Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Problem Of Being Psuedo-Educated

From the "You've got to be kidding" department: Why Smart People Are Stupid

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.
Talk about a bad premise.

For starters, when economists and social scientists assume "rational actors" they are usually doing so in the context of a model, and not using it as a description of the real world. The real world is far too complex for any social scientist to incorporate every potential variable that could affect their model. As a result, things get abstracted; things like the decision making processes of people. Economists and social scientists know "rational actor" models are unrealistic, but they work well enough for what they are trying to do.

As for philosophy... anyone who would claim that for centuries philosophers, as a group, have assumed people are rational doesn't know what the hell they are talking about. Socrates and Plato certainly make no such assumption. Even a cursory reading of The Apology or Crito make it clear that while rational thinking is a human possibility it is not a universally realized one. When Criton visits Socrates under house arrest awaiting execution and urges him to flee from Athens, Socrates responds by telling Criton to not worry about what "the many" think or do. The many do not use reason, argues Socrates, therefore they do not act from knowledge but instead act randomly so worrying about it won't help. So, for Plato at least, rational thought is not the default position for human beings.

And Plato is not alone. Thinkers as diverse as Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, and, especially, pragmatists like Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, make no assumptions regarding the rationality of man. The philosophy of Peirce would be especially relevant to understanding why subjects respond to these questions from Kahneman the way they do.

For Peirce the way human beings think is made up of a few mental methods, one of which is indeed the classic rational method of syllogism and deduction. However, it is much more common for us to use the process which Peirce called "abduction" in order to make educated guesses about the world. We do it all the time, Peirce argues, without even realizing it. Have you ever had a conversation with someone about another person, except you thought you were talking about Person X while your conversation partner thought you were talking about Person Y? We can go on for a little wile talking at cross purposes, even when the information doesn't exactly conform to what we knew of Person X, until something way out of whack causes us to ask "Wait. Who are we talking about?" and the problem is revealed. Now, not only do we do this all of the time, we are actually pretty good at it. Most of the time when we make these sorts of guesses we do so correctly. Only when we screw it up do we realize we have even been guessing in the first place.

Movie makers realize this fact as well. Actually, our guessing is the only thing which allows shocker surprise endings in the first place. Take the movie The Sixth Sense. The filmmakers know we will make a guess, or fill in the blanks, in a particular fashion even though we have not been given the information to make our guesses accurate. The movie only works if we continually make such guesses over the course of the film which, luckily for filmmakers, is exactly what we are prone to do.

Which brings us back to the magic questions which prove how dumb we all are. The reason they work in tripping up people is similar to the way The Sixth Sense works. They are not "simple arithmetic questions," they are riddles.

OK, lets look at these more closely:

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
If we were going to represent this problem mathematically it would be:

x + (x+1) = 1.10 

Which could be simplified to:

2x +1 = 1.10

And resolved as:

2x + 1 - 1 = 1.10 - 1

2x = .10

2x / 2 = .10 / 2

x = .05

So, while there is no difficult math going on here, it isn't as simple as the question sounds.

The article offers another example. Read it as a riddle.

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

The answer is obviously 47 days. I'm willing to bet most people reading it after being told to treat it as a riddle would get it right. (Just as I'm willing to bet most people caught on to The Sixth Sense if they were first warned about a surprise ending.)

My point here is not to dog Prof. Kahneman's research, which sounds like a useful compendium of the variety of bad guesses human being make, as much as it is to dog the idea that rationality is a baseline assumption in philosophy. It isn't. And if journalists, among others, knew the first thing about it they would not make such dumb errors themselves.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hmm...The Dalai Lama Doesn't Seem To Be A Very Good Buddhist

Um, let's just say this is interesting:

Usually what we hear from the Dalai Lama is an insistant yet soothing voice for compassion and peace.

So Tsering Namgyal, a journalist based in Minneapolis, was jolted by the Dalai Lama's talk to 150 Chinese students this month at the University of Minnesota. Writing at Religion Dispatches, he says:

Midway through the conversation, His Holiness, much to their surprise, told them "as far as socio-political beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist ... But not a Leninist," he clarified....

Marx was not against religion or religious philosophy per se but against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx's time, with the European ruling class.

Wow. This is spectacularly wrong, and I can hardly see how this could be a matter of opinion. (This is true looking at it from either the philosophical or historical point of view.) Marx was very clearly against religion per se. You see, Marx was a materialist. He denied the very possibility of real spiritual existence. The only meaning which can exist for a Marxist is a meaning based upon the relationship of thing to thing, e.g. workers to the means of production, the individual to the superstructure of the state, the worker alienated from the product of his labor, etc.

How can such a materialism be squared with the basic tenets of Buddhism? Well, it cannot, not without making Buddhism a dead thing.

Which would be fine by the Chinese....

Thursday, February 24, 2011

This Is A Rorschach Test

First, let me quote James Madison from Federalist #10:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.

Now, let me quote myself:

The great task Madison undertakes then, is not the enabling of the "ruling passion" which seeks to impose itself regardless of private rights and the public good, but the restraining of said passion. It is the republican form of government which Madison is advocating which, he felt, offered the solution to the problem. It is the variety of viewpoints implicit in such a system that Madison relies upon for the restraint of the small "cabal" who would seek to impose its "ruling passion" to the detriment of the public good and individual rights.

In the above, are you hearing echoes of a different Madison, a place in the Midwest perhaps?

Or maybe you are hearing an echoes of an entirely different debate.

I'd argue both echoes are legitimate.

How 'bout you?

Friday, January 28, 2011

No. Not Everyone Can Do Political Theory

I posted a very long piece over at Blue Crab.

It's fun. In it I use a 17th Century Whig to smack down a 21st Century law professor. It's not every day I get to do that.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Irony Alert?

Words of supposed wisdom from Gary Hart:

Gradually, over time, political rhetoric used by politicians and the media has become more inflamatory. The degree to which violent words and phrases are considered commonplace is striking. Candidates are "targeted". An opponent is "in the crosshairs". Liberals have to be "eliminated". Opponents are "enemies". This kind of language eminates [sic] largely from those who claim to defend American democracy against those who would destroy it, who are evil, and who want to "take away our freedoms".

Today we have seen the results of this rhetoric. Those with a megaphone, whether provided by public office or a media outlet, have responsibilities. They cannot avoid the consequences of their blatant efforts to inflame, anger, and outrage. We all know that there are unstable and potentially dangerous people among us. To repeatedly appeal to their basest instincts is to invite and welcome their predictable violence.

I find this interesting. I show my intro philosophy students a film that features Gary Hary espousing the political philosophy of Machiavelli. The same Machiavelli, I hasten to add, who advocates the use of violence in politics up to and including torture and murder as a matter of course. Gary Hart thinks Machiavelli is swell.

I hate to say it, given my own profession, but it seems likely in this case that the person in question was inspired not by rhetoric heard on television or the radio. Given the pseudo-intellectual nonsense of his YouTube ramblings it seems he was more inspired by what he heard (but didn't understand) in a college classroom.

The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and The Prince all employ "eliminationist rhetoric" in some fashion. Ought we to get rid of them, cutting them out of history, philosophy and political science classes before they inspire some nut? If so, what meaningful discussion of the political world could remain? Certainly not Plato's Republic (too totalitarian). Obviously not Rousseau's Social Contract, which advocates the elimination of the recalcitrant... etc. etc. etc.

Of course, this isn't what Gary Hart wants. What he wants is to play cheap partisan politics, hoping his side can benefit from this tragedy. Hart shows by this very piece of writing that he believes politics is war carried on by other means. That it is done while at the same time decrying violence shouldn't surprise us. After all, Hart's hero Machiavelli counsels politicians to be two-faced.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Food Justice

Be gentle with me. I'm still learning how to do these things.


It's a start.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mark Lilla: "The American People Are Inbred Retards Because I Say They Are"

Good God. The problem with the "intellectual" left as a class in this country is they are a rather dimwitted bunch. The latest installment of their attempt to "theorize" occurs in Mark Lilla latest "essay," The Tea Party Jacobins. A full fledged fisking is beyond my current time constraints, and far beyond the merit of Lilla's feeble broadside, but it will be instructive to look at the symptoms of intellectual decay it displays.

Let's start with its patrician air:

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets....

My own view is that we need to take [this supposed new populism] even more seriously... we need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

At least this has the virtue of wearing Lilla's feelings of revulsion towards the American people on his sleeve.

But, maybe Lilla is going to make a nuanced argument here. Maybe, he will argue for something like a pragmatic renaissance that will guide politics based upon some connection with reality.

No such luck. Lilla is a utopian thinker. You know, like Stalin.

The new American populism is not, by and large, directed against immigrants. Its political target is an abstract noun, “the government,” which has been a source of disenchantment since the late Sixties. In Why Trust Matters, Marc Hetherington uncovers the astonishing fact that in 1965 nearly half of Americans believed that the War on Poverty would “help wipe out poverty”—a vote of confidence in our political institutions unimaginable today. The failure of the Great Society programs to meet the high expectations invested in them was a major source of disappointment and loss of confidence.

Got that? The "War on Poverty" failed only because high expectations were not met, and not because the goal itself was unattainable. You see, the Lillas of the world have ideological fervor which informs them that if the "War on Poverty" failed it was because we failed to will it into being and nothing else. Utopia is ours to be had as long as we subsume the individual into the collective, mostly by deferring to the elites (like Lilla) and by disregarding "special interests" (which would include the interests of ordinary, i.e. "stupid," individuals.)

Now, what do you call someone who blindly holds onto such an ideological vision as Lilla's? Well, it has a long historical pedigree. It arose first out of the political philosophy of Rousseau, who taught that the General Will was always directed towards the common good. Thus any individual who differed from the General Will was guilty of promoting nothing but their inferior particular will. As the General Will was equated with the "truth" this meant that those who didn't support them were guilty of promoting falsehood. These fools were the one who had to be "forced to be free" by the virtuous. The virtuous were those who "knew" the truth about the General Will, and were largely made up of a self-appointed intellectual elite. At all cost the "truth" as promulgated by the "virtuous" had to be preserved, even if this called for the elimination of the recalcitrant. This eventually murderous elite were the real Jacobins, born out of a perversion of liberalism that offered a utopian promised land which could be ours if only we were virtuous enough to allow out elite overlords to build it for us. That it would be built upon the corpses of the unbelievers was an unpleasant detail which was best not dwelt upon.

That Lilla, a living embodiment of Jacobinism if ever there were one, sees the complaint of average Americans that they wish to exercise the liberal promise of defining their own ends based upon their own vision of the Good, as an example of "Jacobinism" just shows how shallow our virtuous elite really has become. It also shows how immoral they have become. It is impossible to square Lilla's vision of the American people with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. For Lilla, the common people are simply too stupid to be imbued with anything like rights.


Here is how Protein Wisdom sums up Lilla's piece:

You know why the TEA Party is dangerous? … because it gives you bitter-clinging, Zionist, Xtianist, redneck, low-IQ, low-education, two-digit, Walmart-shopping, steak-on-the-backyard-BBQ, homeskooling, Boy-Scout-supporting, US-flag-wearing cousinfuckers the IDEA you can actually be responsible for your own life.

So they basically read it the same way I do.

Monday, March 08, 2010

I Don't Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Hate

This is a recap of some comments I've posted today over at First Thoughts. It began when Joe Carter quoted the following:

I’ve heard many people say of contemporary art: “my kids can do that.” I encourage them, then to try it themselves, don’t let kids have all the fun! Try to make drip paintings like Jackson Pollock. Or paint an object with encaustic, layering color upon color, like Johns. Try silk screening images like Warhol. You soon find out that in the ordinary gestures and materials, there are deceptively complicated and sublime twists. Our drips become unnatural and confined, where as Pollock’s drips dance, and form delectable edges that seem to undulate in front of our eyes. Our edges of encaustic strokes become unshapely, because If you try working with wax (as I have tried to in college,) you find out soon enough that it is unforgiving, making it very difficult to create a clean, sharp definition. The melting wax constantly oozes, and moves about, and the colors muddle,. If you are finally able to paint a stripe with bright colors, the stripes would not resonate, in ways that Johns’ Flags do.

And that is to speak only of the method of execution. Johns’ works not only collage materials, but they also synthesize concepts, culture, the zeitgeist of his day. One may be able to copy his technique, but it is impossible to mimic the complex layers of confluences that he is synthesizing as he mixes beeswax and pigments. To Jasper Johns, the medium of his art is not really encaustic, the medium of his art is Time itself.

This prompted me to respond:

If you try working with wax (as I have tried to in college,) you find out soon enough that it is unforgiving, making it very difficult to create a clean, sharp definition. The melting wax constantly oozes, and moves about, and the colors muddle…
This is the reason I let professionals stain my floors and furniture. It is a skill that improves with repetition, the same way my backhand in tennis improves when I work on it (or doesn’t improve when I prefer to smash forehands all the live long day.)

…is impossible to mimic the complex layers of confluences that he is synthesizing…
Exactly why should anyone read something like this and NOT think “What gobbledygook.” I hate to be all pragmatic, but there is no such thing as “synthesizing confluences” except in the brains of the truly fevered. But, of course, explanation by subjective gobbledygook is what you get when the object of discussion is as semiotically empty as much of contemporary art is.

I added:

I think there is another way people mean the phrase “My kid could do that” because, in a very real way, kids DO that all the time. I think of the article in Smithsonian that pointed out that Pollock’s “Mural” was basically an excuse for hiding his signature in plain sight. It is this “Hey! Look at me!” aspect of contemporary art that people are identifying as being child like, if not childish. The difference is when a child does it it can be excused as the faltering steps of the inexperienced. When an adult artist does it, well, it can come across as little more than a narcissistic look at their favorite subject, themselves. In Pollock’s case he was simply trying to make a name for himself, literally.

This prompted an angry response from someone calling themselves ekwas:

Do you know that word, ‘zeitgeist’, ‘Rich Horton’? It’s a word from the German and it means ’spirit of the times’, which is what most everybody is thinking and feeling about life in general at a certain point in time, like right now, 2010, or a while ago, like 1967.

‘Rich Horton’, if your teacher gave you an assignment to make one picture about everything you’ve been thinking and feeling in the last year, about yourself, the economy, your friends, God, our President and Congress, people in other countries, what would you put in it? You can see right away it would take a whole lot of thinking and figuring out, wouldn’t it? How about if you didn’t even have to make a picture, you just had to write it all in 1000 words, that’s hard enough! So you can imagine that Mr. Johns works very hard, very long hours to make his famous pictures, that so many people think are very, very good.

I love the fact that my name is continually put into quotation marks by this individual. It strikes me as all the proof I need that the contemporary artistic temperament is semiotically empty. After all, a proper name is by definition a signifier of something real. However, the act of placing my name in quotation marks is a rather aggressive attempt to deny my personhood or humanity; to deny that my name signifies anything real; to demand that it too be semiotically empty.

I responded thusly:

Actually, my field is political philosophy, which has its own tradition of using nonsense terms to mask a lack of meaning (eg. “scientific Marxism,” “politics of difference”, “eternal recurrence”), so my resistence to “persuasion by subjective enthusiasm” is higher than most.

Actually, this all reminds me of the best defense of contemporary art I’ve read, Ortega y Gasset’s essay “The Dehumanization of Art.” Being Ortega, it is of course, a defense of elite privilege against the pernicious, democratic, mediocritizing influence of the masses. For Ortega, when the masses have shown the ability to recognize a beautiful painting, a stirring or lovely melody, a sonorous poem, etc., the only way for the elite to signal their non-mass status is to champion that which isn’t beautiful, stirring or sonorous. Art, in such a view, has a fundamentally political function. It is part of how an aristocracy identifies and defines itself.

Granted, when Ortega was writing he probably had in mind Debussy using discordant or atonal moments for effect in a composition, or the distortions of a cubist painting, but if art is going to be defined by its political/social function, well, then there is no distinction to be made between a Pollock painting or a “sculpture” of a crucifix submerged in urine or a “painting” of the Madonna using the medium of manure. The goal has been achieved, i.e. defining the elite who supposedly find artistic meaning in such material in opposition to the masses who do not.

Contemporary art is built almost entirely along Ortegean lines these days, and as a result it is profoundly alienating. It is sometimes amusing to see the aristocratic qualities of the champions of contemporary art clashing with their egalitarian impulses. They know that most people do not care for it (be “it” atonal music or abstract art or what have you), but the best response they can offer is “People would like it if only they were exposed to it, or weren’t so stupid.” Which is of course impossible, as its raison d’etre is to be disliked.

I've been ill all day, so this certainly cheered me up.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

AGW As Antipathy To Democracy

Roger Pielke Jr makes a good point about the way the scientific process has been managed of late:

John Christy and David Douglass provide a detailed accounting of how a comment on one of their papers was handled in the peer review process (even more detail here). Their experience, with the gory details revealed by the CRU emails, show in all of its unpleasantness how activist scientists sought to stage-manage climate science from the inside.

Their story hits very close to home with me, as I went through a very,very similar process with respect to a comment and reply on the "shameful article" on hurricanes and global warming that I co-authored in 2005. (If my emails ever get hacked you'll see that ugly episode from the inside.;-) That situation had a positive outcome only because at the time I protested efforts to deny us a right to respond in accordance with journal policies and threatened to go public with the improper efforts at stage-management. I am sure that these sort of shenanigans go on in academia more than we'd like to admit, however that does not justify them.

What these episodes reveal is an effort by activist climate scientists to stage-manage the peer review process much like how one might manage a partisan blog for public consumption.
[Go to Pielke's site for useful links.]

I resonded thusly over at Roger's place:

As a political theorist by profession it is hard for me to read these sorts of things and not see them as expressing a deep antipathy towards democratic values.

The following quote comes from Karl Popper "The Open Society and its Enemies: Vol II Hegel and Marx" (pp.217-218):

"Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance... Together they constitute what I may term the 'public character of scientific method'. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this does not necessarily impress his fellow-scientists; rather it challenges them. For they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes. (I may remind the reader that I am speaking of the natural sciences, but a part of modern economics may be included.) They try very seriously to speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues. In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of 'experience' I have in mind experience of a 'public' character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more 'private' aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is 'public' if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it. In order to avoid speaking at cross-purposes, scientists try to express their theories in such a form that they can be tested, i.e. refuted (or otherwise confirmed) by such experience.

"This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself. In spite of this, there will always be some who come to judgements which are partial, or even cranky. This cannot be helped, and it does not seriously disturb the working of the various social institutions which have been designed to further scientific objectivity and impartiality; for instance the laboratories, the scientific periodicals, the congresses. This aspect of scientific method shows what can be achieved by institutions designed to make public control possible, and by the open expression of public opinion, even if this is limited to a circle of specialists. Only political power when it is used to suppress free criticism, or when it fails to protect it, can impair the functioning of these institutions, on which all progress, scientific, technological, and political, ultimately depends."

I really believe it is the introduction of the expressly political into this process which is undermining it. But it isn't merely because it is political, but because it is a variety of the political hostile to the ideals of free inquiry in the first place. It is hard to believe in democratic ideals of free inquiry and speech and also support the turning of the "laboratories, the scientific periodicals, the congresses" into instruments of intellectual repression.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Madison Envy

You get the feeling sometimes that many on the left side of the American political spectrum feel they have gotten a raw deal when it comes to the divvying up of the important Founding Fathers. Sure, the left got Thomas Jefferson, an imposing edifice of a man who shadows are more than long enough to stretch into the 21st Century. However, after that (and in many ways because of the stature of Jefferson) there are not many of that generation the left would like to call their own today. The anti-Federalist gang may have made up the bulk for Jefferson's supporters back in the day, but their easy affiliation with "State's Rights" and all of the Civil War connotations that go along with that makes them less than suitable to modern liberal palettes. Sure, a case could be made for Andrew Jackson, but he comes too late. Thomas Paine comes to mind, though his status is hurt by the fact he did little of the heavy lifting when it came to making and ruling the nation. No, for better or for worse, Jefferson is the icon of the left par excellence.

The right, on the other hand, have an entire lineup of individuals to draw upon. True, none by themselves have the heft of a Jefferson, but as a group they are undoubtedly more impressive. Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and James Madison all count as touchstones for the right; someone to call upon to make an argument or to set the tone of the debate. For that reason it is generally conservatives who draw upon the sources of the founding with surety and a deft touch. The left's reliance upon Jefferson has left them vulnerable, from the standpoint of historically informed argumentation, to the provincialism that creeps into Jefferson's thinking from time to time. It is true that similar habits can afflict the writers the right draws upon, but because they are not as reliant upon a single individual they can simply find a better judgement from a different source.

This has not gone unnoticed by the left who sometimes, in a desperate attempt to redress the balance, engage in almost Derridaian feats of deconstruction to make Hamilton or, especially, Madison into 21st Century liberal Democrats.

A good example of this phenomena can be seem in this editorial from The New Republic, Madison Weeps

"Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction," James Madison wrote in Federalist Number 10. "The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice." Consider us alarmed.

Unfortunately, for The New Republic, the editors didn't continue to read Madison because he makes clear what the real danger is in faction, and it is not the propensity for human beings to engage in it.

Madison writes:

The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. [emphasis added]

So, it is the enemies of liberty who use the reality of faction (in all of its quarrelsome distastefulness to be sure) to make "specious declamations" against free government that is the real mortal disease to be feared. Specious arguments are indeed what the editors of The New Republic seem to have in mind:

From the moment Barack Obama entered the White House, the Republican Party has cast itself as the Party of No. Whether it was the stimulus bill--which garnered not a single Republican vote in the House--or the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court--which only nine of 40 Senate Republicans supported--the GOP has defined itself in its opposition to Obama. But our alarm has been tempered by the knowledge that, in a way, this is as it should be: In our form of government, the minority party should be the opposition party; and, while the Obama administration did make overtures to the GOP on the stimulus and its selection of Sotomayor, those overtures were largely symbolic. The factionalism, while regrettable, was understandable. But, this week, as the health care reform battle reached a crucial juncture, the violence of faction has become gratuitous.

We refer, of course, to Max Baucus's long-awaited health care reform bill--and the resounding thud with which it landed on Capitol Hill. There are many flaws in Baucus's bill, but there is one thing that can be said for it: It represents as sincere an attempt in recent memory to achieve consensus.

So, according to the editors of The New Republic, the task Madison gave to himself in Federalist 10 was to ensure the majority faction got their way in the creation of legislation?


What Madison actually said was exactly the opposite:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.

The great task Madison undertakes then, is not the enabling of the "ruling passion" which seeks to impose itself regardless of private rights and the public good, but the restraining of said passion. It is the republican form of government which Madison is advocating which, he felt, offered the solution to the problem. It is the variety of viewpoints implicit in such a system that Madison relies upon for the restraint of the small "cabal" who would seek to impose its "ruling passion" to the detriment of the public good and individual rights. And, by God, isn't that exactly what has happened? Even Democrats have had to listen to the concern of their constituents and, as a result, decide to actually represent them.

The New Republic seriously misunderstands Madison if they believe he would be concerned that some ruling cabal was unable to shove a so-called compromise down the throats of people who do not want it. It's as if I went up to someone and said, "I want your liver, heart and kidneys to transplant into myself tomorrow." And when they complained I responded, "Ok, let's compromise. I'll just take your heart." The New Republic seems to believe I would have a case that the other person was being unreasonable.

I think they're nuts.

I'm not the only one who is decidedly unimpressed. Here is Ramesh Ponnuru's entertaining take:

Every time you resist Democratic health-care legislation, you make James Madison cry in heaven....

The New Republic's commitment to the idea that minority parties should try to meet majorities halfway is not deep. The magazine never complained about the Democrats' repeated filibusters of judicial appointments, for example. The editorial expresses dismay that only nine Republicans voted for Sotomayor's confirmation. Only four Democrats voted for Alito's. As I recall, the New Republic was urging no votes. In 2005, the New Republic didn't counsel Democrats to meet the Republicans halfway, or even to offer a proposal, on Social Security reform. (I don't think any of this Democratic obstruction made my colleagues at National Review run overwrought editorials about "just how broken our political system has become"—to quote the editorial again.)

I don't fault The New Republic for its lack of commitment to the procedural ideal its editorial endorses. Nobody should be committed to it.

Madison sure isn't.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bigots Everywhere

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports on a heinous attack on the Constitution and doesn't even realize it: Downtown St. Louis Schnucks crucifix draws criticism

On the website for its Culinaria store downtown, Schnucks proclaims its manager's mission:

"For Tom, grocery is not just a career," it says, "it's a calling."

Tom Collora has incorporated that calling with another — his Roman Catholic faith — in the form of a crucifix on a wall behind the customer service counter, opposite the new store's checkout registers. And in doing so, he's provoked questions about faith and business in the public square.

Sorry, but no. A grocery store is not "the public square." It is a private business which serves the general public. If you don't understand the difference you should go back and take high school civics.

Collora has worked for the grocery chain for 40 years and said he has displayed a crucifix at two other Schnucks stores he has managed — one on the Hill in south St. Louis and another in St. Charles — and has never had a complaint.

But some customers are reacting angrily to the new display. Lori Weinstock, 40, a health care professional from University City, was shopping a few weeks ago when, after paying, she looked up to see the crucifix.

"It startled me. It seemed so out of place," Weinstock, who is Jewish, said. She was startled enough to write a letter that was published last week in the newspaper the Jewish Light.

"It would have been equally startling if it had been a Star of David or an emblem of another religion," Weinstock said. "It's grocery shopping, and it should be welcoming to all and exclude none."

I'm sorry. Was someone being barred from shopping at this store? Of course not. So what is the complaint? Well, Ms. Weinstock believes everyone else in the world should share her opinion about what constitutes proper expression of religious belief.

That's a bigot. (For those who need the definition: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.)

Luckily, the Post provides us with even more bigots.

D.J. Grothe, 36, is a vice president of the New York-based Center for Inquiry, which promotes "science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values," according to its website. Grothe is an atheist who also happens to live in the building next to Culinaria.

"It's just another example of the disrespect that those without religion or those with minority religions get in our society," he said. "It's bad taste and bad business. Who wants to (shop) where someone else's faith is being pushed down your throat?"

Got that? Hanging a crucifix on a wall in a private business is the same as "shoving religion down your throat."

Look at how far these bigots are willing to go to eliminate our rights to practice our religion by the dictates of our own conscience:

Some critics have said that because more than half of Culinaria's funding came from government sources such as tax credits and the Missouri Development Finance Board (which owns the building in which the store is situated), the store should be held to church-state limitations.

City resident Thomas Duda, who is Catholic, has made the crucifix an issue on his blog, He says a company that received public funding to build a store should not blatantly express a specific religious belief that could be offensive or uncomfortable to some who shop there. In an interview, Duda added that he would like Schnucks to prohibit individual managers from endorsing a specific religion.

Such a view represents a monstrous attack upon our human and Constitutional rights. Think about the sheer scope of governmental control over religious expression it demands. Using this criterion what would keep the government from making me take down religious inspired art from my own home? After all, maybe the developer received tax breaks when they built the subdivision.

The only voice of sanity in the piece comes from the Catholic Church:

Lawrence Welch, director of the office of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said Collora — a Eucharistic minister at the Old Cathedral downtown — should be praised, not criticized, for displaying the crucifix at his store.

"In a pluralistic society, we have no problem with anyone displaying religious symbols," said Welch. "We would have no issue with another faith displaying their symbols. A crucifix's public display is not a threat to anyone's religious freedom."

This is exactly correct. We have to live with one another in this society. We are going to have different opinions, philosophies, beliefs, tastes, interests, and pet peeves. The demand some people make that other people have an obligation to live their lives so that none of those aspects that make up their individuality are visible to others (on pain of government intervention no less), is grotesque in its arrogance and its lack of common human decency. That someone believes doing so is an expression of "humanism" shows just how far our educational standards have fallen in this country. Real humanism celebrates individuality in all of its expressions. For this very reason humanism assumes one will constantly come into contact with differing opinions and ways of living. But, no! These so-called "humanists" demand innocuous conformity!

Then these "humanists" blink.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Updating The Blog Roll = A Little Depressing

It had been awhile since I had gone through my blog roll with a fine toothed comb. Now I know why. I hadn't realized how many of my "ye olde tyme" blog friends had moved onto other things. I know that is in the nature of this type of communication, but still it can result in a kind of melancholy when you delete old links that no longer lead to anything.

Even some of the links that remain lead to sites that have not been updated for a year or more, or others that still posting but are far less active then they used to be. As if life itself isn't transient enough, I find myself affected by the hyper-transient character of the blogosphere.

Really sometimes I wonder if I was cut out to live in the times I inhabit. I know change is the perpetual state of the human condition, but in past eras the slower pace of change could supply at least a pseudo-permanence to things. Things could endure long enough for people to get used to them, and though they didn't last forever, they were around long enough to become part of the shared experience of many. For that reason, change could take on a generational aspect. Yes, change could signify ordinary decay be it physical or social in nature, but things past continued to live in the minds of older generations. For the younger generations change, because it took its time in coming, could build and grow in its significance. Thus, change could be viewed as growth or decay, and sometimes as both at the same time.

Today, however, the sheer pace of our life (technological and otherwise) makes it difficult to see change as anything other then decay pure and simple. Sure, we see the rise of things, but one could hardly sit back and take them in before they begin to crumble before our very eyes to be replaced by something else which will, all too quickly, undergo the same process.

It's this process which rubs me the wrong way. I'm simply not prone to adopting an Epicurean attitude to the things of this world. For the Epicurean, change is the only meaning possible of our existence, especially the change known as decay and death. Anything that speaks to a permanence (pseudo or otherwise) is a lie pure and simple.

Everything that makes me who I am fights against this tendency. The contemporary world seems hell bent on making our existence into nothing but a collection of ephemera. (Written ephemera being limited to 140 characters, please.) However, I think I am something more then that, just as I believe the people I've put in my blog roll are also more than that.

Blogs may not be the best place to look for pseudo-permanence, but there are precious few places in the world which offer ground much better to look.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sarah Palin As Patriarchal Hegemony

Here is a question: There are four people running for the top political jobs in the country, none of whom write their own speeches, why is it the media only says of the lone female candidate, "She doesn't write her own speeches you know"? The implication being if you have a penis, well you could have written your own speech if you felt like it. But, what? You have a vagina?? Well, then it's questionable.

There is a reason that this sort of thing still goes on I believe. It has to do with the transition of feminism away from the liberal tradition of people like Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, which was built around a belief in the innate potentialities of all people regardless of their sex, and towards a view that sees women as perpetual victims who require "liberation" (in a neo-Marxian sense usually) from the "patriarchal hegemony." People who follow this second way of viewing feminism refuse to look at women as individuals. For them women are not individuals, but members of an oppressed class. This allows practitioners of this particular ideology, of which there are many in the media, to denigrate the accomplishment of women who fail to have the proper "gender consciousness" (modelled on the idea of "class consciousness" of course.) The storyline is hidden, but far from subtle: "If Sarah Palin were really a strong woman," so they argue," she wouldn't be a Republican." Therefore they feel the need to undo the reality of her actual person hood by claiming she is some sort of living, breathing Potemkin Village; for many in the MSM Sarah Palin has to be a fraud or a Rovian plot... anything but what she actually is.

Fundamentally, this new form of feminism offers not a "liberation" but a cage. It sets up a system of prescribed choices for women. It tells them what political or moral values they can "legitimately" hold and which ones are anathema. It does the same with their career choices and even with the kinds of relationships they "should" have with men. So when you are given the example of a woman who breaks these prescribed choices, such as looking like a strong "liberated" woman while being a Republican, they will attempt to uphold the character of their ideological vision rather than admit the possibility that Sarah Palin is exactly who she wants and needs to be.

But there is another option, and that is a return to the view of feminism expounded by Liberal thinkers like Wollstonecraft and Mill. Such a view allows and encourages women and men to make what they would out of themselves, based upon their personal ways of looking at the world they find themselves living within.

Such a view also requires when we come across the Sarah Palins of the world that we deal with them as they are, and not as we would like them to be.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Yet Another Example Of My Penchant For "Western Imperialism"

I have this nasty non-post-modern habit of being for Human Rights to such an extreme that I actually believe those rights should be extended to women everywhere. (I know, I'm practically a monster.) So, anyone with tender post-modern sensibilities may want to look away now. 'Harassed' Iran student arrested

A female student in the Iranian city of Zanjan who alleged she was sexually harassed by a senior male lecturer - triggering a massive demonstration by her fellow students - has herself been arrested.

The nature of the charge against the woman - who said she was molested by the vice-chancellor of the university - is unclear, but the local prosecutor is reported to have said that publicising certain crimes is worse than the crimes themselves.

That's right. Maybe she should have leaned back and enjoyed it?

Being "post-modern" means defending the right of Iranians to hold such a position because they have different "values."

That is why I will stick to the belief that being "post-modern" is an act of immorality.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What Is Europe Anyhow?

Its "Oldie But A Goodie" time here at the IMW. I wrote the following after the French rejection of the proposed EU Constitution back in May 2005, and I thought it was worth dusting it off after the Irish rejection this last week.

It is the indisputable power of propaganda of every type that all one has to do to have a great falsehood accepted as a simple fact is to keep repeating that falsehood over and over again at a loud volume. Through sheer repetition almost any bankrupt idea can win the day. However, something of the same process can also happen without prior planning or dastardly intentions. A classic example can be seen in yesterday's referendum on the EU Constitution in France. As the vote loomed and its passage seemed more doubtful by the day, the newspapers were filled with commentary about exactly what was going on in France. What is interesting about this commentary is that nearly all of it was obviously absurd. What was at play here was not an attempt to mislead anyone about what is going on in France and in other places in Europe. No, what it is indicative of is the incoherent nature of the constitutional discussion going on right now. Because all anyone is hearing are these incoherent ramblings they have been accepted as reality. If some knowledgable journalist of European affairs were to wake up today after a ten-year long coma and be told by a colleague of the "prevailing opinion" being bandied about by politicians and the press this morning, I believe that journalist would regard his colleague as a lunatic.

For example, the most vocal opponents of the Constitution in France made the repeated complaint that the document was "too liberal." In fact it was claimed that the Constitution was some sort of Reagan/Thatcher plot to enslave the French people to the evil master Globalization, which would doom the French working class to permanent underemployment as Poles, Czechs, and (someday soon) Turks took their jobs by accepting the demeaning French minimum wage....or something like that. I found it a little hard to follow as I was laughing so hard. (Why do I picture a "Night of The Living Dead" zombie Ronald Reagan terrorizing poor French villagers who unwittingly flee straight into the arms of the "Global Economy"?)

It is difficult to see how exactly this Constitution, which enshrines the present European system of protectionism and subsidies, can be viewed as a capitulation to free and open markets, but it is. It is also difficult to see how this 450 page document micro-managing nearly every aspect of political and economic life could possibly be viewed as "too liberal," but it is. It is further difficult to see how anyone who notices the above two points, as many commentators have, could still insist on acting as if French public opinion makes sense, but they do.

It sometimes happens that that which lacks common sense or logical consistency on its surface sometimes hides a deeper inchoate meaning beneath. I would argue that is exactly what is going on in Europe today. The laughable rationales put forward by those voting "non" are not an attempt to mislead (as some who are calling these voters racists would have you think,) but are a failed attempt to express a reality only dimly perceived.

In an essay entitled "Unity and Diversity of Europe" the great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset saw something of this European reality about 70 years ago. Writing in the 1930's Ortega had a prediction:

I therefore suggest that the reader spare the malice of a smile when I predict - somewhat boldly, in view of present appearances - a possible, a probable unification of the states of Europe. I do not deny that the United States of Europe is one of the poorest fantasies that has ever existed and I take no responsibility for what others have handed out under these verbal signs. But I do maintain that it is highly improbable that a society, a collectivity as ripe as that now formed by the peoples of Europe, should not move towards the creation of a state apparatus for the exercise of the European public power which already exists. It is not, then, a weakness for fantasy nor a leaning towards "idealism" which I despise and have fought all my life, that has brought me to this conclusion. It is historic realism that has made it clear to me that the unity of Europe as society is not an "ideal" but a very ancient daily fact, and having seen this fact one cannot but confront the probability of a general European state. [From History As A System, Norton, 1941, pp.52-3.]

For Ortega the truth of the "society of Europe" underlies all other political and social developments. Europe has a society because Europeans are forced to co-exist with one another. Custom and law come naturally from this condition, and are not brought about by human actions. "A society is not brought about by a willed agreement. Inversely, any such agreement presupposes the existence of a society, of people living together under certain customs, and the agreement can only determine one form or another of this coexistence, of this pre-existing society." [p. 50] The outline of this "pre-existing society" is exactly what constitutes the "unity" of Europe.

However, Ortega does not view this "unity" in a static manner. Indeed, for Ortega, European unity most clearly expresses itself through the dynamic qualities and plurality of European peoples. We can recognize at the same time both what differentiates Spaniards from Germans AND how they spring from a common societal heart. Europe would cease to be a European society without both aspects. "If the plurality is lost, the dynamic unity fades away." [p. 55] So while Ortega sees a formal governmental body for Europe as inevitable it will of necessity be limited, unless we wish to go down the path of creating what Ortega views as the homogenizating nightmare of the "mass man."

I think it is in light of these views that the French vote can be made sense of. While the specific character of the complaints about the EU Constitution are absurd, they all have something in common which might not be absurd. They all make a version of the claim that this Constitution would force them to be not like themselves but like someone else, such as the English or the Americans. I think it is obvious that this document will not make an American out of a Frenchman or an Englander out of a Dutch woman, but that doesn't mean that it isn't asking the French person to be less French or the Dutch person to be less Dutch. In this sense the French people have been unable to put their concerns into intelligible language, but they have been able to put it into intelligible action at the ballot box. As a deal making exercise this Constitution was probably the best deal the French people could have gotten, but I think by now it is clear that wasn't the point, at least not for them.

Ortega y Gasset claimed that you cannot have Europeans without also having French, Germans, Spanish, Dutch, Danes, English, et al...It might just be the French are saying exactly the same thing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Stuart Mill Reaches 500 RPM

"Turning over in his grave" somehow didn't seem strong enough: Teenager faces prosecution for calling Scientology 'cult'

A teenager is facing prosecution for using the word "cult" to describe the Church of Scientology.

The unnamed 15-year-old was served the summons by City of London police when he took part in a peaceful demonstration opposite the London headquarters of the controversial religion.

Officers confiscated a placard with the word "cult" on it from the youth, who is under 18, and a case file has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.

A date has not yet been set for him to appear in court.

The decision to issue the summons has angered human rights activists and support groups for the victims of cults.

The incident happened during a protest against the Church of Scientology on May 10. Demonstrators from the anti-Scientology group, Anonymous, who were outside the church's £23m headquarters near St Paul's cathedral, were banned by police from describing Scientology as a cult by police because it was "abusive and insulting".

Writing on an anti-Scientology website, the teenager facing court said: "I brought a sign to the May 10th protest that said: 'Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.'

"'Within five minutes of arriving I was told by a member of the police that I was not allowed to use that word, and that the final decision would be made by the inspector."

A policewoman later read him section five of the Public Order Act and "strongly advised" him to remove the sign. The section prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.

The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a "cult" which was "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".

After the exchange, a policewoman handed him a court summons and removed his sign.

So when exactly was the flame of human liberty extinguished in Britain? It seems ludicrous that I feel the need to quote John Stuart Mill in this day and age, but it seems we as a civilization have forgotten the important truths he categorized and catalogued:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

That today in Great Britain peaceful political protest is being criminalized speaks to how far society can creep away from human rights. It's as if they believe what Britain really needs is a kinder and gentler KGB, Gestapo or Stasi, enforcing "proper" political belief because allowing people to think for themselves is "dangerous to the state."

When Mill says, "No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified," he actually means it. Mill could only look at Great Britain today and declare is not a free country.

Is the country that gave the world Locke, Sidney, Bentham, Adam Smith, Wollstonecraft, Burke and Mill really alright with that?

Gleaned from DBKP.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sunday, December 02, 2007

In Praise of Incivility

I originally wrote this for the The Van Der Galiën Gazette this past summer. As the VDGG is soon to be a thing of the past, I thought it best to collect some of those pieces here as well.

It says something about our society that even after all of this time the internet can still give so many folks the screaming heebie jeebies. You cannot swing a nice four-letter expletive around without hitting a main stream media lament about the state of American discourse. The culprits, we are told, are various bloggers of the left and right, anonymous commentors with dubious language skills, and assorted other evil doers who add to the near certain ruination of our fine republic. For the most part, bloggers react to such criticism by stomping their feet and shouting, “You don’t understand me! You’ve never loved me and you never will! I hate you!” If there was an internet equivalent of running up to their room and slamming the door, I’m sure they would add that as well.

This little drama seemingly repeats itself every month or two; so often in fact that I sometimes feel like I’m stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, except without the ability to actually change anything. The reason nothing ever changes in this scenario has to do with the intersection of human nature with the nature of the internet. Believe it or not, it is a question with philosophical import and it has quite a pedigree.

In his dialogue The Laws, Plato discusses what has to be the best analogous practice to the internet in all of the history of philosophy: the drinking party. The problem with drinking parties, obviously, is their ability to get out of hand. They become riotous affairs.

Athenian Stranger- What I’m asking is this: doesn’t the drinking of wine make pleasures, pain, the spirited emotions, and the erotic emotions, more intense?

Kleinias- Very much so.

Athenian Stranger- What about sensations, memories, opinions, and prudent thoughts? Do they become more intense in the same way? Or don’t they abandon anyone who becomes thoroughly soused?

Kleinias- Yes, they completely abandon him.

Replace the pleasurable activity of drinking wine with the pleasurable activity of online discourse and I’m not sure what is different, other than the lack of a hangover. Many media types blame the anonymity of the web for much of this, but I’m sure that misses the mark. People will gladly sign their name to examples of their bad behavior, forgoing any semblance of anonymity in the bargain. There seems to be something in the way the internet allows us to be connected and disconnected simultaneously. We can forcefully present our ideas to any number of people without ever sharing proximity with them. Some might say the internet allows people to be belligerent without fear of actually being, well, beaten to a bloody pulp. But… it never really reads that way. It reads more like people affected by, if Michael will forgive the term, Dutch courage.

Of course, not everyone gets “soused” in that special internet way. Many folks employ the internet the same way Plato advocates the use of wine. For those who take a moderate approach free discourse is encouraged and much can be learned for our mutual edification. Those who “overindulge” and thus act immoderately stick out like a sore thumb. In any society it is important to know who you can look to for their steady outlook on life, and who you want to avoid as being prone to flights of unhinged invective. Incivility is thus a positive benefit to our political order. You may be discouraged by the sheer numbers of these buffoons, but at least you aware of the actual state of the polity and are not deceived by polite appearances.

In fact, for all the complaining about the coarseness of political discourse today, it might be worse in an unfailingly “proper” society. As Rousseau stated in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts:

One no longer dares to appear as he is; and in this perpetual constraint, the men who form the herd called society, placed in the same circumstances, will all do the same things unless stronger motives deter them. Therefore one will never know well those with whom he deals, for to know one’s friends thoroughly, it would be necessary to wait for emergencies-that is, to wait until it is too late…

Lucky thing for us we live in a time with no such difficulties. Thanks to the wonderfully intoxicating properties of the internet we can all have a clear idea of just who we are dealing with in this cyber world. We may at times be distressed at the depths people will descend to in the name of their political ideology, but we will always know the true score thanks to those moments of incivility.

So, with pure philosophical purpose in our voices we can heartily say, “Thanks, jerks.”

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Never Trust A Jacobin

Folks should go on over to American Future and read Marc's Christmas day post on the legacy of Iraq. (Actually, if you are not reading American Future daily already you are missing one of the best.)

In the U.S., then, the mismanagement of the war resulted in a crisis of confidence in the spread of democracy as the antidote to the disease of terrorism and in the claims of the Bush Administration regarding the war's progress. The repercussions haven't been limited to the U.S.

By late 2003, had the war gone as planned, the American troop level would have been roughly half of its level at the time of the invasion and the lives of the Iraqi people would have been at least reasonably secure. Instead, the American footprint was—and has remained to this day—essentially unchanged, and security has worsened. Most importantly from the perspective of both European and Muslim opinion, the elongation of the war allowed Abu Ghraib to happen. With the publication of pictures of American soldiers humiliating Muslims, whatever chance there was to stop the growth of anti-Americanism vanished. The Bush Administration was trashed throughout the world for betraying American values. The mismanagement of the war intensified the crisis of confidence in America that had been rising since the second half of 2002, when it started to be apparent that the U.S. was intent on toppling Saddam.

Earlier, I noted that elections held prior to 2006 provided a facade of progress, keeping the mistakes of Bush Administration at least partially hidden from view. The least violent days in Iraq have been days when voters were casting their ballots. If I were an Iraqi, this would make me wonder: if American and Iraqi forces can provide for my security on voting days, why can't they do so on all other days? I would lack the knowledge that there are too few soldiers to provide security on a sustained basis. Because of the war's mismanagement, the political (elections) and military (security) tracks have been out of synch. In the absence of a military footprint large enough to provide security, Washington hoped that elections revealing the Iraqis' desire for and commitment to democracy would reduce the level of violence. Exactly the opposite has happened, creating a crisis of confidence among the Iraqis—in both their and our government, and in democracy.

I agree with Marc here in the broadest sense. However, I wonder if the failures of Bush and Co. have less to do with the sort of things that could be corrected by Monday Morning Quarter-backing (e.g. we should have had more troops, etc.) and more to do with the ideological fervor employed.

For example, the thirst for "democratic purity" has been a handicap ever since Saddam's forces were routed. The disastrous "de-Baathization" campaign denuded the Iraqi army of exactly the people most needed to remain effective for any new regime. But, for the purity police, all of those linked to the old order were suspect and must be excluded. Similarly, we have avoided working with local sheiks and clan leaders because that wouldn't be democratic enough.

Indeed, it has become clear in the last three years that our Iraq policy follows a line of "democracy" that has little in common with the American experience. In its demand for centralization and "purity" this approach seems more at home with revolutionary Jacobinism than anything else. (If you doubt this at all ask yourself if you have ever felt that we were engaged in a Rouseauean attempt to "force them (i.e. the Iraqis) to be free.) If Bush had been more wedded to real conservative thought, which would have advocated we integrate existing and historically relevant power structures into any new Iraqi government, we might be in a much better place today.

As I was thinking these thoughts over the last couple of days something struck me as very familiar about the terrain I was crossing over. Then it came to me, I have heard exactly the same argument from one of my old professors ten years ago. Back when I was in grad school at Catholic University I took multiple classes with Prof. Claes Ryn. Dr. Ryn would classify himself (proudly) as a decidedly paleo-conservative, and he took as much pride in mauling the neo-conservative movement as he did any liberal machinations. To that end he published a little polemic back in 1991 entitled, The New Jacobinism: Can Democracy Survive?, that can only be described as a "ho holds barred" assault on neo-con ideas.

To be honest, I do not remember being impressed at the time, but I can look back now and see how in many ways Dr. Ryn was prescient.

(From The New Jacobinsm, National Humanities Institute, 1991, pg. 71-72:)

The belief that political virtue is summed up in specific "principles" or "rights" and that these are also best known by an intellectual elite with special powers of discernment breeds not only arrogance in those who consider themselves in the know but intolerance of those who deviate from the presumed moral prescriptions. Why, indeed, should the complexity and messiness of society not yield to the direction of the virtuous?

The potential for tyranny in this moral abstractionism is apparent, for example, in the attacks on historical thinking by many of its intellectual exponents. The belief that human life is inescapably historical and that the pursuit of good must be adjusted to time and place is rejected as a threat to moral universality and rectitude. To think of moral universality as affected by historical circumstance is, so it is asserted, to dissolve moral universality; a rel moral standard must exist apart from the historical phenomena for which it is to be the standard. Besides revealing philosophically rather amateurish habits, this advocacy of a historically pure moral vantage point discloses the grounds for denying to individuality, particularity, and diversity as such any moral legitimacy. Let pure virtue rule!

(Pg. 74)

Speaking of the United States and its principles as models for all peoples is today a recurring theme in some American intellectual and political circles. Sometimes the will to power behind this refrain is barely able to keep up ideological appearances. Writes Ben Wattenberg, "It's pretty clear what the global community need: probably a top cop, but surely a powerful global organizer. Somebody's got to do it. We're the only ones who can." Advocating a "visionary" American foreign policy, Wattenberg proclaims: "The idea of spreading democratic and American values around the world is visionary." With moralistic righteousness he adds, "It's the right thing to do."

Now, I have little patience with the claims made by many that Iraqis (or maybe Arabs in general) are inherently incapable of living in some sort of democratic society because of their history. Such a belief dooms folks to forever living under tyranny, since you cannot develop a democratic history until you actually give it a try. However, Ryn is correct in saying we cannot export the American experience. Any democracy in Iraq worthy of the name would of necessity have to incorporate the elements of society that have played cohesive roles within it. If that means acknowledging the historical reality of sheiks, clan leaders, mullahs, other ethnic divisions, etc., than it does. Going up to these folks and saying "Ideological purity insists that you Mr. Sheik can no longer have political influence here," is a prescription for failure. So what if the political system that evolves doesn't look like that of New Jersey or Wisconsin?

If Edmund Burke were brought back and asked about this situation I get the feeling his first question would be, "So what are the traditional 'rights of Iraqimen?'" Has anyone in the Bush administration asked that question? I tend to doubt it.