Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

May 23, 2020
  1. Objections to Bergson’s Theory

But what if Bergson’s initial claim, that humans alone are “the animal which laughs,” is completely wrong? Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[1] Several species of mammals have been observed making distinctive “happy noises” when play-fighting, and have been observed tickling and enjoying being tickled. Scientific studies of non mammalian humor are rarer, but I am aware of several apparent incidents of humor among parrots. My wife’s black capped conure enjoys peek-a-boo, and even says something that sounds a little like “Peekaboo” when popping out from hiding. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. Another friend told us one day her parrot requested to be sprayed with a mist bottle: “Showie? Showie?” When she got the bottle to give her a shower, the bird hid. As soon as she put it down, the bird again asked for a shower. It seemed to be a variation of the game humans play when they offer something and then pull it back. But the most elaborate story I heard was from my late father, about his African Grey named Smokey. As he told it:

 

 

When Smokey got lonely he’d call for me using (his wife) Debbie’s voice, or he’d call me using her voice. We would call down and ask, “Is that you?” and if we didn’t get an answer we’d know it was the bird. One day I was upstairs and I heard my wife calling, “Waite! Waite!” I called down, “Honey, is that you?” After a few seconds, I heard more insistently, “Waite! Waite!” So I rushed downstairs, Debbie was no where to be found, and that bird laughed at me——-IN MY VOICE!

 

 

The most human-like humor probably has come from Koko, the sign-language using gorilla, who engaged in puns and who once tied her human companion’s shoelaces together and then gave the sign for “chase.” One common element of all of these is some degree of social awareness. This is particularly seen in the parrots and Koko, who engaged in some sort of linguistic or communication-based humor. These relied on physical or audible signs which the animal knew would give a predictable response; sometimes the animal seemed to enjoy frustrating the response, while at other times the invited response was part of the payoff for the animal, but always there was some social reasoning involved. In the tickling or rough-housing behaviors, the “laughter” seems to be a signal that everyone is enjoying it and it’s not serious. For example, among rats there’s a certain sound made when rats of roughly equal sizes play-fight, but when one is much larger it apparently becomes a lot less fun and the rat-laughter ceases.[2]

I personally don’t think of tickling as “humor,” but more as one of a range of laughter-producing stimuli. Some people laugh due to some neurological condition, and scientists can evoke “laughter” from rats by electrical brain stimulation as well as by tickling their tummies. Among animals, we would say it seems more like “humor” when it is playful, “all in good fun.” Laughter is an expression of pleasure, and humor the art of provoking laughter in others. Humor would seem to require empathy, in that either knowing when the other is trying to be funny rather than threatening or knowing what the other will find funny requires some sense of how the other is likely to perceive things. A sense of humor may be a subcategory of the sense of the other as other. If Bergson is wrong about his view that humans are the only animal that laughs or is laughed at, that would in turn suggest that humor may be part of intelligence. Any animal can perceive when its needs are met and find some sort of pleasure in that; as Beethoven’s 9th symphony states, “even the worm can feel contentment.” The more sophisticated the brain, the more joy and more varieties of joy the animal can feel; and at some point this becomes what we would recognize as “humor.”

If Bergson is wrong about humor being the property of humans alone, then it seems likely that he is mistaken about his claim that it is purely intellectual and opposed to feeling, since his claim about the intellectuality of humor derives from his belief that it is strictly human. The claim that humor is social is less obviously dependent on either of the other two principles; but I think we have already seen good reason to try again and see if we can develop a theory of humor from a different starting point.

The humor of nonhumans is an interesting area of study for scientists, and they can derive truths that fit all reasonable definitions of objective truth; but the experience of nonhuman animals is so alien to us that it is of limited philosophical use. Children, on the other hand, are a much better source of data: in many ways more animal than person, or animal moving towards full rationality and personhood, and much easier to observe and to interrogate. Bergson’s considerations are based almost exclusively on the experiences of adults; where he does consider children at all it is in reference to the theory he has developed in reference to adults.[3] But if we are looking for the source of humor among adults, where better to start than with the source of adults themselves—that is, children?

Babies laugh. It is true that we begin able to cry from birth, but must discover how to laugh; and perhaps this says something about our condition in the world. But still, babies laugh; and they do not so much “learn” to laugh as they do discover the ability. They don’t learn to laugh by imitating adults, as they learn so much else; if they did, they would first laugh when the adults were laughing and would try to laugh at those things. Rather, the laughter of a baby seems to be a spontaneous expression of joy. Something makes the baby happy, and the baby laughs. If tears are the instinctive response to deprivation, then laughter seems to be the expression of something even greater than the contentment when all needs have been met, and satisfaction overflows. Is this social? Babies seem to smile trying to imitate the smiling faces around them; perhaps they laugh because they are happy to have those around them. But I don’t think so. I’ve seen my two-year-old grandson laugh like a mad hatter at something which was funny only to him: the picture on his watering can. For the first several days that he had this new toy, he would stop, look at the picture with its bright colors and smiling sun, and laugh. Why? I don’t know. But I doubt it was because, as Bergson might say, it made him think of a human who was behaving mechanically. Children generally don’t distinguish sharply between what is living versus inanimate. Piaget tells a story about a child who picked up a rock and put it with the others because it looked lonely. His sadness and subsequent desire to help the lonely rock was no different than my grandson’s laughter at his watering-can; and neither was moved by “ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS … WHICH GIVES US, IN A SINGLE COMBINATION, THE ILLUSION OF LIFE AND THE DISTINCT IMPRESSION OF A MECHANICAL ARRANGEMENT.” (caps Bergson’s)

Pain is reflexive. You hurt; you grab your knee, roll around, scream obscenities and loudly proclaim that you’ve broken the fornicating joint. A baby is hungry, or in pain, or has some other need; the baby cries. There is no thought; it is purely animal. Any creature that cares for its young has an instinctive way for those young to signal they are in need, and some sort of instinct of adults to respond; though parenting is also leaned, so knowing how to respond effectively is something that is taught or modeled for many animals, particularly us. This begins to point towards Wittgenstein’s observations about pain-behavior.[4] We do things reflexively, instinctively, in reaction to pain, At some point in our lives, though, we develop a social sense, and begin to realize that others act as we act and assume they, too, feel pain, based on their actions. Unless we are psychologically damaged, psychopaths or narcissists or whatever, we care; as Hume said, the instinct for sympathy seems to be as primordial as the instinct for competition. Even the person who doesn’t “feel another’s pain” still finds use for knowing what hurts others and in signaling his or her own pain as well, even if only to deceive and manipulate them. Pain-behavior and pain-language has uses in society; so we learn to interpret one another’s pain-behavior and to respond more effectively, we learn to signal more effectively so we receive useful help (or perhaps to hide our pain from real or supposed enemies), and so on.

Laughter can be understood as joy-behavior. Babies laugh and, according to some scientists, some animals laugh; so it seems to be an instinctive response to something more than mere contentment. But laughter is social in a way pain is not. We like to see others happy. The instinctive response to a smile is to smile back; behaviorists say the smile evolves initially out of the primate fear-signal of baring the teeth, becoming a signal of “I am not a threat to you” and then evolving to a more positive “I like you; I am a help to you, and I hope you feel the same.” It causes a feeling of joy to see another smile or hear another laugh. My father loved to tell the story of when I was an infant in one of those bouncy-chairs they hang from door frames. So, picture the baby, too young to walk but aware of his environment and the people. He’s bouncing up and down on the spring when, suddenly, he stops and pulls his ears. It’s such an absurd thing to do that his parents laugh. The baby sees that they laugh, and he likes that, so he does it again. And again. And now it’s not unexpected so it’s a lot less funny to the adults, but the child knows only that everybody laughed and was happy and that felt good.

We are hard-wired to want others to smile at us. Thus, laughter is even more social than tears. We feel sad when others are sad, as a rule, but we don’t want to feel sad so we either try to help or try to avoid them. And we feel happy when others are happy, we get a little shot of dopamine when someone smiles at us or laughs, and we are thus encouraged to try again. Babies and toddlers do what seems to get them smiles and laughter and approval from adults. As we get older and come to value peers more than the opinions of elders, we want to get them to smile and laugh. And thus comedy is born, from the joy-behavior of the baby and the toddler up through the class clown, the life-of-the-party, the raconteur, and all the other varieties of amateur comedian (it is worth remembering at this point that the word “amateur” is derived from “love;” the amateur comedian is one who strives to be funny for the love of the laughter). As we get older and the society we engage in becomes more sophisticated, we need to learn what is funny to those around us, and thus humor becomes increasingly rooted in the shared cultural values and meanings of the comedian and the audience.

Bergson treats the adult as the type, adult humor as the defining standard of the comic, and examines childhood humor (such as toys) under those categories. I wish to start with the child and the child’s experience with laughter, and see what we can discover about the adult’s humor. But still, I must face the question: why does the adult laugh at the child? When asked, adults often have no more answer than “it was so absurd.” The baby bounces, grabs his ears for no reason, and the adult laughs. Other times we laugh because the child says or does something that is quite appropriate, though the child has no idea why. My grandson had been experimenting with a new phrase: “Not yet.” When asked if he had done something, rather than saying “yes” or “no,” he would sometimes answer “Not yet.” Last week he was sitting between my daughter and me on her sofa and she asked, “Did you pee-pee your pants?” He answered, “Not yet.” Everybody laughed, and then he laughed too though his laughter seemed a little forced. It seemed to me that he had no real idea why everyone was laughing but wanted to join in; the adults were laughing because it sounded as if he were planning to wet the sofa, but didn’t really. If they had really thought he intended to soil the furniture they wouldn’t have laughed; they would have rushed to get a diaper on him. What he said was funny because it wasn’t true, but could have been; it wasn’t a non sequitur. Sometimes the child is apparently trying to be funny, and succeeds. When my daughter was verbal but still in diapers, I got up with her one night to change her and thought she felt warm. I got the thermometer and found she had a fever. I said, “Congratulations! You are one sick puppy.” She said, “Arf!” In short, when we laugh at babies, it seems to be for a variety of reasons: sometimes because they say or do something that seems very “adult,” other times when they do something that seems like it was an attempt to be “adult,” other times when it is just absurd but struck us as funny.

Perhaps there really is nothing more to it. The baby laughs because he or she is happy; why must the adult have any other reason? I haven’t done a survey, but I suspect most widely-spoken languages have different words for “funny” versus “pleasant” or “makes me joyful.” It does appear that there is an intellectual component to “funny.” For example, people who are particularly good at mental tasks like estimation also prefer more complex jokes.[5] We often use similar language about humor and play; for example, people who disapprove of humor may say it is “frivolous,” or say “quit clowning around,” while those who approve may say the joker is “fun” and “playful.” We even refer to “word-play” for a particular sort of humor. Perhaps, just as some sorts of play are fun because they provide a physical challenge and the pleasure of using one’s muscles, other sorts of “play” are pleasurable because they challenge and stimulate brain cells and neurons that needed a little exercise. Most humor requires seeing something from two or more angles simultaneously; even the pratfall has to both appear to be a fall but also appear to not actually cause harm (unless the laugher is a real jerk, which is another issue).

I know of no culture that does not have some concept of physical play, such as racing or jumping competitions or other “non-serious” physical activities. While there are cultural variations (“Waddya mean I can’t use my hands?”) the concept itself is pretty universal. Humor seems to have more cultural variations. A 2002 study surveyed 1.5 million people from 70 different countries, asking them to submit jokes they thought were funny and then to evaluate what jokes they thought were funny. In total, 40,000 jokes were graded, and some cultural differences did emerge. Americans (and Canadians) seemed more drawn to jokes that implied a certain aggression or put-down than were other cultures; for example:

 

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard Graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay— where are you from, jackass?”

 

Europeans were said to be more likely to enjoy surreal humor:

 

A German Shepherd went to the telegram office, took out a blank form, and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”

“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”[6]

 

They were also said to like jokes about death, like this one from Scotland: “I just want to die quickly and peacefully like my grandfather, and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” And it makes sense that humor would be strongly affected by culture. Humor is social, and anything social is at least partly learned. The capacity for humor and the instinct to want to make others laugh may be universal and innate, but every comedian knows you have to “read the room.” Any group is going to have learned patterns of behavior, standards of what is acceptable, utterly serious, titillating and so on. The lead researcher, Dr. Richard Wiseman, also noted that, in addition to cultural differences, there were simply different reasons for something to seem funny, saying, “Also, we find jokes funny for lots of different reasons. They sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking situations or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity.”[7] And how humor is used or appreciated varies between cultures and particularly between East and West, despite physiological and psychological factors that appear universal.[8] This affects even how adults will perceive a child’s humor, which in turn would affect what the child learns and become a self-reinforcing cultural trait. A Westerner is likely to consider a humorous child to be clever, creative and social, so the child’s early attempts to provoke laughter are likely to be rewarded; but a Chinese is more likely to see such behavior as disruptive and unsocial, so the child will get less positive reinforcement.

At a minimum, then, this sort of pragmatic, genealogical approach to understanding humor has several advantages over Bergson’s approach based more on the structures of society. It accounts for children’s humor and for nonhuman humor, areas Bergson neglected in the first case and didn’t recognize in the second. It is able to accommodate the well-known cultural variations in humor as instances of generational transmission, while still also accounting for the universality of humor as a phenomenon. This approach does not rule out the validity of Bergson’s theory entirely, but it does contradict it at some points and expand the range of humor it is able to discuss. One thing it does not do, which Bergson does, is attempt to define what is “funny.” Many things are “funny” to one person and not to another. This is not that unusual; taste would seem to be a biological reality and important to the survival of the individual, yet one person or culture may enjoy a taste that another finds bland or even repulsive. Perhaps too “funny” is one of those fuzzy concepts, with multiple related meanings, so that philosophy will never be able to find a universal theory of the comic. That does not mean, however, that philosophy need remain mute on the subject; there is still much philosophy can learn from examining humor and much to discover about its implications.

[1] Joseph Castro, “Do Animals Have Humor?” LiveScience Nov. 6, 2017 (https://www.livescience.com/60864-do-animals-have-humor.html) see also Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, “Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor? New Evidence Suggests All Mammals Have a Funny Bone;” Slate March 26, 2014 (https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html)

[2] McGraw/Warner

[3] Laughter, chapter II, sect. I

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, 286-312

[5] John von Radowitz, “Revealed: The Funniest Joke in the World;” The Guardian October 3, 2002 (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/oct/03/3)

[6] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/03/07/287250640/what-is-the-funniest-joke-in-the-world)

[7] “Revealed”

[8] Tonglin Jiang, Hao Li, Yubo Ho, “Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage and Implications;” Frontiers in Psychology January 29, 2019 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00123/full)

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 1)

May 21, 2020

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter”

 

 

  1. Bergson’s Theory of the Comic

There has been relatively little written by philosophers about humor. We have Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in the Poetics, and we have discussions of beauty, but not much sustained discussion of humor. Wittgenstein said it was possible to write an entire philosophy text consisting of nothing but jokes, but he never wrote such a book. And there have been many forays of philosophy into humor. I heard Steven Wright tell a joke about burglars breaking into his house and stealing all his stuff and replacing everything with exact duplicates. Police were baffled. A few years later, my professor told me that Wittgenstein had asked once what it would mean if someone thought people were stealing his stuff and replacing everything with duplicates, and I concluded that Wright must have gotten the idea from Wittgenstein. Steve Martin majored in philosophy, famously saying, “I studied just enough philosophy to fuck me up for the rest of my life.” Woody Allen’s comedic writings were littered with references to Kierkegaard, among others, and Craig Ferguson frequently mentioned Kierkegaard on his television show. Most recently and notably would be NBC’s “The Good Place,” a series that featured four deeased souls trying to avoid everlasting damnation by posthumously learning to be “good,” largely by taking classes on moral philosophy. But while comedians talk humorously about philosophy a lot, philosophers more rarely philosophically analyze the concept of humor.   The most famous sustained philosophical treatment of humor is Henri Bergson’s Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic.[1] I would like to use this as a starting-point to philosophically discuss comedy, to see if more recent studies and other perspectives might lead us to additional insights.

Bergson writes, “The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.”[2] He claims that only humans laugh, and that when we laugh, we laugh at other humans or things that in some way remind us of humans. A landscape can strike us funny because it looks human in some way: “the brook sounds like it’s laughing; but the old tree looks sad.” Or, he says, a hat may seem funny, but only because we know some person chose to make it look that silly, intentionally or not. Thus, Bergson says, humans are not only animals that laugh, but also animals that are laughed at.

He further writes, “Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter.”[3] To feel strongly about something is to take it “seriously;” to laugh at something or someone is to step away emotionally and find the comic; “for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” Bergson thus sees laughter as a rational phenomenon; a society of purely intellectual beings would have no tears, but might still laugh, whereas a society of very sentimental and emotional beings would have no concept of laughter or the comic. To be able to laugh is to stop feeling strongly about the object of one’s laughter. I recall an incident on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, the day naturalist Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin was tragically killed while diving with stingrays. He was a beloved personality worldwide, and even Stewart seemed to be grieving. His interview for that show was fellow comedian Norm MacDonald, and they began talking about the death of Mr. Irwin. MacDonald began musing about two crocs sharing the news: “You remember that guy who used to poke us all the time?” asks the first croc.

“What about him?” asks the second.

“He died. He was killed!”

“Really! Who got him?”

“Man, you don’t wanna know. Some fruity fish!” (At this point the audience, including Stewart, were laughing uncontrollably.)

“Please don’t make me laugh at this,” said Stewart, unable to stop.

For a few moments, the sadness that everyone was feeling, the sense of loss, was annihilated as they laughed about the absurdity that a man who had brought joy and knowledge to millions by his capturing and training of enormous saltwater crocodiles (some of the most massive and dangerous predators alive) should have been killed by a fish that is generally so harmless that tourists dive with them regularly.

Bergson’s third preliminary observation is that while the comic is a realm of intelligence rather than emotion, “This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences.” The comic has a social dimension. This is why, he says, a group of travelers may laugh among themselves as someone tells a story which an outsider finds either incomprehensible or merely unfunny; the third party lacks the frame of reference. Even when we laugh to ourselves, it is as if someone else were telling us the joke, or we imagine telling it to another. Bergson concludes, “The comic will come into being, it appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence. “ Comedy must be human, it must be aimed at the mind rather than the emotions, and it must be social. Having established these elements, Bergson moves on to ask what it is, more precisely, that catches our attention, that “strikes the funny bone,” and makes us laugh.

Bergson argues that the comic element emerges when humans behave “mechanically” rather than in a human, rational fashion. He paradigm is absentmindedness. The absentminded person acts on habit even when it is inappropriate to the circumstances, or forgets what he or she was doing or saying, or forgets where something is or confuses two things. One of my professors said he resolved to quit smoking the day he suddenly realized he had a cigarette in his right hand, a cigarette in his left hand, and was struggling to light a cigarette. He also regularly walked around with shirts with holes in the pocket because he had put a lit cigarette in his shirt pocket again. If we saw that in a movie, it would be hilarious; and Bergson says the reason is that it is so funny is that in that moment what was most human about this absent-minded professor was that he lost the intelligence that defines the human and became a sort of zombie or automaton. His reason failed him precisely because of that other human trait, his character, as if his mind was undermining itself; and we are amused by the fact because we observers are employing our intelligences to spot the incongruity and to note its failure.[4] Likewise, Bergson claims the comedy of the pratfall is when the body betrays the person; his intellect sought to walk down the street, but he stepped on a banana peel or got splashed by passing car. Or, when we see a character in a play put acting absurdly because he or she is overwhelmed with jealousy or some other emotion, we again see the rational person ceasing to act rationally and instead being pushed along by outside forces, like a leaf in the wind, except that the leaf and wind are both elements of the jealous one’s own personality. Similarly, we treat society as a person, and may laugh when we see the entire collective society engaged in absurd and “mechanical” activity, Bergson says. Social ceremonies are important to social cohesion and as expressions of collective values, but when divorced from that context and just seen as actions they can quickly become comic, Bergson says, “from an ordinary prize-distribution to the solemn sitting of a court of justice.” During the waning days of the Cold War my father went with a group of doctors to visit Russia and learn about their achievements in eye surgery. While there, he was given a medal in a public men’s room by the attendant, apparently for “marksmanship.” To the Soviets, any expression of approval by the Party was meaningful, both because of the power the State had to do one good or ill, but also because it was an expression of one’s social worth as a productive member of society. Russians were frequently given these rather cheap medals for minor achievements, and someone must have thought them meaningful. To an American, however, getting a medal for not pissing on the floor seemed like a joke, and if it wasn’t an intentional joke then it was a joke on Soviet society as a whole.

In much the same way, it is humorous when a person is swallowed up by his or her official status and seems unable to respond humanly. Bergson tells the story of custom-house officials rescuing survivors from a shipwreck, and then asking them out of habit, “Do you have anything to declare?” Or sometimes humor arises when someone filling a social post doesn’t quite succeed in hiding his or her all-too-humanness. There’s nothing very funny about an American not being able to sing our national anthem; it is notoriously difficult. But when Donald Trump, standing as the Head of State at a public event, seems to not know the words or has to be reminded by his immigrant wife to put his hand over his heart, it becomes funny because while it is one thing for an ordinary person not to know the words or to neglect to cover his heart, it’s quite another when the nation’s leader is standing publicly as the representative of the national spirit and seems to be, in fact, only a rather mediocre citizen.

Another source of comic contradiction, says Bergson, is when the body betrays the mind.[5] This can happen when the body lacks the proper human suppleness, and seems too rigid and mechanical—or, I suspect, when it seems too supple. Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch is a good example of both physical and social humor. There is a great deal of comedy that comes from John Cleese, who is particularly convincing when playing a stuffy judge, businessman or government bureaucrat, meets with someone who is trying to invent a new silly walk, and the two of them talk as seriously as if a would-be engineer were applying to patent a new car engine; but when you add his physical gyrations and contortions that seem to go beyond what a human body should do or be capable of doing, it becomes hilarious.[6] As Bergson says, sometimes it is funny simply to be reminded that a person has a body, particularly when the body is not supposed to be relevant. This is likely why everyone thought it was so funny when, during the very first telephone hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court, we distinctly hear a toilet flush.[7] In the 1960s society was so squeamish about reminders of physicality that All in the Family could regularly get big laughs by simply having an off-screen toilet flush. But when this reminder of our universal physicality occurs during one of the most solemn of our social rituals, a meeting of the Supreme Court, the juxtaposition of the almost otherworldliness of the situation with the very earthy event is humorous.

Chapter II of Bergson’s essay largely develops this line of thought and extends it to verbal humor. Just as he has said that contradictions between a subject’s humanity—that is, his or her autonomy and rationality—versus physicality or mechanical behavior, so in verbal humor there is a conflict between the human, the rational and/or the moral versus some other, more physical or automatic implication. I think one example would be confusing “greatness” as in a great man or Great White Shark. As Bergson writes, “The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.”[8] Bergson sees this same sort of automatism at the root of both physical and verbal humor, from the pratfall to the pun to the most witty social satire.

The essay’s third chapter deals with the comic element expressed in character. Since, Bergson says, we started with the comic as a human and social phenomenon, we were already pretty close to character to begin; we need now only return to the original source of humor, which is humanity. After all, as he said earlier, humans are the only animal that laughs and, essentially, the only animal which is laughed at, since whatever we laugh at is only funny insofar as it reminds us of the human. Furthermore, we laugh as what does not essentially move our emotions, since emotions such as love or pity are undermined by humor. So, what sorts of character or person would we laugh at, and under what circumstances would we laugh at another?

Drawing on his earlier discussion, Bergson claims that we can laugh at another only when we do not feel any emotion towards the other. To some extent, we have to depersonalize the other in order to laugh at him or her. Furthermore, what makes the neighbor funny is some behavior reminiscent of a machine: behavior that is unnaturally rigid, inflexible, seemingly preprogrammed, unresponsive or out of sync with the actual circumstances. Thus, the most comic character is one that is not a real person, but more of a type. We have to feel as if we know this person, or know them well enough, but not to sympathize with them. Thus, the more depth with which the character is depicted, or the more backstory, the less comic he or she is likely to be. The knowledge we need of the character must be superficial. Thus, neither great monologues nor bold actions are comic, but rather gestures. A gesture can flow naturally from the character and reveal what sort of character lies at its root, but for all that is relatively meaningless. The NBC series The Good Place illustrates this idea quite well. The series is about four people who have died and find themselves in the afterlife, which turns out to be a planned community resembling a crossbreeding of Beverly Hills and Disneyland Main Street. Our first introductions to the characters are through gestures rather than statements or conscious acts. When Eleanor can’t remember the name of anyone she’s talking to or anything that person is saying, or when she steals shrimp at a party so she can take them home and scarf them later, we can see she is a completely selfish person. When Tahani compulsively drops names with sentences like “This is as upsetting as the time when my friend Kanye got in a fight with my good friend Taylor over my best friend Beyoncé,” we instantly know that she is obsessed with everyone knowing how important she is. The comedy of the show is largely driven by the flawed, shallow characters of these people, and their reflexive behavior. And as a result, they are also fairly unlikeable; and this is not good for a television series that wants repeat viewers. Thus, sometimes the writers give us flashbacks showing how someone’s horrible parents or toxic friends led them to become the sort of silly, incapable person they are now. This gives the viewers reason to sympathize with the protagonists and to want to see them struggle and overcome their obstacles and hopefully become better people; but these moments are rarely funny. Bergson would say this is exactly as it should be and as his theory predicts: we can sympathize with the protagonists or we can laugh, but we can’t do both at the same time. At best, we can alternate between the two. The funny moments are where we see them as The Social Peacock, The Antisocial Egoist, and so on, and see them saying and doing things quite mindlessly which reflect and flow from these types.

From what we have seen to this point, it is not surprising that Bergson sees something aggressive in comedy.[9] Bergson says that there is always a social element to comedy; we laugh at others, and among ourselves, so laughing defines the group of laughers versus those who are laughed at. We laugh at some sort of rigidity which marks the other as eccentric and not naturally fitting into society. Bergson likens it to a kind of hazing or “ragging,” which at its best is meant to gently chide the object of the laughter into coming to his or her senses, seeing that he or she has become laughable by becoming unnatural and mechanical, and thus perhaps waking up to the need for a more spontaneous, natural and aware life. This can happen when we mock the other as falling into a type, allowing some character trait, usually a vice but possibly a virtue, to cut one off from social life. [10] It is the unsociability of another that provokes our laughter, rather than the fault per se, so that even a virtue can become laughable or a vice, if it provokes violent emotion such as anger, is not. Sometimes the “type” is not a character stereotype at all, but a social one.[11] Every profession has its own standards, patterns of speech and thought, values and in short is a subculture within the wider society. Mocking these different groups can be a way to call them to account when some member of the profession begins to think his or her group is superior or self-sufficient. One example that seems to particularly reflect this sort of humor is Monty Python’s “Merchant Banker Sketch.” The Merchant Banker, busy extorting fees and concessions from a “Mr. Victim” seeking a loan, is approached in his office by a Mr. Ford who is collecting money for charity. Try as he might, The Banker cannot grasp this concept:

 

 

 

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

Mr Ford: Well, yes you are.

Banker: I am! Well, what is my incentive to give you the pound?

Mr Ford: Well the incentive is to make the orphans happy.

Banker: (genuinely puzzled) Happy? You quite sure you’ve got this right?[12]

 

 

Any normal person understands the idea of charity, but the Merchant Banker is not “normal;” he describes himself as “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich,” while introducing himself with “Er… I forget my name for the moment but I am a merchant banker. “ He is literally so caught up in his job and his wealth that he cannot understand anything else. Bergson would be pleased by this satire. At the same time, this is only funny because the Banker is unsympathetic but also nonthreatening; his exaggerated miserliness and abuse of others renders him unrealistic, so while his type is recognizable and seen as deserving a good drubbing, he is not personal enough to evoke genuine fear or anger.

To summarize, Bergson sees comedy as uniquely human and thus rational, aimed at the head rather than the heart, and primarily as serving a social function of (usually) gently punishing unsociability which results from an undue rigidity or mechanical behavior in another.

[1] Henri Bergson, Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic posted July 26, 2009 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm)

[2] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. I

[3] Laughter

[4] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. II

[5] Laughter, chapter I, sect. III

[6] Monty Python’s Flying Circus, BBC1, season 2, episode 1 (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2hwqki)

[7] “Listen: Toilet Flushes as Supreme Court Holds Oral Arguments by Teleconference;” NBC News NOW May 6, 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xB0bUtTvdCU)

[8] Laughter, chapter II, sect. II

[9] Laughter, chapter III sect. I

[10] For example, in The Good Place there is a character, Chidi, who is a moral philosopher and terribly indecisive. The audience is shown that he was unnaturally indecisive even as a child, but now his anxiety has been exacerbated by his morality itself. Faced with a simple question like whether to have a blueberry muffin for breakfast, he worries about the treatment of farm workers, what various schools of philosophy would judge to be better or worse, and becomes paralyzed. As a result, he makes everyone who cares about him miserable, not through any malice or immorality but by an excess of virtue: he is too thoughtful, too afraid of causing offense or violating his duty, and thus constantly offends and annoys and fails to do his duty or anything else.

[11] Laughter chapter III, sect. III

[12] “The Merchant Banker,” 2014 MontyPython.net (http://www.montypython.net/scripts/merchant.php) video here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2u4ggn

Comedy: Notes on Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

April 21, 2020

I’m afraid I got distracted and didn’t follow up on this like I wanted.  I’ll post the rest of these notes for your comments, and try to rewrite them later.  All notes refer to this text:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm

 

…laughter has no greater foe than emotion.

 

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land tells a story of a human who was stranded among aliens since infancy, raised to think like them rather than like a human, until he was returned to Earth as an adult. One of his most difficult struggles was humor. He did not laugh, and did not understand laughter; among the telepathic and socially peaceful race that had raised him, humor did not exist. He learned to laugh watching monkeys in a zoo; one robbed another of a peanut, the victim vented his rage on a still smaller monkey, and the last found comfort from a young mother monkey. At this The Stranger laughed, because he saw that this reflected what it is to be human; we laugh because something hurts so much that we can’t stand it otherwise.[1] Heinlein’s view of laughter disagrees with Bergson’s and with my own, but one place where Bergson and Heinlein agree is that laughter takes away the pain. People laugh at funeral receptions and wakes. Why? Because they don’t care? No; sometimes those who were crying just before and will cry again stop to laugh, and sometimes the laughter even intrudes into the tears. Maybe we remember some moment of joy or humor we shared with the deceased. Maybe we laugh at death itself. There are a lot of jokes about death. Generally, we seem to laugh at things we fear, which threaten or suggest or even give pain, and when we can laugh at them we can deal with them. When I was diagnosed with hearing loss, I wrote a list of the top ten great things about going deaf, culminating in “And the Number One great thing about going deaf is, “Deaf? Oh thank goodness doctor, I thought you said ‘Death’!” And yes, instead of dwelling on the sadness over what I was losing, I was able to cut hearing loss down to size.

 

Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification.

One of the most commonly observed and strangest characteristics of humor is that it seems to be so restricted. It is difficult to find jokes that translate well from one culture to another, and particularly hard to find jokes that translate into another language without losing the humor.

 

…how often has the remark been made that many comic effects are incapable of translation from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group!

 

Is it true that laughter requires a group? Is it untranslatable? More to the point, is it social in a way other emotional expressions are not? How does the untranslatability compare to poetry? How does laughter compare to the shared terror at a horror movie, or shared sadness at a funeral? Even Bergson’s own illustration of the sermon suggests a kinship.

 

This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.

 

Is all laughter, or even most comedy, a response to or display of “rigidity” or a “mechanical” behavior?

Bergson says laughter is a social response to eccentricity, defined by him as a sort of inelasticity, essentially an unconscious means of social control to discourage such rigidity by the fear of being laughed at. To what extent does this seem true?

Kierkegaard might suggest that laughter is, or can be part of the social operation of envy. In that case, it is punishing not just a failure or anti-life inelasticity, but possibly a positive deviancy. Maybe we laugh at more than one sort of “noncomfority” or unexpected behavior.

 

THE ATTITUDES, GESTURES AND MOVEMENTS OF THE HUMAN BODY ARE LAUGHABLE IN EXACT PROPORTION AS THAT BODY REMINDS US OF A MERE MACHINE.

 

I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes gestures are laughably flexible; and a dancer doing The Robot is not necessarily funny. Maybe what is laughable is a feigned lack of control. If it is obvious that someone is having a seizure, the instinct is to help, not laugh; but someone who is able on command to fall without injury, or stand so still as to be mistaken for a statue, only to move suddenly and startle someone, is funny. The dancer who moves like a robot is so obviously in control, so skillful, that it provokes admiration rather than laughter.

 

Why are imitations of another’s gestures funny? Is it, as Bergson says, because they take on an element of impersonality, of mechanism? Or is it more like what he said before about caricature? Is it funny because we recognize another being mimicked? Is it funny when we see a person imitating his or her own characteristic gestures, satirizing himself or herself?

 

As we hinted at the outset of this study, it would be idle to attempt to derive every comic effect from one simple formula.

 

What is the import of this? Is it a concession that not all humor is routed in mechanism, that this is but one species of comedy?

 

The ceremonial side of social life must, therefore, always include a latent comic element, which is only waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view.

 

Would this be his explanation for political humor? Revealing the mayor to be a drunk, the family-values senator to be a gay philanderer, etc. highlights the disconnection between the ceremonial dignity of the office and the real-life frailties of the people playing the parts. Or it shows up the fact that the people were only playing parts and had no real life, no real investment in it, did not take it seriously.

 

Let us now give a wider scope to this image of THE BODY TAKING PRECEDENCE OF THE SOUL. We shall obtain something more general—THE MANNER SEEKING TO OUTDO THE MATTER, THE LETTER AIMING AT OUSTING THE SPIRIT.

 

Bergson sees the body as the mechanical, overtaking the soul which is the essence of vitality. I wonder if it would be better to see it as the conflict between the artificial and the trivial versus the natural, original and vital. One example: the South Park episode “Hot Catholic Love.” The local priest, distressed by the harm being caused by the ongoing sex scandal and the fact that his parishioners no longer trust him, travels to Rome to push the leadership to do something. They begin debating what has gone wrong, and why boys will no longer keep quiet. The priest is flabbergasted, and demands that they simply stop having sex with boys. This utterly confuses the cardinals, who point out that Church law forbids priests having sex with women so of course they can only have sex with boys. Bergson would say that the comic aspect is that the actual essence, the faith, has been overtaken by the artificial, the rules of the Church. The South Park writers agree, with the priest destroying the Church Law in the name of restoring a simple, vital faith that can guide each person in his or her life.

 

Thus, we laugh at the prisoner at the bar lecturing the magistrate; at a child presuming to teach its parents; in a word, at everything that comes under the heading of “topsyturvydom.”

Bergson sees this as an example of rigidity or mechanization; the situation is reversed as if the characters were algebraic and interchangeable, but with the “wrong” people in the roles it becomes comic; for example, the child teaching the parent or other adult.

Not infrequently comedy sets before us a character who lays a trap in which he is the first to be caught.

This is clearly part of the comic joy we get in seeing a real-life judgmental character being caught doing what he condemned in others, like when prosecutor Ken Starr was found to have helped cover up sexual assaults at Baylor after vigorously prosecuting Bill Clinton for his affair with a White House intern, or when an anti-gay preacher is arrested for public homosexual indecency.

Sometimes we state what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is actually being done; then we have IRONY. Sometimes, on the contrary, we describe with scrupulous minuteness what is being done, and pretend to believe that this is just what ought to be done; such is often the method of HUMOUR.

Compare Climacus’ very different discussion of irony and humor, in Fragments.

The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.

So “mechanical” and “automatism” are more or less identical?

Convinced that laughter has a social meaning and import, that the comic expresses, above all else, a special lack of adaptability to society, and that, in short, there is nothing comic apart from man, we have made man and character generally our main objective.

A summary of his theory.

Comedy can only begin at the point where our neighbour’s personality ceases to affect us. It begins, in fact, with what might be called a growing callousness to social life.

He said earlier that comedy appeals to the intellect and turns off the emotions, at least temporarily. How so? Do we laugh because we are callous, does laughing establish the distance, or both?

It is the part of laughter to reprove his absentmindedness and wake him out of his dream.

So laughter isn’t there to laugh AT the neighbor and cause callousness, but to mock the callousness. Either way, a rise in comedy would seem linked to a rise in callousness; a comic culture would be one with more social alienation, while more social engagement would suggest more interest in drama, wouldn’t it?

In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbour, if not in his will, at least in his deed. This is the reason a comedy is far more like real life than a drama is.

Comedy as a kind of hazing. Laughter as a social sanction against nonconformity. How might this relate to Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy? Bergson doesn’t see it as punishing those who are “better” but more broadly the unsocial, the unsympathetic, the nonconforming.

The comic, we said, appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is incompatible with emotion. Depict some fault, however trifling, in such a way as to arouse sympathy, fear, or pity; the mischief is done, it is impossible for us to laugh. On the other hand, take a downright vice,—even one that is, generally speaking, of an odious nature,—you may make it ludicrous if, by some suitable contrivance, you arrange so that it leaves our emotions unaffected. Not that the vice must then be ludicrous, but it MAY, from that time forth, become so. IT MUST NOT AROUSE OUR FEELINGS; that is the sole condition really necessary, though assuredly it is not sufficient.

Compare the “morality switch” mentioned by Pinker. When we become angry, we don’t laugh. On the other hand, lovers laugh. They may even tease each other.

It is not uncommon for a comic character to condemn in general terms a certain line of conduct and immediately afterwards afford an example of it himself: for instance, M. Jourdain’s teacher of philosophy flying into a passion after inveighing against anger; Vadius taking a poem from his pocket after heaping ridicule on readers of poetry, etc. What is the object of such contradictions except to help us to put our finger on the obliviousness of the characters to their own actions?

Or the anti-gay politician or preacher who is caught in a homosexual sex scandal, the righteous judge of others and defender of “family values” caught as a pedophile. The deeds are horrific but the situation ludicrous.

Not only are we entitled to say that comedy gives us general types, but we might add that it is the ONLY one of all the arts that aims at the general; so that once this objective has been attributed to it, we have said all that it is and all that the rest cannot be.

Comedy gives us stock characters. This seems to relate to his view that comedy is about depicting a conflict between life and automatism; to be comic is to be playing a role and to come into collision with the spontaneity of life. You can have types in drama—-the jealous lover etc.—-but the point of drama is to depict life as realistically as possible. Drama, I guess he would say, aims to make the characters as realistic as possible, so while it may take stock situations it has to make them seem original and “true to life.” Comedy aims to show automatism estranged from life, so while a drama must hide its use of stock types, a comedy seeks to take realistic people and conform them to the general types. Example: Miracle Max and wife as the stereotypical Jewish bickering couple.

In short, we do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases we confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them.

This reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense.” We think and perceive in labels, and only use those labels that are actually helpful. This eases our working with life while falsifying life itself. Art brushes aside the “utilitarian symbols” and puts us in contact, partially and temporarily, with the spontaneity of life. This is part of Drama’s role also. Comedy does not throw away the symbols, but does draw attention to them, and shows them to be in conflict with life’s originality.

In this respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is vanity.

Bergson believes the comic is innately social, having to do with the disconnect between the roles we play and our real life, and with society’s punishing of those who violate sociality. The ideal comic character is one that is socially engaged but unsociable, given to a vice but not dangerously or seriously so, and capable of constantly generating new laughable circumstances. Vanity fits the bill.

Now, it is the business of laughter to repress any separatist tendency. Its function is to convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the individual to the whole, in short, to round off the corners wherever they are met with. Accordingly, we here find a species of the comic whose varieties might be calculated beforehand. This we shall call the PROFESSIONAL COMIC.

Society is made up of all sorts of subgroups, each with its own standards, values etc. Laughter’s job is to fight the tendency of some group or other to break away and declare independence. My example, lawyers follow legal ethics, which is often different than what the rest of us observe—-they fight to defend the guilty, for example, and they glorify winning the argument more than being right. So we make fun of The Lawyer. Think of “Farscape” s 2, e 8, “Dream a Little Dream,” with the planet that is 90% lawyers and only 10% people who actually do anything, the “utilities.” Bergson discusses the “professional comic” not as we might, the stand-up comedian or humorist, but the comic mocking professionals or professions, pointing out the vanity and rigidity of professionals who see themselves as apart from and superior to the rest of social life.

We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.

This seems to fit Scribe’s “First Love” very well.

So, comic absurdity gives us from the outset the impression of playing with ideas.

This seems to me more like the child’s humor than anything else Bergson has said.

Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindness.

Is there no distinction between “laughing at” and “laughing with”? “I said to my brother, ‘Why did you burn down the house?’ He said, ‘It was laughing at me.’ I said, ‘Roberto you idiot, it wasn’t laughing AT you, it was laughing WITH you!’” (Judy Tenuto) When we laugh at that joke, who are we laughing at? Aren’t we just laughing with the comedian, who invites us into the game?

[1] I don’t have the book in front of me, but you can find the relevant material here: https://revolutionmagik.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/why-man-laughs/

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 7)

March 28, 2020

In addition to the past and the present, the attempt to remove a sitting political office holder may be motivated by the future—that is, by anticipation of what he or she will do. This may seem unjust; and were impeachment a legal proceeding it would be, since we would be punishing someone for something he or she has not in fact done. But removing a leader is not a legal act, but rather a political one. That is not to say justice and morality are irrelevant, but only to say they are different.

From the time he was elected, before he had taken office, Obama faced calls for his removal based on acts he was expected to take. He would impose Sharia law. He would confiscate all firearms, in violation of the Second Amendment. He would arrest all observant Christians. He would imprison his political enemies. He would abolish capitalism and impose a communist system. He would impose black supremacy and strip white people of their rights as citizens. He would throw open the borders and allow immigrants from Mexico and other southern countries to pour in unimpeded and uncounted, to collect Social Security and to vote in our elections. And in fact, these fears motivated some people to extreme actions. A white woman carved a B into her own face, claiming to police that she’d been attacked by black men saying that now Barack was president and they could do whatever they wanted; she was caught because she’d used a mirror and therefore carved the B in her face backwards.[1] The Republican governor of Texas called for the Texas State Guard to watch the U.S. Army’s “Jade Helm 15” exercises because of widespread fears that Obama was going to declare martial law and imprison his enemies in abandoned Walmarts.[2] These fears about Obama’s plans, and the rhetoric and action they provoked, led liberals to give the whole phenomenon its own name: Obama Derangement Syndrome.[3] The thinking here was that large numbers of otherwise sane and well-informed people (as well as many who weren’t) were particularly prone to believe conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, and sometimes even to act on those fears.[4] Conservative politicians sometimes encouraged these beliefs, by saying that they “understood” these concerns, or by threatening armed resistance against the U.S. government if it carried out its alleged intentions; other conservative politicians denounced these beliefs and conspiracy theories.

Donald Trump, also, faced calls for his impeachment “from Day One” and beyond, at times based on things that he would do. It was alleged that he would use his office to enrich himself, that he would appoint corrupt and/or biased officials to important posts, that policy would be dictated by political agendas and flattery of the President rather than by science or competence, that hate crimes would rise, that the U.S.A. would become an international laughingstock, that Russia and other foreign powers would use money and favors to promote policies that weakened the United States, that religious groups other than Evangelical Christians would be discriminated against, that the environment would be degraded, that taxes on the rich would be slashed and then, citing budget shortfalls, programs such as Social Security would be gutted, that national immigration policies would be dictated by racism rather than morality or facts, and so on. Mr. Trump’s defenders in turn began to denounce “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

We could even say that this sort of prognostication has made it into the official record of the United States Senate. Adam Schiff, arguing for Donald Trump’s removal from office, did not appeal only to his past and present actions, but also to his future acts if he continued to hold the reins of power. He said:

 

 

 

“We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again,” Schiff, D-Calif., told the Senate. “He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.”[5]

 

 

 

Rep. Schiff was arguing, essentially, that based on his past behavior and expressed intentions, Donald Trump will commit acts that break the law, violate the Constitution and endanger the nation. Therefore, he should be stripped of political power not only because he has abused his office, but even more because of what he will do in the future.

The future, by definition, has not and does not exist; it is only possibility. Therefore, any action undertaken based on future events is problematic. But as Locke points out, sometimes it is necessary. To tell people they can only resist tyranny when the tyrant has seized power and clapped them in irons is at best pointless, if not sheer mockery. It would be like telling passengers who find that the ship they are on is taking them to the slave market in Algiers that they can do nothing because, after all, the captain is the captain, you must trust his judgment and authority, and that if you believe he is abusing his power then you can exit the ship just as soon as it reaches its destination and choose a ship with a new captain. At the same time, to mutiny three days out of dock, just because the ship was heading south and the captain has dark skin like an Algerian slaver, would also be insane. Locke, true to his empiricist philosophy, says we should base our judgment on observation and induction. If the captain repeatedly aims towards Algiers, despite repeated obstacles and repeated assurances that he’d never do such a thing, then it is reasonable to draw conclusions regarding his true intentions and to act on those conclusions. And if a politician with executive power should repeatedly act against the laws of the nation, against the expressed wishes of the people, putting his or her personal interests ahead of the general welfare, deceiving and suppressing liberty, it is reasonable to assume that he or she is actively seeking tyrannical power over the nation, and to act to stop this.

The reasons why conservatives were so convinced that Obama had tyrannical intentions were always a mystery to those of us who don’t watch Alex Jones or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Many of the anti-Obama (and later, anti-Clinton) charges seem insane, such as Pizzagate and the claims about NASA pedophile camps on Mars. The actual record of Obama, the actual evidence of his intentions, came largely from his bibliography and his having attended a UCC church led by the Afrocentric theologian Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The publicly available facts were that Barack Obama’s father was African, Muslim and anti-colonial; however, he had relatively little to do with raising Barack, who was instead brought up by his mother after his father left them. She was white, and while she was progressive for her time she had worked more intensely to insure her son was raised with so-called “middle class” values like education, hard work and caring for his fellow Americans than many conservative parents can boast. Aside from his skin, name and having spent part of his childhood in foreign countries, he had a childhood that many conservative politicians would have envied. He was attacked for having been a community activist, which conservative pundits claimed showed he was a radical revolutionary; but George H. W. Bush famously praised individual activism as “a thousand points of light” shining the way for the nation. And while Rev. Wright’s rhetoric can be fiery, as a freshman senator Obama’s behavior was not particularly shocking. Returning to Locke’s analogy, it was as if the new captain had said, “I’ve heard the climate in Algiers is nice this time of year, and they have some beautiful buildings,” but then had sailed a normal course. Maybe you’d want to watch him, but there’d be too little real evidence to make a reasonable claim that he was sailing to Algiers. And as President, the evidence was even more mixed: while there were certainly policy disputes and power struggles with the Congress whose leadership had declared that its top priority was to make him a one-term president, he never attempted to impose Sharia, confiscate all guns, or carry out any of the dire predictions made of him. He complied with court rulings regarding Congressional subpoenas, made his Secretary of State and other officials available for multiple public and private hearings, and generally behaved as we had always expect a president to behave. He never declared opposition to the Constitution, which he had taught and studied before becoming president; and his actions were mostly consistent with his words.

Donald Trump had a much longer public record, being both much older and much more famous before his election. He had said that he was genetically superior to most Americans, who lack his intelligence and industriousness and therefore allow themselves to be led by the superior men like himself.[6]   He attributes his success, and the failures of people like coal miners, to his own natural superiority and their inferiority.[7] To many, this sounds far more ominous than Obama having said he liked Rev. Wright and then hearing that Wright had said God should “damn America” for the sins of racism and the slave trade. After all, Obama didn’t explicitly endorse this claim by Wright; but Trump does endorse eugenics, which disturbs some people.[8] Claims by his ex-wife that he owns and reads a collection of Hitler’s speeches also raises concerns.[9] Add to that his divorces and bankruptcies, which together imply a lack of commitment to his promises, his legal history including lawsuits by employees and business partners he’s refused to pay, fines for racial discrimination at his properties, multiple acts of sexual assault, accusations of fraud at Trump University and other cases, most of which he settled rather than take to trial, and many people had serious doubts about his character. The Mueller Report and impeachment hearings revealed a pattern, witnessed and sworn to by many people, of obstruction of investigations which were lawful but he deemed “unfair,” as well as calling for investigations of people he disliked without any legal grounds, all to help his career. Furthermore, millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent at his properties, suggesting ongoing corruption; and his repeated claims that he deserves a third term and his complaints that various aspects of the Constitution are bothersome strongly suggest that he is not particularly devoted to the Constitutional limits on his power. These are some of the points of evidence that lead Congressman Schiff, and millions of others, to fear that Donald Trump is at best a compulsive, serial crook with unwitting or unreflective tyrannical tendencies, and at worst a full-blown authoritarian seeking to undermine our democratic institutions so he can add the United States of America to his business empire as one more hostile takeover.

By Locke’s standards, then, there was little ground to remove President Obama, and it is not surprising that he was not impeached and that he won reelection. The claims that he was an usurper, or that he had otherwise committed crimes that were disqualifying, were proven untrue by the standards we generally use to prove any historical fact. In other words, if we don’t know Obama was born in Hawaii, we really can’t say we know anything that happened which we did not actually see. Historical documents, eyewitnesses, and the coherence of evidence all testify that the Holocaust was a terrible crime, that the American Revolution led to the United States of America being formed from the thirteen British colonies, and that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and thus legally fit to hold office as President of the United States. Continued denial of these or any other facts backed by evidence of like quality is akin to psychosis.

Acts done during his presidency were occasionally challenged and denounced, but none were shown to warrant impeachment. His use of executive orders and his power struggles with the Congress headed by an opposing party were consistent with what we have seen in the past, and less extreme than what we witnessed during the Reagan administration and some other recent presidencies.

As to removal due to his future acts, these proved to be the most baseless. He never claimed any intention to do much of what conservative politicians and right-wing media said he was certainly planning to do, and in fact he never did. He never grabbed our guns, imposed Sharia, shuttered Christian churches, ceased deporting illegal immigrants, never arrested political opponents, never declared martial law, never sought to ban private health care or “socialize medicine,” nothing. While it is easy to see why many might have been alarmed at the rhetoric of Rev. Wright, the fact is that the American people did not elect President Jeremiah Wright; they elected President Barack Obama, who proved to be a steady, calm, clear communicator willing to talk to and listen to all sorts of people. And if there was any thought that he would betray the U.S. to the terrorists or wasn’t committed to fighting terrorism because he wouldn’t use the words “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” those fears were largely dispelled when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

By contrast, many (not all) of the concerns about Donald Trump have turned out to be well-founded.   He was fined for racist discrimination in his rental properties and admitted racist statements towards employees.[10] He bragged about committing sexual assault, then denied it, then threatened to sue the dozens of women who accused him of rape, groping, barging in on them while they were changing at the beauty pageant he owned, in short accused him of the very behavior he had boasted, but he never sued at all or testified under oath about their claims. He paid fines relating to various charges of fraud, including Trump University, a breaking scandal during the election for which, as soon as the election was over, he agreed to pay fines and damages. His campaign was accused of having improper connections to Russia and other foreign governments; since the election multiple campaign leaders and close Trump advisors have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of these charges. The Mueller report concluded that while there was no actual “conspiracy,” that was largely because the Trump campaign was too inept and too rent by personal rivalries among his staff to effectively conspire, and his administration was too weak to deliver on promises made to Russia because they feared looking like they were beholden to Putin—which, apparently, they were. Mueller also described ten separate instances of obstruction of justice carried out by Mr. Trump, intended to block investigation of Russian assistance to his campaign. Thus there were instances in the past that suggest that he was morally and psychologically flawed, and unlikely to be a good president. There is even some evidence that his campaign might have been illegal. In the end, though, there is nothing in the Constitution that says a lying, neurotic criminal can’t run for President. Even one with business ties to hostile foreign dictators can run, though he is supposed to be forbidden from actually holding presidential power while receiving income from foreign investments (U.S. Constitution Article 1, sect. 9, clause 8). So in that sense, the charges against Donald Trump were never as disqualifying as those against Obama; if the charges against Obama had a shred of truth in them, they could have barred him from even running for office. The charges against Trump were therefore less serious, in that sense; they were more serious in that they were put forward by people who meant them seriously—that is, who actually believed them and had evidence and reasons for those beliefs, rather than simply making baseless accusations to try to score political points by playing to paranoid delusions.

The evidence that Donald Trump is an usurper is weak; there has been no solid evidence that any votes were changed to get him elected, and even if his campaign did conspire with foreign governments the prescribed penalty would be a fine, not removal from office. The evidence that he is now a full-blown tyrant is also weak, being largely a matter of interpretation; he may be a corrupt authoritarian who is openly trying to rig his reelection and abusing his power in the process, but his abuses do not strike most people as directly barring them from what they want to do. But the evidence that he wants to exercise tyrannical power, wants to subvert representative democracy and undermine the other branches of government, is abundant and glaring. His words, his actions, the testimony of his confidants and aides all point towards this, just as if the captain should persistently steer towards Algiers. Even though, when circumstances or protests dissuade him, he might temporarily set another course, he always returns towards his original destination. It is therefore permissible, and I would say it is morally necessary to oppose him, before he can deliver the entire “ship of state” to the port of bondage. The only real question is what sort of resistance is required or allowed.

[1] “Cops: McCain Worker Made Up Attack Story;” CBS News October 24, 2008 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cops-mccain-worker-made-up-attack-story/)

[2] Jonathan Tilove, “Abbot Directs State Guard to Monitor Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas;” Statesman September 25, 2018 (https://www.statesman.com/NEWS/20160923/Abbott-directs-State-Guard-to-monitor-Operation-Jade-Helm-15-in-Texas) also Matthew Yglesias, “The Amazing Jade Helm Conspiracy Theory, Explained;” Vox May 6, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/5/6/8559577/jade-helm-conspiracy)

[3] Ezra Klien, “Obama Derangement Syndrome;” Vox February 23, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/2/23/8089639/obama-derangement-syndrome)

[4] Algernon Austin, “How Being an Obama Hater Warps Your Mind;” HuffPost October 21, 2015 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-being-an-obama-hater_b_8347142)

[5] Dareh Gregorian, “Schiff’s Powerful Closing Speech: ‘Is There One of You Who Will Say, Enough!’?” NBC News February 5, 2020 (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/closing-argument-democrats-say-not-removing-trump-would-render-him-n1128766)

[6] Caroline Mortimer, “Donald Trump Believes He Has Superior Genes, Biographer Claims;” Independent September 30, 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-president-superior-genes-pbs-documentary-eugenics-a7338821.html)

[7] Nate Hopper, “Donald Trump Once Worried About Coal Miners Getting ‘Black-Lung Disease’ from ‘Damn Mines’;” TIME June 1, 2017 (https://news.yahoo.com/donald-trump-once-worried-coal-215437514.html)

[8] Marina Fang & JM Rieger, “This May Be the Most Horrible Thing that Donald Trump Believes;” Huffington Post September 28, 2016 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-eugenics_n_57ec4cc2e4b024a52d2cc7f9)

[9] Marie Brenner, “After the Gold Rush;” Vanity Fair September 1, 1990 (https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2015/07/donald-ivana-trump-divorce-prenup-marie-brenner)

[10] Michael D’Antonio, “Is Donald Trump Racist? Here’s What the Record Shows;” Fortune June 7m 2016 (https://fortune.com/2016/06/07/donald-trump-racism-quotes/)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 6)

March 21, 2020

I wrote this before the COVID-19 outbreak, and therefore it does not address this rapidly-changing situation.  It may seem like a lifetime ago that we were discussing impeachment and abuses of power.  However, these are still important questions; besides, I hate loose ends and I have time on my hands, so I want to go ahead and finish.

A president (or other executive) might also be removed based on the present facts; not that he or she is an usurper, but rather that he or she is acting as a tyrant. Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment, not only by FOX News and other conservative opinion makers but also by Republican lawmakers such as Darrell Issa and Tim Scott. The more substantive arguments alleged abuse of power, in that Obama’s executive orders were said to either go beyond Congressional authorization or to refuse to enforce Congressionally-passed laws. However, none of these claims ever really went anywhere, and it is debatable whether even the people making these charges really believed them; there was a general pattern of calling for Obama’s impeachment during the election season, and dropping the topic once the election was over.

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for his impeachment based on abuse of power; or in Locke’s terms, that he was exercising power which neither he nor anyone had a right to, and thus was acting as a tyrant. A partial list of these reasons include:

  1. Violations of the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause,” which states that a President may not receive income from foreign persons, powers or properties while in office. Unlike past presidents, Trump has held onto his extensive business empire including business dealings with Russia (which he sought to hide, according to the Mueller Report), investments in Turkey (which even he admits cause “a little conflict of interest”[1]), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and many other countries, as well as domestic properties that receive much of their income from foreign nationals and governments.
  2. Ten acts of obstruction of justice, as this is defined in law, and as documented in part II of the Mueller Report.
  3. Obstruction of Congress and solicitation of foreign interference in our nation’s elections, violating election law and soliciting a bribe. These last two actually resulted in articles of impeachment being passed by the House of Representatives.

So whereas Obama faced continuous calls for impeachment which never materialized, Trump was in fact impeached based not on past disqualifications but on his present actions. What was the difference?

Locke points towards an answer with his chapter “Of Prerogative.”[2] Locke accepts that no legal system could possibly predict all contingencies, and therefore assumes that a civil government will allow its magistrates to exercise their power at their own discretion. He even accepts that a judge, sheriff, or even a king (or president or other chief executive) might violate the letter of the law. What matters to Locke is the motivation behind this act. Locke distinguishes between proper perogative and abuse of this power by citing the welfare of the people, writing:

 

 

 

But since a rational creature cannot be supposed, when free, to put himself into subjection to another, for his own harm; (though, where he finds a good and wise ruler, he may not perhaps think it either necessary or useful to set precise bounds to his power in all things) prerogative can be nothing but the people’s permitting their rulers to do several things, of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good; and their acquiescing in it when so done: for as a good prince, who is mindful of the trust put into his hands, and careful of the good of his people, cannot have too much prerogative, that is, power to do good; so a weak and ill prince, who would claim that power which his predecessors exercised without the direction of the law, as a prerogative belonging to him by right of his office, which he may exercise at his pleasure, to make or promote an interest distinct from that of the public, gives the people an occasion to claim their right, and limit that power, which, whilst it was exercised for their good, they were content should be tacitly allowed.[3]

 

 

 

Since the legislature cannot predict every contingency, some leeway must be granted to the executive. The local or national government may act without direct mandate from the law or even seemingly against it. For example, Locke says that if tearing down the house of an innocent man is the only way to stop a fire from spreading and destroying the city, the executive authority on the scene may do so. This is because the people form and assent to government for their own good, and particularly for the preservation of the lives of every one of them. If strict adherence to the law, or inaction until the legislature can convene and issue a relevant law is to lead to the death or suffering of people, then the executive branch of the government must act immediately. Likewise, Locke argues, there may be a person who is technically guilty of breaking the law, but has acted for the good of all and in fact deserves reward and honor rather than punishment; in this case, Locke says, the executive is empowered to pardon this person.[4] Always, the test is whether the act of prerogative is performed as a service to the people and for the good of the community as a whole, or as a right of the executive to act according to his or her own welfare and desires.

Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment based on his actions at the time, which we call “executive orders” and Locke would define as “prerogative.” Often these calls came from extremist websites and pundits such as InfoWars, but at times the threats came from elected officials or former officials within the Republican party. One particular flash point was immigration.[5]   During the Obama administration there was a rise in border crossings, including both asylum seeking and attempts to sneak across the border undetected. Obama raised the ire of many liberals by deporting large numbers of undocumented and would-be immigrants, even being called “Deporter-in-Chief” by some. However, he issued one of his most controversial executive orders when he announced that the so-called “Dreamers,” children of undocumented immigrant parents who had perhaps lived in this country since infancy, would not be deported. Essentially, the Obama administration announced that it would prioritize deportations, seeking to remove criminals first, and deporting last (if at all) people who had lived in this country for years or decades and who had no part in choosing to immigrate since they were children at the time. This was claimed to be a failure to enforce the laws of the nation, and thus a violation of the Presidential oath of office; it was also alleged that this was done for partisan reasons since the immigrants would presumably vote Democrat. It was even alleged, without any proof and even against all evidence, that large numbers of undocumented immigrants would or had voted Democrat. However, these calls for impeachment may have been mere rhetoric, and in any case they failed to stir any serious impeachment attempt. Obama was able to argue, in courts and to the public, that it was a necessary part of his office to enforce the laws as he thought best for the American people, and that included prioritizing deportations of dangerous undocumented immigrants first, then the unproductive, rather than targeting those who were contributing to the welfare and economy of the nation and hadn’t even chosen to break immigration law in the first place. In Locke’s terms, this seems to be a legitimate exercise of prerogative; and the argument for this was reinforced by the fact that Obama was in fact vigorously enforcing immigration law overall. So long as he was seen as going after what would later be called “bad hombres” few people really cared if he ignored or protected “Dreamers.”

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for impeachment for some of his acts of prerogative. He has publicly suggested pardons for people under investigation for crimes allegedly committed on his behalf, such as Michael Cohen, so long as Cohen refused to cooperate with prosecutors. This is mentioned as one of the possible acts of obstruction of justice found by the Mueller investigation. As Locke says, a legitimate act of prerogative would be to pardon someone who acted against the law, but for the good of the nation; but in this case a pardon was offered for someone whose actions had no benefit for anyone but the president.[6] But while such actions as these were potentially impeachable, Trump faced actual impeachment and trial for his acts of prerogative in attempting to pressure Ukraine, an ally under attack by its stronger neighbor Russia, into doing political favors for him. He used the power of his office to delay promised aid and to withhold a public meeting that would signal U.S. support of Ukraine. Trump then attempted to hide what he was doing from Congress and the people. When the story finally came out, he defended himself by pointing out that Obama had also delayed aid to an ally, Egypt, so it was his right as President to do so. However, Obama had delayed aid because there had been a coup in Egypt; in other instances, there were concerns over corruption in the recipient country. In this case, all relevant agencies had determined that Ukraine needed the military aid promised by Congress, that it was meeting its obligations to fight corruption so the money would be properly spent, and that the aid was urgently needed. The only reason to delay the aid, it seems, was to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of one of Trump’s political rivals in an attempt to help Trump’s reelection campaign.

The defense against this claim of abuse of power obliterates the distinction Locke drew between proper prerogative and acts of tyranny.[7] Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued that anything a president does for the good of the nation cannot be considered an abuse of power. Since every politician thinks his or her own reelection is for the good of the nation, anything a sitting public official does to aid his or her own reelection is thus for the good of the people, and a legitimate act of prerogative. While Mr. Dershowitz concedes that a President demanding a contribution to his personal bank account might be impeachable, his efforts to cover up or impede an investigation into this crime would not be; and in any case, demanding some other payoff such as a political favor would not be. While Locke, and our Founding Fathers guided by Locke’s philosophy sought to distinguish between prerogative done for the good of the people and abuses of power done for the benefit of a corrupt politician, the Trump Party has said there is no difference since whatever is done to benefit the political office holder is by definition “for the good of the nation.” Or, as an earlier politician put it, “L’état, c’est moi.”

[1] Russ Choma, “Reminder: Trump Has a Massive Conflict of Interest in Turkey;” Mother Jones Oct. 7, 2019 (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/10/reminder-trump-has-a-massive-conflict-of-interest-in-turkey/)

[2] Locke, Chapter XIV

[3] Locke, sect. 164

[4] Locke, sect. 159-61

[5] Erika Echelburger, “These 7 Conservatives Would Impeach Obama Over Immigration;” Mother Jones November 14, 2014 (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/obama-executive-order-immigration-republican-impeachment/)

[6] Bart Jansen, “Trump Repeatedly Tried to Impede the Russia Probe, Mueller Report Says. Was it Obstruction?” USA Today, July 23, 2019 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/18/mueller-report-evidence-for-and-against-obstruction-president-trump/3405039002/)

[7] Charlie Savage, “Trump Lawyer’s Impeachment Argument Stokes Fears of Unfettered Power;” The New York Times January 20, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/us/politics/dershowitz-trump-impeachment.html)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 5)

March 11, 2020

Application: Human action may be motivated by the past, the present or the future.

Actions are motivated by the past when we act because of something that has happened, or failed to happen in the past. For example, a society may punish a lawbreaker because that person did something terrible and society (or a judiciary acting in its behalf) has decided that this criminal “deserves” to be punished. Or, you may give someone $20 because in the past you agreed to pay him to cut your lawn, and he did in fact cut your lawn.

Actions are motivated by the present when they are reactions to something occurring now. If the police see a crime in progress and arrest the perpetrator, that action was motivated by the present. If you cry or laugh at a movie, it is because you feel emotions prompted by what is occurring in the present.

Actions motivated by the future are a bit more complex, because the future was not and is not, but might be. It is possibility. The agent is thus taking a particular actual action in anticipation of what the future might be. It could be argued that this is really a species of present motivation, because the immediate motivator is one’s present fear, desire or anticipation, and that subjective motivating feeling is actual in the present. But it is still useful to draw a distinction between actions motivated by present actualities versus actions motivated by anticipations of the future. For one thing, the latter are much more fraught. One may anticipate future rain and end up lugging an umbrella around on a dry day. One may marry because one believes the beloved will be a good life-partner, only to find that one or both of you is not up to a lifetime bond. The Precogs may name the wrong future criminal. It is thus a useful act of humility to remember that while one is immediately responding to one’s current fears or hopes, the future circumstances one is anticipating may be totally wrong. However, humans are creatures that plan. We live towards the future, which we anticipate as best we are able.

Why might one resort to force, or other methods of resistance, to try to remove a governmental leader such as a constitutional monarch in Locke’s day, or a president in ours? One might do it because the person holding the office did not deserve it or was not qualified due to some past circumstance. One could claim that the current office-holder was in fact an usurper, who did not come to the office legitimately and thus did not deserve to hold it now. Barack Obama faced calls for his impeachment from the moment he took office, and in some cases even before.[1] During and after the 2008 election for President of the United States of America, Obama was alleged to be, in essence, an usurper, not qualified to hold the office of President because he was not born a citizen. Since this claim allegedly rested on past circumstances, it was addressed most directly by simply producing evidence from the time to show the claim was false; this was done when documentary and journalistic evidence was produced of equivalent quality to that considered adequate to prove any other historical event. Legal documents, contemporary news announcements and eyewitness testimony was offered to show that Barack Obama was in fact born in Hawaii, and that his mother was a U.S. citizen. Despite this evidence, calls for his removal based on the “birther” conspiracy theory continued for years, most notably from Mr. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump has said that he faced calls for his removal “from Day One,” and that is true. Even before he took office, there were many who said he had committed crimes during his campaign that should have been disqualifying. Others said that he had lost the popular vote and thus did not have a mandate from the people. However, the alleged crimes were at that time unproven, and winning the majority of the popular vote is not in fact required under our Constitution. More serious were the charges that the vote had been manipulated and hacked, and that were it counted accurately he would have lost even the Electoral College vote.[2] If there had been a serious investigation, it might have shown that Donald Trump is in fact an usurper, and should be removed from office immediately. Of course, it might also have simply verified the official results. It might even have shown nothing, since many of the districts where Trump did best were districts that had easily-hacked voting machines with no paper record of the votes cast. In any case, no such serious attempt to verify the election was made, as Ms. Clinton chose to accept defeat rather than contest the election.

To be continued…

[1] Shane Croucher, “Donald Trump Claims Republicans ‘Never Even Thought of Impeaching’ Barack Obama. History Tells a Different Story;” Newsweek 10/22/2019 (https://www.newsweek.com/trump-obama-impeachment-republicans-democrats-1466865)

[2] Dan Merica, “Computer Scientists Urge Clinton Campaign to Challenge Election Results;” CNN, November 23, 2016 (https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/22/politics/hillary-clinton-challenge-results/index.html)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 4)

March 6, 2020

Now let’s take it one step further. The fundamental defining characteristic of a citizen is to play a part in making the laws that govern the society. This is recognized at least as far back as Aristotle, and it is a foundation of Locke’s understanding of the social contract. Suppose the usurper decides to use the powers of the office to pervert the next election, in order to hold onto power. In fact, let’s not even ask whether the office-holder is a usurper; that is irrelevant. Anyone who attempts to prevent a person from voting is robbing that person of the fundamental right of a citizen, and the fundamental right of a human being. Individual freedom is the fundamental inalienable right. I may freely delegate someone to represent me in the assembly or congress or parliament, to act on my behalf and with the other delegates to make laws in my best interests; Locke says that that is not surrendering my freedom but rather giving it expression in the society. On the other hand, even if I have other freedoms, without the right to participate in the making of the laws under which I live, I am not a citizen at all, but at best living in a state of nature, with no essential relationship to this government, free to disobey or oppose it as I see fit.

What makes the apparently non-violent and inconspicuous crime of vote-tampering so serious, more serious perhaps than graft or DUI manslaughter (to name two crimes by famous politicians)? To understand, we must return to Locke’s understanding of the origins and nature of government.[1] In a state of anarchy, people would live as their natural affections drew them and their reason guided them. Thus, we could have a society without a government, existing and interacting as individual and small family groups. But to have any relationship broader than that, we must agree to live together under shared laws and leadership, which (if it is to be legitimate) must be formed by the people and serve to express their collective will. Naturally, if the society that is the foundation of the government and for which it exists is itself destroyed, the government is dissolved. For example, if an invader uproots the community and destroys all the institutions binding people together, destroys homes and separates families, and leaves only scattered individuals, there is no government left and everyone is left back in the state of nature to try to rebuild a new society. Locke says little about this, saying history shows us enough examples that he need not belabor the point; also, it really isn’t his main interest. Locke is concerned with how the government itself might delegitimize itself, overturn itself, and become the enemy of the people and society it was supposed to protect. As we have seen, not every usurper is a destroyer of government. In fact, not every tyrant is a complete destroyer of government. A king or magistrate who abuses his or her power, but not to the point of utterly destroying the institutions of government themselves, may not destroy the government. This seems to be why Locke’s description of tyranny includes some limits on the right of forceful resistance: enough to resist the act of tyranny, but not more.

Some actions by a government, however, would so totally overturn the basis of civil government as to constitute war against the people themselves, effectively putting them back into a state of nature wherein they are entitled to create a new commonwealth on their own and to defend it against their former government as any citizen would against a foreign invader. The first of such actions is “when the legislative is altered.”[2] Locke “imagines” a government with three branches: a judicial, a federal and a legislative. The judicial consists of magistrates and judges and courts for interpreting and applying the law. The federal is the overall unifying head, which Locke suggests could be a king ruling for life but whose powers are limited by laws and traditions so that he is as much subject as master of the other two branches. The legislative is the branch which most directly expresses the will of the people. This is the body that is made up by representatives of the people, chosen by them and from among them, who gather together to consider the needs of the society and to create laws which all will live by. It is this legislative power that is the expression of the free will of each individual drawn together into one collective will, the will of the majority. When the legislative is altered, either by replacing the elected legislators with others chosen not by the people but by some other power (likely the king), or when laws are made without the consent of the legislature or those laws that are made are not enforced, then the will of the people is thwarted, the power they created to bind them into one commonwealth is broken, and they are in fact returned to their state of nature. At that point they cease to be citizens at all, but are merely bound servants to their overlords. In addition to such circumstances as a tyrant simply replacing the laws with his or her own will, replacing the legislators with the tyrant’s own stooges or simply leaving the legislature be but depriving it of the ability to act, the government effectively dissolves when it contrives to hand the nation over to the sovereignty of a foreign power (for example, the perception that Mary Tudor sought to hand the country over to Spain).[3]

Locke lumps all these possible corruptions together as “changing the legislative,” because they represent some sort of nullification of the people’s right to choose their lawmakers and/or the laws they live under. In addition, Locke discusses the possibility that the legislature itself could turn tyrant. Since the people form a government to protect their lives, their liberty and their property, a government that arbitrarily deprives them of these has failed to fulfill the purpose for which it was founded in the first place. This is so whether the legislature corrupted itself through greed or ambition, or was corrupted by the executive either by force, threat, bribery or some other means. If the government itself should not only fail to fulfill its duties to the citizens but even act against the very duties with which it was entrusted, Locke says, the people are free from all responsibility to that government and may establish whatever new government they believe will serve them better.[4] In such a case, they are not “rebels” against their government; Locke argues that it is the government which has declared war on the people and is in rebellion against their authority.[5]

So Locke recognizes a range of ways in which representative democracy can break down, and gradations of appropriate response when it does. In a usurpation, the people might not respond at all; they could choose to accept the usurper and in doing so provide his or her office with the legitimacy it requires: a mandate from the majority. Likewise, in cases of petty abuses (such as spending part of the office supplies budget on the premium coffee the mayor prefers rather than the generic freeze-dried which the city council approved) people might look the other way, or impose some sort of discipline, but no one could reasonably think violence or even arrest was justified. In such cases neither the continuation of the commonwealth nor the inalienable rights of the citizens are at stake. When the abuse of prerogative matures into tyranny, people may resist. If the police lack a proper warrant to enter your home, Locke says, you can resist their attempts to do so as you would any robber. Even in such cases, Locke requires a calibrated response; just as you can’t shoot a neighbor who’s holding your property if you can reasonably expect to regain it by legal means, so too you cannot use force if you have legal recourse against governmental abuse or overreach. So long as the courts are functioning, and the threatened injury not irreversible, the commonwealth is still more or less functional and problems may be resolved more reasonably. “Reason” is a key concept for Locke. He is rather optimistic about the abilities of common sense; he knows people are motivated by passions and desires, but he also believes they can obtain the knowledge and exercise the self-restraint they need to make reasonable choices, usually. And where the law of Reason has not been totally overthrown, that should be our first resort.

Even in cases of real tyranny, Locke says, people will not immediately rush for their flintlocks and bayonets. Locke knows that what he is writing has radical implications. His father served in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War, which led to the beheading of King Charles I and six years of Puritan dictatorship, eventually settling down to a constitutional monarchy with strict limits on royal power. He was well aware of the earlier arguments of Thomas Hobbes and the current views of many conservative critics, that anything less than absolute monarchy would degenerate into civil war and anarchy. But Locke, with his faith in common sense, argued that people are in fact unlikely to resort to violence over every little injustice.[6]  People are naturally inclined to seek peace for themselves, and to put up with a lot if they’re used to it or they fear radical resistance could make it worse. They are unlikely to react much if the injustice doesn’t threaten them, but concerns only one or a small number of people. But, if there is a pattern of injustices, and people see that their rights and liberties, the fruits of their labors and even their lives are endangered, and that things seem likely to only get worse over time, then they most likely will rise up against their oppressors. The only difference is that Locke believes they would be justified, since the true purpose of government is the welfare of the people and its legitimacy comes from their mandate alone; an absolute monarchy would condemn the people as rebels and sinners, but still be just as likely to face forceful and even violent resistance after prolonged and habitual misrule.

[1] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 211

[2] Locke, sect. 212

[3] Locke, sect. 213-18

[4] Locke, sect. 220

[5] Locke, sect. 227

[6] Locke, sect. 224-230

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 3)

February 26, 2020

What happens, however, if the representational government and the electoral system that insures it breaks down? And how might it do so? One possibility is someone could grab the reins of power who had no right to it, most likely by fraud. That would be a usurpation.[1] A usurper is one who seizes the office and power to which another is entitled. For example, in the Kennedy vs. Nixon election it was widely believed that Nixon had won, if not for the many fraudulent votes cast in Chicago on behalf of dead Democratic voters. The Democratic political machine run by Mayor Daly was very strong and could generally deliver Chicago’s votes (and with them Illinois itself) to whomever he chose. Nixon was urged to challenge the election but chose not to, allegedly saying such a challenge would be too divisive to the nation. I tend to believe this account, so let’s accept it for the illustration’s sake if nothing else. In such a case as this, JFK could rightly be called an usurper. He wrongly took the office that another person should have had but which was stolen by fraud. However, he was not a tyrant. He may have taken power belonging to another, but he faithfully executed the office of the presidency. He did what was Constitutionally required, not going beyond it in any meaningful way and not abusing or oppressing the citizens of states that voted against him. There were arguably some abuses of power under his administration, but none that raised much ire in his lifetime. Many considered him, then and now, to be a good president, even if his initial victory was questionable. Locke would say that an usurper may rightfully be opposed, but the opposition should be done legally and politically. If the majority of the people accept the usurper, then they essentially ratify the usurpation. This could be said to have happened in JFK’s election, or perhaps in Fatah’s takeover of the West Bank after Hamas won the election for leadership of the Palestinian National Authority 2007-2008 (I am not sufficiently versed in Palestinian politics to say for certain, but that is how it was depicted in the American press).

An usurper need not be a tyrant, nor a tyrant a usurper. As Locke describes it:

 

 

As usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]

 

 

 

A leader or magistrate may gain office illegitimately, but fulfill the functions of a proper office-holder. The people might even choose to accept that person as legitimate. Tyranny is more serious than usurpation. A tyrant might come into the office legitimately; a king might be born to it, a president or chancellor might be elected, and so on. What matters is what the person does with the office and its power. If the governor (in the broad sense of one who has governing power) uses that power for the good of the people and according to the will of the majority as expressed in the laws which their legislature, acting as their agents, has created, then he (or she) is a proper governor. If the governor uses the powers of the office for their own personal advantage rather than seeing first to the good of the people and to their instructions, then that person is a tyrant regardless of whether he or she was duly elected. Legitimacy, in Locke’s view, ultimately derives from the will of the ruled, not merely or mainly from the propriety of the succession.

This has practical and dangerous consequences. A tyrant may be opposed by force, according to Locke. An usurper, who is not otherwise tyrannical, may not be. Suppose, just as a thought experiment with clearly no relationship to reality because it’s completely impossible, the president of the United States (a country largely founded on Locke’s philosophical theories) were elected illegitimately. This could be said to happen whenever the minority of the votes determines the presidency due to a quirk in the Electoral College, as happened with each of the last two Republican presidents; but then again, all citizens have agreed to abide by the rules laid down in the Constitution so we could say that even in this case it was no usurpation. But suppose some votes were flipped in the election by a hostile foreign power with some sort of personal relationship to one of the candidates, say one with extensive business investments in that hostile country and thus vulnerable to influence by any government threatening those investments. Suppose further that the only “investigation” of such illegality was to be carried out by the alleged usurper himself, and officials he appointed, and that the body charged with removing an unqualified president was part of the president’s faction and refused to act. However, suppose the usurper proved to be competent and restrained, and did not threaten the rights of any citizen (except for the actual winner of the election, of course, whose right to fulfill the office was denied). In that case, it arguably could be immoral to use force against the usurper. First, Locke sees force as a last resort; if there are still viable legal means, they must be pursued. Second, if the government is in fact still carrying out the laws established by the legislature which in turn was elected by the will of the majority, and is protecting the rights and property of the people, there is no need for force. Third, as Locke points out, there are great practical challenges to force. Most people, he says, are willing to put up with a lot rather than attempt radical or violent change. Even if their government is not all it should be, if it’s functioning well enough and justly enough they’ll likely tolerate it. In that case, the lone “freedom fighter,” and not the usurper, who will be seen as the dangerous rebel or lunatic. It is only if the government is truly tyrannical and is seen as such by a large group of people that widespread use of force is reasonable.[3] In this hypothetical case, the usurper is not unjustly using force against any citizen, so no one has a right to use force against him; and if anyone did, that person would be the one seen as disturbing the peace and threatening the society. On the other hand, if one’s individual rights were infringed by force, Locke says, one would have the right to forceful self-defense. For example, if police try to invade one’s home without a proper warrant empowering them to do so, one has the right to shoot them. The determining factor is whether the wrong one might suffer is urgent. If it is possible to right the wrong peacefully and legally later, then one may not use force to oppose it; but if one is threatened in a way that no later redress could correct, then one may defend oneself by whatever means are necessary and available.

[1] Locke, chapter XVII

[2] Locke, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Locke, sect. 203-09

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 2)

February 18, 2020

 

At this crucial point Locke and Rand differ, and from this division a vast gulf opens between Locke’s vision for “civil government” which was absolutely crucial for our Founding Fathers and the so-called “conservatism” dominant in American politics today. On the origin and nature of civil society, John Locke writes:

 

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority.[1]

 

 

 

Locke’s view is a classic presentation of “social contract theory.” He asks us to imagine a group of individuals living in a “state of nature;” that is, without any politics or government. Locke believes that even without government, we would still be bound by “the laws of Reason,” which he treats as synonymous with “Nature” and “God” since God created Nature and it is human nature to be rational. Thus, unlike Thomas Hobbes, who supposed the natural inclination of humans was towards endless violence, Locke asserts that even in the hypothetical “state of nature” people would live guided by basic principles of reason and justice. Even so, without anyone to mediate between neighbors there would be disputes which would likely devolve into violence. Thus, in order to live together in larger groups in an orderly and peaceful fashion, humans create governments which in turn create laws to define acceptable behavior, magistrates to arbitrate between citizens, and to regulate the use of force if necessary to preserve justice and social order while avoiding the excesses likely with private vengeance. Essentially, each individual gives up some of that complete freedom he or she would have had to regulate their own private affairs and define relations to others, agreeing to live under the governance of a society ruled by the will of the majority. The core of this new society is the legislative body, which represents the collective will of the people. Locke believes this body should be chosen by and from among the people themselves, and that its members act as delegates to represent the wills of those who elected them. The laws made by this body would thus be the expression of the will of the people themselves. Hobbes in his Leviathan had pictured the State as an “artificial person” made up of the collection of all its members, ruled by the absolute will of its government; Locke retains something of this treatment of the commonwealth as a single being created by its members, but sees it as animated not by the will of one totalitarian king but rather by the collective will of the people themselves. Since this body is the expression of the people, and of each individual member, it has limits which Hobbes would not recognize, but also rightful powers which Rand (and other current conservative thinkers such as Robert Nozick) would reject. On the one hand, even in this democratic body animated by the will of the majority, the government must respect the essential value of each individual.[2] This puts limits on the possible “tyranny of the majority;” since in the state of nature one person would not have absolutely power over a neighbor, neither can the commonwealth claim absolute power over the lives and properties of citizens even if acting in the name of the majority. On the other hand, it can impose taxes to pay for such joint projects as the legislature has deemed necessary for the welfare of the people. Locke writes:

 

 

It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?[3]

 

 

 

Thomas Hobbes assumed that all humans were irrational, greedy, violent and fearful, and could live together peacefully only if beaten into submission; therefore he imagined a “social contract” whereby a group of people, rejecting the “war of each against all” of anarchy, chose to select one individual despot or a small group to bludgeon everyone else. Locke has a much more optimistic view of human nature, seeing it as ruled not only by emotions, but by feelings guided by reason; so the commonwealth he envisions neither needs to be so brutal nor should it be. But he is not so giddy with the power of Reason as Rand is; Locke knows that people are often ruled by their passions and desires, and that the “rational” interests of the individual citizens often do clash, so that in the end we need a mechanism to determine the will of the majority while we all agree to accept and live by the majority’s choice.

[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) chapter VIII, sect. 96

[2] Locke, chapter XI, sect. 135

[3] Locke, sect. 140

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 1)

February 17, 2020

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get?

 

 

….how can a man any more hinder himself from being persuaded in his own mind, which way things are going; or from casting about how to save himself, than he could from believing the captain of the ship he was in, was carrying him, and the rest of the company, to Algiers, when he found him always steering that course, though cross winds, leaks in his ship, and want of men and provisions did often force him to turn his course another way for some time, which he steadily returned to again, as soon as the wind, weather, and other circumstances would let him?

 

——-John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, sect 210

 

 

What’s so bad about Algiers? Warm climate, lovely beaches, so what’s not to love? From the 1500s into the 1700s, Europeans were captured and enslaved in Africa, from as far north as Iceland and more often from Britain south along the Atlantic coast and throughout the Mediterranean. At a time when Europe was backwards and underpopulated compared to the Islamic world, hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured and enslaved by pirates, by raiders, and by kidnappers, and sold in the slave markets of Algiers and other North African ports. Men were usually sent to be worked to death in the salt mines; women were more likely to become domestic servants and/or concubines. Some estimates put the total number of enslaved Europeans at a million or more. True, this is paltry compared to the numbers of Africans enslaved by Europeans, but the size and population of Africa greatly dwarfed Renaissance Europe as well. The demographic impact was locally significant, and the psychological impact far greater. At the time Locke wrote his groundbreaking work on representative democracy, the Second Treatise of Civil Government, Algiers was a destination of horror. A captain who consistently steered towards Algiers was one who endeavored to sell his passengers and maybe crew into slavery. And in such a case, says Locke, the passengers would have every right to join together to overthrow that captain and steer for a safer harbor, rather than meekly wait until they arrived at the shores of slavery to act.

Locke used this image to describe the relations between free citizens and their leaders. Citizens, he argues, do not have to wait until their government has robbed them of their freedom and livelihoods before resisting oppression. If they see that creeping despotism is threatening to reduce them to bondage, they can act to prevent it. But at what point? What is the progression of authoritarianism whereby a representative civil government morphs into something working not for the good of the people, but only for the ruled? When does the government become the enemy?

Today’s “conservatives” write and speak as if government is always the enemy, perhaps the only enemy of the people. John Locke would agree with Ayn Rand’s repeated assertion that “No human rights can exist without property rights.” And he might approve her claim that “the rational interests of men do not clash,” if that is interpreted to mean that all people live naturally under the law of Reason.[1] But he would disagree with her equation of government and criminality. For example, Rand equates Medicare with armed robbery and murder, saying the only difference is the number of victims and beneficiaries.[2] More generally, Rand argues:

 

 

Criminals are a small minority in any age or country. And the harm they have done to mankind is infinitesimal when compared to the horrors—-the bloodshed, the wars, the persecutions, the confiscations, the famines, the enslavements, the wholesale destructions—-perpetuated by mankind’s governments. Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights; it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. When unlimited and unrestricted by individual rights, a government is men’s deadliest enemy.[3]

 

 

 

To Rand, the vast majority of governments are nothing more than gangs of robbers, to which anarchy would be preferable. The only exception she sees is pre-New Deal United States, where, she claims, individual property rights were respected and government existed only to protect those rights. Leaving aside the historical simplification (such as the omission of slavery), we can see her vision of the “moral” state: an absolute minimalist government, run on fees for services instead of taxation by force, solely existing to provide a marketplace for individuals to trade goods and services with one another without interference from criminals or invaders. There is no such thing as “the public” or “public interest;” there are only individuals.[4]

[1] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Penguin Group USA, 1964) p.34

[2] Rand, pp. 95-96

[3] Rand, p. 115

[4] Rand, p. 103