Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Applied Cosmopolitan Dialectics

Series on Dialectics in a Cosmopolitan Condition

The Plugged-In Meeting

By John Taylor; 2009 Dec 09, Qawl 17, 166 BE

Dialectics is the cure for the partisanship, the "isms" and ideologies that afflict the body politic today. Its prime purpose is to dissipate the spirit of contention, protest and opposition by pointing the spotlight at universal truths that everybody, or almost everybody, can agree upon. It is a praxiology, a study that is clinical, that informs decision-making. With the parable of the light under a bushel in mind, John Amos Comenius articulated this goal with his usual eloquence.

"Each of these should not only have truth, but also the appearance of truth, so that it is not like light from a basin but as lightning from heaven, a veritable thunderbolt of God which terrifies all things and drives them forth. I mean that such brightness should attend the new Universal Philosophy, Religion and Politics that they are not obliged to refute any opposition, and there should be no need of pseudo-philosophies, pseudo-religions, and pseudo-politics, which must retreat like vanishing shadows and collapse altogether." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 10, para 42, p. 169)

Comenius had different terminology, like "pansophy" and "philosophy of saints," but since there are differences of emphasis I will stick with the Platonic term "dialectics," by which I mean a systematic application of the Socratic method designed to impress upon every human on earth the essentials of wisdom and all that should be common knowledge.

As a profession, the dialectician answers this daunting challenge first of all by running specially designed meetings in the region or neighbourhood under his or her purview. As mentioned, a dialectician will have already gained a great deal of experience in the early phase of her career before the age of fifty. Like Socrates did in ancient Athens, at this time she engages only in direct, face-to-face conversations with local residents of the hillside housing development.

The made-for-television movie "The Ron Clark Story" depicts the sort of self-imposed challenge that a dialectician would need to answer in order to qualify for the wider responsibilities of the second phase of her career. The story, based on real events, is of a fifth grade teacher who changed from a privileged primary school to one in Harlem, where he took on the worst class the worst school had to offer. He taught them a set of rules based on common courtesy and family values, and in a brief time had them performing better in tests than any other class in the city.

No matter what a dialectician's original trade in her early years, her progress would be from collecting a string of degrees but rather from following the principle of "go for the need" that Ron Clark exemplified. A cook, for example, would take on the tackiest greasy spoon and make it into a four-star restaurant. An architect or city planner might make a slum into a thriving, vibrant neighbourhood, and so forth.

As mentioned, the second, "platonic" phase of the dialectician's career begins at age fifty. Here the philosopher generalizes her ability to take initiative from her own circle to a wider one where she tutors, animates and supervises the initiatives of others. She also takes on more generalized responsibilities, including animating media events in the LBC (Local Broadcasting Cooperative), a locally-oriented media outlet that is owned collectively and run by local tradespeople, educators and other professionals.

These "plugged-in" meetings inform locals about the world plan and suggest where locals can "plug" their own initiatives into its goals and principles. The meetings take place in the neighbourhood's war and peace room, a large common space designed to put every relevant chart and statistic about the local situation at the dialectician's fingertips. Here the dialectician engages a live audience of several dozen citizens in a composite Socratic dialogue.

Depending upon the situation, the participants may be volunteers, appointed, chosen by lot, or a combination of the three; they may come as individuals or as entire households. By a "composite" answer, I mean that in answer to a question calling for a "yes" or "no" answer, what the dialectician responds to is an average of all responses that audience members punch into their clickers. A large screen in the background shows the results of polls and other statistics to compare local ideas and responses with those in different contexts, including the opinions of all humankind and of comparable localities. These dialogues are broadcast live on the LBC and also are made available in summary form on the local network, so that every responsible citizen can forge a role in the overall plan of humanity.

Thus the dialectician's LBC dialog is more "platonic" than "Socratic" in the sense that it is not exclusively devoted to Socrates' Elenchis (that is, stripping away prejudices in order to get at the truth) but like Plato's dialogs it also aspires to public, literary and tendentious purposes.

These meetings also serve as keynote for calibrating rewards on the virtual dashboard displays of residents in that locality.

The needs in every place are different, so I will use where I live, Haldimand County, as an example. Studies by epidemiologists determined a decade ago that Haldimand has one of the highest rates of heart disease in the nation. Only last year I lost a friend and neighbour, Anne Nichols, to a fatal coronary infarction. The experts claim ignorance as to why a rural area should have such high mortality, though it seems pretty clear to me that our coal-fired Nanticoke power generating station is a prime suspect. The doctors suggested that Haldimand make recreational and fitness facilities, such as pools and gymnasia, more available to residents. Beyond that, there seems nothing more they can do about it.

In the UCS, dialecticians would devote their careers to pinpointing the causes of such problems in their locale. For simplicity, let us assume that they only uncover the two causes of heart disease that I have already mentioned, the miasma of coal smog emanating from the towering Nanticoke smokestack, and our lack of exercise and active recreation.

Driving through the countryside, I have noticed that under windless conditions a thin layer of white coal smog sinks into low-lying areas. It actually looks quite beautiful from afar; to the uninitiated, it resembles low lying mist in the valley. Only when you enter the smoke do your eyes start to squint, your head to ache and the air becomes unbreathable.

In the first place Haldimand was chosen as a location for this power generation facility, one of the two largest polluters in North America, because it has a small population that is conservative and politically quiescent. In a UCS there would be no need for partisanship or protest, statistics alone would be enough to set off the alarm bells. With dialecticians leading local media, awareness of the problem would be raised automatically. Plugged-in meetings would call for local initiatives to respond to the dagger of pollution aiming straight at our hearts. Homes in low lying places would be alerted and evacuated when the smog sets in too thick.

I should note that Nanticoke was set to be shut down five years ago as a solemn election promise of the new provincial government. This means that we still have only three more years of "Real Soon Now" mode, patiently waiting for the next delay the time it is slated to be mothballed.

Although we already have political mechanisms for responding to gross threats like pollution, lifestyle adjustments generally fall below our present public policy radar. The UCS, on the other hand, is specially designed to make such subtle adjustments to our way of life. If the redesign of neighbourhoods for health that hillside housing involves somehow were not enough to eliminate heart problems, plugged-in meetings could raise awareness. Dialecticians would adjust the economy and reward system to make it profitable for residents to get off their car seats and sofas and exercise their bodies. The meetings would also dredge up ideas for improvements from individuals and households, and see to it that these initiatives are carried out reliably.

Dialecticians would not be the only profession involved in such social problem solving. Next time we will discuss a complementary trade, Comenius's three orders of magistrate.


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