MYSTERIES GREAT AND SMALL
Last week, in a space of just a few hours, I went from reading about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to watching Patrick Buchanan and Joe Scarborough on the “Morning Joe” program. Talk about a comedown.
Both Heidegger and those two Republican pundits were talking about mysteries. But Heidegger’s mysteries are truly worthy of the term. The Morning Joe mystery, which happens to be the one that political pundits have been ruminating about all summer, is no mystery at all. It is merely a sad commentary on the state of our political marketplace.
Martin Heidegger is a philosopher about which few Americans know anything. It is easy to dismiss him as a Nazi – much like it is easy to praise Scarborough and Buchanan as small D “democrats” – and there is no denying that Heidegger not only was a member of the Nazi party who publicly spoke in favor of Hitler’s break with the League of Nations and who later, after the war, had virtually nothing to say about the Holocaust, let alone an apology. To be sure, Martin Heidegger the man is no hero. But Martin Heidegger the philosopher is dismissed at a thinker’s own peril. If you, like me, equate God to Being itself, you dare not ignore Heidegger. After all, in the history of our species, it would appear that no philosopher has been as consumed with the meaning of Being – of isness – as Martin Heidegger.
Need I say more about why Americans find him so irrelevant?
Heidegger, like the other great philosophers, spends at least as much time evoking questions as he does answers. No question is more central to him than “What is the Being which makes possible all being?” This question can be asked in related forms, such as why is there something, anything, instead of nothing? Or why do we, as individual human beings, exist -- or for that matter, why does a particular stone exist – when we can just as easily conceive of ourselves not existing?
Heidegger views these questions as fascinating mysteries, and I must agree with him. After posing them, he goes on to lament about the history of western civilization as an environment where the question of Being has been more and more trivialized to the point where most of us tend to neglect it almost entirely. People who ask these questions, Heidegger points out, are in touch with their ability to view the world with wonder, or more precisely, with radical astonishment. That is the attitude that has spawned many a philosopher and many a mystic. But when you think about the “western” mindset, radical astonishment is not exactly the perspective that immediately comes to mind -- quite the contrary. We westerners are busy people, and well too involved in our “work” to admire the work of God, or the Absolute, or whatever name you choose to give to Being, when considered not as an It but as a Thou. We don’t behold with awe. We define and categorize. And then we take what has been defined and categorized and manipulate it for our own chosen ends. I heard yesterday that scientists are even attempting to manipulate the weather during the Olympics by firing some sort of projectiles into the rain clouds in order to keep Beijing dry. And yes, this isn’t even the “western” world. But scientists are westerners wherever they may reside, just as mystics are easterners.
It is not hard to guess how the profound writings of Heidegger would be “defined and categorized” by political pundits like a Buchanan or a Scarborough – or their fellow travelers like Lou Dobbs. Surely, these so-called “populist” pundits would approach Heidegger’s questioning of Being with little more than relentless mockery. From what I can tell of these pundits, they have contempt for so many types of academicians. Philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, sociologists, scholars in ethnic or gender studies departments … The list isn’t a short one. These people are treated with contempt by our talking heads. Their work is viewed as mental masturbation, and they themselves are dismissed as ultra liberal, out of touch, and ultra elitist. And it is to that “elitist” label that the Scarboroughs and the Buchanans of our society most commonly turn when they wish to mock just about every fascinating question that they don’t understand and don’t want to understand. To ask these questions is essentially un-American, according to the narrative of the populist pundits, because the questions are irrelevant to the “real” Americans – the kind that wouldn’t know the difference between ontology and oncology. And that, of course, is the ultimate sin of our talking heads: they elevate the uneducated over the educated to the point where the former are treated as authentic Americans and the latter are not. That’s why, just as I have trouble thinking of Heidegger the philosopher as a Nazi, I have even more trouble thinking of the Scarboroughs or Buchanans as small-d democrats.
And yet I listen to them anyway. They are, after all, part of our democracy, and their views reflect those of millions of Americans who share their biases and would find Heidegger as trivial as he is impenetrable. So, if the pundits haven’t been ruminating about the mystery of Being, exactly what mystery has been astonishing them? If you can believe what they say – and I’m not sure I do – the great mystery of the moment involves our Presidential campaign. Over and over again they’ve asked the same question. And they rarely try to answer it – or perhaps they prefer to leave the sense of ineffability in the minds of their audience. The mystery can be stated succinctly as follows: If (a) this is a year where Americans are so profoundly dissatisfied with the direction our country is going; (b) Americans associate that direction with the policies of the Republican party; (c) John McCain is viewed as an old man who is essentially arguing for a third Bush term and admittedly knows very little about the subject that most concerns Americans, our economy; and (d) Barack Obama, by contrast, is a brilliant, charismatic, fresh-faced, Democrat who is poised to take the country in a new direction but without the spirit of divisiveness … then why the hell isn’t Obama clobbering McCain in the polls?
There you have it. The mystery du jour – or more specifically, the mystery of the entire summer. Are you all as “radically astonished” by that mystery as so many of the pundits claim to be?
Please tell me the answer is no. For the above assessment of McCain and Obama’s relative strengths and weaknesses is characteristically biased and incomplete. Allow me to flesh out a few more details.
First, in the last 30 years, we’ve elected exactly one Democrat to the White House. In the same time period, the Republicans have elected three.
Second, the one Democrat who was elected was a Southerner with 12 years of experience as the Chief Executive Officer of a state – precisely the type of experience that people want in their President. Even so, he didn’t even receive 50% of the vote.
Oh, and did I mention that this one Democrat was not only extremely charismatic, but also extremely white?
Today, by contrast, the Democrats are offering up a Northerner who, in the oft-stated words of Joe Scarborough, had “only one year of experience in the Senate before he started to run for President.” Oh yeah, did I mention that this latter fellow is not only relatively “unaccomplished,” but also young and black? His Republican opponent is a revered war hero who has had an extremely accomplished career in the Senate (one that justifiably earned him the label of “maverick” because of his willingness to take on his own party).
So, given that assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of these combatants, perhaps the better question is: why isn’t McCain giving Obama one hellacious ass whipping?
I’ll tell you why – because Obama is indeed a brilliant, brilliant talent. And McCain seems to have aged three decades in the last eight years. And yet … did I mention that Obama is relatively inexperienced and relatively black? It is that last fact that the pundits don’t like to talk about when assessing the polls, but how can you not? Just consider the words of the two greatest white spokesmen for human rights in our nation’s history. One, wrote about holding as self-evident the truth that “all men are created equal,” and yet he privately mused about what it said about black people that orangutan males are more attracted to black women than to other orangutans. Yes, Virginia, our Thomas Jefferson thought that African-Americans were genetically inferior. As for Honest Abe, he made the following pronouncement when speaking before a Red State (South Carolinian) audience in 1858: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. … I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. … And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Those are the words of our human rights advocates. I need not bother to cite the comments of the George Wallaces, the Strom Thurmonds, or the Jesse Helmses. And do I really need to point out the various levels at which John McCain is communicating to Americans when he mocks Obama as a man who thinks he’s the new Moses and has the chutzpah to address adoring crowds overseas when he ought to be competing for votes here at home?
Obama cannot afford to tell the truth, but I can. McCain and his campaign are mining some pure gold here. They are speaking to millions of white people who have, for centuries, held some fairly defined stereotypes of African-Americans. You have your house blacks – your Stepinfetchits – and then you have your “uppity N----rs.” Barack Obama is being not so subtly portrayed as an “uppity N----r.” Nobody is calling him that directly – Mon Dieu! -- but they are hammering home the “arrogance” theme so frequently and so baselessly that I am hard-pressed to come up with another explanation. After all, once you stop taking Obama’s statements out of context, and especially once you consider the tone of his campaign taken in its entirety, how can he possibly be viewed as arrogant … unless you are expecting a member of his race to be ultra, ultra humble?
As long as the above stereotypes exist, and as long as McCain is determined to exploit them, this race will be relatively close. Indeed, the only real mystery about this election is how, in a realm that is seemingly packed with mediocre politicians and the occasional outsized talent with the equally outsized ego or libido, we have found a man whose talent is so brilliant that he can compete for President despite being young, male and black?
It is a credit to the sheer genius of Barack Obama that he is still given a roughly 62% chance of winning this election according to the betting markets, even though the polls are essentially even. Presumably, when he and McCain go toe-to-toe in the fall, the election will be decided. McCain will continue to rely on mud-throwing, mocking, and covert racism, whereas Barack will show the nation – and yes, the world -- just what it means to be the Tiger Woods of politics. Apparently, most betters are expecting that, faced with such a spectacle, a few more white voters might get their heads out of their butts and vote for the Democrat.
McCain’s only hope stems from the fact that Obama is still the Tiger Woods of 1997, not the Tiger Woods of 2007. In other words, Barack lacks some experience, and is still learning, for example, how best to respond to negative campaigning. But then again … a genius is a genius is a genius. Mozart at 4 was still pretty damned good.