Today's theme: All our so-called leaders' intellectual and moral credibility, right down the shitter. But why?
The latest item to spark this round of outrage contained a series of quotations from a group of completely idiotic fucks . . .
. . . on the House Science Committee!
The quotations have to be seen to be believed. I had to do a double-take; was this The Onion? It's gotta fucking be The Onion; one can hope. Alas, I'm going to proceed on the assumption that these quotes aren't made up in the spirit of satire in order to illustrate the absurdity of our present political state of affairs, but rather that these elected national "leaders" are perfectly happy flushing all of their credibility straight down the shitter.
How did the nation come to this state, diagnostically speaking? I'll get to that in a bit. But first, a brief rundown of the problem.
Our nation's moral leaders are intellectually and morally vacuous. We have a bunch of fucking clowns at the helm of the nation's slowly-sinking ship. Could this be the "normal" state of affairs for this nation? Has it always been this way? Mark Twain, some 150 years ago or so, remarked on the idiocy that reigned in Washington, D.C. (If you've seen the recently-released Lincoln, you will have observed how just nearly a full one-third of members of Congress in 1865 - the pro-slavery fucks - didn't give even the tiniest shit about their intellectual and moral credibility in the eyes of history.) But it couldn't always have been this way, could it have? Jefferson was a learned man, the president of the American Philosophical Society: a polymath, as was Ben Franklin. The character and fortitude it took for the American revolutionaries and founders to do what they did almost surely couldn't be matched by today's crop of so-called leaders. Things almost surely have devolved into something historically unparalleled in this nation.
(Whether it's unparalleled in all of history, well . . . they haven't shut down the centers of learning like the first fanatic Christian emperor did. But we're setting the bar pretty low here, aren't we?)
It's no accident that Congress's approval rating is now sandwiched between those of pond-scum and rotten eggs. One need only look at how the GOP has stacked the House anti-Science Committee with a bunch of ignorant fucking idiots. I don't know what's more ludicrous, this or the Palin VP nod,
[Digression: I just watched the movie-dramatization of the Palin debacle, Game Change, and the conclusion I drew from this is that Julianne Moore went overboard portraying Palin in a sympathetic light, because the Palin-credibility thing is a humpty-dumpty that simply cannot be put back together again. There's some idea going around about how actors cannot convincingly play characters smarter than they are themselves; this instance is like that idea in reverse, because Palin is manifestly beneath Moore's intelligence and character. But the movie had to attract at least some viewers, right? In any case, Palin is so intellectually corrupt and lazy that a reality-based sympathetic portrayal is hardly possible. The only positive thing we can really tell about the half-term former governor - and something convincingly portrayed in the film - is that she is a decent mother to her children (when she isn't even so much as preparing them for higher schooling as she herself had in pursuing her degree in sports journalism, that is). (EDIT: Also, one has to assume that she was making up that story [hey, whaddya know, Andrew Sullivan's calling card] about flying from Texas to Alaska after her water broke, as it would be reckless to put one's baby at risk like that. Then again - scarily - her version of these events has an aura of plausibility to it. I dunno what to say, other than that she's an idiot.) All you need to know about Palin as a political figure (and by implication, John McCain) is that she plowed straight ahead with the VP candidacy knowing full well that she wasn't qualified for the job. A revealing moment in the film occurs when McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt comforts Palin by informing her that President Reagan one said that trees cause pollution. Hell, one knows something had already gone awry in modern GOP politics when a sitting president said something so fucking stupid. It only snowballed from there, as the logic of such things would dictate. Ayn Rand had warned anyone who would listen about the man's intellectual stature as far back as 1976.]
but if you wanted full and final confirmation that the GOP has gone way off the deep end, this is it. It's like the GOP doesn't even care about its credibility anymore. Can't the House GOP leadership exercise some kind of sanity-restoring veto here? Can't someone on FOX News call these dipshits out?
The Democrats are hardly better. Their monumental hypocrisy on the subject of President Obama's secret and judicially-unaccountable process of targeted assassination of American citizens is the tip of the massive iceberg. The current bipartisan collusion to continue the absolutely insane War on Drugs as usual - when all readily-available data, common sense, and reason suggest an end or major revision - is unconscionable, and destroys whatever shred of credibility the Democrats might have had over the Republicans in the civil-liberties department. (Does the President intend on continuing to enforce in all states the federal laws pertaining to schedule-1 controlled substances, as is his charge under the Constitution? We still just don't know / blank out.) Both parties have - by this juncture, openly and unapologetically - whored themselves out to the plutocrats, over and above their openly and unapologetically whoring themselves out for the Stupid Vote. The prevailing consensus among our so-called leaders when it comes to accountability for torture is: blank out. Our so-called leaders' proposed solution to our nation's looming $107-trillion fiscal trainwreck is: blank out. (For those of you retrieving this verbiage in the year 2100 using your implanted bio-supercomputers: that figure is about six times the national GDP of 2013, which also means about six times the current outstanding gross federal debt. Or: roughly 10 percent of all projected national GDP over the infinite future horizon. 10 percent of Americans' future production stream, set aside just to meet these obligations.) Their assurances to the American taxpayers and citizens that more rounds of bailouts for the ethically-slimy plutocrats won't be needed again in the future rest upon: blank-out. Their proposed solution to the emerging climate quagmire is: blank-out. Their solution for how to keep America competitive in the era of globalization is: blank-out. Their answer to the spectacle of lowest-return-on-expenditure-by-far for health care in the economically-advanced world is: blank-out.
Anyone picking up on an inductively-established pattern here?
The common cause of all these is our leaders' intellectual and moral vacuity. The cause of that is an intellectually and morally vacant electorate. The underlying cause of that is the widespread divorcing of life from philosophy. The underlying cause of that is a profound failure of some kind or other on the part of the intellectuals to make philosophy relevant to living for the great majority of people. The underlying cause of that is something the Intellectual Class may not want to hear, particularly given the (unpopular-among-them) leading source of the diagnosis. (Hint: it has to do with a psycho-epistemological malady known in Objectivist circles as rationalism - in essence, the worship of floating abstractions; theoretical castles in the sky untethered from concrete, practical, everyday, inductively-integrated reality.)
I'd like to provide a case in point in this diagnostic exercise: John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. By way of contrast I will pit this work against Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
The theme of Theory is, as best as I can determine, something which Rawls calls "justice as fairness": principles of justice are determined by a hypothetical procedure involving impartial (as in "behind a veil of ignorance" - think of the statue of the blindfolded woman with the scales) moral agents deciding upon reasonable terms for how the benefits and burdens of social cooperation will be distributed. In Rawls's well-known theory - and not to belabor the point too much given the context of this blog entry - these agents would decide on principles that respect both libertarian and egalitarian concerns; the most controversial of these principles - again, what these hypothetical moral agents would supposedly agree upon as reasonable given their ignorance of the place they would occupy in the real world, so that they don't unfairly tip the scales in favor of one group (or representative individual) or other - is the Difference Principle, a "maximin" principle which ensures the most advantageous bundle of goods and opportunities possible for those in the least-advantageous position in the real-world society. The underlying "fairness" premise for this is that the attainment of a great many of the goods and opportunities in people's lives is not effectively within their control; rather, this is greatly affected by factors such as innate talent-endowment (e.g., intelligence), upbringing, and economic circumstances.
In theory (ahem), this sounds reasonable enough, right? It is, after all, the product of many years of thinking about social justice by a man who, as it turns out, is a professor of philosophy at Harvard University. So this theory of justice-as-fairness should make a heck of splash on the American scene, right? And not just in academic circles (where it has received huge amounts of attention), right?
It hasn't worked out that way. Rawls's theory is hardly at all a factor in today's political culture. This may be due to a combination of one or more of the following factors: (1) American culture is too anti-intellectual to appreciate the work of its best philosophers; (2) The academy has done a lackluster job of transmitting the content of this work to the public and its leaders; (3) The theory just doesn't hold up all that well under scrutiny - e.g., the criticism provided by Rawls's Harvard colleague Robert Nozick in Part Two of his libertarian treatise, Anarchy, State, and Utopia; (4) Rawls's theory holds little appeal in a nation founded on Jeffersonian-individualist ideals; (5) Translating this theory into real-world application may prove exceedingly difficult (which ties into point 3); Rawls's theory calls for a property-owning democracy, for instance, which might run into insuperable constitutional challenges among other things. I think all of these factors sound plausible individually or in combination.
By contrast, the theme of Rand's Atlas Shrugged is "the role of the mind in man's existence." (How many mediots could tell you what the theme of the novel is?) In Aristotelian/perfectivist terms, this could be stated as: The common form of human flourishing is the activity of living thoughtfully and intelligently. Any sound constitutional or legislative social policy needs to be centered around recognition of this inescapable reality. Is Rawls, like Rand, appropriately laser-focused on this reality when formulating his theory of social justice? Or does his theory mostly miss the point by focusing on things that aren't this fundamental? Isn't a vociferous campaign to promote the maximal perfection of peoples' intellectual potentialities the way to go? The basic preconditions for making that happen don't seem to rest upon a maximin principle arrived at from behind a hypothetical veil of ignorance, do they?
(Rest assured, Yours Truly will be hard at work - as time and interest permit, of course - trying to figure out how Rawls's theory might be beefed up along these lines so as to be rescued from irrelevance. Perhaps the hypothetical agents behind the veil of ignorance would bargain for a maximin principle along intellectual-perfection lines? How would that work? What if philosophically-informed education from an early age involving habituation in the art of mental unit-economy is basically what it takes? And since when is government-based coercion the preferred default approach to implementing principles of justice? Where did that ever come from? And if the parties bargaining behind the veil of ignorance are still informed morally speaking, would they approve of the coercion to make the purportedly desirable outcome happen? If a real-world just society presupposes real-world virtuous people - ethics having hierarchical priority over politics, after all - would a just polity need government coercion to make happen what a just people would most likely have implemented already? Perhaps this, in briefest essence - by appeal to eudaimonistic ethical principles, entailing the recognition of the social dimensions of self-actualization - is the way Rawls's theory could be, um, perfected upon? Are you listening, "Bleeding Heart Libertarians," you who focus on the "just initial distribution of resources" while leaving out mention of the most important and productive resource of all: irreducibly-self-cultivated human intelligence? Shooting fish in a barrel here, again?)
What might Aristotle say about these contrasting perspectives, and how might be "dialectically reconcile" them? Put another way: which of these two thinkers is more Aristotle-like? (One thing to look at in answering this is: which thinker is more systematic in addressing the fundamental questions of human existence? Another thing to ask is: which thinker does a better job of responding to alternative viewpoints? Here it's a complicated matter: Rand's polemical style is usually pretty bad (stemming from an otherwise understandable high estimation of herself as a thinker in all respects on all matters philosophical), while Rawls addresses libertarianism in the space of one paragraph in the most final culmination of his work, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001); in contrast, Nozick spent 50 pages addressing Rawls's theory in AS&U. Is this what qualifies as "fair and balanced" in contemporary academic political philosophy? One paragraph vs. 50 pages: which do you expect would challenge the reader's mind more? It would have to be a damn good paragraph or a pretty lousy 50 pages for the epistemic jury to conclude that the prosecution/defense outdid the other side.) And, most significantly for this here discussion, how would Aristotle go about transmitting his ideas in practically-workable terms to the general public?
I'm more than happy to sound like a broken record here: as the intellectuals go, so goes the nation. And when the Intellectual Class - the group of professional idea-merchants - manages to succeed to a dazzling extent at divorcing the world of ideas from the requirements of everyday living - you know, the common charge leveled against "heads-in-the-clouds philosophers" - the recipient populace is bound to be intellectually inept at doing what philosophically-informed people would do - e.g., maximally integrate mentally, and flourish.
Back to the original topic at hand: a citizenry-electorate gets basically the leadership it deserves. An intellectually-deficient (ignorant; vicious) citizenry will quite logically end up with the sort of perverse national leadership we are witnessing today. The leading case-in-point is not even the idiots on some House committee, but the President. This president's pedigree is seemingly top-notch - once the president of the Harvard Law Review, for crying out loud - but you, reader, need to do a double-take here: Harvard. Harvard liberalism. John Rawls. Not Aristotle. Rawls. Not systematic and integrated approach to philosophical questions - especially in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics - but predominant focus on political philosophy, which is hierarchically derivative of these areas of study. It's no wonder that the President is abysmally, manifestly ignorant of arguably the nation's most influential public intellectual of the last half-century. (Influential, not due to widespread understanding of Rand, per se - that is, understanding of Rand as she herself understood her own ideas - but due to the power of ideas and individual competence at propagating them, the competence in her case stemming from that very understanding.)
(I'll formulate one standard for understanding Ayn Rand as follows, as per the Huffington Post article I just linked: the Don Watkins Test. It's not even as stringent as what I'd term the Leonard Peikoff Test, which maybe 1,000 people at most could pass; I might be off by an order of magnitude in either direction here. Anyway: If the ARI's Don Watkins says you don't understand jackshit about Ayn Rand, then it's a safe bet that you don't understand jackshit about Ayn Rand. (It doesn't hurt to have exposure to the right influences from early on. ;-) Also, why doesn't Watkins have a tenured Ivy League professorship, like, yesterday?) And, as Watkins correctly implies, our President doesn't understand jackshit about Ayn Rand - and no thanks to his Harvard pedigree. As I said in one of my earlier rants, Jefferson - who would philosophize circles around our current pathetic excuse for a leader (so, is he going to enforce those federal drug laws, or not? just one straight fucking answer would be a welcome surprise) - wouldn't dare fail to understand Rand. He'd most likely be conversant with the folks at the ARI to be doubly (perfectively?) sure he understood her well enough before speaking about her. By the way, a pattern of pathological behavior, among the left-wing hit-piece artists most especially, is to smear Rand without so much as checking with the ARI for accuracy, comment, or input. Leftist SCUM....)
So, um, I think I've run out of new material for now, on this particular topic. There are only so many ways to say and prove that our political system is intellectual bankrupt. As usual, it's up to you, reader, to integrate this material and act accordingly. The task ahead is by no means easy, but in a way it is: all one has to do is think. (h/t Peikoff) Oh, also: how Andrew Sullivan spends/wastes so much time covering the everyday minutiae pertaining to all this blatant idiocy, without seeking out the fundamental underlying cause, much less not going fucking bonkers, is beyond me. Something something Orwell quote seeing what is in front of one's nose needing a constant struggle, or something. Evidently, some just take that quote to heart more than others do, and end up blogging circles around them with much less verbiage. If people only understood the power of philosophy - especially the best philosophy - to improve human affairs, they'd know where to look (hint: it's not the Dish). The emerging challenge: figuring out how to get them to understand and look. That $107 trillion fiscal cluster-fuck and sundry other problems could be solved easily if only they would.