"The ‘Oxford Philosophy’ sketch from Beyond the Fringe concludes with something like the following snatch of dialogue (I say ‘something like’ because I haven’t been able to track down a script on the web):
So can philosophy be of assistance in everyday life?
Oh yes, I think so. Just the other day I was in a shop and the assistant replied to some query with ‘Yes’ . ‘What do you mean by “yes”?’ asked the customer. ‘I mean “yes”’ replied the assistant. And here I felt that we had some ordinary people – quite, quite ordinary – discussing an issue with real metaphysical implications and that I, as a philosopher, could actually help them.
And did you? Help them I mean?
Well no, they were both in a bit of a hurry.
Now although Professor Wolff is himself a distinguished philosopher, it does seem to me in this instance that I, as another philosopher, can be of assistance to him in solving a problem of everyday life, namely how to deploy a certain line of anti-Trump (and, more broadly, radical) rhetoric with a clean intellectual conscience. The line of rhetoric can be summed up in the slogan ‘Trump betrays everything that is best in the American Way.’ My point is that so long as you think that there are SOME things in the American political tradition that you can celebrate, then this a line you can honestly take, since Trump is against almost everything in the American tradition that can reasonably be regarded as good. Now although Professor Wolff’s response to this is based on a wealth of historical knowledge which I cannot hope to equal (much of it acquired in his period as a Professor of Afro-American Studies), it is also based on what seems to me to be a philosophical mistake. Subtract the mistake and the history will not prevent him from adopting the rhetorical strategy that I suggest.
The nub of his response is the story of Shapiro’s suit. On the morning of his daughter’s wedding, the tailor Schneider supplies the unfortunate Mr Shapiro with a suit so asymmetrical and apparently badly cut that it can only be made to ‘fit’ him if he limps about like Quasimodo or the title character in a particularly hammy production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. But this is not incompetence on Schneider’s part. No, no, it is all part of Schneider’s fiendish plan to entice customers to his establishment, by impressing them with his apparent to cut a suit to fit somebody as badly deformed as Shapiro must needs appear to be. From Schneider’s point of view the unequal pants legs and the excessively large waist are not defects but features, things he engineered into the suit on purpose as part of his insanely devious plan to advertise his talents as a tailor. So too with the American political tradition. It is not a tradition founded on an ideal of freedom that has been very imperfectly realized. It is not like a suit designed to set off the (reasonably acceptable) frame of Mr Shapiro on his daughter’s wedding day but which fails to do so because of the tailor’s spectacular incompetence. Just as Shapiro’s suit was DESIGNED to look a mess from the word ‘Go’, so the American system was DESIGNED from the word ‘Go’ to promote and perpetuate racial inequality and (perhaps) economic inequality and plutocracy as well.
‘America is not, was not, and never has been a country founded on the Idea of Freedom, imperfectly realized at first and then, through struggle, little by little brought into greater conformity with its founding ideal. America was, from Colonial days, a Settler State built from the 17th century onward on unfree labor. … As the saying has it in this digital age, slavery was a feature of America, not a bug, and today, a century and a half after the official end of slavery, racial inequality remains a feature of American society, not a bug.’
Professor Wolff clearly thinks that the American system is analogous a ) to a suit and b) to a computer program (hence the ‘bugs and features’ terminology). But both suits and computer programs are typically designed in a top-down sort of way by one or more people in accordance with a coherent plan. (No coherent plan, no suit; no coherent plan, no program; though, as we shall see, the latter is subject to some qualifications.) This means that there is a fact of the matter which makes it true or false whether this or that is a bug or a feature. Something is a feature if it is a part of the plan and a bug if it is inconsistent with the designers’ collective intentions. Thus the uneven pants legs on Shapiro’s suit are features from Schneider’s point of view, even if they are bugs from Shapiro’s, since they force the unfortunate Shapiro to hobble about like Marty Feldman’s Igor in The Young Frankenstein. If Schneider had been an honest man and not the insanely devious scoundrel that he is, they would have been bugs since an honest Schneider would have been trying to deliver what Shapiro’s thought he had been paying for, that is, a decent suit which would make him look good as the father of the bride.
But consider this example. Suppose the well-known Silicon Valley firm of Ali & Roberts has developed an encryption system, ‘SuperEnigma’ which is designed to preserve the confidentiality of their clients’ emails. Emails are automatically encrypted at source and then sent in a code (which is programmed to update itself on a daily or even an hourly basis) to a protected server which then passes them along to their intended recipients at which point they are automatically decrypted. Ali & Roberts’ system is supposed to protect not only the contents of their clients’ emails but also their meta-data since it is supposed to be impossible for a third party to determine who they have been communicating with. Developing SuperEnigma was a massive task and Ali & Roberts subcontracted some of the coding to Pamela Wong Associates. But unbeknownst to Ali & Roberts, Wong is secretly in the pay of the FBI. And she builds in a ‘trapdoor’ which enables the FBI to intercept and decode selected emails and to recover the meta-data of A&R clients of whom they are suspicious. Now is the fact that the system is now penetrable by the FBI a bug or a feature of the SuperEnigma system? . It seems that there is either no answer or two answers to this question. No answer, because the SuperEnigma system was not designed in accordance with a single coherent plan but in accordance with two plans one of which was inconsistent with the other. This means that there is not a coherent set of collective intentions such that FBI-penetrability is either part of the plan or inconsistent with the plan. Thus there isn’t a truthmaker either for the claim the penetrability is a bug or for the claim that penetrability is a feature. Two answers, because penetrability by the FBI is a bug according to some of the designers (Ali & Roberts Inc) but a feature according to others. (Pamela Wong Associates).
OK so now for the philosophical mistake which I would suggest undermines Professor Wolff’s response. His argument presupposes that political traditions are similar to suits or to unsubverted computer programs, that is that they are analogous to artefacts designed in a top-down sort of way in accordance with a consistent set of intentions. It is for this reason that he can use the terminology of bugs and features and it is for this reason that he can illustrate his view with the story of Shapiro’s suit. But political traditions, polities and even constitutions (whether these are construed as living documents or as time-bound artefacts) are not like Shapiro’s suit nor are they like the general run of computer programs. Instead they are like my imaginary SuperEnigma program only very much more so. They are the products of opposing forces that push and pull in different directions. They are not designed in a top down sort of way by people with a consistent set of intentions. On the contrary, the key creators of a political tradition are often not consistent either with one another or with themselves. It is not just that the creators as a group don’t have a consistent set of intentions. It is often the case that the intentions of the individual creators do not form a consistent set. To take an obvious example you can be a slave-holder such as Jefferson who disapproves of slavery without wishing to give up his own slaves. Thus you develop an ideological stance which implicitly undermines slavery without doing anything very practical to put it into effect. (Jefferson and others were, so to speak, a collection of political St Augustines ’Lord, make us abolish this iniquitous institution - but not yet!) To begin with maybe it’s the ‘but not yet’ that is effective but over time the universalist (and hence anti-slavery) principles may come to predominate. Even a less ambivalent slave-holder than Jefferson may be compelled by circumstances to adopt an ideological stance that is in tension with his practices as a slave-holder. Thus in order to defend yourself against a potential oppressor you may find it necessary to appeal to an ideology of universal human rights which can subsequently be used against you and your heirs either by the people that you currently oppress, or, later on, by their descendants and their champions. Hypocrisy is the homage the vice pays to virtue but a process of ideological debate can gradually compel vice to approximate the virtues that it hypocritically professes, especially if the balance of power shifts against it. (Interestingly much the same kind of process can work in the opposite direction. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx shows how, in order to maintain their class power, the Party of Order [in the Second Republic] had to systematically undermine the Liberal principles to which their socialist and democratic opponents appealed, leaving themselves ideologically and politically defenseless when Napoleon III struck them down in his proto-fascist coup of the 2nd December 1851.) A more interesting case of is that of actors whose intentions are formally consistent but unrealizable in practice (hence contingently inconsistent) . Again Jefferson supplies an example. What he seems to have wanted was that the Western lands should be settled without injustice to the indigenous population. The two objectives are not logically inconsistent but they could not both be realized in anything approximating the actual world. The Western lands were indeed settled but the injustice was horrific. However, it is still possible for Native Americans nowadays (as the Maori have done rather more successfully in Aoteroa/New Zealand) to appeal to settler principles to condemn settler practices and in some cases to extract a measure of compensation for past wrongs.
My real point however is this. Since traditions, polities and constitutions are the products of differing and inconsistent intentions, there is often no fact of the matter (or too many facts of the matter) to determine whether one of their products is a feature or a bug. At best we can say that it is a feature according to some and a bug according to others. Thus it is with slavery and the subsequent history of racial inequality in America. These are features according to racist politicians and their supporters and bugs according to those who condemn the policies pursued in the name of the principles professed (and sometimes partially implemented). The fact that those who signed the Declaration of Independence were ambivalent, if not downright cynical, about the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights does not mean that you cannot appeal to the Declaration of Independence to condemn either racial inequality or the violation of Human Rights. Sure, these things were features of the system for some, but they were also bugs for others. And you can appeal to what is best in the tradition - to the intentions and the rhetorical tropes according to which these things are bugs - to condemn those for whom they are features. And you can do it furthermore without intellectual dishonesty. This was the strategy of Dr Martin Luther King, and through we could wish that it had worked better, it one of the few strategies that has worked at all. Witness his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which represents the culmination of a life-time of political activism:
“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
It would not have been helpful, and – in the absence of the appropriate truthmakers – it would not even have been TRUE if a much younger Dr Robert Wolff had piped up. ‘Yes, Dr King but racial inequality is not a bug but a feature of the American political tradition.’ For the American political tradition is not the kind thing that can have either unequivocal bugs or unequivocal features."