Monthly Archives: December 2016

Politics and Critical Philosophy

I am realizing more and more that my interest in politics is fueled by a question which is not discussed in the media or is much in the public consciousness. And that is the question: What is the relation between politics and critical philosophy?

By “critical philosophy” I mean 19th and 20th thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey, Foucault and so on (a motley crew, no doubt) who were critical of modern, Enlightenment philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries (I am avoiding “post-modern,” since it means so many different things at this point).

Modern philosophy is tied together with achievements such as the rise of democracy, modern science, capitalism and secularism. Thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant were philosophers who created conceptual frameworks to make sense of, strengthen and defend these achievements. And yet, as the critical philosophers suggested, there are deep problems and internal tensions within the conceptual frameworks of modern philosophy.

The question then is: Can the achievements of modernity such as democracy and secularism survive whatever flaws there are within the frameworks of modern philosophy? If so, how?

The clearest example in the 20th century of connecting critical philosophy to politics is communism. Marx’s argument was that it is not possible to retain capitalism once the alienated conceptions of freedom and individuality inherent in modern philosophy were discarded – that true freedom required that workers overthrow the capitalist system. In the Russian and Chinese revolutions, as these ideas were being implemented, it seemed that democracy and secularism as well would have to be discarded.

The most notorious example of an individual philosopher in the 20th century trying to connect critical philosophy to politics is Heidegger. His affiliation with Nazism, and his antisemitism, became inseparable for Heidegger from his philosophy, and from the sense that Western society had to break from, as he saw it, the technological and individualized alienation of modernity. Though many Heidegger scholars have worked hard to separate Heidegger’s philosophy from his Nazism (and I think a good deal of what is great in Heidegger’s thought can be conceptually separated from Nazism), nonetheless it cannot be denied that the coming together of politics and critical philosophy was what gave Heidegger himself a messianic feeling. And he falsely assumed that the Nazis would share such a feeling and treat Heidegger as its main philosophical voice. He failed to take into account that the Nazis could be satisfied with a much cruder version of critical philosophy, one which treated only Hitler as the main prophet.

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Rock n roll is the soundtrack of the 60s. The revolution fueled by free spirited musicians breaking free of their past, of the stodgy old 50s, and standing up for a new world of peace and solidarity. Bob Dylan. The Doors. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. “I can’t get no satisfaction”. A generation of young whites turning against their parents to support the new world of racial equality.

That, at any rate, is one way to look at it. The way that has been reified in our cultural consciousness.

Another way to look at it – which doesn’t displace the first way, but is its less glamorous, more psychologically inevitable side – is in terms of the excesses of rock n roll: the parties, the drugs, the wanton womanizing, the getting rich. The trashing of the hotels. It is surely a strange way to help create an equal society by throwing millions upon millions of dollars down the drain into parties, fancy rock n roll planes, into repairing whole hotel floors destroyed by white youth acting out in the name of equality. What was all that about?

It was an example of “minoritization”: the affirming of oneself as a minority, so that one can live one’s life as one wants free of the stigma of supporting oppression.

It was not simply white people supporting blacks, and with the focus mainly on blacks, so that blacks can attain equality. It was the white youth discovering themselves as a minority, as an oppressed group, held back and controlled by “the system”. It was working class, young males (doubly a minority!), who just happen to be white (but which doesn’t matter because they are minorities) discovering their liberation, their path out of oppression. So it’s fine if they waste millions of dollars on drugs and alcohol, and partying – while millions of people are starving or are going to prison out of civil disobedience – or if they buy fancy mansions or castles (as in the case of the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Elvis), and live like royalty, because they are themselves minorities really – part of the change of the status quo, of the people from the bottom getting to the top.

The point isn’t that Jim Morrison or John Lennon or Bob Dylan (all musicians I love) aren’t minorities, and that rock and roll was simply a way for white people to keep control of the society by coopting the revolution. That really they were part of the oppressors, who fooled themselves or others into thinking they are part of the oppressed. No, this isn’t it. The situation is more interesting and subtle.

What the rise of rock n roll shows is the explosion in the concept of a minority – of the myriad ways in which one could be a minority. One can be white, and male, and heterosexual, and yet still take on the mantle of being a minority – say, if you come from a working class background, or if you are young and feel oppressed by tradition. Or if you simply identify with a new medium such as rock n roll itself, as opposed to the traditional mediums of classical music or Broadway. One doesn’t have to a black or a woman or gay to be a minority. One just has to identify with an identity which is, in some important way, not the status quo, and which is therefore not represented as much in the public domain of “the cultured and the elite.”

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Freedom of the Whole Human Race

I am absolutely convinced that God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men. But God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers and every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. – Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”, 1960.

How true these words are! And how they have been forgotten in the past 50 years!

The spiritual and moral center of MLK’s vision is the idea inherent in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic: that true freedom of two people only comes from their mutual self-recognition of each other as equals. That when there is a master and a slave, the master is also thwarted in their humanity, and that the slave’s recognition of this fact, and the resulting sympathy towards the master, is crucial for the slave’s own growth to full self-consciousness.

Contrast this with a much more simple-minded, and morally less robust, image of overcoming the master-slave relation: where the slave becomes an equal to the master by getting what the master has. On this picture, equality is a matter simply of material redistribution: the master is seen to have all the things of a flourishing life, and the slave becomes an equal by getting those things as well. Call this the redistribution model of equality.

Not surprisingly, violence ends up playing a big role in the redistribution model. For surely the master resists giving up the inequality which he sees as natural, and so the inequality has to be taken from his hands, and the equality created by force.

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Ideal of Inclusivity

What does it mean for America as a society to be inclusive?

One answer, embraced by liberals, is something like the following: “In America there are the privileged and the underprivileged, which maps onto those who have power and minorities who are marginalized. For America to be inclusive means for this imbalance to be shifted, so that power is distributed more equally.”

If we look at the civil rights movement, or the women’s movement and so on, they seem like the main example of what distributing power means, and what it means for America to become more inclusive.

There is, however, one big problem with this understanding of inclusivity: it treats it as obvious who the minorities and the majority are. Normally, for liberals, the majority is seen as whites, specially white, middle class, heterosexual males, and minorities are people who don’t fit that category.

But what happens if everybody in America in some sense or another thinks, and can think, of themselves as a minority, as marginalized, as fighting the status quo? Then the picture of inclusivity as the minorities getting what the majority already has starts to break down.

This is our current situation.

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Cosmopolitan Racism

The below is also posted at Daily Nous.

Trump, like many of his supporters, vehemently denies he is a racist. He says he loves African-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese – and more, that they love him. If Trump and I were to interact one on one, I don’t get the feeling he would think he is better than me because he is white and I am brown. He seems too cosmopolitan for such explicit racism.

And yet the night of the election and in the following days, I felt a pit of fear in my stomach. That though I am an American citizen, that somehow I am a second class citizen. That I am welcome in America, as long as I know my place. I felt it during Trump’s campaign a well: a pervasive, subtle, and yet not so subtle, aura of whiteness around him, his family and his staff, which seemed to say, “This is what America really looks like.”

How can I think Trump is too cosmopolitan to be an old fashioned racist and yet worry about minorities in a Trump presidency? If Trump is cosmopolitan, shouldn’t that be enough for me to feel safe during his presidency? Not quite.

For Trump is a cosmopolitan racist. He is cosmopolitan in that he thinks people of all races can live together. But he thinks that cosmopolitanism is the discovery of white people. That it is the white culture of Christianity, European advancements and the Founding Fathers of America which enables all races to live together. On this view, cosmopolitanism in America requires preserving white culture as the essence of America.

Seen from this angle, Trump is actually much more aligned with the dominant norms of academic philosophy in America than with the KKK. The KKK is old-fashioned, non-cosmopolitan, segregationist racism. Trump is too integrated into global capitalism to favor such segregation. What Trump wants is to preserve white culture as uniquely qualified for enabling racial integration – that America can be colorful as long as at its core its culture is white.

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