Sunday, February 26, 2017

Revolution Books

Friday night GH and I walked into Revolution Books and whom did I see? Ngugi wa Thiong'o! Waiyaki, Nyambura, and Muthoni all flashed back like daffodils. We had dinner at Yatenga and then I went back to the bookstore to hear Ngugi read from the third volume of his memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver. His son Mukoma wa Ngugi, who is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, read from his latest poetry collection Logotherapy. The third Kenyan author Peter Kimani read from his novel Dance of the Jakaranda. The train, called "the iron snake" in Kenya, was a powerful symbol of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Social Maternalism

TLS January 27, 2017.

From the article "The New Pragmatism: How to save capitalism from itself, by cutting across traditional political divides and making the state active in the right areas" by Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford:

Social democracy can justly be accused of social paternalism: the state is assumed to know best, but unfortunately it didn't. For want of a better term, I think of the pragmatic policies I have suggested as social maternalism. In this model the state would be active in both the economic and social spheres, but it would not overtly empower itself. Its tax policies would restrain the powerful from appropriating rents, rather than stripping income from the rich to help the poor. Its regulations would empower those who suffer from creative destruction to claim compensation, rather than attempting to frustrate the very process that gives capitalism its astonishing dynamic. Its inclusive nationalism would be a force for binding together, replacing the emphasis on the fragmented identities of grievances. Its social interventions would aim to sustain those families that are stressed, rather than assuming for itself the role of parents.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reading Richard Rorty

I've always wondered how to reconcile Nietzschean self-creation with liberal politics, and so it is with a tremendous sense of excitement, and relief, that I learn from Richard Rorty that it is not necessary to reconcile the two, that in fact it is a mistake to try for some kind of synthesis. One has to be contented with their separation, to be a liberal ironist, as Rorty calls it. The irony is directed at all final vocabularies, one's own as well as others', understanding that there is no final vocabulary that is not contingent and not formed by one's historical and social contingencies. Discourse and socialization goes all the way down, and the best one can hope for is to re-write a small part of one's inherited script. The geniuses among us re-write a bigger part. That is the self-creation advocated by Nietzsche. It retains his perspectivism but relinquishes his essentializing move of making "the will to power" a commonality in all human beings. "The will to power" may be a useful description of people some of the time, but it is nonetheless merely a description. We cannot step out of our language to judge whether it corresponds to a truth out there in reality or a truth in here in us.

As for the "liberal" part of being a liberal ironist, Rorty repeats Judith Shklar's useful definition: liberals are people for whom "cruelty is the worst thing they do." There is no non-tautological way of defending this definition, just as there are no non-tautological ways of defending other definitions. The test of the pudding is in the eating. Is it a useful way to bring about the progressive changes that liberals have traditionally wish to see happen in society? To my mind, it is. It highlights the desire to avoid pain, which we share with animals, and by extension, the desire to avoid humiliation, which we don't share with animals because we have selves that are constituted by language and therefore capable of being humiliated. The avoidance of pain seems sufficiently "basic." This definition of liberalism also seems broad enough to encompass a wide range of politics, and narrow enough to exclude the politics of exploitation and intolerance.

Contingency, irony, and solidarity consists of three parts. Part I titled "Contingency" argues for the contingency of language, selfhood, and a liberal community. Part II titled "Ironism and Theory" re-examines the roles of private irony and liberal hope in the writings of Proust, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. Part III titled "Cruelty and Solidarity" shows how the pursuit of self-creation (Nabokov) and of community (Orwell) could be cruel to others. There are books, as Rorty argues, that we read for re-creating ourselves, by becoming more sensitive to others' pain, for instance, and there are books, different ones, that we read for re-creating our communities. Narratives, more than philosophies, are useful in describing or re-describing others' pain, and so are more useful in sensitizing us to it.

In Rorty's liberal utopia, we are free to pursue our private dreams of self-perfection, as long as we don't cause hurt to others or use more than our fair share of resources. The goal of such a utopia is the increase of Freedom, and not any approximation to Truth.

In his short book Achieving Our Country Rorty argues that the American Left has veered off-course from action into theory, from politics into culture, from participation into spectatorship. He praises the achievements of the cultural Left in elevating the status of women, gay and other minorities, but points out also the dark side of the achievements. The Left has no answer to the economic upheaval of globalization. Rorty: "Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment. This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises." This economic elite maintains a cultural elite either to justify the former's existence or to give the appearance of contest by engaging in cultural politics. The general populace, sensing the sympathetic class interests between the economic and the cultural elites, will then revolt against constitutional democracy and elect a strongman. We now have Trump on our hands, as Rorty predicted back in 1998.

Are his suggestions for change already useless? To deal with the consequences of globalization, "the present cultural Left would have to transform itself by opening relations with the residue of the old reformist Left, and in particular with the labor unions. It would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma." To effect this transformation, the Left should put a moratorium on theory and mobilize what remains of national pride. "It should ask the public to consider how the country of Lincoln and Whitman might be achieved." Although we should be international-minded, the only real change we can effect is through the current nation-state. We have to subordinate our differences to a common dream. Putting so starkly an approach that Rorty describes in a much more sophisticated and elegant fashion has this advantage at least: it makes clear the difficulty of such a transformation of the American Left.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

To be an ironic liberal

To be inscribed on my forehead and in my heart: "If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly "relativistic"." - Richard Rorty in "Orwell on Cruelty" in his book CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Judo vs Jujitsu

Sanshiro Sugata (a.k.a. Judo Saga) is Akira Kurosawa's first film (1943), based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita) learns judo from master Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi) but also learns to grow up. The moment of enlightenment comes while he is hanging to a stake in a muddy pond. He sees a glowing lotus rising from the mud. What does it mean? A calm acceptance of Nature's law? A awakening to the shitty roots of life? Later he almost fails to vanquish an old master from the jujitsu school because the master's daughter is praying with a pure devotion for her father to win. To overcome his inner doublts, Sanshiro remembers the lotus again, so the flower could also represent a kind of selfless innocence. Not surprisingly, he defeats the implacable jujitsu master Gennosuke Higaki (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) in the end. Not a terribly profound film, but well-paced and shot. It is very much a young man's film.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Organize, Organize, Organize

Feb 7, 2017: An informative and inspiring meeting organized by the Asian American Federation. Panel speakers representing different civic organizations spoke about making Asian Americans visible and their voices heard; the need for language access in govt proclamations; organizing protests and call-ins (New York Immigration Coalition); the impact of Trumpism on social policies (Coalition for Asian American Children & Families) and on-the-ground social services, especially elderly and mental services (Hamilton-Madison House); teaching students to stand up for one another in schools against bullying (Sikh Coalition); the building of alliances between mainstream Asian America and marginalized communities such as the LGBTQAPI (National Queer API Alliance). Participate. Support. Donate. Above all, organize, organize, organize.