For Halloween, I am going to write about something rather more terrifying than goblins and ghouls, unless by those words you mean members of the House Democratic Caucus. On this All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain, for the heathen out there, I am going to address Obama’s spreading the wealth around conviction and also offer a policy proposal.
I have been annoyed for the past couple of weeks in reading defenses of “progressive” tax policy, where writer after writer dismissed the charge of socialism against Obama and stated that unequal tax brackets have always been American policy. Actually, it was less than a century ago, in the Progressive era—back in the days of nascent American socialism—that an amendment to the Constitution was passed to allow Congress to levy such taxes. So-called progressive taxation, as established and maintained by Obama’s Democratic pals, is socialist and has been since its beginning.
The Left is socialist because Leftists tend to be the kind of people who think that large centralized power wielded by well-intentioned experts will maximize good, in the utilitarian sense, in a polity. The truest mark of a Leftist is his absolute assurance that he—and his fellow friends of the trade—know what is better for you than you do. I think that this conviction is foolish in a number of ways.
First, even if we could have well-intentioned, impartial all-powerful directors, these benevolent despots could not be effective benefactors due to their necessary ignorance. No amount of wonkery and think tank number crunching could render a centralized decision center a better substitute for the knowledge and sensitivity of the society as a whole. In other words, a centralized planner can never know the minutiae involved in human affairs as well as the humans engaged intimately with such affairs. A centralized planner will not notice efficiently how conditions and situations change, and this planner will not have the requisite powers to respond effectively to meet those ever changing conditions.
Moreover, in social policy as in economics, the “controlling caste” in the West is quite given to academic fads. Much perverse damage has been done unto long-suffering mankind over the last century due to this sort of experimentation. The masters of nature in Lewis’ Abolition of Man dream up ever changing theories of human nature and human communities, and they impose various constraints and situations upon people based on these views. Tribal maxims and ancient traditions did the same, but they evolved over countless generations and were embraced voluntarily. Furthermore, the old ways were more insightful and wiser precepts for human society. The progressive arrogance is maddening—one hears social engineers express their infinite superiority over their primitive parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents because they have enlightened views on X, Y, and Z. Said social engineers try out their pet enlightened views, create a lot of chaos, and switch their theories every decade as research proves them wrong yet again.
It would be better to leave such matters to society to work out organically, without using the power and the treasure of a people collectively (through the state) as a means to transform one’s benefactors into laboratory rats—to poke and to prod and to torment as one wills, all on the public dime. Certainly, conventional opinion is full of falsehoods. Custom incurred the slurs of the philosophers for good reason—it harbors many learnt untruths, unfounded prejudices, and irrationality. Yet, custom is likely a better guide than ever-changing and even more baseless academic idealogies. For custom is based on centuries if not millennia of human experience, whereas some doctor’s theory is just his theory. Hence, you see the wisdom of American conservative populism: William F. Buckley, Jr. famously—and wisely—stated that he would “sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” No egalitarian himself, Buckley expressed the elite conservative’s view that the masses, however foolish, stupid, and ignorant they are, are less dangerous to mankind than intelligent people with harmful ideas and the intent to impose such ideas. So, a centralized power is unable to have the requisite information to make good decisions, and, in our world today, it is likely to be manned by folks with untested ideological slop for their understanding of human nature.
Second, we do not have all-powerful directors. If we still grant their benevolence, they do not control the arms of their bureaucracies like the human brain moves the sinews and limbs of the body. Not only is large, distant, centralized power ignorant, it is largely unable to respond effectively to problems. As power is slowly lost on a grid, managerial ability in a massive bureaucracy proves a poor conductor of action.
Third, we cannot even grant benevolence, and history is an eager teacher of such a lesson. The Left often complains that corporations and “big business” exploit workers, do not return to their communities what they “take” from them, and are only out for profit as opposed to the common good. They assume, quite falsely, that power in the hands of governmental bureaucrats is only exercised justly. However, there are just as many competing, selfish special interests in bureaucracies as in corporations, but such interests are not honest about their self-promotion. The more that a government does—the wider its scope of power—the more inviting corruption becomes, as the pay-off increases. Politicians in America love to tout government programs as what the government is doing for its citizens, when really such programs exist to grease the palms of the machines that bring those politicians to power and keep them there. Consider the lobbying of A.A.R.P., the N.E.A., trial lawyers, the pharmaceutical industry, and the insurance industry, for example, and then judge how laws, government programs, and public grant money are determined by and for the public good. Even if you think that oil companies take advantage of Americans and scam them of their money, they cannot hold a candle to the utter involuntary fleecing—through taxation—that takes place in the name of the common good.
Fourth, bureaucratic power diminishes freedom in a way that private institutions and individuals do not. For bureaucrats take upon themselves the full power of the whole society to compel and to restrict. If a corporation functions on greed, you may be able to keep your freedom by not working for it or purchasing its services or goods. This personal freedom expands as prosperity increases; mixed-voluntary servitude happens when you choose to work like a dog for less than you think right because you have no other option to secure your needs, but less people are in this state the wealthier a society is. Historically speaking, private greed-based capitalism has been the chief force in bringing such wealth to societies, whereas societies milked by oppressive bureaucracies end up with more more mixed-voluntary slaves. Moreover, without political corruption involved, private institutions and individuals have no real power over you if you choose to ignore them, whereas the state has the societally-endowed threat of violence to hold over you. A Leftist might rebuke me and point to the private sphere’s social coercion or control of the means of production, and he would have a point in some circumstances, especially in industrially developing lands where one has little room to exercise choice. Nonetheless, the potential power of the state over individual life has no competition. The Leviathan of the commonwealth was entrusted with fearsome powers, and one should consider very carefully the dangers of inviting that monster into new corners of its citizens’ personal lives.
So, the Left is wrong to think that centralized control by experts, under the banner of the common good, achieves either competent, expert action or policies and programs geared toward the common good. Yet, there are other reasons that make socialism attractive to the Left, regardless of its inability to function efficiently and its tendency toward oppressive totalitarianism.
One such reason is the failure to distinguish public from private morality. Indeed, a certain strand of intellectual Leftism rejects the distinction between public and private altogether. For these Marxists, the state is the only true level of human community. In Aristotle’s Politics, the philosopher distinguishes several types of political communities, from marriage to the family to the city. Each type of community has its own function, rules, character, claims, and so on. Were we to mix them up—or to flatten them into one level—we would guarantee misery and disaster. Indeed, many Leftists do not admit such folly but nonetheless still confuse public and private morality. Many of these Leftists are well-intentioned Christians who wish to translate Christ’s commandments to take care of the poor into government policy. I think that such folks misunderstand the purpose of charity—in that it allows the giver to imitate God in sacrificial giving and in that it facilitates a relationship of love between the giver and the receiver. This charity happens between people, not between a state and its citizens. The further removed and the less voluntary it is, the less such can rightly be called charity. The welfare state is not what Christ commands, regardless of the “social justice” nonsense of socialist Roman Catholics. Andrew once remarked that Voltaire’s quip about the Holy Roman Empires makes a nice comment on Catholic Social Justice; it’s neither Catholic, nor social, nor just.
Yet another concern that socialists have is wealth disparity. Envy may lurk behind this concern, and you hear as much when the Left frets how the rich and the poor are farther apart now than ever in America. One wonders how honest such folks are with themselves. If you look at the wealth distribution in the United States over the last sixty years, you see that all income classes have increased their purchasing power—their real world wealth to live and to acquire and to consume material goods. Anyone who has been around a couple of decades should be able to see this from personal experience. Even given the economic disaster that has just befallen us, American society is richer than it was twenty years ago, and much richer than it was thirty years ago. Being poor in America today is not what it used to be. The economic prosperity that has come to the United States during globalization has benefited the wealthy investor classes more, and so you can see a phenomenal rise in billionaires over the last two decades. It must to this fact that the class warfare instigators point when they cry about the rich getting richer and the poor getting richer . . . oh, wait—that would be true! They do not mention such, and yet it has been the case. Every class has increased its wealth with economic globalization, but the increase has increased more significantly for the wealthier, as you would expect.
Hence, the Left is not concerned about the poor’s quality of life, as such, so much as it is obsessed with egalitarianism. For Leftists, it is a matter of justice that everyone should be equal. According to the Left, it is the state’s job to enforce this equality by spreading the wealth around. Well, human beings are not equal—in any way. Andrew called this proposition a “damned Enlightenment lie,” and I cannot improve upon that description, except that it is an obvious and ridiculous lie, as well. Modern Leftists, following men better than they, believe in a tabula rasa human nature, where environment, or nurture, determines a man. As such, they blame all social ills on “unjust power structures” or “oppressive systems.” If only we could reinvent the wheel for the millionth time in a half-century, we would get it right and everything then would be perfect!
The nature versus nurture debate is still at it, and I think that an honest assessment takes both to have a large influence in human affairs. However, even if we could create a society where each child had the same home, education, and life experiences from the state, soon enough would radical inequality occur. Humans are unequally intelligent, unequally creative, unequally driven and ambitious, unequally risky, unequally disciplined, and so forth. Biological factors play a decisive if not determinative role in shaping who we are. Therefore, regardless of the social structure, radical human inequality would occur in economic and social standing. It is human nature, and socialism works against nature.
Plato’s Laws noticed this aspect of human nature millennia ago, but the Athenian Stranger of the dialogue who is laying out a proposed city’s laws is still concerned about income disparity. For he desires wealth distribution not out of justice but for social unity and stability. The Athenian Stranger takes it for granted that there will be social classes, but he does not want the wealthiest to be too rich or the poor to be too poor. So, he proposes something of a Jubilee law, where all ancestral property returns to a family after a certain period of time. Like the Hebrews, the Athenian Stranger is anxious about a dispossessed class of poor people or a super rich class of plutocrats whose power endangers the rest of the community. Individuals will rise or fall based on their personal traits, but the policy of the regime attempts to keep individual failures from becoming generational condemnations to penury.
I think that this is the only decent argument that I have encountered for wealth redistribution. It does not make claims of justice; for it is unjust to rob a man’s goods from him. Yet, a man’s right to justice is superseded by the good of the whole; the survival of the society takes precedence over the inviolability of his private property, Nonetheless, room is left for the wealthy to be wealthy and for the poor to be poor, within limits.
Yet, I do not think that such concerns could justify wealth redistribution in the American regime. First, American capitalism allows for social mobility in a manner unimagined by the Hebrews or the Greeks. A Jubilee system in antiquity could safeguard against a permanant underclass because almost all economic activity involved agriculture and land ownership. Such is no longer the case. A rich child in the United States has it easier, obviously, but it is not even unlikely that an intelligent and industrious man should rise through our class system, given the opportunities and mobility of American society. Second, the super rich do not pose a significant danger to the republic due to the size of the republic. Even men of unimaginable wealth—the Gates and the Buffets of the world—cannot exercise political control over the United States. Certainly, they can influence it a lot, like George Soros, but they are not real threats. Thirty billion dollars is not so much, given the total value of the society. Moreover, American plutocrats are usually tied to the markets, and were such rich to misuse their wealth drastically, they would lose a lot of it. Naturally, I cannot think of worse uses for wealth than those of George Soros, but enough Americans think otherwise. Were he openly funding ethnic genocide in Sudan, his economic power would lessen and his political power would disappear.
Leftists like to claim that the wealthy get more from society; as such, they should give more back. I do not think that it is simply snarly to mention that wealth would not be there at all were it not for the creativity, ingenuity, and managerial skills of productive citizens. Such claims seem to ask the glassblower, porcelain maker, and like artisans to pay homage to sand and dirt. Yet, I suppose that the regime should be given some credit for the political stability and for the human talent and labor necessary for economic activity. However, even with a flat tax, the wealthy would be giving back much more than others—and certainly much more than they get. Let us consider my fantasy scenario where each person has to pay 10% in federal income tax. Someone who made $10,000 a year would pay $1,000, while someone who made $10,000,000 would pay $1,000,000 in taxes. To whom much was given, much was received back. A “progressive,” i.e. unjust income taxation policy makes a mockery of this proverb.
Besides, the wealthier one is, the less he benefits from or incurs costs to the state. Public services always benefit the poor more than the rich, from public transportation to public recreation to public education to public libraries (for the poor who actually read)—the rich are more likely to pay for private services. Moreover, the rich are far less likely to cost the society; the wealthy commit crimes much less than the poor. The Left can rant all that it wants about the rich man’s son and his fancy lawyer; it does not alter the fact. So, in criminal damages and in the penal justice system, the rich cost less money to the state than the poor. They more than pay their fair share with a flat tax system.
I have not even given any social Darwinian reasons against the redistribution of wealth; I’ll make such untimely meditations in other posts. I do wish to support a form of wealth redistribution that ties together various points so far covered. Social unity is important, while a class structure, as The Laws points out, is inevitable. Hence, it is important to have some sort of social mobility for the cream to rise and for the worthless to fall—as a matter of justice and for Darwinian reasons. It is in the upper crust’s self-interest to send their idiot progeny down to the proletariat and likewise to welcome among them the workers’ children with gold in the veins, in the imagery of The Republic. I think that the most efficient, least intrusive way to insure such social unity and stability is through maintaining a fine local public infrastructure. I enthusiastically support local government-financed institutions like parks, museums, training programs, schools, colleges, recreational facilities, public health facilities, libraries, and the like. If we have a flat tax, most revenue will come from the wealthier citizens, and, as we have seen, the poorer citizens will most benefit from public services. This is redistribution. Yet, each of those institutions and programs are for the city as a whole; the wealthy are just as welcome, albeit unwilling, to utilize them. This should be a precondition for government action—it must be for the common good.
Moreover, I think that, in the United States, local political communities should be in charge of instituting, managing, and financing such public activities. The federal government should have no part in it—except for the aggregate of federal departments and agencies in charge of managing federal lands and natural resources, like the Forest Service and the National Park Service—and the cultural and educational institutions in Washington, D.C., such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. States should take on the responsibilities too large for localities, but it is better for the control and money to be as local as possible. Such local financing and control reduce the chance of social engineering; money from New England cannot be used to turn Appalachian folks in West Virginia into people with urban Californian values.
I think that any other system is bad public policy. However, I know that the socialists have a lock on power and that they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. So, I have come up with an alternative compromise. We could still have a “progressive” tax policy, but a few modifications would undo its socialist aspects. First, we would have to agree upon a base rate of income tax that every wage or income earner would pay. It is unjust that 40% of American adults do not pay taxes. Everyone should have a part. Let us have, for instance, a base rate of 10%. From this 10%, we would still have State and local tax deductions, meaning that you would not be taxed more than 10%, even given State and local income and property taxes (or sales taxes in the States with no income tax). Then, on top of the 10% base rate for everyone, there is a graduated scale going up to the highest percentage level, which is no case should be above 50%. The tax over the base amount up to the full graduated percentage, we’ll call the “progressive” tax. It would be nothing for the poorest group of income earners and up to 39% for the wealthiest.
How, then, are we curbing socialism? Well, this progressive tax can be paid to the IRS in full, or you can get a tax credit for any charitable contribution to a non-profit organization. Note that I am not proposing a tax deduction, as is currently the law, but a 1:1 tax credit. For every dollar given to a charity, you would have to pay one less dollar of your progressive tax. This would resolve or temper several socialist problems.
First, the federal government would have to scale back its operations severely, as it cannot count on many people’s freewill decision to send the IRS money. Most people think—rightly—that they know better how to spend money for the common good than the government. So, the budget would have to be planned with 10% in mind, and all excess funding could help to pay off the principal on the national debt.
Likewise, the plan safeguards American freedom and minimizes bureaucratic corruption. Even though one would have to give his treasure away, he would be free to decide where it went, as long as it went to a non-profit organization. A legitimate concern would be the circumventing of the tax law’s spirit by giving money to self-serving non-profits, but the laws currently on the books for family trusts could be followed as a blueprint for what would count as a legitimate non-profit. Indeed, such regulations could be strengthened with certain non-partisan, ideologically free qualifications—such as the need for the non-profit to have a certain portion or higher of its income devoted to programs rather than administrative costs. Yet, whether such an organization handles poverty, education, religion, art, abused animals, or what not is no business of the government. We are trying to salvage human freedom here!
Lobbyists would not as readily seek to buy politicians, but special interests would compete in the marketplace of public opinion for dollars to come their way, as they should. The flow of money would match the world view of the public; no bureaucratic elite could socially engineer the citizens from on high, at the public’s expense.
Private philanthropy in the United States, already impressive, would explode, and such institutions—smaller in scale, closer to the problems that they are addressing, more dynamic, flexible, and open to change than political bureaucracies—would make the land much better than the welfare state has done. Even though taxation would be involved, the personal aspect of giving would make such taxation closer to charity. It would effect more of a change in the giver, and people would be more supportive of the common good, knowing exactly how they are engaged in making their communities better places. Burke’s “little platoons” that hold up society much better than the agencies of a managerial state would be well outfitted to strengthen society.
With this system, the charitable and common good goals of the Left would be better achieved, along with Leftists’ pathological need to soak the rich and to exact money from them. However, such social benefits would come without the dangers of soft totalitarianism. Indeed, this proposal is what I would like to call the welfare state of a free people—where they people decide for themselves how to look after their communities.
David Frum is a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a writer for the National Review. He, along with some other conservatives in the public square, propose that the Republican party is mirred in its nostalgia for the Reagan era. According to Frum, this fixation on Reaganism renders Republicans unable to reach the contemporary voter and to deal effectively with current American challenges.
In this vein, he attacked Rush Limbaugh’s “blueprint” for Republican renewal this week. I wrote Mr. Frum the following letter in response:
Dear Mr. Frum,
I respect you and your writing, and I thank you for your years of insight, criticism, and commentary. You are innovative in problem-solving, and new perspectives are always necessary to evaluate the best way to achieve a goal. However, you may count me as one of the many conservative readers who are disappointed by your noble company’s drift to accommodate the Left (the company includes, of course, Noonan, Brooks, and yourself). I understand that elections matter and that a political movement with fine principles but no power has little influence in national affairs. Strategically, then, I am not sure which course would be best if the nation has really drifted to the Left.
Yet, I do not believe that such has occurred. You accuse Limbaugh of blindly believing (or dishonestly spoonfeeding his right-wing audience) that the United States remains a political body where classical liberalism and cultural traditionalism hold a great many adherents. For evidence, you point to lost elections—of 2006 and the likely Republican massacre this year. Moreover, you mention Greenberg’s study where Republican respondents differ widely from all respondents.
I think that you (and the “end of Reaganism” crowd) make the mistake of thinking that voters follow political principles at all. In any democracy, and especially in the United States of today, I would not admit more than a quarter of the electorate to have any political principles. Most people vote in a state of ignorance and follow the herd around them. Unfortunately, a Leftist media has a lot of influence in determining herd behavior.
A clear indication of this is Mr. Greenberg’s study. Republicans do not think that the party lost in 2006 because of its being too conservative, while the general voter thinks the opposite. Mr. Frum, do you think that the Bush administration has been a right-wing, conservatively behaving presidency? Bush’s enemies have leveled that charge, and Bush has declined to respond to the attack. Bush’s utter unwillingness to communicate with Americans let the opposition, in their pet words, “frame the debate.” The foolish masses, hearing one message, took it to heart. Bush did not articulate a defense of conservatism (or anything else), and, in significant areas, he has not governed as a conservative.
Bush’s defense of the unborn did not earn him his unpopularity. Bush’s commitment to justices who follow the law did not cause the American public to abandon him. Bush’s tax policy did not lose the 2006 elections.
What if you asked those survey responders how the Republicans were too conservative or not conservative enough? How many could articulate an answer? Most self-identifying Republicans probably could not . . . they just know that “conservative” is a tribal marker and that, if Republicans are not doing well, it must because they were not real Republicans, i.e. not conservative enough. The same holds true for Democrats in the reverse. The unaligned broke for “too conservative” because the Left has dominated the national discussion for the past eight years. It is a meaningless label for most people.
Had Republicans been able to argue conservative points without appearing shamelessly hypocritical, especially on matters of fiscal discipline and limited government, they would have won the day.
Let us consider, however, that the electorate has moved in a socialist, welfare state direction. As I stated above, I have no idea what would be the best path strategically. Yet, what did accommodation get for the establishment Republicans after the New Deal? They were implicated in government’s expansion, and they legitimized soft socialism and the erosion of American liberties. You could respond that Goldwater was soundly defeated, but was he so defeated because for decades, Republicans had accepted and normalized the New Deal? Wouldn’t a better long-term strategy have been the consistent repudiation of destructive social and economic policies that betray our constitutional traditions? When such policies bring upon the hell that they inevitably produce, then the country will be ready to reject them. Wasn’t that what allowed Reagan to win?
I am sorry that some on the right have accused you and the like-minded of betrayal and ulterior motives. I do not doubt the integrity of any of you; in my opinion, Noonan is as close to a good, wise, and honest person as a public figure can be. However, I think that you are wrong here—perhaps from despair at the lost opportunities of the last eight years.
Nonetheless, keep writing, and we’ll keep reading. Conservatives are generally a tolerant and forgiving people.
The times of our tribulation are coming to an end . . . or rather, we are about to set out upon a different grueling path, and, this time, it really matters.
I have been a political junkie since I was a young kid. The first political memory that I have is seeing a picture of Ronald Reagan hanging up in my kindergarten class. In elementary school, I knew most of the cabinet officials and participated in some Right to Life activities. As a freshman in high school, I volunteered for a political campaign (my guy lost—black Republicans have a hard time of American politics). Throughout high school, I was involved in Youth in Government, the Right to Life movement, and other political activities. I just found politics interesting and important. I dreamt of becoming a diplomat and a United States senator. Of course, I was young and a fool.
Early on, I was attracted to liberalism—real liberalism, of course, not the cowardly version of socialism that carries that name in America today. I did not know Burke, Tocqueville, or Mill at the time, but I would have loved them. I did discover Locke and became a disciple of the Anglo-American liberal tradition. For like most children who are more clever than their teachers and school administrators, I learnt early that authority in the hands of the unfit spawns injustice. From elementary school until college, my political concerns centered on the role and limits of acceptable and justifiable government authority and action.
As any young person, I held some shameful positions. In the sixth grade, I remember finishing 1984, reading the short bibliography about the author, and declaring at the dinner table later that day that I was a socialist—for I read that Orwell was a socialist and I wanted to classify myself with a man who worried about totalitarianism. Little did I know at the time that Orwell’s critique was a Trojan horse on the Left, and that he knew the dangers of socialism intimately. The following year, I found out as much when I chose Orwell for my first project in literary criticism. I knew then that I was not a socialist and that I would never major in English—both very useful things to realize at any early age. By the way, I do not fully remember my mother’s reaction to my supper manifesto, but I am sure that it was a mix of amusement and horror. I am just glad that I was not beaten for Marx’s sake.
That same year, I remember feeling revulsion during a Sunday school lesson when the youth pastor said some very disparaging remarks about Russia that included a defense of saying, “Kill a commie for Mommy.” It is all rather ironic these many years later . . . Anyway, I knew that we should love the Communists even as we fought their system. “Hate the sin; love the sinner” was a Protestant maxim that did its job well on my impressionable mind, and so the preacher was out of bounds even according to his own system. Yet, politics frequently makes people ugly . . . Hollywood for ugly people, indeed.
Back to youthful stupidity—I considered membership in both the N.A.A.C.P. and the K.K.K. (more seriously the former than the later, in case someone feels the need to ring the S.P.L.C. . . . and if someone notices the disproportion between the two choices, I never considered hardcore Negro nationalism—what would Jeremiah Wright’s ilk do with me?—but I supported them in spirit . . . you know, clench-fisted and all). Though some folks do not seem to see it, I really am the most open-minded person I know, barring some professors, and I despise taboos. So, I do consider the merits of all arguments, even the unofficialy banned views of any given group or era. With regard to racialist groups, different injustices that I myself witnessed as a kid seemed to give such organizations a claim. When I encountered crude racism and wildly ignorant racial opinions from various circles—black, white, and shades in between, I thought that black and white nationalists may be on to something. Of course, all humans are on to something. We are agents of truth as part of our nature, but too frequently, we are agents of ignorance and idiocy, as well. Young fervor is not always comfortable with remaining in the cloudy gray realm when the heart wishes for decisive action and . . . change.
More seriously—since I actually did do the following instead of entertaining the thought—was my annual Saint Patrick’s Day get up in high school. Yes, high school—much too old to excuse such folly. Having Roman Catholic and Protestant parents and their religious heritage, I was sensitized early on to the religious conflict in Ireland. For some unreason unintelligible to me now, I harbored negative views about the English. Perhaps, the multiculturalists in whose care my education was entrusted sowed seeds of anti-colonial resentment toward the Brits. Maybe, it was those Mel Gibson movies. Or, more likely, I found American Episcopalians to be an embarrassment to all Christendom, and I passed that judgment on to everything English. This is strange, as in other areas of life, I was clearly an Anglophile in development, but men often hold contradictory beliefs. I had to wait until college before I became a full-fledged lover of all things English while remaining a lover of all things Irish. Anyway, you might ask how I supported the Irish cause? Well, I wore clothing and paraphernalia in support of the Irish Republican Army. I would color my skin with pro-I.R.A. slogans and general nonsense. What a moron! Of course, this was before “The War on Terror,” and, obviously, it was before Columbine, as surely I would have been expelled in the hyperventilating paranoid child-intervention-happy America of today. (In full disclosure, I also made hate lists and indecent violent drawings in junior high—it’s called puberty, folks. Sigh . . .) Anyway, I knew enough about the I.R.A. to condemn myself with such support. They were and are vile murderous thugs who march under some purported righteous banner—but most successful thugs have their banners, and that makes them no less evil. Indeed, it makes them far more dangerous. Idealism and violence are often common components in human misery. I had my taste of radicalism there; it was good to get it over with, I suppose.
On libertarian and isolationist grounds—for I did not know yet what paleoconservatism was, I opposed the first Gulf War. However, I did not protest it, as I did not want to be grouped with the Vietnam era peaceniks. I remember the ribbons and “Support Our Troops” stickers everywhere in the school and community. I do not remember anyone who opposed the war among my peers . . . but then again, they were young kids and the culture was not then what it is now.
I first voted when I was seventeen years old as I registered Republican in the primaries. In Ohio, you can vote in the primary if you will be eighteen by the general election. The 1990’s were a fun time to be a Republican; Clinton was in power and the Republicans caused problems for him in Congress. The Republicans then at least paid lip service to smaller government. It was still the era of the Contract with America, not the Compassionate Conservatism that lurked in the wings.
Well, my love-affair with politics ended when I went to college. I entered with the intention of majoring in politics and international affairs only to have my belief in America, democracy, and liberalism smashed to pieces. I embraced Plato and threw away Locke. I saw how Thomas Aquinas made better sense than Madison. I came to see the cultural revolution that led to the destruction of Western civilization as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, not the 1960’s. Previous heroes like Jefferson became for me a source of disgust and shame—even a complex sense of betrayal. I refused to vote, as I did not wish to be implicated in the cesspool of American demagogic democracy. I realized that my own untenable liberalism was related to my unreflective belief in democracy as the only political system possible. For if we are going to governed by the ignorant, emotive masses, then the government must have very little power. At least, then, the wise can get along in their own pursuit of the good without being hassled by the herd.
I do not now think that any of those sentiments or judgments are wrong—except that we do not have the luxury of being apolitical animals. I know that many people disparage Leo Strauss, but on this point, I believe that he helped me temper my unrealistic absolutism. No one in the history of the world has lived in a regime that was wisely governed. Even if the occasional virtuous and wise man leads—if by divine design or chance a philosopher and a king happen to occur in the same person—such a person is yet a mortal living among mortals. There is only so much such a man can do to make his society conform more to the natural law. For passions, petty interests, ignorance, and vice are ever present in human affairs. I knew early on that human problems cannot be solved but only managed, but this insight did not translate for me into the obvious conclusion that we therefore should still invest ourselves with the management. For we are still political animals, even if we are fated to live in a fallen world. It is the mark of the fanatical purist to starve to death rather than to eat with the unclean.
So, as the Republic and the Laws make clear, we live in a world where the best and just social arrangement does not exist and frankly cannot exist given our contradictory nature. Utopian schemes fail to understand that truth about the human condition . . . they gasp and strive after that one more revolution, which we’ll finally get right. If only this or that cog in the system could be change, if only that obstacle, human or otherwise, could be removed, we would be closer to the just society. These folks learn nothing from books, history, or their own eyes—they just see the shining city on the hill, the existence of which would be worth any price, any effort—any sacrifice.
Knowing this, we must make do with what we have. I think of Gandalf’s wonderfully Stoic response to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring:
Frodo: “Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?”
Gandalf: “Such questions cannot be answered . . . You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”
The film version also deals with it well:
Frodo: “I wish none of this had ever happened.”
Gandalf: “So do all who live to face such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
These are very wise words, as we should expect from Tolkien. The absence of perfection does not excuse us of the duties of human life. As political animals, we have a duty to our community and to ourselves to engage ourselves in the life of the city for the common good.
Certainly, this involvement can and should take different forms for each person and each set of circumstances. Some may fulfill it most in teaching, or being an honest tradesmen, or raising good children, or conducting the power of the political regime with an impartial eye that seeks the good of the community.
Moreover, a representative democracy is what we Americans have. As I stated earlier, such a regime as now exists in the United States is a formula for foolish and unjust government. As Andrew says, belief in democracy is the commitment to the proposition that one half of the rulers should have below average intelligence, below average wisdom, below average virtue, below average experience in political affairs, and so on. It is pure madness, but it is what we have now—a republic, if we can keep it. Therefore, we should work to protect ourselves from its harmful tendencies. This is, perhaps, what the wiser of the American founders desired—a republic tempered against its inherent instability and flaws.
Some folks would counsel letting the sinking ship go down into the deep. All attempts to make it more seaworthy are just delaying the day when the vessel takes people down. I see reason in such ideas, but there is something rather inhuman about that calculating—it reminds me of eugenic infanticide. For the inevitable day might truly come, but it seems to me that we should defend the city nonetheless while we have strength. Perhaps, this is simply a matter of political sentiment rather than reason, but allowing one’s community to disintegrate, even with good long-term intentions, feels ignoble and wrong. You may put obstacles and difficulties in your children’s life because you love them and know that such challenges will make them stronger. No good mother, however, poisons her child so that another more promising child can come to take his place. Moreover, every sinking ship results in deaths and destruction; should we willingly stand by? Even terrible human regimes are often replaced by worse ones, which is a good argument against revolution. Radical social upheaval rarely—possibly never—does the body politic good. I’ll likely revisit this strategic-political topic in the future, but enough of it now.
September 11, A.D. 2001 likely had an effect on my anti-Americanism, as well. For I had a love-hate relationship with my society as I have a love-hate relationship with many things. Yet, when it actually occurred to me that the United States could be vulnerable (obvious enough, but the human mind is a silly power sometimes), my sentiments shifted considerably. Maybe I was just getting older and hopefully wiser. At any rate, I came to be more open to and honest about the great things of America. When you are in love with perfection, it is a an easy step to loathe the imperfect as such and not simply its imperfection. Annoying traits in your family might bother you more than the same behavior that you see in others. Hume appears correct here—our desire to think well of ourselves leads us to wish everything connected to us to be fine, as well, for our own sake. Vanity publically celebrates others while privately congratulating the self. Anyway, in my adult years, I have come to see the beauty as well as the ugliness in American life. As all things human, political society is complex, being both a cause for celebration and for mourning—a mark of pride and a stain in need of repentance.
So, having been convicted of civic irresponsibility, I registered to vote again as an independent. George Bush could count me as one his new supporters in A.D. 2004, as I did not vote in A.D. 2000.
So, what should you do when you realize that a good deal of our regime’s political foundations are false, and yet you do not believe in overthrowing the regime? I have no good answer. My own tendency in these matters is to formulate for myself what a good regime would do and how it would be given such and such circumstances. Then, I ask how we can approximate that ideal given our own regime without undermining our regime. In general, these considerations take me back to a moderated liberalism. For it is unquestionable that the American regime, at least at the federal level, was founded upon liberal principles. We risk undermining the state when we ignore that fact. Rousseau’s engaged republican political organism is superior in many ways to—and closer to a healthy city than—the liberal regime, which is often more a marketplace than a city. Yet, it is also more dangerous and frightening, given the false political components in the Rousseauan diet. Similarly, capitalism is based on some noxious beliefs about value, and the petty avaricious bourgeois man that it begets is stifling to great human souls. The Marxists and revolutionaries rightly point out the shortcomings of liberal capitalism. Yet, what they offer in its place is far worse. Semi-alienated but well fed and secure human cows with the occasional wolf typically make a better society together than the continuous feasting of asps upon the fellow citizens whom they have made their worms—where such feasting moreover is done self-righteously in the name of the glorious worms.
As such, I think that, as Americans, we should work to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, which is by nature a recalcitrant and barely manageable bureaucracy led by shortsighted and self-interested fools. Local government should take on more powers and responsibilities, and citizens should strive to be engaged in the affairs of their local community where they are more knowledgeable of and invested in what happens. I think that we should try to inculcate a respect for the law and for obeying the law, but then the laws should be just and much fewer in number. I think that we should accept that human evil and turmoil are normal aspects of reality—in a fallen world, for Christians—and we should not blind ourselves to common sense, human nature, and ideologically untainted social scientific data in waging battles that cannot be won. I think that actions done by the government should be on behalf of all the people, interpreted narrowly and in as direct a manner as possible. This is a tricky qualification, as some would justify any sort of special interest stroking as helping the whole society. I think that we ought to defer to the market in most matters, as the masses make better and more informed decisions than designated experts who, though they claim to act for the good of the whole, often impose their own flawed values and agenda upon the society. With all these matters, prudence and upright judgment are necessary in the rulers—which has always been the difficulty. How can we expect the many to choose or even to follow the best leaders when the many are not the best themselves? No governing system avoids this problem, but some meritocratic and aristocratic measures increase the possibility of fine leaders. How to implement these in our very demagogic and egalitarian United States is beyond me. The original constitution was far saner with regard to the dangers of the mob. We have emasculated, in large part, our defense against tyrannical democracy. What keeps us safe, to the extent that they remain strong, are the habits of the American heart that still value justice, liberty, the rule of law, and order. I fear, however, that each passing decade degrades these political instincts.
Perhaps, as the nativists fear, the hordes of immigrants from despotic lands bring their habituation to tyranny with them. The progressive era and the New Deal came soon after the Americanization of the large-scale southern and eastern European immigration. Have the millions of immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia brought along their homelands’ political values, too? In our neutered multicultural society, we should embrace all, even to our own ruin. Yet, I wonder if the Anglo-American experiment has been jeopardized by so many non-Anglos. However, the industrialization that brought those millions and the consequent rise of urban demographics likely had more to do with the rise of statism than the origin of the immigrants. Furthermore, the obvious retort to this theory is a cursory examination of Britain since the Second World War. Long before the dark folk from the colonies came to make their beds in Birmingham, London was already on its way to illiberal statism. Lily white and WASPy Vermont is our own American example. Furthermore, you could sensibly argue that most immigrants self-select in such a way that the United States gets the people most attracted to our values and way of life. If you interview any random naturalized American from the Third World, you may find someone better versed in Locke than your own congressman.
It might also be that women’s suffrage naturally leads to socialism, as women are less capable of distinguishing public and private morality or personal and governmental responsibilities. Yet, what are we to make of the Western American experience, where frontier women were among the first to get the vote? The (non-coastal) West remains the most liberal region of the United States. These daughters of the frontier are not crying for the nanny state.
I just do not know, but I am concerned about the direction of the U.S.A. We seem less American each day—not simply because “white America” is no longer hegemonic in the way that it once was, not only because we are becoming a predominantly urban society, as mentioned in the entry from last week, but because the basic political values of America are changing. When the Leftists spew out their feigned pious outrage at being called un-American, they are either dishonest or idiotic. For they wish to undermine the United States’ foundational liberal values—the bourgeois shopkeeper customs and beliefs that they so readily and continuously despise. They have exhibited their hatred for seventy years now—the Bloomingdale Bolsheviks who want an intrusive, politically intolerant, managerial state that silences “reactionary,” i.e. counter-revolutionary dissent with all the cultural and political weapons in their considerable arsenal. Of course, they are anti-American, if American is to have any meaning beyond the desired definition of each person who speaks the word. For these post-modern types, there is no definition beyond that which power gives it, and so they make it as they wish. They do violence to semantics and to history.
As noted above, my political views are also anti-American, and I am honest about it, but I think that we run risks too great if we undermine the foundations of the republic. Moreover, I think that the Leftists’ political philosophy has a more distorted understanding of human nature and political principles than the American founders. Give me Smith, Locke, and Montesquieu any day over Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Trotsky, and pals. For me, almost all Americans are wrong when it comes to politics, but some Americans are more wrong than others. The Left is demonically wrong. They sometimes hate truly detestable things, but they are ever ready to poison the sick man to death because his fever troubles them. I’ll write many posts later in diagnosis of the political Left and why it is so horribly confused in its world view.
Now, it is useful to distinguish partisan politics from political world views. I honestly do not care what letter follows a politician’s name, as long as the person has the proper character, abilities, and opinions. I have voted for Republicans and Democrats, but unfortunately, the Democratic party has abandoned wisdom more substantially than the Republicans in the last several decades. Folks can rail against Bush and the significant missteps of his administration. Many thoughtful commentators are troubled by the rise of populism in the Republican party. Liberals are quite justifiably alarmed at the Republican negligence of limited and unobtrusive government. I do not defend any of these movements; they grieve me greatly insofar as I allow politics to bother me at all. With so many elections, I ask, “Why can’t they both lose?” I think that way about McCain and Obama. Both have disqualified themselves as presidential material many times over.
Yet, it is clear what Obama’s acting political principles are, and I see little merit in Christopher Buckley’s reason to hope that they are not also his true political principles. He is a statist socialist multiculturalist relativist panderer to all the worst elements of the Left, though packaged finely and marketed cleverly to hoodwink the yokels that he really is whatever they project upon him in their personality cult worship. I find the adoration of him perplexing, but, contemptuous of the mob, I have never been a sucker for demagoguery or empty rhetoric. I really do think that racism is playing a large part; blacks are largely resorting to what they perceive as and have been told is tribal loyalty, while whites who have made white guilt a religious observance are putting forth their sacrificial votes upon the transcendent altar of Obama—the high priest of racial reconciliation. They are fools and useful idiots, of course, and I am shocked at how widespread the phenomenon is. John Derbyshire wrote the most insightful analysis of race in this election that I have seen. I highly recommend “Obama’s Black Edge,” the bluntness of which shocked even me, and I have no use or patience with “political correctness” (sic). Yet, I think that he is spot on, especially in the “inter-tribal” resentment of whites against other whites. Like Hitchens, Derbyshire is an atheist with a strong stomach for unpalatable truths about the human condition. It is too bad that they have no obvious orientation toward the divine. Well, Derbyshire is in love with mathematics; so, maybe that counts for something.
Derbyshire and the “racist” few excepted, one sees constant backpats throughout the media about how far America has come, how proud Americans should be, what a glorious day, God almighty, that the dream has come to pass. Perhaps I missing something, but the dream has not come to pass. Obama is about to become the president of the United States of America in large part because of his race. When we have due to’s or despites, the dream has not yet come to fruition. I see no reason to celebrate the advent of destructive Marxism in blackface just because of the make-up. Lipstick on a pig, scientific materialism in ebonics, phat five year plans, whatever . . . I shall think well of the American populace in their electoral decision when they put the wise in power. I’ll save the kudos during this ridiculous parody of ethnic koombayaism.
I voted absentee about three weeks ago as I won’t be in the homeland for the election. I did not so much vote for McCain as vote against Obama. McCain will likely be worse than Bush in some ways but maybe better in others. At times, I think that McCain has better communication skills than Bush—which I consider the greatest failing of his presidency. One cannot lead without public opinion, and Bush has not done the revolting but necessary job of playing the demagogue. The madness of the last eight years is largely due to his unwillingness to lead, and he has damaged American politics as a result. It is incredible that the “unhinged” Left thinks that Bush is a right-wing extremist. He has been a centrist (in today’s political landscape) from the beginning, and he has infuriated conservatives over and over again in his accommodations of the Democrats. That they cannot or will not see this and that their amazingly distorted rendition of the last seven years holds up in public discourse are proof that Bush has failed over and over again to lead. Clinton was a scoundrel, but he was quite adept in bullying the opposition and, in the Left’s nauseating post-modern language, commanding the narrative. Bush has done neither. It is not that he was incapable of it; during the 2004 election, he actually campaigned and made his case to the American people. As such, he won a historically odd election, gaining seats in both houses during an incumbent run. Yet, most of the time, he ceded ground to vile and unprinciples opponents, and what did it gain him? He is perhaps more despised than any recent American president.
McCain also suffers from a love of the opposition; he is a center-left Republican who always tried to shore up his bipartisan street creds with the Leftists in both parties and in the cultural establishment, especially the media. With a Democratic Congress, he is sure to disappoint conservatives. He is much worse than Bush, however, in his disdain for conservatives. In the honor politics of John McCain, he is quick to suspect ulterior motives when his political allies disagree with him. His constant need to disparage the right won him the media’s love, but we see how long that lasted when the election campaign began. Like Bush, he is often unwilling to play brutal politics. This demoralizes the supporting crowd and invites accusations of poor sportsmanship (and hypocrisy) from the opposition when he does land a punch. Unlike Bush, he does not project the right cool and confident demeanor that people want to see in a leader. Americans want the man who can start nuclear war to have a calm temperament. Now, I do not doubt—much, anyway—that McCain has the requisite demeanor to be president. He has a lifetime of leadership experience, and his story is, as the media types like to say, compelling. Yet, he has given the Obama campaign unforced errors in his hurried responses to events during the last months. Granted, Obama offered nothing during those moments, and the media did not portray him as indecisive or wishy-washy or clueless as they would have done to McCain. So, perhaps, there is nothing that McCain could have done to handle himself fittingly in their eyes.
I think that both McCain and Obama will prove ineffective leaders; neither one has the wisdom, guts, or strength to move the United States in the necessary direction, but their impotency will also largely be due to Americans’ unwillingness to accept harsh realities. We do not want to hear that we are the problem—that our lifestyle of entitlement, our conviction that God, the government, and everyone else owe us a free ride, our laziness, our unwillingness to defer or to suppress our appetites and immediate gratification are destructive of our prosperity, our security, and. most importantly, our virtue. McCain and Obama in their best moments have whispered such statements, most commendably Obama when he spoke about the need for black America to accept some responsibility for its ills. Yet, we are a society that prizes comfort as the supreme good, and such political bodies do not survive long in the state of nature.
Thus, due to my strong opposition to Obama’s distorted Leftist world view, I voted against him. However, I think that woe must befall us regardless of who wins. In the National Journal’s, “What’s a Perverse Voter to Do?,” Jonathan Rauch states that, overall, an Obama victory would be good for the GOP and that a McCain win would be good for the Democrats. There is some wisdom in this; the political feel of the country is more conducive to the Left now after eight years of the Bush administration. Yet, that administration was largely ineffective in selling its message, and the apparent state of the country is much worse now than it was in 2000. One could argue that Bush was dealt a bad hand or that the appearance of the happy recess from history in 1990’s is wrong, but results and appearance are what matter in democratic politics. If McCain should win, he will do less damage to the society while he is in power than Obama would, but he will not be effective in stemming the Leftward drift. Another Republican administration in what promises to be an unpleasant time in our history will help the Democrats and thereby energize the Left. For Americans foolishly blame everything on the president. Yet, I could not be the strategic voter that Rauch counsels for the same reason that I cannot sit idly while the ship of the republic sinks. For it is unseemly to let some Greeks in through the backdoor just to wake up the slumbering Trojans so that they will be more on their guard in the future. Besides, I doubt that the Democrats could successfully run someone else as radical as Obama. He is a special bird—for ill, I am afraid.
This post has gone on long enough; I’ll stop my bloviating. I started this post as a personal story of my political coming to be, and I’ll end it with another personal story. On election day in A.D. 1992, I remember walking to the local parish and kneeling in prayer to ask God to save our country from Bill Clinton. I have never resolved for myself what prayer means or how it “works.” Petitions, at least, come from our hearts—not from calculation but from a necessary act of desperation as we are ever in the midst of flames. I do not understand providence, and I confess that I feel a shudder of annoyance and a bit of sinful contempt whenever I hear the pious say “God’s plan.” My mind reels through countless of examples that, for me, at least, would quiet allusions to God’s plan. Yet, in the end, what do we have? Hope? It is such a vacuous word in a secular context.
Could I ask why Thompson didn’t try harder during the primary campaign?
I would rather have had Thompson in the race, but who knows how he would have fared.
One criticism leveled at democratic societies is that their people have neither memory nor foresight; ignoring Burke’s admonitions, they are populated with men who care not for those before or after. I am not completely convinced that a democratic regime necessarily silences its ancestors and neglects the care of its progeny, but from classical Athens to the present, these characteristics tend to appear alongside democracy.
What, then, are we to make of the American fascination with genealogy? Perhaps one could say that merely a small eccentric group of antiquarian souls immerse themselves in dusty records due to their own psychological disposition. Perchance enthusiasm for family trees might be due to the deracinated condition of a colonial people who thereby obsess over their roots, having been sown so far from their indigenous soil. Colonial populations tend to be more conservative linguistically; maybe an inter-generational interest grows from displacement, as well. It could also just be the Mormons in our midst.
I wonder if some academic has studied the level of Americans’ genealogical interest and research over the last two centuries. For I have another explanation, and such research could support or refute it.
I suspect that the level of genealogical interest and activity rises as Americans perceive the weakening of American nationality. I do not use “nationality” in the strictly political way to refer to the residents of a state but rather in the more tribal understanding of nation. From the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century, it seems that there was an effort by many Americans to forge a new American nation from the diverse populations in the country. From anti-immigration nativist movements to the assimilation projects of the late nineteenth century, it appears that many Americans considered American nationhood a desired goal—such that one could be American, eventually, in the same sense that another is Irish or Mongolian. I remember reading that Jefferson thought that the American Indian and European peoples would blend into a cohesive nation, but he had misgivings about the ability of blacks to be incorporated so.
From the Latin American examples, we see mixed results in nation forming. After five centuries of miscegenation, one still sees a racially stratified society south of the Rio Grande, with the folks of more European ancestry generally higher on the social ladder. When there is a chance at capitalist enterprise, an ambitious fellow of pre-Columbian stock may amass wealth, move up the social hierarchy, and marry a girl from a respectable Spanish colonial dynasty. This has created a hierarchical system with some possible class mobility, but social unrest, liberation theology, and Marxism have found a permanent home in Latin America’s browner strata. Social cohesion only occurs when most accept their lot, and the revolutionary Left is quite determined to force the plantation landowning plutocrats to “spread the wealth around.” Unfortunately but unavoidably, that wealth usually makes its way into the coffers of a new political elite rather than in the manos of coffee and banana pickers. ¡Qué lástima!
Anyway, according to my proposed theory, whenever there are great demographic pressures on the project of forming an American nation—as when there is a significant influx of foreigners—confidence in the possibility of an American nation wanes and folks resort to their ancestral tribal affiliations or to an earlier American presence of one’s ancestors. When the Irish and Germans came in large numbers, there was an anti-immigrant outcry. I wonder, too, if there was a surge in genealogical interest. Did Plymouth and Jamestown receive renewed attention at that time? Certainly, when the waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came during the industrial era, there was such a movement. In my own travels around the United States, I have noticed a large number of memorials that date from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The Daughters of the American Revolution seem to have been in their heyday then. Rockefeller’s investment in Williamsburg, Virginia is another example from that era of American interest in the past. Could it be that the hordes of immigrants from very different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds caused an existential panic among Americans, thereby causing them to get in touch with their roots?
It is difficult to say, as industrialization itself, without any immigration concerns, would have been enough to spur an interest in the pre-industrial. The Romantic movement does not seem to have any immigration-induced causes; the nineteenth century appears as a fading ode to the disappearing ancient regime. For radical social change is enough to make people look back to the past. Disruptive demographic transformation is just another momentous change that would trigger mass nostalgia.
From the restrictions put in place in the 1920’s until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States began to homogenize its white population. Social cohesion, even during a frightful economic and wartime era, appeared at an all time high among the majority population. According to my theory, then, we would expect a decline in genealogical interest and activity during this period, though we would obviously have to account for other factors such as wealth (and leisure) fluctuations as well as the war period. Given the wars and the Red scare, it would not be surprising to see people fixate on the immediate present as survival, in people’s perception, at least, was at stake.
After Ted Kennedy’s 1965 immigration act, the population of the United States drastically changed. In A.D. 1960, 84.7% of the American population was white. Now in A.D. 2008, 66% of the population is white. The percentage of whites is expected to fall as current immigration and population policies continue. There seems to be no hope left for American nationhood; we have become a multiethnic, multicultural society where the possibility of nationhood is not only seen as impossible but even offensive to many Americans. That there could be a “standard” American clashes with the ideal of relativistic multiculturalism and with the facts of an ever more diverse population. Recent nativists cries, as you can see on VDARE, warn that the United States is headed toward Balkanization. I fear that they may be correct, but I’ll save those thoughts for other posts.
Anyway, I wonder if the current surge in genealogical interest is due to this “Balkanization.” It could simply be that when differences in ancestry are more apparent, as would happen with Laotians and Swedes living next to each other, people think about origins more. This increase of ethnic awareness could result in more folks’ looking up their ancestors. The ease of researching family history has obviously influenced genealogical interest, as well. With Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com, you do not even have to leave your house to access information that would have been inaccessible two decades ago without months of global travel and significant archival research. Just about anyone can be Alex Haley now. Speaking of whom, the multicultural drift of American education has increased interest among minority groups to reconnect with their ancestral traditions, and it is possible that such activity has interested white Americans in their heritage, as well. In the flyover America that the Michelle Obamas of the world despise, only so many “X History Months” can occur until some folks start to ask, “Why not us?” If the prospect of an American nation has ended, ethnic hyphenation among whites will surely increase. The leafy base of the American salad bowl wishes to reclaim its romaine, iceberg, arugula, radicchio, and butterhead distinctions.
For one cannot be proud to be lettuce simply—that would incur charges of racism. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial, “The ‘Real’ America, Really,” in which the writer accuses the McCain campaign of portraying the United States as an America of small towns and old fashioned values . . . in other words, a white America. The writer correctly notes that this is a dying America . . . and the campaign is channeling a nostalgia for a past that is slipping away with each passing year. The writer condemns McCain’s plea to “real America” as “divisive rhetoric,” presumably because she does not value the diminishing old way and thinks that the American cultural values of the past have no place in today’s progessive cosmopolitan society. She is, however, compassionately concerned about the anxieties felt by the displaced white people, but she reiterates the multicultural mantra that our diversity is our strength.
I have yet to see any evidence that such is true. Consider Leftist Robert Putnam’s recent work: here are the Boston Globe article, “The Downside of Diversity,” on Putnam’s study, along with John Leo’s “Bowling with Our Own” in the City Journal. Similarly, John Derbyshire frequently points out (for example, here, here, and here) that diversity often destroys the political community, which you can see in the nation carving of the modern democratic age, as I wrote earlier this week. A loss of unity in the political body is its worst condition; it sets the stage for what the Greeks called stasis, or civil war. The diversity of contemporary Palestine, Yugoslavia, and Parisian banlieux tell a very different story . . . What common sense, personal experience, and even a cursory look at human history tell us mean nothing, I suppose, when they blaspheme one of sacred doctrines of current American ideology. As with Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s Bell Curve, some questions are not pious to ask; for the fruit plucked may lead to knowledge unbearable for men who prefer to dwell in the cave of their tribe’s taboos.
Occasionally, the Drudge Report links to the most absurd stories—part of Matt Drudge’s knack for bringing in the masses through sensational tabloid headlines. Yet, the stories are real, and as such they reflect the utter idiocy of our society. When life becomes too easy in a civilization, I suppose that natural selection ceases to function properly.
Today’s link of lunacy is to a (mercifully) short editorial by a reporter for the Kansas City Star titled, “Shame on McCain and Palin for using an old code word for black.” The word in question is not even “community organizer” but rather “socialist.”
When I first read the article, I thought perhaps that it was a twisted joke. Then, I looked up the reporter, and he has been at the paper for over thirty years with a column there for more than twenty years. The sheer illogic of his argument is amusing but nonetheless surprising, even given the tolerated inaccuracy and asininity of the American press.
The writer argues that many American black leaders in the past were called socialists by their political enemies who attempted to rally the nation’s misgivings about Communism in order to keep the black man down. Therefore, socialist is now code speech aimed at black leaders to rouse up Americans’ recidivist racial animosity. McCain and Palin incur the wicked white stain of racism by labeling Obama’s proposed policies socialist.
I expect such perversions of argumentation with stand-up comedians, but “journalists” should know better. Perhaps the quotation marks of skepticism around an occupation are code for black, too.
That socialism has content on its own without a racial context does not seem to occur to the writer, and neither does the thought that opposition to socialism may be rooted in political principles rather than tribal impulses. The reporter, moreover, does not consider whether the charges of socialism against his beloved civil rights leaders are accurate. None of this matters to one if all that matters is the tribe
Patrick Buchanan’s piece this week, “Tribal Politics,” discusses Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama for president. In it, Buchanan quotes a Republican political strategist who worked on Bill Richardson’s presidential campaign. The fellow, who is Hispanic, explained his activity thus: “Blood runs thicker than politics.”
I suspect this tribal force to underlie much of the nonsense shouted from many corners—where opposition to Obama is taken to imply racism. Certainly, some of the noise is merely unprincipled campaign strategy. In American politics, all appears fair (at least to the Left, for which no price is too costly to usher in tomorrow’s utopia), and so if one can milk white guilt for more votes, then, by all means, make those folks at Starbucks celebrate their high-minded post-racial courage by voting for Barack Obama. However, the phenomenon goes beyond the party machine and seems to be readily believed by many if not most black Americans. I cannot explain away all of that conviction by noting that many black Americans have been useful idiots of Leftist demagogues for the last few generations and that they simply parrot the political opinions of the trickle down Marxism that has infected the black intelligentsia. Sure, what is decided at the D.N.C. will reach black pulpits and radio stations within weeks, but something larger than political manipulation is at work. I think that Buchanan is aware of it. Politics is naturally tribal—but the dominant white American culture has been indoctrinated otherwise. Indeed, it is part of American political principle that politics should transcend the tribe.
Since the founding of the republic, American civic mythology and religion have attempted to temper the natural human impulse toward tribalism. The old model of assimilation into “the American way” presupposed that such tribalism posed a risk for the unity of a representative democracy. The old model is surely right, and the founders themselves were quite concerned about the dangers of factionalism. The Federalist Papers address the basic political difficulty of competing group interests and propose various structural measures to manage (but never resolve) the problem. A bit later, Tocqueville remarked how Americans’ culture and value system helped to unify the diverse forces in the United States, and thinkers such as the perceptive Frenchman are correct to note how the regime written in the souls of the people steers the commonwealth more than any written constitution. How brilliant Plato was to see these truths about the human condition so long before . . .
Converging interests unite people (and divide them from others) in many ways, from class to trade to geographical origin to political philosophy to ethnicity to language to religion and so on. American society has dealt, and often stumbled, with these divisions with varying strategies. One, mentioned above, was to hold the old W.A.S.P. hegemonic order as the American standard to which all had to conform. Marxists (and their racial theorist progeny) claim that such social imposition is a form of control, and those controlled suffer from false consciousness when they assimilate. What does not occur to the Marxist is that such a unifying element might be a necessary control to maintain the viability of a diverse republic. The Roman empire maintained its integrity because the upper class from all over the empire shared adopted Roman culture and pedagogy. The caliphs buttressed their power with politico-religious support. The British spread their ways among the conquered peoples in their empire and anglicized the indigenous aristocracy. For a commonwealth to survive, it must have unity. In a monarchy or an oligarchy, the unifying element does not have to be widely spread. By contrast, in a democracy, the masses must be able to subordinate their particular allegiances to the republic as a whole. Democracy requires that tribal loyalty be directed toward all.
Such a feat is not easy, and you can look at the history of the contemporary world as Exhibit A. As democratic government spread, nationalism likewise spread. When the old aristocratic and imperial regimes were overthrown, separatist movements flourished and each tribe demanded its own self determination. The human being naturally craves the comfort of his tribe—or what he takes to be his tribe.
Hence, we see the trouble for the United States and the rest of the Western world where the majority population has recited as a mantra for generations that tribalism is quite unjust and dangerous (while diversity is good and to be encouraged). From Berlin to Birmingham, the typical Westerner has embraced the Kantian outlook where every man has an equal claim on every other man merely be being another rational being: Christian charity, German Enlightenment style. Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Europeans have been taught, with incessant cultural reinforcement, that their tribe is all mankind. Any allegiance to subsets, especially on the basis of ethnicity, is strictly taboo. The seeds of this view are, of course, in Christianity and Greek philosophy, but the real growth occurred in the Enlightenment. Yet, committed intellectuals could not move their fellow citizens away from tribal chauvinism until the world wars. The horrible consequences of nationalism were sketched into the consciousness of a civilization, and we have seen a reaction in revulsion against tribalism ever since.
Well, not quite . . . the swing has not been against tribalism but against my tribalism, if one is a Westerner. I think that a multitude of forces have contributed to the multicultural neurosis that is currently hemorrhaging Western societies in their own self-contempt, from Gramsci Marxism to Nietzsche’s critique of the Last Man. I plan to write of this topic again, but let it suffice for now to note that the neutering of the tribal impulse has not been applied to minority populations in the West for the last half century. Rather, tribal loyalties, tribal unity, tribal knowledge, and tribal obsession have been stoked repeatedly by the Left—the universalist, absolutist, damn all differences and particularity Left! Perhaps this has merely been Gramscian strategy, as John Fonte argues in “Why There Is a Culture War” in the Policy Review, where the Left utilizes base human tendencies to advance history’s progressive march toward the socialist omega point. Regardless of why the Left selectively advances tribalism that undermines liberal capitalist democracy, it is clear that such a situation has been unilateral disarmament by the majority population.
Indeed, even the slightest suggestion that this might be so incurs the wrath of the racial grievance hordes, who have convinced all the polite and gentile folks in white America that honest and independent thinking (by them, the oppressors) on race is taboo, while a forced diet of racialist indoctrination (by the “victims,” naturally) is an instrument of redemption (of whites from their ancestral colonialist, enslaving history). No Soviet weapons treaty was more effective.
Furthermore, potential black intellectuals are spoon-fed racial Manichaeism throughout their education and cultural formation, and as such, they do not provide a counterweight to the natural tribal impulse of the peasant masses but rather they have been conditioned to stoke such passions—to use such anger to “force the world to change.” Whereas true education and enlightenment ideally cultivate souls with a wider vision of reality—of its depth and complexity—and with a greater understanding of all the divergent forces at work in the world of human affairs, the activist-training of today’s so-called universities only serve as propaganda boot camps that churn out the foot soldiers of the forthcoming revolution.
So, humans naturally have tendencies toward tribal politics, and diverse democratic societies must employ their full cultural arsenal to deaden such clannish loyalties. However, the American cultural system for the last fifty years has encouraged blacks in particular to strengthen those tribal loyalties. Here, I propose, is the solution to the widespread perception among blacks that antipathy toward Obama has a racial impulse. For all their tribal centrality, men naturally project their self-understanding onto other men. Certainly, tribal animosity might lessen that identification, but nonetheless this understanding of the other through oneself serves as a basis for human relations. So, someone who puts his racial awareness and tribal adherence before everything else likely thinks that every other man does the same. The perception of McCain support as racist in origin is a reflection of Obama supporters’ awareness of their own racial allegiances.
Update: Jonah Goldberg’s “Racy Content” has fun with the Kansas City Star article.
For all my thinking years. the problem of evil has captivated my attention more than any other knotty issue. I have explored it somewhat more metaphysically in other posts, but on a simpler level, I wonder what really leads people to false opinions and immoral behavior. Does one of these unpleasant sets cause the other, and, if so, which leads to which?
When I was an undergraduate, a fine young Jesuit scholar told me once his rather controversial opinion on the matter. He believed that most people persist in error to justify their immorality. I did not accept his argument as I did not wish to diminish intellectual controversies to the level of psychoanalysis, but I have considered it many times in the years since. There may be truth to it. Obviously, human matters are complex, and the soul’s calculus in decision making undoubtedly has many non-rational and non-moral influences. Depending on one’s character, barely conscious or subconscious self-rationalization might skew one’s allegiance among the claims of competing beliefs. It is not flattering to think that some form of selfish cost and benefit analysis might be at work with matters of theology, morality, and metaphysics, but it might be accurate.
Another professor of mine is fond of characterizing human beings as agents of truth. It may be just as honest to say that we are self-justifying manipulators of ideas.
In my studies, I have come to the conclusion that false intellectual modesty has been disastrous for Western civilization. For when a society no longer believes that it is possible to arrive at truth—or that there is no truth—men are reduced to the level of irrational animals. Without the ability or the will to consult reason, force alone decides. Ignorant power rules through violence in the absence of science. In this unhappy state, we witness the transformation of human society into a savanna of beasts, where, as Thucydides states, the strong do as they may, and the weak suffer as they must.
Allow me to do a bit of violence myself in insufficiently surveying where such intellectual “humility” has surfaced in the West. This is a mere post, not a research paper; so, cut me some slack.
It seems to me that the possibility of denying truth or men’s ability to attain it waited until the advent of philosophical thinking in ancient Greece—it appeared alongside its opposing complement of affirming the existence of truth and the intelligibility of the world. Before this critical reflexion began, it seems like the Greeks were as any other pre-philosophical people. They experienced and reflected upon the world mythically. Having benefited from (or having been cursed by, depending on your point of view) critical analysis, we would call such a state primitive, naive, and superstitious. From the Homeric Greeks to the ancient Slavs, Celts, and Germanic peoples to the cultic civilizations of the East even unto the modern barbarians of the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific islands of the last centuries, we see a similar mythical world view. I think that this is the natural state of man—a pagan who understands the world symbolically in, by, and as expression of divine and human action.
I do not mean that pre-philosophical peoples have no understanding of what philosophy entails, such as the good, virtue, values in general, the beautiful, existence, knowledge, spiritual concerns, and the like. What I mean is best shown in an analogy with language. All human beings have language (insofar as they are raised and they live in a human community). All languages have a grammar. Hence, all mature, social human beings utilize grammar and have a working knowledge of it. Yet, as far as I know, no human group reflected systematically upon grammar until the Greeks. Every person has a working knowledge of a subject and a verb, but only human beings who have followed in the ancient Greeks’ steps of systematic and analytical thinking can explain the parts of language. An argument can be made for the appearance something akin to Greek philosophy in ancient Hinduism, but Indian philosophy and its progeny never broke free from its mythos. The Greek discovery—the birth of philosophy—occurs in stepping back from something intimately known and employed in life and in examining it rationally. Inspections, distinctions, conditionals, and other abstractions constitute this new form of analysis. The anti-rationalist may argue that this is the original sin of Western man, and from the Greeks, the infection has spread throughout the entire world in modernity. For such a philosophical enemy of philosophy may suspect that we are not up to the task of disfiguring and disassembling ourselves; that we have compromised natural wisdom and wholeness in the search for reality’s hidden secrets. We have heard many such prophets over the millennia, and they can easily point to the troubles that philosophy has brought into the world. For them, it is the forbidden fruit that does not even deliver knowledge but rather weakens us into a worse state of ignorance than before. It should be no surprise that the anti-rationalist frequently makes his jeremiad from the temple.
We see the development of philosophy in certain Greek cities leading up to the classical era. Early natural philosophers like Thales and Anaximenes attempted to find an underlying material element to everything. Anaximander proposed an early mechanistic theory to explain nature. Later pre-Socratic natural philosophers like Leucippus, Democritus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras developed atomism and more refined mechanistic theories. Heraclitus developed logic and taught that logos is the formative principle of the world, while the Pythagoreans and Eleatics advanced mathematics and sought the underlying reality of the world beyond materialist metaphysics—with them, the quest for being as such entered human awareness.
Other early Greek philosophers began to explore the distinction between nature and convention. What is true must be what is according to nature, and yet different cities hold different and contradictory beliefs and customs, where all cannot be correct. Xenophanes, for instance, is famous for attacking men’s anthropomorphizing of the gods:
But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.
The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.
Later on, the rise of the sophists throughout Greece pushed this relentless exposing of convention to the point of relativism. As Protagoras reportedly stated, “Man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.”
The sophists made philosophy the enemy of the city in the eyes of concerned citizens. They undermined the city’s religion, value system, and way of life. They educated the sons of the wealthy and instilled values in them quite opposed to the education in honor and civic valor that the tradition prescribed. Politicians and poets attacked philosophy as a Trojan horse that, if accepted, would ruin the city. Aristophanes—comedian, conservative, and defender of the city—frequently mocks the so-called wise in his plays. I myself am not aware of how the city’s religious cults reacted to philosophers in general and to sophists in particular, but I assume that they were not welcoming to this new class of wise men.
The dangerous questions initiated by the philosophical critique of tradition and the suspicion that what was held to be true by the ancestors may not really be true according to nature reveals the fragile relationship between philosophy and the city, as Plato, Aristotle, and their intellectual prodigy note. Leo Strauss wrote his entire life about this relationship, and the dispute reverberates across history. Yet, this type of questioning also raises our particular set of problems to the level of human awareness. Is there something to know, and are men able to know it? If one man can know something, is it possible for him to share that knowledge—is knowledge communicable? Or, is knowledge simply the mental state of one man with his experiences and judgments, without any reference to something beyond that mental state? Most early philosophers strove for knowledge that transcends custom, but the sophists largely dismissed that possibility. Certainly, some sophists attacked the possibility of knowledge according to nature due to its difficulty and perplexities. Human beings are often mistaken; why should we think that we are right when so many others who were wrong thought the same? Other sophists preached relativism for immoral reasons. If you are a wealthy young man with ambitions, why should you allow piety and social customs to hold you back; for these are mere human constructs? The sophists were there to counsel you to look beyond good and evil—for a fee, of course.
Every educated person in the West today should have to study the classics thoroughly. Such study is invaluable, as the Greeks and the Romans appear to have encountered all of our modern philosophical, social, religious, and political problems, debates, and solutions. We ignore them at our peril.
Well, the Socratic moment occurred as sophists were traipsing across Greece. Socrates was a type of sophist himself, but he never charged his interlocutors or disciples money for spending time with him. Like the sophists, he went around to people and undermined their confidence in the own opinions. Like the sophists, he spread skepticism and doubt about conventional belief. He did not, however, give up on the pursuit of wisdom. Just because the truth is hard, just because nature loves to hide, as Heraclitus stated, we are not thereby excused from pursuing the examined life. Socrates taught intellectual humility—he frequently admitted that he knew nothing—but he did not disparage knowledge or reason’s ability to obtain it.
Though following in the footsteps of his philosophical predecessors, Socrates, philosophy’s midwife, delivered unto the world the birth of all subsequent science. Among his students was Plato, and among Plato’s students was Aristotle. Later schools and movements sometimes hearkened back to the pre-Socratics but always and inevitably through the Socratic filter of Plato and Aristotle. I cannot overstate their importance, in substance or in history. Given our time’s unthinking belief in progress, we subconscious Hegelians might assume that twenty-three centuries would have vastly improved human understanding of man’s basic questions. I think that this is false. Even given the worthy successors of Plato and Aristotle, such as Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant, I do not think that they eclipsed Plato and Aristotle but rather that they explored certain problems better.
In their works, Plato and Aristotle defend philosophy from the accusations of the tradition and from the bad reputation of the sophists. They affirm the intelligibility of the world and the ability of the mind to know the world, and they grant a level of awareness to traditional and common opinion while also showing how such conventional opinion points to but falls woefully short of truth. Socratic wisdom demolishes human intellectual conceit without rendering the philosophical quest itself hopeless and vain.
I have spilt much ink (or spent bytes) on ancient Greece because I think that the debate can be seen in its totality. There is traditional wisdom (in law, in the poets, in the religion, and in the customs of the people) threatened by philosophy, which claims superior or exclusive access to truth. Then, there is a mutated philosophy that metastasizes into a relativism destructive of tradition, philosophy, and itself. As I stated above, this situation occurs again and again throughout history. As this new Greek culture inculturated the Mediterranean world and beyond, the same disputes arose. The Jews first tackled the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, an argument that has affected all thinking Abrahamic peoples since. Indeed, Christian theology would not have been possible without Hellenic philosophy—no one would have been moved to question cultic teachings without such cross-pollination. Themes such as theodicy and purpose lay nascent in Homer, Hesiod, and the Hebrew scriptures, but philosophical thinking and its tools unleashed the potential of sacred texts. Despoiling the Egyptians of their treasures, Church fathers such as Justin, Clement, Origin, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa took what they saw as valuable in pagan philosophy and used it in theology. However, others such as Tertullian, Augustine in his later years, and hordes of ascetics in the desert deplored human reason’s attempts at knowledge as useless or destructive vanity. When the followers of Muhammad began to read the Greeks, there were waves of controversy in the dar al-Islam, the fruits of which subsequently reentered the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition in the high middle ages as Western Christians began to read the works of Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and Al-Ghazali. Again, the tensions between tradition and science, faith and reason, revelation and philosophy created a storm of intellectual activity in the scholastic world. Latin Averroists, traditional Platonists, new knowledge synthesizers like Thomas, and old fashioned ratioskeptics fought for the mind of the West in disputes that significantly altered Western Christendom ever after.
Hatching from these historical disputes, nominalism entered the world on behalf of Christian humility and piety. English Franciscans like William of Ockham no longer found realist arguments—that there were such things as forms, essence, or natures—convincing. I’ll address the birth of nominalism again, as I think that it is, historically speaking, the most significant intellectual development since classical times. Yet, it is clear that piety was an important influence if not a sufficient cause of nominalism. For William and like-minded thinkers thought that forms or essences restricted the omnipotence of God. Thus began the revolution of the West seven hundred years ago. I would boldly argue that all of modernity, qua modernity, traces back to this development.
From Socrates to the coming of nominalism, the West did not lose faith in its ability to know. The Academy after Plato was a center of philosophical skepticism, and skeptics such as Pyrrho played the Socratic gadfly among philosophers. Alone, skepticism would have been like toxic bleach, but enough other philosophical currents flowed in Hellenistic times that skepticism’s influence was diluted. In such a state, it provided a service of intellectual hygiene in philosophy. The traditionalists kept their old ways, the priests kept their rites, and the poets kept their wisdom. Rabinnical Jews hostile to philosophy felt secure in the Law, while Christians adverse to Athens found sure footing on Christ and his gospel. Even the early nominalists thought that human knowledge was possible. William and his associates developed an advanced logical and epistemological model to safeguard human knowledge, and they were devout followers of the trustworthiness of sacred scripture. Yet, in denying essences and the human ability to know them, William set the stage for the overturning of all knowledge. He is the distant patriarch of Luther, Calvin, Hume, pietism, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Protestant fundamentalists, and the much less respectable postmodern twits.
You can see how Calvinism rose out of nominalism; in Averroist language, the Reformation was the theological image of nominalist philosophy. As Luther said, reason is a whore and unable to attain knowledge. Our fall from grace destroyed the divine faculty of reason so greatly that we must depend on revelation for religious guidance. Sola scriptura then is a desperate grab for some steady post when the rest of the world crumbles after nominalism. Yet, why should one believe religion at all? If we cannot trust our mind’s ability in some matters, why should we trust its fideism in holy books? The Enlightenment was the response to this dilemma. With nominalism’s having rendered metaphysics impossible, or so they thought, philosophy’s task would consist in understanding physics, or at least how nature appears to us. Even if such knowledge does not arrive at a true understanding of the world, at least it can be useful in technology. We need not intellectually affirm or truly understand the existence of selves or substances in order to deliver a missile through a fortress wall. Intellectual pursuit, then, comes to aim after general laws—tendencies and relationships of actions that follow other actions. The “why” of earlier philosophers is replaced by the “how” of modern researchers. Contemplation of the whole and of the greater—the theoria of the ancients—is forgotten as the practical mastery of nature comes to drive the West’s intellectual development. We still live in this age.
The modern period of philosophy is admirable and impressive; Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Newton, Locke, Spinoza, Hume, Berkeley, Leibniz, Kant, and others are quite insightful and, at times, breathtakingly brilliant. Yet, with the partial exceptions of Descartes, Berkeley, and Leibniz, they more or less follow and yet thereby try to get beyond nominalism. If you throw out revelation and still want access to knowledge, how is such possible? Their epistemological models, explorations of empiricism and its limits, and attempts to unravel the implied knots provide an impressive edifice. Nonetheless, I suspect that such is a mighty castle built upon a cloud of unreason. Not only do I think that nominalism itself is unsupportable, but I also think that their efforts to get around it fail. For these thinkers generally do not critically start at the foundations but rather accept that they can have access to tools that their own principles remove from them.
Hume is an easy example. In An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume argues that all of our mental content comes from the senses, either of external things or emotions felt. When sensed, these impressions are vivid, but as time goes by, they fade into ideas. As ideas, they are so weak that the mind freely manipulates them into various combinations to give us our entire mental content. What, then, about essences—or definitional abstractions? What about our understanding of causality? He states that custom, ingrained in us throughout life, molds our mental landscape. We have no understanding of causality; we simply notice that certain actions always follow other actions. We have no understanding of a horse as such; rather, we have empirical information of different particular things that we call horses because they resemble each other. Reinforced experience makes such knowledge steadier and readier because it is based upon more impressions.
Hume is fun to read because he makes explicit arguments, uses clear language, and never asks you to rise beyond everyday thinking. However, his epistemology cannot address several problems. First, he notes that the principles of mathematics are simply known, but he does not explain how his system makes such possible. Indeed, he spends a considerable amount of time refuting the idea that the human mind has access to any knowledge that comes not through the senses, but he refutes himself and does not explain how such knowledge fails to undermine his theory. Likewise, his memorable argument about the missing shade of blue undercuts his own case, and he just passes it off as a peripheral matter. In the example of the missing shade of blue, Hume notes that people who have always been blind have no understanding of color, which helps his argument that all mental content must come from impressions. Yet, he admits that a man who has been shown a sequence of blue shades that he had never before seen would be able to imagine a particular shade missing from the sequence. Even if you could argue that our minds can separate blue and white qualities from those various shades and then recombine them in different ways to get the missing shade of blue, Hume would still have a problem. For Hume’s theory does not seem to allow for that sort of abstraction—color is so basic that we would have had to see each particular shade for it to be in our mental content. Were we able to dissemble the shades into constituent color parts that we had never seen before demands noetic powers that Hume denies us. We evidently can make unicorns by matching up disparate ideas in our memory, but no real abstraction takes place in such action. Abstraction, for Hume, is simply the fading of an idea so that its vagueness allows it to substitute for other faded ideas that it resembles. Such is not what would have to occur to analyze a shade of blue.
Moreover, Hume’s dismissal of universals relies on his principle of resemblance. Like all nominalists, he argues that the mind groups objects that resemble one another and calls them somewhat arbitrarily by the same name—hence, the nomina of nominalism. However, how can things resemble one another without in fact being the same in some respect? This is the retort to nominalism, and it is a problem that they cannot overcome. They fall to the level of image-thinking, as Plato writes, and make intellectual judgments based upon unreflective crude sense perception. How is it that X is a horse, Y is a horse, and Z is a horse, if there is no such thing as “horse.” For nominalists, “horse” is simply a mental placeholder in the mind of the person who groups together sets convenient to group. Yet, they cannot justify why such placeholders readily present themselves to the mind. Resemblance begs the question, “Resembling in what way?” At some point, a list of characteristics will be given, and such a list will be applicable to X, Y, and Z. If the nominalist protests that each horse’s characteristics merely resemble the characteristics of each other horse, then, we ask the same question at a new level. This process cannot go on interminably; things resemble each other because they share something. Our minds intellect that shared something somehow, and we group and categorize accordingly.
The most momentous philosophical revolution in thousands of years occurred without good reasoning. I find this improbable and shocking, and yet, it is so. I suspected that I would finally find a good argument for nominalism, rather than simply a thoughtlessly inherited opinion, in reading William himself. Yet, it is as if he could not see the basic, truly foundational problem. Once you keep the nominalist from getting away with resemblance on the cheap, his entire system’s raison d’être ceases to be.
Why should we care about some pedantic dispute from the middle ages, or why should the intellectual path of Western civilization bother our attention today? Well, to begin with, it is a matter of truth. Practically, as well, this matter of truth has had momentous civilizational consequences. The nihilism of the modern world, the crisis in the human sciences that Husserl articulated generations ago, the rampant relativism in the West today and the emasculating, soul crushing meaningless and despair that it engenders—these are signs of a disease that has slowly spread throughout the world. The pious might claim that such is the result of the West’s rejection of God, but it was the Western rejection of reason, ironically out of religious devotion, that led people to heathenism. For nominalism at its core denies the intelligibility of the world and the ability of man to know it. As mentioned above, the first nominalists and their philosophical successors attempted to salvage aspects of the world’s knowability and of the human mind’s powers. Yet, they were all insufficient to the task; once you make a part of the world necessarily unintelligible, you render the whole unintelligible. For a particular man might be ignorant of many things and still claim knowledge of other things. However, if you state that the world as such is unintelligible in certain aspects, you begin a destructive process of misology. For the claim that some part of the world is intelligible while another part is not is a claim about the world as a whole. For that claim to stand, it undoes the unintelligibility of the part about which it claims to know (that it is unknowable). An instability is thus built into nominalism, and it is simply human rationality at work when such a system self-destructs—its logical conclusion is an impossibility.
It is helpful to remember that many early opponents of philosophy were trying to protect what they thought to be good—the ways of their gods and fathers. In dismissing reason, though, they opened themselves up to a mighty river wherein they have no oars—and irrational religiosity is a difficult stream to navigate without drowning. Nominalism was a medieval variation of this stance. Christian logicians threw away their respect for human reason to know things because it was for them impious to affirm that the mind of man knows the mind of God or that the objects of man could be the objects of God. In their attempt to respect God, however, by debasing man, they have rendered man less than human. God creates man with mind, and that mind, though infinitely inferior to God, is meant to function as an image of the divine mind. The human mind working at its proper best understands the logos of the world, first seen among the pagans by Heraclitus and furthermore proclaimed by the prophets. To stop short of affirming the absolute intelligibility of the world and of our ability to know it is to kill reasoning. Man, robbed of reason, is a beast. Thus, it should be no surprise when we see what such a mindless beast does.
Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom, as everyone seems to know but then somehow quickly forgets once that small bit of etymological insight is mentioned. I think that we cannot forget that most basic definition, for philosophy involves a love, an intense love, for wisdom, for truth, and for the “real”, whatever that may be. Other further definitions and distinctions that university types commonly make are often misguided, in that they divide philosophy from the paths to truth and wisdom that do not fit nicely into their latest classification of human knowledge, academic methodology, and the human experience.
Philosophy is not only that phenomenon of critical thinking that has dominated Western thought for almost three millennia or what others may call various forms of east Asian religious and folk wisdom, but it is, I think, the love of truth and the most basic desire to understand and to commune with everything. It embraces inquiry into the most transcendent realities, wonder at the world around us, and inspection into the depths of our minds and souls. For its material, for its evidence, philosophy takes the whole and aims for the whole. The philosopher loves the whole of wisdom.
Now, to what extent critical thinking involves skepticism, the overturning and murdering of mythos, and the other specific characteristics of much of the history of Western thought is a mystery to me. The jury is evidently still out on that case. However, let us demand that it consider all the evidence rather than slipping into sloth and idiocy in attempts to narrow and bracket the tough questions.