The Disarming Decoys of Elizabethanism

The Disarming Decoys of Elizabethanism

            I was a few feet away from Elizabeth II on her royal visit to Victoria in 1984. She seemed to me a ‘decent sort’, to be English about it, but hardly otherworldly. Her consort, Philip, actually stooped to stop and chat with my young love interest.  But even at eighteen, I was disdainful of the idea of the monarchy, an archaism at best, realistically, a rationalization for steep social stratification and at worst, a malingering evil that served as gaudy and expensive signage for a latter day imperialism. But as well at only eighteen, I was blissfully ignorant of the extent and scope of the oppression involved even in the twilight of the Pax Britannica. For me, Elizabeth II was a fellow philatelist and a home-front teen heroine who repaired land rovers and literally got her hands dirty doing so. But such stains as these wash off. There are other kinds of stains, as Lady Macbeth discovered, which are more challenging to cleanse.

            Though it is patently correct to acknowledge that Elizabeth II had no direct political power, she did not lack influence. In a sense, her position is rather like that of the pope. No ‘divisions in the field’, as Stalin duly noted of the Vatican, but still possessed of a symbolic authority that rested upon ancient traditions. In a word, a voice, that the vast majority of us could never dream of so having. In another word, it was a voice that, from the post-colonial perspective, from the perspective of bitter and thence embittered experience, betrayed both itself and its authority through its decades of unblemished silence.

            Elizabeth II was thrust into her role at a youthful age due to what the war had done to her father. It basically killed him. The feudal model is graced with a kind of superiority complex, if you will, which engenders a paternalism that for all the wrong reasons, fans of shows like ‘Downton Abbey’ seem to flock to. The same model is fraught with delusory notions of ‘divine right’ and ‘sovereignty’ that were dumped by the European Enlightenment and deeply and critically analyzed by contemporary thinkers such as Georges Bataille. That the new wealth of emerging nations is eager to reproduce such relations in a microcosm – there are now five times as many slaves in the world as there were two decades ago, though slavery was itself never a function of feudalism historically – is most disturbing. But given that feudal order, George VI was as loyal to his ‘subjects’ as they were supposed to be to him. Their suffering was his suffering, for he was, if not the ‘State itself’ – as Louis XIV decorously declared of himself and could do so prior to the Revolution – still the body politic. The wounds inflicted upon this shared symbolic corpus slowly bled George VI to death.

            And so what to make of this loyalty regarding his eldest daughter? What kind of voice is the voice of a ‘modern monarch’, when the very phrase is itself an oxymoron? Is she merely a representation of the citizenry, serving them without guiding them, adding her gravitas to their collective grief, placing her ebullience in the center of their shared joy? Elizabeth II must have had many moments of doubt. One recent one that escaped the official censors which surrounded her on all sides, occurred at the climate summit in Scotland when, after listening to various politicians including Britain’s then PM, whispered to the new queen consort, ‘I find it irritating when they say and don’t do.’ Truly a ‘me too’ moment for any concerned citizen. And ‘irritating’ is a most diplomatic term to use in such a context. But just here we realize how limited Elizabeth II made her own voice. And aside from criticism, she was not at all without a piquant sense of humor, also something desperately missing in politicians. Two reported examples: outside of Windsor strolling with her single bodyguard, two American tourists asked her if she had ‘ever seen the queen?’. She replied, ‘no, but he has’, referring to her agent. And another time, she was shopping in a little village store and the young woman clerk said to her, ‘you know, you look just like the queen!’. Her dry reply: ‘how reassuring.’

            It is precisely these kinds of moments that give me the sense that Elizabeth II was not devoid of the ability to speak, she simply felt that she could not do so. It is our loss, surely, because in voicing the critique which I believe to have been fully present in her consciousness, she would have been authentically following in the footsteps of her predecessor and namesake, a woman it is well known that Elizabeth II admired and studied. Elizabeth I inherited a disastrous political mess from her father, who had declared the Church of England and risked a devastating war of religion across the realm. So she quite literally supplanted the Catholic heroine by reframing herself as the ‘Virgin Queen’. She gave worshippers the very symbolism they desired from any church and thereby avoided further chaos. Whatever may have been her personal sacrifice – presumably even queens have ‘needs’, so it is highly unlikely that Elizabeth I practiced a lifetime of abstinence – she saw it as her duty to save a nation just emerging from the feudal order into the then unknown future politics of parliament and people.

            In another word, Elizabeth I was a decoy figure, meant to disarm mass desire and turn it into collective adoration. I think Elizabeth II saw herself in that same light, and this is why she made the personal sacrifice of silence on all things that truly mattered over a period of seven tumultuous and hitherto unforeseen decades. The modern version of the Virgin, in both politics and religion alike, is the woman who does not speak and only appears. She does not visit but performs visitations. She does not meddle but only presents herself at the most apt moment, akin to the 1950s housewife and the indentured servant of today. To say that she was a prisoner is to only name the effect. Like her namesake, she imprisoned herself, and while we are astonished and perhaps a little dismissive of Elizabeth I’s idea of a revolutionary figurehead, we are also mournful that her distant successor was not yet more revolutionary, did not make her own revolution in what a monarch could have been. Instead, we had a duplicate of the first Elizabeth and in our modernity, it simply didn’t work. When I grieve for her passing, it will be this that I will be thinking of, and nothing else besides.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Greatest Challenge: The Human Future

The Greatest Challenge: The Human Future

            I can only share what I am. Perhaps I look like your abusive father, the would-be domestic divinity who knows nothing but monopolizes false authority, or your condescending teacher, a channel for the ‘dark sarcasm’ of the classroom, or the talking head politician whose only interest is to attain power and thence maintain it. I am not a beautiful seventeen year old in a bikini, though I rather wish I was, if for nothing else than more of you would listen to me. But if by some exotic existential sleight of hand I could appear before you, youthful, stunning, healthy and charismatic, my message to you would be the same.

            Exactly the same; that is, the ‘new three r’s’. For while I am manifestly none of the above, I am yet your ally, your comrade, your supporter and your resource. But what is a middle-aged white straight European philosopher doing on social media? What is his message to global youth? First of all, let me apologize for addressing the world in English alone. The language of commerce and science but neither thought nor art, it is the only fluency available to me, and that is my loss. But in any tongue, even the undead language of those whose historical accomplishments are disdained by fashion, the perennial cause for thinking is ever and always the same; the pursuit of truth, the fight for justice.

            And it is just now that both of these essential aspects of our shared human birthright are most at risk. And it is you, the young people of the world, who are at present being enslaved to a gross conformity of both expectation and aspiration, to whom I appeal. In every moment, you are told what to do, how to think, where to act. Imagine a world where no one can think, not because thought itself is dead, nor its essential language, but because no one has learned how. It is mostly the fault of we adults, but as we shall see a little later on, I cannot exempt youth themselves from any critical commentary on the turning away from the human future. For that is precisely what we are collectively engaged in, most of the time, in the vast majority of things that we do in our lives.

            In no institution or organization are young people aided in learning how to think for themselves. Such a program would run contrary to the basic character of these places, whether schools, churches, youth clubs, sports teams, summer camps. Even the university is focused upon preparing you only for the changing and fickle job market, for somehow, you will have to find a way to survive. Thought, apart from the practical utility of the day to day, seems a petty luxury, unaffordable and unattainable alike. And yet thought is the only key to the human future; thinking our way forward is the hallmark of humankind alone.

            But all of this is mere backdrop. Today, I want to call you to action; resist, rethink, redo. These are the new ‘three r’s’:

            Resist: when confronted with any authoritarian demand, any command of fascism, disobey, refuse to cooperate in any way and at any time. Examples are physical and sexual abuse, ‘punishment’ or ‘discipline’; emotional and psychological torture, manipulative adults, charming ‘authority figures’; petty rules of conduct of all kinds, school dress codes, vocabulary, enforced activities, organized sports and camps. Waste no effort following any adult who insists upon obedience based upon either unreason or a simple display of power. Confront authority with the truth of thought, speak into being the power of human reason.

            Rethink: change the scene of your encounters with adults from their rules to dialogue. Do not fool yourself when an adult suggests finding a ‘common ground’, or working out a ‘compromise’. Authentic dialogue pierces into the heart of the matter, without restraint in the face of, or respect for, what has been called the ‘sacred’. The adult world consists of the use and abuse of power, and it is something each generation must wrest away from those previous, sometimes by force, though it is important to note within the middle term of this triune process, that peaceful protest has attained its goals a full quarter more times than has that violent, over the course of the past century. It would be a cowardly and irresponsible act on my part to call to arms world youth while I sit safely in my study.

            Redo: what has passed for thinking in institutions, in systems, in government, is precisely what has lead us to the brink of world annihilation. What adults have done, what we do, does not work. No sane person would follow along blithely and blindly, respecting adults simply because they are older, fearing them simply because they are stronger, obeying them simply because it is easier in the short term to do so. No thinking person would be satisfied, in any way, by the process and progress of the adult world: poverty, climate change, warfare, injustice, child abuse and torture, false religion, extorted science. Need we repeat such a damning list? There has never been a more momentous time for a redo, but only youth can accomplish it; that is, only yourselves.

            You may be surprised that this is also a personal request on my behalf. For a decade my wife and I lived round the corner, quite unknowingly and unwittingly, to a school wherein young people were allegedly tortured and abused on a daily basis in the name of a false God. Such a God as these adults imagined must have been a pedophile, a sadist, a child abuser. Not even a devil would engage in such things. We drove by this place most days, never giving it a glance. It was simply part of the neighborhood, simply another place of learning. But what was being learned, what was being taught, was a brutal fear of the world and of intimate adults alike. Violent beatings, of both girls and boys, ‘conversion therapy’, ‘exorcisms’, all forcibly and cruelly undertaken, all highly illegal in my country, occurring in my very own backyard. I am ashamed of myself for not knowing, for not helping, for not stopping such things. I am ashamed of my country for letting such domestic terrorism take place and over a period of decades. No penalty exists in my country for such inhumane acts; there is no more vile a crime than the ritual abuse and torture of children; for it, and for all those adults involved, teachers, administrators, and parents all, if true, the death penalty must be reconsidered.

            The courage of these young people, now belatedly coming forward, represents an astounding role model for all of us, but particularly for yourselves, my audience today. Yes, courage unabated, will unbroken, bravery unadulterated and indeed, bereft of any ‘adult’ sense of what constitutes purpose and agency, for we have lost almost all understanding of both in our own narrow, apolitical lives. Think now of your station, your own situation; are you not also being systematically robbed of your shared human birthright? The loss of human reason, the only thing that clearly separates us from the animals, and by virtue of this unique consciousness, human thought, human thinking; this is what is at stake.

            And yet all is not lost, for the simple fact that all bullies are ultimately cowards. They will break before you will and before your will; your resistance will stultify them, your rethinking will mystify them, your redoing will vanquish them along with the dust and dross of all unthinking myth. I urge you now, as a world collective, to begin this gifted task, to take up this ultimate challenge. And I do so not without another critical observation. Yes, think about your condition, and learn to recognize all the signs of fascism, of bullying, right down to the tone of voice adults use, for in even in their most gentle paternalism, they are talking down to you, pretending that you are not human, that you do not have reason, that you cannot think. This is what we adults desire of you; obedience unquestioning, parroting the desires of the commercial world, placing all your energy into labor, into service, into sporting, into the State, and at the cost of love, of art, and most especially, of thought. And forgive me if I am thorough, if I as well remand the atheist for his stupidity equal to that of the evangelist, for his is a faith in nothing at all. It is true that we do not hear of atheists torturing children, but their zealotry, their blind belief that there is no God nor can there ever have been a God is mindful of the same on the other side, as it were, the side in which a God is indubitably present and always has been, no questions asked or even imagined.

            And my thoroughness cannot stop there, for the other question I feel you must ask yourselves today is ‘what am I doing to vouchsafe the human future?’, ‘what am I doing that has any real merit to it?’. Another list: playing video games, playing sports, watching social media – how about that? – shopping and flaunting the fetish of commodities in your ‘hauls’ – how do the penitential factory workers of the global poor gain by your obliviousness? – experimenting with drugs, engaging in petty spats with your school chums, with your gossiping enemies, with your opposing team members, with those who belong to different cliques or yet participate in different activities – all without merit – than those you yourself take up. Twenty scant minutes a week to protest environmental degradation, taken at lunchtime, adoring the darling of parents and teachers and even some politicians? How is any of this of merit? No, it is pathetic, and the more so, it is this inaction of youth that allows we adults to dismiss you. You are only the reason that we are currently in control; the youth who frivolously expends her endless energy and her timeless beauty in shallow unending cul-de-sacs of self-absorbed vanity.

            So add to your resistance all that you imagine you do for yourself. No, the vast bulk of these ‘personal time’ activities take you as far away from the world’s reality as do the formal and officious duties that school, family, and the State impose upon you; just as far away. They are but the illusions contrived by those adults who desire in you a patent self-delusion. In one stroke, make your new ‘three r’s’ destroy both the institutional culture of violence against youth and your own soporifics that you have used to pretend that such violence isn’t there, that you are not being brainwashed at every moment, that your human birthright is not being taken from you by force. Understand instead that the new mythology is nothing other than demythology. That the future must be freed from the dead weight of the past, and that only you can free it, and by first freeing yourselves.

            I have no simple parables for you. I am not a messiah any more than I am a demon. Where a figure like Jesus took a paragraph to explain the ‘good Samaritan’, I have taken 5500 pages of fiction to provide a blueprint for a better human future. But the upshot of both is the same: ‘go and do likewise’. Young people of all nations unite; you have nothing to lose but the past, you have a future to win.

            Thank you for listening to me today and I wish you both the truest good fortune and wish upon you the most profound of human reason and conscience alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

            One could thus say that history is action in the realm of the imaginary, or even the spectacle that one gives oneself of an action. Conversely, action consults history, which teaches us, says Weber, certainly not what must be willed, but the true meaning of our volitions. (Merleau-Ponty, 1955:11).

                Recently the activist slogan ‘the personal is the political’ has become well known to anyone who has attempted to identify themselves and thus their actions with a cause. This ‘volition’, this being-for-something, has a number of meanings as well as manifestations. And it is to its own history – the act that has been and not the action which will be – that we must look to find the pedigree of interconnected meanings which have accrued to this or that sensibility regarding our actions in the present. Weber is the first to thoroughly understand this relationship, which originates as an horizon of expectations and associated historical lenses in Vico by 1725. For it is in the distinction between finite goals and absolute values that we discover both action and act in tandem and as mutually imbricated.

            Let us first examine our sense of what constitutes ‘the personal’. For the Greeks, the purely private person was termed the ‘idiot’, the one who turns his back upon not only his civic duties but sociality in general. We could, with perhaps a mere footnote, continue such a use of this term today. But other Greek terms are more expansive and collide more forcefully with our modern horizon of meaningful expectation. The person who flouts social custom and morality is the ‘moron’. Such a term is in scant use today, at least in polite circles, but its general meaning is well taken. Of course, yet more obscure now is the Greek’s term for the one who flouts the fates themselves; he is nothing less than the ‘hypermoron’. But we can safely dismiss this bold individual given the altered meaning of destiny in modernity. We do, however, still understand those who simply don’t seem to ‘get it’, whether the scene is civility, sociality, citizenship or yet domesticity or the work life, as being not merely abnormative culturally but also somehow beyond the social succor of mutual aid. ‘They don’t want to fit in’, is something we hear of such fellowmen, with the heavy ellipsis that we should, in our turn, feel no sympathy for them since, in their ‘moronic’ action they add to the stress and strain felt by the remainder of us who continue to labor for a sane society and a healthy humanity.

            At the same time, we are aware of the tension between the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, the person and the polis. It seems to us a perennial one but in fact it is scarcely three centuries old. The ‘sovereign’ individual of the Enlightenment remains a Western ideal, even though personal rights are either questioned or yet limited in many places globally. But even in the West, we are shy of declaring the fullest range of human rights to the singular self simply because no society could exist without some certain set of limitations placed upon that same selfhood. These boundaries are under constant scrutiny and have been found to be most mutable, for better or for worse. And since the individual cannot ever be entirely free of obligation to the group, another modern distinction has come to the fore; that between public and private.

            It is in Arendt that we find the deepest exposition of the relationships between the public life of a member of the polis and the privacy of that same person’s alternate domain. Mirroring in a kind of ‘material’ manner the much more ancient distinction between the life of contemplation and the life of action, the one today understood as personalist and even private – though not in the utter disregard for either the public life or its ‘action’ – and the other observed in the shared sphere of the ‘open space’ of the public. It is this further division between how others may or may not interact with the person who has committed her thoughts to the private sphere and equally been committed to her actions in the collective realm that gives us the impression that we have inevitably and necessarily divided ourselves into two patently differing parts. Psyche and Anthropos, soul and form, mind and body, person and persona and so on, all cleave to this contemporary sense – and is it not also a sensation? – that I am not one thing entire but rather two relatively discreet entities; my ‘truer’ self and what I show to the world.

            Certainly at this point it can be gainsaid that both such conceptions of the self are ‘true’ in that they have both validity – a conceptual forcefulness and sensibility that includes both fact and value – and veridicity – that it is convincing enough to generate a portion of our worldview or social reality. When we casually, but regularly, tell someone that ‘this is a personal matter’, we are speaking over the divide that tells between these two major aspects of modern selfhood. In due course, much of what may have been occluded comes to wider light, whether in politics or in biography. This tells us that the personal is time sensitive. Something overfull with meaning at one point in our lives may even become devoid of relevant meaning later on. Each of us, having lived long enough, will experience many such transitions, which in turn tell us that the apparently discreet division between private and public, personal and impersonal, is at the least quite mobile and its discretions are liquid. Both of these characteristics impinge on any sense that in principle, ‘the personal is the political’, that is, always is so.

            Clearly, in fact, it is not. Indeed, as vouchsafed by the vast majority of social media posts, what people take to be personal and yet are avidly interested in sharing with certain others is hardly political in nature and never will become so. Now one may argue, with Baudrillard for instance, that the oft perverse simulacra constructed by and through digital life is after all representative of a kind of politics, the oddly but fittingly also perverse ‘politics of the apolitical’, shall we say. This suggestion is not without merit, but it remains a distortion of the widely shared social meaning of that which the polis consists: the collective identity and obligation of a culture as made manifest by the members thereof. Insofar as digital pedantry documenting the innumerable and seemingly interminable quotidia of the daily round is neither collectively identified with – witness the digital cliques often in conflict with one another – nor is anyone obligated to pay any attention thereto, these ‘persona of personalism’ remain outside meaningful political thought and action alike.

            The same cannot be said for the impersonal. Let us now turn to this obverse concept. If the ‘personal’ cannot be either ‘idiocy’ or ‘publicity’, and we have suggested it cannot in principle and by definition as well be the political, the ‘impersonal’ appears to escape all of these limitations in one stroke. One, the impersonal is manifest not in individuals at all but rather in social institutions, such as the church, the state, and the modern state’s minions; the education system, the various governmental ministries, the civil service, and the military. This is not to say that the effects of the presence of such sets of institutions might not be personally felt by individuals, it is merely to state that the institutions themselves can never be thought of as either personal or private. The so-called ‘private sector’ remains public and impersonal no matter whether or not the state invests in it, and indeed in our time, most such organizations are ‘public/private’ hybrids, leading to a host of other conflicts, the most scandalous of which in any democracy is the two-tiered education system. In any case, the impersonal now appears to be larger than life, if such is only defined biographically or from the perspective of a smaller community of shared interest and action.

            For Weber, modern rational organizations were anonymous, both in that very sense of ‘being impersonal’ and in their freedom from individual suasion and thus also obligation. Such an institution was part of his ‘ideal types’ analysis, wherein absolute values were shunned and finite goals structured all action. The very notion of the ’act’, as both historical and visionary, the one providing a kind of testament to the other’s cosmogonical birth, could not be part of any rationally self-defining organization, whether ‘public’ or ‘private’ sector. Just so, the modern rational individual – who is both private and public and participates almost equally in both self-defining ‘sectors’ in the more base sense of where the money comes from and who has sanctioned access to it – finds herself possessed by finite goals and is placed at a fair distance from any vision of an absolute value. Peter Berger, following upon Weber, has reiterated that what used to be understood as cosmic in both scope and import has oddly become what is most intimate and personal for us today; the religious vision is perhaps only the most obvious example of this transfiguration of ideals. Today, one can hang one’s hat upon a personalist religious sensibility and this makes one all the more unique, the singular soldier of a Christianity that is about your soul and no other, for instance. In no other historically known period could this make any sense.

            Similarly, the impersonality of modern institutions, however they may depart from Weber’s ideal rationality and impunity from private interest, declaim their symbolic frontages as capable only within the realm of the cultural imaginary. That is, a state governs a people only insofar as it can convince the latter that it does not truly exist without them. In reality, modern government appears to exist in precisely this fashion, giving those who labor within it, elected or hired or appointed, the equally distanciated sense that though they are ‘public servants’, neither such a public, nor hence their service to it, in actuality exists.

            So if we take the personal to be the space wherein action is contemplated in the privacy of one’s own individual musings, wherein ‘projects of action’ are worked out in a speculative, ‘phantasmatic’ fashion, and within which one can decline any real social responsibility – thoughts are yet ‘free’, as is said – at once we must deny the activist’s ideal. Instead, the personal is not necessarily, not yet, or yet never, the political. But we have seen it is otherwise with the impersonal. Though it strives, in its most rational and ideal form, to be apolitical, in reality and in history it is ever cleaving to this or that politics of the day. This is especially the case in nations where the civil service occupies a great proportion of institutional roles, such as in education or governmentality or health care. Only in the judiciary may we expect a strenuous public disavowal of the political, even though, once again, we know that the laws of today and indeed, on the ground, how any such set of laws is actually enforced and upon whom, are very much political in their origin.

            What advantage does this discussion hold out for the individual who, on the one hand, must balance her private selfhood, her desires, her anxieties, her prostrate fears and visionary hopes, with her public persona and its singular ambitions, collective responsibilities, reciprocal obligations and loyalist duties, and on the other hand, that same person’s efforts to translate thought into action without ever the sense that such ensuing action be either complete or yet completely fulfilled in its intended meaning? I think first of all that a clarification of what is meant by the term ‘personal’ is to our advantage. One, we no longer need guard it with such stentorian status; the personal is mostly just that, undeserving of much consideration from others, and so mutable as to dislocate our too-pious loyalty thereto. At the same time, two, the impersonal is laid more open to a general critique, some of which must emanate from a personalist perspective – in that I am affected sometimes intimately by anonymous actions originating in impersonal spaces; the stock market is perhaps the most obvious but also egregious day-to-day example – and the remainder of which must hail from the hallows of history and as well advance from the actions of the culture at large. Three, if there is a dialectic at hand, it can only be envisioned not as some ‘life/work balance’, some other ‘financial freedom’, or yet an ‘holistic health’, to name a few casual catchphrases which likely construe a vulgar politics of their own. No, such an apex, such a synthesis, will only be achieved through the constant and consistent critical stance applied by an effective ethical consciousness that in itself has already understood itself as being neither personal nor political but rather historical through and through. For history is the answer to morality, the saboteur of ideology, the humanity in the organization, the humaneness in the individual. We are in our essence nothing other than historical beings, and our local divisions, our divided selfhoods, are within it once again united in concert within its deontological embrace.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Bathing with Bach, Showering with Shostakovich

Bathing with Bach, Showering with Shostakovich

            If one could choose a single word with which to describe our present day, let us suggest ‘urgency’. We no longer live in a world wherein action has the time to evolve into act. A sense of the ‘must’ animates our every endeavor. This sense alone is, in itself, ancient, and likely begins in the eschatological time of Pauline anxiety, wherein the pilgrim finds himself concerned solely about whether the next is also the last. It might be a footstep forward into oblivion or salvation, it might be an action frozen into an act before its own history could be written. Urgency is a leitmotif in Western consciousness but until our post-war period, it has remained an abstraction; ‘one knows not the moment’, ‘I will come like a thief in the night’, and so on. This time of times is always put off, the end of the world is nigh but what end and how nigh?

            Is it a simple matter of a reaction that, preceding the revolution of 1789 in France, the beginning of the modern age and the first herald that urgency was indeed coming down to earth, that for a century prior this same culture had been about a steady state of cultural celebration, with Louis XIV, the ‘sun king’, exhorting his artists to remember that he has bequeathed to them the highest of tasks, his fame, including of course his posterity. The highest of tasks was also thus the noblest of gifts. A Rousseau was possible within this stasis; his ‘reveries’ solitary and his walks perambulations which always returned to the center of things. These are dreams without urgency, visions, hanging in the air above us, never touching the ground beneath. But a De Sade was impossible, for his nightmares, unleashed right at the moment of revolution, sound of nothing but urgencies, though they are base, vile, and sing the bass viol of the bowels of a now aged aristocratic chamber orchestra. These are nightmares without end, and thus even De Sade represents a transition in culture, and not the change once made. He is a liminal figure, which is one of the reasons his works remain, to a point, distressing. The orchestra is now staffed by chamber maids, even maidens, but it still sings of the domestic daily doings though shifted into the nocturnal.

            Thus it remains within the contemplative life, which shuns action even for its own sake and makes all human interaction into an historical act before its time, before history has an opportunity to sabotage morality, and before the actors realize how petty are their desires, even in torture and murder. For Rousseau’s Julie, a paragon of prudishness and propriety, is nevertheless the abstract ideal of the misogynist middle-ground. Nothing could be said against her even if equally nothing for her. But De Sade’s Juliette is perverse, a heroine who forces us to reckon with our own desires ranged against her. Nothing can be said against her insofar as she in fact already has everything that we want her to possess. But unlike her predecessor, Juliette is also armed with all that can be said against us. She is an indictment of misogyny, and the fact that she enjoys being only this only makes us look the worse. If De Sade retained his liminality by never committing to social and political revolution but rather merely described the stultifying darkness of the Ancien Régime, his best and brightest heroine begins to sign the radical change that augurs the new desire. And she does so simply by virtue of her own desires being utterly urgent.

            But these figures exist in a microcosm. What of the wider world-historical change that ushers in our own age and frames it at one end with the most solid of aesthetic and ethical foundations and at the other by nothing less than constant motion? This larger field, cast in the deepest relief in 1789, a centrifugal cauldron, a storm’s eye, a nexus making cathexis, is still better represented by music than literature. At the far end towers yet the figure of Bach. He is summative, his art the result of a millennia of evolutionary architecture. His most important predecessor, Monteverdi, is Bach’s own phylogenetic avatar. Here, and for the first time, Western music begins to assemble other forms, assimilate other sounds, throw upwards the folk song and pull downwards the religious chant. In Bach we at last have reached the zenith of everything the West represented to that time; the idea of the ideals, the mathematical symmetry of sound, the music of the spheres. And when the sun king dies in 1715, Bach’s own star – and is it odd that Bach’s face should so often be portrayed in our own time within a sun figure? – is about to ascend to heights no mere composer could have heretofore known. And this ascent is predicated, also for the first time, upon not patronage but upon art itself.

            It is in the B Minor Mass that everything comes together. But this ‘everything’ is of course the act, never the action. It is the act against which all action must thenceforth take place and take its place. In this magnum opus, Bach presents the universe as it was known and knowable in his own day. It is a statement in the most stentorian terms. One bathes in such music; it does not wash over you but envelopes you, and while it is cleansing it retains the ability to magnify itself through one’s very dross. When the work concludes, we do not feel any sense of change or that things should change in any way. We feel as complete as does the work itself. It is in this sense a space wherein life and death have been reconciled and no longer have any singular meaning. And how can we not be eternally grateful for such an expression of the cosmic force of existence uplifted into the essential?

            But in fact that is the entire problem Bach poses for us. The ‘eternal’ character of gratitude is nothing but an obstacle to both evolution and to adaptation. It presumes upon a world itself unchanging, a cosmic order that is as infinite as it is timeless. Here, art does not imitate life but rather transcends it. This is the understanding that Bach, the divinely human architect, brings to the rest of us. This is the far side of the frame of modernity with which we still must reckon. It is so beautiful that it is like a death to turn away from it, and yet turn away we absolutely must.

            In our own time we have, with halting harrow and tremulous trepidation, given ourselves the tools to do so. Beethoven is the first revolutionary composer. At first he imagined himself an ally of Napoleon, but after seeing the results of Austerlitz in Vienna, realized that he as an artist was the ambassador of the highest humanity and hardly the lowest. Thus the amended dedication of the third symphony, itself the first truly modern work of music. It is the first because for the first time we have a sense of the urgent throughout the work. Beethoven 3 is the benchmark for all such works that follow and the closest contemporary parallels to this work may be found in the symphonies of Shostakovich. They are linked by that singular sensibility, urgency, and tasked with that same singular ambition, revolution.

            In Shostakovich we have found at last a role model untainted by politics and indeed, in his own life, as a prisoner of the Soviet State from time to time, as a suspect artist whose works were always too ‘Western’ for hardliners, as the musical equivalent of Solzhenitsyn and indeed more gifted, Shostakovich through his art not only defeated the evils of authoritarianism – it is an ongoing irony that his works are performed so often in today’s Russia – but also exposed the fraudulence of 1917. In Symphony 11, ‘The Year 1905’, we are thrust into action, not act! We are immersed in urgency, never somnolence! Many of his greatest works declare the pressing need for a new revolution, and not merely for Russia. His German counterpart, Hans Werner Henze, intoned the same: “Man’s greatest work of art: world revolution.”

            Encountering Shostakovich one does not bathe, but rather showers. Here, even the water itself never stops moving. It takes the dross, without assimilation, down the drain of history with its own life ever onward. We are ourselves drained in such an encounter and this time the feeling is one of incompleteness. I am missing something, the music throws me forward. It is the future I am missing, the very human future, no longer a function of eschatology, no longer premised upon faith and promising salvation. No, in Shostakovich we receive a demand and not a promise. Revolution is ongoing just as history does not rest. Change is the only permanence, which sums our contradictory existence as active and acting beings who resist the future, the very thing that gives us life. Is it due only to an archaic sense of art that we flinch at the horizon? In contemporary art we find not beauty nor even transcendence, but rather the shadow work of the collective soul. Every encounter is a confrontation with ourselves, splayed open before the Augenblick of revolutionary lightning. If we turn away we are as were the Nazis, cowed into reactionary diaboli in the face of life as it now is and as it now must be. The fascist draws a line at the moment his conscience speaks. He will not hear it, not hear of it. Each one of us who adores Bach without reaching both hands out to the heroes of Shostakovich’s works is no less that same fascist in spite of our apparent civility and ‘good taste’.

            For it is no matter of etiquette that animates the history of our own day. It is rather made meaningful through scruple, ethical and aesthetic at once. As John Berger suggested, we must vanquish the sense that great art carries humanity up and over its own condition in order to regain the sensibility that in fact what art in reality does is make more real our shared situation so that we in turn can more meaningfully negotiate it from within its midst. Art is and always will be our willing ally in any crisis. It is we who turn ourselves away from this joint task and reject its ever-revolutionary gift.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, aesthetics, social theory, education and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Question of Democracy

The Question of Democracy

            It is commonplace at the moment to point to the war in Ukraine as a test of democracy. Its meaning there, on the ground, is transparent enough. Belarus, essentially a ‘client’ state of Moscow, is a case in point regarding the potential shift in social freedoms that a defeated Ukraine might well undergo. But it is also the case that in general, most citizens in every nation want a society that is more free than it currently is. This is not to say that they simply desire to ape any specific other country, say Finland, which perennially tops the best countries’ lists both in the objective scales of the world social health index and the more subjective sensibilities represented in the world happiness report, recently published for 2021. The idea of ‘the best’ aside for the moment, it remains clear that most ‘average’ citizens are yet vehicles for their respective traditions and thus do not entirely relish living in autocratic states. From Iran to North Korea, from Sudan to China and back again, what they do is make do.

            The politics of autocracy differ from the cultures of tradition along a number of lines. One, State and Tradition hail from different historical worldviews. Where tradition has not, or has not yet, given way to ideology, its contents may be millennia old. Theocracies attempt to funnel some of these pre-modern or even ancient contents into their ideological platforms but the effect, though very real in some of its consequences – the ‘Sharia’ law in Iran, for instance –  is yet symbolically fragile. Modernity and its predecessors have never mixed well, and it is almost always the case that those who are attracted to the latter day sainthood of revivalism or yet millennialism are themselves from the social margins. Two, the State is originally an urban phenomena that is acquisitive; it needs to grow its franchise and thus its power in order to survive. Tradition tends to be rural and seeks only its own reproduction over ensuing generations. This second schism between politics and culture sees the State often ‘dragging’ traditionalists into what passes for the distended present, but this tension also prevents the State from looking too far ahead of itself. Fittingly, and lastly, tradition looks rearward and the State looks forward, though only to a point. This third difference is the most disturbing for anyone hoping for a better human future, or perhaps any human future at all.

            It is a difficult mélange, our contemporary political culture. Democracies, limited as they are in reference even to their own ideals, struggle to balance competing interests yes, but more so, and more deeply, conflicting claims regarding the definition of the ‘good’ society. For the margins, the premise of an extant God may still be at work, fronting a promise that any future means the end of history and the transfiguration of humanity. Or, at least, some elect community thereof. These citizens have no authentic interest in democracy just as they may shun autocracy. Their path is toward an inner light. The problem they present to the rest of us is that their mission often seeks to include those who it patently resents, even if it is to merely bid us onward along the highway to hell. A significant minority of North Americans cleave to such traditions, no matter how Barnumesque they became over the course of the nineteenth century, and no matter how personalist became their ‘beliefs’. In the crisis of today’s democracy, it is equally important to look critically and candidly at the aspects of our own society that are fundamentally anti-democratic.

            And it is easy enough to do so, even if the stakes seem lesser than on the battlefield afar. Our own conflicts of culture and politics center around the difference between premodern moralities and contemporary ethics. The first posits timeless principles, such as the Decalogue. The second searches for a new Decalogue, a different table of values that reflects a radically altered reality. But though we might be smug to the point of disdain should some old-world voice sermonize at us, the neo-conservative margins of liberal society serve us more as a convenient decoy; a way in which to transfer the burden of defending democracy as over against a straw person; someone who can be mocked, derided as if he were not actually present, not unlike our conception of the God who is supposedly dead and yet who maintains vast legions of faithful. Instead of allowing such self-made decoys to distract us, the authentic task placed in front of the true democrat is rather to examine one’s own loyalties.

            Three anti-democratic features immediately leap out from fully modern society, institutions that borrow only the trappings of traditions and those mostly as a marketing device. One, the presence of independent schools in our education system. Two, the lack of proportional representation in our political system, and three, the prejudice against youth participating in that same system. The three are linked, of course. In order to lay more fully an authentic claim to actually being a democracy, all three must be rendered obsolete. First, all private, parochial, independent and charter schools in Canada must be shut down, their public funding – the reality that those who cannot afford to send their children to such schools nevertheless help pay for them through taxes is a scandal that approaches a kind of banal evil – redirected to a universal and singular school system. Such independent institutions serve only to reproduce status and wealth hierarchies and as such they are radically anti-democratic. The resources of the various elites – whether these are purely economic, as they are in most cases, or whether exclusion is practiced by ethnic background or religious creed – must be placed into the common pool. This is how a democracy learns. Second, proportional representation must be adopted at all political levels, replacing the so-called ‘first-past-the-post’ rubric. This will ensure that regional and local voices are heard in a manner that more reflects their diversity. This is how a democracy governs. Third, the voting age must be lowered to age twelve, reflecting the age already identified in Canadian law that separates childhood from youth. Persons of this age already can have sex with one another, cannot be physically coerced, can seek out health and wellness counsel, and are subject to legal penalties for transgressing the law. They are thus already judged to be fully human enough to also be able to vote, and are certainly cognitively capable of understanding ‘the issues’ as well as most average voters. It is another scandal tending towards evil that the same ‘arguments’ against youth voting were used to prevent women from voting. The very same. Consign such bigotry to the dustbin of the past. This is how a democracy includes.

            One education system in which an atheist student can study Islam, and a Muslim student can study Buddhism, in which any student can learn Mandarin or a once this-gender student can transform themselves into that-gender and so on. And an expanded and far more representative political dynamic that will force politicians to be more attentive and perhaps even responsible to all citizens no matter their age or their voting patterns. Such changes are not only necessary for the future of democracy, they are as well a transparent signal to autocracy that this is what we are defending; no longer are we going to be tolerant of our own incomplete project regarding human freedom, and no longer will we wanly wink at the inequities that stain our own relative freedom and signal the leaders of unfreedom that we too, after all, have their immoral backs.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

We are Not our own Justice

We are not our own Justice

            Shortly before his death, I happened to ask my father why he had become such an inveterate fan of the Montreal Canadiens. His answer astonished me, as this was the first time he had spoken of it, not in all of the long past years of my childhood and youth when we religiously watched the Habs each Saturday evening. They had drafted him back in 1945. He never donned the famous jersey as the joyful, though also incomplete and sobered, hordes of young men were returning from Europe and the talent pool got big again very quickly. Not to say my father was not a very competent ‘triple A’ player who faced off against the likes of Gordie Howe. He last laced up his skates in his early seventies, not unlike Howe himself.

            Now one doesn’t fact-check one’s own father nearing his death, if even such a thing could be checked. At this point one has earned the right to make certain claims, not that I have ever doubted this specific one. I make claims as well that hurt no one but myself perhaps – that I am Canada’s third leading social philosopher and ethicist behind Charles Taylor and Henri Giroux; that I am the leading thinker of my generation; that my 5000 page epic saga ‘Kristen-Seraphim’ is the story for our times and if one believes, as I do, that Jeshua ben Pantera, Saul of Tarsus, Prince Gautama, and Mohammed were all real people and thus the accounts of them and by them cannot be referred to as merely ‘stories’, then my epic is nothing less than the greatest story ever told – and in that I am no different from anyone else. But stories or no, the case becomes much different when we begin to make claims for others on their behalf.

            And the case becomes not so much different again but much uglier when these claims are intended not only to wound the other but to ‘cancel’ him entirely. And this is what is occurring today in a similar circumstance as my father’s end-of-war experience. I wrote about the concept of justice in a democracy in my 2013 book, We other Nazis: how you and I are still like them. In it, I suggested that liberal societies were at risk for authoritarian gestures not so much from their governments but rather, and with a horrible irony, from their citizens. For in a democracy one of the cornerstones is freedom of expression with that of association the material manifestation of this first freedom. And so, one might well use such a freedom to express an opinion that in our digital age could carry far more weight about it than it otherwise would, or should. The ‘cancel culture’ that has become fashionable in our days seeks to declare this or that person to be a non-entity because of some real or imagined error of judgement committed by said person, mimicking authoritarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc, for instance. (Romania, in 1948, declared composer Nicolae Bretan to be a ‘non-person’, and this was one of thousands of such incidents emanating from such governments that we both quite rightly fear and despise). But the source of the error is not what is ultimately at stake, for even a crime is a singular event in a life, and in a sober light related to that which bathed the veterans returning from the revealed horrors of 1945 Europe, no ethical person would hold to the idea of ‘one strike, yer out!’. Indeed, much of the ethical majesty of the three more recent Agrarian age religious systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, centers around forbearance or forgiveness, both of which seem sadly lacking in our present climes. It is almost as if certain citizens imagine that they really are ‘without sin’, and thus the stones that are cast can claim a kind of other-worldly righteousness. In fact, such stones are the primitive projectiles of mere self-righteousness, a base sensibility that has animated much of the history of authoritarian politics. And if we are at least used to politicians themselves masquerading as ethical beings  – in a democracy, we can always get rid of them come next election and try again – then it is much more disconcerting that fellow citizens become rabidly righteous and more than this, seek to project this base and narrow righteousness into society at large. Politicians who leap on such ‘immoral panics’ should be far more than ashamed of themselves, especially when they themselves have amply demonstrated an utter disregard for professional and political ethics. Hitler himself knew how much Anti-Semitism existed in Europe; he didn’t have to create it but merely exploited its lengthy historical presence. Today’s ‘leaders’ are apt to do the same with what Max Scheler analyzed as ressentiment; malicious existential envy.

            What then is the source of such envy? The very hype and glamor that surrounds those we imagine to be graced with god-like fortune. To be drafted by a legendary sports franchise, for example, to win the lottery, to be the one to whom millions flock in concert tours or film releases or yet even ‘religious’ revivals, God help us. All such hype tells us that these few people are the best of the best, are somehow worthier than we, and that we should serve them, even indirectly. And however embittered, begrudging, or not quite convinced we may be regarding such claims, we do. But the briefest glance at the recent history of tabloid media and more tells us that we are ever ready for any take-down, evidenced or no. That the once mighty fall and we in our ressentiment rejoice. This is a misinterpretation of second wave Agrarian era ethics, borne on the once revolutionary sense that the ‘first shall be last’. Instead of understanding these novel ethics as a potent critique of caste-based social organizations – it is important to recall that our much vaunted Greece and Rome were populated by at least forty percent slaves, for instance – we have personalized them on two fronts; one, they are wielded as a weapon of mere opinion or taste; and two, they target individuals and not social systems. They are the very stuff of inauthenticity, and Jesus, for one, knew that when he cautioned the stone-casting crowd to engage in a little self-reflection. Today, our democratic legal systems mostly recognize this caution by saying to the offender that though there has been an error, your life is not over, nor should it be. Indeed, the entire point of learning from one’s mistakes is to live on as a better human being, as a better citizen, as a better person.

            Especially is this the case when the offender is young, barely an adult, committing an error that we would associate mostly with youth. But the self-righteous – who must have stoned themselves into some kind of unreflective stupor before picking up those same stones and directing them at others – would end such a person’s life and livelihood before it ever began. And that a national leader should agree and foment such a stoning. And that we live, so we claim, in a democracy of means, motives, and to a certain extent, materials as well. To this the ethicist, the philosopher, whatever his rank and standing and whether such a thing means little or nothing which is generally the case, must stand up and retort resoundingly, no and no again. Petty Hitlers aside, we are not our own justice. If a crime has been committed and the penalty paid, adjudicated in a formal and legal manner, then that must be an end of it. If one disagrees then it is the law that must be altered and not the life. And aren’t we fortunate to live in nations where such an alteration is so easily made, without need of revolution, civil war, the cavil and cant of politicians, the death camps. And who are those who would give up this good fortune? Ask yourself if you value your freedom of expression so little that you would use it as an unmerited weapon against those who have cast themselves down well before any stone has yet been thrown.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.