Sunday, March 13, 2005

Drawing cheques

From View from the Right:
For the neocons, as for liberal and leftist ideologues generally, history consists of only two periods of time: our own time, which is enlightened and free, and the time before our time, which was a pit of darkness, superstition, and tyranny. The whole of pre-modern Western civilization is thus thrown into the trash bin. The formation of Christian European nations out of the ruins of the Western Roman empire; the Carolingian Renaissance; the birth of free towns and cities and the growth of a middle class; the High Middle Ages and its extraordinarily flowering of religion, archiectecture, art, and literature; Magna Carta; the development of the English common law--the pre-modern West was not only a great civilization in itself (and in crucial respects far higher than our own), but the matrix out of which our modern world, including our notions of liberty, grew. Wilson, for ideological purposes, reduces it all to "authoritarianism." Since we went from "authoritarianism" to "freedom" the moment it was "offered" to us, he argues, the Moslems will do likewise. The lesson is that the democratist/one-world/open-borders project doesn't lead only to the destruction of our civilization's present and future, but of its past as well.
Tip: M4Monologue The idea that where we are now is the high point of history, relegating everything before it to the dustbin, is serious thorn in the side of anyone who wants to discuss society -any society- in a meaningful way. A view like this strikes me as the product of two errors. In one sense it is very much a teenage outlook, in which we simply cannot imagine that our parents were ever cool, ever felt anything that we feel, wanted what we want. We live in a world that has more people working in narrow, specialized fields that ever before. From this work, they are able to earn incomes that place them well into the mid to ranges of society. The specialzation can preclude a firm and wide base of knowledge and the wealth can retard the ability to realize that an important social skill is weak or missing. "I have a 46 inch plasma TV, what do I need to read a book from 600 A.D. for?" Because you're watching Vin Diesel on it, that's why. 2Fast, 2Furious will make it hard to understand the world you actually live in and it certainly won't help you to see the past as a place filled with respectable human thought and feeling. If this were the only error involved I might gather some optimism that we are in a societal adolescent phase. With more time we might get over ourselves and begin to see that those who came before were as fully human as we. A good cure might be reading literature of past periods. The Bible is excellent because unlike the literature of some other times and places, the characters in that book are very fully developed. They do not have the stylization of Beowulf, for example. Scientism is the other problem and I suspect it's more serious. If our breakneck technological advances were to slow (always a possibility) our optimism about solving social problems through technology might retreat to the point where we could think about our social interactions without drawing cheques on future developments to save our sorry behinds. As it stands now, we indulge in fantasies about how our lives might be optimally ordered by ever increasing scientific developments and how science itself may hold the key to proper social organization. As any investment banker will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. There is no reason to think scientific advancement won't plateau at some point. I have no idea how close such a point might be (not very, I would suggest) but knowing it's possible and even likely is sobering. It reminds us that we have intractable social problems and they need to be dealt with, not simply shrugged off to the labcoats. Dealt with meaning both thought about and acted upon in a social way, and also in a cultural way. The banner of human rights is no help; it flies under the illusion of scientism. Poverty that results from squalid living arrangements, for example, is not cured through heavy taxation to support "humane" living standards. That is like using coal to put out a fire because it is wealth that subsidizes the squalor and allows it to continue. The poverty is a symptom; the disease itself is life lived in ways that are not beneficial to human life. The human rights perspective does not take into account, in my view, the fact that we often want things that are not good for us, or that conflict with one another, such as stable family life and a hyper permissive sexual attitudes. Granting rights in these fields is no help. What's needed is the ability to ascertain long term goods and the best way to achieve them. The more difficult problem lies in thinking that metaphysics can either be ignored or put under the microscope. Many voices from the past have pointed out that folly. David Hume said there was no getting an "ought" from an "is." Science gives us the stem cell but can say nothing about how and where it is to be obtained. It should be obvious, however, that how it is obtained has a very large impact on the kind of society we live in and on the kinds of life we can live. Ignoring metaphysics is not free. It comes at a cost, and that cost is the loss of a sense of justice. What is justice under the microscope? Nothing. Can it really be said that justice is nothing to society? C.S. Lewis wrote about the risks of thinking we can do away with "archaic" concepts like justice in his essay The Humanitartain Theory of Punishment. "The practical problem of Christian politics is," he wrote:
not that of drawing drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish. And when they are wicked the Humanitarian theory of justice will put at their hand a finer instrument of tyranny than wickedness ever had before. For if crime and disease are regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call 'disease' can be treated as crime; and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to plead that states of mind which displease government need not always deserve forfeiture of liberty.
Lewis felt that discarding justice meant treating crime as a disease and that such a view was not enlightened because there is no reasonable response a layperson can give a medical expert. The two do not address one another as equals as they do in the traditional system of justice. One is a God without mercy and the other is a bug. History is filled with examples of the kind of misery that kind of power relationship can produce. And we would know that better if we could look to those who lived it in the past without an undeserved sense of our own superiority. Human nature - then and now - is not a disease but neither is it pure. It is purely circular to think it can cure itself and we forget that at our peril. We are living off of past social wisdom while chipping away at it because we don't understand it very well. It's questionable if we are adding much to it because our own premises are flawed. And that is a formula that can't go on indefinitely.

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