Rant: I Do Teach Politics. But Most People Think Politics Requires No Skill, And Therefore Can’t See What I’m Up To

Very rough, only an outline of an answer.

Once again I’ve been asked for the 928347927972th time why I write on poetry and philosophy if I’m a political scientist.

I think I’ve answered that at length before with commentary on how we relate to our heritage and the state of the media.

Now I want to take a little time to address what skills I’m actually teaching. But first, I have to address why skills are even important for the conduct of politics. It would seem in a democracy that those who are wholly unskilled must have a say in politics based on their dignity alone. To bring up the topic of skill is elitist, anti-democratic and alien to our politics fundamentally.

A second prior consideration is refining the notion of skill necessary for political life. We have experts everywhere in this democracy, many of whom are very capable at their jobs. For some strange reason, some of those very same experts are apt to believe conspiracy theories of the worst sort. Many think what they’ve encountered in their field entitles them to comment on everything else.

1. Democratic/Oligarchic and Aristocratic Politics

Broadly speaking, all instantiations of government are defined by these two types of politics.

  • Democratic/oligarchic – concerned with procuring the necessary things and anything else that is wanted.
  • Aristocratic – concerned with what is lasting, what is best.

You can see both types of politics are comments on what makes all of us happy, and both are crucial to our welfare. We want to live well, not simply live.

It should be noted Aristotle’s best regime mixes only democracy and oligarchy. Am I demanding more out of political life than Aristotle? I’m pretty sure I’m not, although I could be mistaken.

What’s probably happening in Aristotle is this: the sum of political life practically can be covered by democrats and oligarchs. They’re all that is necessary to grow crops, establish security, conduct a foreign policy. To insist on theoretical training for the sake of politics is absurd on its face: notice how practical our experts are, how their expertise deals with logistics or trade deficits or psychological profiles (I’m thinking Lisa from “Team America” as I say this), etc. Having a grasp on a theory of knowledge, the structure of the mind, moral reasoning and Being and the Good cannot possibly be prerequisite to practicing politics.

I’m in total agreement with the very cursory “Aristotle” above: wherever the “theoretical” element integral to politics is, it is hidden, and must remain so. Even “aristocrats” of previous ages could be defined by a practical function.

But just because something is hidden – private – doesn’t mean it isn’t of the utmost importance. And if something is really important, it has to be treated publicly in some way. Matters of conscience can be left to the individual only if the individual can be trusted.

2. Theoretical Skills with a Practical Dimension

Honestly, you could see how a theoretical dimension to political life existed when you consider what schooling was versus what it is.

You’d go to chapel and admit you didn’t know everything there, and have some very rudimentary and fundamental sense of right and wrong that you could articulate. Then there would be all the rhetoric and oratory taught with the classics and history; there’d be a sense the past was literally awesome, and that by imitating it you’d have access to powers they had. (What is most interesting about great men: many did write books. Is this just propaganda, or did they feel such a thing would be their truest legacy?) Eventually you’d do formal debate and maybe even study philosophy, asking serious questions of your peers, teachers, and the traditions you had been brought up with from a point of view that could hardly be untrustworthy. You did the work, appreciated what was given, absorbed the skills and now could think for yourself not once but in a number of situations. You knew how to learn, think, express yourself, and reflect.

So how do we teach now? We avoid any sense of religion or spirituality purposely – it is possible you personally could know everything, and we want you to be able to do as you like. Our emphasis on independent thought and action means that we teach the past not as awe-inspiring, but as something you have to learn so you can go on game shows and not be humiliated. Knowledge is power, but not a power anyone else had and used and learned from. It’s something that gets you what you want. You then use the knowledge you obtain to smash other people in debates, by destroying their argument as if no sensible person could disagree with you and impugning their character. Politics is a matter of good vs. evil, and you are the Good. Philosophy is something you have, and you can read all about it in Ben Folds’ lyrics., and how “it gets the job done.”

Notice that the theoretical skills aren’t merely reading/writing, questioning/speaking – alone, those are merely practical. They come loaded with a sense of value, in which “thought” is sandwiched between reflection (first brought about by piety) and still more reflection (brought about by your own self-knowledge). It seems strange to say a skill is only practical – that’s what we believe skills are – until you look at section 1 of this argument and realize that practicality is only one half of human life. The other half is “wellness,” and that involves being able to be independent and thoughtful and respectful towards others.

It is that last element – that social element – which a society that lacks concern for the theoretical will not have. It’s up to you to decide whether or not we can truly deliberate, whether in addition to our purported liberty and equality we also have fraternity. It seems to me you are hard-pressed to call the US’s current Presidential election – perhaps the height of politics the world over today – “deliberative” in any sense, or becoming of a republican, enlightened nation. It would seem more Messianic, especially given some of the rhetoric that many who believe Senator Obama’s call for change employ. A willing embrace of tyranny is not politics in any sense, but is the consequence of those who found worship of themselves alone most gratifying.

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