June 25, 2007

Cosmic Dualism, and the Religious Style of Thought (I): Preliminary Thoughts About an Interesting Conversation

In the course of discussing certain related matters yesterday, I mentioned that I wanted to analyze in some detail a particular approach to political analysis that I only recently began to understand much more fully than I had before. Very fortuitously, an unusually interesting discussion involving Chris Floyd, Glenn Greenwald and Paul Curtis has just unfolded, and their debate touches on the themes that concern me at several points. Chris's first entry about this will be found here, and his second article is here. His posts contain links to the related entries from the other participants.

The starting point for these posts was Greenwald's new book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. Chris notes that he hasn't read that book yet (its official publication date is tomorrow), and I haven't either. For this reason, Chris adds that, to the extent his comments concerned the book's contents, those comments obviously are only "provisional." In what follows, I am not specifically addressing Greenwald's book at all, since I obviously cannot. But having issued that disclaimer, I will say that when I first saw the book's subtitle -- "How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency" -- I thought: "Now, that's an exceptionally strange issue to focus on with regard to this subject." I thought that, and I still think it, for many reasons, some of which are indicated in what follows (although not in this first installment). Clearly, I will not know to what precise extent, if any, my concerns can be applied to the book itself until I read it. But please keep in mind that this discussion is directed at what I view as preliminary or foundational issues -- that is, those issues that underlie any concern with a "Good vs. Evil Mentality," among other things.

There are any number of provocative points raised in the course of Chris's discussion, so I strongly recommend you read the entries linked above and the other posts indicated by Chris. What I am about to address are, as I indicated, a series of underlying issues, concerning the most basic ways in which various peoples and cultures view humankind, the world and the universe. As I hope will become clear, I think we can meaningfully assess any opposed pair such as "Good vs. Evil" only when we understand that this is but one example out of countless manifestations of a more fundamental philosophic stance.

So let's plunge in. Because it is critical to much of what follows, here are several paragraphs from Chris which began the debate:
I haven't read the book -- which is not out yet -- but have read the excerpts, and Glenn's own pieces about it, and some of the comments by other writers on the book. For example, Glenn quotes this analysis by Paul Curtis:
Right-wing Manicheanism has taken over the national debate on security matters, operating as a literally totalitarian thought system, in that it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic. We've become familiar with the notion of framing in political discourse: well, this is the meta-frame. It quashes every attempt by liberals and moderates to raise rational points and does tremendous damage to constitutional liberties, the national interest, and global well-being. . . .

Because it is a totalitarian framework of logic, the only way to defeat it is to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise, as Greenwald is doing. Conservatives have often gained the advantage in American public discourse because they build and re-enforce these meta-frames with great care; for liberals to bring reason back to the debate we'll need to do a considerable amount of foundational work of our own. This means, in the present case, repeatedly making the argument that Manicheanism is foolish and destructive, that we cannot afford to make policy according to a worldview defined by a simpleminded division of Good v. Evil.
Something here seems slightly off-kilter to me. For example, when has a strict Manicheanism not "taken over the national debate on security matters"? The "simpleminded division of Good v. Evil" reigned in all-triumphant glory throughout the decades of the Cold War, as anyone who was there for all or most of it can readily attest.
I need to stop here -- and, with apologies for creating possibly greater confusion, I have to deal with what I regard as a still more preliminary matter. The following point is not the primary subject I want to discuss, but I think it's important to clear up this confusion.

About Curtis's remarks, Chris says says that "[s]omething here seems slightly off-kilter to me," by which Chris means the supposedly radically new emphasis on "Manicheanism," specifically as applied to "the national debate on security matters." But there is something else that seems off-kilter to me -- and it is Curtis's reference to " a literally totalitarian thought system, in that it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic. " I find this extraordinarily confusing, and very imprecise. I offer the following observations only because I find this subject of considerable interest, as I hope you will, and despite the fact that it isn't the major subject I want to address.

What is a "totalitarian thought system," and what on earth is "a literally totalitarian thought system"? Precision is important here, especially since this is close to the starting point of this discussion (and, I imagine, many others as well). We refer to closed systems of thought, but not to "totalitarian" ones. "Closed" in this sense is most commonly used in two distinct ways. One is more formal, usually employed to designate the work of one particular person. For example, we refer to "Aristotelianism" or "Kantianism" to refer to the philosophic systems identified and developed by those particular men. We might refer to much further work developed by others which is in the "Aristotelian tradition" or as belonging to the "Aristotelian school," but that only means that later writings are consonant with the principles identified by Aristotle himself. The later work fits within that system, and it does not conflict with or contradict the earlier writings. But if we refer to "Aristotelianism" in this manner, we usually mean a closed system, restricted to Aristotle's work alone.

The other meaning of a "closed" system of thought is along the lines Curtis indicates: "it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic." But this is true of any system of thought, if indeed it is a system. It's true of Aristotelianism, of Kantianism, certainly of every fundamentalist variety of the different religions, and it's true of every religion, fundamentalist or not, to the extent it is a "system" of thought. That's what "system" means: that certain premises are, in effect, treated as axioms (whether they are in fact philosophic axioms or not), and that all the evidence and arguments adduced are used in support of those premises, which premises are regarded as unalterable and unquestionable. You can see this dynamic in a very crude form in Sam Brownback's discussion of his beliefs about evolution and God, which I recently discussed here.

Now, you may regard Brownback's arguments, such as they are, as utterly absurd and nonsensical (which I certainly hope you will, especially after reading my dissection of his views). But my point here is that Brownback is also offering a "closed system" of belief. He begins with certain premises that he regards as absolute:
The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man's essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.
And Brownback's insistence on this "fundamental truth that must be safeguarded" leads him to this epistemological standard:
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man's origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
This is the prototype of a certain kind of closed system or, as I said in the earlier essay: "This is primacy of the story, offered in very clear fashion and without apology." What I meant is that Brownback assumes certain conclusions he insists upon as his premises -- and he then will admit only those facts and that evidence into the discussion that are consonant with those conclusions. Any facts and evidence that will not "fit" are marginalized, undercut, or ignored altogether.

Let me add one important clarification. Note I said that Brownback's belief system represents a "certain kind" of closed system. To designate a system as "closed" does not by itself indicate whether it's right or wrong: it may be entirely right or entirely wrong, or it might be partially right and partially wrong. "Closed" by itself does not indicate a cognitive evaluation of the system's content, which is a different matter entirely. The reason Brownback's gyrations are so ludicrous is that his premises, which are also in part his conclusions, are completely wrong. As a direct consequence, he must deliberately stick his fingers in his ears and shout: "I can't hear you!," whenever he comes across a fact which calls his premises into question. Since he is so completely wrong, this happens all the time, which is why he sounds so remarkably stupid.

When we say a system of thought is "open," we most commonly mean that the system identifies certain broad principles (among other elements which may or may not be present in the system), and that many additional implications and much additional knowledge can be built upon those principles. It will all "fit" together, without internal contradictions or inconsistencies. So, for example, we can use Aristotelianism (or Kantianism, or Christianity, or...) in the sense of either a closed or open system, depending on the context and our meaning. If we talk about Aristotelianism as a "closed system," we mean only those principles and applications identified by Aristotle himself. If we refer to it as an "open system," we are usually referring to the broader principles Aristotle identified, as well as to all the further work that relies upon and is consonant with those principles.

What does it add to say that a system of thought is "totalitarian," or "literally" totalitarian? Nothing that I can see. As discussed above, "totalitarian" in the sense that Curtis uses it could be applied to any system of thought, if indeed it is a system. I would submit that to use "totalitarian" in this manner is simply wrong. "Totalitarian" properly refers to a particular form of political-cultural-social organization. It does not refer to thought per se, whether we refer to a system of thought or not. Moreover, I don't even see that it makes much sense. Totalitarianism involves the prohibition of everything that challenges official, "approved" thought and practice -- not the figurative prohibition, but, as Curtis would have it, the literal prohibition. No system of thought by itself can do this, no matter how rigid, how constricted, or how wrong it might be; only the power of the State can. Indeed, Greenwald's project in his book (and other writings), Curtis's own comments, and the writings of many others (including me) demonstrate the truth of this observation: that project is devoted to challenging and uprooting the system of thought in question. If the system of thought were "literally totalitarian," Greenwald's own project would be impossible. (As a further point along the same lines, consider this sentence from Curtis: "Because it is a totalitarian framework of logic, the only way to defeat it is to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise, as Greenwald is doing." But again, the same is true of a challenge to any system of thought, and even of a challenge to any deeply held beliefs. The only way to "defeat" or challenge it is "to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise..." If one wants to challenge Aristotelianism, or Kantianism, or Christianity, one must do the same thing. To employ "totalitarian" in this context adds nothing of substance, and creates many possible confusions.)

This may seem a small point to spend so much time and space on, but I don't think it is. And it's important for another reason. Many critics of the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy (an approach which is hardly limited to Bush and unfortunately not even to conservatives, as the Clinton administration had a deeply regrettable tendency to do this repeatedly in the 1990s) properly and very strongly criticize the eagerness of those who favor aggressive interventionism to characterize their latest target as "another Hitler," or a danger on the order of the "Nazi threat." In recent years, this has always been profoundly untrue, and incredibly dangerous. If we seek to uproot these erroneous and deeply damaging methods of thought and analysis, it behooves us not to engage in the same kinds of errors. I have written numerous essays decrying the Bush administration with regard to an endless number of issues -- but to accuse them of advancing "a literally totalitarian thought system" is several bridges too far.

As I indicated above, totalitarianism properly refers to a specific kind of political organization, one which encompasses every aspect of a nation's life. To underscore these points and to present them with much more eloquence, I turn to perhaps the twentieth century's preeminent expert on these questions, Hannah Arendt. The following is from what I regard as one of Arendt's most important essays, "Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship," which appears in Responsibility and Judgment. I will soon be offering further excerpts from this essay in connection with complex issues of moral judgment.

This is a fairly lengthy passage, but I find it hard to offer shorter excerpts from Arendt. She is endlessly provocative and fascinating, and I think this particular passage is well worth your time (as is the complete essay, and the entire book). Please note that, among other points, Arendt is extremely careful to distinguish between dictatorship and totalitarianism, which are not at all the same thing.

Arendt writes:
Totalitarian forms of government and dictatorship in the usual sense are not the same, and most of what I have to say applies to totalitarianism. Dictatorship in the old Roman sense of the word was devised and has remained an emergency measure of constitutional, lawful government, strictly limited in time and power; we still know it well enough as the state of emergency or of martial law proclaimed in disaster areas or in time of war. We furthermore know modern dictatorships as new forms of government, where either the military seize power, abolish civilian government, and deprive the citizens of their political rights and liberties, or where one party seizes the state apparatus at the expense of all other parties and hence of all organized political opposition. Both types spell the end of political freedom, but private life and nonpolitical activity are not necessarily touched. It is true that these regimes usually persecute political opponents with great ruthlessness and they certainly are very far from being constitutional forms of government in the sense we have come to understand them -- no constitutional government is possible without provisions being made for the rights of an opposition -- but they are not criminal in the common sense of the word either. If they commit crimes these are directed against outspoken foes of the regime in power. But the crimes of totalitarian governments concerned people who were "innocent" even from the viewpoint of the party in power. It was for this reason of common criminality that most countries signed an agreement after the war not to bestow the status of political refugee upon those culprits who escaped from Nazi Germany.

Moreover, total domination reaches out into all, not only the political, spheres of life. Totalitarian society, as distinguished from totalitarian government, is indeed monolithic; all public manifestations, cultural, artistic, or learned, and all organizations, welfare and social services, even sports and entertainment, are "coordinated." There is no office and indeed no job of any public significance, from advertising agencies to the judiciary, from play-acting to sports journalism, from primary and secondary schooling to the universities and learned societies, in which an unequivocal acceptance of the ruling principles is not demanded. Whoever participates in public life at all, regardless of party membership or membership in the elite formations of the regime, is implicated in one way or another in the deeds of the regime as a whole. What the courts demand in all these postwar trials is that the defendants should not have participated in crimes legalized by that government, and this nonparticipation taken as a legal standard for right and wrong poses considerable problems precisely with respect to the question of responsibility. For the simple truth of the matter is that only those who withdrew from public life altogether, who refused political responsibility of any sort, could avoid becoming implicated in crimes, that is, could avoid legal and moral responsibility.
Especially in light of the events of the twentieth century, totalitarianism is a concept freighted with enormous political, legal and moral significance. I think we must exercise extraordinary care in its use. It is not helpful to employ it in contexts where it is not logically necessitated or justified, and such uses can lead to significant confusions.

In the next installment, I will turn to the subject that most concerns me about this recent debate.

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