Monthly Archives: September 2015

American Politics According to Kevin

Before I begin, I must make a confession:  I rarely follow day-to-day American politics.  Not only do I find most of the developments tediously predictable, but the vast majority of the commentary–whether from the media or by individuals on social media–is so ignorant that I can barely read it.  That being said, I am aware that there is an election coming up.  In anticipation of that event, and particularly for those who live abroad or are newcomers to our country, I thought I might lay out some basic notes on the American political landscape as I understand it.

Conservatives vs Liberals

With certain rare (and ultimately unimportant) exceptions the US only ever has two main political factions.  While the names change, and are occasionally traded, they aren’t really important.  It is better to think of them as a Conservative faction and a Liberal faction.  Most Americans have no idea what the two factions stand for, yet are quick to label themselves as one or the other.  Many people are under the impression that these labels have something to do with fiscal policy, that Conservatives prefer to pay smaller taxes and receive less from the government, whereas liberals are willing to pay more in return for more.  In reality, there are very few true fiscal Conservatives left in the US.  The population, despite denying it loudly, is overwhelmingly in favor of big government.  Regardless of which faction or sub-faction they belong to, however, they all feel that they should pay smaller taxes and members of other factions should pay more.

The real issue is change (in any form).  Conservatives favor actions which will prevent change.  Liberals favor actions to accelerate change.  Unfortunately, the assumption that a political party can control change is completely unfounded.  All of the evidence of history is that change happens on its own, regardless of human interference.  The only real choices are whether to ignore it or embrace it.

The climate is changing, and always has been since the Earth was formed.  It is irrelevant whether these changes are man-made (although the overwhelming scientific evidence points this way).  The only choice is whether to ignore climate change or to make other changes to adapt.

Culture is changing.  Conservatives would rather believe that there is a static American culture and that any deviations from this norm are aberrations which need to be corrected.  History shows us, however, that a culture only stops changing when it is dead.  Liberals would rather engage in social engineering to change culture to their own specifications.  Unfortunately, culture is an incredibly complicated phenomenon.  Every historical attempt to change it to order has resulted in unintended and usually horrible consequences and has eventually backfired.  I draw your attention to the French Revolution, the Third Reich, or the efforts of the Russian Soviet in the 1930’s.  The problem is complicated further by the fact that the US, since its colonization, has consisted of not a single culture but a mesh of affiliated subcultures.

Technology is changing, and the pace of technological change has been accelerating exponentially since at least the eighteenth century.  Conservatives would like to use new technology without it changing any other factor of the society.  Liberals would like to use technology to change the society itself.  Neither seems adequately aware of the two-way influence between technology and culture or between technology and the economy.

Finally, the economy is changing.  The form of the economy is dictated by technology and demographics (neither of which can be controlled) and (to a far lesser extent) by government policy.  There are very few true economic liberals.  Both Conservatives and “Liberals” in this country seem to expect the economy itself to remain static while they focus on issues of wealth distribution, ignoring the fact that the economy itself changes over time.

Social Class

Social class exists in the US just as much as in any other country, even though it has long been fashionable to ignore it.  For nearly two centuries the primary determinant of social class has been money.  However, many other factors, more or less correlated with money, also play a role.  For instance more recent immigrants are generally considered socially inferior to earlier immigrants (although Native Americans have traditionally been near the very bottom).  Lighter skinned people typically have higher social status than darker skinned people.  Those who speak English as a first language are considered superior to those who speak Spanish, or other languages.  The result is a complicated formula that leaves most Americans continually wondering and worrying about where they fall in the social pecking order.  This is further complicated by an enduring myth that everyone in America is a member of the middle class, or at least would be if they worked at it (often referred to as the “American Dream”).  This idea is patently nonsense, and originated in government propaganda from the New Deal years.

It is a fact that, due to technological and economic factors, the middle class, as a percentage of the population, grew to unprecedented size during the twentieth century.  History shows, however, that the middle class generally constitutes only a small fraction of most societies.  At present the middle class is again shrinking, which is a source of great angst to most middle class Americans.  Most political rhetoric (from both factions) consists of pandering to the middle class and false promises to reverse this trend.

Wealth Distribution

Americans as a whole are fairly wealthy, by world standards.  However, an ever increasing amount of that wealth is concentrated at the top.  Leaving aside questions of fairness (one of the slipperiest of all philosophical concepts) this is a very dangerous situation.  Wealth concentration beyond a certain level always leads to social unrest and eventually to revolution.  It paves the way for a totalitarian dictator to seize power, slaughter most of the wealthy citizens, and give (some of) the wealth back to the people.  Such dictatorships rarely last more than a generation, but that is beside the point.  It is a matter of self preservation for the wealthy to find ways to redistribute much of their assets, either through philanthropy, higher wages for their employees, or higher taxation at the upper levels.  If they fail to do so the best we can hope for is a Solon, Caesar, or Mussolini.  Analysis of history implies that we are more likely to end up with a Pol Pot, a Robespierre, or a Hitler.


The range of options open to world leaders tends to be dictated by factors beyond their control and is much more limited than their citizens believe.  However, dependence on fossil fuels to prop up the middle class and maintain the status quo collapses these options to one.  Until America gets her domestic affairs in order, she can’t live without oil and will continue to anything she must to get it.  And yes, cars are primarily a middle class status symbol.

My Own Platform

As a philosopher, I am an observer and commentator, not a participant in my country’s politics.  As Socrates said, “Do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life?”

However, I personally lean towards the Liberal side, in that I accept change and favor adapting to it as it comes.  I believe that we need to actively address the issues of social class and wealth distribution while accommodating changes in technology, economics, and culture as they arise.  I think that small government is a beautiful ideal which is totally impractical in the 21st century, so we should try to build the most efficient and responsive big government we can.

In terms of social class, I feel that we should establish a formal class system that is divorced as much as possible from income or assets.  My preference would be to support a large proletariat, a small middle class, and a smaller aristocracy.

A welfare class is unavoidable, since we literally do not have enough work for our excess population.  However, we need to make realistic policies to reduce the size of this class over time.  One solution is large scale public works programs (preferably funded from the assets of the wealthy) to give jobs to members of the welfare class, thus converting them into proletarians.  A program of voluntary sterilization in return for eligibility for certain welfare benefits might also be useful.

I also believe that we need to recognize a separate class consisting of intellectuals and professional artists, the members of which would be drawn from all classes.  People of demonstrated ability in these areas should be supported by the state so they can live roughly as well as the proletariat, but they should be forbidden to file for copyright protection or to make money from their work, which would be made available to all Americans (e.g. in government sponsored exhibitions or by distributing it via the Internet).

Most importantly, we must create well defined processes for upward and downward mobility between all of the classes.  Everyone should be able to find their own level, based on natural aptitude.  No one should ever be in doubt about which class they belong to at a given moment.

As far as wealth distribution goes, I think it is imperative to periodically remove assets from the aristocracy and middle class and distribute them to the remaining three classes.  The obvious tool for this is aggressively progressive taxation.  The idea I mentioned above, of requiring the richest individuals to fund large public works projects out of pocket, worked well for Imperial Rome and may also have merit for the US.  The middle class is shrinking on its own.  I would, however, suggest discontinuing any government programs that exist mainly to prop them up including–but not limited to–tax breaks for home owners and subsidies of the automotive industry.

I fully realize that none of my recommendations are likely to come to pass any time soon.  To paraphrase Plato’s Socrates again, “Until philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers, good luck making it happen.”.  Still, I felt I would have been remiss to write an essay of this type without mentioning my own opinions.


How to Live Like a Modern Socrates

For several weeks now I have been blogging about Socrates, or at least how Socrates is portrayed by Plato and Xenophon. Since he is the archetypal Western philosopher and model for all who came later, it makes sense that we should all try to live a bit more like him. I thought I would take a post list some of the practical aspects of Socratic living. I’ll start with the easy stuff and work up to advanced topics.

Avoid Working at a Job

Socrates was raised to be a stone cutter but, by the time history hears about him he hadn’t worked in years. If you can, don’t have a job at all. It will wear you out and suck up all the time when you could be philosophizing. As Mr. B says, “How many brilliant minds are lost to work?” If you find you absolutely have to work, you have two choices. Either find a low stress, low hours job (e.g. bicycle mechanic, grocery store night clerk) or a job with flexible hours and a large philosophical component (e.g. freelance writer). Remember, though: It’s always easier to save money than to make it.

Don’t Spend Money on Material Possessions

We never read about Socrates owning anything except the clothes he was wearing, and those were nothing to brag about. In The Symposium Alcibiades, describing how he tried to seduce Socrates, talks about climbing under his “much patched cloak”. So buy your clothes at thrift stores and choose comfort and durability over style. Also, think long and hard before buying things like cars or mobile phones which are basically status symbols, don’t contribute anything to your philosophy, and suck money every month whether you use them or not.

Never Miss a Free Meal

The dialogs are full of instances when Socrates showed up at someone’s house right around dinner time and got a free dinner. This is a good way to economize and can lead to many interesting philosophical conversations. Also, be sure to take home leftover if you can, since you never know when your next free meal is coming.

Make Rich Friends

Besides providing better free food, rich friends can come in handy in a number of ways, such as posting bail when you are on trial by the assembly. It’s always nice to be on good terms with a Crito or two if you can manage it.

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Find Your Xanthippe

Socrates’ wife has a bad reputation, mainly because Xenophon didn’t like her. From the description in the Phaedo, however, it is clear there was real affection between her and Socrates. An understanding spouse, especially one with a regular income, can make all the difference in your survival as a philosopher.

Always Try to Learn from Other Philosophers

Whenever another philosopher was in town Socrates made a point of seeking them out and asking them questions. Now that we have the internet we don’t need to wait for them to visit since we can communicate at will with anyone, anywhere in the world. Remember the point from the last part of The Phaedrus: Reading someone’s written work is good, but it is no substitute for hearing them speak in person.

Teach Anyone Who Asks

Many of the greatest men of the age claimed Socrates as a teacher. A true philosopher has a moral duty to help others learn. To be like Socrates, however, remember two key precepts: (1) Don’t charge money for teaching if you can avoid it. (2) Always treat your students as equals and colleagues, never as inferiors. Philosophy is about joint inquiry, not received information and authority.

Stand by Your Conclusions

Socrates died for his principals. Most of us will never need to drink hemlock (literally or figuratively), but philosophy is about the search for truth. Once we conclude, through a process of exhaustive philosophical inquiry, that a principal is true, we need to be brave enough to commit to it, whatever the personal consequences.

Gender Theory in Plato (The Symposium)

I agonized over which aspect of Plato’s Symposium to write about in this post, since this dialog contains so much material, and so many “hooks” for a blogging. The overall theme is “Love” (Eros), the conceit being that several of the leading intellectuals of Athens are at a dinner party and have decided to entertain themselves by each giving a short speech about love. This allows Plato to write in several different voices and introduce different–and sometimes conflicting–views before Socrates, the last to speak, lays down the “official” Platonic platform: while it is fine and natural for common people to love other people and seek creative fulfillment through reproduction, the truly elevated philosopher loves Wisdom above all earthly attachments and is only fulfilled when philosophizing and creating knowledge.

Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.

Just as Socrates finishes a drunken (or at least drunk acting) Alcibiades crashes the party and tells how his many attempts to seduce Socrates have failed. This serves to underscore Socrates’ point; Alcibiades is the iconic sex symbol of his time–at the peak of his physical beauty and as yet untouched by the political problems which will plague his later life. To the Greek mind it is extraordinary that anyone, male or female, would be impervious to his charms.

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

As is happens, though, I have already devoted whole posts to Alcibiades, while Socrates and his pursuit of Wisdom are the theme of the past few weeks. The section I would rather focus on now is Aristophanes‘ speech. While undoubtedly written by Plato, it is completely Aristophanic, capturing both the playwright’s intellectual brand of humor and his penchant for wild flights of mythopoetic fantasy. Humanity, says Aristophanes, was not always as it is now,

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

However, these four-legged, rolling humans were too powerful, and soon challenged the gods themselves. Zeus, after considering how to punish them, decides to split them in half,

‘[A]nd then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’

Unfortunately, mankind longs so much for their sundered halves that,

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,—being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.

This story then, besides being an artful Aristophanic pastiche, is also another one of the beautiful myths which Plato inserts into so many of his dialogs where they server besides the elenchus as a different and complementary, yet never inferior, vehicle for the exposition of his philosophy. It is important to remember that Plato never expects the reader to take these myths literally. Rather, they constitute a developing symbolic shorthand with which to manipulate constructs in conjunction with his theory of ideas.

This particular myth is important because it offers an explicit recognition of a concept of gender which is distinct both from reproductive sex and sexual orientation, a concept which Western thought has only recently rediscovered. Plato, at least in a limited sense, is the father of gender theory. Add the context of his argument for equality of women in The Republic, and he appears very modern indeed.

So if Plato was so far ahead of his time in the area we now call Gender Studies or Philosophy of Gender, why did so many centuries pass before the next big break-through? medieval Christianity, with its emphasis on asexuality as a gender ideal, clearly played a role. The gender dialog had gone silent long before Christianity became the dominant religion, however. It was in the bourgeoisie and aristocratic society of late pagan Rome, where nearly any sexuality was acceptable as long as it happened discretely and did not result in a scandal, that it became unacceptable to talk about gender. Upper caste Romans could (and did) do and be almost anything they wanted sexually, especially if the passive partner was a slave or other non-citizen. But it was in incredibly bad taste to talk about it. The whole society functioned on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. By the time Christianity took over, with its overall distrust of sexuality in general, combined with biases inherited from ancient Judaism, which acknowledged only two genders corresponding to the two most common reproductive sexes, Plato’s ideas on the subject had already been tabled for a very long time.