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What Mark Kingwell Sees: An Interview

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No political system can function without a free press: Mark Kingwell

By Kourosh Ziabari

Prof. Mark Kingwell is a world renowned Canadian author and philosopher. He is the associate chair at University of Toronto's Department of Philosophy. Kingwell is a fellow of Trinity College. He specializes in theories of politics and culture. Kingwell has published twelve books, most notably, A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of Pluralism, which was awarded the Spitz Prize for political theory in 1997. Spitz Prize is annually awarded by a panel based in the Department of Political Science of Columbia University to the author of the best book in liberal and/or democratic theory.

Kingwell is the contributing editor to Harper's Magazine. His articles on philosophy, culture, journalism, art and architecture have appeared on the New York Times, Utne Reader, Adbusters, Harvard Design Magazine, Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and the National Post.

His main areas of interest are political philosophy, cultural criticism, philosophy of art and continental philosophy.

Mark has been the editor of "The Varsity," the second oldest student newspaper of Canada from 1983 to 1984 and the "University of Toronto Review" from 1984 to 1985.

Prof. Kingwell's works have been translated into ten languages and among his notable books are " Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink," "Practical Judgments: Essays in Culture, Politics, and Interpretation" and "Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams."

Prof. Kingwell kindly joined me in an exclusive interview and answered my questions about philosophy, popular culture, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street Movement and ethics in journalism.

Kourosh Ziabari: Philosophy, journalism and architecture. How do you make a connection between these three? As to what I have noted, you were enthusiastically interested in journalism since you were very young. Please tell us about your journalistic experiences in the days of youth. Certainly, it's a fantastic opportunity to work with Globe and Mail. Am I right?

Mark Kingwell: I don't consider myself a journalist, just someone who writes for newspapers and magazines as well as academic journals and literary quarterlies. It's true that I edited my university's student newspaper, and worked as a city desk reporter and editorial writer at a big national paper, The Globe and Mail. This was invaluable experience in how to write concisely and accessibly, and also a fast-track education in how cities work. I hung out at city hall and the harbour commissioner's office. I saw dead bodies, fires, and corrupt landlords. I interviewed the survivors of plane crashes. I called the police desk sergeant every night to get crime updates. It was exciting, and very illuminating. But to be honest I liked the romance of it more than the reality, and enjoyed writing more than reporting.

I once had to choose between a fairly secure career in journalism and the uncertainty of a doctoral program. I chose the latter because I knew I could always write magazine or newspaper articles as a philosopher, but I could not philosophize — not, at least, with any rigor — as a journalist. I've never regretted the choice.

Philosophy and architecture is a more recent conjunction of interests, growing out of my work in political theory. Too many political philosophers write as if the subjects of their theories were not real people at all, living and working and raising families in actual places, but abstract bundles of interest, or of decision. At the same time, too many architects use philosophy as casual window-dressing for their work, without actually struggling with the details of the views in question. I have written two books so far that try to address these related gaps: one about a single building, the Empire State in New York (Nearest Thing to Heaven, 2006) and one that is a sort of phenomenological meditation on the built environment and its social dimensions (Concrete Reveries, 2008). I have also edited a collection of essays (Rites of Way, 2009, with Patrick Turmel) which address the issue of public space—a key point of contact between political philosophy and architecture.

KZ: I know that you've focused on the questions of social obligation and the role of citizenship in sustaining a just and democratic society. In the developing societies, like Iran, the citizenship rights are not observed to the full and people have a long way to understand the principles of decent citizenship, neighborhood and social interaction. Can we conclude that one of the reasons why democracy is not institutionalized in such countries is this lack of citizenship culture?

MK: I think we can. At least since Aristotle it has been argued that political institutions will function to foster justice if and only if there is some substantial bonds of ethical life between persons—what Hegel called Sittlichkeit. The focus on the virtues of citizenship in my book The World We Want (2000) was an attempt to join Aristotelian insights about virtue, character, friendship, and justice—the main topics of the Nicomachean Ethics—with a liberal-democratic idea that there could be a distinction between my obligations as a good citizen and my non-conflicting but separate obligations as a good person.

This attempt was perhaps only partially successful, but what remains clear to me is that citizenship is an essential category of political theory. Even the most elaborate theory of social justice or democratic procedure will need to address issues of motivation, fellow feeling, and shared vulnerability. There are numerous ways to do this—Adam Smith's sympathy, Herder's einfuhlen, Derrida's hospitality—but they all make a similar point. Unless and until I see the other as someone to whom I am obliged in some profound way, there can be no political justice.

One form of trouble for this prospect lies in cultural differences concerning fellowship, neighborliness, civility, and the like. I have tried to write about these, especially civility, many times; but it can be very hard to deploy persuasive arguments when the issue comes down to differences in perception. Something I find offensive may not even raise your eyebrows. As philosophers, where do we go from there? Indeed, as members of political bodies—nation-states, regions—how can we forge minimal bonds of connection across such differences?

I am lately exercised by a sense of vulnerability, the shared capacity for suffering, as a start. But that, too, is always open to question. Maybe the pain you feel at the pain of another is just a socio-biological trick that your neurons play on you! Well, maybe. But even so, it creates opportunities to cooperate and coordinate our actions, such that even a confirmed Hobbesian can see the point.

KZ: You have surely taken note of the popular uprisings in the Middle East, instigated by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian vendor before the municipality office. What are the peoples of the region looking for? Are they after improved living conditions, social freedoms and civil liberties? If they're fed up with their authoritarian regimes, why hadn't they taken any step to bring down the autocratic despots in the past years?

MK: It's not for me to say what people in the Middle East want, except that I see, as everyone must, that there is growing dissatisfaction with the very idea of authority, especially if it is suspected to be aligned with decadence, hereditary privilege, or corruption. People will put up with a lot of hardship, and go about their business even in poverty, if they feel that things cannot be better. But if the hardships are perceived as unnecessary, or wedded to the privileges of others, they will resist. This was as true in 1776 and 1789 as it is now.

As for why it has taken this long, I would only suggest that we recall just how capacious is the human spirit. Most people just want to get on with their lives, to make do. It's only an assault on their basic dignity, as in the case of Mohamed Abouazizi that you mention, which can make someone adopt extreme measures of resistance. This shows something essential about us: we mostly desire to be left in peace, but no peace is worth the cost of feeling debased, or degraded, or subject to contempt.

KZ: What are the features of an inclusive, effective and comprehensive democracy? Is democracy confined to holding elections and giving people the chance to elect president or parliament members?

MK: 'Democracy' is the opaque signifier of our political moment: it means everything and nothing at once. I'm rather with Derrida on this: democracy is always to come, not yet here. One could articulate the basic features of a democratic system—free elections, independent media, strong participatory citizenship, and so on— and still fall short of democracy. Some people, for instance Carl Schmitt, even think that democracy is only present when a being is united against a common enemy in a struggle for survival, and hence democracy is incompatible with liberalism.

Obviously I think is not only extreme, but mistaken. Let us suffice with two very basic points. In emerging democracies, such as those that might be burgeoning in your region, the most important thing is the public enactment of franchise, that is, free and fair elections. In developed democracies, however, the most important thing is to try and minimize the corruption that attends our allegedly free elections, the way they are held hostage by large donors and other corporate interests. There is a cautionary tale in this contrast: one can have apparently open elections, with universal franchise, and still not have democracy.

KZ: What's your analysis of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Do you think that it was inspired by the Arab Spring? Why the American protesters call themselves the 99% of the population and question the authority and supremacy of the 1%? Is there anything wrong with capitalism and corporatism that has exhausted the people? What's your view about the police crackdown on the protesters?

MK: I'm certain there was some inspiration taken from the Arab Spring, yes. The very topic of OWS's connection to the Arab Spring became a contentious issue here, however. Critics of OWS—who grew more repressive and condescending by the day, until the parks were forcibly cleared—were vehement that no comparison with Arab Spring was valid, or even allowed. It was if popular uprising were democratic, and wonderful, but only if they happened somewhere else. One particularly loathsome journalist labeled the OWS protesters as 'capitalism's spoiled children', as if they had no right to object to a system than does not work, that is grossly unjust, and that is sustained by only a sham politics of puppet candidates permanently indebted to the monied interest. Shut up, and get back to shopping for gadgets! It was a disgusting spectacle of provincial, toy-time fascism.

I was especially upset about the police crackdown because of the cavalier way in which 'health and safety concerns' became a blanket justification for police action. The books in the OWS library—including a small volume I co-write, The Wage Slave's Glossary (2011, with Joshua Glenn)—were tossed in garbage containers. In a strange way, this blithe trashing of books was worse than setting fire to them. For this neo-liberal police state, books are not even dangerous or important enough to burn. A depressing thought.

It remains to be seen what political upshot there is from OWS. My own feeling is that the objections to corporate capitalism will not be as easy to eradicate as were a few tents and bodies. They used to say to us left-wingers, when we were young, that socialism is a nice idea, only it doesn't work. Here's an update: capitalism doesn't work either, and it's not even a nice idea.

KZ: Would you please give us a gist of some of your important tips for better living which you proposed in your book "Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness From Plato to Prozac"? Why are some people so unfriendly with the self-help books? Is it really possible to realize a better living by practicing what the self-help books prescribe? Some people argue that the lifestyle is something inherent and inborn and cannot be changed by practice and exercise, because it's related to one's mindset and ideology. Do you agree?

MK One of my favorite reviews of Better Living called it "the self-help books for people who hate self-help books." In one broad sense, all books of philosophy, at least in the so-called wisdom tradition, are self-help books: they offer a kind of therapy, in book form, whose basic message is that same as that found in Rilke's musing on the Archaic Torso of Apollo: You must change your life! But the therapy is intellectual and ethical, often ironic and prickly, and not delivered in twelve easy or even twelve hard steps. So I wanted to criticize the recent fad of lifestyle guidance by, once again, revisiting some basically Aristotelian insights in a modern form. That's why I used personal narrative, some cultural criticism, and different forms of ironic discourse in the book.

I can't distill the book into tips, but the most obvious take-away is the old insight that a happiness worth having is not a matter of feeling good all the time, or achieving constant joy or bliss, but of cultivating personal virtue, contributing to causes and structures larger than yourself, and exploring human possibility. In a way, Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics makes the best version of the argument: contemplation is the most divine experience we know. The point of our striving, indeed of all our institutions, is finally to give us the space to enjoy the most amazing thing about us, namely that we can play, create art, have philosophical conversations, and enjoy each other's presence.

I have little patience with the idea that lifestyle is inherent, by the way. Most people simply take cues from the cultural surround, follow the herd, and try not to think too much—and then call this a lifestyle. It's always been the job of philosophers to knock them off-course a little, to shake things up. Self-help, maybe, but of a peculiarly challenging sort.

KZ: What's your definition of media ethics? How should the mass media cling to the codes of morality in disseminating the news and publishing the reports? Are the media permitted to publish whatever they want, without having any restriction? From one hand, one may argue that restricting the media and defining limits for their performance is contrary to the freedom of speech which is a prominent value of the democratic societies; however, we should also take note of respecting the privacy of people, avoid directing ad hominem attacks against them and distinguishing between criticism and personality attack. What's your take on that?

MK: I'm one of those paranoid people who think there is already too much information, too much surveillance, and too much revelation of the personal in our world. I find most social media distasteful because it is predicated on a narcissistic trumpeting of the usually banal individual, but I fall on the individual's side when it comes to the media. Short of some pressing political interest, there is no possible justification for an invasion of privacy, and even there the burden of proof must be overwhelming since it is so easily corrupted. The Murdoch papers phone-tapping scandal was an appalling spectacle of media self-righteousness allowed to grow to a pathological level. I can't help thinking sometimes that the arrogance of newspaper and media people is in direct proportion to their slipping sense of actual influence. They're not nearly as important as they think they are.

At the same time, no political system can function without a free press. What this means in practice, then, is that the media are not unlike other bodies of professional workers. They need to police themselves first, maintaining the strictest standards of fairness and respect; and then there must be recourse in the public forum for those whose privacy has been violated. This gets especially tricky under U.S. law where corporations are legally like persons, and have similar protections and abilities. In an ideal world, those decisions would be repealed. Not only would it improve democratic oversight of corporate actions, now sometimes impossible to investigate; it would also limit the amount of corporate money spent, and hence influence bought, in the centers of political power.

KZ: What's your prediction for the future of television in the wake of the growing influence of web-based media and social networking websites? In your book the "Practical Judgments," you accurately pointed out that television is still the dominant medium of information and entertainment of the age. Don't you believe that with the growing penetration of internet in the families, television will be debased and lose its position? I think that internet, with its multimedia attractiveness and dynamic atmosphere will even eliminate the traditional newspapers and magazines. Don't you think so?

MK: The essays in Practical Judgments (2002) were gathered from work I published in the previous decade or so, and the claims about television must now be revised somewhat. In some important sense, television is over. People may still use the sets to watch programs, but the programs have been downloaded, or selected via pay-per-view, or recorded on Blu-Ray or DVD. Even cable television involves self-selection to the point where is no longer any such thing as a television audience. This is great in some ways, since we have more entertainment options; but it comes with the usual price imposed by the tyranny of choice, namely that feeling of ennui or boredom when there are so many options that, somehow, none of them seem worth committing to.

Beneath this, television of a certain sort (The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men) now begins to function more like visual literature. You find yourself discussing it with someone who is also a devotee, the way you might discover another Pynchon or Updike enthusiast at a party or dinner. It helps that some of these programs are as narratively complex and emotionally satisfying as any first-rate novel.

Television news, meanwhile, is floundering in the contradictions of a medium whose primary purpose—entertainment—has always afflicted its attempts at seriousness. Political news shows, at least in North America, are a running joked of extreme positions, brain-dead rhetoric, and baggy oratory. The only good news here is that most people no longer look to television to gather their political views, or track current events. The bad news is that the places where they do so, because self-selected, may be even more polarized and worse!

KZ: What's your idea about using media for the purpose of black propaganda? Is it moral to demonize those who we consider enemies, especially at the level of governments, by publishing misinformation about them and blackening their public image? Do you consider state-sanctioned propaganda an intrinsic and natural function of the mass media?

MK: One word answer here: never. Propaganda is worse than falsehood; it is, as in the analysis of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, bullshit. That is, it does not even heed the norm of truth enough to violate it. Therefore, propaganda is even more dangerous than lies, which at least are violations whose existence confirms the idea of truth. (You can compare my earlier remark about why throwing books in dumpsters is actually worse than burning them.)

KZ: In your book "Concrete reveries: consciousness and the city," you analyzed the relationship between urbanism and personal identity. Do you believe that urban construction gives people certain identities and bestows upon them special characteristics? Then, is there any difference between the personal characteristics, demeanors and deportments of people in a city like New York in which the most prominent incarnations of modern architecture can be found, and a city like Tehran (the capital of Iran) which is actually an emerging city and is gradually embracing the new modes and styles of urban construction?

MK: Yes, the material environmental absolutely conditions the consciousness of a person. It can be as obvious as how one walks—how fast, with what demeanour, dodging or bumping into people, looking at a phone or not, and so on. But even less obvious things are quite central to how we experience ourselves. So large cities have many similarities but it is easy, when one travels, to see subtle differences in self-presentation: clothes, gestures, the way space is occupied. These in turn are symptoms of the experience of consciousness we call selfhood. The aim of Concrete Reveries, as I mentioned earlier, was to bring political philosophy and architecture closer together, somewhat in the manner of Hannah Arendt. But it turned out that the common term between them was really phenomenology, especially in our aspects of embodied consciousness. They we inhabit rooms, cross thresholds, mount staircases—these are all forms of thought as well of physical deportment.

In the book I try to get at these somewhat abstract insights by contrasting the feeling evoked by two very different large cities, New York and Shanghai. The provided, as it were, phenomenological case studies for my larger argument. They also allowed me to re-introduce some of the first-person and second-person styles I had used in other writing. I wanted to produce a book with something of the feeling (if not the grace!) of Bachelard's Poetics of Space. I was really happy that the publisher allowed me to include dozens of images that leaven the text, and make the book itself a kind of phenomenological flanerie, an intellectual stroll through the complex of ideas concerning what cities are, and how they work. In a very roundabout way, this actually ties me back to those days spent as a city-desk reporters, encountering the city's corners, margins, and undersides day after day. . .

KZ: As my final question, I want to ask you about the course of globalization and the future of local, traditional cultures. Will the process of globalization abolish local cultures, vernacular languages and ancient customs and rituals of different peoples around the world? Do you see any chances for their survival in the wake of the domination of Western culture over the developing world?

MK: I suspect we have already witnessed the worst of the globalization cultural bulldozer. What is happening everywhere is the hybridization of culture, such that local traditions, practices, and vernaculars are folding in elements of global culture—not really a culture at all, just an economic expansion program—and creating unique human customs that will continue to evolve. This is precisely what humans have always done with culture, especially in times and places with lots of mobility. My main wish for these 'bottom-up' hybrids is that they include elements of the best in Western culture, especially the discourses of philosophical justification for human rights and social justice. The West has exported lots of awful things, but there are some good things too!

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