Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is Kant Channeling Nostradamus?

"After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone. Actually, however, this danger is not so great, for by falling a few times they would finally learn to walk alone. But an example of this failure makes them timid and ordinarily frightens them away from all further trials" (Para.2).

Either things haven't changed all that much, or Kant had the powers of Nostradamus with which to see the future. Through the superficiality of 24-hour cable news reporting and USAToday-style sound byte coverage, the "cattle" only gain the most insignificant and rudimentary perspective with respect to the important stories of our time, and how those stories have an impact on their well being. By making the details and nuance difficult to find and then more difficult to comprehend, the cattle are less likely to seek the truth, and through it, enlightenment.

Kant advances the assumption that freedom is the key to enlightenment. "if only freedom is granted enlightenment is almost sure to follow" (para. 4). And that may be true, depending on your definition of freedom. Today, even while technology and automation promises to provide more free time, the working class has generally not used it to pursue a path to enlightenment. Perhaps the reason is that while freedom prevails, and free time is more abundant, security is in decline. The division of profit between labor and management has increasingly leaned toward the latter, and the expense of the former. Higher education has become more critical to ensure economic survival while becoming less accessible. And while advances in medicine provide the potential for a longer life, it is out of reach for more that 30 million of us, and for the rest, it is contingent upon employment. Hence, there is no freedom from anxiety.

Meanwhile, political operatives on both sides of the spectrum attempt to garner support by vilifying the other side and portraying their opponents' policies as a direct threat to the well-being of the working class. Each side claims, given the opportunity, the other will destroy our middle-class way of life and create an environment whereby enemies of the state will be able to take advantage and bring to an end the experiment called the United States.

So while the typical occupant of the middle class worries about maintaining her precarious economic position, in addition to worrying about those remote threats which have been represented by the "guardians" as imminent, she takes solace in distraction. Voyeuristic entertainment in the form of reality TV allows her a momentary sense of superiority as those she sees as inferior- if not in terms of economics, at least in common sense- act out their pseudo lives for the masses. She becomes engrossed in sporting events that pit one geographical region against another in harmless and meaningless (albeit lucrative to the upper class) competition.

Kant asserts, "we have clear indications that the field has now been opened wherein men may freely deal with these things and that the obstacles to general enlightenment or the release from self—imposed tutelage are gradually being reduced" (Para. 8), he is correct in that obstacles to which he is referring are those once applied by Church and State. Conveniently, they are no longer necessary.

"The public use of one's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men" (Para. 6). But for this to be true, one must be paying attention. Today, according to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, human beings are barraged by over 3000 messages a day. It would be easy for that one enlightened voice to remain embedded in the white noise of pop culture. The "intentional artifices" (Para.9) need no longer be made while the unintentional ones prevail.

Kant represents an optimistic point of view in his essay, "What is Enlightenment," and one hopes that it is based on some preternatural, Nostradamian process.

As nature has uncovered from under this hard shell the seed for which she most tenderly cares — the propensity and vocation to free thinking — this gradually works back upon the character of the people, who thereby gradually become capable of managing freedom; finally, it affects the principles of government, which finds it to its advantage to treat men, who are now more than machines, in accordance with their dignity (Para. 10).

So far, I don't see it.

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