Revolutionary Reformer

A social connection posted a piece on Humberto Maturana’s idea of “aesthetic seduction”. I found it interesting, so I wanted to understand more. Performing a Google search, I landed on The Edge, where I found an interesting comment by Dan Dennett. I share it in its entirety.

Daniel C. Dennett

Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, From Bacteria to Bach and Back

Post hoc ergo propter hoc! “After this, therefore because of this.” Francisco Varela is a very smart man who, out of a certain generosity of spirit, thinks he gets his ideas from Buddhism. I’d like him to delete the references to Buddhist epistemology in his writings. His scientific work is very important, and so are the conclusions we can draw from the work. Buddhist thinking has nothing to do with it, and bringing it in only clouds the real issues.

There are striking parallels between Francisco’s “Emergent Mind” and my “Joycean Machines.” Francisco and I have a lot in common. In fact, I spent three months at CREA, in Paris, with him in 1990, and during that time I wrote much of Consciousness Explained. Yet though Francisco and I are friends and colleagues, I’m in one sense his worst enemy, because he’s a revolutionary and I’m a reformer. He has the standard problem of any revolutionary: the establishment is — must be — nonreformable. All its thinking has to be discarded, and everything has to start from scratch.

We’re talking about the same issues, but I want to hold on to a great deal of what’s gone before and Francisco wants to discard it. He strains at making the traditional ways of looking at things too wrong.

Dennett’s response is a critique of Francisco Varela, which is not the part that interests me. What caught my eye is his distinction between revolutionary and reformer. And it dawned on me—perhaps re-dawned might be a better verb, or to illuminate or intensify, to shine a light.

I consider myself to be introspective, and times like these allow me to be self-critical. I view myself as a revolutionary as far as expectations go. This makes me impatient with little tolerance for the marginal changes that attendant with reformism.

Being a revolutionary doesn’t make one a Utopian—a common critique—, that one is seeking perfection. From my perspective, when things are so far off course or misaligned, incremental changes don’t seem to be enough.

Moreover, reform is a political misdirection tactic I am leery of. So, irrespective of core beliefs, I feel even a reformist should be wary of the tactic. In politics, sometimes new ideas arise that are not in concert with the prevailing orthodoxy but are building mass. The idea is to retain the status quo as much as possible. The tactic is to find the smallest least disruptive sliver and find a way to integrate it in a manner for the mass to diminish and to be able to claim concordance.

The first example that pops into my mind is the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) in the United States, which is not exactly affordable not all that caring, though it is a reformist act. Even the main alternative of Universal Single-Payer insurance wasn’t that revolutionary, making the delusion of the solution and the adopted approach all that much more disappointing.

Industrial and post-industrial countries have solved this problem, so it’s not revolutionary unless one considers being over a hundred years late to the party to be particularly impressive. Moreover, there are programmes in the United States, i.e. Medicare, that are ostensibly single-payer programmes. In fact, one approach suggested was to expand Medicare to include everyone. This was dubbed Medicare Part E.

What this exposes is that the Reform-Revolution debate is a sorites challenge. The reformers consider the Medicare Part E proposal to be radical or revolutionary whilst I viewed it as a couple more millimetres away from the original Obamacare promises. Since the status quo started from such a limited position, when they ended up with is a milquetoast implementation.

To me, the debate is about paradigm shift versus glacial change. As for me, when I regard the battle between the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, I am not satisfied with any solution that sees these parties still standing post-solution. As a revolutionary thinker, I don’t need to toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, but let’s lose the bathwater and at least the sieve of a tab. Of course, I argue that the direction the so-called Enlightenment has taken the Western world, which is different to the argument made by prior traditionalists, so I can see a lot of room for change—revolutionary change. In the case of implementing Enlightenment beliefs, they took the idea of revolution a bit more literally than was perhaps necessary, but since it was more about a power grab than some broader promise of freedom, I suppose it was necessary. Meet the new bosses, same as the old boss.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The United States doesn’t constitutionally protect women. This is where reformism gets you. Per Wikipedia,

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Proponents assert it would end legal distinctions between men and women in matters of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. The first version of an ERA was written by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman and introduced in Congress in December 1923.

Wikipedia — Equal Rights Amendment

If you read 1923 and wonder if that’s a typo, it’s not. It’s been almost 100 years and women still have no guarantee of equal rights. Women had only been granted voting rights with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920.

For a country founded on the principle that all people are created equal, this feels like it should be considered to be a redundant act…

My bad, the US Declaration of Independence reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This is just men. And when this was written BIPOC did not fully qualify as men. Reformists have almost got that sorted out by now right? 1776 seems like almost yesterday. Change comes slowly.

By now, I’m rambling semi-coherently, so I’ll close this down. Keep in mind the foundation of your interlocutor. Is s/he a reformist or a revolutionary? Determine where on the scale s/he falls. You might save yourself a lot of time. Time Is on My Side is only a song not a recipe for living.

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