‘Liberals engage the right mood by contemplating the experiences of those they take to be oppressed, in what I have called “suffering situations.” You might think this an admirable altruism amid the selfish indifference of the mass of mankind, and there is no doubt that it has often been sincere and that it could at times mitigate some real evils. But the crucial word here is “abstract.” The emotions are elicited by an image, as in the craft of advertising. The people who cultivate these feelings are usually not those who actually devote their time and energies to helping the needy around them, but rather a class of person—liberal journalists, politicians, social workers, academics, charity bureaucrats, administrators, etc.—who focus on the global picture.’
I would add that while I have my doubts about the religious true-believer and salvationist, I have particular doubts about the Neo-Romantic Environmentalist, the secular, progressive do-gooder, and the high liberal globalist shuttling between academy and government.
‘The centerpiece of Miller’s argument is the making and appreciating of art. Miller’s idea of art, as we might expect, is wide-ranging and popular, drawn more from everywhere in culture: dancing, body-decoration, clothing, jewellery, hair-styling, architecture, furniture, gardens, cars, images such as calendars and paintings, creative uses of language, popular entertainments from religious festivals to TV soaps, music of all kinds, and on and on. Miller’s discussion is less focused on the high-art culture of modernism and postmodernism, since it anyway distinguishes itself against popular taste.‘
Of course, there will be all manner of reductionism (art=sex) and popularized idiocy (Bach + brain-scan = pop-neuroscience) to follow.
There’s something about both our cultural tilt towards (S)cience-ifying every aspect of life (stretching out these new fields of knowledge) as well as the popularized explanatory journalism (Jesus Christ not another think-piece) which are worth thinking about.
Witnessing the outcomes and consequences of such truth and knowledge claims downstream, some quite possibly more true than others, invites skepticism.
‘…aesthetics is going to replace ethics, art is going to replace religion, as the means through which educated people express their spiritual worthiness…‘
Don’t worry, ‘ethics’ on the fly, in universities and in journalism is everywhere these days, and beneath that, some crazy new true-believers.
As posted, please check out Jeff Koons (if you thought the celebrification of politics was striking, culturally, this happened quite before with the celebribrification of art):
There’s always been a bit of the showman about Jeff Koons; the kind of young man who could put on a bow tie and try to give many museum-goers their time/money/aspirations’ worth at the membership desk.
This blog forgives people trying to explain what their art ‘means,’ exactly, but confesses to pleasure in seeing Koons put on the spot under the suspicious eye of an ornery old Robert Hughes.
I don’t fault Koons for finding himself firmly within modernism, searching for universal forms and broader historical context within those confines, but I admit it’s nice to see him held to account for his bullshit, and perhaps the broader, deeper bullshit he shares with many modern and postmodern artists: Pursuing novelty and recognition and thus making art into a business and often commercializing it, aiming for celebrity while offering meta-critiques on celebrity, making the personal and private very public (masturbation into social commentary, sex into meta-critques of religious shame, ‘culture’ and pornography).
Two quotes by Hughes that stood out:
‘Religion is diminished into celebrity..a kind of reverse apotheosis.‘
‘This alienation of the work from the common viewer is actually a form of spiritual vandalism.’
It’s tough to say that art is really about religion (though much clearly is), but rather more about an experience Hughes wants as many people as possible to have, and that such experiences can elevate and expand.
Aside from the above, there’s something that strikes me as not just late 20th century-modern about Koons, but also very American
“Ah,” he replied, “my job was to estimate whether you were an honest man.”
Dalrymple finishes with:
‘As Dr Johnson told us, we need more often to be reminded than informed.‘
So you want to be in charge of everyone else in our Republic?
There’s been a lot of change, broken ladders, and new rules lately.
You’d also better learn the language of the learned these days, demonstrating care for the latest moral cause (believer or not).
I’m sympathetic to the following (which is where politicians will zero-in like heat-seeking missiles):
Real jobs make you physically tired, offering useful skills and knowledge through experience, and possibly a decent living if you’re willing to do the work.
You meet all kinds of people, see some dark stuff, get tempted by your own impulses and desires, and share in a few moments of profound kindness and giving.
Competence is a high bar:
This blog holds out hope that a reasonable equality-of-opportunity approach can be maintained out of the mess of grade-inflation, watered-down standards, political dipshittery and competitive meritocracy that has come about. I suspect the rise of helicopter-parenting and over-monitored kids has a lot to do with fewer perceived opportunities and more intense competition for those opportunities.
The new society doesn’t account for everyone, of course. Social planners never can. Some of the old guard have their pants down.
James Delingpole and Carbon Mike have a discussion about what bottom-up networks can do, the importance of economic and political liberty, the erosion of common sense, and how the software tools are available to bypass the bigger players.
There is a lot of room for disruption online, outside of the old media dinosaurs, and the new media walled-gardens.
But beware: A new big-corporation, big-government, further Left academy and ‘scientific’ media landscape is likely being formed before our very eyes.
For whichever reasons you might disagree, or might know something to be untrue, don’t get caught out in the cold, now:
‘Many social conditions have been identified as part of the change, but behind most of them, I suggest, is a massive change in our moral sentiments: notably, a rise in the currency of politicised compassion. This is a sentiment so much part of the air we breathe that it does not even have a name of its own.‘
‘This sentiment is not, of course, the niceness and decency that we rightly admire when individuals respond helpfully to others. It is a politicised virtue, which means that it is focused not on real individuals but on some current image of a whole category of people. Correspondingly, it invokes hostility towards those believed to have caused the pain and misery of others. Public discussion thus turns into melodrama.’
Perhaps there has been much movement away from existing authority towards liberation (often against an oppressor), towards the feminine (often against the masculine), towards emotion (often against ‘rationality’ and ‘(R)eason), and towards ‘niceness.’
Outcomes, not intentions:
‘This does not mean, of course, that there will not be a backlash against politicised decency as its nastier consequences become intolerable.‘
Everyone gets a degree, joins the ‘middle-class’, and our institutions just maintain course?
‘They wrote that 24 hours had passed, and Kane had not addressed the allegations that he authored racist posts on his website EphBlog over the course of several years under the pseudonym “David Dudley Field ’25.”
Kane denied endorsing white supremacy and anti-Blackness but did not reference the posts in a Friday response on a Gov 50 Slack channel obtained by The Crimson.‘
Laura Kipnis, a former Marxist-materialist feminist (who among us hasn’t longed for an economy run by Marxists?), and still quite Left-feminist, has become a source of information and resolve against Title IX abuses and the shadowy kangaroo courts which have resulted.
In the audio interview, she mentions part of what really interests her is not this task, nor university and government policy, but finding ‘freedom on the page,’ partially guided by by Twain, Whitman and various others.
Naturally, I support her in this, and, of course, this kind of ‘freedom on the page’ and exploration of the human condition with wit, humor, tragedy, and irony is the point of a good humanities education.
Or, it certainly was before many campus radicals and Marxist-materialists came to town, helping to create bloated bureaucracies, sexual paranoia and byzantine federal mandates…oh you know the rest.
Dear Student, this letter has been sent to advise you to appear before…Falco!:
Facing West From California’s Shores
Facing west, from California’s shores, Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound, I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar, Look off the shores of my Western Sea—the circle almost circled; For, starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere, From Asia—from the north—from the God, the sage, and the hero, From the south—from the flowery peninsulas, and the spice islands; Long having wander’d since—round the earth having wander’d, Now I face home again—very pleas’d and joyous; (But where is what I started for, so long ago? And why it is yet unfound?)
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman – I have detested you long enough. I come to you as a grown child Who has had a pig-headed father; I am old enough now to make friends. It was you that broke the new wood, Now is a time for carving. We have one sap and one root – Let there be commerce between us.
‘Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.’
‘In discussing our First Amendment rights, the media routinely begs the question — it adopts stock phrases and concepts that presume that censorship is desirable or constitutional, and then tries to pass the result off as neutral analysis. This promotes civic ignorance and empowers deliberate censors.’
‘The important thing to understand about journalists is that they are the lowest ranking intellectuals. That is to say: they are members of the intellectual class, but in the status hierarchy of intellectuals, journalists are at the bottom. That is why they have traditionally adopted the status cues of the working class: the drinking and the swearing, the anti-establishment values and the commitment to the non-professionalization of journalism.’
and on professors:
‘The important thing to understand about academics is that they are the highest rank of intellectuals. That is why they have traditionally adopted the status symbols of the 19th-century British leisured class—the tweeds and the sherry and the learning of obscure languages—while shunning the sorts of things that are necessary for people for whom status is something to be fought for through interaction with the normal members of society (such as reasonably stylish clothing, minimal standards of hygiene, basic manners).‘
Rod Dreher’s new book, ‘Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents‘, posits that soft totalitarianism is coming fast, and that, once instutional influence is gained by radical Leftists, networks of the openly religious will need to form and associate ad hoc networks on their own, to maintain resistance.
Arguably, the influence of religious belief as well as Natural Law/Natural Right doctrines, traditionally profound influences on American civic life, continues to diminish. So, the thinking goes, we are fast arriving at an increasingly divided civic and political life. The logic of Left political radicalism becomes ever more entrenched in our universities, media and politics, entrenching a more Right-radical, European-style response.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Rod Dreher (The Benedict Option), points to what he believes are signs of the obvious failure of modern, liberal doctrines to replace the kinds of meaning such religious doctrines have provided.
Here are two recent blog posts containing this worldview of his, about which I’ve provided additional summary and commentary (please let me know what I’m missing).
‘Advice For A Weary Ghost‘-A 35 year-old woman feels empty inside, writing to ‘The Cut‘ for advice. She doesn’t have a husband and can’t seem to maintain deep, meaningful relationships. She’s had jobs but not a career. Maybe it’s not just her.
The adviser promotes a surburbanely popularized vision of the rebellious and Romantically-inspired artistic life, reaffirming much of what Dreher and his commenters see as inadequate for most people, most of the time.
This view, I presume, utilizes the wrong maps to steer one’s (S)oul and inform life decisions. Perhaps it allows one to succumb to materialist concerns and potentially materialist doctrines (too strongly measuring one’s life largely by economic, professional and outward successes/failures). It also perpetuates the woman’s confessedly empty, Self-interested pursuits, cutting her off from the happiness of family and loved ones without much to show for it.
The ‘-Isms’ (feminism, environmentalism, political activism etc.) are poor substitutes for a moral, meaningful life. The Church might just the place to be, but Catholic Church leadership, too, is corrupt and covered with the dust of this world. There will increasingly be witch hunts upon religious believers by the new SJW believers.
The lady’s probably not going to be an (A)rtist, the lady giving advice probably ain’t so great an (A)rtist either.
Can the humanities become a lifelong source of wisdom and meaning?
‘Manufacturing Consent To Gender Ideology‘-Boys wanting to be girls, and vice versa, is the latest (C)ause. These outliers upon distributions of human sexual behavior, often shunned, mocked and condemned to limited lives, must not only be included in everyone’s moral concern, but celebrated. Through social activism and protest, they are to become exemplars of the new normal.
Doctrines promising radical liberation, hinging upon revolutionary praxis, go about attacking and reforming current traditions, institutions, laws and arrangements, often grossly mischaracterizing and misrepresenting them to gain advantage. The grudging acknowledgement of freedoms gained through progressive activism and radical thought always come with costs.
And, given the natural ignorance of the human condition, and the basic desire humans have for group meaning, authority, security, identity and purpose, this latest (C)ause which promises liberation, will end-up delivering something quite different.
Cycles of utopianism and dystopianism await, and more disgruntled individuals drifting around aimlessly looking for an ad hoc ethics and politics, sometimes flirting with authoritarian and totalitarian Leftist doctrines as those doctrines become more mainstreamed:
‘The truth was, as Arnold Hauser had gone to great pains to demonstrate in The Social History of Art, the intelligentsia have always had contempt for the realistic novel—a form that wallows so enthusiastically in the dirt of everyday life and the dirty secrets of class envy and that, still worse, is so easily understood and obviously relished by the mob, i.e., the middle class. In Victorian England, the intelligentsia regarded Dickens as “the author of the uneducated, undiscriminating public.” It required a chasm of time—eighty years, in fact—to separate his work from its vulgar milieu so that Dickens might be canonized in British literary circles. The intelligentsia have always preferred more refined forms of fiction, such as that longtime French intellectual favorite, the psychological novel.‘
Let’s not get too French: Theodore Dalrymple on prostitution during COVID19:
‘The spokeswoman for the Union of Sex Workers in France, Anaïs de Lenclos (a pseudonym, one wonders?), eloquently pointed out the difficulties that prostitutes, male and female, now face.
That sounds pretty French.
In fact, let’s go to Charles Baudelaire, live on the street:
Behold the sweet evening, friend of the criminal; It comes like an accomplice, stealthily; the sky Closes slowly like an immense alcove, And impatient man turns into a beast of prey. O evening, kind evening, desired by him Whose arms can say, without lying: “Today We labored!” — It is the evening that comforts Those minds that are consumed by a savage sorrow, The obstinate scholar whose head bends with fatigue And the bowed laborer who returns to his bed.
Meanwhile in the atmosphere malefic demons Awaken sluggishly, like businessmen, And take flight, bumping against porch roofs and shutters. Among the gas flames worried by the wind Prostitution catches alight in the streets; Like an ant-hill she lets her workers out; Everywhere she blazes a secret path, Like an enemy who plans a surprise attack; She moves in the heart of the city of mire Like a worm that steals from Man what he eats. Here and there one hears food sizzle in the kitchens, The theaters yell, the orchestras moan;
The gambling dens, where games of chance delight, Fill up with whores and cardsharps, their accomplices; The burglars, who know neither respite nor mercy, Are soon going to begin their work, they also, And quietly force open cash-boxes and doors To enjoy life awhile and dress their mistresses.
Meditate, O my soul, in this solemn moment, And close your ears to this uproar; It is now that the pains of the sick grow sharper! Somber Night grabs them by the throat; they reach the end Of their destinies and go to the common pit; The hospitals are filled with their sighs. — More than one Will come no more to get his fragrant soup By the fireside, in the evening, with a loved one.
However, most of them have never known The sweetness of a home, have never lived!
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Shelby Steele weaves Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary‘ into his insights about the world, coming to realize the Black Panthers in North Africa..had problems:
How (B)lack should you become when reality intrudes, and reality doesn’t have much good to say?
Which are the rules all of us should follow when it comes to right and wrong?
‘The purpose of today’s civil-rights establishment is not to seek justice, but to seek power for blacks in American life based on the presumption that they are still, in a thousand subtle ways, victimized by white racism. This idea of victimization is an example of what I call a “poetic truth.” Like poetic license, it bends the actual truth in order to put forward a larger and more essential truth—one that, of course, serves one’s cause. Poetic truths succeed by casting themselves as perfectly obvious: “America is a racist nation”; “the immigration debate is driven by racism”; “Zimmerman racially stereotyped Trayvon.” And we say, “Yes, of course,” lest we seem to be racist. Poetic truths work by moral intimidation, not reason.’
‘There were eccentric characters in the hotel. The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people—people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words.’
I have my doubts all will be made well, in human affairs, by simply including the oldest profession within the latest politico-moral doctrines.
Someone tell the French ladies of the night: Technology has made it possible for people to sell the lowest and highest of things online. There might be…options. Let’s expect the same old problems, however, in new venues (a few moments of beauty, grace and kindness but mostly pimps, drug abuse, robbery, extortion etc).
There’s absolutely nothing funny about Telly Savalas playing Kojak as reported by Norm MacDonald to Jerry Seinfeld, shattering naive fictions in solving a T.V. crime-drama:
On French problems of liberte: Theodore Dalrymple on Michel Houellebecq here:
‘Houellebecq has been accused of being a nihilist and cynic, but far from that, his work is an extended protest against nihilism and cynicism. It is true that he offers no solution to the problem, but it is not the purpose of novels, but rather of tracts, to offer solutions to such problems. For him to tell his readers to take up basket-weaving or some such as the answer to existential emptiness would in fact be an instance of that very existential emptiness.’
I’m not much of a feminist nor a Main Line (Philadelphia) liberal myself:
Martha Nussbaum writes:
“Spitzer’s offense was an offense against his family. It was not an offense against the public. If he broke any laws, these are laws that never should have existed and that have been repudiated by sensible nations.”
You tossed a blanket from the bed You lay upon your back, and waited; You dozed, and watched the night revealing The thousand sordid images Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling. And when all the world came back And the light crept up between the shutters And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, You had such a vision of the street As the street hardly understands; Sitting along the bed’s edge, where You curled the papers from your hair, Or clasped the yellow soles of feet In the palms of both soiled hands.
The world will stain you, and it is a fallen, modern world, rendered profoundly and exquisitely.
If a tendency towards true-belief, occasionally visible in one’s (S)elf, and like all behaviors, transparently visible in others, means anything, it must mean less truth-seeking, less tolerance and less openness in the minds and institutions captured by such true-belief.
The resentment within some need only find expression through narrow, rigid ideologies (destroying what’s here for the utopia to come, promoting action with epistemologically questionable areas of knowledge), for there to be consequences for all.
As I see things, this is still the greatest threat to freedom found within American educational, cultural and political institutions right now.
Many dangers of a particular ideological true-belief occur in the enormous blind spot beneath many liberal idealists and secular humanists/rationalists, who, as I see things, often mistake all 60’s radicalism for benign, well-intentioned change. Beneath the doctrines of (M)an are actual men, and the same old human nature.
There are also deeper currents, dragging us this way and that, often only making themselves clear after many years and some quiet reflection. Some of these currents push and pull the (S)elf (where self-knowledge begins of course) along, but downwards towards the nihilism, existentialism and radical stance of a (S)elf outside of all tradition, religion, obligation and custom.
As a Straussian might see it: Once you set up (S)cience on the positivist definition, as the only arbiter of facts, one can very easily invite the anti-(S)cience response in kind, which manifests itself here as the retreat into a victimhood/oppressor ideology.
‘(S)cience’ was only a tool of the white oppressor, anyways, don’t you know (and no one actually has to do the hard work the sciences require…how convenient):
‘In the wake of the violence at Middlebury and Berkeley, and in the aftermath of the faculty mob that coalesced to condemn gender studies professor Rebecca Tuvel, many commentators have begun analyzing the new campus culture of intersectionality as a form of fundamentalist religion including public rituals with more than a passing resemblance to witch-hunts.’
It’d be nice if many secularists and political liberals said something like the following:
‘If we continue to secularize society, we will entrench many postmoderns, activists, radicals, people steeped in resentment, and narrow socialist ideologues, but the gains in liberty will be worth it. We might even inspire a return to old-timey religion. If this happens, we will freak-out about this turn of events. In the meantime, free speech and free thought will not be upheld, except with moral courage against the mob we’ve helped incubate and gestate.’
‘BC: What do you make of political correctness? There are those who would argue it’s a thing of the past. Frankly, I don’t see how that’s possible. It seems to me that cultural Marxism is more regnant than ever, would you agree?
KM: In my time, a great deal of what used to be intuitive and instinctive (such as good manners) has been replaced by the rule-bound and rationalised. Political correctness is a politicised version of good manners offering power to the kind of meddlesome people who want to tell others how to behave. As to Marxism, it was merely one more illusion that purported to be the key to life. It is significant in that it reveals one of the dominant passions still at work in our civilisation – the passion to create happiness by technology in the hands of a supposedly enlightened elite.’
I’m looking around and not seeing too much decency in American politics, lately.
A.C. Grayling makes one of the better cases for morality without religious doctrine, I’ve heard of late, but I’m not entirely sold these particular problems can be addressed sufficiently:
Via A Reader-Isaiah Berlin’s Lectures On The Roots Of Romanticism. Romanticism–>Modernism–>Postmodernism–>Wherever We’re Heading Now
Maybe it all started with Beethoven: Everyone’s a (S)elf.
Without a stronger moral core, will liberalism necessarily corrode into the soft tyranny of an ever-expanding State?
Since the 60’s, and with a lot of postmodern nihilism making advances in our society, is a liberal politics of consent possible given the dangers of cultivating a kind of majoritarian politics: Dirty, easily corrupt, with everyone fighting for a piece of the pie?
As an example, Civil Rights activists showed moral courage and high idealism, to be sure, but we’ve also seen a devolution of the Civil Rights crowd into squabbling factions, many of whom seem more interested in money, self-promotion, influence, and political power.
The 60’s protest model, too, washed over our universities, demanding freedom against injustice, but it has since devolved into a kind of politically correct farce, with comically illiberal and intolerant people claiming they seek liberty and tolerance for all in the name of similar ideals.
Who are they to decide what’s best for everyone? How ‘liberal’ were they ever, really?
Kelley Ross responds to a correspondent on Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:
‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing that Gray decided was a failure.
Thus, I believe Gray himself sees clearly enough that a thoroughgoing “value pluralism” would mean that the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini is just as morally justified as the regime of Thomas Jefferson. Gray prefers liberalism (or its wreckage) for the very same reason that the deconstructionist philosopher Richard Rorty prefers his leftism: it is “ours” and “we” like it better. Why Gray, or Rorty, should think that they speak for the rest of “us” is a good question. ‘
and about providing a core to liberalism:
‘Why should the state need a “sufficient rational justificaton” to impose a certain set of values? The whole project of “rational justification” is what Gray, and earlier philosophers like Hume, gave up on as hopeless. All the state need do, which it has often done, is claim that its values are favored by the majority, by the General Will, by the Blood of the Volk, or by God, and it is in business.’
And that business can quickly lead to ever-greater intrusion into our lives:
‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so. ‘
Are libertarians the true classical liberals? Much closer to our founding fathers?
Strands of a New, New Left are likely forming out of the excesses of identitarianism. From anti-trans TERF feminists, to many anti-establishment, anti-Boomer types (anti- sisterhood of the travelling ‘bourgeois’ pantsuit criticism), the identity-center is probably not holding.
Perhaps Tom Sowell’s ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals‘ is worth revisiting, at least to break out of the white savior complex (which manisfests itself both in original Marxist class-warfare and current watered-down identity Marxism).
Here are two response tweets to The Atlantic’s edition two years ago, and I’m probably not alone in thinking it’s hard to take some people seriously, though it’s probably important to take them as seriously as they take themselves.
This is serious business!
I’m guessing a lot of Atlantic readers have expressed shock at the relative loss of political influence and structural stability they’ve experienced since the election of Trump. But as I see things, despite Trump’s many faults, accepting the claims of radical activists, critical theorists and postmodern types, is a structural failure of liberal idealism, leading us to become a lot more like Europe.
I’ve long been thinking both the Arts & Sciences could use better stewardship and popular representation. I remain skeptical that many current conceptions of ‘The Self’ and that their immediate liberation are imminent. At least, such ideas seem to have been deeply oversold.
Rather, I see a lot of new rules emergent from the latest moral ideas, many of the same old ideas active in the field of play, and a lot more people ecouraged to join political coalitions under political ideals in order to express very basic human desires.
Many things regarding human nature and human affairs aren’t apt to change that much, I suppose.
The Boston Evening Transcript
The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
— When evening quickens faintly in the street, Wakening the appetites of life in some And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript, I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld, If the street were time and he at the end of the street, And I say, “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript.”
Lately, when I can manage an hour or two of unbothered attention, I’ve been having a dialogue with a rather deep 20th-century Englishman. This gentleman sees the divorce of technique from practical knowledge, and the over-reliance on technique, as one of the deepest epistemological mistakes of modern man:
‘…modern rationalism is what commonplace minds made out of the inspiration of men of discrimination and genius.’
Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. Pg 6.
You can’t just toss direct experience, long history, developed traditions and deep practice into a pot, can you? Were you just going to bring your pot to a rolling boil, skim the top, bottle it up and sell it as the ‘Last Cookbook You’ll Ever Need’?
Who is Oakeshott’s Rationalist? Perhaps nearly all of us:
‘At bottom, he stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason.’ His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: He is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and judge it by what he calls his ‘reason:’ optimistic because the rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propiety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind…’
‘He is not devoid of humility; he can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason. But what he can not imagine is politics which do not consist of solving problems, or a political problem of which there is no ‘rational’ solution at all.’
We Americans are Rationalists, to some extent, with our founding documents kept under glass:
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…”
‘Long before the Revolution, then, the disposition of mind of the American colonists, the prevailing intellectual character and habit of politics, were rationalistic. And this is clearly reflected in the constitutional documents and history of the individual colonies. And when these colonies came ‘to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,’ and to declare their independence, the only fresh inspiration that this habit of politics received from the outside was one which confirmed its native character in every particular. For the inspiration of Jefferson and the other founders of American independence was the ideology which Locke had distilled from the English political tradition.’
I have trouble imagining Oakeshott having much sympathy with our founders’ direct experience and developing practice alongside and against King George III and the Redcoats; the slow-rolling revolution these men found themselves within.
What should ‘common men’ have done with relatively limited experience and practice of their own, but such a long and mixed inheritance to draw upon?
Hasn’t our American solution (posing admitted cultural threats to established English traditions) helped ameliorate the effects of long-stratified classes, resentments, and bitternesses which have allowed a much deeper Marxism (ideology par excellence) to flourish in the U.K?
Has the American influence made them worse?
Perhaps if long history and deep practice have helped organically produce Monarchy, Aristocracy, landed gentry and unlanded serfs; a country where an accent can immediately rank order one’s class and status, then America’s rationalist common man has gotten some things right?
Food for thought.
Is that the sight of tweed moving amongst the trees upon the horizon?
I must say Oakeshott offers refreshing critique of thinkers from Descartes to Bacon and Marx to Hayek, and I imagine he can easily be applied to Rawls, Nozick and any other very bright, systemizing thinkers of the 20th century.
Often times, brilliance and genius in the mathematical sciences can help reformulate and solve some of the deeper problems of the Natural World, but such thinking doesn’t necessarily travel well beyond these spheres.
‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your Philosophy’
Thinking of politics as just a ‘science,’ can obviously be a problem, for example. Thinking all the reasons for deep disagreement between people (religion, belief, habit, custom) are going to be solved with the latest theory or a new politico-managment style is full of obvious problems.
Rationalism, on this view, decays frequently into ideology, as well, and there’s no shortage of ideological doctrines nor ideologues and narrow, doctrinal sorts this past century.
On that note, please let me know what I’ve gotten wrong, or missing thus far.
***Dear Reader, I beseech you to recall that I’m full-time employed elsewhere and this blog is a labor of love; a means to keep learning. Please send $1,000,000+ checks discreetly in the mail.
There are many people pursuing secular human rights ideals within many a Western governmental agency, international institution, and activist quarter these days. They claim the person who seeks to be virtuous, pursuing an ideal vision of the good society, simply by sharing in this ideal, has immediate access to a global human community and as such, moral duties to this community.
Many ambitious and reasonably well-intentioned young people are hearing its call.
On some level, most of us seek some kind of greater life purpose (guiding ideals and principles) and we seek for our inborn talents and natural abilities to merge hopefully, with our responsibility to feed ourselves and serve others in making a living.
These ideals allow some people, some of the time, to transcend many personal responsibilities along with many of the duties of family, neighbor, friend, the local, the state, the national.
Yet, at what cost? How are they working out in the world, our institutions, and in our lives?
If there’s anything universal in human affairs (math, the sciences, music, self-interest?), how is the universal to be codified into laws (rules), rights and responsibilities, and who makes the laws and who enforces them?
What is right, exactly, and where do ‘rights’ come from?
How does one person do lasting good for another while pursuing his/her own self-interest within the institutions and organizations that have developed and are often controlled by those adhering to such ideals?
As posted (may you find the thread running through the post, dear reader. I know it’s a lot to ask…especially with all the unanswered, open-ended questions):
“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”
A Roger Scruton quote that stands out in the video below, while discussing moral relativism to an audience in a country once behind the Iron Curtain:
‘There’s an attempt to produce a universal, objective morality, but without any conception of where it comes from.’
Where does the moral legitimacy come from to decide what a ‘human right’ is? A majority of ‘right-thinking’ people? A political majority? Some transcendent source? German Idealism?
Perhaps modern American liberalism can claim other roots for itself. Here’s a quote on Leo Strauss, who has influenced American conservative thought heavily:
“As Strauss understood it, the principle of liberal democracy in the natural freedom and equality of all human beings, and the bond of liberal society is a universal morality that links human beings regardless of religion. Liberalism understands religion to be a primary source of divisiveness in society, but it also regards liberty of religious worship to be a fundamental expression of the autonomy of the individual. To safeguard religion and to safeguard society from conflicts over religion, liberalism pushes religion to the private sphere where it is protected by law. The liberal state also strictly prohibits public laws that discriminate on the basis of religion. What the liberal state cannot do without ceasing to be liberal is to use the law to root out and entirely eliminate discrimination, religious and otherwise, on the part of private individuals and groups.”