Why Are Our Politicians so Awful?

The answer to the above question is one that I have been trying to put my finger on for a very, very long time. It is only up until recently that I have felt able enough to create a clear and articulated opinion on the matter, and even then, I do not doubt many of you will disagree with me on this subject. The question of “why are our politicians so awful?” is one that we might never be able to answer. I would like to begin by confessing that I have made a very sweeping statement already – and I am willing to concede that all politicians might not be awful (or at least not equally as awful).

My conclusion on this subject is a simple one: politics has shifted from the world of philosophy, and into one of popular culture. That is to say that the philosophical backbone behind the politicians and their views has, over time, been removed. If we look at past political figures such as Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Disraeli, Thomas Jefferson (to name just a few), these people were philosophers both inside and outside of their respected political arenas. Many of them even branched outside of the realm of political philosophy, and into other unrelated philosophical topics. Of course, this is not to say that they are without their faults. Especially given the time period in which these people lived, some of them might have held views many of us in the 21st Century might find distasteful.

In replacement of this philosophical backbone, our politicians and their parties now search for votes in the world of pop culture. Our politicians were once serious thinkers, but nowadays our election campaigns and debates are filled with empty slogans, rhetoric and sometimes even “banter”. The best example of this shift towards popular culture is the actions and campaign techniques of our former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who attempted to paint himself as some kind of Rockstar figure. During the dizzy heights of New Labour’s rule, Blair was often painted by the media as a “cool” guy. He was often pictured carrying his guitar, showing off his torso, or surrounded by many crazed supporters on some kind of imaginary red carpet. This is a technique that is yet to die, and I can only see it getting worse. Recently, politicians have seemingly reverted to millennial “banter”, and some have even played off internet memes and jokes to try and increase their popularity and make themselves look more “in-touch”.

Are we doomed? Is there hope? The truth is I think we are all doomed to play witness to this kind of politics until our final days. It is clear to me that we need some serious philosophical thinkers within all our political parties, but I see no sign of that occurring in the near or distant future. I think the best way for this to happen would be the creation of a new party (or maybe even parties), but this is mere fantasy. Perhaps because of the strength and mass presence of modern day media we have doomed ourselves to reduce politics to mere slogans and jokes. But surely that is just an excuse? I think the only remedy for this modern day political nonsense is for the electorate to start demanding what they deserve: genuine politicians, who think long and hard about their political philosophy and ideas, and back those thoughts up with principled action.

Why “Good Will Hunting” is so Important, and Why you MUST Watch it Again.

I will warn you in advance… This blog entry contains movie spoilers.

A lot of people, it seems, have quite an emotional response to the two-time Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting. The film’s success is clearly reflected within its awards and figures, but most people who have seen the film seem to draw something deeper from it. Often it is a very on the surface account of the plot that is given by people to explain their emotional attraction to the film. It is, after all, a rollercoaster of a ride. It begins with a troubled young man – who can only be described as a genius – who works as a janitor at MIT; the film ultimately ends with him being in a much better place than he was before – a true underdog story. However, I feel as though this summary does not do the film nor the viewer justice. I would go as far as saying that Good Will Hunting is the most important Hollywood film ever made from a philosophical perspective. If viewed through the lens I am about to offer now, I think the film can give you great insight about yourself, your own life and the direction of your life and own being.

I want to focus on what I believe to be the most important part of the film (at least from a philosophical perspective): the relationship and discussions between Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) and his counsellor Sean Maguire (played by the legendary Robin Williams). Will Hunting, who is the main character, is a 20 year old boy genius, capable of effortlessly solving mathematical problems that award-winning mathematicians struggle with. Will, however, and mainly due to his history, has what one might describe as a bleak view on life; he is very nihilistic, and spends most of his time avoiding all meaning and responsibility in fear of being emotionally hurt. Sean Maguire, on the other hand, is the complete opposite to Will. He is a middle-aged man, who wears his heart on his sleeve but is also very intelligent. Sean had lived a life of meaning; he had been married to the love of his life for years, until she died of cancer. A lot of the key conversations between Will and Sean seem to revolve around love, relationships and pain.

On the topic of relationships, Will and Sean, yet again, are at two polar opposites. Will, who begins dating a girl and seemingly falls in love with her, refuses to commit himself emotionally or even admit his feelings to himself and others. Sean, as we know, was romantically and wholly committed to his wife, who he clearly loved very much. In short, Will is afraid of getting hurt, whereas Sean has been hurt in the most tragic of ways. When Will questions Sean over this, Sean says that he has no regrets, because it was worth spending all that time with the love of his life, despite his pain. This is what we call meaning, and Will refuses to see it. For anything meaningful to occur, there must be some pain along the way. To give a common and obvious example, somebody who is looking for a long-term partner is likely to experience heartbreak at least once on the road to a relationship. It is very much like the Yin and Yang symbol – there can be no white without black, no love without pain and no happiness without sorrow. But Will undertakes what Sean (and others) describe as a “super philosophy”. Will’s life philosophy was as follows: never get close to anybody or anything, never commit to anything meaningful, because that way you can’t get hurt. But, as Sean constantly tries to point out to Will, how can one lead a meaningful or happy life with such a philosophy? I would, if you have not discovered this deeper philosophical plot already, recommend watching the film again. But, instead of just viewing the conversations between Sean and Will as therapy sessions, view them as philosophical battlegrounds, because that’s what they essentially are.

But it is not only the therapy discussions between Will and Sean which are extremely philosophical, but the entire films plot within itself. What is most interesting is that the film seems to be an inflated version of the discussions between Will and Sean; or, between meaning and nihilism. Everything from Will’s relationships, education, social life and career is a constant flirtation from nihilism to meaningfulness and responsibility. He dips his toe into the pool of responsibility, but then always seems to end up refusing to take the plunge (until the very end of the film, at least).

Now, the question is, what can watching this film tell us about ourselves and our own lives? Quite a lot, I think. I’ll give you my own personal experience of this. When I first watched the film, I was about fifteen years old. At this time in my life, mainly due to personal reasons, I was very nihilistic and negative. I took a very similar view as Will in terms of how one should live life. However, from the ages of around 17-18, I undertook a huge personal transformation. I now actively seek meaning and responsibility, and in short, I would now identify with Sean’s outlook on life rather than Will’s. When I first watched the film, I found myself (for obvious reasons) sympathizing and relating to Will more. But watching the film for the second time as a nineteen year old, after this huge personal transformation, I found myself whole heartedly admiring Sean, and almost egging Will on to take the plunge every time he dipped his toe into the pool of meaning.

The film, as far as I can see, can be used as a good measure on one’s life. Given these two contrasting characters, and the running theme of nihilism vs meaning throughout the entire film, it can be used as a tool to discover where you – or somebody else – is in terms of the way they live their life and how they view more specific things such as family, friendships and romantic relationships. I found, on second viewing of the film and general reflection, that my views on life have swayed dramatically, and I am now reaping the rewards of that, and living a much fuller and more meaningful life. I would be very interested to hear how others perceive the underlining philosophical battle within the film. So, I would highly recommend watching the film again, especially if you have undergone a huge personal transformation since the last time you watched it. And, I can guarantee you, that it will reveal a bit more about yourself than you’d expect.

Don’t be a Utopian

Have you ever dreamt of an ideal world? A world where humans can co-exist in perfect harmony? You have? In that case, my friend, you could well be the most dangerous person on the planet. The Utopians have been, undoubtedly, the most dangerous people on the planet, and many of us today have fallen for the very same trap. This is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t aim to improve our society. But I am suggesting, however, that we improve our society keeping one fundamental key in mind: the key of personal freedom.

To understand why we shouldn’t be Utopians, and why liberty is so important, we must first of all understand what being a Utopian actually means. For God knows how many years,  and partciuarly in the 20th Century, there have always been Utopian thinkers. The Utopians have created, or at least taken to, various ideologies in order to create a “perfect” society. From Marxism to Nazism, Mao to the Medieval Crusaders, the dream of a perfect society was at the very core of their ideas and actions. After studying the book “Hitler’s Table Talk”, a collection of notes compiled by Martin Bormann (Hitler’s own personal secretary), I discovered something quite shocking: Hitler did not think himself to be evil. Of course, many of us (I hope) would have no hesitation to say that Hitler was at least one of the most evil men to ever live… But he didn’t think so himself. Like most people, especially when I was younger, I pictured the likes of Hitler and Stalin to be Sauron type villains – people who knew what they were doing, enjoyed being evil, and only used their political “beliefs” as a way to manipulate and disguise this evil. But as the deeper historical records prove, this is not the case. Even Hitler, the genocidal murderer and war monger, believed himself to be good and sincere – Hitler believed in the perfect German, and global, society. Hitler was a Utopian, and that should scare us all more than anything.

But what connects all these Utopian thinkers? What can an innocent, caring and optimistic 16 year-old Communist possibly have in common with Joseph Stalin (somebody who many Communists are extremely critical of)? The connection is quite a simple one: Utopians believe in one moral truth; a truth that the economy, society and political system must be based upon. This is the danger of Utopianism. You might think that you are noble, and perhaps even moral, for believing in a world where everything is perfect, but ask yourself this, how do you know your vision is perfect? According to who and what do you have the moral high ground over everybody else in society? And believe me, some of the most common answers to these questions would have been like a twin to the answers given by the likes of Hitler and Stalin.

In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece critique of the Soviet Union, Stalin and Communism in general, “The Gulag Archipelago”, he wrote the following on the topic of Soviet”traitors” being jailed after returning from the WW2 battlegrounds:

“Capitalist England fought at our side against Hitler; Marx had eloquently described the poverty and suffering of the working class in that same England. Why was it that in this war only one traitor could be found among them, the business man “Lord Haw Haw” – but in our country millions?”  

The above quote is, perhaps, a prime example of the difference between what we might describe as a “normal” society and a – aspiring – Utopian society. For all its flaws, in Capitalist England there are very few moral codes to abide by; and the codes – or laws – that are already in place (like murder being illegal) have been engraved within global societies for thousands upon thousands of years, and have stood the test of time and critique from a wide range of opposition beliefs. Utopians, on the other hand, have set the rules based on their ideology, and those who do not obey are for the Gulag. If you don’t want to give up your farmland to the collective, to use just on example, then you are a traitor to the revolution, and you must be punished. You can see just how quickly and logically people could (and do) jump from “peaceful theory” to brutal totalitarianism.

In order to maintain a fair and functioning society, one antidote must forever be present: individual freedom. As we already know, a Utopian is somebody who believes their own personal moral point of view is the only acceptable one, and that it must be forced upon all others in order to create a better world

 

But as history proves, when such people gain power (often by violent means), it does not end well. Freedom, and in particular freedom of speech, is crucial for all people to engage in debate and discussion, and then come to a conclusion on which way is the best way forward. But, perhaps most importantly, a free mind living within a free society has the right to choose his own way in life and find his own meaning. Or, in other words, he does not have to obey by the ideas and teachings of Marx, Adam Smith or any other figure.

In order to move ourselves forward as individuals, and with that comes the rest of society, we must all accept one brutal truth: we are not nearly as moral as we think we are. There is always room for improvement, always room to learn, and most importantly, there is always time to consider an opposing point of view. So, if you are a Utopian, if you believe that entire civilizations should be built around your own personal moral code, then you are far more dangerous than you could ever dream of being.