A Longstanding Suspicion of Tradition, A History Boy, 16/03/2014

When I was a kid, I used to love analyzing and watching elections. I was a huge nerd. I think we can accept this by now, if you’re a regular reader. The same intensity my friend @Philosojaysfan* can develop about baseball, I develop about poll results, electoral support, political positioning, the growth of funding chests, and lobbyist jockeying. And during my period of empty teenage rebellion, I identified as a centre-right liberal, mostly just to piss off my mom because I was 16. Nobody makes smart decisions when they’re 16.

* Yes, that is his Twitter feed. Why do you look so incredulous? He’s a philosopher and Blue Jays fan. He becomes his portmanteau. 

In the mid-2000s, it felt as if a cabal of insane people have taken over
the White House. And despite the size of this protest, people like them
and me were in the minority, because Bush and Cheney were re-elected.
But once I got to university, I began to question my longstanding political beliefs of being generally okay with the status quo. I think the fact that the World Trade Centre was destroyed on my fifth day of university was a pretty significant factor in this. One thing I noticed when I began teaching people ten years younger than I was, was that I had to explain just how messed up the North American continent became in the first few years of the decade. Exactly the wrong people were in charge of the United States at a moment of hideous national trauma that caused political repercussions around the world. I had to explain to students who were children when the USA toppled Saddam Hussein that even just expressing doubt in the country’s leaders or their reasons for going to war in Iraq was enough to label you a traitor. It wasn’t so bad here in Canada, but the social heat of paranoia was oppressively present. 

Living in that kind of atmosphere, even just as an intelligent observer, growing up far from the heat of the political action, it was enough to make me doubt that our political system had no serious problems. Because I had a philosopher’s attitude, my doubts even extended to the very fundamentals. In my late teens and early 20s, I saw massive armies mobilized to invade countries for what turned out to be hazy purposes. It doesn’t even measure up to the ideas of my friends who thought it was “all about oil.” For all the conspiracist thinking at the time, nothing about the international oil market changed that dramatically once Saddam was deposed and international sanctions lifted. The development of natural gas fracking in the United States and all the associated ecological problems turned out to be the more critical issue of fuel resources of this century so far.

But in my personal case, what emerged from this crazy time was doubt in the political systems we lived under, which could allow such a thing to happen. When you’ve seen a country invaded by a foreign power and plunged into a civil war in the name of human rights, you’d have skeptical feelings about the underlying philosophies. What’s missing from that concept that allows it to be perverted this way?

So you can’t blame me for being more intrigued by philosophies whose political implications were very different, or whose underlying concepts provided a very different set of priorities. Reading John Rawls, the philosopher who, more than any other individual, set the standards and frameworks for modern North American political philosophy, I found underwhelming and boring at best. I never saw his work as challenging or pushing forward the political concepts and ideals of our societies, only as reinforcing those ideals or critiquing their poor implementation. I felt this way about a lot of the political philosophy that centred on rights, states, and governance. I was drawn more to political philosophies (or broader philosophies with political implications) that approached human and planetary welfare from different perspectives.

So as I researched environmental political philosophy, I learned that for an epochally important problem of our age, talk of rights was largely inadequate to the problem, only doubling down on the conflicts of human growth and satisfaction with ecosystemic health. As I learned more about globalized economics and capital flows that dwarfed the power of most states to control them, political concepts of human rights and state governance were simply inadequate to confront these problems practically. As I learned more about the long-term economic and social injustices that were inherited from the colonial and imperialist era, philosophies that never confronted this historical legacy were just inadequate to understanding a multipolar world. 

Since I was young, I've been most drawn to thinkers like
Félix Guattari, whose work destabilizes faith in what too
many of us have come to take for granted.
Thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, Antonio Negri, and Frantz Fanon seemed better equipped to handle the political problems of the 21st century simply because they were experimenting with new vocabularies to deal with new problems. Meanwhile, I saw discussions in post-Rawls political philosophy focussing on individual rights, property rights, and the social contract. And I saw discussions in post-Hart legal theory focussing on the same, while also arguing over which justification of obedience to the state was correct (when they should have been questioning whether it was ultimately right to subject yourself to state authority at all). 

So I learned enough of these pivotal figures in North American and English political philosophy to be able to teach them. If I’m given a month or so’s warning, I can go through the central texts of these figures like H. L. A. Hart, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick, design lectures and assignment questions, and adequately teach mid-level undergraduate courses on their works and ideas. I have the same (if not better) facility with the classics, like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Niccolo Machiavelli.** I am a professional, and I act like one.

** Although as I prepare my ideas and outlines for the Utopias project, the ideas of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are becoming central touchstones in the tradition from which I can draw ideas. 

So while I acknowledge that a lot of valuable work goes on in the discussions that developed in the revival of liberal and rights-based political philosophy, I don’t find them the most adequate philosophies for the serious problems we face today. Our age needs a new vocabulary, and I wanted to specialize for my research in the tradition that I see producing that new vocabulary, or which at least as the most potential for it. The conceptually radical traditions with central figures like Deleuze, Fanon, and Aldo Leopold are the traditions I don’t just want to teach, but to which I want to contribute.

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