The P.I.C.

I have begun to reread Robert Musil’s “A Man without Qualities,” a huge Austrian novel written between 1930-43. It is considered by literary scholars as one of the greatest novels of last hundred years and is easily compared to the best works of Joyce, Proust, or Mann. I was inspired to re-read it when I encountered a piece last summer by David Auerbach in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he argues that Trump is not comparable to any of the other populist demagogues in the 20th century because he does not hue to an ideology. Instead, he only seeks to dominate others and not be dominated by anyone. In searching for a personality that accurately prefigures Trump, Auerbach lights on the character of Christian Moosbrugger in Musil’s novel. Moosbrugger is an uneducated carpenter who is also a serial rapist and murderer of women. Brought to account for his crimes, his trial becomes the talk of Vienna because of his eccentric behavior as a defendant. He applauds testimony in court that is damaging to him and basks in the fame and attention the trial affords him, frustrating his lawyers by commenting on the proceedings to the press. He contradicts himself frequently in giving testimony, and does so without a care, as if the truth is only what he chooses to believe in that moment. He is clearly insane, but in the way that people can be insane and still appear to be perfectly rational. This is the quality that fascinates the other characters in the novel, as they read about the case in the newspapers. 

I read the first part of the novel when I was an undergraduate. As with many of the works I read in that period of my life, I remember only the vaguest outlines of the plot and a few images. I even forgot about Moosbrugger. So I dove into this 1800 page monster looking to see what other gems Musil had offered that deserve to be better known as we start the 21st century in earnest. 

I was not disappointed. Only 130 pages into the book, Musil offers a biting critique of the aspirational language of organizations, political platforms included, in the form of a fake logical principle: the Principle of Insufficient Cause. Here is the passage in which Ulrich, the main character, explains the principle to Fischel, a bank manager who had been asked by Count Leinsdorf, a powerful aristocrat in the Austrian Emperor’s inner circle, to join Ulrich and several other notables in organizing a celebration of the Emperor’s 70th year of reign, the same year the German Emperor will be celebrating his 30th year in office, thus demonstrating Austria’s cultural, political and philosophical superiority to its Germanophone neighbor. The bank manager is trying to understand what the Count has written in the letter of invitation that describes what the project is about. That description includes the phrase “the true patriotism, the true Austria and the true progress,” which Fischel finds totally confounding. Ulrich, by the way, is quite cynical about the whole endeavor, but must remain guarded in offering his true opinions so as not to undermine his public reputation as a diplomat and a scholar, a reputation based not on actual accomplishment, but on, yes, the P.I.C. 

“The P.I.C.?” Director Fischel repeated the letters in all innocence, this time not thinking that it was a joke, for although such abbreviations were then not yet as numerous as today, they were familiar from cartels and trusts, and they were very confidence-inspiring. Then, however, he said: “Look, please don’t make jokes. I’m in a hurry, I have a conference.” “The Principle of the Insufficient Cause!” Ulrich explained. “Being a philosopher yourself, you know of course what the principle of the sufficient cause is. Only, people make an exception where they themselves are concerned. In real life, by which I mean our personal and also our public-historical life, what happens is always what has no good cause.” Leo Fischel wavered, undecided whether to contradict him or not. Director Leo Fischel of Lloyd’s Bank enjoyed philosophising (there are still such people in practical occupations), but he was really in a hurry. So he replied: “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. I know what progress is, I know what Austria is, and I dare say I know what patriotism is too. But I don’t know that I can quite imagine what true patriotism, true Austria and true progress are. And that’s what I’m asking you!” “All right. Do you know what an enzyme is? Or a catalyst?” Leo Fischel lifted one hand in a defensive gesture. “It’s something,” Ulrich went on, “that contributes nothing materially, but sets events going. You ought to know from history that there has never been such a thing as the true faith, true morality, and true philosophy. And yet the wars, and all the vileness and viciousness, that have been let loose in their name have fruitfully transformed the world.” “Another time!” Fischel implored, and tried to adopt an air of frankness. “Look, it’s like this, I’ve got to deal with all this on the Stock Exchange and would really like to know what Count Leinsdorf’s actual intentions are. What is he getting at with this supplementary ‘true’ of his?” “I give you my solemn word,” Ulrich replied gravely, “that neither I nor anyone else knows what ‘the true’ is. But I can assure you it is on the point of realisation.”

    The Principle of Insufficient Causes is a jewel of an idea because it is about the catalytic quality of words, the casual force of speech to bring things into the world and set events in motion that are truly transformative. In the case that Ulrich is dealing with, it’s a silly political celebration that will become as all consuming culture event and change people’s lives. In our case, it’s the formulas of populism, the “Make America Great / Put America First” slogans that  mean nothing, but catalyze actions that transform lives. And, I can assure you, it is on the point of realisation. 

    I can’t wait to see what Musil has in store for the next 1700 pages. 

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    Just Go Up the Mountain

    This is an experiment. Is it possible to find a common ground where people of different political perspectives and ideals can find work together on common concern? It is silly season in America as the election circus is in full dirge. The media divides us into competing camps to sell their commercials. I’m not selling anything. I’m going to talk about my experience, not my beliefs. What I outline below is something you’ve probably experienced too.

    Like you, I want to make the best political choices I can. My experience with elections is that they show us where our problems lie. They rarely show us what we’re doing right. This one is no different in that respect, although it is certainly louder. I don’t think we ever get nominees for president who have not gotten dirty on their way up. I don’t believe that presidents solve our problems. At best they avoid making things worse. Part of the election circus is grilling the candidate as if they could solve these problems. Then, if we get the chance before the commentators tell us what to think, we compare their answers to what we think is feasible.

    We don’t stop there with presidents. We blame our leaders for what’s wrong with our lives. It’s not like we take no responsibility for decisions that may have gone wrong. It’s that we feel that our choices were limited in the first place. Public policy helped to create those limited choices. So, the leaders are involved in the what’s wrong with our lives. How does that happen? Being a politician may begin with wanting to better the lives of your neighbors but it quickly becomes more about maintaining power and privilege. And that means listening to and accommodating people who want to make money from public policies. You know these stories. Some group wants their product to have an advantage in the marketplace and a politician helps them make that happen. Then the politician gets a nice monetary contribution for the next election. We feel powerless to fix this. While federally financed elections would remove money raising from politicians’ daily work, the manipulators will find others ways to influence policy.

    How can we fix this? The first step should be to make any actions we take less isolating. I have my ways of “sticking it to the Man.” You have yours. But we are acting apart. What if there were organizations that we could join where people share information on subversive actions, like Angie’s List for goods and services in the old days, but with the purpose of thwarting those influential actors? How can we ‘disrupt’ the behaviors that enrich corporations and really democratize consumption? It may sound abstract, but it has worked before in this country through food cooperatives, buyer’s clubs, boycotts, citizens’ lobbies, and investigative journalism. It all begins with a few people getting together for one of these purposes, and then advertising their success. Doing so cuts across political parties. If we are dissatisfied with what the market offers, we can find others who feel the same way (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and work together on some action.

    The world I live in today is not what it was when I graduated from high school fifty years ago. At that time, White Christian America (WCA) was the dominant cultural force in the country. As described in Robert P. Jones’ recent book, The End of White Christian America, this not-so-silent majority within our country determined the shape and composition of our families, our sexualities, our gender roles, our relations with other religions, our international morality, our commitment to human rights, our images of justice and the greater good, even our sense of what was beautiful in music and art. That is not the case anymore. Its churches have been losing members for decades. Every effort at revival has produced a temporary surge in attendance, only to lose those new members too. Its leaders ability to gain the ear of politicians and people of commerce is shrinking. Neither of the presidential candidates most identified with the positions of this important group, Bush, Rubio and Cruz could not attract enough votes to secure the nomination. Its cultural agenda is overshadowed in a sea of multiculturalism and racial complexity. If I was a White Christian American, I would be frustrated and resentful at the way my country has engaged diversity while undervaluing my culture’s contribution to its greatness. These neighbors and friends are still everywhere, in the small towns and suburbs of the South and the Midwest. They are so numerous that this cultural sea change is barely felt. Even in those places, the broken families, the dangerous race relations, the substance abuse, the under-employment, and the increasing ethnic and religious diversity show that something is very wrong.

    This is the real culture war: the sinking of this formerly dominant cultural force in a cosmopolitan ocean of lost jobs, world religions, diverse sexualities and genders, racial complexity, and perhaps the most biting and intimate change, the social, economic and political empowerment of women. One has only to look at the position of women in much of the non-Western world (there are exceptions) to understand how revolutionary the current situation in the U.S. and Europe really is. The hundred or so years it has taken to get to where we are is very short compared to the millennia during which women were silent, or silenced bearers of children and instruments of family stability. These gains are not set in stone, as recent pronouncements about repealing the 19th amendment show. The war is between those who embrace the present promise of ever-increasing equality, and those who long for the orderliness of the past. This will not be resolved by any election. We must wait for history to sort out the relationships between these blocks as the century unfolds. It will take time.

    How do we support the positive contributions that the White Christian community makes to our nation? At the same time, how do we encourage the educated, coastal metro-citizens to stop looking down their noses and extend their hands in solidarity to the culture that built this nation. That, too, must happen if the anger and resentment felt by the WCA is ever going to abate.

    Race and gender relations in this country are terrible. Again, our leaders can’t fix this. The only people who benefit from the aggressions experienced by women and by people with Native American, Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific ancestry are the wealthiest Americans. It has always been that way. The founding documents of our nation (see article 18 of the Declaration of Independence for example) set these communities apart as not really “us.” Throughout our history, the men of wealth and property have been able to say to their poorer brethren, “At least, you are one of us, and not one of them.” Efforts over the past fifty years to remove legal distinctions, level the economic playing field, extend educational and employment opportunities, and offer immigration lotteries to a wider range of the world’s people, have made it even more difficult for men in the middle and working classes to distinguish themselves from working women and people of color. This blurring of categories is a dangerous situation. People explode into rage when the categories that help them make sense of the world are no longer reliable. This can easily produce a violent reaction toward women, immigrants and people of color unlike anything we have seen recently. Even if only a tiny group gives in to their rage, we could be in for a generation of murders, terrorist attacks, lynchings and sabotage. ISIS, after all, is supported by less than 10% of the world’s Sunni Arabs and see how much chaos they create. We must talk to each other about the real basis of racism and sexism now. Soon, it will be too late.

    When people with different perspectives on these issues talk to each other about their actual lives, they understand each other. We can all relate to the expense of real injuries and persistent illness, to worrying about our children’s safety, and to fear of those in authority. We are at our best when we act locally to meet our neighbors and devise solutions together. How do we act locally across this racial and gender divide to begin these conversations? This political season is too tense to afford such opportunities. Instead we must start small, reaching out to pairs and small groups of people meeting to establish a basis for conversation. It can be done. Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany is today one of the most diverse and welcoming countries in Europe. It has fully embraced its responsibility for the destruction and murder of the disabled, Jewish, Roma and LGBT communities, and through its actions has shown that it will do whatever it takes to build reconciliation.

    How much are we willing to ignore what’s good for us in the short run in order to justify long-term gains? Political parties urge us to see the world narrowly, using only one or two simple ideas to interpret everything. The Clinton-dominated Democratic platform asks us to accept borders open to trade and the movement of people while ignoring how this distorts the democratic process. At some point, too big to fail becomes too big to control. The Trump-dominated Republican platform asks us to close the border and protect jobs in exchange for ignoring how this will reduce everyone’s standard of living. The Greens promise a sustainable future for our grandchildren while asking us to ignore the immense restrictions on individual action imposed by authoritarian bureaucracies that such sustainability requires! Similar analysis could be described for Libertarianism and Democratic Socialism. There is no utopia that will not cost us something we hold dear. If we are frustrated and resentful over something, we are more likely to ignore our self-interest in favor of the long-term outcomes that will reduce our immediate pain. This is a contradiction. Why don’t we just focus on the immediate problem?

    We need to have a see the difference between fanaticism and idealism.? The ramping up of an ideal fueled by fear of impending cataclysm, a good definition of fanaticism, makes conversation impossible. No fanatic ever converts anyone to their cause. They just scare the daylights out people. We need to confront the rage that feeds this fanaticism. We need to offer alternative possibilities of hope and renewal. Here is a role for our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to show their relevance in the moment. They can do so by initiating an examination of how rage and hopelessness lead to fanaticism, not inside the walls of the sanctuary, but in the public square. Let’s put that wonderfully powerful rhetoric of faith to use as a talking cure for our growing anger.

    I’ve come to embrace the common sense idea that the ‘perfect’ is the enemy of the ‘good.’ In trying to realize our ideals we can overreach to such an extent that we end up strengthening our opponents, making it impossible to hold on to even the modest gains we make toward our desired world. Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of early warning radar during WWII even went so far as advocate for a ‘cult of the imperfect:’ “Give them the third best to go on with,” he said, “The second best comes too late, the best never comes.” Our ideals often require us to make matters worse in the hope they will get better, rather than celebrating how much we have already achieved, and how fragile those gains are. We should be working toward a strengthening of pluralism (“Everyone has a voice”), mutual accommodation (“Everyone’s interests are important”), and incremental reforms (“Fix what we can today”). These were the principles of political action that have provided the greatest good over the course of this country’s history. There is no reason to abandon them in favor of untested utopian visions on either side of the political divide.

    We need to practice step-by-step, incremental change in all the organizations and networks in which we participate. In his 2009 book The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, showed the way forward for divided communities such as ours. He dispensed with the arguments about the absence of common ground by showing that there’s no satisfactory way to decide among several equally compelling but incompatible ideals of justice. A perfectly just society is possible, he asserted, without having any common ideals at all! Let people believe whatever they want. The more ideals they put forward, the better. This isn’t really a problem because we don’t need ideals to solve problems. We only need motivated people to define the problems, identify the resources to effect change, and find the will to find a solution. What we don’t need are dominant ideals. We know justice when we see/hear it because everyone senses that some balance has even reached. Sen called this way of doing things “Just go up”. He wrote that if you are climbing a mountain, you don’t need to know what the peak looks like to know what to do next. All you have to do is make sure your next step is up. If we can identify an injustice in our lives or those of our neighbors, we can focus on fixing the most urgent and obvious problems, making everything incrementally, and progressively better. When we deal with the injustices and the aggressions where we find them, we gain in political stability and social justice step-by-step, leaving no community behind. When the last injustice is rectified (if we should survive that long), we’ve accomplished something that no ideal utopia could have. And we didn’t need one to get there.