Monday, February 7, 2011

Comprachicos or Reagan?

I don't know to express how disgusting I find the likes of Brain Leiter, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, and a leading Comprachico. It's these sorts of Comprachicos that fill the public mind with all kinds of intellectual poison. His latest rant is in regard to the centenary of President Reagan's birth. From the rant:

The "Reagan revolution" was, like the 1979 Iranian one, a revolution "from the right," a new phenomenon in the modern era. Reagan's represented the triumph of certain ideas, largely hatched (sad to say) at the University of Chicago, though these ideas (those of Friedman and Lucas and Hayek) triumphed not because of the arguments supporting them (decidedly a mixed bag), but because they justified policies that immediately enriched the richest and most powerful groups in American capitalism, who needed no arguments to see their merit. (The fact that, since that time, the "ideas" of Ayn Rand--the proverbial bean-brain by comparison to the other ideologues of the right like Friedman and Hayek--have come to the fore in the Republican Party is one of the legacies of Reagan's destruction of the public culture.)

Now, I think we have two competing hypotheses here:

(1) The "destruction of the public culture" in America is due to the likes of Ronald Reagan.

(2) The "destruction of the public culture" in America is due to the failure of the philosophical profession - namely, the failure to instigate and foster the right kind of educational environment for the people.

We sure as shit aren't going to get an improvement in the educational environment with the likes of Comprachico Leiter dictating the basic terms of discussion in our highest institutions of learning. Thank goodness Comprachico Leiter - rightly well-reviled in his own profession - doesn't dictate the basic terms of discussion. Few professional philosophers are that off-the-tracks.

Still, what more fundamentally affects and determines the course of the public culture: its philosophical profession, or its politicians? What has more fundamental causal efficacy in these areas? In Comprachico Leiter's case, we have in fact a somewhat-weird lack of a grasp of the importance of his own profession. (You'd more likely expect someone to over-emphasize the importance of their own profession.) This is itself an obvious failing on his part as a philosopher, and it can only corrupt the content of whatever it his he's filling his victims' minds with.

For anyone who follows Glenn Greenwald's blog on a regular basis, it's obvious that intellectual ideas play hardly any role in the formation of politics and policy today. The political culture now is so anti-intellectual, so cynical, so short-sighted, so pragmatistic, and so cutthroat, that the idea that anything in politics these days is the product of Rand, Friedman, Hayek or "right-wing ideology" (or other ideology) is flatly ridiculous. The only thing we might agree on is that today's political culture is owned more or less by corporations doing what it is that corporations do. (It wasn't Friedmanite or Hayekian, much less Randian, ideology that led to a greater respect for the free market over the last 30 years; simple reality and practicality and the failures of socialism led to pragmatic politicians and policy-makers having to adapt.) The public culture is also very anti-intellectual, cynical, etc. - which only further raises the question how ideologies of any kind could shape the culture today. If anything, what the current state of things demonstrates is the failure of the intellectual class to put forth any ideology at all that might shape things (much less for the better).

Not many people these days want to listen to the intellectuals - certainly not if the intellectuals are detached from the concerns and interests of the regular folk. Rand made the case that the ideas of philosophers are the fundamental determining factor in a culture, and I think the general thesis is true, but it's in applying that thesis that you can have disagreements. If, say, Kant is the fount of bad philosophical ideas and Kant is the leading philosopher of the modern era, that will certainly have effects - but what if the effects are not of people embracing Kantian ideas, but rather giving up on the philosophers who peddle them? For many folks, Kant certainly isn't going to override Jesus Christ (or, heck, Glenn Beck, or, heck, Barack Obama) in their hierarchy of values.

If people look to the philosophers and see either bad ideas or ideas they just don't connect with, how should we expect the public culture to be other than what it is now? Further, when educators look to the philosophers of our time and/or the past, what kind of wisdom might they glean and impart to students? What if, because of the things the philosophers say, the educators are more likely to become Comprachicos?

The causation involved here - and Ayn Rand's significance to all this - is not easy stuff to figure out. Hell, Comprachico Leiter is no dummy, and while I don't know what all is going on in that brain of his that leads him to be so viciously and irrationally hostile to Rand, capitalism, etc. - it is by no means obvious how philosophical ideas impact (or fail to impact) a culture.

(It shouldn't even require saying - but I'll say it here - that things besides philosophical ideas shape the course of cultures in a more short-run sense. Short-run, President Reagan has impacted things in ways that Rand has not and could not. But in fundamental, long-term terms, philosophy has the widest and furthest-reaching impact, just by the nature of the hierarchy of ideas. Perhaps my favorite example-illustration of this is the [rather undeniable?] role Aristotelianism had in bringing about the Renaissance as well as the scientific revolution.)

In this regard one can't really single out Comprachico Leiter for a failure of understanding; the nature of the role of philosophical ideas in shaping culture doesn't seem to have been picked up on by all that many philosophers besides Rand. (Hegel, apparently, had things to say here, though couched in much weird and inaccessible verbiage.) To "see" this kind of fundamental-level, long-term causation just takes a certain kind of context, interest, focus, time to think/integrate, etc., which very few people possess. It is, nonetheless, a subject that philosophers by their nature should be most interested in. At least someone like Rand has the mind, the vision, and the guts to speak about these issues in compelling terms; by contrast, you don't really get that vibe with Comrpachico Leiter, now do you.

So anyway, we've got lots of Fail here on all sorts of mutually-reinforcing and self-fulfilling levels. The long-term solution, of course, would be an educational program in the ways of critical thinking and human flourishing, but to get that program in place would be to, among other things, inform people of the crucial importance of philosophy (or lack thereof) to the course of daily life and of history. And whom, exactly, might we look to for clues as to such: a bitter, anti-capitalist Comprachico, or the author of "Philosophy: Who Needs It"?

[ADDENDUM: The economics profession, as it happens, is quite "centrist" and pragmatic - which is why the economics profession is much more friendly to capitalism than the Humanities are. Now, apply this to the subject of historical and cultural causation: due to the nature of the intellectual hierarchy, what affects society in more fundamental terms, the economics profession or the Humanities? How on earth does the prominence of Mises, Hayek and Friedman in today's economics scene even begin to counter the effects of the attitude toward capitalism in the mainstream of the Humanities - much less when we begin to look at the prevailing ideas in the culture at large (e.g., Christianity)?]

No comments:

Post a Comment