Monday, January 14, 2013

Glenn Beck's new 'Utopia'

Source: wikipedia

This post is for the purposes of having a little bit of fun, while tying the subject to deeper and more long-range issues.

On Thursday, Glenn Beck unveiled his blueprint for what he called Independence, USA (or alternatively, "Galt's Gulch").  Very shortly after I saw the image of the planned site (first image above), my mind went to the pictorial depiction(s) of Sir Thomas More's Utopia which was written nearly five centuries ago.  Inductively speaking, it's the same basic idea, in essence, particularly given both More and Beck's devout belief in a Divine Creator.  So I figured I'd poke a little bit of fun at the parallels, as I do above.

But more seriously, while I take great issue with Beck's various paranoia-spreading proclamations about our government - the Obama Administration in particular (ever heard of Agenda 21?  The U.N. plans to come take our guns away! or something to that effect; it's hard to keep track of all the efforts afoot at the highest levels to destroy the American Way of Life) - there is one thing that he gets that seemingly 80% of the rest of the nation does not: the American Framers were effing geniuses who set an example for how we can be a great nation once again.

Is his envisioned Independence town built on the same principles that America was founded upon?  Presumably so, given his unceasingly high praise of the Founders.  And it's called Independence, after all.

This idea has drawn derision from various quarters, including the usual predictable ones (left-wing smear websites), but let's examine the basic concept.  We'd have some kind of self-sustaining community built on Jeffersonian ideals.  Lifelong learning would presumably be at the center of the community ethos.  Derivatively, industry and creativity and entrepreneurship would be inculcated from a young age.  For those who are temporarily out of work due to the "creative destruction" of the free market, there would be a plan in place for (non-sacrificial) mutual aid, retraining, and so forth.  Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it?  Why isn't everyone else on board with the basic concept, huh?  Surely we wouldn't want to cut off our noses to spite our faces by shooting the messenger; that would be vicious.

Now, my envisioned utopia - which the very term 'Perfectivism' might well have tipped off some readers to - is more ambitious than that: it would not simply be confined to some village located somewhere in Redneck Central, TX (a red flag in terms of the desirability of living in this envisioned Independence village), because it would not be necessary to build it in one place.  Instead, it would be everywhere.  So what stands in the way of this?

Supposedly, some "inherently corrupt" human nature stands in the way.  That's cynicism speaking.  I'm not a cynic; I'm an idealist.  And why am I an idealist?  Because I think that through education, people can become more civilized.  Further, if we have any meaningful adherence to the classic concept of free will, this is a real possibility open to us as a people.  If people are appropriately educated in the philosophical arts from an early age, then as they grow they find (a) little eudaimonic incentive in being vicious, and (b) the cultural mainstream of one's community would be such as to discourage misbehavior in a much more radically effective way than at present.  (And, even better, it wouldn't be a matter of conformity to the mainstream that would encourage virtue; it would be each person's own mind independently recognizing the desirability of virtue, as well as the not-conformist but understandable and desirable natural human sense of wanting to belong to a highly-functional and supportive community of people who've reached the same very-appealing conclusions about right living.)  So, the cynical response to such an ideal should easily fall by the wayside one we've framed this subject properly.  Moreover, the course of human history demonstrates that, as learning and knowledge advance and accumulate, this has a civilizing effect on people.  (Steven Pinker's recent work arrives more or less at the same conclusion.)

Moreover, we have the historical precedent of the Enlightenment and (imperfect by present standards) American Founding to point to as a guidepost.  As I've pointed out on this blog a few times already, this nation's third President was also president of the American Philosophical Society, a fairly close parallel to the original real-world "philosopher-kind," Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome in the 2nd century A.D.), who - unlike Jefferson - has the unique distinction of being a political ruler who also made a lasting contribution to the history of philosophy, with his stoic Meditations.  (Jefferson's most historically-significant philosophical insights derive from those of John Locke a century earlier; otherwise, his ethics were derivative of Epicurus and Epictetus as well as the historical Jesus of Nazareth.)

Thomas More's version of utopia - literally, "no place" - might be taken as a subtle satire on the very concept of utopia given the imperfections of human nature.  But this utopian theme runs all the way back to Plato's Republic.  (Is Jesus's 'Kingdom of Heaven' on earth a utopian ideal?  Supposedly we're corrupted by Original Sin, but once/if we all follow his lead, doesn't it sound like the result would be utopian?)  Some have suggested that Plato's Republic is also not to be taken seriously, that it could be implemented only by a select few philosopher-kings but not by society as a whole.  One thing to point out is that in Plato's time, literacy and learning were not as widespread and prevalent among the population-at-large as they are today (as abysmal as today's state might seem - and it is, by perfectivist standards).  The ordinary plebs just didn't have the knowledge, training, disposition, or sophistication to see how to rule wisely.  It must be kept in mind that Socrates was sentenced to death by a democratic majority - for something that he wouldn't be sentenced to death for today.  (Likewise, a heretic in the West today would not meet the same fate that Servetus met at the hands of that totalitarian fuck John Calvin and his beloved Inquisition.  See?  Progress.)

This utopian impulse (as it might be called) is not limited to Plato but runs throughout the history of philosophy.  The two most famous political philosophers of our era, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, seriously entertained the idea of utopia.  Kant's 'Kingdom of Ends' has a very utopian-sounding flavor to it.  Rand, of course, depicted her vision of a utopian society in part three of Atlas Shrugged, with the original "Galt's Gulch."  What might explain philosophers' tendency to entertain what the rest of those in their societies have tended to consider unrealistic?  After all, is it wise to entertain that which is unrealistic?  Here's where some confusions need to be cleared up.  First, it's been an unremarkable tendency among moral philosophers to think we have free will in a relevant sense.  Second, there's been a perhaps-more-remarkable tendency among philosophers to think that the rest of society can see the merits of learning and virtue just as they do - if they would just exercise their capacity for reason, dammit.  And various things have gotten in the way of people coming to see what they do, the widespread lack of the right education being a big one.  (See the mentality that produced Nazi Germany, even in the post-Enlightenment period of history - and I'm not speaking just of Hitler's psychoses or the dysfunctional state of the German intelligentsia which tended toward nationalism and socialism, Mises's refutations of state-socialist planning notwithstanding; see also the willingness of a critical mass of the German People to follow a charismatic "savior" even to the very gates of Hell.)  One thing that needn't stifle our human potentials for utopian living is the self-fulfilling cynicism that consumes so many people.  To combat that requires a change in attitude along with being presented a realistic blueprint for a path to utopia.

The Aristotelian utopia that I have proposed appears to provide such a realistic blueprint.  I want to clarify something, however: I don't even think that this utopia is specifically Aristotelian (or Randian, or Nortonian, or...), because it would be built upon a realistic citizenry-wide program of philosophical education in general.  I call it Aristotelian because, for one thing, my idea was sparked in good part by Prof. Homiak's essay on "An Aristotelian Life," but also because Aristotle is traditionally understood to have been most keen on the perfection of our intellectual capacity as the basic prerequisite for moral, aesthetic, spiritual and social improvement.  But at root, what people require is an education in critical thinking, and the rest (e.g., overcoming cognitive biases, which non-philosophically-informed psychologists seem to take as a given - as "naturally" ["normally"?] ingrained in our cognition) follows.  (Note, in contrast to a potential point-missing criticism, that this is not indoctrination, as that would be anathema to critical thinking.)  What's more, we have the tools and resources to make this happen with minimal investment.

So Beck is on the right track, but his proposal can be perfected so as to expand his ideal to everyone who is willing to open their minds to thinking as philosophers think.  It doesn't take native genius to make this happen, either; it takes the right sort of training to actualize the cognitive potentials that are already there.  What I see here, given the far-seeing philosophical perch upon which I rest, is a ("dialectical"; inductive) convergence that's been in the making in western culture (with some fits and starts here and there) for about 2,400 years now.  I call the eventual result the cultural singularity.

Given the priority of ethics over politics, the reforms required here - as much as they may require some measure of investment of public funds short-term - require a revolution in our ethical paradigm long-term, for which we have plenty historical literature to serve as promising, uh, leads.  And, given the priority of epistemology to ethics, what this ethical revolution presupposes is an intellectual revolution, and for that, all we need to do is follow the lead of the (best) philosophers in their quest for truth. As Peikoff said at the end of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (uh-oh, a messenger to be shot!), "To save the world is the simplest thing in the world.  All one has to do is think."

How could Glenn Beck - or anyone else, for that matter - possibly (coherently) disagree with that?

Let's get 'er done, shall we? ;-)

(I mean, it's going to happen, sooner or later with the inevitable advance of worldwide knowledge-integration, as long as the human race doesn't wipe itself out first - just as with the technological singularity.  So why not sooner rather than later?  Countless lives - in terms of both survival and flourishing, both of which depend on actualizing intellectual potentials - hang in the balance, after all, and if you're like me, you feel a huge sense of urgency about this.  Well, do you?  Spread the word as best you know how, then.)

P.S. A realistic utopia would be a virtuous-capitalism (capitalism = private property rights with voluntary association), with mutual-aid institutions.  Beck's (and Rand [I think! - see Galt's discussion about the conditions on which one provides aid to (virtuous) others] and Nozick's) vision fits that description, while Plato's and More's does not.  For explicit criticism of the latter (socialist = collective ownership) sort on economic grounds, see Mises.