Monday, March 7, 2011

Wotan's dilemma: Wagner, free will, and modern American politics


We're in the time of year between the opening of subscription renewal for San Francisco Opera and the start of summer's portion of the current season.

This year's summer season is all-Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen in all its four-part, fifteen-or-so hours long, excruciatingly romantic glory. I'm not prepared to sit through four Wagner operas in a week, so I'm passing on the full cycle in June. But last summer SF Opera performed the second opera of the ring cycle, Die Walküre; I attended a performance in June of 2010.

There was plenty to chew on, even for someone who's not a fully-subscribed member of the Ringhead cult. The dramatic dilemma that most intrigued me as I watched Die Walküre last summer is Wotan's.

Wotan is King of the Gods in Wagner's mythical theology, and is racked with worry that his awesome power implies that those he instructs, or even advises, are rendered unfree. Those who are bound by the power of his word are insufficiently strong to be the heroic actor he requires in order to -- well, in order to get what he's after, the details go on for a good fifteen hours.

In a sound byte, Wotan needs a hero with free will.

On the other hand, he goes ballistic when his daughter Brünnhilde, a warrior-maiden you wouldn't want to scrap with, dares to act on her own rather than as an exclusive agent of his will.

Back and forth, back and forth. This is opera, people. But by the end of Die Walküre, Wotan has recognized that he has to let go, to quit being so controlling.

Ah, Wagner. Who else would write opera about a god who could have used an EST seminar?

Free will

Free will, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, has been "[a question] philosophers have debated [...] for over two millennia, and just about every major philosopher has had something to say about it." Says the SEP's article, "The main perceived threats to our freedom of will are various alleged determinisms: physical/causal; psychological; biological; theological."

If you look around it's easy to spot these deterministic assaults on free will, which go hand-in-hand with assaults on the moral responsibility that attends the role of free will in our lives and choices.

It's all in the genes, that's a popular determinism of the past several decades. It's all about early childhood traumas, that's another. ADHD. Violent video games. Then there's the theory that you do according to what you ingest ... red meat, alcohol, PCP, Twinkies.

Modern American politics

It would really be something if our political leaders could act with free will ... and ... would it be too much to ask that they take moral responsibility for their choices?

If only politicians and the media who are meant to keep them honest weren't owned by corporate puppet masters. Or if the question of moral responsibility were taken more seriously in boardrooms or among the punditocracy that defends corporate avarice.

Speaking of corporate avarice: did you see Jon Stewart's piece from The Daily Show on Teachers & Wall Street?

In the SF Opera production of Die Walküre last year, Woton was dressed in a gray suit, and his great hall was taken up by a massive table of the sort you'd find in a corporate boardroom. It was kind of sinister, actually.

I'm thinking the operatic god would be thoroughly disgusted if he stepped off the Wagnerian stage and took a look around at the governing class of 21st century U.S. of A. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Rick Scott of Florida. The now-terminated Governator of California. Hope and Change melting into flaccid compromise. We're seeing a lot of bowing and scraping to what David Mitchell names a "corpocratic world order" in his novel Cloud Atlas. But not much in the way of free will in 'Merican politics, let alone moral responsibility.

Take this, for example, on the topic of government taking steps -- or not -- to hold corporate leadership accountable: an excerpt from a June 2010 blog posted on the Psychology Today site, written by Steven Reiss, an emeritus professor of psychology & psychology at Ohio State. Professor Reiss is talking about last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

"Although we will have to wait for the results of the Department of Justice's investigation, news reports suggest that BP executives may have been criminally negligent in regard to the Gulf oil spill. The right wing is calling for severe penalties on corporate BP. The left wing is blaming America's oil addiction. What seems likely is that nobody is going to prosecute and punish BP executives as individuals. No wonder oil company executives cut corners: If they get away with it, they are rewarded with higher pay. If they get caught, they just retire to their generous retirement plans."

So how did Reiss's pessimistic assessment of executive accountability pan out? Here's what The Economist had to say when the commission formed by President Obama released its report earlier this year on Gulf oil spill:

"THOSE greenish types who were hoping that the commission on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would call for radical curbs on offshore drilling have been disappointed. The commission, created by Barack Obama last May, said in its full report on January 11th that the security of the country’s energy supply and the dependence of the transportation sector on oil do indeed need to be addressed. But it did not call for further offshore drilling to be ruled out; on the contrary, it stressed a belief that, if properly managed and regulated, the risks of offshore drilling are still acceptable. Its account of the disaster, its context and its repercussions, however, makes clear just how far from such proper management and regulation the industry had departed by April 20th 2010. [...] The markets responded to what was not in the report: conclusions of criminal misconduct and recommendations that the sector be reined in. Shares in BP, Transocean and Halliburton all went up on the day that the conclusions were released."

Business as usual. Pandering to the excessively wealthy and morally bankrupt executives who oversaw, as The Economist put it, a corporate environment in which "[p]oor management and communication within and between the companies, as well as a number of outright errors, led to unnecessary and unrecognised risks being taken." In short, "the commission found, this amounts to a systemic failure in the industry."

Criminal liability? Could still happen, as Alexander Cockburn reported last month. But hardly a sure thing.

So far all we've seen in the personal responsibility vein is BP's Tony Hayward resigning way back in July ... but only because he flubbed his lines when speaking to the media. Business Week characterized the fallen CEO's emotional state as "heartbreak, despite a severance package worth up to £12m and a non-executive place on the board of BP's Russian joint venture TNK-BP." In Hayward's own words, his resignation was "a very sad day for me personally."

(To repeat Steven Reiss's assessment, quoted above, the month before Hayward's resignation: "If they get caught, they just retire to their generous retirement plans.")

It's enough to make a Norse god weep.

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