Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Roy Cohn, and Why Things Might be Getting Better

There is so much out there just now about Roy Cohn. I watched a documentary about Studio 54, and there are several about Cohn himself, and of course the main reason we're hearing about him is because of Donald Trump.

You watch - or I should say I watch - some of these things and you realize that there is a different world out there, to which you and I don't and likely can't belong. Well, in my case, I seem to have glancing connections to all these things. But let's take a look at some of the untold reasons about belonging.

I can say with some confidence that there is nothing in the lifestyles of the glamorous that I envy or wish I had. Sure, for moments at a time, we can all relate to how nice the comforts of money and friends in high places would feel, but I think we also know the cost to true friendship which comes along with the shallow sycophantic connections that those in Roy Cohn's universe seem to "enjoy." 

I've had good friends tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about when I disparage easy money and casual sex, say, and I politely bite my tongue in return. I'm sure that I don't know what I'm talking about. But I would like to spin out a simple political theory - theory of politics - here; one on which I base a good deal of hope. 

Maybe I'm even agreeing with Steven Pinker when he claims on the basis of statistical analyses that history is tending toward the good and fair and away from carnage and feudalism. That's even despite his palling around with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein. 

But even Obama likes the good life a little bit too much for my tastes. When he gets on the horn now about what's the right thing to do, he sounds just a little too preoccupied with his own pleasant life to have invested a whole lot of time or passion into his somewhat languid words. 

So I've been excited by Riccardo Manzotti's Spread Mind theories about consciousness. I confess that I'm excited at least in part because his thinking conforms so much of my own thinking. It relaxes me to think that there's someone else out there to take on at least part of the burden I feel.

I know a few things about myself, if never enough to make such knowledge useful. I know that I'm no expert at anything, but I want to declare that I am that way on purpose. I don't want to limit myself to some particular discipline. That has never been my decision ahead of time, but rather just the inevitable result of how things have unfolded. There's no sense fighting against your fate, kind of thing. 

I own a tidy collection of the Chinese classics in Chinese. When I was a student in New Haven and owned a car, I would often travel to Chinatown in New York City, and visit the bookstores there, as well as a few dumpling houses. I knew how to get onto Manhattan (I'd lived there for a while during one of many stoppings-out from school) without paying tolls (imagine that!) and where to park for free. Shy about restaurants, I still managed to find my favorites.

Chinese books were pulpy and cheap, but I knew something about the good editions and the good publishers. In those days every book store included collections of the classics, as they did in Toronto's Chinatown, which I would visit in the same way after I'd started to teach in Buffalo.

I think these bookstores have gone the way of all things. In any case, Chinatown, Toronto, has mostly dissolved into the suburbs as families assimilate and move up. Not quite so dissolved as Chinatown, LA, but in the same direction.

So for instance, reading an article on Zocalo Public Square by a fellow who just published a book on Hannah Arendt, and then probing around to see what the films about her are, to which he adverted, I find this wonderful definition she attributes to Walter Benjamin in a lecture she gave in 1968 which is available on film. I look forward to watching it. Here's from the IMDB blurb:
Arendt notes the importance of German-Jewish literature in Benjamin's work, insisting that "without being a poet, he thought poetically. For him the metaphor was the greatest gift of language, because it transforms the invisible into the sensual." 
As I have written about often enough, I struggle with what figures of speech do. I've contrasted the Chinese literary couplet with the metaphor of the West, likening metaphor to a reach for whatever is beyond words; a kind of pointing beyond what can be described. 

But now I see that I was too obsessed with Platonism, as though ideals and "ideas" were beyond description, which they clearly aren't. Indeed, words are best at describing the ideal world and worst at describing the real. 

I've also related metaphor to relating the primary bodily experiences and parts to things that are "like" them, which moves more toward what Arendt says Benjamin is getting at. But how much more trenchant and beautiful is 'metaphor [as a] gift [which ] transforms the invisible into the sensual." Things beyond words being turned physical, as though felt; as though perceived. 

So I offer this definition for political action that moves in the right direction. It relates to agency extended from the individual to society, where agency must serve the public good. An individual may relinquish agency when there is the perception that by doing so that individual will remain better off; safer. 

The good news is that we have nearly erased all and any reason for people to feel that way. The authority of science has been debased by the commercial uses to which it is put, along with the profit-straightjacked terms for research, especially facing COVID-19.

It hardly needs telling how debased politics has become. I'm here to provide the good news; that when trust in authority is undermined, that also means that there is less likelihood that anyone will just follow authority off to war. Even though war making is as advanced as anything else about our destructive ways for living on the planet; even though, that is to say, there need not be so many casualties for the super-powered aggressors, it may be that there is no longer the political will for warfare.

So back to Arendt and what politics is. I believe that humans have started to rejoin the living, which would mean to move away from notions of God-given dominion over earth and its creatures. Just as in the processes of evolution where consciousness and cognition have served to generalize humans ability to survive and even to thrive across a wealth of environmental niches or habitats, society now must evolve to allow and encourage the fullest agency for individuals. 

Robbing any individual of agency, as by rape, by imprisonment, by racism, or by wage slavery is only possible, in the end, when that individual feels that to submit is the better choice. We are watching the dissolution of submission right before our eyes. 

Our economic arrangements would have us believe that wealth equates to agency, and that wealth should be celebrated, even as the poor (the black) must remain patient for their turn. But the sort of agency that I refer to is far more basic than that. As I mean it, agency relates to dignity, that thing which Roy Cohn and his ilk all lack. 

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