Pope Francis, Like Popes In General, Cannot Be Liberal

The Pope Francis Honeymoon is over. The Pontiff who could make a hardened Republican, the third most powerful man in American government, cry like a particularly lachrymose baby, who has been saying all the right things for a very long time, who has been playing music for progressive ears, has gone ahead jumped the shark by meeting with Kim Davis–she of “I shall not marry the gays” and “‘Eye of the Tiger’ is so my song” fame. Reports have it that the Pope urged her to “stay strong” and described her as a “conscientious objector.” Much to progressives’ dismay, besides showing his poor understanding of the secular notion of the separation of church and state, Pope Francis also threw his considerable papal weight behind a bigot. I will admit that little is known about the meeting’s particulars but the reaction to it suggests there are considerable hopes invested in this Pope becoming an ally of progressive political forces.

I must confess, I was always a tad surprised by these hopes. Vague, anodyne ramblings about social justice and taking care of the sick and the poor have always been on Popes’ lips. They are part and parcel of the rhetorical package that goes with being called ‘Papa’ by crowds of adoring millions. Talk of Christian charity is cheap when it is clear that that charity is not really universal, that it is only selectively extended–to those with the right beliefs. Talk of the co-existence and compatibility of creationism and evolutionary theory is cheap too, when this is merely official Church doctrine, pragmatically adopted as long back as 1950. The Church, better than many adherents, understands the need to stay ‘relevant.’ To be sure this Pope has gone further, and to more places where previous Popes simply did not. But affixing political labels on him will not work; and neither will counting on him as a progressive ally.

A liberal Pope would not be a Pope; he would disdain the office, its titles, its pretensions. he would not wave to admiring crowds, pretending to be the arbiter of human fates, an infallible head of state, a ‘spiritual’ leader of millions, a hobnobber with heads of states. A liberal pope would not take on, and exercise the power of forgiving those who sin. A liberal pope would have to be a secular pope, and that he cannot be; you cannot be a liberal if you think the world can be divided into sinners and do-gooders with a special place reserved for those who sin and for those who don’t. The notion of damnation, of sin, is an illiberal, reactionary one. Forgiveness of those who have abortions sounds wunderful till you realize it is no human’s business to hand out forgiveness in the first place. A liberal Pope makes no sense; we can at best proclaim a particular pontiff is ‘liberal for a Pope.’

Popes, the heads of large, hierarchical organizations which claim a monopoly on the truth, which aim to provide moral and ethical instruction, and a guidebook for deliverance in this world and the next, cannot be liberal.

The ‘Real World’: The Corporate Workplace

Dear Reader, do you know where the ‘real world’ is? Do you live in it? Do you work in it? Corporate recruiters and CEOs can tell you.

If you are attending a school or a university of any kind, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you are a child, you are not living in the ‘real world.’ If you teach in a school or in a university, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you work for a non-profit organization you do not live in the ‘real world.’ You are merely living in a world of make-believe and fantasy and charming artifice.

The real world, it turns out, is a workplace, and a very particular kind at that. It is the corporate workplace, where you will have a boss, and where you will not be allowed to indulge in those childish fancies and illusions that sustained you in the bubbles you previously occupied. Here is the McCoy; all else is ersatz. In this arena, the lessons you have learned in the fantasy world you previously occupied have to be unlearned; they should be checked at the door like pilgrims’ shoes outside a temple. They would bring in too much of the unreal world’s dust and dirt otherwise. Those lessons include a great deal of moral instruction, which must now be discarded as irrelevant, unrealistic, and fantastic. In sharp contrast, in the ‘real world’ you will learn all about punctuality, conformance to schedule, the virtues of hard work and nose-to-the-wheel commitment–all the better to boost those bottom lines that ensure a livelihood for you.

The good old public-private distinction has nothing on the real-unreal world distinction that corporate boosters espouse. Aristotle thought the polis was where you went to become a citizen, a full political subject, a person. Corporate recruiters will tell you that the corporate workplace is where you go to get a dose of reality. Your childhood, your school days, your learning in school and college, those books you read, the games you played, the friends you made–all mere specters, ghosts, insubstantial spirits. You were merely prisoners in the cave; the light and illumination and enlightenment of the ‘real world’ awaits. Then mere shapes will acquire substantiality; then reality will slap you upside the head.

This invocation of the ‘real world’ as a rhetorical device with which to dismiss the experiences of those who do not live in it has a long and dishonorable history. of course. It is a prominent arrow in the quiver of the corporate propagandist; it is drawn and fired all too indiscriminately.

It should come as no surprise then that denizens of the ‘real world’ find even the domain of politics and governance possessed of inadequate reality. So much so that they will even deign to step away from their upholstered desks and carpeted offices to intervene, to take over the helm of the national ship and steer it into zones regulated by rules they know well. The ones of the ‘real world.’

Mary Wollstonecraft, Philosopher Of Education

In ‘Observations on the State of Degradation to which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes’ (Chapter IV of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Mary Wollstonecraft writes:

Reason is…the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than another; but the nature of reason must be the same in all…can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man…the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction…But, dismissing these fanciful theories, and considering woman as a whole…the inquiry is whether she has reason or not. If she has, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man…

Into this error men have, probably, been led by viewing education in a false light; not considering it as the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection; but only as a preparation for life.

The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. Merely to observe, without endeavouring to account for any thing, may (in a very incomplete manner) serve as the common sense of life; but where is the store laid up that is to clothe the soul when it leaves the body?

In the second para quoted above, Wollstonecraft, after asserting the existence of reason in women–via a theological claim–goes on to establish a normative standard for education: its function is not purely vocational but also a spiritual and moral one. The task of education is the development of reason, the business of bringing to full fruition the divine gift granted all human beings by their Creator. The task of education is not mere ‘preparation’ for a narrowly circumscribed sphere of profane responsibility; it is, rather, to elevate and uplift each human being by making it possible for them to exercise their reason–as part of a process of gradually ‘perfecting’ their souls. Education is not prelude to the ‘real business’; it is the real business itself.

In the third para, Wollstonecraft asserts the importance of abstraction and generalization–implicit in these claims is the importance of pattern recognition. Humans cannot be content with particulars, with living from moment to moment; they must, through the mastery of these powerful intellectual tools, rise to a vantage point from which disparate phenomena can be tied together into explanatory wholes (and serve as the basis for future theory-building.) The ‘common sense of life’ is not the only standard that humans should aspire to; there are far loftier goals visible, the journey to which may only be made possible by the right kind of education.

Note: My Political Philosophy class and I read and discussed some excerpts from Vindication of the Rights of Woman yesterday; these two paragraphs led to a very interesting digression (ending up in computer science and binary numbers). Which is why I make note of them today.

The Rainbow In My Roster

Two weeks ago, on 8 September, after finishing my morning stint my gym, I headed to the Brooklyn College campus. I arrived at 12:20, five minutes after the 11:00 AM to 12:15 PM classes had ended. The campus was overflowing with students: streaming out from classrooms and lecture halls, clogging the corridors, the walkways, the quadrangle, the benches outside the library and the library cafe. I walked among them, marveling once again at the splendid diversity–in the linguistic, cultural, ethnic, political dimensions–of our student body. I’ve been on this campus for just over thirteen years now, and these glimpses never lose their freshness.

I could hear, around me, Russian, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Caribbean Patois, Hebrew; I could see headscarves and hijabs and chadors, yarmulkes, turbans, colored hair, ponytails, topknots, shaven heads. They walked in groups; they walked singly. They talked among themselves; they zoned out on their headphones. They sat; they stood; they sprawled out on the grass. Some rushed to the local Starbucks to refuel on caffeine; others began their lunch, outside, in the still gloriously warm weather, before the next round of classes began at 12:50. I walked on, through this riotous medley, feeling a curious melange of emotions surge through me; I felt protective, proud, and hopeful.

Like any teacher, I’m used to moaning and griping about my students: they don’t do the readings; they’re late for class; their writing sucks; they ask me questions whose answers are on the syllabus; they disappear for weeks on end and then show up, at the end of the semester, to ask whether they can still find redemption; they check their smartphones in class; they stare blankly at me when I ask them to show me they have understood the points made in last week’s class; the list goes on and on. There is truth in all these complaints but there is much more to my students.

As I have noted on this blog, my students’ interactions with me in the classroom are a constant source of intellectual enrichment for me; my understanding and appreciation of many philosophical works has been enhanced by my discussing it with my students; I might have a PhD in philosophy and the title of ‘professor’ but I’m still a student, and my teaching is how I continue to learn. It wouldn’t work without my students; it takes two to tango and all that.

But the point I actually set out to make is that the diversity on display that day on campus reminded me that the sheer range of lives and experiences I encounter in my students is another education altogether. My students raise points in the classroom that are inextricably linked with their backgrounds: the Puerto Rican nationalist; the lesbian Orthodox Jew; the working single mother; the trans men and women; the young man struggling to break free of a family afflicted by alcoholism; the immigrants; the native New Yorkers; the senior citizens who audit; the first-generation students; the religious; the skeptical; the conservative; the politically radical; they all bring missives from worlds I only partially experience and understand. They are walking encyclopedias all on their own; they edify and enlighten. They make me realize that my life, varied and rich as it has been, is only the tiniest sliver of all in the giant mosaic of human experience. They point me to much more that lies beyond the narrow confines of my life. Every classroom holds a veritable United Nations, a pleasurable Babel of language, class, ethnicity and political orientation.

I remain ever grateful that I’m a teacher–especially when my students write me appreciative notes!–and that moreover, I’m a teacher here in Brooklyn, in New York City.

Post-Colonial Resentment, Irrationality, and Jeremy Corbyn

Experienced students of politics and of the human mind know that politics–the ‘science,’ the business, of power–is all too often a zone of the irrational, a domain of intense passion and emotion, covered up with a thin veneer of seemingly rational discourse, of point and counterpoint. This irrationality manifests itself in familiar phenomena such as the futility of political argument: participants in these festivals of rhetorical jousting come away, not with their beliefs changed or altered in the slightest, but rather, ever more entrenched and buttressed with more sophisticated defenses. Offense in political arguments does not bring about meek or even reluctant surrender; it only produces defiant defense.

I have been reminded, acutely, of these irrational foundations of politics as I inspect my reactions to the recent rise to power of Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘British politician who is Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition.’ For weeks my social media timelines have been full of Corbyn; his political record, his manifesto, the reactions of Britain’s conservatives to his ascent to power, his non-singing of the national anthem and so on. Wall to wall Corbyn, really. ‘Progressive’ and ‘leftist’ Americans, Englishmen, and Australians, are all entranced by this man, by the hostility he provokes on the political right; his record on all the major issues that engage this demographic evokes murmurs of admiration and respect; there have been no sightings, yet, of Corbyn riding on an ass into Jerusalem, but for all the attention he has attracted, one would not be remiss in thinking that precisely such a triumphal march had taken place. (Corbyn, as a reminder, has not been elected Prime Minister; he has merely been elected leader of the Labour Party.)

I should perhaps be interested in this spectacle; the rise to a power of a ‘progressive’ politician should catch my attention and tickle my fancies. And yet, the overwhelming response on my part, once my initial curiosity about the man who seemed to be attracting so much hostility from David Cameron and his party had passed, has been one of thinly repressed irritation. I’m sick of the wall-to-wall bonanaza of Corbyn that I’ve been subjected to; I cannot wait for it to end, for this season to pass.

My reasons are quite transparent to me. I’m consumed by a species of post-colonial resentment. I’m an American citizen, and the US has been my home for almost thirty years, but my political responses and reactions to the Corbyn ‘phenomenon’ are still animated by a primeval response whose underpinnings are only discernible in the older, bound-up-with-each-other histories of India and Britain. I find myself seething at the disproportionate attention paid to this British politician; I wonder what relevance it has to American politics (even as I tell myself that comfort and succor given to George Bush by Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war was perhaps a crucial factor in the decision to go to war); I glower at the hagiographic descriptions showered upon Corbyn; I cannot bring myself to click on the parade of links that march through my social media timelines.

In short, I wish the sun would set on the damn British Empire already, that Britain would stop being made to feel like it was still the center of the universe and more like it was just any other European nation.

Not very rational, right? But there it is. And I’m a grown man with a PhD in philosophy. What hope political discourse?

Was Charlie Hebdo ‘Mocking’ The Death Of Alan Kurdi?

Charlie Hebdo has offended again. A recently published cartoon titled “So Close to His Goal”, shows Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose tragic drowning death sharply focused the world’s attention on the desperation of the migrant crisis in Europe, lying face down on the sand near a billboard featuring Ronald McDonald and advertising a 2-for-1 McDonald’s Happy Meal with the legend: ‘Two children’s’ meals for the price of one.” The caption reads, ‘So close to his goal.’ And above it all, reads “Welcome to migrants.’ A second cartoon titled “The Proof that Europe is Christian” shows a toddler drowning in the ocean. waters. Next to him a Christ-like figure walks on water. The caption reads, “Christians walk on waters… Muslims kids sink.”

Here is how I ‘read’ the cartoon, roughly: The West and Europe imagines itself the haven of liberal, secular ideals; it imagines itself the bastion of democracy, republicanism, and the social welfare state. In point of fact, it is as much in thrall to old-fashioned notions of Christian triumphalism and the blurring of the church and state as those regimes that it disdains. The West and Europe still fight holy wars; they still imagine itself under attack from the ‘Huns’ and the ‘Goths’ and the ‘barbarians’ and the ‘Moors.’ The migrants might have thought they were escaping to this promised land where they would be welcomed with open arms and invited to make a new life. Little do they know that they were only heading for a vapid, shallow, xenophobic, insular, Islamophobic, consumerist culture, one whose patron saint is Ronald McDonald, and whose guiding slogans are not the call to arms of the great revolutions, but rather, sales pitches for cheap goods.

That’s how I read it. I did not take these cartoons to be ‘mocking’ a dead child.  I do not claim to know the ‘intent’ of the cartoonist, but given Charlie Hebdo’s history, and the current context, my interpretation strikes me as at least halfway plausible.

I am not going to offer a systematic defense here of Charlie Hebdo, but want to make note of a couple of what I think are relevant points:

  1. The famous cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama exchanging fist-bumps in the Oval Office, while wearing ‘Arab dresses’ and carrying guns, appeared on the cover of the New Yorker. Had it appeared on the cover of the National Review Online, complete with a comments section of gibbering right-wingers rubbing their hands in glee, reactions to it would have been considerably sharper. (I thank Justin E. H. Smith for this example.)
  2. The Onion once ran an article titled ‘Redskins Kike Owner Refuses To Change Team’s Offensive Name.’ I did not think the article or its headline was anti-Semitic. Some Jewish friends of mine were certainly offended.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are bound to offend many and their choice of vehicle for making their political points might be questioned. But they have ample material to choose from and ample opportunity to offend; this world and its dominant species’ arrogance and continuing self-destructive behavior will ensure that. Satirists exist and find work because we are worthy targets of satire.

On Learning The Meaning Of ‘Delirium’

I learned the meaning of the words ‘delirium’ and ‘delirious’ when I was nine. The spring of that year, I came down with a viral fever of an unknown variety. My body temperature rose sharply, and my mother responded with the usual battery of treatments: antipyretics and cold cotton wraps for my forehead. But the infection in my body had its usual course to run, and so, despite the medication, and despite my mother’s best supplemental efforts, my fever mounted.

Finally, one night it crossed the 104 degrees mark. I was coherent enough to understand two facts: a) this was the highest body temperature I had ever experienced, an impressive personal record for a nerdy nine-year old; and b) this was a number that clearly made my mother nervous.

That night, as I struggled to sleep, my mother lying next to me to provide me some comfort, I began to see and hear things. The walls of the room that enclosed us began to oscillate, sometimes expanding away from me to form a cavernous hall, and sometimes contracting till the ceiling appeared mere inches away from my eyes. I could feel a lurking presence in the room, an undefinable entity that made me shudder with fear and call out for help. And most bizarrely of all, I began to hallucinate that I had arisen, left bed, and walked to the adjoining living room where a fearsome tiger, pacing up and down its limited length, waited for me.

I could not understand what was happening; I clung to my mother in panic, my cries of alarm announcing and describing the various phenomena I was experiencing turning all too quickly into a species of frantic gibbering. My mother did not call an emergency medical service. While there must have been an ambulance service–or a local doctor–that we could have called in New Delhi in 1976, we did not own a phone. Making a phone call meant asking a neighbor for help.  I suspect my mother was reluctant to do so late at night, and that moreover, she was still calm enough to reckon that this was only a passing phase.  A high temperature fever would have been very dangerous for an infant or a toddler, of course, but I was considerably older than that. She continued to place cotton wraps soaked in cold water on my forehead, and continued to try to ‘talk me down.’

My aunt–my mother’s sister, then visiting from the US–was spending the night with us (my father was away at an air force base.) As my mother and her discussed how best to proceed, I heard my mother say I was ‘delirious,’ that my ‘delirium’ was making me see and hear things. I had seen the word in print before and not fully understood what it meant. Now I did.

Sometimes when I describe myself as a nerd, it’s because I remember incidents like this one, and my reactions to them. That night, as I lay in bed, slipping in and out of sanity, I remember thinking it was so interesting that a previously mysterious word had ‘happened’ to me. I couldn’t wait to talk about it when it was all over.

Which I did the next morning. The storm passed, and the tiger left the living room.