeling that many of us must also overcome, for who is born at the center of things who then seeks to become the center of everything?
Man to woman, someone like Hitler could never have landed a date with someone like Riefenstahl, one of the dream-girls of her day. And yet history brought them together and sometimes in close quarters. Hitler, with just that ‘absurd sense of self worth’ imagined he understood art, and he certainly put much energy into what abilities he did have – his watercolor renderings were decent for an architectural student though very much out of fashion when in 1907, he was rejected in favor of Oskar Kokoschka in the entrance competition to the Vienna art academy – and ‘aesthetics’ dominated the Reich from its attempts at stolen nobility right down to its very uttermost depths of human evil. Yet this too, the ‘saving’ of the world by eliminating those who stain it, remains with us. In this current era of renewed naissance of nationalism and patriotism of party, are we not embodying something rather more than just the look of what is deemed to be beautiful?
It almost seems that none of the larger geopolitical lessons of the second World War have stuck with us, and we are approaching a biographical threshold over which an absence proclaims itself: that no one living will have lived through that now alien period. It is a limen that creates history out of what was until that point still memory. It is, from the perspective of human experience that can be personally and intimately shared, a most dangerous moment. The only response we have to confront this aleatory lacunae is by way of art. Riefenstahl’s service was more than regrettable, but her films themselves remain as relevant as ever. But not in that they in turn served to help convince many Germans of the time that their path had become one of super-destiny and that the ‘natural’ form of response to any ‘lower’ form was contempt, just as Nietzsche had suggested some half-century earlier.
Though in the intervening decades it was the German social scientist Max Weber who corrected Nietzsche’s perhaps metaphoric language regarding the origins of Christianity and its relationship with the ancient Hebrews – in the Roman Mediterranean, Christianity was actually sourced in the artisan classes and spread upwards from there, not downwards; it was not a ‘slave religion’ in any real sense – such an understanding could only direct further obloquy against the ‘pariah community’ of the nascent Jewish diaspora. With further irony, Hitler’s movement was limited to awkwardly skulking along politically for over a decade. Historically, one can as ever hope that the same may be said of it; a moment when human reason took a recess. But this is naïve.
What are the movements of the margins in our own time? Who is attracted to them and why? Where do they arise and how? And are they merely nostalgic retreads of lost historical causes or are they rather symptoms of a society and a world that continues to structure its life and consciousness too closely to that which allowed fascism to grasp the center of things to its paltry self before being superseded by the slightly more subtle neo-colonial ambitions of the victorious powers?
At once, we can do two things, each of us: one, the next time we are tempted to look with contempt at another human being, step back from doing so. No one person can be the lightning rod for historical ressentiment. Riefenstahl neither as an artist nor as a person can be accountable for the way that I might stare down my nose at the so-called ‘ignoble’ of humanity. And two, we must recognize that our shared contempt for those whose marginal existences has driven them to entertain the worst of our humanity can only aid their cause. Instead, we can yet take both core principles of Judaism and Christianity to be our guides; the one, that we as a species are and remain the ‘chosen people’, and the other, that we are thence placed in the existential position of having to choose one another through the act of the neighbor. It is only through this act, the ‘libertinage of compassion’, that our world will survive itself, let alone its lack of memory of the chance encounters through which historical consciousness is in majority made.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy
“The will to pleasure and the will to death also live with one another, even within one another. Is one only angelic and the other only demonic? Hardly so. Pleasure induces a great suffering, second only to that of love, and death could well be its merciful release. She is an angel, yes, but angels too have needs. They are not exactly human but all this presents to me is a challenge.” (from Loewen 2020c).
A cursory view of the fantasy genre suggests a puzzle which might engender a quest of its own: which is more phantasmagorical: The reality from which we desire escape or that which we use as an escape? On the one hand, the novels, the cycles, the screenplays, the scripts; on the other, and adding to their simultaneous simulacra, the actors, the directors, the producers, the publishers. Akin to Bartok’s ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’, fantasy as entertainment and escape present to society a massive decoy game which outlasts political regimes and the ebb and flow of wealth. Yet this kind of fantasy is not ancient in the manner in which religion, for instance, is understood. We moderns have replaced deistic religion with that civil, but the State remains all too real, in spite of its presentation of self as our guardian angel. So the enchanted element of religious belief, its sheer demand for a faith rather than for a proof – there can be no ‘proving’ magic, as it were – is left to the culture industry.
The very phrase is a contradiction in terms. Not only by virtue of modern redefinitions of what constitutes ‘production’ – something that generates capital directly; and yet how can a Tolkien or a Rowling not be seen as producers of impressive capital? – but as well by equally contemporary aesthetic standards; culture as Kultur or Kunst cannot be ‘produced’ in this way. Art either transcends the mundanity of productive history or it presents itself as an horizontal egress from it. The one is sometimes still referred to as ‘serious art’ and the other correspondingly ‘popular’. Fantasy writing etc. occupies the latter, and hence – or is it thence? – so does fantasy itself.
With approximately 55% female readership, fantasy writing nevertheless has been historically written mostly by men (though one study states that in the first quarter of 2019 female authors accounted for about 60% of the more current publications). Of the women writers covering the last fifty years or so, bracketing possible pseuodonymy either way, about 80% of publications etc. which contain female leads have as their plot a romance centering around that heroine who is from the beginning already fully equipped for the task at hand but has been unfairly denied the opportunity to press on with the necessary quest. She may have been betrayed by her mentor (Sarah Maas’s eight volume cycle is likely the most known example), or she is absented from an important male who actually turns out to be the rightful heir dispossessed (Crusader Kings 3 and other such digital media), or her love interest is driven by the desire to wield power from behind the scenes (Game of Thrones). The ‘Lady Macbeth’ trope dies hard, and that amongst women who should know better.
Even where ‘enchantment’ in the purely phantasmagorical sense is irrelevant, the fantasy itself continues apace. In the recent Millie Bobbi Brown affair ‘Enola Holmes’, the teenage heroine is again a displaced genius with all of the skills of an unlikely Ninja but with none of the opportunity. Yet the already famed Holmes brothers’ much younger sister, in spite of her tactical heroics, ultimately favors the conservative path of lesser resistance, in disregard of her mother and mentor being a political radical. What the heroine does resist is love, for it is, though authentic, apparently too paternalistically in the way of her chosen vocation. She tells the camera that her name spelled backwards is, after all, ‘alone’, and thus she follows in Sherlock’s footfalls, alone and aloof if not entirely inhumane. The message for youth, especially for young women, is to simply get your due piece of the action as it is, and not to alter anything structural about the system of belief or of production as it is. The unreality of the heroine’s skill set is only matched by that of the plot – there is a moment where she could have, given her martial arts abilities, simply thrown Lestrade out of a third story window and thereby taken her cause into the authentically political; another wherein she is slapped in the face by her oncoming finishing school governess and then cowers before her instead of snapping her neck, and so on – which hurtles along its ludicrous path while purporting to inspire young people to ‘become who they are’. The individuated sense of heroism overtakes the social reforms that occur through her saving of the rightful male (again), a young lord whose vote facilitates a progressive bill for the era, and this in a currently neo-fascist UK that remains nostalgic for empire and tirelessly promotes its historical literature, both serious and popular, as part of its equally tired civil religion. Where female youth continue to attend schools in pleats and where corporal punishment in the home has yet to be outlawed. One is tempted to reply to the Russian minister of defense when he commented that the Royal Navy’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II was ‘simply a large target’, that England itself is in fact a much larger one. The fantasy of Britannia as the ocean-ruling-sword-wielding Atlantis is also ‘simply’ the expensive version of Hogwarts. It is furthermore a masculine fantasy that itself wields the topless pale nymph upon its nautical escutcheon as a kind of ironic talisman. Fittingly, we do not see even a hint of Ms. Brown’s cleavage let alone the other, setting the tone for a church-mouse chastity that reminds one of a Victorian Emma Peel. Dame Diana Rigg, herself schooled in a harsh religious institution which she later felt ‘built her character’, resigned from the projected panache of sexualized violence of ‘The Avengers’ after only two seasons. No doubt the role clashed with her own sensible sensibilities which are after all, also Britain’s very own. Male viewers of the time were nevertheless transfixed.
Male readers of fantasy as revealed by social media studies complain that fantasy heroines are ‘too perfect’ and ‘unrealistic’, though it should be immediately noted that there is no such concern if the leads are male (‘The Witcher’, for example). But patent sexism aside for the moment, the vast majority of fantasy heroines are indeed portrayed as if they were members of some occluded suffragette movement with the quest to take back the prematurely gifted grail of ‘just give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job’. In fact, in the scripts at least, they are already well in possession of the tools. What they lack, so we are told, is the job, any job.
In spite of the compelling necessity to exeunt from the penury of wage-slavery as well as from the equal pressures of familial piety, consumers of fantasy, no matter the media of presentation, succumb to narratives which only reinforce the very systems from which they seek relief. And within competing brands of fantasy there is also to be found the fraudulent Sturm und Drang of male heroes who exude a toxic masculinity (James Patterson’s ‘Harry Bosch’ must be the recent paragon of this vile type, to stick within the detective genre for a moment; a ‘man’ who threatens to assault his handsome adolescent daughter, perhaps in lieu of having actual sex with her) as if to provide a bellicose balance to the heroines who in their turn exhibit a strangely disloyal selfishness. The customary sensibility that women should be automatically altruistic and engage in self-sacrifice is at first subverted. These ready-made legends carry all before them but even so, their entire redemptive purpose is to restore the male to his rightful place. This too is a tired real-world fantasy that many women have found, with experience, to be both unworthy of whatever skills they do in fact possess, but also, in these days of dishonor and unchivalry, with most men, quite impossible.
The other 20% of female-authored fantasies which also have female leads are, however, much more realistic. Here we find the young women ill-prepared for the task at hand, unknowing of either the goal of the quest or of the skills necessary to undertake it. This is the model I use in my own epic, by the way. These superior plots recognize that the phase of any quest which is at least of equal importance to the epic action is the learning curve itself, taken on without promise and sometimes even without premise, for the mystery only gradually unfolds before her as she becomes more of an initiate into the other world. Indeed, there is much less fantasy overall in such texts and thus, correspondingly, much more reality, the kind within which persons are faced with in the day to day. Rather than abruptly excerpting the consumer from their sordid mundanity, they impress upon the reader the necessity of self-understanding, which is a form of love, and which as well can only arrive at some kind of authenticity from within the call of conscience. What inhibits this human process is precisely the fascist fantasy we make daily of social reality as it stands, and which has a far greater consumption rate than do even the most famous fantasy cycles or series. Almost all of us consume it, and any escape therefrom – given that it mostly occurs not by virtue of virtuous wizardry but rather through a doubled-over expanse of distracting entertainment ‘events’, from sports to politics to parenting and ‘even’ to education, voluntarism and worship, all hard-ruled by fascist forms and norms whose goal is control Über Alles, and that together seek to define what the human being is and thus what we are capable of being – is had at the cost of changing that world which is at present our own into one more humane in both its scope and meaning.
My sense of a true heroine who learns to love herself outside of the objectification of ordered obsolescence (James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’), outside of the glare of glamorous Glasglocke (Plath’s self-portrait), and eschewing the too-educated senses of an Austen or a Bronte, the duet of female fantasists of the preceding age, is one who first overturns filial piety, through parricide if necessary, then overtakes the lead male and cuts him down from behind, unexpectedly, ruthlessly, but also with pleasure, the undressed redress of all ‘discipline’ that has been suffered upon young women as the theatre of surrogate sex. My invocation of the true heroine of the nearest future is an orison not to the beyond but to the coming birthright of the days of decision, wherein humanity as a whole will be forced to confront the effects of its own self-made cause. For
“The unpolished edge of futurity will draw our collective blood. If it must be spilled, then let the one who holds the sword be a visionary and not a reactionary. Let her raven eyes be the windows of our collective soul. Let her joyous judgement be the compassion of our call to conscience. Let her unknowing be but innocence and never ignorance. Let her knowing become the working wisdom of light before heat”. (from Loewen 2020c).
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.