Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar*

*Human dignity is inviolable (The first sentence of Article I of the postwar Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany)

If we actually wanted any further proof of Santayana’s contention that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we’d need look no further than the current resurgence of fascist sentiment in Europe and the United States, and the rising support worldwide for authoritarian governments devoted primarily to exclusion, punishment, and degradation.

The Germans, of all people, should know better. They did know better in 1949, when their remarkable postwar constitution was written and enacted in the western half of their still divided country. If the strutting members of the AfD have already forgotten what motivated their great-grandparents to enshrine Article I as the only article which by law cannot ever be amended or repealed, there seems little hope that any of the rest of us will remember our considerably more ambiguous commitments to the same principle.

There are reasons why the Nazis are back in Germany, why a paranoid and vicious authoritarianism is once again the shiniest of political baubles everywhere in the world. As comforting as it might be for those who dread what’s coming to think so, none of them are solely attributable to the historical blindness of the generations born since the end of World War II. The truth of the matter is that neither democracy nor capitalism, as practiced by our supposedly enlightened postwar governments, has ever been overly concerned with the dignity of all human beings.

It should surprise no one who’s been paying attention that in the nearly eighty years since the end of World War II, the distribution of wealth and power in western democracies has gradually come to resemble that of some of the worst hierarchical societies of the past. The disenfranchised, dispossessed, and disenchanted armies of the underemployed and unrepresented are back with us, and they will absolutely not be mollified any more easily by our well-meant homilies about human dignity than they were in 1933. As right-wingers in the United States like to say, the die is cast. It’s hard to see how there’s any good news in that for anybody.

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Apple is certainly guilty of at least some of the transgressions it’s been accused of by Margrethe Vestager, the principal finger-wagger of the European Commission. Arrogant corporate behemoths are a tax on the general welfare, right enough, but so also are vengeful bureaucrats whose principal complaint seems to be that Americans got to the future before the French and Germans had a chance to certify it.

There are lots of smart people on both sides of this unfortunate culture clash, so I suppose it’s possible that some sort of quasi-equitable justice will eventually be done, but I’m not optimistic. I mean, c’mon people, really—does anyone at this late date actually want a cell phone designed by the European Commission?

Identity Politics

Je pense, donc je suis.

—Renė Descartes, Discours de la Méthode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, 1637

I am I because my little dog knows me.

—Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America, or the Relation of Human Nature To the Human Mind, 1936.

Gertrude Stein’s little dog may confirm her sense of self, but in doing so it also defines her in terms of a moral obligation which she cannot betray without sacrificing her identify. Our identities as human beings are constructed of many such relationships, many such obligations. We see ourselves reflected in them, and know who we are.

Or do we? René Descartes‘ assertion doesn’t actually deny that we are a part of the society which has created us, or that as a consequence, we have obligations to that society. He would not, I think, disagree with John Donne that no man is an island, entire of itself. Implicit in his assertion nevertheless is the supposition that individual human beings have moral and political agency, that they have the right to assist society in defining what it is, and therefore who they are.

The consequences of Descartes’ assertion, whether or not he was as conscious of them as we are today, are clear enough. If, by virtue of being a rational creature, the individual human being has the right to agency on their own behalf, then there can be no divine right of Popes, Mullahs, Kings, Führers, or General Secretaries to arbitrarily define the collective will of a society, or to censor the behavior of the individuals who comprise it merely because they lack the power as individuals to defend themselves. This is the founding principle of the Enlightenment and of secular humanism in general, that no one owes obligations to a society which refuses them the right to contribute to its governance.

In a civilized society, you shouldn’t have to pray, genuflect, make pilgrimages to Mecca, recite the shahada, or go to confession. You shouldn’t have to salute the flag, say the Pledge Of Allegiance, or sing the national anthem. You shouldn’t have to publicly admire the thought of Xi Jinping, avoid expressing certain opinions, or sit still for the burning of books, heretics, or so-called enemies of the state. The relationship between individual and collective in a civilized society is reciprocal. There’s a feedback loop between the two, one governed by mutual respect. The political manifestation of this feedback loop has traditionally been called democracy.

Democracy, though, is fragile. It has many enemies, even in so-called democratic societies. More often than not, what outs these enemies is their ritual acts of public piety. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Whatever he may have intended, Kennedy’s appeal to a grandiose selflessness was in fact a radical attack on the very idea of a personal right to self-determination. You don’t have to doubt that we have both a moral and political obligation to contribute to the society which gave birth to us to find formulations like Kennedy’s of benefit principally to tyrants and sycophants.

Authoritarians love to tell us that freedom isn’t free, as though we didn’t already know that all too well. What this bumpersticker-on-the-back-of-a-pickup actually means is something more like this: When they tell you you’ve got to go somewhere and shoot people, you have to do it. Otherwise we get to spit on you.

This is the kind of freedom that a genuinely free person instinctively rejects. The real price of freedom is very different. The real price of freedom is one that no patriot, no acolyte, no devotee will ever realize that they owe, let alone be capable of paying. That their little dog knows them is good enough for them, although I doubt it’s ever been all that good for the little dog.

The Unimportance of Being Earnest

The Democrats’ characteristic form of cowardice is risk aversion. For the Republicans, it’s moral weakness.

The Rotten Core of Our Political System, by George Packer, The Atlantic May 18, 2022

George Packer’s two-sentence bon mot is as perceptive a summation of our present political ignominy as any out there, which makes it especially welcome in times like these, when two sentences are about as much punditry as anyone can stand. Does anyone still doubt that our pundits are as clueless as our politicians are about what’s coming, or believe that they have anything to tell us that we don’t already know? Yes, we’re aware that it’s coming. No, don’t bother, we’ll figure that out when it gets here. In the meantime, we just found these truly awesome earplugs on Amazon….

Signs

1. Putin’s table being longer than Trump’s necktie.

2. Representative Boebert mistaking her Glock for a sex toy on national TV.

3. Sinema verité (Interviews with bamboozled Arizona Democrats)

4. Chickenhawk on the menu again.

5. Republican state governors offering official sanction to volunteer vigilantes and informers. The Nazi term for this was Gleichschaltung. Look it up.

Freudian Slipperiness In the House

From CNN, Updated 1:38 PM EST February 10, 2022:

White House records obtained so far by January 6 committee show no record of calls to and from Trump during riot

“Whether it is the absence of data or phone logs or willing testimony, inevitably, we have different sources to get that information because these are conversations that require more than one participant,” committee member Rep. Stephanie Murphy said.

“So even if there is one node that isn’t forthcoming, there are inevitably other points of information that we can use to build a more fulsome picture of what happened on January 6,” the Florida Democrat said.

Fulsome /fulsəm/
adjective
1a — characterized by abundance
1b — generous in amount, extent, or spirit
2 — unpleasantly and excessively suave or ingratiating in manner or speech
syn: buttery, oily, oleaginous, smarmy, soapy, unctuous