Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

2012 & The Prospect For Liberty

Posted: November 26, 2012 in Philosophy

Certainly, the outcome of this month’s presidential election does not suggest good things for American liberty in the coming years. Personally however, I did not share the frustration and disappointment of many of my Republican friends. From all evidence gathered by both of his campaigns for president and his record as Governor of Massachusetts, I am certain that Mitt Romney would be no more a Libertarian president than Obama has been. In fact, I think that an argument could be made that a Romney administration would perhaps have more potential to halt the intellectual momentum that Libertarians have enjoyed in recent years.

Even still, to watch the piercing disappointment of Republicans has been quite sad for me. In the past few weeks a narrative of explanations for the election’s outcome has arisen. Amongst Conservatives, it has been suggested that Romney lost due to the lack of “gifts” and entitlements that were offered to voters. On Fox News, we hear that the “Death of Traditional America” has been landmarked and bypassed, and that the election in fact signified a dramatic ideological shift among all American voters. (Just as it had in 2004 and 2010.) Other opinions have been offered elsewhere, with explanations ranging from their approach to courting Latino voters to the typical nonsensicle “the GOP’s extremist wing lost the election” narrative.

Having divorced myself from mainstream political narratives a long time ago, I am neither suprised by these explanations, nor was I suprised that Romney lost. Practically speaking, Romney was a terrible candidate. Since observing Romey’s campaign in 2008 and the years following, I have never observed another political figure with Romney’s ability to disconnect from voters and to even inspire contempt from them. Although he has improved through the years, an improved terrible candidate is still a terrible candidate.

None of the reasons listed above sufficently explain the GOP’s abysmal bid for the presidency in this campaign. As the self described “conservative” political party in America, the history and philosophy of politics pits itself against the GOP in every election. In his essay, “Egalitarianism As A Revolt Against Nature”, Murray Rothbard argues that those vowing to “stand athwart history” are always fated to long term failure. Rothbard writes, “For well over a century, the Left has generally been conceded to have morality, justice, and “idealism” on its side; the Conservative opposition to the Left has largely been confined to the “impracticality” of its ideals”, and that, “Conservatives failed to see is that while short-run gains can indeed be made by appealing to the impracticality of radical departures from the status quo, that by conceding the ethical and the “ideal” to the Left they were doomed to long-run defeat. For if one side is granted ethics and the “ideal” from the start, then that side will be able to effect gradual but sure changes in its own direction; and as these changes accumulate, the stigma of “impracticality” becomes less and less directly relevant.”
Conservatives who are familiar with America’s political history might take offense at the far from unique accusation that they merely “stand against” and never “stand for” anything. Years ago, I myself would have taken offense at this accusation, dismissing the Conservative’s positions as being completely positive when viewed from the right perspective. Unfortunately, all we need to do is look at the development of the Conservative movement in the 20th Century to prove this accusation true. The prominent political commentator and educator Robert LeFevre wrote in 1964 that, “Prior to the apppearance of F.D Roosevelt as president, the term (conservative) was not used with any frequency to designate a particular group of persons, rather, it was employed to signify an attitude, a point of reference which might relate to politics and equally relate to science, religion, business, home life, or a moral outlook.” LeFevre’s point is that prior to the organized political opposition of FDR’s New Deal, the term “Conservative” was not monopolized by any particular political party. Rather, the political system operated from a coalition based system in which the two seperate political parties had both conservative and liberal members who voted more often with their respective ideoligies than with their parties. Once Republicans and Democrats were widely classified as conservative and liberal, the Republicans became more often than not defined by their tendency to “stand against”.

As the political system currently stands, the United States has broadly reverted to the Classical European political conflict of the Conservative versus the revolutionary. One party which claims to be that of progress and humanity, and another which claims proudly to stand for the status quo and tradition. This pendelum effect mixes itself with the other great conflict of liberty versus power.

Conservatives have the historical distinction of defending the old order in particular societies, and therefore being the party to represent the established power structure. Additionally, the classical understanding of the term “liberalism” refers to one who is against centralized power and in favor of the rights of the individual. Unfortunately the current political dynamic is such that the influence of state power has determined that conservatives are those who represent the old order status quo, and liberals are representatives of the validity and growth of the centralized power of the state. The lone value that is lost in this equation is the natural rights of classical liberalism.

Murray Rothbard continues his case in the essay, “Left and Right: The Prospects For Liberty”. He contends that classical liberalism is the only philosophy which “brought to the Western world not only liberty, the prospect of peace, and the rising living standards of an industrial society, but above all, perhaps, it brought hope, a hope in ever-greater progress that lifted the mass of mankind out of its age-old sinkhole of stagnation and despair”.

For those disenfranchised by this months’ election, and by politics in general, I would invite them to answer Bastiat’s call for politics to “end where they should have begun,” in claiming the long term optimism and ending the brief uninspired vacation from history and reason, we should “reject all systems, and try liberty.”

Comic Books, and other stories in the “superhero” genre are rich with philosophical messages that are often unfortunately left unseen or ignored by the majority of both readers and viewers alike.  In the creation of the first “superheroes” in the 1930’s, it is evident that characters such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were very much the product of the moral aspirations of their creators.  These aspiring fictional characters were thrust into ongoing stories of moral conflict which very much represent the values of the society in which they were created from.  Superman, in particular, is often said to represent “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”.  Early Superman stories in particular feature very clear themes of right vs. wrong, truth vs. deceit, and generally good vs. evil.  In fact, the earliest stories by Siegel and Shuster present Superman as somewhat of a populist “man of the people”, in which we find Superman tearing down housing projects which he deems unsafe, smashing automobiles that pose a threat to drivers’ safety, and even delivering to the law crooked business leaders who are cheating their employees and clients.

In the 1960’s the superhero genre received a revamp in the moral relevance of stories in order to keep up with the ethical issues of the day.  The influence of historical events such as the Civil Rights Movement, and the ideological battle between the United States and Communist Russia are clearly seen in the origins of several new heroes.  Casting aside the moralistic fantasies of the pre-WWII world, writers and artists such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko oversaw the development of an entire pantheon of heroes whose stories were competent and relevant to the age of post modernism.  Perhaps there is no clearer example of this influence than in the stories of the X-Men.

The new movie, X-Men: First Class revisits the origin of Marvel Comics’ most famous group of mutants.  Set in 1962, (Ironically the same year that the X-Men made their first comic book appearance,) X-Men: First Class introduces the emergence of a fictional species of super powered mutants, known as Homo Sapien Superior.  Unlike Richard Donner’s Superman and other superhero movies, X-Men: First Class realistically hypothesizes how the world would react to the sudden emergence of super-powered individuals.  The movie’s historical setting is particularly brilliant, allowing the story to take full advantage of the tumultuous culture unique to the 1960’s.  Much of the movie consists of the introduction of integral X-Men characters such Professor Charles Xavier, Erik Lesherr, (Magneto) Mystique, Beast , Emma Frost, and others.  Upon the very sudden emergence of such spectacular characters, the mutants are drawn into two opposite teams, The “X-Men” lead by Professor Xavier, and co-opted by the U.S Government, and the antagonizing Hellfire Club, lead by the main villain Sebastian Shaw, who seek to start a nuclear war through the manipulation of the Soviet Union.  Things come to a head during an event which is supposedly tied into the real life Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Nuclear war is of course diverted, and the movie concludes quite satisfyingly. In addition to a great main plot, the movie additionally features some fantastic minor story lines, which I won’t ruin for all of you who may not have seen the movie yet.

What really impressed me about X-Men: First Class was its brilliant representation of the ethical conflicts that are featured so dominantly in all X-Men stories.  In every medium, X-Men stories feature themes such as equality, human rights, social change, and a discussion on ethics and whether or not human behavior should be judged by an ultimate moral basis.

The last theme mentioned is in my opinion, the main theme in X-Men: First Class.  This debate is illustrated in the interaction of the movies’ two main characters, Professor X, and Magneto.  The development and diffusion of their friendship is brilliantly portrayed by the two actors respectively portraying the two characters, James McAvoy and Michael Fassenbender.

Besides the facts that both Professor X and Magneto are mutants, and seek to protect mutants, the characters are about as unlikely of friends as any two individuals can be.

Firstly, lets look at the character of Magneto.  As X-Men: First Class portrays, the man who would become Magneto was effectively born in a Eastern European concentration camp during World War II.  Furthermore, the movie lets us know that Sebastian Shaw (operating under the alias Dr. Schmidt) murders his mother in an attempt to extract Magneto’s powers for sinister reasons.  After the war, Magneto sets out on a mission of vengeance, pretty much just killing any Nazi who was involved in the containment and murdering of his family.  Even though he is ultimately successful in this mission, the focus of his character begins to shift as more and more mutants begin to emerge.  Strangely enough, Magneto adopts a philosophy which most people would recognize as the same philosophy that Hitler used to justify the Holocaust.  Very much like Hitler, In the midst of experiencing the prejudice, Magneto begins to justify his murderous acts with Friedrich  Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “Übermensch”, or sometimes as it is ironically translated, “The Superman”.

Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” philosophy was introduced as an alternative to the “other-worldliness” of Christianity.  Speaking to those who are dissatisfied with the world as it is, Nietzsche attempts to lure the religious away from Christ’s promise of an ultimate redemption and reconciliation in the next life.  With this clearly as his motivation, Nietzsche declares those dissatisfied to turn away from all things that are not directly linked to the human body in order to achieve the society of the Übermensch.  In order to do this, Nietzsche tells us that we must reject what he sees as our objective recognition of concepts such as “truth”, “essence”, and the human soul.  While not declaring these concepts to be complete illusions, Nietzsche declares them to be secondary to the importance of the physical human.  (Or again, what could again be described as the Übermensch.)

I’m not going to suggest that Nietzsche was a Nazi or genocidal in any way, but his motivations seem to be certainly suspect.  Nietzsche’s philosophy floats anywhere from being too vague to definitely exhibiting many fallacies in practice.  In Magneto and Sebastian Shaw’s mind, Nietzsche’s ideal is already realized.  The movie makes many references to “the better man”.  Magneto and Shaw, although enemies, both consider mutants to be the better man.  They make the decision to embrace Nietzsche’s philosophy when the both decide that Earth would be a better place if it were purely devoted to the advancement of mutants alone.  Reasonable individuals would question this philosophy the first time that it was used by anyone to justify the extermination of human life.

Opposite Magneto we find Charles Xavier, who exemplifies a different definition of what it means to be “the better man”.  While still a mutant, Xavier rejects Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Indeed, Xavier is the movie’s proponent of a morality derived from “natural law”.  Natural law theorists generally accept human nature as it is, or as it was created.  To be “the better man” Xavier concludes that one must sacrifice himself for others, seek peace instead of war, and understanding and civility instead of ignorance.  In many X-Men comic book stories, Professor Xavier displays a nearly Christlike selflessness, often putting aside his and his “family”‘s safety in order to save those who openly oppress him.

The philosophical message that I see in X-Men: First Class, and other X-Men stories, is a very profound one.  Instead of using X-Men to further the validity of  trans humanist philosophers such as Nietzsche, (As many not so casual viewers and readers do.) I see it as a great metaphorical story for natural law, and morality which derives from the Christian tradition.  The brilliance of the franchise is that it is able to communicate such truths effectively in an age of increasing relativity.