Author Archives: Lester W. Miller

American Politics: Are We Still Playing the Same Game?

Of all the rhetoric that we have heard during this Republican primary, it is perhaps this comment from Rick Santorum that is the most perplexing:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college.  What a snob.  I understand why he wants you to go to college.  He wants to remake you in his image.”

While Barack Obama’s intention behind the comment was not explicitly to promote a liberal education – but merely to suggest that education, whether it is technical, vocational, preprofessional, or liberal is, on balance, a benefit – Santorum’s disgust for ‘liberal academia’ is quite transparent.  Is this attitude antithetical to the foundations of our democratic society?  Or, to put it another way, are American politicians still playing the same game?

Politics, if it is a game, should be played according to a set of tactical, regulative, and constitutive rules.  Tactical rules are the strategies that are employed by a team or player in an effort to win the game.  For example, if I am playing chess, my opening move won’t be white pawn from h2-h3, since that doesn’t make any strategic sense whatsoever within a normal chess game.  Regulative rules are those guidelines that keep each side from gaining an unfair advantage, or exploiting loopholes that might exist due to the way the constitutive rules are described or set.  It is possible to break regulative rules and still be playing the same game.  The constitutive rules, by contrast, are what defines the game itself, and changing them entails playing another game altogether.  You are not playing chess if, for example, you declare that your winning the game is a result of you, yourself, being checkmated.

To see whether or not American politicians are still playing the same game, it is helpful to get an idea of what the goal of politics actually is.  Is the goal simply to win — to be elected President, for example — at all costs?  Probably not, since we wouldn’t want a presidential candidate to win by intentionally sabotaging the country, for example.  Indeed, this strategy would be contrary to the very purpose of the office for which the candidate is running.  We might say that the point of the political process is to elect someone into a position of public power who promotes the general welfare of the people.

Is this goal consistent with the de-valuing of, or hostility towards, a liberal education?  Historically, a liberal education was a privilege of the elite, or landed gentry – when one’s income was secure, it was appropriate to be educated in rhetoric so as to become an active, engaged citizen, who could not only make arguments, but listen and assess the arguments of others.  In contemporary civil society, it seems like education supports the democratic process, insofar as it exposes individuals to different points of view, and teaches them to critically assess those views, both for their strengths and weaknesses.  In this way, a liberal education promotes tolerance and recognition of divergent values; and so also promotes other-regarding virtues that are necessary for solidarity, and, by extension, the flourishing of a democratic society.  The major difference, of course, is that in our contemporary context, a liberal education is generally democratized among all classes; it is no longer a privilege of the few, nor should it be.

Even if President Obama’s point was to encourage a liberal education (which it was not), would this be so terrible?  I do not see what is so offensive about cultivating a population comprised of well-informed, educated citizens.  Santorum, however, seems to want to foster a climate of distrust and intolerance of opposing views, which might be fine if the goal of politics is to win at all costs.  However, insofar as the solidarity necessary for well-functioning democratic societies is secured best through education, then it seems that conservatives like Santorum would benefit from remembering the constitutive rules of the political game.  Sometimes a win for a particular candidate is a loss for American society, and I do not think that such a loss is consistent with the point of the political process.

I think we’d all do well to remember James Madison and Federalist #10 here, where Madison talks of factions and their threat to the common good.  Of course, to remember lessons from the Federalist Papers, we have to have read them, and what better place than within the academy itself?

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Can Adversarial Contexts Be Socially Integrating?

Recently, Michael Gillespie wrote an article on March Madness and the unifying character of sports in American culture.  What is it about sports, and March Madness in particular, that it is able to organize and direct a group of otherwise — to borrow a term from John Rawls — “mutually disinterested” individuals towards impassioned support of a common goal?  How can a mere game transform a diverse group of individuals into an almost singular consciousness, where personal identities dissolve into a shared communal existence?

Gillespie answers similar questions in terms of Nietzsche’s view of Greek tragedy, which is, at its core, a merging of both the individual and communal elements of life (or the Apollinian and Dionysian).  Nietzsche’s conclusion is ultimately that life is redeemed only as an aesthetic phenomenon, and a sense of meaning is derived from a sense of struggle in which the individual sacrifices his happiness for something greater.

College basketball, and indeed sports generally, might play this redemptive role in American culture, as it is through sports that we experience life in all its peaks and valleys — from the ecstasy of an unexpected win by a buzzer-beating three-pointer, to the despair over an impossible upset in a tournament’s first round.  Insofar as basketball is representative of the unifying character of adversarial institutions, how else might this dynamic play out towards a goal of social integration?  That is, how might conflict help transform a Gesellschaft (society) into a Gemeinschaft (community), to use Max Weber’s terminology.

A similar situation might be seen in the United States during World War II, where civilian support was widespread.  It is well documented that the U.S. contribution to the war effort increased U.S. GDP, through increased productivity and the better mobilization of the workforce.  This had a taxing effect on the U.S. population, but this struggle was tolerated because of, among other factors, some sense of unification expressed as patriotism.

Indeed, this point about economies and markets as an expression of social integration is interesting.  It has been argued* that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, when interpreted in conjunction with his Theory of Moral SentimentsLectures on Jurisprudence, and Letters on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, forms a comprehensive theory whereby markets are not exclusively constituted by interactions of “competitive and strategic individuals to secure their material preferences,” (553), but rather as a central mechanism for social order derived from the “inexorable struggle by human agents for moral approbation and social recognition” (ibid).  This reading, furthermore, goes on to state how Smith perceived markets as an analogue to the classical Greek polis, as the site where people seek mutual recognition.

Before we commit what Alfred North Whitehead termed the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” we would do well to recognize that this represents an idealization, which might be quite undersupported, especially in the context of contemporary market transactions.  While Smith’s Wealth of Nations argues for lack of government manipulation and intervention in markets, the events of recent years has made some people skeptical of the efficacy of this kind of unrestrained free-market capitalism.

Part of the problem is that there is rarely the sense of a common goal among actors within American corporations.  Some economists such as Paul Krugman claim that the U.S. economy has become dominated by the financial sector, and one criticism against financial institutions is that employee’s have no personal investment in the firm beyond their limited tenure.  Performance is usually assessed in terms of a very short time-horizon, and significantly long-term strategies to increase market capitalization might not be implemented if they sacrifice short-term performance.

Obviously, I have no resolution for these difficulties.  Perhaps adversarial contexts could be socially integrating, and the main issue is how might the unifying character of sports, for example, be applied to other adversarial contexts, like markets.  Smith’s model might have been descriptive for its time, but it’s a real question as to whether our contemporary economic climate is one that can ever be socially integrating in this way.  It might be that our attitudes towards the firm is unsupportive of individual responsibility towards the long-term financial health of corporations, insofar as this comes at the expense of short-term personal compensation.

* Kalyvas, A. and Katznelson, I.  “The Rhetoric of the Market: Adam Smith on Recognition, Speech, and Exchange,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Summer, 2001), pp. 549-579.

Conflict and Creativity: The Myth of Brainstorming

In a recent New Yorker article, Jonah Lehrer debunks the myth that a conflict-free brainstorming session is the optimal environment to start the flow of creative juices.  ‘Brainstorming’ is a method that was popularized by the Mad Men era B.B.D.O partner Alex Osborn (1948), with the publication of his book, Your Creative Power.  Osborn posits that this method was integral to his firm’s success, and, as Lehrer writes, it turned B.B.D.O admen into “imagination machines.”  What is unique to brainstorming, and is ostensibly the key to its creative successes is that it is practiced in an environment free from criticism and negative feedback.  Brainstorming is, in essence, the ultimate non-adversarial context where every idea, no matter how asinine, is considered a legitimate candidate for non-judgmental discussion: “Forget quality; aim now to get quantity of answers.  When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted.  Never mind.  You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination.”  These words, lifted from Osborn’s pages, is the distillation of his theory of optimal creative production.

The practice of brainstorming is certainly prolific.  Indeed, if you’ve never heard of brainstorming, it wouldn’t be a stretch for me to welcome you back from your long sabbatical under that rock.  Despite its vast influence, the efficacy of brainstorming has long been empirically undersupported.  As Lehrer notes, a Yale University study dating back to 1958 shows that brainstorming actually restrains individual creativity.  Subsequent research further supports this conclusion, and it even shows that individuals working in isolation who later pool ideas are more effective than brainstorming groups.  Despite this, however, group thinking is becoming a necessity, as our contemporary problems are so complex that the solitary scientist or thinker is now rendered obsolete, the humanities notwithstanding.  How well would a resurrected Alexander Graham Bell compete with the hoards of Google PhD-toting engineers?  Probably about as well as Myspace competed with Facebook.  Wait, what’s Myspace you ask?  QED.

No, the debate isn’t between the individual thinker toiling in isolation or the group where no idea is too stupid to introduce, but rather between non-judgmental brainstorming or a group dynamic that leverages conflict and debate as a means to produce the best results.  Empirical testing, of course, shows that the latter wins out, by a margin of more than twenty percent.  So, if conflict is actually a boon to creativity, then I think this engenders further curiosities concerning human psychology and the optimal conditions for productivity.

How would the Socratic dialogues read if dialectic was replaced with Osborn’s method?  Well, they probably wouldn’t be read at all.  Explicit criticism of ideas has long been the preferred method in philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition.  Thinking about what we call Hegelian dialectic (which was, incidentally, never formulated by Hegel himself), we can see that coupling a thesis with its negation, or antithesis, is resolved by the synthesis of the two, and this reconciliation is intended to produce a higher level of understanding.  Why shouldn’t we jettison the tradition of brainstorming for a group dynamic that fosters and encourages explicit conflict, especially if this conflict produces better results?  Moreover, what these findings prompt is the question of explicitly non-adversarial institutions.  Would certain practices that are currently conceived as such be made better or more effective through their re-structuring into explicitly adversarial or conflict-welcoming institutions?  If there is something essential to our human psychology such that we thrive on conflict, shouldn’t we incorporate this feature rather than try to suppress it?

What is that old saying?  “Judge not lest ye be judged.”  To that I might say, “judge me, since I play to win.”