Monday, August 27, 2007

Political dimensions

Himself reports a conversation with a "fellow leftist" who apparently has only a single brain cell more than a retarded sea-slug. Yesterday I wrote a post in reaction to a blogger (who shall remain nameless) denouncing Iraqi defeatists as "lickspittle liberals".

The old left/right, liberal/conservative dimension is simply too simplistic to capture modern political debate. The whole debate, even among supposedly smart people, is degenerating into the fallacy of mediocrity: Two people have some feature in common, therefore they are identical in every respect.

I am passionately, vitriolically, totally opposed to the war in Iraq: It is immoral, illegal and is causing tremendous human suffering and death. Well, the Islamic jihadists are also against the war in Iraq. I am not, however, an Islamic jihadist. Just because I'm against the war in Iraq does not mean I'm for the Islamist agenda. Contrawise, I loathe Islam. The religion is absurd, the culture hateful, violent, stupid, oppressive and misogynist. But just because I loathe Islam does not mean I support the war in Iraq.

I'm a fairly tolerant person. I really don't care if you're gay, Catholic, collect Hummel figurines, enjoy bowling or golf, or eat escargot. It's no skin off my nose, you're not hurting me or anyone else. I neither approve nor disapprove; it's none of my damn business, really. But just because I happen to tolerate a lot of things does not mean I have any common cause with those morons who fetishize tolerance itself, who feel it wrong to judge or criticize any behavior—except, of course judgment or criticism.

Just because I consider the Republican party a blight on even the low standards of American politics does not mean I must therefore endorse the spinelessness and flaccidity of the Democratic party. Just because I resist ridiculous government intrusion on my private life does not mean I'm an Ayn Rand-deifying Libertarian; and just because I think we have positive ethical obligations to our fellow citizens and fellow human beings does not mean I'm a Karl Marx-worshiping Communist.

As Lincoln said, "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present." All of these dogmas—conservatism and liberalism—are not only inadequate but bankrupt. We are constantly trying to put square pegs in round holes, and, in the words of the anonymous wag, we end up only with the stupid and the very strong.

Many people, I suppose, don't want to think about anything particularly complex, at least outside their own area of expertise. I don't expect anyone, for instance, to think much about the complexity of the computer programs that I write: Does it work or not? Is it easy or is it hard? Does it deliver or does it drop the ball? We can't expect the ordinary person, working a job, raising a family and going to the odd ball game to consider every political question in the billions of individual nuanced dimensions. But neither can we any more afford the simple binary distinctions of left/right, liberal/conservative, Democratic/Republican, pro/con.

Worse yet, the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy does not represent a fundamental, or even a real, distinction. The distinction represents a degree of change; and not even a real degree of change, but the illusion of change. Liberalism represents the illusion of change; conservatism represents the illusion of stasis. But change or stasis by itself isn't fundamental. What do we want to change? What do we want to keep? Why? And, more importantly, how?

Human societies are ecological and, in a sense, evolved. They aren't designed, at least not in the largest sense, and everything is interrelated. Just on general principles one should be "conservative" in the sense that you can't make large changes to any ecosystem, biological or political; if you do, you'll be swamped with unintended consequences. On the other hand, ecosystems are always changing; they are in dynamic equilibrium; it is as much a mistake to try to keep everything exactly the same as it is to make large changes. Furthermore, it is a naturalistic fallacy to conclude that just because something exists in an ecosystem it is therefore "objectively" good. Everyone—everyone rational—"should" be a little bit conservative and a little bit liberal, at least as far as change is concerned. The authority of the past is purely instrumental and tentative; the authority of the future is speculative and uncertain; there's ample justification against accepting the authority of either as a foundational moral principle.

The old dogmas of liberalism and conservatism—insofar as they reflect an attitude about change itself—are bankrupt: Both should be replaced by a rational attitude towards change as an instrument to achieving other purposes. There are simply objectively correct, rationally determinable right ways and wrong ways to change a society. We must look deeper and start to discuss what we want to change our society into.

I have discerned two deep threads in political and ethical conversation: ethical authoritarianism and ethical universalism. I call myself an "anarcho-humanist" because I'm against authoritarianism (anarcho) and for ethical universalism (humanism). What is good is not established by any authority, political, philosophical or religious, but rather by individual conscience. But what is good I hold is good for everyone; when faced with an ethical dilemma, I raise the level of abstraction until I can find a principle I can endorse universally. If you like vanilla and I like chocolate, a dilemma, I'll abstract the problem to "eat what you please": I think everyone should (pretty much) eat what they please.

Even authoritarianism—ceding the definition of good* to an authority—is in a nontrivial sense a matter of individual conscience: You have to choose to believe that the Bible, or the Catholic Church, or Western Civilization, can define the good. But even so, we can still draw a meaningful distinction between those who do cede authority over the good, and those who do not.

*As opposed to the instrumental cession to an authority to define what is lawful.

Both authoritarianism and univeralism—pro and con—are choices: All four positions in any paired combination are logically and physically possible; there is no scientific or logical reason to consider any objectively true. Therefore, the choice is existential, and a matter of politics, not objective science; the only science involved are the subjectivist sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I can't argue for anarchism and humanism, I can only promote them.

So, counting rationality/irrationality**, there are three important axes of political discourse. Three axes is still complicated, and causes much confusion.

**If you object to the pejorative implication of "irrationality", you can substitute science-based and faith-based reasoning.

For instance, the war in Iraq is a struggle between two concepts of authoritarianism; an ethical anarchist such as myself has no sympathy for either side. Furthermore, it is a conflict between the more universalist authoritarianism of Islam and the exceptionalism of Western imperialism and colonialism (as well as domestic class exceptionalism). It is also, because it is a dramatic change to a political "ecosystem" (and the political ecosystem of the Middle East is particularly fragile) irrational a priori: We're guaranteed to cause unintended consequences to the detriment of everyone; it is being pursued incompetently as well. (Incompetently, at least, with regard to the publicly stated goals of its proponents; as a mechanism to simply loot the treasury and taxpayers it seems to be clicking along quite competently.)

The trouble is that if you criticize the war along one axis, you risk by your silence on the other axes to be held in agreement. If you criticize the war as irrational, it sounds like you would approve of its aims if only they were being pursued competently. If you criticize the U.S. conduct of the war on moral grounds, you sound like you therefore approve of the morality of the opponents. If you criticize Islam, you sound like you're in favor of the war. (I myself was accused of being pro-torture because I virulently criticize Islam.) If you try to criticize the war on all three axes, 90% of your audience will simply mutter TLDNR*** and move on to something simpler.

***Too Long, Did Not Read

There are two recommendations I would make, one structural and one intellectual.

The structural recommendation is to simply eliminate the Electoral College and pick the President by majority or plurality of the popular vote (perhaps with some sort of instant run-off voting). The Electoral College isn't even an anachronism, it was a bad idea from the start. Its effects are subtle but pervasive; I'm convinced the American winner-take-all two-party system, which forces every question into the utterly fictional Democratic/Republican dichotomy, is a direct result of the Electoral College. With a direct popular vote—especially with instant run-off voting—additional political parties representing varying points on all the important axes have a chance to gain traction.

It's not a big change, nothing nearly as radical and dramatic as, for instance, switching our whole political apparatus to a Parliamentary system, and there should be plenty of time for the rest of our political system to adapt naturally.

The intellectual recommendation is to my fellow bloggers and mid-level political analysts: Try to see not only your own positions but also the positions of those with whom you disagree along all three axes: authoritarianism, universalism, and rationality. Don't simply try to force every position into your preferred axis, and especially don't assume that if two people agree or disagree on one axis, they therefore must agree or disagree on both the other axes.

I'm tired of being called a "lickspittle liberal" or an Islamic apologist because I oppose the war in Iraq. I'm tired of being called a Soviet-style Communist because I think we do have some positive obligations to our fellow human beings. I'm tired of being called an apologist for torture because I loathe Islam. I'm tired of being called intolerant, racist and sexist because I criticize authoritarianism, exceptionalism and irrationality in anyone, male or female, left or right, black or white, gay or straight, Western or Middle-eastern, religious or atheist.

12 comments:

  1. Fucking-A. It annoys the living shit out of me just how polarized discourse is now. It comes especially bad from the neocons, who have redefined "treasonous" and "liberal" to all be synonymous with not deifying George W. Bush.

    Andrew Sullivan, a lifelong conservative, is a pinko liberal for criticising Bush and the war. Ugh, it just pisses me off. It is this pressing need some have to shove someone in a box with a label on it, preferrably one that is a "discredited" label so one can then safely ignore all arguments that person makes.

    Let's just label someone and ignore them instead of actually, you know, engaging in a conversation or discussion. It happens toward the other end of the spectrum as well, with people being labeled, for instance, a mysogynist for not bowing down to every last tiny radical feminist creed, or being labeled a racist, or being labeled any of the other labels you point out in your post.

    I used to participate in a discussion board where there was a lot of political discussion - most of the people there were Bush worshippers, and so they bandied about such words as "liberals" and "the left" to label everyone who disagreed with them, regardless of who they were. It got so bad I finally asked for a self-imposed ban on the use of all labels for at least a month so we could discuss the merits of the issues instead of just labelling people and ignoring rational discourse. Of course, that did not go over well with them. They just HAD to use their labels or they could not function.

    I'd be depressed about this, but I'm still too excited about Gonzales.

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  2. A mighty article Larry, a good catalyst perchance? :-)

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  3. The funny thing about neocons:

    Try to see not only your own positions but also the positions of those with whom you disagree along all three axes: authoritarianism, universalism, and rationality.

    This is basically the neoconservative critique of liberalism, only without two core differences: a belief in American exceptionalism and our ability to impose it through military might, and an authoritarian mindset.

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  4. Indeed. I disagree with the neocons on all three axes: authoritarianism, universalism, and rationalism.

    Their sin is, of course, to peg every discussion discussion on exceptionalism: You're either a Western exceptionalist or an Islamic exceptionalist.

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  5. Actually, neoconservativism as originally conceptualized was far more along the lines of what you've written in this post: They felt that American ideals were universally applicable and were committed to rationalism - evidence-based practice in policy formulation and application. Their authoritarianism, however, quickly led them off the rails.

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  6. Kia ora from New Zealand which opted not to join Mad King George and his court jester Tony Blair.

    Well said, well written. Congratulations on a great piece. I think you and your fellow bloggers would enjoy my website which covers many of the same topics.

    I have developed it as an educational resource, covering issues such as:

    Critical Theory
    Critical Practice (Praxis)
    Critical Pedagogy
    Colonisation
    Postcolonialism
    Postmodernism
    Indigenous Studies
    Critical Psychology
    Cultural Studies
    Critical Aesthetics
    Hegemony,
    Critical Urbanism
    Critical Sustainability etc. etc.

    The website contains more than 60 (free) downloadable and fully illustrated PDFs on all of these topics and more offered to students from the Primer level, up to PhD. It also has a set of extensive bibliographies and glossaries and related web links in all of these areas.

    Have a look at it and perhaps bring it to the attention of your fellow bloggers for them to use as a resource. All that I ask in return, is that you and they let me know what you think about the website and cite me for any material that may be downloaded and/or used.

    Again, well done and congratulations!

    tonyward.transform@xtra.co.nz
    The web address is at www.TonyWardEdu.com

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  7. Hi BB,

    A couple of things.

    1) You keep using big "should" and "right" and "wrong" terminology. I thought we agreed your MESR system is nothing more or less than subjective, personal preference. You keep sounding like a Christian, using terms like these.

    2) Could not the Electoral College be a part of a better system where there aren't just two parties (which is really starting to annoy me as well - neither party represents me hardly at all)? Maybe a system more like France where there are 4-5 major parties of waxing and waning dominance and two rounds of general election?

    Peace,
    Rhology

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  8. Rho: There are two senses of "should" that make sense under MESR: One use is means relative to ends: given an arbitrarily specified end, reality constrains the means to achieve that end—if you want to win the chess game, you should move your bishop to E7. The second use is simply as a idiom or metaphor to express a preference.

    I'm not a big expert in political systems. I don't know much about how France's electoral system works.

    I'd like to see more parties, more choices; it seems like the EC, with its winner-take-all structure, constrains our choices. I'm looking for a small change whose consequences can be readily absorbed.

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  9. Tony: I'll have a look at your website as time permits; If I like it I'll use it as a resource (with appropriate citation, of course) and put a link on my sidebar.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "Liberalism represents the illusion of change; conservatism represents the illusion of stasis. But change or stasis by itself isn't fundamental. What do we want to change? What do we want to keep? Why? And, more importantly, how?

    "Human societies are ecological and, in a sense, evolved. They aren't designed, at least not in the largest sense, and everything is interrelated. Just on general principles one should be "conservative" in the sense that you can't make large changes to any ecosystem, biological or political; if you do, you'll be swamped with unintended consequences. On the other hand, ecosystems are always changing; they are in dynamic equilibrium; it is as much a mistake to try to keep everything exactly the same as it is to make large changes. Furthermore, it is a naturalistic fallacy to conclude that just because something exists in an ecosystem it is therefore "objectively" good. Everyone—everyone rational—"should" be a little bit conservative and a little bit liberal, at least as far as change is concerned."

    This articulates so well my core beliefs and principles. This is so exactly right. "This I believe." Credo.

    The thing about "tolerance" for me, though -- and the reason why I could never, never say "I loathe Islam" for example -- is that "Islam" is itself an ecosystem and thus for me it is deserving of the kind of "respect" that comes from understanding the complexity and "ecosystemness" of any system. To use an example of an ecosystem proper, I could say "I loathe swamps," because I hate being tormented by mosquitoes, because I hate malaria, etc. But historically the actions favored by "loathing swamps" have been such things as draining them, drenching them in DDT, and so forth; and these have been detrimental to the ecosystem (while not always solving the problem, or while solving the problem at the expense of losing something complex, systemic, and valuable).

    The same for human systems too. I admit I tend towards cultural relativism because of it -- though I'm not a "pure" cultural relativist, I tend towards it precisely on these sorts of ecosystemic-respect grounds.

    "Islam" comes too close to denominating a whole cultural world, however I could probably loathe something like "Salafism." Just as I would not say I "loathe" Southern Baptist culture as a whole, but I might certainly "loathe" Dominionism. These are movements, specific points of view, rather than whole cultures. Ecosystemically it can also be true that there can be too many deer, overgrazing a hillside; I'm not an animal rights advocate, and ecosystems aren't always in total holistic harmony at any given point, in fact probably they are never in such a blissful state at any given time slice x.

    This is kind of instructive for me, I guess that I would argue that one should reserve one's loathings for entities down in the levels of abstraction. Loathing malaria mosquitoes rather than swamps can be the more ecologically sensitive stance. Loathing "Islamists" rather than Islam has its rationale there for me.

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  11. humbition: You're kind of right in a sense: regardless of my feelings for Islam, it would be irrational to actually try and make massive changes to the Islamic world.

    The thing about political ecosystems, though, is that we are inside them. I'm not just a detached observer, I'm a participant. My feelings, at whatever level, are part of the forces which shape the ecosystem from the inside.

    It's kind of funny: I read the first line of your comment, then scrolled down to approve the comment. As I did so, I thought, "ah, I could use the 'I loathe swamps' analogy. Then I read the rest of your post.

    I think we have to make a distinction between our personal feelings and the recommended actions. I'm not going to translate my loathing for Islam (or even Christianity) into some radical action, but neither am I willing to moderate my emotional reaction simply because I don't intend radical changes.

    Perhaps the situation would be different if I were a spokesman for some larger political organization. But I'm not, I'm just an individual, so I feel that I have a larger scope to express my feelings.

    ReplyDelete

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