‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay ‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination‘ is up at Three Quarks Daily. The following is an abstract of sorts:

American immigrants, especially the first and second generations, were sometimes reckoned a safe vote for the Republican Party’s brand of conservatism. This was not just the case with immigrants from formerly communist countries who might be reckoned willing and enthusiastic consumers of the Republican Party and American conservatism’s historical anti-communist stance. Rather, American immigrants of all stripes have often shown a marked allegiance to conservative causes and claims. This trend, which did not always translate into major electoral gains, was attenuated by the Republican Party’s continuing adoption of nativism and crude populism, of xenophobia, of the crudest forms of racism and exclusivism. But it was not always thus; there were good reasons to imagine the immigrant was a  was a possible Republican and conservative mark.

In my essay, I argue that the immigrant imagination, tinged as it is with a hint of the romantic, bears some explanatory responsibility for this political predilection. In particular, by examining recent descriptions of conservative intellectuals–ranging from Edmund Burke to William Buckley Jr.– as a species of romantic reactionaries, and comparing them to immigrant self-descriptions of their migratory journeys of arrival and accomplishment, I claim that the immigrant and the conservative are united by a species of self-conception that views them as outsiders subverting and eventually mastering–in their highly individual and particular ways–a dominant system. Like the conservative, the immigrant too, sometimes finds himself suggesting ‘the ladder be pulled up,’ now that he is aboard. The immigrant is in sympathy with a conservative vision then, because romantically, like the conservative, he sees himself as an outsider who has ‘made it.’

I will explore this claim–via an autobiographical perspective–in the American context, thus illuminating the ways in which so-called ‘model minorities’ have conceived of their place in the American nation. The reflexively conservative standpoint I adopted when I was a brand-new migrant to the US should help explain why immigrants have not always been successful in building multi-racial alliances with African-Americans, and thus, why American anti-racism politics remains handicapped by a lack of solidarity between its demographic components. They suggest the Republican Party could further find in its electoral toolbox a rhetorical appeal to divide the current anti-Republican coalition by attacking one of its most vulnerable points.

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.

Graham Greene on Happiness

In a post last year on the subject of happiness, I had cited Freud and Burke–the founders of psychoanalysis and political conservatism, respectively. Their views of happiness spoke of the seemingly necessarily transitory nature of the sensation we term happiness–Freud even enlists Goethe to help make this claim–that happiness was marked by brief, fleeting intensity, by its ‘novelty and contrast’.

Today, for a slightly different perspective, I’m going to enlist Graham Greene, a member of that class of humans with perhaps exceptional insight into the human condition, the novelist. Greene always was, in his autobiographical writing, very frank about his depression, psychoanalytic treatments, and the influence these had on his writing and in the case of psychoanalysis, his understanding of the supposed relationship of the unconscious to creativity; his views on happiness should be of interest here.

During the course of a series of interviews conducted by Marie Françoise-Allan, Greene, in speaking of his childhood says:

[H]appiness is repetitious, while pain is marked by crises that which sear the memory. Happiness survives only in the odd incident. Being happy is almost like making love: One attains a state of blissful ‘nothing’–one does not remember, one remembers only happiness, a state of contentment.

This is quite a mixed bag. First, happiness is described as ‘repetitious’–perhaps it is a mental state which recurs or is more temporally extended than pain, which is described in terms similar to the ones that Freud and Burke used to describe happiness. Here, Greene seems to suggest that happiness is a mental state with continuity, one which acquires its distinctive quality because of its ‘sameness’, its invariance. But then, happiness is described as surviving only in ‘the odd incident’, a return to the episodic state described by Freud and Burke. And lastly happiness is compared to the orgiastic pleasures of ‘making love’, a ‘blissful nothing’ which is perhaps supposed to be like the Buddhist nirvana, but with very few particular features to it, so much so that the subject remembers no details but just the sensation (or lack of it). Happiness is now analogized to a ‘petite mort‘ a little dying, a little flirtation with a state of nothingness. (It should be clear that in these descriptions Greene is taking the side of the philosophical inquiry into happiness that suggests it is a psychological term like ‘melancholia’ as opposed to that which would consider it a ‘value term, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing’ (Dan Haybron, Stanford Encyclopedia, ‘Happiness‘).)

This does not amount to very coherent view of happiness. Perhaps it is because of Greene is answering a series of questions about the happiness of childhood, and so his memories of that time have suffered the attrition of memory. Indeed, his interlocutor makes a great deal of this loss of memory in this session, remarking on how Greene’s childhood does not play a particularly prominent role in his autobiographies. And Greene’s quickness in ending his answer with a brief ‘We were happy’ also seems to suggest a desire to move on, almost as if the memories of that happiness were too painful to bear. So Greene might have unwittingly left us with at least one more possible facet of this ever elusive phenomenon: happiness might be that sensation, which when remembered later, produces a state distinctly unlike it, a mixture of regret, melancholia, and the fear that that sensation will not be experienced again.

Excerpt from: Marie Françoise-Allan, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983.

Studying Political Philosophy via Revolutions (Well, Three of Them)

Today, I’m going to think out loud about the syllabus I’m designing for the coming fall semester’s seminar on Political Philosophy. (I’m conducting this rumination in a public forum in the hope of helping me finalize this pesky business; please do chime in with suggestions, critiques, bouquets, brickbats etc.) My class will meet twice a week–two hundred-minute classroom sessions–count for four credits, and is roughly re-describable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’ (This would clear things up considerably were it not for the fact that our department also offers Social Philosophy, which I’m told, is also redescribable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’)

In the fall, I plan to center my class’ discussions and readings on political revolutions; to use the French, American and Haitian Revolutions to introduce and illustrate  many central questions of political philosophy: the nature of political power and the state, political resistance, the rights of citizens, the nature of citizenship, the legitimacy of legal regimes, the varieties of political unions, the nature of conservatism etc. The readings then, should be a mix of contemporary polemics and retrospective evaluation.

For the French Revolution, we’ll begin with SieyesWhat is the Third Estate, then read Edmund Burke‘s classic, Reflections on The Revolution in France, followed by some yet-to-settled-on excerpts from Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution and Tocqueville‘s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, and close with Maistre‘s Considerations on France. I will probably include: some material by Robespierre and William Doyle’s A Very Short History (to start things off).

For the American Revolution, we will probably begin with excerpts from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters before reading Thomas Paine‘s The Rights of Man and Common Sense. (A new Verso edition that collects these two looks promising.) Then we’ll read some of The Federalist Papers. The current list includes 1-3, 9-10, 14-15; time permitting: 22-23, 26-27, 37, 39, 47-48; and then 84, 78, 70, 39, 51.

Having read a bit about the French and American Revolutions, we will read Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution before moving on to the Haitian Revolution. As historical background, we’ll read CLR JamesBlack Jacobins. (I’m also considering Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World.) For theoretical assessments, we’ll read excerpts from Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation (I’m inclined to think the Nesbitt’s writing is likely to present a challenge to many of my students) and Susan Buck-MorssHegel and Haiti. (I’ve just been pointed to Aristide’s edited collection of Toussaint L’ouverture‘s writings, collected in The Haitian Revolution (Verso) and will probably include selections from there.)

So: This isn’t a perfect syllabus by any means. There is possibly too much reading–but I had to leave so much out!–and too little balance. But I think it does well in providing a historically situated debate on most of the central questions of political philosophy. The writing is accessible; indeed, there are a few stylists in there (Burke,Paine, the Federalist Papers etc) so the reading assignments should be quite enjoyable. Most of the pieces are provocative with a few that have real polemical bite.

It should make for an entertaining fourteen weeks.

Edmund Burke on Pakistan and the Loyalty of Armies to the State

Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Schrötter said of the Prussian Army during the reign of Frederick the Great that ‘Prussia was not a country with an army, but an army with a country.’  Schrötter made this remark in response to the size of the Prussian Army–which then numbered almost 200,000, a puny number, incidentally, compared to the size of twentieth-century and contemporary armies–and its utilization of all Prussian social classes. This quote is quite easily pressed into service when it comes to describing Pakistan, which of all nations in modern times perhaps best meets this description: Army generals in charge of central administration more often than not, a gigantic portion of its budget given over to defense expenditures, the subordination of all democratic institutions to military control, the hijacking of clearly visible, articulated, and pragmatic national priorities by the need to ensure a continued dominant role for the armed forces; the list goes on. (Nowhere is the power and influence of the armed forces in Pakistan more visible than in the cushy retirements that Pakistani senior military personnel enjoy. I recently read the autobiography of a Pakistani Air Force senior commander that begins with him recounting the precise moment when he decided to start writing his memoirs; this inspiration occurred to him at his post-retirement villa in Spain.)

In preparing my syllabus for my Political Philosophy in the fall semester–which I have organized around the theme of ‘Revolution, Counter-Revolution’–I am revisiting Edmund Burke‘s Reflections on the Revolution in France. As I read through it, I was reminded of, and encountered, a passage that while normally regarded as being eerily prescient of the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, could well be pressed into service when it comes to talking about Pakistan:

It is known that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men if they see with perfect submission and due admiration the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders, whose military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have any), must be as uncertain as their duration is transient. In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full off action until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master — the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.

Note: I am well aware that almost any country with a sufficiently well-developed military industrial complex would meet the description I afford of Pakistan in the first para above. Pakistan distinguished itself by the persistence of military commanders in active positions of political leadership.

Freud, Goethe and Burke on Happiness, Pleasure, and Satiation

Defining ‘happiness’ is hard; how are we to know what to do to be happy, if we don’t have a good handle on what happiness is? And thus, the persistent efforts through the ages, of philosophical minds–and more recently, grimly determined social scientists and psychologists alike–to provide some delineation of the concept. (Even David Brooks thinks he has something to contribute to this discussion and thus, often deigns to provide–from his Op-Ed perch–disquisitions on moral psychology.)

One recurring suspicion has been that happiness might not be all it’s cracked up to be; that happiness may only be transient, not a sustainable state, that to seek recurrence of a pleasurable state might be to commit oneself to a foolishly deluded pursuit of rapidly diminishing value, that satiation is likely to result all too soon on the attainment of a pleasurable state, leaving one again, discontent and unhappy. (The phenomenon, noted by many over the years, of how seeking the re-creation of a pleasurable event like a particularly successful vacation or family reunion, never, ever works, is related to this suspicion as are the drug addict’s vain attempts to re-experience the first really great high.)

At the heart of this suspicion is the notion that novelty and contrast play too great a role in our understanding of happiness and pleasure. This has often been articulated, and quite well too.

For instance, in that masterpiece of modern pessimism, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud notes in Chapter II,

What is called happiness in its narrowest sense comes from the satisfaction——most often instantaneous——of pent-up needs  which have reached great intensity, and by its very nature can only be a transitory experience. When any condition desired by the pleasure-principle is protracted [link added], it results in a feeling only of mild comfort; we are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, much less intensely states in themselves. [footnote 8]

Footnote 8 reads:

Goethe even warns us that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days. ““ [Freud then adds: ‘This may be an exaggeration all the same.’]

And of course, Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, in ‘The Difference Between Pain and Pleasure’ famously noted,

[I]t is very evident that pleasure, when it has run its career, sets us down very nearly where it found us. Pleasure of every kind quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference

So there is resonance, when it comes to talking about happiness and pleasure, between ambitious psychoanalytic speculation which references the insight of the poet–always great diagnosers of the human condition–and philosophical attempts to analyze aesthetic sensibility. (These suggestions show too, that nothing is quite as much a downer as talking about happiness.)

More seriously, what lends these commentaries their particular gravity is that securing novelty and contrast is hard work, requiring constant reinvention, at the end of which awaits, not a serenely quiescent state, but further disappointment. Thus too, the particularly irony of the pursuit of happiness: it marks the beginning of a journey, which is always a return to the state which prompted its commencement.