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Making Stoopid October 9, 2008

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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Republicans love ignorance. They assert that offshore oil drilling will bring immediate reductions in gas prices, despite the overwhelming consensus among oil experts that it won’t. They deny human-induced climate change despite overwhelming evidence of the threat. They claim that tax cuts pay for themselves despite ample evidence to the contrary.

And John McCain’s policy prescriptions are incoherent. His solution to an economy in recession and starved for investment is a government spending freeze that would kill off the only source of economic stimulus available, but then he proposes a government program to buy up mortgages that would give away billions of taxpayer dollars to failed investment banks. His solution to the health care crisis is to pay people with good insurance to buy inferior insurance while slashing spending on Medicare. His solution to an over-extended military is to ratchet up tensions with adversaries throughout the world. And his campaign, at this point, consists of repeating vicious lies about Obama even after they have been thoroughly exposed as lies.

Of course, all of this follows eight years of similarly clueless decision-making and mendacity. Indifference to the truth is the central plank in the Republican’s strategy for holding on to power.

Given this indifference to truth, McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate and her enormous popularity among grass-roots conservatives should be no surprise. Her ignorance and incompetence not only don’t count against her—they qualify her for office. She is after all, ordinary like the rest of us—that is her attraction.

 

Why this embrace of ignorance and ordinariness?

 

There are two beliefs that are deeply embedded in the American psyche that explain the attractions of ignorance and “average Joeism”. One is the belief that questions about how to live are not susceptible to rational assessment. Our desires may be irrational but they are ours and we have a right to pursue them regardless of how irrational they might be. The second idea is that, if the will is strong enough, any obstacle can be overcome. So if the world is not how we want it, we can reshape it to conform to our wishes. “Simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to problems” are our birthright. The will is sufficient; knowledge and wisdom are irrelevant. And of course anybody can be strong-willed; it takes no special talent. (Thanks to Paul Krugman for the quote)

 

The biographies of both conservative candidates reflect the salience of the will in conservative moral philosophy.

Palin is a working class girl who, through force of will, moved up from hockey mom to the PTA, to mayer, governor, and VP candidate. She’s tough because she shoots wolves and caribou and can skin their hides. She’s disciplined enough to raise 5 kids and take care of a Downs syndrome baby while pursuing a high powered career.

McCain’s story reflects a similar belief in the magical powers of the will. The son of a well-known and respected Navy Admiral, McCain was a reckless, Navy fly-boy, a below average student and a poor pilot who lost three aircraft in accidents before he was shot down over Viet Nam. Through sheer determination, he survived 5 ½ years in a prison camp. Upon his celebrated return, the now famous son of an Admiral used his celebrity to launch a successful political career in which he has managed to convince many people in the press and the public that his years as a POW tells us all we need to know about his moral character.

 Both stories are unsullied by intelligence, wisdom, competence, or compassion. They are about discipline, determination, and ambition—having the strength of will to make the world conform to their wishes.

Candidates who have little interest in our adversaries abroad or the details of policy at home are authentic, regular folks–real Americans–because they are ruled by their gut, not their head. Ignorance insures that inconvenient facts will not get in the way of the self getting what it wants.

 

Contemporary conservative moral philosophy is based on the idea that the will, not the intellect, should rule the self. The victory of good over evil will go to the strongest; individuals must show toughness and discipline to win the victory, so they must be ruled by authorities and institutions that enforce discipline such as the father in the household, fundamentalist religion, the military, corporate hierarchies, and the competition of free markets; strength flows only from the use of force, and persuasion is ineffective because it requires reason; humanity rules over nature which can be reshaped to fit our needs so we don’t need no stinkin’ environmentalists.

This is pure, unadulterated authoritarianism and it reveals the extent to which conservative moral philosophy rests on strength of will as the only virtue. Having coherent ideas is beside the point. This is why conservatives prefer to run campaigns on “values”, “character”, and identity politics—the message that “real men don’t think” resonates with lots of Americans.

Commentators rail about the dumbing down of America and like to blame it on the media. But there is a reason why we have the media (and the political campaigns) we have. Our fundamental beliefs and the powerful tradition of anti-intellectualism make us susceptible to these media messages.

As American institutions collapse all around us, perhaps some Americans are waking up to the fact that moral character requires more than strength of will. Solving our problems will require good decisions, sound ideas, and a conception of moral character that includes wisdom and care as well as strength.

Conservatism cannot respond to the complexities of modern life. If America is to regain its bearings it will not be enough to defeat conservatives in this election—this strain in American life must be crushed.

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Comments»

1. Moriae - October 9, 2008

My, my the sheer aggression on display! But you are consistent, I must give you that. Where does this blatant hostility come from?

I’ll be voting for Obama along with many of my former colleagues, but in none of us do I sense the need to placate or project hostile impulses in order to justify my vote, nor does anyone I know feel the need to demonize those who think differently and will vote differently as well. I have many ‘conservative’ friends and colleagues, and though we may not agree on any variety of points, I do not question their good-will, nor do I question their intellect. I find many of their points often formidable and sometimes distrubingly compelling. I sense no appeal to ‘authority’ in the origin of their considered opinions, nor any bone-headedness.

Although you didn’t quite put it this way, I would agree that having been tortured can’t be a sufficient condition for becoming President of our Republic. It’s hard to say what would be something ‘sufficient’ for such a job. But your gratuitous and embarassing belittling of what happened to McCain in Vietnam does nothing to further your case for Obama, but does great harm to your personal credibility, and makes me embarassed having to explain to people who won’t vote for Obama why I’m seemingly siding with people who use the rhetoric you prefer.

You remarked that his experience in prison (if I remember it correctly) was only a ‘natural’ desire to survive. Now screaming in pain may be natural when people break your arms and shoulders (he still can’t raise his arms even now–if you care to notice), but screaming does not increase your chances of survival, but it did seem to be a chance to beliitle him that you couldn’t resist. Giving him his due does nothing to diminish Obama. We can favor something (Obama) without feeding our emotional desire to deliver pain to those who differ from us in their views. Nietzsche adroitly pointed out the role of ‘resentment’ in many people’s behavior, and it’s hard not to notice a pervasive projection of resentment in a great many of your comments.

It reminds me something I heard Bertrand Russell elaborate to group of us in NY privately in the 50’s, which he first put forth many years before in book. In his book he tried to account for the blatant and overwrought hostility of political groups in the 30’s:

Speaking of revolutionaries and those prone to nasty rhetoric he said: “They are actuated, usually without their own knowledge, by hatred; the distruction of what they hate is their real purpose, and they are comparatively indifferent to the question to what is to come after it.”

I remember vividly how we spoke of the small physical stature of those who have historically been the most aggressive in human history. Russell as I remember wasn’t too interested or moved to consider the ‘compensatory’ nature of a great deal of hostility. But I do remember a few of my colleagues going on at length about how many people do seem to be very ‘compensatory’ in their behavior and how it seemed directly related to their physical stature.

Just as many people who are most militantly adverse to Christianity now were raised as Christians, so it seems that the strongest views on any subject well up in people from origins seemingly unbeknownst to themselves. Few people really value the admonition to “Know thyself.” I think they sense it wouldn’t be pretty if they did, hence they live, argue, and tussle with others as they do.

Baudelaire put it nicely:

“The world only goes round by misunderstanding. It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.”

Now, if it be the case that your invective is merely a device to increase internet numbers, then you have my apologies. It works on me.

2. Melinda Campbell - October 11, 2008

In defense of anger and hatred:

I am fortunate in having a good friend, a kind man of good intentions and great monetary wealth who is generous, at least toward me, with both kinds of riches. At the same time, this man is the staunchest of staunch Republican Conservatives: He pretty much worships Ronald Reagan and considers Rush Limbaugh a paradigm of political savvy, hard-core common sense, and, I dare say, moral wisdom. A photo montage featuring Rush as noble patriot, American flag afloat behind him, accompanied by a parade of penetrating, uncompromising quotes from the revered commentator serves as my dear friend’s screen saver. Through my friend, I am able to get an “up-close and personal” glimpse into the thinking and political reasoning of someone with whom I disagree vehemently on most matters of political and social significance—a valuable window into the mind of “the other.” What I have learned from my “ditto-head” friend (this is not an angry slur; fans of Rush actually enjoy calling themselves “Ditto-heads” because they are in such consort with their compatriot’s views) is that although reason does play a role in policy formation in Republican thinking (and here I beg forgiveness for the generality—of course what I am really referring to is Republican thinking that has led to the erstwhile success of the “Neo-Cons,” George W. Bush & Co., the “Religious Right, and now, to the support of McCain and Palin), it is reason sullied by sentimentality, misplaced emotion, and an irascible competitive spirit. This, I believe, contributes to what Professor Furrow disparagingly identifies as Republicans’ love of ignorance, “clueless decision making” and “indifference to truth.” I completely agree with these characterizations, yet because I am friends with someone who fits these descriptions, I, like Professor Furrow, want to find a deeper explanation for them than just plain old stupidity.

The traits of being strong-willed, disciplined, determined, and ambitious make for an intoxicating brew to fuel personal and political achievement, whatever the content of the particular political platform may be. But what Professor Furrow so ably points out is that these alone are not enough—they must be leavened by intelligence, wisdom, and competence, not to mention a moral compass in good working order. This last feature, of course, is the most difficult to ascertain, but a couple of guidelines recommend themselves to me as universally acceptable: (1) If an action, or a political policy, results in needless or preventable harm and benefits only a very small minority, it should be questioned and probably not be undertaken (particularly if the benefit is something so narrow as monetary enrichment of a relatively small group of individuals who feel no connection or commitment to the broader community of individuals); (2) If an action, policy, or ideology results in or promotes the derogation of basic human rights or the demeaning and diminution of respect for other persons, creatures, and living environments, it should be questioned and probably rejected.

I think my Republican friend and I could agree on these guidelines; where we would likely disagree, of course, is in their application. And here lies the rub: This is exactly where my friend’s sentimentality, misplaced emotion, and overly competitive spirit enter the picture and skew his judgment, resulting in making him seem stupid. Case in point: Should states be allowed to declare marriage between individuals of the same sex as legal? Both of us dutifully apply my recommended guidelines, and we end up with different answers. He says no because, and I quote, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” His argument for the truth of this assertion is an appeal to tradition. When the legitimacy or moral soundness of the traditional belief is questioned, his emotionalism and competitiveness spring quickly into gear. In a flurry of agitation, he rushes to his files to find documentation that proves that U.S. law is based on Biblical foundations, that we are “one nation under God,” and that because “founding fathers” (such as Thomas Jefferson, though he does not mention him) mention God in their writings and are themselves believers, we can safely dismiss any secular interpretation of the First Amendment as creating a complete and utter wall of separation between church and state. At this point, the rational discussion has devolved into a yelling match with hurt feelings and religious vulnerabilities rising to the surface. So a clear-eyed and truth-seeking attitude is overtaken by strong-willed, emotion-based, determined, authority-driven insistence. I walk away, not with insouciance, but with a familiar frustration and ultimate surrender to what I might, in a more flippant mood, call stupidity. He, on the other hand, feels the flush of impassioned engagement of his values and, I imagine, a bit thrilled over his “victory.”

So when a Democrat, or, as we now prefer, “Progessive,” gets his hackles a bit raised over policies and pronouncements that violate the moral guidelines above, who expresses his anger over the willful use of power to promote incoherent, harmful political plans, or who is incensed and even enraged over lies told in the public square meant to incite hatred and fear, I say, “More power to him!” It is time for those of us who feel that we have too often been overcome by the willful, emotional, ambition- and authority-driven types who use these powers for immoral aims to speak up, to fight for the supremacy of reason and intelligence over gut-feeling and sheer determination, to refuse to fall prey to quick cry of “foul play” by those whose usual mode of disputation is argument from outrage, to stoke the fires of righteous anger and a rage justified by a too-long endured rule of the intellectually weak and the morally infirm.

3. melindalucampbell - October 11, 2008

Addendum to Anger Defense:
On second thought, perhaps I do not want to defend hatred even in the service of a noble cause. But should we not hate evil, cruelty, and injustice? Should we hate stupidity?

4. Moriae - October 12, 2008

Although I wish to address this issue in more detail in a bit, I do appreciate this partial retraction of your paean to unreason. Where is this attachment to the common emotional feature of the canaille coming from? I can’t believe philosophy is devolving into this cesspool of unbridled emotions. Is that what is being taught now? Doesn’t anyone oppose this? Is it the water out there in California that’s the source of this giddy embracing of unreasoning emotions? I certainly do not pretend to know the answers to the questions that bother me, but this eagerly paraded display of certainty married with equal does of hostility and supercilious disdain for the views of people we may rightfully oppose is quite unnerving.

5. Moriae - October 12, 2008

As an aside to this humorless display of emotions, Rupert Crawshay-Williams long ago had an amusingly painless test which he thought we ought to use to diagnose our own lapses of reason (from “Comforts of Unreason”):

He suggests we ask ourselves the following:

“How many times during (say) the past three months can you, my reader, remember having had an argument or discussion in which you were unreasonable? What? You cannot remember a single one? And yet, now I come to think of it, I cannot think an occasion when I have been unreasonable, either. Can none of us do so? . . . Who, then, were all those people we argued with?”

The feeling of being ‘right’ is so heady for many, that being unfair to others to get to that sense of mind makes our unconscionable behavior seemingly excusable.

6. Huan - October 13, 2008

Such a great point! Even today I have trouble admitting some of my unreasonable arguments from my younger days, even if I’ve already surpassed those particular ideas. So it would seem the greatest task at hand is not proving yourself right, but proving yourself wrong.

On topic, I used to be quite the hardcore liberal too, and at the time I too thought that conservatives commit far more “unreason” than liberals. Though recently I’ve come to realize that both sides commit quite a great deal of “unreason”, and that I was merely blinded by my own.

For example, quite a great deal of liberal ideals seem to be at best baseless morals, no better than what the bible preaches. Freedom has its price and its responsibility, and when people desire freedom they often don’t take into account this responsibility. It isn’t such a far stretch of reason to attempt to take freedom away from them then, is it? I mean all of this is up for debate, but for the sake of being reasonable I can no longer proudly say I am liberal.

7. Dwight Furrow - October 14, 2008

Melinda,

Your story is all too familiar. It is fruitless to have a rational discussion with those who dispense with the standards of rationality. Moriae seems to think politics over the past 40 years has been a kind of philosophy seminar with both sides carefully weighing evidence and debating premises–a conception of history which utterly ignores the culture war, conceived and enacted by Republican politicians and activists, that has fundamentally reshaped political discourse. Only recently, have liberals marshalled the resources to respond.

Huan,

I have no idea what you mean by “baseless morals” or the implication that liberals lack a sense of responsibility. Perhaps you could elaborate.

Moriae,

I am not demonizing anyone, certainly not voters who often vote Republican. Voting patterns are notoriously hard to generalize about. Studies of voter preferences show that people have very idiosyncratic reasons and motives for voting as they do that do not line up in neat ideological packages.

However, I am hostile to certain ideas that form the background beliefs of the modern conservative movement. These ideas have been consciously promulgated by politicians, activists, media types, and so-called intellectuals on the right. They have in fact demonized liberals but, more importantly, have brought this country to near ruin. Those are the ideas that must be crushed. And I do question the motives of those who manufacture these ideas. I see no reason to think that the likes of Cheney, Bush, or McCain (and the intellectual infrastructure that supports them) are well-motivated when there is so much evidence to the contrary. Individual voters may or may not have much direct connection to these ideas or motives.

As to appeals to authority, its hard to see how appeals to the absolute authority of some tradition or other, or claims to find prohibitions regarding abortion or gay marriage in the Bible are anything but appeals to authority. The importance of authority in fact makes sense of many conservative policies that otherwise seem puzzling. You may not run in circles that make such appeals. That is to your credit and the credit of your friends. I am sure you are not a big fan of the Coulters, the Hannitys, or the Malkins. They are the enemy–not your reasonable friends.

As for McCain, I am not at all diminishing his experience as a POW. It is testimony to his will to survive and his determination, as I pointed out in the post. However, McCain is using this experience as some sort of qualification and indicator of moral character. He trumpets it constantly as an all-purpose answer to any question raised about his character. My point is that moral character involves a lot more than determination.

The rest of your comment seems to degenerate into some speculations about my word choices being driven by Nietzschean resentment or compensatory hostility. There you go again, questioning my motives. I find it fascinating that in all the comment you have provided on my posts, you seldom deal with the substance of the argument.

I will shortly have a post up that provides a more comprehensive defense of such rhetoric.

But my short answer is this. I think that ideas have consequences, and some ideas have very bad consequences. In fact, I think that the underlying conceptual framework of conservatism is nihilistic and we are seeing the very bad consequences of conservative ideas right now being played out on the world stage. I fear for my family, this country, and the moral ideals that I have always assumed were guiding this country.

Despite these fears, my rhetoric is not simply an emotive response. Liberals have been confronted for many years with the question of how to respond to the culture war fanatics and imperialists who drive the conservative movement. We have been largely ineffective in part because we shied away from calling out ill motives when we see them. Such honesty is not sufficient for building a liberal movement but it is necessary.

8. Huan - October 14, 2008

Well how about this hypothetical scenario, what would happen if freedom was given to a room of absent minded, hedonistic and complacent fools? Do they actually deserve such a freedom? Is freedom for all a value that utterly unquestionable? I did not mean to imply that liberals are irresponsible, but people in general are, that’s no secret.

In fact I recall you suggesting that greed makes it so that there has to be certain checks and regulations on the market, otherwise we’d be thrown into economic down turns like this one. So why does that not apply to people in general as well? I’m not one for moral ideologies or fundamentalist beliefs, but it appears that liberal ideals focus only on putting controls upon the market, the rich, and forget that the people who aren’t making the money aren’t exactly saints either.

So let’s say we give everyone all the freedom and benefits they deserve, then what? Are they not still complacent and absent minded? Do they not still have a general distaste for critical thinking? Wouldn’t the true solution to the problem be attempting to bring the people out of their slumber as opposed to throwing comfort at them?

It would appear that liberal ideals are reactionary responses to oppression, but they don’t seem to take into account what kind of premise made such oppression possible in the first place: widespread complacency. Is that not the real problem at hand?

9. A Potent Progressivism « Philosophy On The Mesa - October 19, 2008

[…] in my descriptions of conservative candidates and conservative philosophy.  (See the comments here and here) If I understand his view correctly, he thinks my arguments are unreasonable because they […]


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