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Disappearing Act

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First, conratulations to Lee.  I’m so used to thing of Derrida and company as plagues of the English Department that I forget that at least some of them started out as philosophers.

It’s enough to make your head ache.

As to the Founding Fathers of the United States, however, there is simply no way that an examination of what they wrote–both publicly and privately–would support the idea that they constructed this government on the basis of their understanding of history and not of philosophy, or even of history primarily rather than philosophy primarily.

The concept of rights as they exist in the Declaration and in the  Constitution is not historical.  It comes straight out of the work of John Locke, whom the Founders knew and knew well, as they knew Liebnitz and  Rousseau.   They knew both Plato and Aristotle, too, and Cicero and Seneca.

Did history inform the decisions they made about this government?  Of course it did, as it should.  But the design of this government was an exercise in philosophy, and an educated guess that that philosophy of Locke–Locke’s “what should be”–was workable in real life.

The problem here, for me, is this:  rights are a hard sell.  People don’t like them.  In fact, vitually nobody does.  At this moment, neither political party has any inention of honoring rights as they are formulated in this Constitution, and I have my doubts if any government of the US ever managed to honor them fully.

Freedom of speech?  Wonderful idea.  Except it shouldn’t mean that people can say things that are unpatriotic, or that are “hate speech.”  Freedom of the press?  Excellent–but that was never intended to protect child pornographers, or people who want to argue that drugs should be legalized, or people who insult other people’s religions, or people who argue that some races are more intelligent than others. 

And on and on and on.

One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few years is constructing a curriculum that could serve as a full, multi-year course in American civilization, meant for the elementary-through-high-school on the assumption that it might make sense to teach this stuff if only so that succeeding generations could know what they were rejecting.

But yesterday, something came to my attention that seems to me to present the exact sort of problem we need philosophy to solve–that we DESPERATELY need philosophy to solve.

Because it’s only philosophy that can provide the intellectual framework for and foundation of rights.   Rights are creatures of philosophy.  They could not have come into the consciousnesses of human beings in any other way.

Now to the incident, which some of you have already heard of, because I was blithering about it on Facebook yesterday.

What happened, as near as anybody can tell, is this:  Amazon sold a number of books by  George Orwell to their Kindle users.  It was later determined that the third party seller offering these books did not have the right to offer them for sale, and the literary estate of Orwell, or the publisher, or whoever holds the actual copyrights these days, objected.

So Amazon deleted these books from their customers’ Kindles and refunded their money.

Think about that.  You’ve bought a book.   You think you own it.  You get up one morning, try to read it–and find that someone has wiped it clean and you no longer do in fact own it.

If you ever did.

Now do the kind of apocalyptic thinking I’m fond of–imagine a world where Kindles or related devices are the primary way in which books are distributed and read, and then think of a government that decides it doesn’t want its citizens reading X.

Say what you will about “dead tree technology,” as somebody put it yesterday, but once I produce the physical books and put them in your hands, they’re virtually untracable and ineradicable.  That’s why book burnings are always largely symbolic.

It is part of human nature that human beings feel a drive to ontrol their environments–and in the range of human personalities, some will want more control than others.

It is also true that part of our environments consists in the people in them, and that there is no possibility in the real world that we will ever reach a state when we will need to exert no control at all.

The police are a necessary institution–without some such institution, murder and rape and robbery would be routine.  Free markets could not exist unless we were able to provide some protection against fraud, and they don’t work well if we don’t provide some prevention as well as some punishment once the fraud has been committed.

Unfortunately, once we allow any control at all, we put ourselves in danger of being swallowed by too much of it.  Control feeds on itself. 

Rights, as conceived by Locke, are attempts to curb that feeding. They don’t last long unless we understand what they are and how they function, and that means we need to understand at least some philosophy. 

The better course would be to understand a lot of it–but for the purposes of my  primary and secondary curriculum, I could probably get away with starting in the seventeenth century and throwing in those specific ancient philosophers that the Founders also read.  Those were, after all, part of the standard ciriculum for secondary school and  university in this country at the time of the Founding, and for many decades after it. 

There are a lot of issues these days which hinge on our understanding of rights–government health care reform, home schooling, even private clubs that want to admit only Albanian men and allow smoking.  Hell, there’s the issue of smoking in your own home, if you happen to have children living there–and, of course, the rationale for things like the drug war.

Locke presented a concept of rights and a concept of government that had never existed before in history, and we at least tried to put it into practice.  

What’s more, we did this fully conscious of what it was we were doing.  We were, we said, providing novus ordo seclorum–a new order of the ages.

Written by janeh

July 19th, 2009 at 6:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Disappearing Act'

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  1. With due respect for Locke, he is NOT where rights begin. Try Runnymede, only they weren’t new then. They were won–“inch and ell and all, slowly from the King” by people who hadn’t even the decency to speak Greek or Latin, and who wouldn’t have known a syllogism had it been baked and served for dinner.

    A right does not begin when a philosopher finds a rationale for it, any more than justice begins when a lawyer is placed on retainer. The things exist of themselves. A good philosopher points out our inconsistencies in these matters–but then so does a good novelist.

    We all have causes to uphold, but exagerating their history does not promote the cause.

    However, I’m with you all the way on the advantages of dead tree technology. I maintain some electronic records, but I fight a continual battle with format shifts, and I’m not even trying to edit the past.

    Also consider: if Amazon can delete the book from Kindle, can they alter it without comment? My guess is they can, and I can produce examples of authors–let alone censors–rewriting published texts to make a different political point. When I can, I have both copies, but in a world of purely electronic media, the author could wipe out the first edition.

    And don’t get me started on our copyright laws.


    19 Jul 09 at 11:19 am

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