Rationality and Terror

 Posted by on June 11, 2013
Jun 112013

It is irrational. I associate this sort of argumentative contention with young men. Perhaps unfairly, or perhaps because they are particularly prone to combine predilections for rote factuality and logical consistency with an absence of sagacity.

Even supposing it is rational to fear death (a debatable matter), it would still be irrational to fear death by terrorism, because the chance that terrorists will kill any individual is miniscule. Far more rational would be to fear flights of stairs. Compared to terrorism, the stairs pose the much greater risk. Despite this, off we go, trading civil liberty for a show, or even a sham, of security. It is irrational, the young man contends.

To fear death by terrorists is irrational, we are told, because the probability of death at their hands is so remote. But what are the chances that infringements upon civil liberty would appreciably affect any one individual’s life? Restrictions on speech, movement, and conscience would no doubt affect nearly everyone in harmful and immediately perceptible ways. A surveillance program, however, even one of sweeping and stunningly comprehensive scope, might impinge on hardly anyone.

Indeed, all save a few would happily go about their daily lives, senseless of any intrusion at all. Of those few comprehending the intrusion, nearly all would soon enough sleep contentedly, safe in the knowledge that, at least on reflection, they are unremarkable people leading wholly ordinary lives. They are not among the signal few who need to fear, but contentedly among the ignored static many. It is an ugly thing to admit: the mass of men are pleased to lead lives of quiet complacency. They have no rational reason for concern, they know it, and they would not have it otherwise.

Mistakes, of course, would happen. So would abuses. And, yet, out of the hundreds of millions, if not billions surveilled, how many unfortunate, unwitting innocents would find themselves injured in any substantial fashion? A few dozen? A few thousand? How many must be harmed before this sweeping surveillance apparatus becomes a rational cause for fear? Wiser might be to focus on more rationally pressing threats, like walking down the stairs. That might even prove a more efficient use of limited public safety resources.

Does it not harm all of us if a surveillance state infringes upon the civil liberties of any one of us? Is it not therefore rational to fear a surveillance state? The retort is not formally different from those who would contend that it is rational to establish a surveillance state because it harms all of us if terrorists kill any one of us. If the latter is is irrational, then so is the former, and I am told by some ardent rationalists that the latter is most certainly irrational.

I do not wish to diminish the threats posed by both terrorism and a surveillance state. I wish only to indicate why I find this “rational” mode of argumentation so fruitless. Things are rational or irrational only in regards to specified ends or values which are themselves neither rational nor irrational. We privilege life and safety and would install a surveillance state as a rational means to those ends. After all, civil liberty is without value to the dead. We privilege freedom and civil liberty and would dismantle a surveillance state as a rational means to those ends. After all, a life without liberty is not worth living. Around we go, and then again.

No appeal to rationality can relieve the tension between these ends. This is rationality’s limit, not its failure. If there is any failure to attribute, it belongs to those who expect more from rationality than it can deliver.

The Dynamism of Hating

 Posted by on June 6, 2013
Jun 062013

Or, On Richard Hofstadter’s “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” Second Foray.

The dynamism that powered the great liberal reformations of the 1930s was, Richard Hofstadter observed, a dynamism of “dissent.” Liberals rebuked the “inequities of our economic and social system,” scorned the usual “ways of doing things,” and pledged enmity to “the sufferings of the Great Depression.” Theirs was a dynamism of reaction, but that dynamism was also the reactant consumed by their reaction. When they eliminated the stimulus for their hostility, they eliminated their dynamism as well. As the negative impetus abated, the radical impulse subsided. Liberalism transformed, and losing its reactive dynamism, it aimed now only to conserve the equilibrium it had finally achieved.

This new equilibrium saw the rise of another reactive “dynamic of dissent.” The old dissent was born as radicalism and eased into conservatism; the new dissent was neither properly radical nor conservative. Of course, the “exponents” of this dissent tended to “employ the rhetoric of conservatism,” and even believed “themselves to be conservatives,” but they also demonstrated “a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions.” Indeed, the “punitive” character of their reaction evinced “a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways.” Adopting a phrase from Theodore Adorno, Mr. Hofstadter called this reaction pseudo-conservatism.

He saw the nascency, we endure the maturity. The “modest fraction” that Mr. Hofstadter assayed and characterized during the  Eisenhower and McCarthy era has today become the “highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority” that he feared would “create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” The pseudo-conservatives endured and grew not merely because some among their ranks found “a means of making a living” in turning “paranoia” into profit, but also because hatred, contrary to so many dulcet wishes, can be a tremendously creative and vital force. If the pseudo-conservatives have ever truly conserved and nurtured anything, it is the vigorous hatred that has powered their dynamic longevity.

Were it only true that liberals hated even half as many things as they are purported to hate. Then they might have a little verve in them.  But the liberals set out to destroy, not conserve, their hatred. We “lose the very spring of thought and action,” wrote William Hazlitt, when we are “without something to hate.” As liberals have indeed. Liberalism has grown indifferent not so much to the possible objects of hatred, but to the very sensation of hatred itself. It is indecorous and  imprudent to feel too much. They are too careful and cautious and established for that. If they react to nothing it is because they feel so little. This staid and tempered dispassion is that old equilibrium by another name.

The great fault of contemporary liberalism is hardly that it hates too much, but that it has become so anesthetized that it fails to hate at all. Liberalism has lost its once animating animus, and today lacks spirit even in ascendance.

Liberal Mechanics

 Posted by on June 2, 2013
Jun 022013

Or, On Richard Hofstadter’s “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” First Foray.

During the 1930s, Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the dynamic force in American political life came from the side of liberal dissent, from the impulse to reform the inequities of our economic and social system and to change our ways of doing things, to the end that the sufferings of the Great Depression would never be repeated.”

Dynamic. The ancients knew the word as latent potentiality, and contrasted it with energetic actuality. Moderns rediscovered it as energetic, motive force, and opposed it to the static. But Mr. Hofstadter’s usage owes most to Thomas Carlyle, who saw in the dynamical, as he called it, all the “unmodified forces and energies of man, the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion.” The dynamical named everything in man that was of “truly vital and infinite character,” and that included all that inspired and moved men to attempt and endeavor and dream.

Against the infinite, inward and spontaneous dynamical Mr. Carlyle posed the mechanical, which “forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends” through the operations of “whole undivided might.” Nothing mechanical “follows its spontaneous course.” It has no initiative and so its course is not its own. A dynamic, impassioned impulse set its impersonal systems and contraptions in motion, and often forgetting its origin it chugs along by means of “institutions,” “constitutions” and other “external combinations and arrangements.” Its continuance “depends less on natural genius than on acquired expertness in wielding … machinery.”

Already in 1955 Mr. Hofstadter continued, “the dynamic force in our political life no longer comes from the liberals who made the New Deal possible.” The liberals had lost the dynamism that had carried them through the “exciting period in the mid-thirties when they had held power itself and had been able to transform the economic and administrative life of the nation.” That old energy gave way not to static complacency, though some “satisfaction” was evident, but rather to a peculiar kind of “conservatism,” that sought “not to carry on with some ambitious new program, but simply to defend as much as possible of the old achievements,” and, in Adlai Stevenson’s words, to build “solidly and safely on these foundations.” The ends were established in a wondrous explosion of inspiration, but now the dynamical had given way to the mechanical. The remaining chores were matters of repair, maintenance and augmentation.

Still today liberals remain curiously mechanical. We see it in their atechnical rhetorical habits, and we see it in their adherence to institutional convention. Even the signature legislative achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency displays a mechanical bent. Its dynamic impetus belongs not to him but to Harry Truman. The end having been set, Mr. Obama managed its pragmatics. Liberals today earnestly preserve, enlarge and defend the old foundations and institutions, plugging away at the practicalities of other men’s daring and initiative. There is no enthusiasm, no poetry, no true audacity. There is only plodding and process. This is not without a certain merit. Dynamics sans mechanics is devoid of consequence. But it is also lacking in vitality and immensity. Without fervor, liberals coldly toil.

This is what liberals have become. Little wonder they are so uninteresting, even to themselves.