Defeating Trump takes precedence over everything

by Emrys Westacott

America is a truck rolling down a hill towards a cliff. The downhill slope is the erosion of democratic norms; the cliff is the point where anti-democratic forces become powerful enough to crush democratic opposition by authoritarian means. The re-election of Donald Trump would very likely see the country sail over that cliff.

In this situation, anyone who believes that it would be a good thing to preserve what remains of American democracy and, if possible, to strengthen it and extend it so as to better realize the nation’s professed ideals, should want to see Trump and his Republican enablers in Congress soundly defeated. So anyone who has a vote should use it accordingly. Each such vote is a hand on the wheel trying to steer the truck away from disaster. To vote for Trump is to help push the truck over the cliff. To refuse to vote for Joe Biden (the presumptive Democratic candidate), especially in swing states, is effectively to stand by and watch as disaster threatens.

I understand the frustration progressive-minded people feel with a candidate like Biden. I feel it too. Once again, as so many times before, we are asked to vote for an establishment politician whose record does not indicate any deep commitment to really challenging the status quo, because the alternative is so much worse. There are only two arguments to support withholding one’s vote; but both of them are bad. Read more »

The Democratic Virtues of Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Skepticism is the view that knowledge is unattainable. It comes in varying strengths. In the strongest version, it is a thesis about all knowledge, the global denial that anyone has ever known anything. More commonly, though, skepticism is constrained. It is the denial of the possibility of knowledge of some specific kind. Moral skepticism, for example, is the view that there is no such thing as knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad. External world skepticism is the thesis that there could be no knowledge with respect to matters outside of one’s mind. You get the idea.

When you think about it, we’re all skeptics in at least some of these constrained senses. You’re likely a skeptic with respect to some kind of purported knowledge or other. And most folks think that being skeptical is a healthy attitude to have when people make striking claims. Still, skepticism gets a bad rap among philosophers. So much so that entire intellectual programs have been devised solely for the purpose of defeating the skeptic.

Yet there’s a virtue to skepticism, at least in its ancient varieties. And this virtue is both crucial to a healthy democracy and presently under attack in our politics.

The insight of the ancient skeptical tradition, exemplified in both the Academic and Pyrrhonian schools, is that intellectual humility is a virtue. It is not a weakness to admit you do not know, that you don’t have the answers. In fact, with this humility and the skills of inculcating it, we not only have the ability to cut through the bullshit of others, but also our own bullshit. Read more »

Democracy Can’t be Fixed

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Democracy is a precious social good. Not only is it necessary for legitimate government, in its absence other crucial social goods – liberty, autonomy, individuality, community, and the like – tend to spoil. It is often inferred from this that a perfectly realized democracy would be utopia, a fully just society of self-governing equals working together for their common good. The flip side of this idea is familiar: the political flaws of a society are ultimately due to its falling short of democracy. The thought runs that as democracy is necessary for securing the other most important social goods, any shortfall in the latter must be due to a deviation from the former. This is what led two of the most influential theorists of democracy of the past century, Jane Addams and John Dewey, to hold that the cure for democracy’s ill is always more and better democracy.

The Addams/Dewey view is committed to the further claim that democracy is an ideal that can be approximated, but never achieved. This addition reminds us that the utopia of a fully realized democracy is forever beyond our reach, an ongoing project of striving to more perfectly democratize our individual and collective lives.

This view is certainly attractive. Trouble lies, however, in making the democratic ideal concrete enough to serve as a guide to real-world politics without thereby deflating it of its ennobling character. Typically, as the ideal is made more explicit, one finds that it presumes capacities that go far beyond the capabilities of ordinary citizens. It turns out that democracy isn’t only out of our reach, it’s also not for us. Read more »

Was Socrates Anti-Democratic?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

When people talk about Socrates, they typically refer to the leading character in Plato’s dialogues. This is because little is known about the historical Socrates beyond the fact that he wandered barefoot around Athens asking questions, an activity that got him executed for religious invention and corrupting the youth in 399 BCE. The relation between the historical figure and the Platonic character is debatable. In any case, Plato’s Socrates is most commonly read as a staunch anti-democrat. However, once one distinguishes between being opposed to democracy from theorizing the ways democratic society can fail, the relationship between Socrates and democracy grows more complicated.

The depiction of Socrates as an anti-democrat draws largely from the scathing critique he launches in Plato’s masterpiece, The Republic. There, Socrates famously characterizes democracy as the rule of the unwise, corrupt mob. Like children loose in a candy store, the democratic herd pursues pleasure only, rewarding sweet-talkers and flatterers with the power of political office, who in turn exploit politics for their own gratification. The result is injustice. Accordingly, Socrates says, democracy ultimately dissolves into tyranny — a population of citizens dominated by their basest desires, and an opportunistic ruler that manipulates them for personal gain.

Socrates’ critique of democracy is formidable. Notice, however, that Socrates is laying out a vulnerability inherent within democratic politics that no advocate of democracy can afford to ignore. In fact, the tradition of democratic theory is largely focused on identifying ways in which this vulnerability can be mitigated. And popular discussions today about disinformation, corruption, and incivility tend to concede much of Socrates’ case. The point is that giving voice to a standing weakness of democracy does not by itself make one an anti-democrat. One might argue that a crucial part of democratic advocacy is to engage in criticism of extant democratic practice.

Yet in The Republic, Socrates also lays out a vision of the perfect city, the kallipolis, and it is decidedly undemocratic. Kallipolis is an absolute kingship where philosophers rule over a strictly stratified society in which everything is exactingly regulated, from education, production, and conquest to art, diet, sex, and parenting. According to the standard line, that Socrates proposes the kallipolis as the paradigm of justice entails that he is an anti-democrat. Read more »

If you believe Western Civilization is oppressive, you will ensure it is oppressive

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

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Philosopher John Locke's spirited defense of the natural rights of man should apply to all men and women, not just one's favorite factions.

When the British left India in 1947, they left a complicated legacy behind. On one hand, Indians had suffered tremendously under oppressive British rule for more than 250 years. On the other hand, India was fortunate to have been ruled by the British rather than the Germans, Spanish or Japanese. The British, with all their flaws, did not resort to putting large numbers of people in concentration camps or regularly subjecting them to the Inquisition. Their behavior in India had scant similarities with the behavior of the Germans in Namibia or the Japanese in Manchuria.

More importantly, while they were crisscrossing the world with their imperial ambitions, the British were also steeping the world in their long history of the English language, of science and the Industrial Revolution and of parliamentary democracy. When they left India, they left this legacy behind. The wise leaders of India who led the Indian freedom struggle – men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar – understood well the important role that all things British had played in the world, even as they agitated and went to jail to free themselves of British rule. Many of them were educated at Western universities like London, Cambridge and Columbia. They hated British colonialism, but they did not hate the British; once the former rulers left they preserved many aspects of their legacy, including the civil service, the great network of railways spread across the subcontinent and the English language. They incorporated British thought and values in their constitution, in their educational institutions, in their research laboratories and in their government services. Imagine what India would have been like today had Nehru and Ambedkar dismantled the civil service, banned the English language, gone back to using bullock cart and refused to adopt a system of participatory democracy, simply because all these things were British in origin.

The leaders of newly independent India thus had the immense good sense to separate the oppressor and his instruments of oppression from his enlightened side, to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nor was an appreciation of Western values limited to India by any means. In the early days, when the United States had not yet embarked on its foolish, paranoid misadventures in Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh looked toward the American Declaration of Independence as a blueprint for a free Vietnam. At the end of World War 1 he held the United States in great regard and tried to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference. It was only when he realized that the Americans would join forces with the occupying French in keeping Vietnam an occupied colonial nation did Ho Chi Minh's views about the U.S. rightly sour. In other places in Southeast Asia and Africa too the formerly oppressed preserved many remnants of the oppressor's culture.

Yet today I see many, ironically in the West, not understanding the wisdom which these leaders in the East understood very well. The values bequeathed by Britain which India upheld were part of the values which the Enlightenment bequeathed to the world. These values in turn went back to key elements of Western Civilization, including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, French, German and Dutch. And simply put, Enlightenment values and Western Civilization are today under attack, in many ways from those who claim to stand by them. Both left and right are trampling on them in ways that are misleading and dangerous. They threaten to undermine centuries worth of progress.

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A Belated Reply to Plato

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Plato

Plato is among the most famous critics of democracy. His criticism is relatively simple, but potentially devastating. It runs as follows. Politics aims at achieving justice, and so political policy must reflect the demands of justice. Only those who know what justice is and have the self-control to enact what justice requires are capable of doing politics properly. Alas, the average citizen is dumb and vicious. Hence Plato's conclusion is that democracy is a fundamentally corrupt form of politics; it is the rule of those who neither know nor care about justice. In The Republic, Plato's Socrates argues for a philosophical monarchy, the rule of the wise and virtuous.

Citizens of modern democracies naturally tend to recoil at Plato's argument, and his positive proposal that philosophers should rule is often met with understandable ridicule. And yet Plato's crucial premise that the average citizen is too dumb and undisciplined for democracy is widely embraced, especially among those who find themselves on the losing side of a democratic vote. For one example, consider a common reaction among social and fiscal conservatives to Barack Obama's re-election in 2012; it was routinely claimed that the People had been “duped” and “mislead.” Furthermore, it seems that a second crucial Platonic premise – namely that a proper political order must place those who have knowledge and integrity in charge – is also widely endorsed. Consider here the popular criticisms of President Bush that fix upon his alleged lack of intelligence.

So we must ask: Could Plato be right?

We should begin by noting that many philosophers, including us, hold that democratic citizens ought to take seriously Plato's criticisms. There is nothing anti-democratic about earnestly confronting democracy's critics, and arguably there's something on the order of an imperative to engage with democracy's smartest detractors. As John Stuart Mill once argued, “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”

Now, there are several responses to Plato, and we'd like to survey a few popular rejoinders before sketching our own. First, one may respond to Plato by denying that politics has anything at all to do with ideals so lofty as wisdom and justice. Politics, the response continues, is not about discerning truths, but producing stable government. And stability is not a matter of getting things right, but getting things done in ways that prevent revolution, and that's what a democracy accomplishes.

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Being Like America

by Gautam Pemmaraju

On a recent television panel discussion show, the BJP leader and senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, in response to how the nation should respond to periodic terrorist attacks, said, unsurprisingly: “why can't we be like America?”. He also said that India should “stop comparing ourselves to Pakistan” in terms of terror attacks, for Pakistan, “is a failed state”. Again, this too is unsurprising. His comments followed those of film actor/activist and former Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi, who, pointing to the fact that ‘not a single’ terror attack has taken place on American soil since 9-11, said “America dikha diya ke nahin?” or “hasn’t America shown the way?” Writer/Journalist Naresh Fernandes, also on the panel, in response to Mahesh Jethmalani, was quick to point out the obvious – America was “deeply embedded in two wars”, had perpetrated countless violations of civil rights, infringed/abridged speech unlawfully, tortured innocents, espoused dangerously divisive rhetoric, flagrantly contravened international law, amongst many other profoundly problematic transgressions in their response to 9-11.

Mumbai_blasts_mumbaikars While it is clear that both Azmi and Jethmalani were referring to securing India’s safety and escalating vigilance, the pointed invocation of America presents an opportunity to discursively examine how the desire to ‘be like America’ is imagined and expressed. It is mostly a desire for parity, which is increasingly evident in many aspects of public life and discourse, and runs alongside a disregard of regional aspirations of neighbouring nations, particularly Pakistan’s. Beleaguered as Pakistan may be in several ways, competitive nationalism comes into play, on both sides, and India to many, has the upper hand presently. While we have ‘arrived’ and are ‘poised’ for greater things, they, the popular narrative runs, have ‘failed’. The disregard is not exclusively reserved for our neighbours, but is also generously cast inward upon our own laws, the common people at large, and in specific on minorities, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginal. Consumerist desires aside, what seem further entrenched are disturbing predatory practices in many aspects of socio-economic activity, particularly in areas where government regulation is critical. Be it rural/tribal land acquisition, health, education, food production, housing, water resources, we see today not just highly questionable activities, but downright criminal ones as well.

So what does it mean for India to ‘be like America’ – semiotically charged as the phrase is? Should we ‘be like America’? Are there positive lessons to be learnt, portents and cautions that need be judiciously considered, institutions, ideas and processes that may be adopted? Or is it to be an unfalteringly foot-stomping ahead on to being a ‘superpower’?

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An Open Letter to the National Punditry

Dear Esteemed Pundits of America,

Beck Chalkboard The 2010 mid-term elections are behind us, and all the post-mortem analyses of the races are complete. Yet the 24/7 news cycle, and the corresponding demand for your incisive commentary, will not abate. So, what next? Will you turn your attention to the Congress and examine the ways in which the new House leadership clashes with President Obama? Will you look ahead to 2012 and offer odds on who will be the Republican nominee and how likely he or she is to defeat Obama? Will you continue to discuss the Tea Party in your ongoing attempt to discern who they are, what they want, and whether they matter? Will you investigate the gradual implementation of our healthcare bill and monitor the inevitable dissolution of DADT? Will you be able to sustain your interest in our increasingly quixotic military adventures? Or will you take up a cause you regard as underappreciated among the American people? These are all arguably worth your consideration. But we have a better idea: Resign from your job in broadcasting and run for public office.

We admit that this is a bold suggestion. Perhaps it has never occurred to you to seek political office. But consider how this course of action is required in light of the things you say and how you understand yourselves.

You take yourselves to be public figures committed to keeping the American government in check and on the right track. You offer daily commentary on national politics as a crucial contribution American democracy. You do not merely report the day’s news; indeed, many of you claim that you are not reporters at all. Rather, you claim to be commentators on the news, and you draw a sharp conceptual divide between yourselves and “the mainstream media.” We understand that you must insist on this distinction, for you take one of your central tasks to be that of exposing the media’s biases, distortions, and blind-spots. You understand your job to be that of helping the American citizenry to strip away propaganda, double-talk, and spin. You present the facts, and then you help the American people to understand what they mean. We’re thankful.

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