The question is never whether an individual is good but whether his conduct is good for the world he lives in. In the center of interest is the world and not the self.
For this post, I’m going off my usual topic of visual art and talking about two books I think would be worth the read right now. With the presidential election looming on the horizon and the flurry of click bait scattered across social media, I want to add my two cents and hopefully provide some food for thought. One of my recommendations is far more “popular” than the second. However, I would add that the second offers us a way to forgo the mistakes described in the first. I also want to make very clear that what follows is not an endorsement of either party or any of the individual candidates currently running. Therefore, if there appears to be any praise or critique implied here, that is not intentional.
From December of 1971 to January of 1973, Hunter S. Thompson was dispatched by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the 1972 presidential election—in particular the George McGovern campaign. The articles written over that time were eventually compiled and edited into his magnum opus Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. I say “magnum opus” because, although Thompson is known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the campaign articles show him writing at his highest capacity. Here, Thompson slows down a little bit, and you feel he’s not cranked up on speed or tripping on acid all the time. Instead, he gives us a very personal and introspective view of a critical election. The Vietnam conflict, women’s rights, and civil rights were at the forefront of political discussions, and McGovern was pushing an agenda that radically tackled those issues. Thompson makes no secret of his love for McGovern leading up to the primaries, nor does he hide his hatred for the other Democratic candidates or Richard Nixon. Yet, as history would have it, McGovern made several critical errors after winning the Democratic nomination thus derailing everything and ensuring Nixon’s return to the White House.
While Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is considered to be a hybrid of straight reporting and wild fantasy, Thompson captures truths about the perversity of politics and describes the rage and following despair of seeing that system collapse under its own weight of false promises, false idealism, misdirection, and misinformation. He also candidly illustrates the public’s fleeting love affair with politicians, exposing our need for instant gratification absent of any thought about what can and should really happen. And, he exposes our lack of forgiveness for those who do not live up to our impossible standards. It’s a tremendous cautionary tale about political blindness made all the more important by Hunter himself being the prime example of that naiveté.
My other suggestion can be seen as a way to avoid the above pitfalls. Well, it’s a way in as much as any philosophy can be. It’s certainly not a checklist of instructions to follow. But, in my opinion, that’s what makes it all the more relevant. Collecting 9 of her essays together, Responsibility and Judgment gives us Hannah Arendt’s take on the necessary action of thinking and making moral decisions as well as the nature of evil. Throughout her text, she applies her theories to several popular issues such as Brown versus the Board of Education as well as questioning the real evil behind Adolf Eichmann.
Perhaps her most provocative claim is that evil comes from her stance that evil does not arise from some deeply immoral area, buried in the roots of someone’s psyche, but instead, in his or her superficiality and lacking the ability to think. She rejects the notion of the status quo and illustrates how one normalcy can be easily exchanged for another. Real morality comes from the self-reflexive question: can I live with myself and with others? The ability to answer this removes you from following the societal norm (whatever the norm of the moment may be). In short, you must think and not simply obey.
This type of credo may seem obvious today in the promised utopia of new and fresh voices contributing to the ever-exploding dialogue of ideas, images, insights, and opinions that drench the super highway of digital media. But, you would be wrong to simply knee-jerk a supportive response to Arendt because do that, would defer your human responsibility to do what she asks. Arendt challenges us to pause, collect, and slow the hell down. She shows us the dangers of letting someone else think for us and reveals how that is in fact one of the greatest evils we can allow. I think in the rising sea of political fervor we are at risk of this. We need to remember that it is our democratic right and duty to think for ourselves and question ourselves in that process.
Posted 28th January 2016 by Arnold, H.C.