I want to follow up my immediately previous Post with what I think is a sharp example of what happens when you Flatten the concept of human dignity.
To recap what I mean by ‘Flatten’: in order to create conceptual space for all their many ‘reforms’, ‘revolutions’, and domestic ‘liberations’ the American New Left of the post-Sixties had to somehow discredit (and thus ‘devalorize’) the authority of any Beyond upon the authority of which the dignity of human beings might be grounded.
This was necessary because the same Beyond that provided the immutable Ground of human dignity also described an essential ‘human nature’. Especially in the gender war, ‘human nature’ became the evil ‘essentialism’ that allegedly kept women from doing all the neat stuff that ‘mehnnnnn’ do in the great patriarchal playground of Western Civilization.
Rather, Correctness would insist that all this ‘essence’ and ‘essentialism’ was to be replaced by a plastic and undifferentiated human quantum, present in both males and females, that can be shaped by Culture (especially one that government actively controls and shapes by law and regulation) into any form desired. I read somewhere recently that the most advanced Correct ‘thinking’ is that the human spirit is a genderless entity that pre-exists the connection (at conception or birth or … it’s a little fuzzy) between this quantum and a necessarily gendered human body. If this begins to sound like an argument from Greek philosophy or the early Christian era … well, funny how the night moves.
This human quantum thingy is, of course, NOT a ‘soul’ – because THAT would move the discussion toward a Beyond and/or a Deity that somehow created and infused (as the Catholics say) the soul into the body at some point (and here you run into the abortion-discourse minefield of when the human being becomes a human-being with a natural dignity and natural rights and not just a “tumor” parasitically interfering with the lifestyle and personal ambitions of the … ummm … maternal carrying unit).
So instead it’s just a quantum (my term for it) of some sort that pre-exists the fusion with a particular gendered body at some stage in the pre-birth or birth process. They don’t even seem to want to call it a ‘spirit’ since, again, the Beyond stuff gets drawn in.
So, to picture what this all means: the reality required by Correctness is simply the flat checkerboard of this material existence that we can see and grasp with our physical senses and that scientists can measure. This is opposed to the vision of religious belief (think of the Medieval synthesis in the West) of the actual geography of Reality as being much more akin to Spock’s Vulcan-Chess array: a multilevel series of several boards, one above the other, in which pieces can be moved from one level to another. In this arrangement, the level of life that is material and accessible to the physical senses and science is merely the bottom or base board; there are several other levels in play that are above and – if I may – beyond this base level.
This campaign to get people to envision their lives and all human life as merely mono-level (or mono-planar or mono-dimensional) is what I mean by Flattening. It is secularizing because it specifically rules out any Upper level and any Beyond. This base board is all there is.
That being said, then there is no Authority from any Beyond that grounds the dignity and rights of a human being because there IS no Beyond.
So then how does one ground the dignity and rights (which the New Left claims to support when it demands vigorous action against ‘oppression’ and ‘victimization’ and supports ‘liberation’ and ‘total freedom’ and ‘total autonomy’ and ‘total choice’)?
The Correct solution is to rely on legal Positivism (the formal term for it): it is government, decreeing by law, the extent and content of human dignity and human rights. This is a purely this-worldly source for human dignity and human rights, a mono-dimensional source if you wish.
And this gambit is very much in keeping with the government-heavy approach to the assorted ‘revolutions in rights’ We have seen in this country for the past 40 or more Biblical years: since the Dems – and later the rest of the Beltway – made it desperately clear after 1965 that they would be willing to sign blank checks for any new ‘demographics’ and any agendas those demographics might demand, the assorted ‘revolutions’ became very friendly to ‘government imposition’ as the preferred mode of establishing themselves and creating social and cultural and legal ‘space’ for themselves.
It’s very easy to be a legal Positivist and to be government-friendly when you are assured that the law-making and law-judging organs are in your pocket.
Of course the problem then arises: since the American tradition has always suspected the consistency and reliability of government’s commitment to liberty (and the Greeks in the Classical age were concerned about this too) then what happens when the very agency that Positivism claims is the source and enforcer of rights and liberty also happens to be the government power?
In the old vision, the Vulcan Chess vision, there was a Higher Authority (Jefferson referred to it as “Nature and Nature’s God”, for example) with a Higher Law to which even earthly, this-dimensional governments were responsible. Such that if the government made a law that contravened human dignity and rights, then that law was thereby automatically illegitimate because it did not conform to the Higher Vision of human dignity and rights.
All of this had to go when Correctness demanded all sorts of new agendas and ‘space’; since the Beltway guaranteed a friendly – indeed pandering – reception then the government authority had to be raised up (sort of like an idol) as the One and Only Source of all dignity and rights. When the government said this or that had dignity and rights, then so be it. (And from the get-go there existed the negative corollary: when the government said that some entity did not have human dignity and rights, then that entity did not have them … thus, among other things, the abortion brouhaha, still raging 40 Biblical years later).
John Rawls, the house-philosopher of the New Left, tried to justify the whole scam in his 1993 book “Political Liberalism” by asserting that “comprehensive narratives” about existence (such as religious beliefs or pre-Correct philosophical systems) could not be used to justify public policy.
But as early as 1934 Theodore Clarke Smith noted that the “noble dream” of impartial and objective grounding in some larger Truth was being discarded “on the ground that it is uninteresting or contrary to social beliefs or inferior to a bold social philosophy”. [italics mine] He was referring to the practice of objective and impartial history (at a time when Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler – among others – were insisting that ‘truth’ was merely what the government said it was and if not, not). “It may be”, Smith continued, “that another fifty years [which would have been 1984] will see the end of an era in historiography, the final extinction of a noble dream, and history, except as an instrument of entertainment or of social control will no longer be permitted to exist”.
Surely the past 40-plus years of America’s multiple “bold social experiment” have moved far along a course initially charted by Soviet ‘jurisprudence’ and Nazi’ medicine’. But the core factor common to then and now is the government assertion that it, and it alone, is the sole arbiter and source of rights and authority in human affairs and indeed in human existence generally, whether social or individual.
And on the basis of this profoundly ominous presumption, the government will shape and impose its ‘social control’ – as Smith saw in the 1930s – not simply as a power-grab along the lines endemic to all governments since the Greeks, but rather as a Divine-Right Monopolist like a Pharaonic or Babylonian or Persian monarchy) that simply exercises the Power because it has the Power and – thanks to the New Left’s Flattening ‘philosophy’ that has abolished the Divine and the Beyond – IS the Power.
(And I think you can see echoes of this now in Obama’s claim that as Commander-in-Chief he is not only free to wage wars as he sees fit BUT ALSO is free to start them whenever he sees fit. This is not a description proper to the Constitution’s vision of a Commander-in-Chief whose authority kicks in once war is declared by Congress, but rather is a monarchical view of a King (Pharaoh, Emperor or what have you) whose authority is permanently active and extends not only to waging wars but to starting them whenever he sees fit.)
The debasement of language to mean anything the government wishes it to mean is hardly a purely modern threat. The noted critic Daniel Mendelsohn describes Euripides’ vital concern in his play “Medea” that the corruption of language through the sovereign authority’s duplicitous use of rhetoric can lead to a lethal moral and political corruption – and this was in Athens during the Classical Age.**
As the Greeks saw, such corruption would bring awful consequences in its train, and not only for the offending sovereign but for all the citizens of the polity. The truly ‘bold’ social experimenter, of course, cares not a fig for ‘consequences’ and, as afore-noted, doesn’t believe in gods or any Beyond that might enforce those consequences in the first place . Such enlightenment.
Now comes a problem from Hell: a former chief military psychologist at Guantanamo (who also was on scene at Abu Ghraib), who was mixed up in torture (including of captive children) and lent it the benefit-of-medicine, and who is now a Dean of a school of psychology at Wright State University in Ohio, bragged by email that he would be on the board of a new task force set up by the White House to look after the psychological health of military families.
Naturally, nobody in the Beltway seems to recall anything at all, bringing to mind a paraphrase of JFK’s rueful observation about who was responsible for the Bay of Pigs: when it comes to government, success has a thousand fathers (and nowadays mothers), but when exposed to public view screw-ups are orphans.
It’s too true.
In the early months on this site I wrote about the frakkulent problems of professionals (doctors, lawyers, clergy) serving in the military: there is a built-in conceptual difficulty when a professional (ostensibly committed to the first priority of providing ethical professional service) is also a sworn and uniformed military officer (most very actually committed to following orders and doing what one is told).
The problem has gotten much worse as the government in the post-Soviet and post-9/11 and postmodern era has adapted, greedily and neatly, to Positivism and secularism by insisting that its authority alone determines who gets human rights and dignity and – more ominously – who doesn’t.
The government thus gets to say not only what is and isn’t ‘torture’ at Gitmo but also who is and who isn’t endowed with human dignity and rights. And the professionals – in this particular case a psychologist with significant national psychological as well as military credentials – must conform to the government’s orders because it is not only the source of military authority but is the Ultimate Source of Authority generally.
You see where things can go. And where they HAVE gone.
Assorted defenses have been vaguely sent up like trial-balloons: his purpose in participating in “national security interrogations” was to prevent “abuse”, but then at the time the administration in the White House had said it that what was being done was all “legal”, and so somehow if there was any such ‘abuse’ it was all ‘legal’ anyway and also that by now the “statute of limitations” has expired. And that conducting such “interrogations” was inherently “stressful” so the psychologist’s presence was necessary (presumably to ease the ‘stress’ on the ‘interrogators’, not on the prisoners being ‘interrogated’).
But the ultimate government purpose for the psychologists – to help figure out how best to impose pain in order to “exploit” the prisoner – remains clear. One recalls that in the early and middle decades of the 20th century one of largest employers of new-minted psychologists was the advertising industry: the ad agencies wanted to know how best to appeal to (or manipulate) citizens to get them to buy whatever product the agencies had a contract to push.
You can already see a moral derangement in the national affairs: here is a psychologist who helped impose torture (including children) now being invited by the White House (and specifically under the aegis of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden) to now sit on a task force convened for the purpose of supporting the psychological health of military families. And nobody in authority saw anything odd, let alone wrong, about that.
Perhaps the Citizenry still can.
And perhaps the Citizenry can also take note of the fact - profoundly ominous - that all of this is taking place not on the watch of some jingoist neocon whackjob administration, but rather an administration that represents the very 'best' of all that bold social experimentation from the people-friendly New Left.
*The site that displays this article was vandalized earlier this week and this particular link may be temporarily inoperative until the site effects repairs. However the second link in this Post does work and is instructive. This alternative piece will give you a sense of the initial article.
**Mendelsohn, Daniel: “How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken”. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009; ISBN 978-0-06-145643-5. Page 422.