All posts by Joseph P Garske

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

A LESSON FROM HABERMAS

Garske 3Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

 

One of the most important public figures in our world today is Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School in Germany. Though perhaps little known in the United States he wields immense influence in the affairs of Europe as well as around the world at-large.

In popular terms he would be called a philosopher, a kind of German counterpart to the late Michael Foucault of France. He continues to be one of the leading contributors in a realm of ideas where topics of law, politics and society converge.

In such a role, of course, there are differing opinions about the conclusions Dr. Habermas sets forth. Yet, all agree he is one of the most acute observers of our world as its makes a transition from the international to the global and from the modern to the postmodern.

Of particular relevance for Americans is his idea about the role of what he calls the public sphere and how the important influence of that sphere came to virtually disappear over time. More than that, he asserts that the absence of its influence amounts to a fundamental crisis in our era of democratic values.

Habermas introduces his notion of the public sphere as something that first arose within the coffee houses and fraternal lodges, the clubs and salons of eighteenth century Europe. In that type of hospitable atmosphere, which combined conviviality with privacy, important conversations concerning affairs of government took place.

Moreover, those discussions involved a true cross-section of life in both town and country.  There were farmers and merchants, lawyers, and doctors. There were stable pillars of the community and idealistic dreamers, the callow and the wise, the established and the aspiring.

In the custom of the time, however, questions of religion and politics were left outside the door. Those topics were viewed as being colored by personal bias, as giving rise to heated emotion, as being potentially fatal to friendship, and in any case by their very nature, irresolvable.

Instead, what was discussed were topics of more fundamental and more timeless importance: Should there be a government? If so, what type should it be? What role can the public play, and who will be excluded? Who should decide such questions?

This type of exchange often led to even deeper queries, for example, regarding the makeup of human nature, its capacity for reason—and susceptibility to passion. Should there be an overriding principle for human society, some larger purpose? Can religion play this role, or are its effects too divisive?  These topics were explored, not in partisan debate nor with academic detachment, but with a common desire to enlarge and to understand.

The tenor of such conversations and the atmosphere in which they occurred should not seem foreign or strange to Americans. After all, it was this very type of circumstance and deliberation that gave rise to their own government during that period. It was in such an atmosphere that the men we now call Founding Fathers were able to lay the foundation for a new nation.

Habermas says, however, that after the eighteenth century this public sphere, as he calls it, began to decline. By the end of the nineteenth century any such opportunity for community leaders and community members to engage in such discussions openly, safely and out of public scrutiny had almost disappeared.

The reasons for this decline were various and although the pattern in Europe was somewhat different from that in America, there were close parallels, as well. Most important was the rise of an intrusive and rapacious press. It posed a threat because of its need for controversy and sensation to satisfy commercial necessity.

A second problem seen by Habermas was the institutionalization of learning, especially in the modern university beginning in the nineteenth century. More and more the large human questions became obscured as they were parceled and divided into technical questions accessible only to professional scholars. Specialized language and theoretical constructions made those topics seem hopelessly opaque to persons outside that protected enclave.

Finally, in America, the isolation of the study of law formed another obstacle to civic discourse. The fundamental framework of the American system was a legal one, yet that topic had become inaccessible to outside scrutiny. Although the law school had come to be located on the university campus, it was exempt from the usual interplay between disciplines and free from normal standards of academic accountability.

In pointing out this declining influence of the public sphere Habermas was not proposing a return to the past, a return to the coffee house and fraternal order, the reading club and salon.  Nor was he advocating a bridle on the press and its capacity to probe and expose important issues. As an academic trained in both social theory and law, he did not oppose the mission of the university.

Nonetheless, he observed what he considered to be a serious challenge to the viability of modern democratic institutions. For him, the concern was whether answers to the underlying problems facing government today can be found in the glare and excitement of the popular media or in the divisive exchange of oppositional politics. He thought it may be necessary to step outside that loud and contentious arena to have a different kind of conversation, a reassessment.

For Americans there are fundamental questions about the condition of their government, questions that run deeper than the usual matter of candidates and elections. Those questions concern whether the structure of government has been rendered ineffectual. There are apprehensions about the very nature of the political process itself: Has the notion of the public good become an empty platitude? Has the thought of selfless public service become an unrealistic ideal?

There may be some comfort in the fact that Habermas found these problems to be not just  American or European, but endemic to the institutions that now exist in most democratic countries. Also, many have disagreed with his rather pessimistic appraisal of political conditions around the world.

But at least credit him and the Europeans. Over time they created a public venue and have encouraged wide participation in discussing such important topics. One result is that much of the world looks to Europe for new developments, new solutions to the fundamental problems of governance in a global and postmodern age.

In fact, similar questions are being addressed in America on a very high level in academic and legal forums. But the narrow range of participants and views may actually be symptomatic of the problem. Perhaps it is time to advance a new atmosphere in this country where many points of view can be offered by the wider public—not merely about candidates and issues, but to revisit those questions raised by the Founders. Perhaps it is time to re-establish the public sphere.

POLITICS AND POPULARITY

Garske 3Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Harvard University


There began to be a change in the atmosphere of American politics during the early decades of the twentieth century. It was a time when new modes of communication and
entertainment, including moving pictures and radio, were beginning to transform the methods by which political campaigns were waged.

Until that time election contests were determined almost exclusively by local canvassing, speech making and especially by circulation of the printed word through newspapers, journals and broadsides. Print was a medium useful for reproducing lengthy texts, such as extended announcements and transcribed speeches. In important ways it was also a medium that encouraged detached and sober analysis by the reading public.

However, by the 1930’s new forms of mass communication began to change those practices. A new paradigm had been introduced into politics that had not been seen before. It emphasized the importance of personality and appeal, especially of appearance, manner and speech. At that time requirements for a political success came to resemble the theatrical talents necessary for a career in the movies or in radio broadcasting.

On a national scale the first great beneficiary of this change was, of course, FDR. His aristocratic demeanor, elegant dress and faculty for the memorable phrase made him a natural fit for the new media. In fact, no propagation of political views would ever surpass the influence of his famous “fireside chats”, broadcast weekly over the radio during the Great Depression.

Twenty years later, in the 1950’s, this realignment of the political campaign into a strategy of personal appeal continued with the election of Eisenhower to the presidency. It could be seen in his slogan, “I like Ike”, and especially in the importance of his famous smile as a decisive factor in his victory. Most of all, his campaign had underscored the astonishing impact of the new medium of television.

However, it was JFK who was able to exploit the use of television as a political weapon to its fullest potential. He was not merely handsome and eloquent, his personal charm and acute sense of humor were perfectly suited for broadcast. Kennedy, with a wife who combined beauty and refinement, could easily be portrayed over the national networks as a kind of American royalty in a political Camelot.

In reviewing these brief examples of the shifting basis of politics from the printed to the electronic, from the reflective to the popular, from substance to form there is no intent to impugn the quality and effectiveness of any of these men who served as president. Nor is it in any way an argument against technical advances in communication, nor their usefulness in the conduct of public affairs.

Yet, the changes have brought both benefits and costs. Politicians, after all, operate in an environment they have not created. There has without doubt developed a necessity to place appearance ahead of reality. In fact, it seems unlikely that any office seeker can succeed in the present environment without giving first priority to a favorable and transmittable media image. That is just the way things are.

Viewed from this perspective no one could deny that our current president is a man of impressive gifts. Yet, it may be possible that his most obvious traits—his appearance, his eloquence, the ability to express a collective aspiration—may serve to obscure virtues of a more substantial type. If this is true it may be true because the American political system will not allow a president to act in any other way.

Presidential politics has become very much public theater. As such, it seems inevitable that the person who fills that office will have a great affinity with actors, musicians and stars of professional sport. It seems only natural that such a person would be most comfortable in the orbit of the celebrity rich.

By contrast it seems less likely he would find rapport with those who live a more prosaic existence. For example, those who instruct the young, those who meet a payroll, those who treat the infirm, or those who fight on the embattled fronts in Iraq or Afghanistan. Such mundane persons represent a specter, a reality, far removed from the unrelenting quest for popularity that has come to define American politics today.

To the extent this is true it may also be true that the answers to America’s problems will not be solved in the political realm—because its politics have become merely symptomatic of more profound maladies. Thus, instead of castigating a president for being servile to the most recent approval ratings and popularity polls, or for his attitude of “”all politics, all the time”, it may be necessary to look deeper.

Instead of hoping for political solutions to the problems of our country, we might begin to examine the electoral process itself. Perhaps with some adjustment new possibilities could be discovered. Then the president—whoever holds the office—will not be bound by the constraints of a stage actor whose performance is gauged by the applause of an audience. Instead, he or she might be able to take measures that are less calculated to be theatrical and pleasing are more considered to be substantial and sound.

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA: Does it work? Does it matter?

Garske 3Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

 

There is a great deal of discussion today about the condition of American politics. The obvious ineptitude, the low level of debate, the pandering rhetoric, the excessiveness of campaigns–all of these have resulted not only in a paralysis of function, but almost a kind of moral failure as well.

There are, of course, numerous sources of blame for these maladies: A rapacious journalistic media, the influence of special interest groups, a growing sector reliant on handouts, the quality of candidates who seek public office.

However, the purpose here is to address this situation from an obverse point of view. It is not to assert that these problems do not exist, because they do and are obvious for all to see, but rather that in an unfortunate way they may not be important to the extent we imagine.

The basis for such an assertion is a somewhat different perspective on the workings of our national system. Especially, that it is incorrect to equate the two elective branches with the whole of American government. Indeed, the political dimension is an integral part, but it is only a strictly delimited part and in critical ways the least important part, of the national government.

One way to appreciate such a perspective is to review the approach used by the nineteenth century French nobleman, Alexis De Tocqueville. In 1840 he published a classic work entitled “Democracy in America.”  It was a two volume study of American society and government notable for its thoroughness and sophistication.

When reading that work written nearly two hundred years ago the first reaction is to recognize how little American society and its people have changed. But there were very important reasons why a person of such stature and renown would journey to a new and raucous frontier country to study its prisons and its politics.

Governing institutions across Europe were at that time notoriously unstable. They were threatened by a growing public discontent, often with widespread sympathy for radical factions intent on armed revolt. Punitive measures, especially imprisonment, seemed to be the only adequate means to control this rising threat. In fact, within a few years after Tocqueville completed his study the entire continent was swept by the revolutions of 1848. No government in Europe was left unshaken, some were overturned.

What fascinated the Frenchman and other European aristocrats was that in America there was comparatively little radical or revolutionary activity, little need for prisons. The American people for the most part were satisfied to vent their political passions and express their partisan hostilities through an orderly elective process. There was a lesson here for those who governed in Europe.

However, the point was not so much whether the American public actually exerted significant influence over the affairs of their government. Rather, it was the general assumption in the public mind that their participation was a crucial factor in determining those affairs. There was virtually no radical sentiment in the country that sought to overthrow what had been established.

Actually, in Tocqueville’s view the real basis and strength of the federalist structure was the one almost totally removed from popular politics and almost wholly unaccountable to the public. That was what he called the aristocracy of the judicial bench and bar. As long as that strata exerted a guiding influence, the institutions of American life would be secure.

The lesson taken back to Europe was that a public embrace of the political process was critically important. It was important even if the actual basis and stability of the nation was centered elsewhere. The sense of participation was more effective in quelling radical disaffection than any punishment could ever be.

From the perspective of today, however, it is ironic to look back upon the time in which Tocqueville wrote and to realize he made no mention of two profound questions that threatened to tear America apart  at that time. Both matters had a great deal to do with the nature and function of government. One was essentially a domestic issue the other had more to do with foreign relations.

The first question concerned doctrines by which judicial members conduct the business of the courts as well as oversee the realm of public affairs generally. There had developed a contest between two factions, what might be called the followers of Joseph Story as opposed to the followers of William Blackstone. This great sectional division within the fellowship of law was an important contributing factor to the eruption of a tragic Civil War beginning in 1861.

The other question regarded credit and currency relations of the United States with banking institutions across the Atlantic. The issue was whether the existing network of state and local banks might continue to extend credit and issue currency based on their own worthiness, or whether those functions should be centralized into a single federal institution. That question was eventually resolved in the form of the Federal Reserve System in the early twentieth century.

It would be interesting to know how Tocqueville would evaluate American democracy if he toured the country today. Truly, he might despair. But he would still be intrigued by the extent to which the American public remained thoroughly occupied within the arena of politics, with little thought of measures taken outside those limits.

Just as in the nineteenth century, he might also have some reason for confidence. He would perhaps now see a composite aristocracy, or a two part aristocracy of legality and finance as stable arbiters of American life. Both of those operated with great independence and beyond any real accountability to the public. He would find it reassuring that at least these institutions are elevated above the mindless rancor of political disputation.

The real marvel of American democracy for Tocqueville would remain the same. It was not that the vote of the people was the foundation of American government. Instead, it was the way in which a channel was provided through which the broader public could exercise a voting franchise. Focusing public energies within strictly prescribed limits strengthened the foundations of authority that actually rested elsewhere.

In reflecting on these ideas, it is important to remember that the whole idea of democracy as a form of government was unanimously abhorred by the Founding Fathers, and the word does not appear in the Constitution; Tocqueville would have agreed. What he might say today is that America now has the rule of law within its borders just as it has a responsible role in the economy of the world.

As long as the two institutions of court and bank are sound, the adolescent theatrics of its political process could be subsumed beneath them. But he might be perplexed at the crowding of the prison system. With nearly two and a half million of its citizens incarcerated Tocqueville might wonder what American democracy would mean to the European aristocracy this time.

THE AMERICAN POLITICAL CAMPAIGN: A lesson from ancient Athens?

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

It is difficult to exaggerate the low quality and excessiveness of political debate in the United States. Although this offense to public sensibility is most apparent during the presidential campaign, it seems to have become endemic to our political processes at all levels.

     However, the fault for this malady cannot be placed exclusively on the candidates themselves. There is an equal responsibility to be born by a rapacious media, whose members are eager to advance their own careers by stirring controversy and scandal. But on a deeper level the journalists, like the politicians, are only captive of a system that predetermines the methods they employ.

     No doubt, one generalized source of this pattern is the adversarial method of our judicial procedure. In recent decades its tendency to rancor has been further exacerbated by the Deconstructive technique of Postmodern law. Such factors have come to shape our political processes and even the ethic of our journalistic media. There may be no remedy for these influences, but it might be useful to attempt to put our approach to public affairs into perspective.

     One way of doing so is to look at the practices of our earliest political forebears, the ancient Greeks. By this means we can gain perspective on a variety of methods of discourse and understand how our particular approach compares with other ways of transacting the public business.

      There are several ways of viewing the variety of methods of public discussion that prevailed among the Greeks and have survived down to modern times. But for purposes of understanding American practice they are best seen in four categories: the dialogue, the principled, the rhetorical, and the disputatious.

     The first of these, the dialogue, is perhaps the best known. It was the method employed by the philosopher Socrates and by his disciple, Plato. The dialogue can be summarized as an approach where the presenter is encouraged to set forth his idea. As he does so, his listeners may ask questions or raise objections. However, their purpose is not to discredit or contradict. Instead, it is to assist the speaker to present his ideas  and to elaborate or resolve potentially unclear or problematic aspects. This method is often used today in diplomatic proceedings and, perhaps surprisingly, within the governing strata of the Chinese system.

     The second approach to discussion, what might be called the reasoned or principled, is based on an appeal to abstract concepts and ideals, and to logic. This type of exchange begins with a set of agreed upon propositions or theories and pursues them to their logical conclusion. This more detached and impersonal approach to finding agreement was set forth by Parmenides. It is a type of discussion especially prevalent in the affairs of Continental Europe. Because the region is divided by many languages, European affairs are often transacted on a high level of intellection—employing principles and ideals that transcend language.

     The third mode of Greek discourse, the rhetorical, involved a thorough training in manner and speech–but not in a superficial sense.  Rather, it sought a deep cultivation of individual character, the formation of a commanding persona. The rhetorician was less concerned to win the argument and more concerned to win the audience. He relied in his presentation not so much on a set of facts as on the way those facts were presented. In ancient Athens Isocrates was the first great teacher of rhetoric and Demosthenes was its most famous exemplar. Today the British are by far the most visible practitioners of this art, employing it to  advantage for both diplomatic and political purpose as well as for journalistic influence.

     Finally, in ancient Athens the tendency to argumentation and casuistry was made most famous by the Sophists. Their rise in the public courts to enormous wealth and political power was exemplified by Gorgias and Protagoras.  Able to argue on behalf of any cause, their technique was especially useful when parsing the phrases of a written text. Their tendency to disputation, called eristic by the Greeks, became a pattern for the adversarial methods of American law, as it eventually came to color the atmosphere of American political affairs.

     What is the usefulness of this glimpse at ancient history? In fact, a number of conclusions might be drawn from it. One is that there are several modes of public discourse. Each has advantages and disadvantages for establishing the quality of public conversation. When we apply these examples to the American situation several conclusions might be drawn. But perhaps two are most important.

     The first is that the transaction of political affairs does not have to be inherently or destructively contentious. It does not have to work on the basis of opposing parties or rival interest groups. Realizing this it is also important to remember that our current approach is the result of a series of choices. Our political discussion does not have to be conducted on the present level. Moreover, the question is not so much one of harmony and civility as it is one of intelligence and usefulness.

     That thought leads to a second conclusion: It is well and good for politicians to campaign and for citizens to participate in the political process. Those are, after all, the conventional means by which to influence government affairs. Yet, while doing these things, it might be useful to embark upon a discussion about the way public matters are actually transacted in this country.

     For my part, I believe this could be a very useful topic to explore in the public forum. I would suggest the discussion take the form of a dialogue. Whether we realize it or not, we have inherited much of our political method from the Ancient Greeks. Perhaps it is possible they have more to teach us.

BEYOND POLITICS: Thoughts on the presidential election

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

My personal inclination runs to the philosophical. I attempt to find a perspective outside the paradigms that have come to define our Age of Technology. Rather than examining the trends of Postmodernity and Globalization I prefer to examine the values and assumptions that give rise to them.

I seldom look to the political realm for serious and fundamental discussion of the perplexities that face our troubled world. For me the sphere of politics is by its nature narrow and proscribed. The cycle of campaigns and elections, of candidates and issues, offers little opportunity for actually evaluating the authoritative institutions of law and learning within which all public questions are decided.

But I also recognize the mundane practical concerns that must be attended to while one engages those larger philosophical matters. In the case of America those practical considerations include a basic economic stability, an atmosphere of social equity among its people, and beyond these what might be called its moral imperative as the single Great Power in the world.

There is, after all, a particular importance attached to the well-being of the United States because of its role as arbiter of international affairs and guarantor of order among nations. In stating this, the purpose is neither to approve nor condemn the role America has assumed or that has been thrust upon it. For the purpose here, it is enough to simply accept the fact that America plays a predominant role in the world today.

Some view its recent overseas conduct as an abuse of prerogative–an unwise tendency to intervene in foreign conflicts, leaving mostly destruction and confusion in its wake. Others view America as a paragon of freedom, democracy and the rule of law–a country that is fulfilling a historic, perhaps even Biblical, mission around the world.

Over the past decade much evidence could be amassed to substantiate either point of view. Yet, neither side of this argument is relevant to our discussion here. Whatever one’s opinion, all must agree that America has paid a dear price for its announced purpose of carrying its way of life to the disadvantaged and oppressed peoples of the earth.

In fact, it was an appeal to those high ideals and America’s unique role in the world that formed a major theme in the last presidential election. As the world watched and listened those lofty tenets were restated by a new voice and with a unique eloquence. The hope of their fulfillment was a decisive factor in the electoral result.

To many persons, including myself, what had been set forth seemed to be much more than merely campaign platitude. It not only touched on a deeper crisis of spirit afflicting the American people, it also touched on transcendent matters important to virtually all peoples. Few public careers have been launched with higher expectations or greater promise. None has embarked with more public adulation around the world.

But in the course of his brief tenure the performance of the new president has proven to be disappointing. In the practical matter of actually governing, the new administration seemed to lose its direction. On the basic level of setting forth a clear purpose, of controlling expenditure, of instilling discipline where necessary and unity where possible, it appeared to be weak.

Of course, those failures can be explained and forgiven as arising from the difficult task at hand. But as his strategy for re-election developed, there emerged another type of shortcoming that could not be so easily set aside. In the new campaign the president and his advisors fell to the visceral tactics of malice and rancor instead of ensuring a useful discussion of important matters. The ideals and inspiring rhetoric of the past were discarded.

For a president elected on the basis of the high standard he set and the hope he inspired this has become a most disturbing failure and amounts to a kind of betrayal. By abandoning the attributes that secured his election he has sacrificed the vast mandate given him. It raises to question the true identity of this person so many of us looked to and admired. Perhaps most of all these failures betray certain weaknesses of the man himself–a combination of inexperience on one side and a lack of full maturity on the other.

The result of this dissonance of word and deed has become obvious, even to those who were his ardent supporters. It is these deficiencies that have led to a present situation in which America is no longer adequately governed. His administration has no true leader. It has no useful relations with Congress. It is impotent to act in the current economic crisis. Its role in world affairs has become confused and ineffectual. It can neither terminate nor prosecute a war.
However, in this quandary a clear alternative has emerged. Once again America approaches the culmination of another protracted campaign for the presidency. In the spectacle of its politics every possible difference between the two candidates has been discovered and magnified. Yet, between them the difference lies not so much in the policies and positions they advocate as it does in the difference between the two men themselves.
For many people the deeply held religious convictions of the challenger may seem simplistic, strange, or even at some level repugnant. Yet, undeniably, his principles run far deeper than mere politics. He holds them with an unmitigated fervor and in three decades of highly visible professional life followed by more than a decade of highly visible public life he has proven he will not deviate from them.

Moreover, for the practical and mundane purposes that need to be carried out those convictions provide a solid anchor of predictability. Because what this country needs now has nothing necessarily to do with high-flown rhetoric, with personal style, or with the theatrics of social legislation. Its most important needs are much more elemental in nature.

To me, at least, the challenger is better equipped to satisfy the pedestrian necessities of government. On the domestic front he will be better able to manage, to oversee, to direct, to balance accounts, to control waste, and to prevent misappropriation. Sophisticated or not, these mundane abilities need to be introduced into the councils of government.

With regard to foreign affairs the challenger’s position on questions of world policy may seem outdated, overly bellicose, even reminiscent of the Cold War. Yet in fact, they may not be so different from the murky ruminations of the incumbent, except in that they are stated more explicitly and emphatically.

Nonetheless, my expectation is that, right or wrong, his views will be no more dangerous in their execution than those existing under the indecision of the current administration. There are obvious advantages to having a leader who can be understood with clarity by all sides. If there will not be agreement, there might at least be respect.

For me, the importance of the moment can be summarized in a few sentences: It is laudable to espouse high purpose and aspirations. It is good to advance the benefits of prosperity and hope around the world. It is good to have the capacity to act on behalf of all peoples. However, we must always recognize priorities. We must have our own house in order and take care of our own people before we can take on the perplexities that face the world.

Even those of us with a philosophical inclination must put first things first. Only then can we move on to the larger matters, of which the realm of politics is only an incidental part. Within a nation that is so predominant in the affairs of the world, reflection on larger purposes is a very important thing. Yet, even the loftiest plan to improve the human condition requires a foundation of practicality established deeply in the terra firma of earth.

We live in a world being reshaped by technology–when government is being redefined in a process of Globalization. It is a world undergoing profound changes in the ordering of human life—what social scientists call Postmodernity. At such a moment it is supremely ironic that America, the single Great Power of the world, is buried in a morass of ineptitude and is powerless to act even to straighten its own affairs. The present administration has squandered its opportunity. It is time for a change.

(The Greek Crisis) ATHENS: Politics, Finance and Philosophy

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

Ancient Athens is looked back upon and celebrated as the birthplace of a new and distinctive Western Civilization. Some of this attribution may, of course, be the enthusiastic embellishment of modern historians

Yet, there is much basis for the aura that still surrounds the city where Socrates in life and in death altered the course of history.

The pre-eminence of Athens is particularly important in the areas of politics and philosophy–two realms which in the eyes of ancient Athenians were inextricably related. But the world has changed a great deal in the intervening centuries, especially in our technologically defined age of Postmodernity.

Popular politics is still a very dominant influence in our time, albeit in forms that might be unrecognizable to the ancient Greeks. However, in the affairs of human thought and action the influence of philosophy has become almost wholly absent.

That is, philosophy in the Socratic sense: A way of life, a willingness to challenge even the most vaunted claim to authority, to fearlessly engage all the great questions of life and existence. Philosophy of this type has virtually disappeared.

Instead, in the present day our manner of living, our questions and reflections have come to be enclosed within a set of fixed limits. Our reality is greatly defined by both our institutions of authoritative learning and a ubiquitous electronic media.

Despite their potential to enhance human understanding, they have both come in many ways to delimit it. Ironically, this tendency to limitation of perspective and  to diffidence in public discussion has been nowhere more obvious than in the recent matter of the Greek financial crisis.

If there is a single overriding determinant of world events today, it is the convulsions and machinations of the global economy. As a transcending presence it operates with an unrestrained technological ability to move capital, mobilize labor and appropriate resources. It lies beyond the control of political leaders as it lies beyond the sovereignty of any national population.

In the Postmodern atmosphere of today our two crucial sources for understanding the global economic regime have become intertwined with the purposes that sustain its growing reach. The sweep of its influence is beyond the scope of academic learning and inaccessible to examination by the popular media. This has occurred for the very reason that they have unavoidably become captive to it.

Public debate on the Greek problem quickly became on many levels merely about parties, policies and personalities–within a framework of values and assumptions that were never questioned. Ironically, this situation raises the possibility that the ancient Greeks might have something to teach us regarding even these matters.

After all, the famous Golden Age of Athens, when philosophy first reached the city, was also a time of wrenching crisis. All the tiny Greek polities existed under the shadow of a gigantic Persian Empire. Its tentacles of trade and diplomacy were transforming Greek life. The result was economic upheaval, incessant warfare and political dependency as the great empire consolidated its program of ecumenical hegemony.

Much like conditions during that ancient period, our world situation has made clear one sobering fact about the time in which we live: Politics on the level of the territorial-state has become compromised, or paralyzed, or perhaps more accurately, servile to the demands of a world financial regime which national leaders are powerless to resist.

Ultimately, the crisis of Greece today–or any number of countries tomorrow–exists as merely part of one great interrelated world phenomenon. If there is to be any possible solution, the first question becomes how to gain perspective on that problem, to understand it in its totality.

The second question would concern by what set of standards and considerations will these crises be resolved. What is the best and lasting resolution for all parties involved?

Possible answers to these questions may be seen in the methods and purposes of the ancient Greek Philosophers. Perhaps what the world needs today is a new Socrates.

That is, someone who stands outside the dominant paradigms and institutions. Someone unbeholden, who enters the conversation guided by more than utilitarian values and assumptions.

In the civic questions he confronted, Socrates began from the premise of an essential humanity shared by all persons–what he called The Soul. His larger purpose always assumed a quality inherent to the universe–what he called The Good.

Is it possible that questions about global finance might be resolved according to these measures? With an eye to the good of all peoples involved?

Such talk, of course, makes us uncomfortable today. Within the argot of political platitude, the collegial refuge of academic abstraction, or the ephemera of timely reportage, such an approach to global questions would seem anachronistic, or even quaint.

After all, this is the twenty-first century. The time of Socrates is long past.

Yet, when we realize the unlikelihood of such ideas being introduced, of anyone in the councils of public debate taking such a stand, we can better understand why the name of Socrates was so widely revered in the ancient world. We can more clearly understand the aura that surrounds his native city, even today.

NO CHARACTER, NO CULTURE

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

The title of this brief essay, “No Character, No Culture,” is of course an overstatement of the prevailing atmosphere in American life today. However, there are many Americans from all age groups, all economic and educational strata who would agree there is much truth in it.

In fact, it is likely that many people, if probed beneath the outward confidence they project in everyday life, would agree: America, for whatever reason, is in decline. They might express this concern in moral or spiritual or religious terms. But the malady they refer to would be the same for each of them.

The symptoms of this decline are abundant and obvious. The obesity epidemic, the bloat of public and private debt, a corrosive dependency on mind altering drugs–both illicit and prescribed, an astonishing homicide and incarceration rate. America, after all, has a far higher percentage of its population in prisons than any other country in the world.

Even actions of the national government are reflective–and even precipitous–of this decline. It can be seen in the extent to which elected officials have become the captive of highly influential and well-funded interest groups. Decline is also apparent in the general tone of policy in both domestic and foreign matters.

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AMERICAN DIPLOMACY: Some thoughts

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

A famous saying is attributed to the French diplomat, Talleyrand: “Words are used to conceal thoughts.” There is, of course, more than a touch of cynicism in this quotation. Yet, it may also betray merely a deeper level of knowledge born of experience.

Talleyrand was the wily and irrepressible Foreign Minister to Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, as a public figure he outlasted the decade of the French Revolution beginning in 1789, he survived the fall of the Bourbon Monarchy in 1793, he ascended with the rise the Napoleonic Empire, and in 1814 took a leading part in the Bourbon Restoration. Finally, at the end of his career he was able to salvage the dignity of a defeated France at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

As one of the most adept practitioners of the art of diplomatic interaction his statement quoted above must be credited with a level of insight that is deeper and more knowing than mere cynicism. He was a consummate realist, a shrewd evaluator of human nature and of national interests. Most of all, he was able to align those disparate interests to the advantage of France.

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BUSH AND OBAMA: A Difference? A Meaning?

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

The presidents Bush and Obama are often compared with one another in terms of how different they are. Undoubtedly, they are dissimilar in many obvious ways. They may even be precise opposites in a few aspects. Yet, setting aside differences in political view and ideology there are other levels on which to compare them. One has to do with their habits of behavior as individual persons and as leaders.

For example, if we suspend political judgment for a moment and view them simply as hypothetical types, there arises a very timely question: “Which is worse, a president who has the wrong purpose, but is clear and decisive in setting out to attain it, or a president who wants the right things but is vague and indecisive in attempting to achieve those ends?”

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President Obama: The Beautiful and the Sublime

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

Not all the writings by Immanuel Kant are impossibly difficult to read and understand. In fact, one of his best known essays, “On the Beautiful and the Sublime”, is relatively brief, it is written in clear prose and it addresses its topic with some very acute observations.

The essay may also hold some significance for certain of our current political maladies. It may be important because it deals with the subject of rhetoric, a matter very much on the minds of philosophers in the Eighteenth Century. It is also a topic that pertains to President Obama–both in his obvious abilities as an elective politician as well as in some of his difficulties as Chief Executive of the United States.

The study of rhetoric is, of course, a study of the art of persuasion by manner and speech. In the ancient world it was deemed an art of such crucial importance that over time it was analyzed and elaborated as a set of principles into a virtual science. In his essay Kant attempts to illustrate an important difference between two of its major techniques. His explanation may have important meanings for our president.

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