On despising politics

The Qualifications:

A.) This goes without saying, but the politics of reading and discussing Plato, The Federalist, Marx,  STA’s defense of Mosaic Laws, or even the untelevised statecraft that horsetrades and hears people out is not the politics I’m talking about. And no, it’s not always easy to divide this from televised politics, but I think we can all manage.

B.) Part of this is simply personality – my “A” score is zero. No, seriously zero. 

The Case. 

1.) How can everyone not be disgusted at the vanity of it all? Shift a news cycle, and everything one cared wildly about is deleted and replaced with a new outrage. Weren’t we just at war with Eastasia?

Coheleth’s word vanity was hebel whose first meaning was breath or smoke. The analogy is perfect: smoke oppresses and dominates the senses of everyone in a closed room but floats off harmlessly out of doors. In an artificially restricted consciousness vanities so dominate that they are the only things on your mind, but they’re meant to float off as the harmless waste products that they are.

2.) True political thought (cf. A) is at its best when, holding to a clear principle, it is capable of seeing multiple points of view, presenting them in the best light, and attempting to articulate the justice that each side anticipates. If anything, it is an immunization against televised politics. I can’t imagine anything more opposed to Plato or Publius than pre-packaged totalized ideologies or “arguments” resting on appearance and taboo.

3.) The centerpiece of televised political “thought” is the prediction. It’s been demonstrated that these predictions fare worse than chance, i.e. it would be more rational to base your political predictions on the entrails of birds or flipping a sacred coin than to trust your own cogitations about them. But the deepest problem with these is that they confuse insight with self-fulfilling prophesy. Mary “predicts” that Bill is “coming to take her rights away” because she can see Bill’s character and understand his motiviations. She’s probably partly correct, but she’s also creating conditions that make that action more likely: cutting off solidarity with him, upping the antagonism so that neither side can resolve conflicts except by violence, forcing Bill to find friendship and companionship with the other people Mary thinks are coming for her, etc..

4.) Just as the prediction has found an all but impossible combination of stupidity and fallacy, the gaffe found an all but impossible way to combine irrelevance, uncharity, and lack of imagination. Obama makes an off-mic comment to a donor at a rally and ten years later people still incant it as though it were the deepest, most telling insight into his personality (as opposed to, I dunno, him making conversation, telling someone what they want to hear, a crack made in frustration, a lame attempt to be funny or smart, a momentary emotion that he had no strong desire to act on, a needle in the haystack of even the words he said that day, etc.) ditto this for Dan Quayle reading a cue card with the word “POTATOE”.

5.) I’ve mentioned many times before that what was called politics until about a century ago can’t be compared to what we call politics now since politics is not scalable. The 10,000 citizen association that Aristotle was thinking of when he spoke of man as a political animal, or the Friary or 300 member parish that St. Thomas had in mind when speaking of the common good as the highest good can’t be scaled up six orders of magnitude to the 300,000,000+ modern USA. I take a great deal of pleasure and fulfillment from the smaller social networks I’m a part of, but I’m quite sure that I’m closer to the common good by going to a public debate about a traffic semaphore than in voting in a national election.

6.) Look, on average people buy more stuff when they’re fearful or outraged. The news isn’t informing you, it’s prepping you for commercials.


  1. Zippy said,

    May 4, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Who cares about your “A” score?

    (I kid).

  2. Captain Peabody said,

    May 5, 2016 at 10:23 am

    I still don’t really get your (5) point, even after you’re repeated it several times. Certainly large-scale states are not a new thing, and I don’t see how adding a few zeroes to the end changes the basic idea at all. Once you can no longer know all your fellow-citizens, or even see most of them, then political community changes–but that’s already the case in a Greek-style polis. Moreover, even Classical Athens saw itself (intermittently) as part of a larger “Greek” identity; and the Roman Empire, in which Christianity developed its own ideas about what constituted political engagement, of course was about as large and multi-cultural a configuration as you could hope for–as (to an even greater extent) was “Christendom,” which would have been, for Aquinas, the primary referent for the idea of the common good. The problem of creating a sense of political engagement and identification in a large state is not new–it’s kind of one of the basic problems of politics. Athenian democracy, Roman republicanism, the Imperial cult, dynastic monarchy, nationalism, etc are all attempts to deal with it. A big part of how states have dealt with it in the past is through subsidiarity, encouraging people to relate to larger political bodies by way of smaller communities–but I don’t think anyone ever saw this as taking away from the truly political nature of the larger bodies. The average Catholic relates to the Church largely by way of his local parish priest; but at every Mass he prays for the Pope, and he can read his encyclicals and documents and public speeches, hear about him from others who have seen him and met him, make a pilgrimage to Rome, etc, etc.

    So I guess I don’t see anything particularly new about the last hundred years in this regard. Your other points, I think, suffice for indicating what’s wrong with current politics.

    • May 5, 2016 at 11:40 am

      My point of departure for this point is Nic Eth. IX 10: But as regards good friends, should we have as many as possible, or is there a limit to the number of one’s friends, as there is to the size of a city? You cannot make a city of ten men, and if there are a hundred thousand it is a city no longer. But the city is what Aristotle has in mind as a political unit – hence the adjective. The estimates I have for the Greek City state are close to 10K, though they were vastly outnumbered by slaves, and even a large 14th century city like York had about 14K citizens, though they were divided up into a vast number of smaller parishes. These larger ancient cities were comparable to modern city districts or boroughs, and I still think one can pull off a sense of human fellow feeling in these even today (though it doesn’t tend to happen for various reasons, though it very much did until relatively recently). Unity beyond the ancient city existed but was more vague, abstract, and hard to see, probably a lot like nowadays trying to speak of the “sovereignty of Bloomfield, Indiana”.

      I haven’t made any study of subsidiarity but it seems more like a response to the modern economy and nation state than a doctrine that a Medieval would need. But maybe I just missed it in the literature. I’ve always associated it with Catholic social teaching, which is a 19th century thing.

      • Captain Peabody said,

        May 7, 2016 at 11:43 pm

        By subsidiarity, I mean not the coherent, fully-formed political principle, but just the many concrete practices by which larger states created a sense of universal political identity based largely on the functioning of smaller bodies.

        I guess the main avenue I’m approaching this from is historical (I’m by trade a Classicist). While Greek unity in the Classical period was pretty vague and abstract, by the time you get to the Roman Empire, you have an extremely robust and practical sense of participation in a universal political community– and philosophers of this time certainly took this into account in their discussions and theories of politics. The creation of a powerful sense of large-scale political identity and participation is the real achievement of the Roman Empire (and the only reason why we still care about it today)–and this sense of identity was so tenacious that it survived in some form practically into the early modern period. This concept of a universal political community–associated with the idea of a universal Church transcending nations– was at the heart of most Catholic conceptualizations of politics through the Middle Ages as well. The same idea also formed the essential background for the formation of modern nationalism, which consisted of deliberate moves by which nations reconceptualized themselves as mini Roman Empires, self-contained and completely sovereign, rather than as smaller parts of a universal political community.

        Certainly most people before the modern period interacted with politics primarily through their local communities–and the current state of politics, where people are completely ignorant of and uninvolved in local community, and “politics” largely means paying attention solely to the drama surrounding the highest office in a nation of hundreds of millions, is pretty aberrant by anyone’s standard. But, as far as I can tell, there is nothing remotely unprecedented about the idea of a larger political body embracing multiple, many, or even all smaller bodies–indeed, as far as I can tell, since the time of the Roman Empire, this has been one of the basic ideas informing how politics is understood and practiced. Does that make sense?

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