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By Grace of “Amazing”: How Cory Doctorow is Helping to Destroy His Own Professed Values

By Jim May · November 9th, 2012 2:38 pm · 4 Comments ·


The men who are not interested in philosophy need it most urgently: they are most helplessly in its power.

The men who are not interested in philosophy absorb its principles from the cultural atmosphere around them—from schools, colleges, books, magazines, newspapers, movies, television, etc. Who sets the tone of a culture? A small handful of men: the philosophers. Others follow their lead, either by conviction or by default.


On September 27, I tweeted that Conor Friedersdorf “does not understand the Left, at any level”.  I did so on the grounds of this article by Friedersdorf, which included this line:

I don’t see how anyone who confronts Obama’s record with clear eyes can enthusiastically support him. I do understand how they might concluded that he is the lesser of two evils, and back him reluctantly, but I’d have thought more people on the left would regard a sustained assault on civil liberties and the ongoing, needless killing of innocent kids as deal-breakers(Emphasis mine.)

I, who do understand the Left, immediately thought: *Why* would anyone ever think that?



Friedersdorf is one of an ever-shrinking cadre of otherwise sharp individuals who cling to the illusion that Leftism is “liberal”, despite the clear evidence over the years that liberalism (properly understood) is *incompatible* with Leftism.  That such men still exist is, to me, a remarkable — one might even say amazing — fact.  It’s easy to blame it on evasion, concrete-bound mentalities etc. but those explanations, in addition to being Objectivist-syncratic, were never satisfactory to me.  There is more to it, a “more” which I have been exploring by means of the principle of ideological causality.

Then along came another example of a “civil liberty” Leftist brushing up against the contradictions involved in his position.  This time, the person involved shows a greater level of awareness, both of self and of the contradiction.  Even better, his experience offers a rare snapshot into the very mechanism by which ideological causality works in men, including those who do not deal in ideas.

Cory Doctorow, another “civil liberties” Leftist like Friedersdorf, tweeted the following after President Obama’s re-election:

Amazing to think that that I’m relieved at the victory of the pro-wiretapping, pro-extrajudicial-assassination, anti-whistleblower candidate.

As with Friedersdorf, my initial reaction: why would that be “amazing to think”? That’s the logic of being Leftist, there’s nothing amazing about it at all — to me.

But when I considered why would it would be amazing to Doctorow, that’s when it struck me how rich a snapshot his tweet really is, a perfectly timed photoflash exposure of the process by which ideas move a man’s mind.  Let’s step through it.

Doctorow’s tweet describes two emotions, one a reaction to the other: first, relief, and then amazement upon reflection.

The relief Doctorow experienced is a response to the fact of President Obama’s re-election.  It is (to Doctorow) a primary.  The amazement on the other hand, follows from his conscious evaluation of that emotion, in the context of his **professed** value — his civil-libertarian concerns with wiretapping, rule of law and whistleblowers.

That “relief” emotion is the more important one; the reason why it came first, is because it is a function of Doctorow’s deeper premises, the ideas he has internalized and that define (and truly **motivate**) him.  For far too many people — including Doctorow, as we’ll see in a moment — these premises are unacknowledged and unintrospected; such people become aware of them only in the form of seemingly unaccountable emotions, or “internal voices”, which can and often do conflict — sometimes violently — with one’s consciously held ideas, values and intentions.

Doctorow’s “amazement” is his sense of just such a conflict.  He sees Obama as a problematic president for several reasons, according to his conscious convictions, but the summary result coming from his initial emotional reaction – the one connected to his reactive subconscious — is *relief*.

Doctorow’s relief emotion is telling him that, at a deeper level, he believes the following:

1. there are things that are more important than civil liberties

2. those things were served by the election of a president who is plainly hostile to those civil liberties

3. In accordance with point #1, this result is a good thing.

Summation: “relief”.

That’s an important clue.  That Doctorow found this reaction “amazing” is because he is sufficiently self-aware to note the apparent incongruity with his professed (or “public”) values, and to tell us about it — but not sufficiently aware to know its source, to know the terms of the summation that the “relief” emotion represents. Those are the unchecked premises.  We know they are not checked, because if they were, Doctorow would not find their revelation “amazing” any more than I did.

Now we get to why I found this tweet so remarkable.  It represents a snapshot of how the logic of ideas move a man.

First, recall that the Left is *essentially* collectivist and nihilist.  Its end of road is not merely tyranny, or war, or mass murder; those are just waypoints on the road, means to the end.  That end-of-road is a negative, the annihilation of one idea — autonomous man, the sovereign individual, and of every derivative thereof: idea connected to these things: free will, moral individualism, political freedom/capitalism, the Enlightenment, the United States.  This is the road traveled by all Leftists whether they know it or not.

This essential core acts as a logical “attractor” of sorts, setting the logical flow of ideas (or “direction of traffic”) towards the end-of-road for anyone who accepts Leftist premises. It does so whether the premises are consciously held, picked up passively by cultural osmosis, or internalized via logical implication of accepted derivative ideas.  It doesn’t matter where a man was when he started, nor where he imagines his intended destination to be.

It does so by both conscious logic and, below the level at which any given man deals with ideas, via their emotions.

I have written before about how this process moves cultures; in Doctorow’s tweet, we gain a snapshot of the mechanism in action, of how this process happens in one man.  As Ayn Rand once said, in a quote which anticipates ideological causality:

The enormously powerful integrating mechanism of man’s consciousness is there at birth; his only choice is to drive it or be driven by it.

How does this mechanism drive men?  How does it drive a man?

Ideological causality runs in both directions.  That integrating mechanism works out the downstream logical consequences of an idea, “If A, then follows B”; it also works out the upstream implications of said idea: “If B, than implies A”. (This is why the starting position ultimately doesn’t matter.)

Highly intelligent minds perform this integration with greater speed and to greater depth.  This is why intelligent Leftists are often the most extreme, unhinged ones; they are fast travelers on the roads of ideas.  Being much more hostile to hypocrisy than their conservative counterparts, intelligent Leftists are also much more prone to willfully travel all the way to the end of the road, even embracing the truth of the hell that awaits them there.

What Doctorow’s tweet demonstrates is the tension between “surface” ideas (his putative concern for “civil liberties”) and the logical, essential core.  His integrating mechanism has worked out the logical consequences of his Leftism to a further stage than he is willing to admit — and when it gave him the results by an emotion, he was “amazed” to see the apparent contradiction.

What exactly did his emotions tell him?  What is the “something” that is more important than civil liberties?  That a Leftist like Obama be in power. Power > “civil liberties”.

That is the reality of being Leftist, which is to me an unremarkable fact, but Doctorow found “amazing” to glimpse, and which escapes Friedersdorf despite all the evidence he has at hand.  This is the process by which the core premises of any ideology move a man towards a destination which he may very well, in all sincerity, wish to avoid.

At the cultural level, the same thing happens when the inconsistent one faces attack from the more logically consistent (“extreme”) factions on their own side.  Liberals gave way to socialists, socialists give way to fascists/communists.  “In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins“, as Ayn Rand put it.

Even the notion of “civil liberties” shows the pattern; it is a watered-down remnant of the principle of individual rights inherited from genuine liberalism, but shrunken down to exclude economic/property rights and stripped of its absolutism — an increasingly threadbare “Edgar suit” of liberalism for the Left.  Where “individual rights” is a principle, “civil liberties” are merely “A Good Thing”, one of many tokens on the table which are to be weighed against other such tokens, like the “public good”… and whose relative heft in such weighings is, logically, ever-decreasing.

Wonder no longer why men sense that something is wrong, but continue to move towards the cliff.  They know something is wrong, they sense the logic of their ideas, but for lack of something — most often, an understanding of ideas, their logic and their *power* — they continue traveling down the road to hell with a dread sense of inevitability.  They smell the smoke, they feel the heat, but their damned eyes are closed.  Ayn Rand put her finger on this one too:

Today, the voices proclaiming disaster are so fashionable a bromide that people are battered into apathy by their monotonous insistence; but the anxiety under that apathy is real. Consciously or subconsciously, intellectually or emotionally, most people today know that the world is in a terrible state and that it cannot continue on its present course much longer. …

People do not want to find any answers to avert their danger; all they want, all they are looking for, is only some excuse to yell “But I couldn’t help it!”

I don’t doubt that men like this — Conor Friedersdorf, Cory Doctorow, Glenn Greenwald are three examples — would dismiss in all sincerity the notion that they *intend* to lead us to hell.  I also don’t doubt that they, in all sincerity, are capable of reversing direction and overriding the logic of Leftism — sometimes, on particular issues (as Greenwald did on free speech recently).  Men have free will after all.

Of course, if they *can* reverse course, they can do so for good — and they are therefore responsible for their choice not to do so.

And that is why they remain morally responsible for their contribution to the results, such as they are, and will not be absolved for them.


4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim May // Nov 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    On the off chance that Doctorow, Friedersdorf or any of their defenders should show up here, I’ll put some pre-emptives in the comments here.

    1. The “relief” was just because Romney was/would have been worse (followed by tons of concrete data, links etc. calculated to drag me down into a discussion of minutiae, Bill McKibben-style)

    Apart from being a highly incredible claim, the reality is that Romney would have been “worse” (from the standpoint of either individual rights or “civil liberties”) than Obama in precisely the same manner as Obama was worse than Bush — i.e. all inherited policies would continue, and he’d add a few new ones of his own. Moreover, Obama now is free of concerns with re-election, whereas Romney wouldn’t have been. If you think Obama was bad for “civil liberties” now, wait until he really gets going.

    Also, being Leftists, these defenders will not factor in economic freedom at all in that calculus, which destroys it right there. (I’ve already blown up that “economic vs. political freedom” BS here). Since I do factor those things in, my view is that Romney, on net, had a very small potential to be better.

    2. You’d have felt relief or some other good feeling, if “your” guy had won.

    Finally: while Romney was my preference, it was so barely. I wouldn’t have experienced any “relief” had he won. I would have experienced nothing, as my “side” was unrepresented in the election.

  • 2 Steve D // Nov 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    ‘is that Romney would have been “worse”’
    The question is not whether Romney would have been worse than Obama I but whether Romney would have been worse than Obama II will be. (This is the proper control experiment but it can never be done)
    ‘I would have experienced nothing, as my “side” was unrepresented in the election.’
    On fundamental terms, it was like Aristotle forced to silently endure a debate between Plato and Kant.

  • 3 c andrew // Nov 10, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Hi Jim,

    Nice to have you back. I particularly like your posts on ideological causality as the practical extension of Rand’s principles.

    In reference to your link to “One Liberty, Indivisible” I’d like to point you to this book. I think that it is an example of ideational causation on the other side of the election manifested concretely in the utterances of Akin, Mourdock and Paul “Rape is just another form of conception” Ryan.

    A telling quote from the first review offers something of a taste of the authors’ mindset:

    When the authors say that one must strive for freedom, they are not saying that one must be able to do whatever they want to do. As they put it, freedom is “getting to do what you don’t want to do, not to do what you want to do.”

    As Steve says above and on Gus Van Horn’s site, this was a knuckle duster between Plato and Kant. And unfortunately, after 4 more years of Kant, those Platonists might look a lot more attractive.

    c. andrew

  • 4 Richard // Nov 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Love your fascinating posts on ideological causality. Just wanted to let you know.