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A More Fundamental Problem

December 25th, 2008 by Inspector · 11 Comments · Culture, Politics

It struck me, the other day, just how much time I have to spend making a case that so-called “moderate” wings of the dreadful movements that America faces are effectively indistinguishable from the so-called “radical” or “extreme” wings. That it is not just, to give a few (by no means exhaustive) examples, “radical” Environmentalism, “radical” Marxism, or “radical” Islam which require steadfast opposition, but Environmentalism as such, Marxism as such, and Islam as such which must be opposed.

This shouldn’t be as hard as it is. The central ideas of all these movements are essentially disastrous and in complete opposition to the individual rights that formed the basis of what America was founded on. It isn’t just that respect for individual rights is fading from our culture in the face of the onslaught of the aforementioned movements and their kin. Granted, this is a factor, but it doesn’t account for the systematic dismissal I’ve observed of any attempt at opposition. People have been disarmed against judgment of any movement by its fundamental meaning. The unspoken yet widely pernicious cultural view I’ve seen is that differences of simple degree and consistency should be allowed to excuse things which are fundamentally alike.

I’ve come to understand that this failure represents a form of systematic denial – one that has far-reaching consequences to any effort to save our country from the disintegration of individual rights that these movements are foisting upon us.

***

To illustrate what this denial means, consider the example of the difference between a petty thief and a murderer.

Every petty thief accepts in his soul the same basic premises as a mass murderer. In both cases, it is only cowardice and self-deception that keeps the pikers small; not any difference in kind. That is, the self-deception to believe that one’s premises don’t lead to the horrible ends that they actually do, and the cowardice to not face that fact. Meanwhile, they act on their premises, walking in small steps toward that end which they refuse to believe is there.

A petty thief may never murder anyone – but he nevertheless acts on the premise of Death, destroying men’s lives in smaller and more spread out, but no less real, ways. Every thief murders his victims in part because by taking their property, he takes the life and effort that were spent to make the things he takes. Concurrently, a murderer is a thief that takes the whole thing, irreplaceably. Because a thief doesn’t take quite so much, however, he can try to deny to himself the evil that he does.

Although the degree of punishment that the law places on murder and theft differs, (mostly because the damage of theft can at least partly be replaced) both acts are nevertheless universally recognized as crime; as an attack on not just the direct victims, but also on the rights of all men – and as such as an assault on civilization itself. Yet the same cannot be said for the so-called “moderates” in movements, even where the radicals are generally recognized as threatening.

***

Just as petty thieves deny or refuse to see that they act on the premise of murder, so the petty Statists (“moderate” Environmentalists, Muslims, Marxists, and so on) and their various apologists are self-blinded to the final and inevitable conclusions of the movements that they support and/or acquiesce to. (Welfare Statism to Communism, the mingling of church and state to theocracy, and Environmentalism to Ludditism if not outright human extinction – though the full enumeration of these is beyond the scope of this article.)

In both examples, there is a common philosophical force driving the ignorance – or refusal to see – the lack of fundamental difference between the “moderates” and the more consistent practitioners.

This source is Pragmatism: the refusal to look at matters in principle. Philosopher Leonard Peikoff explains,

By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue “practicality,” but refrains from specifying any “rigid” set of values that could serve to define the concept. As a result, pragmatists—despite their repudiation of all systems of morality—are compelled, if they are to implement their ethical approach at all, to rely on value codes formulated by other, non-pragmatist moralists. As a rule the pragmatist appropriates these codes without acknowledging them; he accepts them by a process of osmosis, eclectically absorbing the cultural deposits left by the moral theories of his predecessors—and protesting all the while the futility of these theories.

The dominant, virtually the only, moral code advocated by modern intellectuals in Europe and in America is some variant of altruism. This, accordingly, is what most American pragmatists routinely preach . . .

In politics, also, pragmatism presents itself as opposed to “rigidity,” to “dogma,” to “extremes” of any kind (whether capitalist or socialist); it avows that it is relativist, “moderate,” “experimental.” As in ethics, however, so here: the pragmatist is compelled to employ some kind of standard to evaluate the results of his social experiments, a standard which, given his own self-imposed default, he necessarily absorbs from other, non-pragmatist trend-setters . . . When Dewey wrote, the political principle imported from Germany and proliferating in all directions, was collectivism.

The thief may be acting on the principle of murder, but he can get away with it in his own mind because, as a Pragmatist, he doesn’t concern himself with principles. If confronted with the consequences of his actions, a Pragmatist – just like the thief that ends up killing a man in the course of a robbery – will scream that he didn’t mean it, and he couldn’t have foreseen that things would come to this. He’s right, in a twisted way: without principles, he can’t foresee what anything he does will come to.

In their blind terror, the only thing Pragmatists can do is to run screaming from any consistency at all. They know, deep down, that the only difference between themselves – the thieves – and the bloody murderers of the world is that the latter are consistent. The problem is that virtuous, principled men are consistent, also. But the pragmatist makes no distinction between the two. Without principles, he is incapable of such distinctions – he knows only that consistency, for him, is the road to a dark place he dare not visit. He is thus trapped – his only defense mechanism is also the very thing that pulls him constantly toward, and work in the service of, what he knows on some level to be evil.

And so they simply deny the whole thing – as with any principle, they refuse to see it; they refuse to think of the consequences. They look only to the immediate moment – to expediency, to action, to “what works.” (and without principles, they have no real way to measure “working” as opposed to failure)

Enabling this denial is the unfortunate fact that government adds a layer of abstraction: men have the power to do, by proxy of the government, things that their consciences would never permit them to do personally. The same man who voted for the politician who platformed on the expansion of welfare might never break into the house of his neighbor and take his money at gunpoint. But it is, of course, the same thing: both morally and in results. Men of principle know this because they can see it. Concrete-bound Pragmatists, however, can fail or refuse to see it.

The thief can merely pretend that his crimes don’t take men’s lives (in part). But he still has to accept that he robs them. Acting through the state takes this one step further: since men don’t personally take the actions they vote into place, they can pretend that no crimes happen at all. They can hide behind vagaries like “progressive income taxes,” “carbon trading programs” and “universal healthcare.” All of the above mean only one thing: plain, naked, jackbooted force, but they happen out of sight and so it is easier for the Pragmatist to push them into law, or at least fail to resist them.

And Politics, of course, acts on a scale that makes the petty Statist much more dangerous than any petty thief.

Most Americans are not Communists. Nevertheless, America did passively allow such men as Franklin D Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and now George W Bush to implement and then massively grow a welfare state which has gone most of the way to implementing the 10 planks of the Communist Manifesto. It was Pragmatism which stopped men from opposing this transformation on principle. It was Pragmatism which said, “well maybe just a little bit,” while the bits added up to trillions. In precisely the same way as the thief’s Pragmatism says, “I won’t kill men… I’ll just rob them a ‘little bit.'”

Like every Pragmatist accomplice to the mass-murderers of history, today’s apologists refuse to take the movements they support at face value. Most citizens of Nazi Germany did not advocate the extermination of the Jews. They simply refused to believe that their leaders really meant what they said and would carry through to the end the premises that they advocated. They believed that the more consistent men they supported would stop short for some reason. And so they continued to feed and support their movement and put it into power, where it did everything that it had promised.

This will be the direction of Environmentalism, Islamism, and the encroaching growth of state control of the economy if they are not stopped. Not “reformed,” mind you, any more than one could ask to reform the Nazis, but stopped and stopped not only at the “extreme,” but also at the supposedly “moderate” level.

And the major obstacle to this won’t be Environmentalism, Islam, ideological Marxism, or similar. It was Pragmatism which has brought the culture and the country to the point where they are today, with the success of each movement possible only because of the philosophic disarmament that the near universal spread of Pragmatism has enacted.

If we are to find success in restoring individual rights and ousting those movements which are assaulting them, Pragmatism will have to be addressed. We will have to learn its sources and its workings, and present an opposition to Pragmatism as systematic as the ones needed for any of the individual movements that it has enabled.

-Inspector

11 Comments so far ↓

  • L-C

    Outside Objectivism and and among the more consistent collectivists, the idea that ideas matter is unknown and unacknowledged.

    The rest will be led straight to hell if you walk them slowly enough. Without realizing the essential unity of “moderate” and “extreme” (today, the latter is merely a dysphemism for consistent) irrationalism, regarding them instead as fundamentally different, you will be powerless to resist either.

    A is A. The same cause, in the same context, will always lead to the same consequences. I urge anyone who accepts a little tyranny in government to test their premises by employing the ample analogy of eating a pound of sandwhich with an ounce of ricin.

    I have also given a good amount of thought to the proxy of violence that the government supplies. All those dressed up politicians sitting in their neat offices, launching death through police officers with guns. I bet it’s warm and cozy in there. And I’m not talking about the tax-paid offices.

  • Inspector

    L-C, you have taught me a new word: dysphemism. Thank you for that – it’s quite the mot juste for “extreme.”

  • mike

    That’s a good piece ‘inspector’ – I think your claim as to the historical importance of Pragmatism is bang on.

    This was particularly well put:

    “The same man who voted for the politician who platformed on the expansion of welfare might never break into the house of his neighbor and take his money at gunpoint. But it is, of course, the same thing: both morally and in results. Men of principle know this because they can see it. Concrete-bound Pragmatists, however, can fail or refuse to see it.”

    The notion of ‘seeing’ the future using principles as opposed to being ‘blind’ without them ought to be a staple mention throughout ‘our’ part of the blogosphere.

    What I see is widespread social disorder, economic collapse and/or world war in my lifetime – I’m 29. But I’m also trying to see something better, but it isn’t so clear.

  • madmax

    “…but Environmentalism as such, Marxism as such, and Islam as such which must be opposed.”

    This is one of the reasons why I dislike terms such as “Islamo-fascism” or “Islamic Totalitarianism”. The latter which is constantly used by ARI. Islam is fascist and totalitarian by its very nature. The qualifiers are redundant and dangerously as they lead one to believe that it is only the radical branches of Islam that are dangerous and not the whole religion.

    “Most Americans are not Communists. Nevertheless, America did passively allow such men as Franklin D Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and now George W Bush to implement and then massively grow a welfare state…”

    This gets to the question of whether men like Bush and Obama can be called “socialists” or “communists”. In one sense they are not, as you point out. But in another sense they are because that is the end of the road for their ideas as you also illustrate. I’m thinking of calling all of these people (Bush, Obama, Clinton(s), Paulson, Bernake, Greenspan, etc) Welfare-State Fascists. That term links the welfare state with fascism, something most people today, especially liberals, consistently deny.

    “We will have to learn its sources and its workings, and present an opposition to Pragmatism…”

    Binswanger recently said it is the absence of a proper defense of reason that is killing the West. He commented that it is the inability to connect concepts to perceptual concretes, to defend the hierarchical progression of concepts, and to argue that knowledge is essentially inductive which is responsible for the rise of Pragmatism. In short, Objectivism has to defeat skepticism, empiricism and relativism which are the dominant philosophical themes of our era, especially among secularists.

    As I see it the ultimate battle is epistemological and the ultimate victory will be attained when Rand’s epistemology dominates the universities. After that, politics will fall in line.

  • Rob Diego

    What is needed is a battle; a philosophical battle for capitalism…an uncompromising stand for capitalism…a battle that holds that you are either for capitalism or you are against it. That would be the antidote to the many pragmatists who claim to advocate capitalism but who are responsible for the growth of government and the violations of individual rights.

  • C.T.

    “The same man who voted for the politician who platformed on the expansion of welfare might never break into the house of his neighbor and take his money at gunpoint. But it is, of course, the same thing: both morally and in results.”

    The best illustration of this point I’ve seen is a piece written by Neal Boortz a few years ago, though I’ve little doubt he’s not the first to illustrate it this way. Briefly, and completely paraphrased:

    A woman goes into a gov’t welfare office and applies for assistance. She sits down with a gov’t agent for an interview. She explains her situation, answers the man’s questions, and after a while he says, “Okay, you’re approved for gov’t assistance. Here you go,” and he slides a handgun across the table to her.

    She looks wide-eyed at the gun and asks the man, “What’s that for?” He replies, “You’re approved for welfare assistance. You now have the gov’t’s approval to take money from other people in order to support yourself.”

    She says, “That’s insane! I’m not going to ROB people! I want YOU to GIVE me the money!”

    The man says, “Well, where do you think I would get the money to give to you?”

    “But I don’t want to rob anyone!”

    The man responds, “But you’ll let me do it FOR you?”
    ____________________

    Not a bad way to make the point, I think.

  • Inspector

    Mike,

    On “collapse,” I’m back and forth on seeing the same thing – I have my good days and my bad ones. I do remain convinced, however, that it is at least *possible* to fight an intellectual battle to change the culture and, with it, the political scene.

    Madmax,

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali put it best on the topic of Islam. To paraphrase, Islam is totalitarian by its nature and any reformation would be so radical that the result could no longer properly be called Islam at all. She is certainly in a position to know that, first-hand. If you must make a distinction, I think John Lewis put it best with Islamism, or State Islam, to distinguish the political wing.

    For politicians, I think that in this context, Fascism is probably the closest identifier – or perhaps more specifically, Socialism on the German model (as Mises put it). I’ve used “Socialist” to refer to Obama, however, because he was an actual real-live Marxist professor. He’s gone on the record, however, as saying he’ll be more than willing to water down what he wants to get it pushed through into law.

    Rob,

    I’m in full agreement. The Republicans, for example, lost my vote in the recent election, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

    C.T.,

    That *is* a good way of putting it!

  • Phoroneus

    Has The New Clarion assembled a team of all my favorite writers from the Objectivist blogosphere? Good lord you men have taken it upon yourselves to build a monster!

  • Bill Brown

    Thank you! I, too, am amazed at how many great people accepted our invitation. We’ve got more coming still!

  • Khartoum

    Wow! Great post and awesome comments. Honestly, I’ve never understood pragmatism as well as I have after reading your post. I plan to re-read the whole thing!

  • Inspector

    Thanks, Khartoum. I am glad to be able to draw some attenti0n to this issue because I think it will be the key nut to crack, going forward.