Thursday, February 08, 2007
A Thought on "What Went Wrong?"
Pursuant to a recent comment by Adrian Hester on Tom Rowland's criticism of Robert Tracinski's still unfinished "What Went Right?" series, I think that I have managed to understand the nature of Tracinski's error a little better.
Here is what I said after reading one of Hester's comments about how there are different lengths of time between some types of causes and some types of effects within a culture. (And I am focusing on just one part of Hester's very interesting discussion of historical analysis, which he starts at that comment. I love it when he gets on a roll!)
... Tracinski is failing to keep ... the implicit philosophy of the culture ... in mind when he makes his historical analysis. Since he does, he lacks for an explanation of why so many people are so rational and ends up falling back on nonphilosophical causes for the very reason that the long-range causation of whatever era's academic or formal philosophy simply cannot explain what is going on in its time.Hester comments on this later on, making explicit why this mistake is so easy to make.
This is interesting. It amounts to taking the man-made -- the implicit philosophy of a culture at some time -- as the metaphysically-given.
The implicit philosophy of a culture is man-made, certainly, but not usually consciously so, so it's a nice integration to make its man-made status explicit. However, there's the man-made and then there's the man-made, if you will. There are consciously held ideas and then there are the unconscious conventions of our society. Because these all are man-made but not out there in the world, they're considered subjective by some; others might distinguish between the former as objective since they have some obvious reference to reality, and the latter as subjective or as arbitrary. I've pondered this sort of distinction elsewhere, so I won't go into it more here. [bold added]Tracinski is certainly not unique in making this error. I think it is quite common among certain libertarian types, and often takes the form of the "virtuous cycle" argument I have been contemplating off and on for some time.
But if this error results in a certain failure of analysis, it also affects one's approach to intellectual activism. Why? Because if one concludes, as I think Tracinski does, that fundamental ideas do not drive history, then on what basis can one engage in intellectual activism? Or: If principles cannot explain what is going wrong, then they also cannot offer a prescription for how to correct it. And so one is left advocating whatever happens to be out there -- in the case of the current war, Bush's half-measures -- and hoping they will "work". Or arguing for incremental improvements in such an approach without mentioning how the right approach would look.
This underlying doubt about the power of philosophic ideas as drivers of history would manifest itself as a lack of moral certainty, which could show up in various ways, such as a quality in Tracinski's writing -- a decided lack of "fire in the belly" -- I seem to recall a couple of other bloggers touch upon in the recent past.
Really Bad Ideas: "Denial"
In an installment of Spiked's series on 'Really Bad Ideas", Frank Furedi makes some interesting points on the newest type of leftist attack against dissent: "[insert favorite pet cause here]-denial". He correctly notes that this drive to (1) label legitimate dissent from its orthodoxy as "denial" and the (2) quash such dissent under the government's boot originated in a well-intentioned, but still very bad precedent:
Paradoxically, the absence of moral clarity today gives rise to an illiberal and intolerant climate. At a time when moralists find it difficult clearly to differentiate between right and wrong, they are forced to find some other way to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. So they seize examples of unambiguous evil -- paedophilia, the Holocaust, pollution -- in order to define potential moral transgression. Today's heresy hunters strive to construct new taboos. The most ritualised and institutionalised taboo in Western society is to question the Holocaust, or to refuse to stand opposed to it. Numerous countries now have laws against Holocaust denial. In Austria, denying the Holocaust can lead to a 10-year prison sentence. Targeting Holocaust deniers allows politicians to occupy the moral high ground, which explains why, this month, German justice minister Brigitte Zypries called for a Europe-wide ban on Holocaust denial and the wearing of Nazi symbols.My main criticism of the piece is that Furedi is too generous in ascribing a desire to differentiate between right and wrong to those who wish to shut down free debate. Such people see "moral high ground" not as a worthwhile place to live, but only as a place from which it is easier to seize political power.
[F]ree speech is not a matter of pragmatic convenience; it is a fundamental democratic principle. This was recognised by the French National Assembly in 1789 when it stated: 'The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write and print freely.' This right has become divisible, it seems. Western societies find it difficult to live according to their principles. Pragmatic politicians and legal theorists continually lecture us about how free speech is not an absolute right. Others claim that free speech is an overrated myth. We spend more time discussing how to curb free speech than we do extending it. And every time curbs are introduced on one form of speech, they serve as a prelude for censoring another form. Thus, the criminalisation of Holocaust denial has led to the repression of other denials of conventional wisdom.
And, by the way, this bit is frightening: "[T]he recently published British Social Attitudes Survey ... indicated that a larger section of the British public (64 per cent) support the right [sic] of people 'not to be exposed to offensive views' than support the right for people to 'say what they think' (54 per cent)."
Romney's Religion: Essential or Distracting?
Since Mitt Romney threw his hat into the ring as a contender for the GOP Presidential nomination, there has been much speculation about whether a Mormon can be elected President of the United States.
On the one hand, we should generally want to know whether any candidate expresses a desire, through word or deed, to force us to live in accordance with his religious dictates. On the other hand, what difference does it really make what particular religion a candidate espouses if we answer the first question? To sum up my views on the question: I don't care which sect of Christianity Mitt Romney belongs to, so long as he is not committed to using the government to expand the role of Christianity in my life. Keeping this in mind, I found the following not entirely reassuring:
... Katon Dawson, the [South Carolina] Republican chairman, said he thought Mr. Romney had made significant progress in dealing with [concerns that he is unpopular among evangelicals]. "I have heard him on his personal faith and on his character and conviction and the love for his country," Mr. Dawson said. "I have all confidence that he will be able to answer those questions, whether they be in negative ads against him or in forums or in debates."On the one hand, I am glad that Romney can set aside his religious beliefs to sign into law measures he does not personally agree with. On the other, I am concerned about what he has had to do to court evangelicals and how far he might go to win their votes.
Mr. Romney offered assurances that seemed to reflect what Kennedy told the nation in discussing his Catholicism some 50 years ago. Mr. Romney said the requirements of his faith would never overcome his political obligations. He pointed out that in Massachusetts, he had signed laws allowing stores to sell alcohol on Sundays, even though he was prohibited by his faith from drinking, and to expand the state lottery, though Mormons are forbidden to gamble. He also noted that Mormons are not exclusively Republicans, pointing to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader. [bold added]
My initial impression -- and I am not very familiar with Romney in this respect -- is that the GOP could do a lot worse in terms of how religion affects a candidate's policies. Having said that, I am afraid that something else is completely slipping under the radar: The fact that Romney -- a "fiscally conservative" Republican -- recently signed into law a significant step towards socialized medicine (or as he calls it "Commonwealth Care") in Massachusetts!
So on the left, Romney's faith will sometimes be discussed in its relevant terms, but he will be called a "fiscal conservative" since his plan for socialized medicine is totally uncontroversial there. On the right, his faith will be discussed in completely nonessential terms, but this quibbling will completely overshadow his views on state intervention in the economy!
So is Romney's religion an essential issue or a distracting one? It is both.