Tuesday, February 10, 2009

FEAR AND DEMOCRACY

Larry Beinhart has an article on Alternet: “The Right’s Jack Bauer Fantasy”.

The main point of his text, and a very good one, is that Fox’s TV show “24” used as its engine of action the insidiously complex ‘ticking bomb scenario’: if you know such and such a catastrophe is going to happen, but you don’t know exactly when and where so you can stop it, but then you capture somebody who does know, but he [curiously, always a ‘he’] isn’t telling, then can you torture him to find out?

This is the type of ‘problem’ tailor-made for the college bull session on a hazy, beer-or-bong-befogged night. For overeager young philosophy professors, it’s also one of those Day One ‘questions’ by which you hope to lure the attention of your Philosophy 101 students and prove to them the coolness and ‘relevance’ of philosophy (and of yourself, an economical two-fer).

The chances of all of these elements coming into play in one instance are – like ‘recovered memory’ – technically possible but improbable to an astronomical degree. Given the nature of definition ‘creep’, there’s a much greater chance that would-be torturers are going to define-the-emergency-down, so that what started out being approved ‘for emergencies’ is going to wind up as the default procedure for daily operations (much like the child-protection and sex-offender laws, not irrelevantly).

And the professionals themselves in military intelligence are clear and concise in their insistence that when torturing, you stand a far greater chance of being told what you want to hear by a terrified but still calculating human being who simply wants the pain and the terror to stop. That type of bad intel can get a lot of good people killed, and wreck military missions tactically and strategically.

The fact that We slid into this whole hideous habit – which many citizens still support – is the result of a number of factors corroding Our most mature capabilities over the past decades. For one thing, a monstrous failure in education, in preparing students to think critically and analyze and assess, has developed at all levels of schooling from Kindergarten to post-graduate professional schooling.

This development, this devolution, is the result of some awful synergies. Americans have always been a little antsy when it comes to ‘abstract’ thinking, going back to the frontier experiences of doing whatever ‘works’. America’s only ‘School’ of philosophical thought, the Pragmatism of the later 19th century, precisely erected this national tendency into a Plan, a Philosophy, insisting that only what ‘works’ is ‘true’. Such an approach acknowledges and accepts no ‘sides’, no limitations as to what might prove itself useful and thus ‘true’. By the time it was officially expounded, Americans had been doing things that way for centuries, and it explains not only some of the outrageous actions – such as poisoned blankets as gifts – perpetrated on the Indians, but also the complete lack of remorse or any sense of wrongness evinced by the perpetrators of such a gambit.

The Second Wave of feminism, trying to play to its ‘strengths’ while attacking what it perceived as ‘male’ weaknesses, insisted that ‘feeling’ and ‘intuition’, rather than ‘abstract thoughts’, were the proper core of human deliberation; you ‘assess’ and ‘analyze’ with your ‘feelings’, not your ‘mind’; feelings are ‘real’ and abstractions are – well – abstract.

This is a hugely dangerous path to take. Political dynamics based on ‘feeling’ to the exclusion of any careful and rational analysis lead far too easily to mob-action – even if such mob action is the unthinking ‘support’ of a ‘Leader’ … and the approval of whatever he does to do whatever it takes to do whatever is ‘necessary’. You see where this sort of thing leads.

It was the genius of the Framers that they constructed a hugely calculated machine, based on ideals and reasonable assumptions, precisely to prevent both the tyrannical and the mob-bish urges in human affairs from gaining control of the processes of government.

But things get even worse when the particular ‘feelings’ abroad among the citizenry, and – worse – nurtured by government and ‘press’, are fear and the desire for security and for vengeance. When these become the primary emotional key in which the public mind is cast, when these become the primary and default positions in the public’s processing of such ‘information’ as comes its way, then a terrible reaction is catalyzed: in addition to the infatuation with what ‘works’ and the aversion to ‘abstractions’, there arises the visceral, primitive dark-hot urge to act with no regard to consequences – to others or to oneself.

Beinhart quotes the words spoken by Burt Lancaster’s character in “Judgment at Nuremberg”, an honored judge who allows himself to slide into the trough of dispensing Nazi justice. Speaking of the temper of the times in Germany of the early 1930s he says: “Above all there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, fear of ourselves … There are devils among us … Once the devils will be destroyed, your miseries will be destroyed.”

Speaking then of his own descent into the maelstrom, Lancaster’s judge goes on: “What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights?”

Today you can insert any of the current buzzwords and the fatal question rings eerily true: who cares if a few of this or that 'lose their rights' .. it is after all an 'emergency' and anyway, 'the public' (Our current equivalent of 'das Volk') needs it.

Even by its own admission, the Second Wave assault on reason and thinking and critical thought, on deliberation and prudence, was based on ‘fear’, the fear reputedly rife among ‘women’ (and I am not hereby acknowledging that the Second Wave speaks for all female citizens, let alone all females on the planet) … fear of sexual assault, fear of meaninglessness, fear of fear itself. Only later has the major key been changed to ‘assertion of rights’ (so-called); it started with fear, and – as the Goebbels playbook calls for – fanned that fear and then raised up politically useful targets for it.

Emotion rather than thought, fear rather than confidence … this was not the recipe for a democratic politics, but rather of an incipient fascism, no matter what name it chose to go by.

Of course there are ways of dealing with such ‘fears’ in a democracy. But it was precisely to overturn the deliberate processes of democratic politics that the Second Wave’s ‘revolution’ was committed. Just as Goebbels was committed to overturning Weimar, constitutional process, and any government in Germany but that of Hitler and his Party.

Aristotle noted somewhere (in the ‘Poetics’, if memory serves), that audiences who watch tragedies “purge their emotions by pity and terror”. This ‘purging’ is a result of watching a tragic drama, but that does not mean that pity and terror constitute the meaning of the tragic, dramatic action. The meaning is to be found in watching unfold before you in the experiences of the characters an awful consequence, clearly predictable and avoidable, if only the characters had been able to stop their drift along the path.

But in the tragedies they do not, often cannot – even though they might know and see that to indulge their passion and emotion rather than their deliberation will bring them to ruin.

So Beinhart fails when he sees fear-mongering as a tool only used by the Right. The hugely – and lethally, I think it will come to be clear – influential revolution of the Second Wave has been deploying fear, and playing upon fear, for decades now.

And its emphasis on the precedence of ‘feeling’ over thought (shrewdly re-named by revolutionary parlance ‘abstraction’) has already raised several generations of professionals – especially lawyers and judges – who are committed to a law somehow based on ‘feeling’ rather than on thought, or even on precedent or reasoning.

Beinhart goes on to name a few names: the execrable Jay Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge; John Yoo, still getting paid at Berkeley for teaching law; and Alberto Gonzales. But with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent medical difficulties, and the consequent eruption over concern as to who will replace her on the Court if it comes to that, then I think a close look has to be taken at judicial philosophy.

I’m not proposing a ‘litmus’ test as to whether one supports abortion, or what one’s particular thoughts are as to what constitutes ‘gender equality’. I am suggesting that the Senate, and ideally Obama himself, needs to look at the basic legal philosophy of the candidates for the position. If they subscribe to the position of John Rawls – that not even constitutional rights outweigh the proper ‘elite’ vision of justice and that it is up to judicial ‘elites’ to impose that ‘justice’ on the country regardless of the Constitution – then I don’t think they are adequately educated for the job the Constitution sees them performing.

Don’t forget: Rawls and the whole ‘revolutionary’ approach to change in America is a form of anti-constitutional, anti-democratic government-by-imposition. We are reaching here the same situation as with avowed Communist Party members who might have wanted to sit on the Court: if you truly believe that stuff, then how can you possibly be properly disposed to sit on the Court and adjudicate according to the Constitution when your revolution’s entire object is to do away with the Constitution?

Is it that really different from having Nazis in the Reichstag when the entire objective of the Party was to abolish Weimar and impose its vision for Germany?

With the matter of Ginsburg’s possible replacement now coming to the fore, I think We have to face what up to now – for the past 40 years or so – has been merely an oft-used turn of phrase: the Second Wave, if not all of Identity Politics, has not been a form of ‘politics’ but of ‘revolution’ – and a revolution against the Framers’vision and the Constitution at that.

It no longer suffices to look at 'radicals' as simply a beefed-up version of 'non-conformist' or as simply 'very countercultural'; rather, it's time to realize that 'radical' as it was used then and still is used now is merely a euphemism for 'revolutionary'. It no longer suffices to look at ‘revolution’ with the groovy glasses of the Flower Kids and the counterculture. We’re not talking about nudity-as-liberation and eating without utensils as ‘authenticity’ here; we are talking about a sustained and deliberate and concerted effort to supplant the capacities and competencies required for the deliberation that is essential – for citizens and legislators as well as judges – in the Framers’ Constitutional vision.

This is no longer ‘cute’ and no longer simply ‘weird’, as it all may have been even as late as 1969. The ‘revolution’ has proven to be … a revolution. The fact that guns and marching columns have not been involved merely serve to mask the true nature of what’s happening. And what has happened.

Lancaster’s judge concludes later with words to the effect that in the beginning nobody imagined it would turn out like it did. Ach. But it did.

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