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Why We Can’t All Just Get Along

March 5th, 2009 by Bill Brown · 17 Comments · Politics

Moderation in life is a good thing. We must balance our long-term plans with the need for short-term rewards. So we forego spending today so we can save for a vacation six months from now. Many of us drink alcohol but we stop before we get drunk. Life is about taking an expansive view of our interests in these and countless other ways.

Along the same lines, there is value in keeping an open mind about subjects. Dogmatism, which means the refusal to think, leads one away from a reality orientation by turning a blind eye towards contradictory facts. But an open mind is not a wide-open mind, considering each new proposition devoid of context. And it also does not mean that there are no absolutes; you can achieve certainty about particular conclusions you have reached through careful deliberation.

But there are fundamental distinctions about which you cannot be silent. There are fundamental decisions you simply must make. The nature and existence of God is one such decision. Another is freedom versus slavery. These types of choices demand confrontation and it is one or the other that must prevail. Admixtures are unpalatable at best and fatal at worst.

That is why I view the political moderate as a despicable creature. Like agnostics, faced with a choice between two fundamentally conflicting viewpoints, he shrugs and says, “Who am I to know?” David Brooks’s recent manifesto is a bold statement of a lack of boldness, a defense of an indefensible position.

The political fecklessness and intellectual vapidity Brooks laments about the centrists stem from an inherent lack of principle. The two camps are principled: the liberals believe that the state is supreme and should be able to do whatever is necessary to further its aims; the capitalists believe that individual rights are sacrosanct and that government is instituted to secure and protect those rights. The man in the middle—Brooks in this case—objects only to the rigidity of both positions. He seeks a “vision that puts competitiveness and growth first, not redistribution first.” Redistribution is not out of the question; it just should not be the first priority.

In this political calculus, it is only the capitalist vision that must capitulate. Once the sanctity of the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property is conceded, then it is just a matter of degree—the state is supreme, it faces no limit in principle. If you get a group in power that is more oriented towards freedom, then people might get more of what they earn or face less strictures on their activities. But there is nothing to stop the next group from rolling back those concessions or tightening the handcuffs.

This is no time for moderation of our appetite for liberty. Let us be immoderate! We must not be open to the ideas of slavery. Let us be close-minded! Circle the wagons, truck no compromise, revel in their failures. To paraphrase Churchill, we shall fight them on the blogs, we shall fight them in the newspapers, we shall fight them in the town halls; we must never surrender.

17 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew Dalton

    From David Brooks:

    “Those of us who consider ourselves moderates — moderate-conservative, in my case — are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was.”

    So the “moderates” like Brooks have chosen to wear an epistemological “Kick Me” sign, and then they act surprised when they discover the Left’s boot print on their rears.

  • EdMcGon

    I take a contrarian view on this. Let Obama/Pelosi/Reid screw up the country.

    While it will be painful, it will also teach the American people a lesson. They ignored the possibility of Obama’s socialist tendencies in the last election. After seeing what will happen under socialism, I doubt most of them will ignore socialism again.

  • Burgess Laughlin

    1. My favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand has written about the phrase “open mind” (and “closed mind”). See “‘Open Mind’ and ‘Closed’ Mind” in The Ayn Rand Lexicon at http://aynrandlexicon.com .

    I agree with her view that “active mind” and “passive mind” are more objective terms/ideas because they identify the essential characteristic involved: reason is a process — an action, not a state of being.

    2. Concerning “dogma,” my position — based on etymology, conventional usage, and the usage of my favorite philosophers — is that dogma is not the refusal to think but rather a consequence of the refusal to think.

    Dogmatism is the belief (-ism) that one should accept the teachings of an alleged authority (the Bible, the Church, the Party, the guru) without evidence and without proof. (The term/idea dogma in Greek means “the thing seeming best,” that is, an opinion, “teaching,” or decree) So, dogma is a consequence of a desire not to think and the desire that others accept doctrines and not think about them.

  • Burgess Laughlin

    > “. . . it will also teach the American people a lesson.”

    One of the problems of learning “lessons” from history (ancient or recent) is that the lessons (the conclusions) depend on at least these two factors:

    1. The evidence examined — is it true, is it complete, is it properly understood?

    2. The philosophical and methodological context for the identification of the facts of history and for the evaluation of those facts.

    If the economy further collapses under the Bush-Obama administration, then the lesson learned might be: “We didn’t go far enough!” or “The ideas were right, but the personnel were wrong, so let’s keep the ideas and find more ruthless or more competent personnel.”

    Ideas cause history, but ideas don’t exist in isolation. To learn a lesson from history, one must have the philosophical context set in place first and one must have the appropriate, objective evidence at hand and one must know how to evaluate it.

    That is the job of objective historians who are also intellectual activists.

  • Myrhaf

    If Obama fails and the Democrats suffer a backlash, it will be interesting to see what the left concludes from it all. They might think something like, “Capitalists use freedom to blind people with greed. The planet’s only hope is a benign dictatorship. People must be ruled by altruistic philosopher-kings for their own good.”

    They might already think all that. Some fear that Obama is intentionally destroying the stock market in order to get Americans to put themselves into government hands instead of depending on private investment for their security.

  • Bill Brown

    Darn it! I knew I should have cracked open the copy of Objectively Speaking I just received last night. “Since the basic question today is freedom versus statism, or individual rights versus government controls, to be a moderate is to advocate a moderate amount of statism, a moderate amount of injustice, a moderate amount of infringement of individual rights. Surely, nobody would call that a virtue.” (p. 25)

  • Jim May

    Agreed.

    But I have to ask that you consider not calling them “liberals” wherever possible. That is not what they are. The term is too completely destroyed in mainstream use to be salvaged in general discourse, but their appropriation of it is key to their goal of destroying the Enlightenment by discrediting it from within (with the full and eager assistance of the conservatives).

    They are Leftists, or socialists, or fascists, or progressivists, or even siblings to the conservatives. But they are most certainly not liberals.

    The first step to reclaiming the Enlightenment is to forcibly divorce that salutary movement from its Leftist usurpers at every point — starting here.

  • Bill Brown

    While I sympathize, I don’t think that anyone today who would recognize the appropriation of the term “liberal” would be suckered into thinking that these people are in that tradition. I think that the term is gone and has been for decades. At this point, and I hate to say it, it is just semantics.

    Ideally, I’d call them statists but few outside of the better circles would have the faintest idea to whom I’m referring.

  • Andrew Dalton

    I use the term “left-liberal” for those Democrats who aren’t full-blown leftists. It is understood by educated readers and also unambiguous.

  • Burgess Laughlin

    > “Ideally, I’d call them statists but few outside of the better circles would have the faintest idea to whom I’m referring.”

    Of course, what matters most about a word (which is just a symbol) is knowing which concept it symbolizes. Whichever word one chooses, a writer can avoid some misunderstandings simply by defining his term if it is unusual. The definition needn’t always be full and formal. It can be a simple sketch, a “that-is” statement.

    E.g., If, in writing for a general audience, I call President Obama a statist, then I can say:

    “. . . a statist — that is, someone who believes that government is superior to individual rights, especially the basic rights to life, liberty and property — . . .”

    I am not recommending that particular formulation, but only suggesting that there are writing techniques available for dealing with the problem of the ambiguity or vacuity of many political terms, for a particular audience.

  • Bill Brown

    That is a good point and good advice. Thanks for it!

  • EdMcGon

    Burgess,
    Until the American people learn the lessons of history, then they deserve the painful lesson. The only alternative to this is the statist approach, which flies in the face of freedom.

    Like mice in a maze, the American people will take some wrong turns, but they will eventually find the cheese.

  • Andrew Dalton

    “Like mice in a maze, the American people will take some wrong turns, but they will eventually find the cheese.”

    Will they? It certainly won’t happen automatically, through pure suffering. (This is the point that Burgess made.)

    The Russians certainly haven’t found the cheese yet.

  • EdMcGon

    Excellent point Andrew, but there are vast cultural differences between the U.S. and Russia. Russian culture has been yoked to authoritarian states throughout it’s history. A few years of dipping it’s toes in freedom isn’t enough to change the culture.

  • Jim May

    I know that the term “liberalism” has become destroyed for use in *general* discussion, as if it had *positive* meaning. That’s all the more reason to abandon its use in this context. I use the capitalized term “Leftist” to designate them.

    (Regarding the potential counterpart term “Rightist”, I don’t use that one because unlike the Left, the Right is not philosophically monolithic. I therefore use the term “conservatism” and “conservatives” to designate that side, as conservatism IS monolithic.)

    But *outside* that context — outside America, and among the more intellectual sort — the term retains much of its original Enlightenment meaning, thereby reinforcing the Left’s false claim to that heritage. That falsehood is a major stumbling block to America’s political life; it is a big part of why the Left is still taken seriously, instead of booted out of serious political discussion.

    I want to see the Left’s co-opting of the Enlightenment in the minstream mind challenged and ended — not reinforced. I want to break that link, and set the Left aside as being its enemy, not its heir. I want to see “liberalism” retired as a descriptor of the Left.

    That is why I draw the distinction between “liberalism” and “Leftism” wherever possible — wherever a Leftist attempts to lay claim to some genuinely liberal movement (such as anti-racism) in order to lump it in with their own profoundly illiberal ideas, I challenge them by distinguishing between liberalism and Leftism.

    This is necessary to the goal of eventually establishing *our* claim to the Enlightenment tradition. Until Objectivism is a dominant force in its own right, the Enlightenment’s remnants are all we’ve got — and if the Left and conservatism succeed in painting it as a complete disaster all the way too its roots in the mainstream mind, those seeking to restore it will just have that much steeper a cliff to climb.

    Someday, we’ll be able to identify Americanism as “liberalism” once more, but for now I just want to get it out of the Left’s shadow.

  • Rational Jenn

    Thank you for contributing to the carnival once again!

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