The Middle East Media Research Institute—MEMRI—is quite a useful resource if you wish to peer into the dysfunctional culture of the Middle East. It features newspaper articles and television footage from the Levant and from its neighboring infidel lands that serve to remind any naive Westerner that they really do not hold the same opinions or values as we do, that they really do see Americans as Satanists, and that they really wish to kill off the Zionist apes and pigs—إن شاء الله.
If you ever find yourself in a queer mood with a taste for the bizarre and absurd, then I recommend spending some internet surf time on MEMRITV, where you may watch subtitled videos of Mohammedan sermons, human interest stories where women beam with pride as little girls recite Jew hatred, and—my favorite—children’s television programming that encourages violence and terrorism. It is fascinating material.
One of the first items that I ever watched on MEMRI was an Iranian cartoon about the poor, persecuted Palestinians and the barbarous, inhuman Israeli soldiers. I saw it called on the web an Iranian After School Special: How to Become a Suicide Bomber. That is fitting. Note how the Star of David might as well be a skull and bones. Here it is on YouTube, as MEMRI seems to have archived it.
As a propaganda piece tailored to children, it is well made. I particularly appreciate the handing of the baton in the form of the bloody keffiyeh scarf. If you want to inculcate a love of insurrectionist terrorism in the youth against those bloodthirsty Jewish oppressors, this type of cartoon certainly works. Of course, there is no substitute for that personal teacher to student soldier relationship and for mandatory readings of the inspired Koran in Madrasahs.
Last week, A.P. reporter Steven Hurst published an article on Barack Obama’s significant changes to American foreign policy, “Analysis: Obama gores foreign policy ox.” In the article, Hurst favorably compares Obama to Mikhail Gorbachev. For Gorbachev realigned the Soviet Union’s longstanding foreign policy just as Obama has rejected the United States’ preceding fifty years (according to Hurst) of international relations policy.
I wondered while I read Hurst’s article if he expects his readers to connect the dots—or if he himself is oblivious to the obvious. Gorbachev did, indeed, transform the Soviet Union’s foreign relations as well as its domestic character—he presided through its collapse.
One wonders about the parallels . . .
Recently on Auster’s View from the Right, there was a fascinating thread on Ayn Rand and Objectivism. The discussion occurs on three pages: “How a Randian website replied to [a] polite explanation of traditionalism,” “Continued thread on Randianism, reductionism, and more,” and “The totalitarian Ayn Rand cult.” Therein, Auster and company tackle the question of ideology, and I wish to offer some great passages.
Oddly for someone with a natural and developed affinity for Nietzschean thought, I have never read anything by Rand. I considered myself a libertarian in my adolescence, I received materials from the Cato Institute for research papers and essays in grade school, and I had many friends who were into Objectivism. It is therefore strange that I never entered the Randian cult. Perhaps like some of Auster’s readers, I had no taste for the overtly anti-Christian tendencies of a group that extols “the virtue of selfishness.” I make an exception for Nietzsche because I find him wonderfully but dreadfully insightful.
Auster’s thread focuses on the question of ideology. Auster points out that people use the term in various ways. In one sense, an ideology is simply a set of opinions—a world view. He does not find that usage very useful; we already have many good words for systems of thought. The other meaning for ideology—one that conservative thinkers have used for generations—is a way of thinking that reduces one’s awareness of the world to the level of a particular and limited interpretive key. One of Auster’s Randian critics states that Auster’s Christianity is just as much an ideology as Objectivism. In this, he means a system of beliefs. In response, Auster and his Christian supporters have an interesting discussion about how traditional cultural and religious thought wrestles with the messy world as it is, whereas modern ideologies force all phenomena into a few choice categories. In this sense, all ideologies are reductionist; all ideological description of the world lies.
On the first page, Auster writes,
There you have the unabashed, unembarrassed avowal of a reductive ideology: “Objectivism values reason alone.” ONLY reason. NOTHING else. All the world, in all its dimensions, is reduced to JUST reason.
But such is the power of ideology. Ideologies have the great attraction they have to their followers because of their simplifications. Communism reduces all values to equality of economic outcome. Modern liberalism reduces all values to the equal right to choice and satisfaction of desire. Islam reduces all values to the will of the totalitarian god Allah. Anti-Semitism reduces all values to Jew hatred. Randianism reduces all values to reason. In a complex world, having such a simple, all-inclusive answer allows people, in Andrew Dalton’s words, “to avoid exposing many of their doctrines to rational scrutiny.” The followers of the simplistic ideology can simply hate and dehumanize everyone who doesn’t follow their simplistic formula.
As I read Auster’s description of ideology, I thought of Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences—not because Husserl is yet another profound Jewish Christian, but because Husserl argues that modern scientists tend to reduce all reality to their own discipline. The physicist thinks that reality is fundamentally matter in motion, and his field stands as the foundation—and the judge—for all other sciences. The same holds true of the dominant cultures in other modern scientific disciplines: chemists, biologists, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, political theorists, and so on. For Husserl, the various scientific enterprises are species of philosophy, and only a unifying philosophical perspective can assign the various philosophical investigations their rightful but limited domains without reducing them and the phenomena that they examine to something other than what they are. The misologists among us will surely accuse Husserl of hypocrisy, but we friends of philosophy come to his defense. Unlike the other disciplines that largely take much of their foundation for granted, philosophy alone constantly questions itself as a discipline. Its methods, proper objects, and every other conceivable component are perpetually examined. Only philosophy questions human knowing and human reason per se. One could argue that philosophy enlightened by theology even comes to recognize its own insufficiency in understanding all that can be “known” by mankind, but let us save such questions for other posts. Regardless, true philosophy is the best example of an anti-ideological orientation toward the world.
Kristor, a frequent commentator on View from the Right, crafts the following in response to Auster:
Yes. And scientism reduces everything to matter. The problem of reductionism is that it’s a form of idolatry; of loving the map more than the territory, the tidy ideal more than the wild anfractuous concrete being. It is the error of thinking that our ideas about things can ever be completely adequate.
What a remarkable image! I think that his “loving the map more than the territory” offers much insight into the intellectual psychology of modernity. The proud rationalism of the Enlightenment is not so much an exaltation of reason—for what age could hold reason in higher esteem than medieval Christendom?—as a deification of particular systematic methodologies. The modern mind lusts after laws that can explain all phenomena. Yet, like all lust, the desire for all encompassing explanatory systems tends toward perversion. Otherwise sincere seekers of truth misuse the evidence (i.e. the world and our experience of it) in order to make it fit their working explanatory theory. The messiness of reality, the complicated and unwieldy explanations needed to account adequately for the world, and the omnipresent reminders of the degree of human ignorance all intensify the modern hunger for a clean, comprehensive answer to all.
Christendom had its own such answer, but it did not dare assert human mastery over it. For how can mortals understand the majesty of God? Modern rationalists dismiss the Christian attitude with disgust . . . the God of the gaps is for superstitious primitives. Yet, there is greater wisdom in acknowledging ignorance than in falsely reducing, perverting, or ignoring the complexity of the world that does not easily fit into one’s pet theory.
Auster further points out that ideology does not simply reduce the world as it seeks to understand it, but it approaches the world with the intent of changing it:
Thus, using this second meaning of ideology, it is a truism among conservatives that (say) Jacobinism, Communism, liberalism, feminism, etc., are ideologies, because they reduce the world to one thing or set of things, and aim at transforming the world; but that conservatism is not an ideology, because it accepts and seeks to understand the world as is. It has no driving purpose toward some transformative goal. (This would not apply to some modern forms of conservatism, such as economism, which reduces the human world to the economy, or neoconservatism, which narrows the world to democracy and universal human sameness and seeks to create a single world of democracy loving people, ignoring everything that doesn’t fit into that scheme.)
Here’s a classic example of ideology. Marx said (approximately): “The idea is not to understand the world, but to change the world.”
In response to Marx’s idea, the conservative writer and thinker Thomas Molnar once said to me in conversation, “The idea is not to change the world, but to understand the world.”
The (traditional) conservative tries to understand the structure of the world and to harmonize his own being with it. The ideologue is profoundly dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeks to transform it.
Ideology is modern. In it, knowledge is power, and power is for making the world conform to the human will. It is not much of a reductionist move to say that modernity qua modern is a playing out of the Cartesian project to master nature. Men, as Lewis reminds us in The Abolition of Man, are part of nature, and the modern project at its root involves the transformation of mankind into something other than it is. Modernity is, as thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Shestov, Lewis, and Schmemann all note, the story of Christian redemption reduced to the horizontal narrative. All “isms” are indeed decadent Christian heresies.
As an addendum to my disparaging comments about pirates in “Flipper contra the Dread Pirate Asad,” allow me to suggest an article by the ever honest and feisty Andrew McCarthy at the National Review—“Pirates Test the ‘Rule of Law.’” Mr. McCarthy points out what the Left too often refuses to acknowledge:
“Civilized” is a much-misunderstood word, thanks to the “rule of law” crowd that is making our planet an increasingly dangerous place. Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a battle that has to be fought every day, because evil doesn’t recede willingly before the wheels of progress.
There is nothing less civilized than rewarding evil and thus guaranteeing more of it. High-minded as it is commonly made to sound, it is not civilized to appease evil, to treat it with “dignity and respect,” to rationalize its root causes, to equivocate about whether evil really is evil, and, when all else fails, to ignore it — to purge the very mention of its name — in the vain hope that it will just go away. Evil doesn’t do nuance. It finds you, it tests you, and you either fight it or you’re part of the problem.
As I have remarked here before, Leftists assume that peace, social stability, the inculcation of virtue, and the higher elements of human society just happen—as if by a law of nature. They take such for granted and therefore constantly overlook, or even denigrate, the necessary preconditions for civilization. McCarthy states it well: “Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil.” As Plato repeatedly reminds us, fine things are difficult.
I recommend that you add Cassandra Goldman’s relatively new site, A Letter to the Times, to the blogs that you read. While Goldman does not post as frequently as her readers would like, she is quite insightful and sensible. I have become a fan.
My mother tends to send those annoying, melodramatic “forwards” to her friends and family. You know them—they always include some morality lesson such as count your blessings, live each day to the fullest, and cherish your loved ones. They always end with some saccharine prayer to Jesus and the command / threat to forward the e-mail to everyone that you know lest He be ashamed to acknowledge you before the Throne of God. Yes—those forwards . . .
Anyway, I received one e-mail that told such a sad story in pictures that I had to check it on Snopes. It involves a beautiful young woman named Katie Kirkpatrick who develops cancer but perseveres through school, gets married to her high school sweetheart at the age of twenty-one, and then dies five days after her wedding. Snopes confirms its accuracy. The Snopes page also links to a photograph essay about Mrs. Katie Kirkpatrick Godwin, titled “The Bride Was Beautiful.”
I do not think that sentimentality offers much assistance in our attempt to understand the world or our place in it, but such stories do force us to concretize our abstractions about matters human.
Last autumn, Bill Whittle wrote a hearty piece in the National Review titled “The Undefended City.” It deals with the interior rot of a culture that no longer believes itself worthy to survive. Here is a delightful passage:
I live a few miles from Santa Monica High School, in California. There, young men and women are taught that America is “a terrorist nation,” “one of the worst regimes in history,” that its twice-elected leader is “the son of the devil,” and dictator of this “fascist” country. Further, “patriotism” is taught by dragging an American flag across the classroom floor, because the nation’s truest patriots, as we should know by now, are those who are most able to despise it.
This is only high school, remember: in college things get much, much worse.
Two generations, now, are being raised on this poison, and the reason for that is this: the enemies of this city cannot come out and simply say, “Do not defend the city.” Even the smartest among us can see that is simple treason. But they can say, “The City is not worth defending.” So they say that, and they say that all the time and in as many different ways as they are able.
If you step far enough back to look at the whole of human history, you will begin to see a very plain rhythm: a heartbeat of civilization. Steep climbs out of disease and ignorance into the light of medicine and learning — and then a sudden collapse back into darkness. And it is in that darkness that most humans have lived their lives: poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
The pattern is always the same: at the height of a civilization’s powers something catastrophic seems to occur — a loss of will, a failure of nerve, and above all an unwillingness to identify with the values and customs that have produced such wonders.
The Russians say a fish rots from the head down. They ought to know. It may not be factually true that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, the saying has passed into common usage because the image as the ring of truth to it: time and time again, the good and decent common people have manned the walls of the city, and have been ready to give their lives in its defense, only to discover too late that some silk-robed son of a bitch has snuck out of the palace at midnight and thrown open the gates to the barbarians outside.
While I support aristocracy on principle, I harbor many populist leanings—perhaps gained by having the same sorts of experiences of which Mr. Whittel writes. We have indeed a great many silk-robed sons of bitches.
I have discovered quite a gem on the internet—the site of the Maverick Philosopher. It is manned by Dr. Bill Vallicella, a retired philosophy professor who shares his insights and musings on the blog. Unlike most blogs, however, Dr. Vallicella makes sense.
One of my longtime annoyances with academia is its insularity. Naturally, the wise do not consort with the many; it is usually a waste of time. Nonetheless, the universities are full of so many intelligent, profound, and decent folk, it is shocking that our public discourse staggers along without them. Perhaps, the media and political powers that be just do not find them interesting—or intelligible. I do not know. It does disgust me, however, to see so many charlatans pose as public intellectuals when I know of dozens of professors that I have had as teachers who put them to shame. Indeed, there are so many brilliant and insightful Roman Catholic intellectuals in the United States, I wonder why they rarely venture into the public square. With no discourtesy intended to the late Fr. Neuhaus, there is a small army of men like him in our land. Why, then, aren’t they engaged with the culture? They may not take the popular background noise of American discourse seriously, but they then allow the barbarians to storm the city gates, each and every day. Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert P. George could use some assistance. Even if our wise owe the regime nothing, the Christians among them should condescend to engage the culture out of a sense of charity.
While the Savoyard ambassador to Russia, Joseph de Maistre wrote the following in a letter from Saint Petersburg.
Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite. De longues réflexions et une longue expérience, payée bien cher, m’ont convaincu de cette vérité comme d’une proposition de mathématiques. Toute loi est donc inutile et même funeste (quelque excellente qu’elle puisse être en elle-même), si la nation n’est pas digne de la loi et faite pour la loi.
Every nation has the government that it deserves. Much reflection and much experience, dearly bought, have convinced me of this truth as much as a mathematical proposition. Every law, then, is useless and even baneful (however excellent it might be in itself), if the nation is not worthy of the law and made for the law.
It behooves us to reflect upon de Maistre’s words. If they are true of all peoples, they apply much more forcefully to democratic and representative regimes. To whom should we ascribe blame for the fall of the West? Joseph-Marie’s answer is terse enough. Nous-mêmes!
I have long been an admirer of the Comte de Maistre. Though a papist of ultramontane tendecies, I love him. I think that de Maistre articulates much damning criticism of the so called Enlightenment and of its bloody revolutionary spawn.
On this April Fools’ Day, I do not offer a hoax, joke, or parody, but my post does involve a species of foolery—namely, bullshit. One of Lawrence Auster’s readers and commentators recently discussed an essay, On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt from Princeton University. Clearly, Frankfurt had fun with the article, but his phenomenological examination of bullshit is still pretty insightful. Written in A.D. 1986, his treatment remains quite timely today, given the omnipresence of bullshit in public and private discourse.
Frankfurt examines the difference between a lie and bullshit, and he finds bullshit to be the more corrosive of our respect of truth. Both the honest man and the liar are concerned with the truth of a situation; the first conforms his words to the truth, while the second intentionally distorts the truth. Yet, they both seek to know how things really are. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not appear to be interested in objective reality at all. On page 21, we read:
One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.
Frankfurt admits that bullshit probably always exists in society, but if there is more bullshit in our civilization today than in the past, it might be due to two general phenomena. First, in our society, so many people have to talk about so many things about which they are ignorant. Concerning political matters alone, a democratic regime cultivates a habit of bullshit in its populace because any democracy will require the ignorant to govern and to pontificate on all sorts of matters about which they know little or nothing. Second, the loss of confidence in reason and in the ability to attain truth has contributed to the pervasive spread of bullshit. One simply has to look into the publications of the contemporary university system to see how deeply bullshit seeps into the halls of learning. What is postmodernism, in the end, if not bullshit?