Monday, August 3, 2009

Blame, Virtue and Evil

In my recent post, entitled A Most Savage Compassion, I compared Classical Liberalism with Progressive Liberalism. Citing my personal experience with affirmative action, I worked at showing how the “new” “progressive” values of Compassion, Selflessness and “the Good of Mankind” and a systematic effort ot increase the size and power of government have been advanced by The Progressive movement to undermine and replace the founding American value of each person taking personal responsibility for the individual pursuit happiness within a system that set out to guarantee only life and liberty. Progressives advocate incrementally replacing the responsibility and discretion of individuals with a manipulative, centralized authority of “experts” and “agencies” to manipulate and coerce individual behavior. I think I made it clear that I believe this is a very bad bargain.

It is manifest, though, that American liberals have been shifting from the classical toward the progressive viewpoint for many years. Ronald Reagan observed this shift more than thirty years ago. Regan, when asked why he left the Democratic Party and became a Republican was heard more than once to say, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party; my party left me".

Which posses an interesting question. Since, America was founded on the idea that individuals, given the safety and opportunity, will make choices and live lives that perpetuate the common sense and enlightened self-interest that were the guiding principals of the founders how is it that Classical Liberalism is so easily giving way to Progressivism even as they claim to represent “American values”?

It is vital to understand how this shift is being achieved. First, let us remember why they call themselves “progressive”.

The sort of “progress” that is implied in the name Progressivism is actually a very un-American elitist fantasy in which The Progressive imagines that all people are equally ethical, trustworthy and basically good and that all cultures are likewise equally good and moral and that given the right information and presentation would agree with and submit to the Progressive agenda. As we have seen, this is opposed to and incompatible with the founding assumptions of the American republic.

That agenda assumes that normal human ambition, lust, acquisitiveness, anger and violence, either do not really exist or can be talked, legislated, educated or punished out of existence- not just subjugated or tamed, mind you, but eliminated entirely. The deepest and most redeeming wisdom of the founding fathers of America is that they had the spiritual depth and political intelligence to understand that those dark urges are every bit as universal in the human heart as are the selflessness, reason, empathy and light on which the progressives pin their hopes and it is no good getting rid of old tyrannies unless checks and balances are built into the political structure that guard against new ones arising.

The idea of progressivism, however well intentioned and idealistic, is dangerous. It would require an entire civilization of lobotomized and neutered drones, to bring about that end stage progressive society, in which human evil is expunged, into being. And yet, somehow, the progressive agenda is making real headway in America. The fulcrum of the progressive movement is the universal human need to blame and the lever is our need to think of ourselves as virtuous.

The progressive attack on the status quo begins with an emotional attack in which perceived cultural ills and social suffering are blamed on classical liberal institutions. The blame might attempt a specific causal connection such as the progressive attack on corporate greed, blaming capitalism for poverty and suffering or the Progressive’s support for the undemocratic Arab Jihad against Israel in which they accuse her of being the sole barrier to peace because of oppressive behavior and/or stealing Arab land by building the anti-terror wall. Or it might be more diffuse and inexact, like the accusations against the Bush administration for “fascist” intentions and thuggish behavior (see “BushHitler”) or the bland and nonsensical assertion that nobody should lack health care in the richest nation on earth. However the attack is couched, it is mostly done without any analysis on or respect paid to the actual cause of the suffering or ills.

In the world according to progressivism, blame, divorced from understanding or causality always trumps reason and evidence. The emotional content behind fixing blame for an event or condition works against the ability to observe and analyze the facts of the situation dispassionately and determine the cause with accuracy. Without understanding blame is a lie and a danger. The progressive agenda is based on one of the oldest and most destructive lies known to the human race. Last fall, in my post Who is to Blame for Evil, I quoted René Girard from his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World:
"When we describe human relations, we lie. We describe them as normally good, peaceful and so forth, whereas in reality they are competitive, in a war-like fashion." In these two short sentences Girard has pointed out the most important mistake of progressivism.

In the citadels of the progressive elites in America where Postmodernism has the most sway (Academia, The Mainstream Media the Liberal Political Elite) it has become standard practice to blame the capitalism, the military, the police, religion, the constitutional guarantees that insure the sanctity of the individual (free speech and the right to bear arms) and other social and cultural institutions for fuzzy edged but emotionally charged ills like “poverty”, “racism”, “sexism” “suffering” and “inequality” in order to distract attention from the “competitive and war-like” nature of human relations and thus maintain and perpetuate the lie of “normal goodness”. They do this because they know that without the lie of ‘normal goodness” the acid bath of relativism (and the anomie it causes) that has corroded the confidence, self-reliance, responsibility and individualism of the enlightenment quest for objectivity and knowledge looses its strength.

The problem is that capitalism, the military, the police, religion and the constitutional guarantees of free speech and the right to bear arms are the very things that best protect and relieve us from those ills and dangers. It is like the man who only sees a physician when he is sick and so comes to blame doctors and hospitals for his illness. Which came first, the doctor or the illness? If there were no disease, there would be no doctors. If human relationships were devoid of competition and violence there would be no such thing as government, police, military or philosophy.

The progressive left blames our government for any deficit of human rights or for civil disorder- both of which are reflections of the very things they were created to prevent- or at least manage. While all governments, economic systems and religions are blame worthy, only the anarchist will find satisfaction in stopping there- and relativism is the avatar of anarchy. If no system is any better than any other system and no cultural mores more civilized than any other, then what is the use of defending any standard of behavior at all?

All forms of government put their trust in one or another way of neutralizing or channeling the best and the worst of the individual. Monarchy depends upon the purity of “The Good King” to decree peace and order while winning the love of his subjects. Theocracy looks to one man (or group of men) who claim to deliver the edict of God on earth. In a totalitarian regime, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “everyone, including (in theory, anyway) the dictator, can be sacrificed in the name of a superhuman law, a law of nature or a law of history…Totalitarianism (and there was never a totalitarian state that was not socialist) strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous.” Only republican democracy grants the individual the freedom to assume responsibility for his own actions and only capitalism gives the individual the opportunity to play an active role in determining his own stake in society and worth in the marketplace.

So why do the progressive accusations of blame against America seem valid? In fact many of them are, but only in a superficial way. It is quite true, for instance, that there are egregious abuses of the capitalist economy. Bankers take advantage of their power, stock brokers manipulate information, CEO’s bilk stockholders and companies abuse their workers. But these are less failures of the capitalist system than they are proof that people are not all good and will never behave perfectly no matter how perfect the system they live within.

This is the devastating power behind Rule 4 in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals:
“Make opponents live up to their own book of rules… You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

Alinsky was right, he was a radical and had no progressive illusions. He knew that using this tactic ruthlessly is the gateway to nihilism and anarchy. Progressives are far more dangerous because they have the illusion that by offering un-researched theory and unproven but “compassionate” policies to replace proven policies that have been circumvented makes them liberal.

Alinsky’s Rule Number 10 (The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”) limited his appeal to American Liberals who, at least, understood that you cannot tear down the existing structures of life without an alternative structure to propose without declaring yourself an anarchist.

And the Progressive alternative is the combination of Compassion, Selflessness and “The Good of Mankind” armed with these three virtues, even the most pathetic socialist panderings can be made to look like real policies. Here is the argument for implementing a sweeping change and authorizing massive and detailed government intervention is health care:

Health care reform may or may not be a good idea but what “nice person” could possibly stand up to this emotional extortion? This is exactly the formula that brought us the welfare system that destroyed so many American families. It created (with a huge assist from venal bankers and brokers) the mortgage disaster of 2008. It was the irresistible force behind the passage of the grotesquely bloated stimulus package even though no single human being had ever read all of it or understood much of it. And it is now fueling the pressure being applied for the healthcare reform bill that President Obama tells us “must be passed”.

Or else what? Or else we will still have the best health care in the world but we will feel less virtuous and compassionate. The bind the progressive wants us to believe that to be opposed to the Progressive agenda, is to be without virtue, that by asking questions or making observations, you stand in the way of a more compassionate, selfless and better future for all of mankind. It puts you just a short step away from inhumanity and justifiable homicide. Just think about the vilification and character assassination of BushHitler, Cheney and Palin.

If you want to be counted as a good person, or a moral nation, everything you do has to fit the template of Compassion, Selflessness and “the good of mankind”. But the aggression and anger does not go away it just sublimates and gets expressed in other ways. As I pointed out in A Most Savage Compassion, “Virtue is more than a sham- it is the prim, ruthless face of coercion. It is aimed outward, at others, as a self-justification; an accusation and, above all, a yearning for Utopia.” Small wonder that progressives exhibit such self destructive, and cultural deconstructive rage against their own culture and people- they can’t express rage outward so it turns inward.

"Virtue" acts as an autoimmune disorder in which the body politick’s defenses are destroyed by progressivism which eats away the natural defenses from the inside while it encourages the external enemies to feast on the outside.

Progressive cant has it that the murderous stories of the bible, the piles of skeletal bodies of concentration camp victims, the American slave trade, The Inquisition and The Crusades, The 1,500 year Jihad of world conquest by Islam with its forced conversions, massacres, beheadings, stonings and honor killings are proof that the most hideous atrocities of human history have been committed because of Nation, Business or Religion that without those institutions, those things would never have happened. The truth is that evil things happen in spite of whatever Government, Business and Religion is in charge; evil happens because, as it is written in the bible, “the inclination in man's heart is evil from his youth.”

The heart of evil may be man’s, the blind assertion that people (humanity) are basically good may be the soul of evil but the progressive presumption that the pretense to Compassion, Selflessness and “the good of mankind” is by itself virtuous and the ultimate answer to evil, in the face of three and a half millennia of evidence to the contrary, is the strong right arm of evil. This is not even the deadly subterfuge of a Trojan Horse, it is the cowardly traitor who lets down the castle’s drawbridge in the dead of night and delivers his slumbering fellows into the hands of the enemy. And the enemy (whether in the form of Jihadist, moral disintegration or cultural decline) is not restrained by any such virtue.


Robert J. Avrech said...

Very fine post. You will notice hat there are 613 positive and negative mitzvos in Judaism. That's because the Torah well understands that human activity must be regulated or else evil will emerge triumphant.

lgude said...

I notice that I do not even accept that "normal human ambition, lust, acquisitiveness, anger and violence" are simply negative. Without ambition we would not strive, without lust we would not reproduce, without acquisitiveness we would not save, without anger we would often not even know we are under attack, and without violence we would be unable to defend ourselves. Likewise when people claim to be acting selflessly I immediately consider if they have a hidden agenda, if they assert that any reasonable person would agree with them I run a mile, and if they claim empathy I check inside to see if they see me clearly or if they are just projecting a part of themselves onto me. Because all people like to think of themselves as good, they tend to repress the negative sides of these elements of human nature. My favorite example of progressives doing this here in Australia is people who drive around in immaculate new Land Cruisers with bumper stickers that say: 'Greed is the Problem'. Some no doubt are being ironical, but most in my experience are quite convinced of their selflessness. Victorian hypocrisy hasn't gone away - it has just donned a very humble pair of $400 designer jeans. No doubt woven from ethically produced hemp fiber and refried Marxism.

truepeers said...

I like the way you deal with the question of normal goodness. Rene Girard is a great and original thinker, though I think his student, Eric Gans, has furthered his insights in important ways. Girard places competitive violence at the core of the human and sees the norms we create to guide our conduct as following from a collective act of violence, a scapegoating of the other, that is the communal solution to our disorderly rivalry. We then either understand this scapegoating in the mythic terms of primitive societies, or in the anti-sacrificial thinking of (primarily) Judeo-Christian revelation; in any case, our norms stem from this (mis)understanding of sacrificial violence.

Gans, on the other hand, convincingly argues that the norm must precede the violent sacrifice done in its name. Peace first, violence later. In other words, the representation of norms is originary to the human, and any representation works, for a time, to keep our mimetic or competitive natures at bay, deferring our disorderly violence and the desire for a violent, shared sacrifice aiming to re-assert some norms.

For Gans, human history is a series of prisoner dilemmas that we may or may not bring to a maximally successful conclusion. We are not necessarily evil, though that possibility is always there. We are first of all in a trap, prisoners who may be prisoners of each other, and we may find a way to co-operate for the best possible outcome. If we do, we will have discovered a norm that, however variable in its ongoing expression, serves as the basis for a shared historical memory, a "norm" to share. In this sense, the normal is good, the basis of exchange, negotiation, and not blind conformity.

In other words, for Gans, human society begins with a shared act of deferred desire and co-operation that is always then, "thanks" to our rivalrous resentment (produced by our inevitable differences or distance from whatever is sacred-normal) in a process of erosion that will lead to threats of violence and the need for renewed norms or co-operation. For Girard, more apocalyptically, violence has always been the precursor to the establishment of human norms, and now that we live in the nuclear age we are going to have to find a way to keep alive and universalize the anti-sacrificial Judeo-Christian revelations as we can no longer hope to use violent scapegoating to re-establish norms, at least at the level of global politics.


truepeers said...

Anyway, the problem with the "progressives" as you have noted is that they misread the nature of scapegoating and have lately put on trial all our norms - all institutions of nation, business, religion - as themselves the source of our scapegoating violence. For the "progressive" the difference that is inherent in any norm/deferral becomes occasion for creation of a differential power relationship that must always be put under suspicion in the at least formal quest for the Utopia of perfect equality (some may acknowledge we will never get there and yet still believe it is sufficient to live as if putting every norm under suspicion is alone the key to human progress). As both Girard and Gans argue, it is, most generally, by maintaining norms as a basis for exchange (and innovation) that we can hope to keep our rivalries in some kind of orderly or productive interaction. The question then becomes, however, how do we maintain and renew and discover norms, and hope to explain this process to those who have fallen for the "progressive" war against the normal, which practically expresses itself today as a war against any innovation that might create new norms/productive differences while all old norms are criticized - in short a world where nothing must be allowed to happen that is not about "redeeming", at least symbolically, a recognized victim?

And here it is useful to discuss Girard's apocalyptic pessimism/hope (Jesus has most completely revealed the sacrificial foundation of things hidden since the beginning and now we all must sign on to the anti-sacrificial lesson once and for all) and Gans' muted optimism (humanity, transcending the animal, begins not in violence, but in its deferral, an achievement we can hope to find ever new ways to represent, an origin that is in principle inexhaustible in its ability to generate new representations as historical circumstances will always provide basis for new revelations into the possibilities of the human; however, there are no guarantees we will not destroy ourselves, that resentment will not have the final word). These two writers have gone further than any to illuminate the fundamental nature of our humanity, the anthropology that "progressives" seek to overthrow, somehow, (though of course they can't) in the name of "progress".

Thanks for giving me occasion to write something!

Mark Amagi said...

I'm a fan after reading A Most Savage Compassion. Another excellent post and some interesting comments, though a bit academic; I'll check out Gans and Girard. The roots of the Progressive vision go back to Rousseau and his belief in the goodness of human nature, and the consequent evils of society (contradiction of sorts as it raises the question of how society became bad). Having recently read Schama's Citizens on the French Revolution there are obvious parallels with Progressivism, as Robespierre believed himself to be a paragon of moral virtue. If you haven't read him already, you might find Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate of interest, as he argues that it is tribal man that is most violent, whereas civilized man become most violent when he rejects the rules of civilization. I especially resonated with: "Virtue acts as an autoimmune disorder in which the body politick’s defenses are destroyed by progressivism which eats away the natural defenses from the inside while the external enemies feast on the outside." As I wrote in my blog on the Suicide of the West there is something suicidal about the culture of political correctness that leaves us vulnerable to our real enemies.

General P. Malaise said...

I recently came to your blog after seeing a comment to a piece on pajamasmedia.
I find your blog to be fascinating and your links to excellent site very valuable.

It is the right of the individual that made the USA great. I see this right erroding and under constant attack. The USA is the only country in the world, to my knowledge that entrenches this right in it'ss constitution.

Keep up the good work. Thank you.