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Good American Citizens Should Be Noble, Not Ignoble Like Anti-Government Republicans (Review Essay)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 11, 2011: The Republican noise machine in the United States makes a lot of noise. The noise generated by Rush Limbaugh on the radio and by certain commentators on Fox television and by conservative columnists and pundits in print outlets often seems to be designed to play on our fears and arouse our anger, rather than appeal to our rational intellect.

By contrast, Democrats appear to be afraid of arousing political anger (as distinct from personal anger, which I will also discuss momentarily). Instead of playing on our fears and arousing political anger, President Obama, for example, specializes in playing on our hopes for change. Of course there is nothing wrong in hoping for change, provided that the change we hope for is not just some quixotic stuff of day-dreams. However, if President Obama hopes to be re-elected in 2012, he probably should not rely on hope for change to turn out the vote in the 2012 presidential election, as it did in the 2008 election. Instead, he should hope that well-informed fear of the Republicans and well-informed political anger at the Republicans will move the American voters to re-elect him president, rather than electing a Republican to be president.

I use the example of President Obama to illustrate the larger problem as I see it in the Democratic party today. The Democrats today seem to me to suffer from an anger deficit regarding political anger. But the traditional way of referring to an anger deficit is to speak of cowardice. I see political anger as desirable because it should serve to motivate voter turnout. But Democrats today seem to regard political anger as just a bad habit that Republicans have. Because Republicans rely heavily on political anger, the Democrats appear to have decided that they will be "above" such a bad habit. The Democrats are going to take the high road as it were and arouse our hope for change, but without arousing our justified political anger at the Republicans who have engineered the problems that the high-minded Democrats hope we want to change.

As I say, hoping for well-informed change, as distinct from quixotic hopes, is fine as far as it goes. But we also should be prepared to fight politically and non-violently for the change we hope for. Political anger is the root of our fighting spirit. No political anger, no fighting spirit. No fighting spirit, no voter turnout, or low voter turnout. But these observations suggest that President Obama and the Democrats today have a deficit in their fighting spirit, to put it mildly. In plain English, they are suffering from the bad habit of cowardice masquerading as high-mindedness.

In her book Retrieving Political Emotion: Thumos , Aristotle, and Gender (2000), Barbara Koziak argues that in political theory today we need to retrieve Aristotle's view regarding political anger and its importance for politics. No, she does not single out the Democrats for comment. But I am singling out President Obama and the Democrats. The Democrats seem to believe that Republicans are just being ill-mannered when they try to play on people's fears and anger. As a result, the Democrats seem to believe that they are being well-behaved and polite by not trying to arouse political anger. As Barbara Koziak's analysis suggests, political anger evidently needs to be retrieved in the political theory that the Democrats today are evidently following.

But if Aristotle advances a healthy regard for the place of political anger in his political theory, we might wonder how and why he came to have a healthy regard for political anger.

Aristotle and everybody in his audience were familiar with the Homeric epic the Iliad. The Iliad is about political anger of epic proportions, King Achilles' justified political anger at being publicly dishonored by King Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the thousand-ships that set sail to retrieve Helen from Troy. Agamemnon also dishonored the priest of Apollo. So Agamemnon was up to no good, just as the Republicans have been up to no good over the last half century or so. But Achilles had the good sense to get angry at Agamemnon for dishonoring him.

By contrast, most Americans have not had enough sense to get angry at hubristic Republicans such as President Ronald Reagan when he declared our American government to be the problem. That's bunk! Reagan is the problem. He and other Republicans are hubristic, just as Agamemnon was. But in time Agamemnon repented. Will the hubristic Republicans ever repent their anti-government hubris. Anti-government Republicans are not fit to govern because they see government itself as the problem. Government is not the problem. The American government is for the common good. Republicans are not fit to govern because they are not for the common good of Americans. Let Republicans keep on saying that government is the problem, but keep them out of government offices because in the final analysis they are anti-American. When you say that the American government is the problem, you are anti-American.

In any event, it might sound odd to suggest that the Iliad is a work in political theory. But it is. This is not just a witty remark. Moreover, it is undoubtedly a work that Aristotle and everybody in his audience knew well. In the Iliad Agamemnon organizes the thousand ships to set sail to retrieve Helen from Troy. Isn't there a lesson in foreign policy implicit in his undertaking? The goddess Athena, the namesake of Athens where Aristotle lived and philosophized, is the goddess of victory, and the goddess who gives plunder to the victors. But aren't these also lessons in foreign policy? However, as wealthy and well-governed as Troy was, Troy eventually falls to the Greek forces. Isn't this a cautionary tale for all wealthy and well-governed political units to learn from, including presumably Athens? But Athens failed to learn the appropriate lesson from this cautionary, and as a result Athens and much of the rest of the known world was conquered by Alexander the Great, who self-consciously followed the example of Achilles.

Incidentally, in the medieval epic Beowulf, Beowulf and his warriors set sail from their country to help out the political regime in another country that is beset by raids by monsters. But when the American monsters and their monstrous practice of killing non-combatants and calling it "collateral damage" besieged Afghanistan and Iraq, where were Beowulf and his warriors when the people in Afghanistan and Iraq needed their assistance against the American monsters?

In any event, as is well known, academia today is organized around organizational units known as departments. Unfortunately, this way of organizing organizational units can lead to compartmentalized ways of thinking. No, I am not going to propose an alternative organizational structure.

But I do want to point out an odd thing that has happened. Aristotle's famous treatise the Nicomachean Ethics has been studied as a work about personal ethics, as though we should be noble for our own personal good. "Hey, God, look at me. I am being virtuous. Record each of my virtuous acts in your record book, so that you can give me the just reward I deserve in the afterlife." That's a lot of bunk. Virtue is its own reward. Each virtuous act I undertake, I undertake out of my self-regard and my self-love as well as out of my regard and love for others. The virtuous person acts out of self-respect and respect for his or her own personal power and dignity; the self-respecting person avoids ignoble acts because they are inherently degrading to his or her self-respect and dignity. But being virtuous and noble ineluctably involves being virtuous and noble for the good of others as well as for one's own personal good. Obviously only individual persons could cultivate the various qualities that Aristotle discusses in this rightly famous treatise. But I would suggest that he is discussing the qualities that all citizens in the polis should cultivate. In terms of the United States today, all American citizens should cultivate the qualities that Aristotle identifies and defines and explains. In short, the Nicomachean Ethics is best understood as a work in political theory about the qualities that citizens in the political unit should cultivate to be good and effective citizens in the political unit.

Being virtuous usually involves being heroic, even when one's virtuous acts are small acts such as small acts of resistance. But being heroic is the opposite of being an anti-hero. Being heroic requires being committed to one's own dignity as well as being committed to the dignity of others. By contrast, the anti-hero seems to be incapable of committing himself or herself to the good of others. In the four canonical gospels, Jesus is not portrayed as an anti-hero, but as a courageous hero of non-violent resistance to the Roman empire. As I have indicated, Aristotle and everybody in his audience were habituated in the Homeric epics and the different heroes named Achilles and Hector and Odysseus. For this reason Aristotle and everybody in his audience were habituated in the warrior's heroic code. In his non-violent resistance to the Roman empire, Jesus also embodies and exemplifies the (non-violent) warrior's heroic code, albeit in a non-violent way. After John the Baptist was executed, Jesus could have stopped his public ministry and gone home, but he did not. Non-violent warriors are not anti-heroes. Non-violent resistance today is not the stuff of anti-heroes, even in small acts of non-violent resistance.

In his book Reclaiming Virtue: How We Can Develop the Moral Intelligence to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason (2009), John Bradshaw paraphrases in his subtitle a famous statement Aristotle made in his treatise known as the Nicomachean Ethics regarding anger, which Bradshaw explicitly discusses in three different places in his book (pages 51, 198, 339). I certainly understand the point that Bradshaw and Aristotle are making about anger and the proper expression of anger in the present. But Bradshaw's discussion of anger seems to be almost exclusively about what I will refer to as personal anger, as distinct from political anger regarding political issues.

Of course we've heard it said that the personal is political. Maybe there is a point to that saying at times. But oftentimes we Americans fail to feel justified political anger, precisely because we do not see a connection between the political situation and our personal situation. Under such circumstances, for us, the political is not personal. But political anger is not necessarily personal anger. Our political anger should not be aroused only when we ourselves have a stake in the political situation in question. Our political anger should be aroused because we are committed to being good Americans citizens and to looking out for the well-being of our fellow Americans, not just for our own personal well-being, which of course we should look after as well.

Two people whose academic training is in political theory, Robert C. Bartlett of Boston College and Susan D. Collins of the University of Houston, have recently published a fresh translation titled Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (2011), In their "Interpretive Essay" (pages 237-302), Bartlett and Collins say, "the serious man is a self-lover[;] his noble action contributes to the good of another and the common good. His preference for noble action over all other goods explains his extraordinary choice in certain circumstances even to forsake his life in behalf of his friends or city; it explains, as well, his preference "to feel pleasure intensely for a short time over feeling it mildly for a long one, to live nobly for one year over living in a haphazard way for many years, and to do one great and noble action over many small ones' (1169a22-25). His noble action thus makes him a good friend and citizen, even though he is a self-lover to the highest degree; Aristotle himself advises that one ought to be a self-lover in this way and not as the many are" (pages 292-293).

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 
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We need virtuous and noble Americans to fight the ... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Jul 11, 2011 at 2:55:57 PM
Justice, temperance, prudence, and courage (some-l... by Richard Girard on Tuesday, Jul 12, 2011 at 1:59:08 PM