What do ISIS, Marxism, Libertarianism, anti-religious Liberalism, and Nationalism all have in common: Utopian longings. The biggest political danger that we face comes from something far more primordial than these ideologies. It comes from the inner spirit that motivates them, the spirit that gives their authors the impulse to write the tracts and treatises, that primordial Daemon of ideological enthusiasm that causes a mob of believers to leap into one of these ideologies.
All of these utopian ideals are failures to accept the limits of reality. These are all reactions and protests to reality – acts of faith, conjurings up of new gods, offerings of one’s soul on the alter of perfectionism. But Darwinian animals can never be angels; and this cold dark universe can never be a utopian shire.
The best medicine for our problems is to make the good into the enemy of the perfect, rather than making the perfect the enemy of the good. We should be suspicious of freeing ourselves from suspicion, of handing over the power to some unchecked entity, whether that entity is a group of clerics, a group of officials, or even a group of universal brothers and sisters. How can we best balance the various currents of power that pulse through our world?
There is no algebra formula that can balance the current. The current is always moving, popping up from unknown geysers. And so we have to exercise vigilance. We have to create systematic checks and balances, like the constant tug of war between state and federal power, like the division of the executive and the judiciary. But we also need something firmly imprinted on our faces, something that I call “the raised eyebrow.”
Whenever we see a man standing atop a platform with a megaphone in his hand, spouting out poetic and idealistic statements, we should imagine ourselves standing in the crowd with arms crossed and an eyebrow raised. Suspicion is a character trait that we need to cultivate in order to fend off the Daemon of utopian expectations, a Daemon that too easily can overcome our souls.
Good thinking: common sense: restraint: reasonable expectations: these are the alloy out of which our shield against utopianism is forged. But go behind the shield, and remove the armored mask, what should we have underneath: a raised eyebrow whenever the frenzied man with the megaphone starts to speak.
Picture Credit: (1) http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/audio/video/2013/8/20/1376998232141/Christina-Ricci-in-Addams-010.jpg; (2) From No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones.
The creative and independent thinker is ordered toward his own social condemnation, unless of course he applies his creativity to practical invention or entertainment, in which case he could be a billionaire.
If they know human nature so well then why can’t they predict the future? And if he has such a misguided view of human nature, then why do his predictions come to pass?
Why can philosopher-kings never rule? Because Plato and Aristotle, and Hume and Kant, and all the other philosophers were unable to agree. In short, philosopher-kings were filibustered through philosophy.
Viewing life as sacred leads to wars over various views of sacredness. The sufficient and necessary condition of peace is suspicion – collective suspicion, but certainly not sacredness. Sacredness is a flower that grows best in the garden of suspicion, where it can be cultivated and prevented from overtaking all the other vegetation.
In a world where so many people confidently put forth various and contrary opinions, who shall we trust? Answer: the one who can predict the future.
Petyr Baelish said that the national myth of Westeros was just a story, one that we agree to tell ourselves over and over again until we forget that it is a lie. The same might be said about most of our mythologies. We have a compulsive need as human beings to interpret our world in terms of triumphal myths, ones where there are good guys and bad guys, where there was a past golden age of some type, after which came a descent into corruption, followed by a call to renewal, to go back to the sources of that golden age as a means of projecting ourselves into a better future.
The reality is that there was no golden age, ever. Nor will there be one in the future. The real world is simply various shades of grey – it is a matter of better or worse in most instances, only rarely categorically evil, and never categorically good. Progress is possible, but never utopia. And that progress does not come about through unchecked idealism. Instead, the recipe for progress is more accountability and checks and balances, or in other words, the admission that the world is grey. The ignoble truth is that we can’t trust each other, that we need to have structures that require transparency and accountability.
Remember this proverb: any power unchecked will tend toward corruption. And this is something that Marxists and Libertarians each do not understand, though for different reasons. Are we capable of this ignoble truth? Plato did not think so, and perhaps he was right. But being that the noble lie cannot work to promote peace in our age, the only alternative is to make it noble to believe the ignoble truth.
Why are there governments and nations? Is it an accident that these things have emerged in all cultures? Don’t simply say it is because man is bad. Give a precise reason why human beings create governments. Here’s my belief: government is the logical outgrowth of the family. And this brings me to a major flaw that undergirds libertarian philosophy: the assumption that the family is subordinate to the individual, rather than vice versa.
Libertarianism is at its essence a philosophy of individual freedom. That sounds great! But there are forces that make men slaves that are not imposed from the outside, forces that flow deep within us, forces that cannot ever be abolished from human nature, leaving us with that haunting truth that we are born slaves and will die slaves. What is the Master: the adversarial current. It is the sovereign that presides over us. It was the current that gave us life. Our species – Homo Sapiens – evolved into our present shape through what Darwin called “the war of nature,” the battle of animals – all of whom were empowered with the current – whose war with one another was a factory for designing new and improved species, especially the big-brained species known as Homo Sapiens.
The current fixed our inner loyalties to be biased, particularly in favor of our families, a bias that enabled us to compete in this war of nature. And this bias leads us to make alliances: your wife’s family becomes an ally to you through marriage, with their enemies becoming your enemies. There are of course exceptions. But when your father-in-law gets hit in the face by his neighbor, odds are you will have a vested interest (for the sake of your marriage and children) to stick up for your father-in-law. The family is the womb of government. And there is no way to abolish the latter without also doing away with the former.
Governments are firstly tools for organizing families that are biased toward their own self-interest. And only after this self-interest is restrained through a power balance, can government do other things, things like trying to lead human beings in their pursuit of the good life. But of course government must be balanced as an agent in leading us in a good life, lest they become de facto theocracies for their favorite notion of “good.”
Walter Kasper is leading the charge on the church’s more open view toward homosexuals. But he underestimated the power of the African bishops, who do not share his views on homosexuality. Enter U.S. Cardinal Dolan (pictured left): he is harnessing the power of the African bishops and channeling it against Kasper and his comrades.
How is he doing this? By emphasizing the need to listen to the African bishops instead of recapitulating the arrogance of European colonialism. This is a difficult choice for all of us who are anti-colonialism and who are also pro-homosexual. So as I describe these matters, I am just describing, not making a judgment either way, except when it comes to Dolan’s skill as church politician.
The African bishops are not on board with Kasper’s toleration of homosexuality. Notice what Dolan is doing. He is not merely appealing to the saintliness of these African bishops. He is tapping into the currents of post-colonialism, something that (IMHO) is a worthy cause (i.e. colonialism has had untold devastation on Africa). But I think this is also a maneuver on Dolan’s part, a strategic chess move to trap the pro-homosexual reforms.
Dolan is employing a classic maneuver in propaganda and political debate: its called Reframing the issue. An issue has power in relation to the way it is framed. The abortion controversy is a good example how the same thing can be framed as “pro-choice” by one side and “pro-life” by the other. Two different framing techniques, each calibrated to appeal to alternative sentiments. Dolan takes the issue of homosexuality and frames it in terms of post-colonialism. Does Dolan realize that he is doing this, that he is shrewdly reframing and redirecting the debate? Perhaps, perhaps not: we are very shrewd creatures and we often do not realize how manipulative we really are. The truth would be difficult for most to bear.
Whatever his motivations, Dolan has his finger on the current in a more skilled way than Kasper. He knew how to phrase his words carefully so as to tap into the current of anti-western sentiment, harnessing that sentiment as a weapon against the proposals for increased toleration for homosexuality. My prediction has been that these reforms are not ready to hatch yet. The current is not strong enough to propel them forward, and indeed the current is now against them. Eventually however I foresee the church social teaching giving its assent to some type of gay civil unions. But not yet.
Some libertarians want to abolish government, by which they mean the abolition of government as some sort of entity that dwells in capitol cities and that gives laws to people. This to them is the best way to minimize tyranny.
To me the main problem with libertarians is their failure to understand the adversarial current. If we abolish government, what happens to the adversarial current? Does it evaporate? Obviously the wisest libertarians will answer no: the adversarial current remains whether or not government is abolished. Some libertarians use rhetoric that sounds like government is the womb of the adversarial current, but if pressed they would probably deny this.
But without government, then we must ask: what way will the adversarial current will manifest itself? The current always manifests itself, in all situations, in the rule of the strong. This of course does not mean that the strongest man always rules, or the strongest group of men or women. Rather, whatever sociological powers have the overall strength will be propelled by the current into power. Without government, this would mean that some non-governmental entity will be elevated into power.
Perhaps a universal brotherhood of man will rise to power. This is unlikely, because blood is thicker than ideals, which means it has more staying power than ideals. To be more specific: human beings have a natural hierarchy of loyalty to family than they do to strangers, regardless of their shared ideals with strangers. Very few and very short are the exceptions to this rule. Because we have a natural bias toward our families, we are very prone to shape our ideals in conformity with family loyalty. All of this rubs against the notion of a universal brotherhood of man.
A fatal flaw in libertarian philosophy is its failure to give proper place to the inbuilt bias that human beings have toward their families, which is the root of almost all tribalism and nationalism. This manifestation of the adversarial current cannot be abolished by dissolving government. Instead, the dissolution of government will only increase the strength of family-bias, leading to more primitive forms of family alliances (especially through marriage), with corresponding tribal factionalism against family enemies and the enemies of ally-families.
Libertarianism is a failure to accept reality as it is, a failure to bow the knee before the all encompassing power of the current, a failure to acknowledge that the world is adversarial in a fundamental sense, and that nothing – nothing at all – can overturn the dominion of the current. “Government is stealing,” they say. And they are right. But stealing is a sine qua non of the current. Every time a mosquito sucks the blood out of a dog, it is stealing. Every time a dog bites a bone, it is stealing. The question is not how we can abolish stealing, but how can we set up a system of stealing that rebounds to our advantage.
The best way to avoid being swallowed up by the current is to channel it to our own advantages. This can be done by what I call balancing the current: setting up dams and windmills to harness the current. One of the reason why our government, for all its disadvantages, is better than North Korea is that we have greater balance with reference to the current. Our governmental branches are divided in powers, and there is some division between state and federal power. We also have the balancing power of a free press. Now there are some ways in which we have not balanced the current. But we have done better than most.
The recipe for disaster is when you have a power that is not threatened by another power. Remember this proverb: all who have unchecked power will use it in accordance with their own biases, whether for malevolent or benevolent purposes. It is not clear to me that libertarianism has the proper mechanisms for balancing the various powers of the adversarial current.
Picture Credit: Wikipedia.