Monday, April 9, 2007

Monday with McKenna: Philosophy vs. Punditry

We're going back to back with Terry McKenna to start the week. He'll be with us today and Tuesday. You may recall Terry's piece on McCain from a few weeks back. As Frank Rich observed Sunday, McCain's lies (the subject of Terry's piece) have finally caught up with him (and W.R. Pitt of Truthout also weighs in with a similar insight).

Being a philosophy graduate myself, I feel a particular resonance with Terry's theme today. So here comes Part 1 of Terry's reflections on philosophy and punditry.

Sierra Club
It’s the day after Easter; what better day to consider man’s search for meaning? Sadly, our era no longer values such a search. In an earlier era, the philosopher Rene Descartes corresponded with nobility and was granted a pension by the king of France. Half a half century later, Isaac Newton was England’s man of the age. But today, if a bright high school student admitted an interest in the study of philosophy as their college major, surely he or she would be vigorously discouraged.

Philosophers seem as irrelevant as poets and goldsmiths, though perhaps not quite so irrelevant as alchemists. We’ve replaced philosophy with journalism, and replaced philosophers with opinion makers such as newspaper columnists and the like. If philosophers created works of permanent value, today’s columns and OP-ED pieces are mere ephemera. If likened to food, the works of Plato nourished generations of scholars, today’s writings are mere snack food; useful only to fill our flabby minds with empty calories.

This week was a good one for our bloviators. In addition to the Iraq war and Nancy Pelosi’s unscripted comments during her middle east trip, we had the resolution of Iran’s seizure of fifteen British sailors and marines.

I’m happy for the sailors. Though their professional rigor turns out to be less than impressive (come on, you guys gave up about three days!) still they came home alive and unharmed, and in the middle east, maybe that’s remarkable enough.

Fifteen sailors and marines and a minor border incident don’t mean much in the scheme of things, but you wouldn’t know it from all the noise in the news media. For the bloviating class, the past two weeks became just another opportunity to show off in print, on the radio, or on camera. Were their guesses on the mark? Thing happened so quickly that it’s easy to check. It turns out no one was right (except maybe Tony Blair when he attempted to cool the rhetoric). The end came much sooner than anticipated. And – although there may have been some behind the scenes bargaining - it doesn’t look like either side gave away much. It could be this simple: Iran recognized that it got as much mileage as it could and ended it. But look at the headlines from a sample of articles (I selected a screen shot of sample articles via Google). Note the breathless energy (click graphic to enlarge).

So, if our pundits are full of shit (and if you track almost any issue, you’ll see that they are) then whither the search for information at a deeper level?

Sadly, the search for a deeper understanding of current affairs is led by the self same bloviators who are so disappointing. I had the opportunity to hear one of them on two occasions this past week, John Bolton. If you don’t remember him, he’s the hardliner that Bush appointed as UN ambassador (in a recess appointment). Though he’s a bully, he is also considered a serious man. He has spent a lot of time in and around government working on international affairs - particularly arms control. At the risk of over simplifying his position, he is suspicious of attempts to sign treaties with rogue states that have no intention of doing what they promise. His bottom line is that negotiating with such states quickly morphs into an attempt to reform them, and such efforts are doomed to failure. He prefers instead a policy of regime change.

Regime change sounded good until we found out that regime change is only half the battle. And war itself is much more complicated than just sending out a bunch of smart bombs. With the disaster in Iraq, we are now faced with the recognition that war is a dirty business that almost never yields the desired outcome. The deeper lesson is that the US is not quite strong enough to remake the world on its own terms.

—T. McKenna

Tomorrow: Part 2

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