NICE BUT NOT SO FAST
Neal Gabler, always a worthwhile read, joins in the discussion about empathy.
Characteristically, and impressively, he hopes that this present go-round about empathy will somehow jolt the national discussion beyond the Left-Right, either-or, divide. From his lips to God’s ear. This juvenile form of mental processing – either/or – has become the hallmark of a powerful national decline for quite a few decades now. And – Gabler will sicken to hear it – it has been induced as vigorously by the Left as by the Right, upon both of whose houses be a plague because of it.
This is, I say, the key national decline: the hugely diminished capacity of the citizenry to process information maturely, to sift and assess it, to deliberate, and thus to arrive at a substantive conclusion that they can then transmit to their (ideally listening) elected representatives. Only in this way can people function as The People.
And as I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions here, if there is no People, there can be no Constitutional government – or, for that matter – no Constitution. Why, after all, have an instrument that respects and protects The People if there is no People? I half expect that this is the strategy of far too many Beltway lobbies: that they will continually erode the competence of The People, under the guise – of course – of ‘sensitivity’ and ‘liberation’ (you know, like the Hippies said about pot and free luv) until someday, satisfied that there really isn’t much of a People left, they will simply announce that the Constitution is ‘quaint’, that it is all a part of a now-past American history irrelevant to present realities, and the Founding vision and its instrument will die with a sensitive whimper rather than the bang of a Commie thermonuclear detonation. You think you have nightmares?
But Gabler hobbles himself soon into the run: he likes liberals and liberalism and so he has to think that the whole thing is the Republicans’ and the Right’s fault. To hear someone blame the Right totally for the parlous condition of the national moral and conceptual Competence calls Us to revisit that marvelous historical scene where Mussolini, Il Duce, finally called to account before the Fascist Grand Council in July of 1943, blamed it all on … the Germans – I tedeschi sono responsabili da tutto. Alas, by that point, from Mussolini’s lips, nothing was going to be getting to God’s ear, or be admitted if it ever managed to arrive there.
The right-wing has a fascination with Ayn Rand’s self-absorption, he notes, as if dropping at a 1949 cocktail party the key equation of nuclear fission. The notorious self-absorption of the Left, We are left to infer, is simply – as the Left’s self-induced Bubble has it – rocksolid evidence of ‘liberation’, which is what the Left and the liberal has always been about. Ovvvvv coursssssse.
So the self-absorption of abortion-on-demand is really evidence of a mature liberation, or at least a liberation – since ‘maturity’ is in the eye of the beholder and, anyway, ‘morality’ and anything else that tries to limit your desires is simply ‘oppression’ and doesn’t exist in the first place? Or whatever – it’s my body and not yours and that’s all there is too it. Which is not so far from a rather acute expression of something kind of close to self-absorption. If you get my drift.
Bill Clinton’s speaks “in the immortal words” about we can feel your pain (Gabler identifies himself, and Clinton, as liberal). There is a great deal of Clinton’s record that should indeed be classified as immortal – but for the purposes of statutes of limitations. And ‘pain’ turned out to have been a ‘sensitive’ cover for self-indulgent emotionalism, the essence of Hippie fecklessness and pot-smacked whackery erected into a Plan by the vote-addled Dems (a game into which the Republicans later allowed themselves to be bought).
And then Gabler tosses in John Rawls*, the mushy thinker from bosky Harvard who provided benefit-of-philosophy to that Plan: when thinking about the poor, Rawls prayed, legislators and policymakers should imagine them in the worst possible situation (that’s ‘empathy’) and then make one’s impositions accordingly. That’s imposition, since the lumps of the citizenry just don’t get it and need to be ‘led’ by those of their elites who know better – which is as neat a précis of revolutionary and anti-democratic and anti-constitutional arrogance as you’re likely to find this side of Lenin‘s or Mao’s Tomb. And don’t laugh: wayyyy too many public intellectuals, pols, and jurists consider it – you should pardon the expression – gospel.
Gabler goes on to sermonize that this Rawlsian revelation “is the very source of political community”. Yes, empathy**is indeed a vital element in human maturity. But a) it is one thing for an individual to develop the advanced capacity for empathy, and another thing to turn a government loose with it – where it will too often turn out to be used as a nice cover for that government to shower bennies on its favorites. And b) since emotionalism has indeed been adopted as such a cover, it should be given strict scrutiny indeed when the pols have decided to impose gifts. And c) emotionalism, given a free rein and not seated in a mature human-ness, tends to run wild, like kudzu, or Tribbles – only more lethal.
But Gabler sees this as part of the problem: Republicans and conservatives (and I don’t at all equate the two) differ from Democrats and liberals (ditto) in that conservatives think that people are sort of evil and Dems (and Hippies) think that they’re kind of good – or at least groovy. This is a huge point. The Framers were of a generation that was exposed to two conceptual universes: an older Hobbesian assessment that human beings, left to their own devices, are selfish; and a sort of Lockeian or even Rousseauian confidence in the goodness of folks. (Locke was a little more circumspect about it; Rousseau went gaga – like a Hippy).
I’d note that the old Catholic tradition, predating the bunch of them, was that human beings were created in God’s image, but somehow flawed in such a way that they would act against that image within them (that image also constituted a core of their identity as individuals and as a species). So you were dealing with a complicated – binary, certainly – and unpredictably dynamic, perhaps even volatile, mix.
THAT is an awful lot of complication and dangerousness to put on any plate. And it is a powerful indicator that maturity – and sustained seriousness in developing and maintaining it – are utterly essential for any human. Or any human society. Or its government.
And also that since a ‘government’ is going to be composed of the very same members of that human species, then a government has to be handled just as gingerly and carefully; hence the checks and balances. And thus the emphasis on putting together a rational mechanism for somehow keeping on track all the fraught dynamics of human nature and the politics that those dynamics generate.
This is hell-and-gone from the ‘liberal’ approach of late, which has fallen in love with ‘big government’ even as much as – in Gabler’s cartoonish view – the ‘conservatives’ have.
It also remains to be seen how a large ‘welfare state’ can sustain an independent citizenry. Although this is not intended as a ‘trump’ thought, I point out that a citizenry in which a majority of citizens rely on ‘the government’ for their sustenance, and have come to accept that as a normal state of affairs, is a looooong way from achieving an independent maturity and a politically independent approach to kicking the tires of that government’s doings.
And I’m not talking here of the ‘safety-net’ welfare state of the New Deal but rather the Identity-era ‘entitlement welfare’ state. Because, for all its good intentions and appearances, it could not but have a baaaad effect in two ways. First, the government could ‘buy’ the voters thus entitled, and perhaps so reliably weld them to itself that it could be said to ‘own’ them. Thus, second, that the entire operational principle of a Republic where the government was answerable to an independent and capable People was undermined. From which flow the working dynamics of ‘imperial Presidency’, divine right government (from the Left or the Right) and the government – Legislative or Executive – as Lord Protector against fear, pain, and unhappiness generally.
Nor can We forget that the term “ordinary people” is no longer quite the badge of honor that it once was. You had only to look at the 1980 film of that name to realize that “ordinary people” no longer meant the ‘little people’, ground down under the heel of Robber Baronry and Social Darwinian industrial capitalism, sweating and unwashed, but sturdy in spirit and ready to do a day’s work for a day’s pay. No; now in 1980 the Dems would embrace ‘professionals’ with foreign sports cars and big houses in bosky burbs and even a desk-top computer at home. Things had changed. A real lot. And went on getting mushier from there.
Whether you have a Rightist desire to enforce a social conformity for the purposes of easier corporate control and an acquiescence in military adventure, or whether you enforce a social conformity so that those who ‘get it’ can impose upon the unenlightened masses the Correct way to go about the on-going process of civilization … well, that’s a hugely secondary question. Ayn Rand or John Rawls – either way The People are enfeebled.***
So are people basically ‘good’ or basically ‘evil’? The old Catholic answer was: both – as described above. But of course, you can’t whomp up a real good political ‘wave’ (or stampede) by such finely-tuned thinking. You need that either-or approach. Even if it doesn’t correspond to reality.
But the postmodern solution to that problem is that there is no ‘reality’, it’s all in how you let yourself ‘approach’ the ‘text’. This has some modest application in approaching a piece of literature – which is where it started. But to apply it more widely, out in the ‘real world’, creates the risk of serious frakkery. As I have said before, the rules for flying an aircraft, based on the immutable principles of aerodynamics, are not a ‘text’ – if you fly a plane by treating aerodynamics as a ‘text’ that you can change as you feel you wish, then you are not going to stay airborne very long. (More on this below.)
I’m suggesting – against the postmodern approach that the ‘liberals’ have applied to the Constitution, among other things – that the Constitution be seen somehow as purposely designed to correspond to certain principles, such that to screw too much with it is going to result in a rather decisive termination of the American Experiment.
Thus that the Framers, as serious and mature human beings rather than simply as ‘dumb, dead, white, oppressive, violent, rapist males’, did indeed construct the whole thing with an eye to principles that they – and a sizable chunk of Western Civilization before them – had found to be reliably in effect. Alas, Jesse, you were too quick to chant that ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has to go’; it’s been happening, and the national aircraft, by amazing coincidence, is having a hard time maintaining course and altitude – indeed a reasonable observer might wonder if it is any longer in a status of controlled flight at all. Certainly, if the Beltway is the cockpit, we are well-advised to Be Very Afraid – and to do something about it.
Thus the ‘rules’ are not just some “theoretical category” which hem in the boundless ‘empathy’ of the bienpensant ‘liberal’. Gabler reduces the ‘conservatives’ to being “rulists” – in love with rules because they are anally retentive or they are afraid of goodness or because they haven’t got their groove on or because they just don’t get it or because they are hating-on life and people.
Whereas the ‘liberals’ are sensitive and empathetic types who aren’t going to allow any abstractions and the “theoretical category” from doing what needs to be done. Which is a neat, if nicely dressed, expression of the concept of revolutionary law and justice – which is hell and gone from the Western concept of the Rule of Law. In revolutionary justice no principles exist and no government is to be trusted – except the principle that the revolutionary government always knows best and therefore can do whatever it wants. Which is also not very far from the operating principles of Divine Right Monarchy.
Which We as Americans traditionally do not support. No revolutionary cadres, no divine right monarchs.
And – pace the victimist movement – no Lord Protector, whether of the Right (s/he will strike out preventively at whomever s/he divines to be an enemy) or of the Left (s/he will strike out preventively at whomever s/he divines to be a victimizer and bringer-of-pain). Either way, the American vision is being freakishly deformed.
And it is sophomoric to just say “rulists”. There are rules and then there are rules. For example: Trans-Planet Airways can have rules about what color uniform the flight-crews will wear, what color the planes are painted, and what the corporate logo will be. Then there are FAA rules about planes having to keep a certain distance apart in the air, and not landing or taking off without clearance from the tower. Then there are rules like Bernoulli’s, that flight cannot be achieved or sustained without air flowing up and over the leading edge of the wing and rushing down and over the trailing edge.
Three ‘rules’, but hugely different types, dealing with hugely different realities. Trans-Planet can change its colors to its heart’s content. It might lobby the FAA or Congress to change the spacing or clearance rules. But who in all creation is going to change Bernoulli’s Principle? Nor will it help either to find his bones and put them on trial and burn them – a medieval approach of only modest efficacy, nor to poo-poo him over a plastic glass of chardonnay as somebody who just doesn’t get it.
I’m suggesting here that the Constitution is more like Bernoulli’s Principle than it is like the company-colors choice.
For the past forty Biblical years, though, just about every ‘rule’ has been treated as just a thang about company colors and logo.
And this is especially dangerous in a society where so many have fallen under the influence of the Hippy-Rousseauian belief that ‘rules’ are just oppressive crap that ‘oppressors’ make up to ‘oppress’ everybody else. Yes, rules can be so abused. But that doesn’t establish that there are no immutable principles without which a society, and especially one structured along the lines of America’s Republic and its great Constitutional Experiment can long endure.****
Gabler is a very intelligent writer. He has a broad command of historical ideas and trends. But he has committed himself to the ‘liberal’ point of view (which as I am saying is not so liberal at all once you get to the nuts, bolts, and implementation of all that goodwill and good intentions and ‘empathy’ and assorted feelings). So he has to contort himself into all sorts of selectivity in order to say something significant that also passes ‘liberal’ and Politically Correct muster.
Which is itself an indication of just how frakked and whacked things are here nowadays.
And just how hard it has become to fix things, because to come up with a repair-plan you first have to have a clear and accurate idea of the damage that you’ve sustained.
And We have sustained a great deal.*****
*I have Posted on John Rawls: March 30, 2009: "Rawls and Religion"
**I have Posted on empathy: June 8, 2009: "Sotomayor and Empathy".
***In this regard I can’t help but connect the following dots: Hitler’s Volk concept required a superior master race that therefore had the right to take whatever it needed; yet his Fuhrerprinzip concept required a Leader who could lead the dopey German people who otherwise would not rise to the occasion of their own greatness. This was a monstrous conceptual incoherence at the very heart of the Nazi project; it led to the totalitarian government control over every aspect of the citizenry’s life even as the citizens were in theory the ‘master race’.
And it exists here today in both Rightist (Ayn Rand, say) and Leftist (John Rawls, say) assertions of ‘greatness’, whether it be the ‘greatness’ of the nation (Rightist) or of the Identity (radical ideological feminism and victimism – the two are joined at the hip). Ach.
****An aerodynamically-oriented disagreement might be made that the stealth bomber and stealth fighter ignore Bernoulli. Those aircraft are, by manufacturer’s admission, not airworthy: they will not stay up in the air and will not fly unless their hugely complex set of onboard computers makes continuous adaptations every moment – lose the computers and no pilot can keep the things in the air.
And if, say, you let this ‘concept’ migrate into general legislative and governmental functioning, then you get a situation where the government regulatory and police apparatus must function minutely, constantly (and thus hugely invasively) in order to keep society operating under the impossible design that has been imposed. And that most surely is a recipe for Constitutional catastrophe, as perhaps We are beginning to realize now.
*****I don't include this following passage as a 'trump', nor do I agree with everything its author ever wrote or said. But it strikes a worthwhile note for Our time, I think:
"You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help little men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn. You cannot build character and courage by destroying men's initiative and independence. And you cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves."