Chris Hedges wrote a column for Truthdig, Calling all Rebels, which begins by discussing the miserable state of the nation. He quotes David Cay Johnson, formerly a business writer for the New York Times, saying that we are headed for a massive economic disaster. The first page is a standard rant, one that could have written by any lefty.
But then we get something different: Hedges asks why we should resist? Why don’t we just carve out a comfortable place for ourselves in the corporate state and spend our lives satisfying our personal needs? After all, he points out, the elites have done just that, as have countless functionaries, the people who tell us we must work within the system, and compromise in the spirit of compassion and generosity.
Hedges’ answer is the real surprise. He turns to the French philosopher Albert Camus, and his book The Rebel, for an answer. You don’t see a lot of references to philosophy, or to French existentialism today. It was popular when I was at Notre Dame (the 60s). I took a course in Christian Existentialism which met a requirement of all graduates. I hardly need add that it isn’t on the list of courses today. In fact, philosophy itself has lost its place in the curriculum at most colleges.
The Rebel was published in 1951. Camus and Sartre had gotten into a big fight because of Sartre’s support of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. Camus, a native of Algeria, was sensitive to colonialist oppression, and knew it when he saw it. Sartre attacked the philosophy bona fides of Camus as part of that fight, and Camus responded with The Rebel.
The Rebel is a think piece. There are no data tables, no empirical studies, no effort to place the work in the pantheon of knowledge about things. It is purely a meditation on the position of the intellectually aware person in a world that ignores his existence; it asks what that person should do?
It took Camus two years to write The Rebel, mostly spent in solitude because he was recovering from tuberculosis. Two years of thinking and writing. That is what makes the book so interesting. Two years of thinking. What on earth, people today would say, requires thinking for more than a minute or two? That thinking stuff is hard, and focused thinking about a single problem for two years in the age of full-time wired-in life? Well, that is unthinkable. What does it even mean to think about the same thing for two years?
If this were a scientific exploration, an effort to understand a physical phenomenon, we would at least be able to grasp it. After all, that would mean experimenting, doing something, observing the results, thinking about them, doing another experiment, observing the results and eventually writing them up. Or if it were translating, we would understand: what did Proust mean by some specific sentence, not the word for word transliteration you get from Babelfish, but a translation that conveys the meaning he wanted to convey?
The Rebel isn’t like that, and philosophy generally isn’t like that. The Rebel isn’t a search for knowledge, but for meaning. Camus burrows deeply into his own experience of the world, and considers the experiences of others and tries to distill something worth saying about the meaning of life in the face of an uncaring universe and a society riddled with injustice.
Thinking like this is hard, and certainly we can’t expect everyone to do it, or even expect Camus to do it all the time. Here’s Hannah Arendt’s thinking:
Cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.
The Life of the Mind, p. 4. That perfectly describes today’s state of the art political and social discourse. Politicians and a lot of the rest of us rely on stock phrases to make decisions or at least to explain publicly the reasons for decisions. The ability to express doubt and question a stock phrase has more or less disappeared. So, when lobbyists hired by Sallie Mae tell legislators that 35,000 jobs will be lost if SAFRA passes, Senators heard the words “job loss”, and didn’t think to ask how an industry that employs about 35,000 people would vanish. That failure is repeated over and over.
Everything about modern life makes it easy to avoid reality. Thinking is our only defense, even if it is hard.