Won’t You Be Our Savior Against the Forces of Stupidity?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the purest specimens of midcentury rationalism ever produced. Anyone who wishes to understand the narratives of progress and liberation, that hold so much sway over so many, owes it to themselves to watch this movie.

The basic elements are all there: an alien from a superior civilization. Human beings who let fear become their guiding principle, and who are hopelessly unable to overcome their internal divisions. A lot of conflict and intrigue leading up to a didactic speech for the finale.

The ideology that went into the making of this movie was most apparent, to me, in the early interactions between the alien Klaatu and a man simply introduced as Harley, the “Secretary to the President.”

Klaatu demands a meeting, not with the president or even with the UN, but with leaders from all of the nations in the world. When Harvey attempts to explain the politics that make such a thing unlikely, Klaatu shows nothing but contempt.

My mission here is not to solve your  petty squabbles. It concerns the existence of every last creature who lives on Earth.

When the attempt to gather all of Earth’s leaders fails, Klaatu is equally as understanding.

stupidity

Calling political problems complex is merely an excuse for stupidity, which a superior being has no patience for. Meanwhile, Klaatu is incapable of compromising—he will not meet with some or even most of the world’s leaders, and broadcast to everyone else. No, it’s either everyone, or the annihilation of life on Earth. Complexity or compromise are for the stupid.

After watching this scifi classic recently, I could not help but think of two contemporary figures who, while undoubtedly rationalists of a sort, have more self-awareness of this tendency.

One was Scott Alexander. In this post, which is in the form of a dialogue, the following exchange occurs:

Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.

Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

Emphasis added by me.

The second comes from Neal Stephenson’s most recent book, Seveneves:

Luisa chuckled. “I hear you, sugar. I’m not gonna say you’re wrong. But I have to warn you that this is the word—‘ politics’— that nerds use whenever they feel impatient about the human realities of an organization.”

Alexander and Stephenson acknowledge that the “human realities” of politics and group action, and even of acquiring knowledge, are legitimate problems. Not “petty squabbles,” not merely a matter of clearing “stupidity” out of the way.

Yet both largely end up taking more subtle and nuanced paths to similar ends. Alexander concludes his post by arguing that the effective altruism movement is capable of eradicating global poverty. Stephenson’s novel continues to be framed as a struggle between technocrat-engineers who just want to roll up their sleeves and solve problems, and politicians who use their influence over the more numerous non-engineers to obtain power at the risk of compromising the whole mission.

I am not going to offer up a critique of this framework here. Greater minds than mine have done so, many times. And greater minds than mine have defended it.

I will, however, end with Klaatu’s didactic speech, the payoff of the whole movie. Those who wish to avoid spoilers can skip it. But I was amused by the tepid, almost bureaucratic character of the speech. This was no idealistic or romantic call to rise above ourselves. This was a cheap Leviathan with a defense of it that lacked heart.

In any case, this is the speech:

Your ancestors knew this when they  made laws to govern themselves — and hired policemen to enforce them.

We of the other planets have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets — and for the complete elimination of aggression. A sort of United Nations on the Planetary level…

The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots–Their function is to patrol the  planets — in space ships like this one — and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us.

At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.

The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war — free to pursue more profitable enterprises.

We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works.

I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.

This is the best the superior being, who looked down his nose at our “petty squabbles,” had to offer? “We do have a system—and it works.”

You know who else had a system? I hear it even made the trains run on time.

One wonders if the writers of The Day the Earth Stood Still truly believed that some analogue of completely trustworthy peacekeeper robots are or will be available to the human race. I worry that too many may think so, even today. Even when our rationalists show a modicum of self-awareness.

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Asking For Whom The Bell Tolls

Who doesn’t know you’re not supposed to ask for whom the bell tolls? Long ago, OG Existentialist John Donne answered the question for you: it tolls for thee.

I wonder about that.

He’s absolutely correct, in a sense, that we are all connected to each other, and that the ebbs and flows of humanity affect us all, the logical conclusion being that, inasmuch as when a single individual advances, we advance together (the tide lifting all boats); so also when a single individual is removed to Davy Jones’ Locker, we all shall surely find similar breaches in the hulls of our seaships. Experience teaches us that John Donne is essentially correct: the bell tolls for thee. In this way, blood is thicker than water.

“No man is an island unto himself,” he furthermore teaches. I beg to differ. Those of us who have the water have been cordoned off by water so that we are, indeed, islands unto ourselves, each separated out unto lonely spits of sand and coconut trees, being sustained by meager provisions, shouting with disunited voices to all the ships passing by that we can see the breaches in their hulls, but without unity, we are subject to futility. Alas, the bell is tolling for humanity: it is a gigantic ship struck by Kraken the great sea monster so that it is sinking even as it is rising, the shouts of the exulting in the aft decks drowning out the screams of the drowning in the fore decks.

Perhaps the laughter of those who have slipped away from the surface of the cruel sea is a mocking laughter, that the work done by Kraken is beneficial to those who by great strength of reason chose the aft decks (being incidentally born there to choose them), so that those who are now perishing were stupid, foolish, superstitious. But such is the connection of blood: it is indeed thicker than water, and denser. The sea will exult over the wise and the foolish together.

Not so those who have the water. The water separates us from the blood. As the bell tolls across the water, our faint voices, separated by a different connection that cannot be fathomed by any instrument which plumbs the seven seas, are largely ineffective. Lonely isolation makes a man crazy after a while, each in his own way, so that none of us can join our voices together in a single warning klaxon. A scattered few hear, however, and they jump ship, realizing in the joy of escape that the bell is indeed tolling a death knell for them, for to escape the connection of blood is indeed the death of blood, a death in the briny water apart from evil Kraken. After that, it is sweet fresh water, but drunk on an island unto himself, without the tolling of the bell for thee or for me.

Let the reader understand that I am raising my hand in an oath that cannot fail: I promise you I will never die.

kraken

Even Calls Me By My Name

The “Bastogne” episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers does some heavy lifting when it comes to Christianity’s relationship to society, as tested by the fires of absolute warfare. The setting is December 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium. The 101st Airborne Division is tasked with defending Bastogne from conquest by the German Army in the definitive battle of World War II known as “The Battle of the Bulge,” a counteroffensive launched by Hitler to break the steadily advancing Allied lines.

Here I’ll frame the episode with observations interspersed periodically with commentary.

Spoiler Alert

Instead of a rehearsal of battlefield events, “Bastogne” is a drama overlaying a historical event, complete with a clear plot progression, character development, and with rising and falling action. Everything following this paragraph is a reveal. I encourage you to watch the episode, read this, then re-watch it under the magical influence of the power of suggestion.

Continue reading “Even Calls Me By My Name”

Michael Oakeshott, Critical Theorist

Michael Oakeshott is often cast as the representative conservative philosopher. I think this is a mistake, one I blame on Oakeshott himself. Taking Oakeshott and his admirers at their word, Jason took a look at Oakeshott’s version of conservatism and came away wondering what was going on there. The description of conservatism that Oakeshott offers is so broad and generic that, as Jason points out, you could fit just about anyone in there—including Karl Marx.

Most people who encounter Oakeshott do so through his most popular collection, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. People like Jason and myself who are more familiar with Hayek are likely to react well to the titular essay. It seems, at first reading, to boil down to something very Hayekian—modern politics is excessively rationalistic and reductionist, but reason is only a tool that works in a context defined by an enormous, non-rational background. By tradition. And Oakeshott even takes a swipe at Hayek; of The Road to Serfdom he remarks “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” More Hayekian than Hayek!

But if you actually read the whole collection (at 600 pages this is a rarity) it slowly becomes evident that something else is going on. The section on Hobbes seems like a contradiction to the sections on rationalism—who is more rationalist than Hobbes? The man gave us the myths of the social contract and the state of nature.

A couple of years ago I finally did read the whole collection, and I was so intrigued that I did some secondary reading. Turns out that Oakeshott came of intellectual age inside the British idealist school, an offshoot of the German idealists. I don’t want to get into all of that and I’m sure I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice to say that pegging Oakeshott as “the conservative with the criticism of rationalism” is not really doing him or his project justice.

 

Custom and Rhetoric

I think that Oakeshott is best understood as a critical theorist. Only not the sort who believe that they can stand outside of ideology and convention in order to deconstruct those things and make them anew. Oakeshott, like McCloskey (who has read him and references him frequently), understands that you can’t criticize anything unless you’re already inside a community of rhetoric of some sort.

If you want to begin to understand Oakeshott, my advice is to go past the beginning of Rationalism in Politics, which everyone has read, and instead go straight to the back. The last two essays, “The Tower of Babel” and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” are much more representative of what Oakeshott is all about.

The former is not so drastic a deviation from what one would expect from the author of “Rationalism in Politics.” In “The Tower of Babel” he distinguishes between two idealized versions of moral orders, one which unreflectively follows established customs, and one which is self-conscious and critical. He describes the customs-based order as follows:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

The second order is fundamentally self-conscious.

The second form of the moral life we are to consider may be regarded as in many respects the opposite of the first. In it activity is determined, not by a habit of behaviour, but by the reflective application of a moral criterion. It appears in two common varieties: as the selfconscious pursuit of moral ideals, and as the reflective observance of moral rules.

He continues:

Normally the rule or the ideal is determined first and in the abstract; that is, the first task in constructing an art of behaviour in this form is to express moral aspirations in words-in a rule of life or in a system of abstract ideals. This task of verbal expression need not begin with a moral de omnibus dubitandum; but its aim is not only to set out the desirable ends of conduct, but also to set them out clearly and unambiguously and to reveal their relations to one another.  Secondly, a man who would enjoy this form of the moral life must be certain of his ability to defend these formulated aspirations against criticism. For, having been brought into the open, they will henceforth be liable to attack. His third task will be to translate them into behaviour, to apply them to the current situations of life as they arise. In this form of the moral life, then, action will spring from a judgment concerning the rule or end to be applied and the determination to apply it. The situations of living should, ideally, appear as problems to be solved, for it is only in this form that they will receive the attention they call for. And there will be a resistance to the urgency of action; it will appear more important to have the right moral ideal, than to act.

The essay is not intended to pit each of these styles against the other; instead, Oakeshott believes that each has its strength and the best moral orders are a combination of both. Reason and rationality are not to be done away with entirely because of the inherent superiority of unarticulated knowledge and custom. Rather, reason and critical reflection have their value only when they are properly situated within the much broader context of tradition. The first type of moral order provides flexibility and responsiveness to a far broader range of scenarios; the second type allows for self-conscious reconstruction towards specific ideals that the first order may drift away from over time.

“Rationalism in Politics,” properly understood, is not a screed against reason or rationalism per se, but an argument that we have gone way too far in one direction. Oakeshott implores us to move towards a better balance, to recognize the value of the tacit and the contingent over the articulated and the universal. But notice what he’s doing: the very act of talking about the tacit involves self-consciously constructing an ideal form. Oakeshott could not ask us to get rid of self-consciousness entirely, because the very act of doing so requires that very self-consciousness.

And earlier in the collection, in “Political Education,” Oakeshott spoke of the “ideological style” of politics, which maps perfectly to the self-conscious moral order. Here’s how he describes John Locke, whom he places within the ideological style:

[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript, and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrangements-a brilliant abridgment of the political habits of Englishmen.

Ideology—and political philosophy—merely abridge a living tradition, rendering it more accessible and possibly more transmittable. But something is lost in the abridging, and so too—therefore—in the transmission. Nothing beats the real thing, but the real thing takes a very long time to grow, and there’s no guarantee about what a given tradition is going to grow into. This context makes coherent Oakeshott’s partiality for Hobbes, which seems so confusing after just finishing “Rationalism in Politics.” Hobbes, like Locke, is abridging tradition. In his introduction to Leviathan, he says:

Leviathan is a myth. the transposition of an abstract argument into the world of the imagination. In it we are made aware at a glance of the fixed and simple centre of a universe of complex and changing relationships. The argument may not be the better for this transposition, and what it gains in vividness it may pay for in illusion. But it is an accomplishment of art that Hobbes, in the history of political philosophy, shares only with Plato.

Where you really see Oakeshott in his element—and where most of the readers who read the front of the book but not the back are likely to be out of their element, myself included—is in the last essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.” Of all his essays, it’s the one I feel I have to most to learn from and the hardest time understanding. But my reading, including the supplemental book I mentioned above, is that Oakeshott felt that pragmatists and logical positivists had excessively narrowed the scope of public conversation.

To simplify to an unjust extent, I would summarize Oakeshott’s “voices” as follows:

  • The practical voice is concerned with effectiveness based satisfying the self’s desires.
  • The voice of science is concerned with “the world understood in respect of its independence of our hopes and desires, preferences and ambitions”; with rational systems we construct in the quest to gain that understanding.
  • The voice of poetry, which is concerned with delight and contemplation for its own sake.

But what is the conversation?

What I have called the conversation of mankind is, then, the meeting-place of various modes of imagining; and in this conversation there is, therefore, no voice without an idiom of its own: the voices are not divergences from some ideal, non-idiomatic manner of speaking, they diverge only from one another. Consequently, to specify the idiom of one is to discern how it is distinguished from, and how it is related to the others.

His concern is that poetry has been marginalized despite being an important and enriching part of what makes us human. Moreover, he feels the conversation has become too narrow and too stagnant in general. Now, rereading this essay after having read some McCloskey and discussed Habermas a little with our Sam Hammond, this line jumps out at me:

To rescue the conversation from the bog into which it has fallen and to restore to it some of its lost freedom of movement would require a philosophy more profound than anything I have to offer.

This seems—with my admittedly very limited understanding of it—to be as clear a statement of purpose for critical theory as one could hope for.

 

Empty Conservatism from Burke on Down

Jason accused Oakeshott’s conservatism of being “empty“. I think this is true, and that Oakeshott’s attempt to appropriate the word was misguided. Oakeshott has a tendency to deconstruct things down to such generic pieces that it takes a lot of building back up to get anywhere meaningful again. For instance, look at how he starts to talk about the voice of poetry:

By ‘poetry’ I mean the activity of making images of a certain kind and moving about among them in a manner appropriate to their character.

OK…and that means what, exactly? In this case, he goes on to build it up into something quite meaningful. In the case of conservatism, Jason’s criticism rings true—you could put just about anyone in there. Not his best work.

In fact this is a problem with many of the thinkers who position themselves as traditionalism, but present tradition as a sort of black box. Edmund Burke is the poster boy for traditionalism, which drives Alasdair MacIntyre crazy because Burke’s substantive positions were in fact exceedingly liberal for his day. He believed in the American republic. He was an advocate of property, trade, and commerce just as much as his contemporary, Adam Smith. All of this was not exactly traditional, even in England. He was very much a man of his moment.

But he spoke of the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, and so he is called a traditionalist. But neither he nor Oakeshott are traditionalists in any more meaningful sense than post-modernists who believe in hermeneutic circles and the like. Burke opposed the French Revolution, and Oakeshott (I assume) voted Tory, and so we don’t tend to lump them in with that lot, who historically have been either Marxist or some watered down post-Marxist. But there really isn’t anything inherently conservative about their “traditionalist” philosophies.

I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which they can be lumped with your garden variety post-modernist. Oakeshott is much more in the tradition of Protagoras of Abdera than the tradition of Heidegger.

In any case I concede to Jason’s point—which he intended as a barb—that Oakeshott’s take on conservatism doesn’t really leave much behind that anyone would recognize.

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