Mittwoch, Februar 14, 2007


This article by Ruth Dudley Edwards in the British newspaper The Telegraph reminded me of the occasional epiphany that I've had.

I spent the early 1980s in Germany working on a doctorate in Philosophy. I was more or less a liberal at that point in time, and even voted for Carter as the lesser of two evils (I couldn't pardon Ford for having pardoned Nixon...). Even as late at 1978 I remember agreeing with one of the Germans that I worked with that socialism was a historical necessity and must ultimately triumph.

I ran into rampant anti-Americanism almost from day 1, with my landlady of the time swearing that Reagan's election meant that There Would Be War, with a multitude (I remember counting 27 at one point) leftist groups at the University in Freiburg demanding our attention and commitment (hah!) in fighting imperialism, and with many professors more than willing to use their pulpit to bully the students into party-line group-think. I was a tad older than the others, and what little maturity that brought me helped.

I realized, as does Ruth Edwards, that intelligence and cleverness does not protect one from being incredibly foolish. My years in Germany have led me to the conclusion that the one thing Germany really needs - critical thought, critical in the sense that Kant meant it - is severely lacking, since critical thought is at best uncomfortable and at worst downright subversive to existing hypocrisies and dearly beloved shibboleths of oh-so-rational liberal society.

But back to Ms. Edwards:

When I left the public service, researching and writing the biography of the publisher Victor Gollancz, creator of the Left Book Club, and then a subsequent history of The Economist, made me realise how many clever people are fools. The Left were push-overs for communist propaganda, but they could at least recognise fascism as evil: the establishment found the whole notion of evil distasteful. I read enough Times and Economist leaders written by Oxbridge double-firsts welcoming the encouraging signs of statesmanship emanating from Herr Hitler to disillusion me forever about the wisdom of the commentariat: the default mindset is still to resist the notion that evil exists and that when bad people say bad things, they may just mean them.

As the 1930s establishment wrote off Churchill as a madman because, obviously, Hitler didn't mean what he said in Mein Kampf, so today we are still assured that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is exaggerating when he says he wants to exterminate all Jews. But does anyone really believe that Abu Hamza was kidding when he said: "We ask Allah to make us shaheed (martyrs); our immediate duty now is to correct our own homeland?"

This is one aspect of the problem: that the liberal mind-set has enormous difficulties with the concept of evil and absolutely enormous faith - rather unbased, I would say - in the abilities of thinkers to be both clever and right.

The problem ultimately lies in a much older problem, the one that Plato discussed in his The Sophist: the problem of sophistry masquerading as wisdom, of ability and skill without knowledge. The Sophist is the one who makes a business out of "doing" wisdom, who basically survives by being clever, clever in the 20th century British sense. For whatever worth the original sense of the word may have had - of someone who would bring his students to wisdom - it became corrupted by those who didn't bother to learn the true bringing of wisdom, but rather with merely the trappings of the same. In other words, those who were as good as the proper philosophers in spinning a good story to make a point, but not really caring about whether the point was real or not, whether it brought wisdom, knowledge, or was merely nicely spun. The difference between Schein and Sein, if you will.

Fundamentally, the Sophists held a relativistic view of knowledge and truth, that these were not absolutes.

Sound familiar? Of course it does.

Now, more people than you might think are actually interested in finding the truth behind things. It's a fundamental of human nature to do so, but we hairless flat-faced, lop-tailed walking monkeys are easily distracted by things like MTV and daily soaps and the like. In our modern, liberal society there are basically three paths to finding truth: religion, politics and critical analysis.

Religion is easy: you start to believe in a set of postulates that is largely a clear and rational structure for understanding the world. That might be something as deeply mystical as the Holy Trinity and catholic catechisms, the postulate of original sin and Jesus' sacrifice to save man from his own tendency to evil, or it might be something as cynical and abusive of "the Jews are the reason that we are poor and can't do anything".  When I say religion is easy, I'm not being coy or denigrating, but rather I recognize the fact that for many with neither the time and patience for philosophical review, religion may be the only way of making sense out of the world or reaching an understanding of the meaning of what happens to them individually.

Politics is a tad more difficult, as you have the secular world with all of its discrepancies and contradictions. Political theory tends to the practical; political belief systems can be so deeply intertwined with religion that there can be no meaningful seperation. Politics is harder, but you have the company of your peers, such as they are, and marching for your political beliefs is something that people have been doing for ages.

Critical analysis is the hard part, where the chaff is seperated from the wheat. The problem with critical analysis is that it is perforce done in splendid isolation and if not accompanied by massive self-doubt then is largely useless: that is part of the reason why so much of what is called "critical" thought is not that at all, but rather the parroting of what professors long to believe about themselves.

Now I've gotton off-topic a tad.

Getting back to the article per ut supra, Ms. Edwards quite correctly points out the fundamental problem facing liberal society, liberal in the sense that most western societies understand themselves to be so. The problem is fundamental because as long as western societies continues to be uncritical about themselves, they will continue to be open to exploitation: the mistaken belief that if you are nice to others, others will be nice to you; the mistaken belief that people saying terrible things don't really mean what they say; the mistaken belief that evil is something that religion dreamed up to tell a frightening story to small children, but we as adults of course know that there is no such thing as the Devil.

That there is no such thing as evil.

Let's remember the Christian story of the Devil: an angel who rebelled against God. He seduced Eve to give to Adam the fruit of knowledge; his goal is to destroy the works of God, to negate what God has planned. He is relativistic, being neither omnipotent nor omniscient, relying on minions to do his deeds. His first and most fundamental deed is to bring Sin to man: not merely the temptation to do something that you know is wrong, but to then actually do it.

So, you're all rolling your eyes and thinking "great, another nutter".

I'd prefer to think of the Devil as metaphor, of the driving force that leads people to do things that they right well know they shouldn't: that can be as simple as a vegetarian deciding that they are damn well going to sit down to a good steak because they crave it so to the delusions of the murderer that his or her victims were all the time asking to be killed.

In that case, the Devil is hard at work in western society, and those who embrace barbarism, with its simple truths, black-and-white world structure, drastic punishments and lust for power, are doing, metaphorically speaking, the work of the Devil.

As Ms. Edwards says, quite correctly, we're not dealing with a clash of civilizations, we're dealing with civilization vs. barbarism.

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