Influencing the Right, Part III

There will be more to this series. rdj

Maybe you have no time for all this, as you say in the last line of your post, because you complicate things and it takes a long time to sort them out, attributing ideas to scholars, tracing the geneology of ideas and generally taking an academic approach.

After conceeding much of what I say, you start making a case for reason. “If we give up on reason, on what basis do we set policy?” you ask in a quite rhetorical way.

Maybe you look for reason to uphold you, but I wouldn’t expose myself to that.

Reason, if such exists, was on the side of racial integration, but white folks in the South, who could ostensibly have been reached by reason, never did properly come around. What brought down segregation was not reason but the self-interest of black folks, their willingness to rebel in pursuit of their interests, and among other things, the self-interest of the Soviets and their willingness to propagandize the existence of racism in the U.S. : i.e., brute force and the threat of it, domestic and foreign.

The Vietnam war was not “reasonable.” What ended it was the brute force of the Vietnamese people, with backing from the Soviets, not any reasoning in the imperial country, which is repeating the error in Iraq, because reason is puny.

No “we” on this list sets any social policy, as you suggest. The System’s “reasonable men” do that: is it that you want to qualify as a candidate for their number?

Were I to be able to set social policy, my guide would not be “reason” by itself or “truth” or “science” either. It would be: what´s good for me, what kind of world do I want? (Call that Desire if you want; with that word you can start a whole new geneological-historical exposition.)
Reason is polite and fine, but, as winner or loser, give me self-interest and brute force any day! With those as my guides, the world seems “reasonable.”

Everbody is pursuing his or her own self-interest and those who garner the most brute force for their interests, win.

Dick J. Reavis

Wow. What strikes me most about your case against reason is how you use reason to articulate it. Do you not recognize that you refute your argument in the very act of making it?

Now, I agree that many heinous things have been done historically in the name of reason. This is not the fault of reason, but of the heinous people who evoke reason to rationalize actions motivated by self-interest and enabled by their access to brute force.

You should direct your argument against the use of reason to rationalize self-interest, not against reason itself. The appropriate remedy for the misappropriation of reason is to use reason to expose it. You have done this, and it’s what post-modernist social critics typically do. I have no problem with it, so far as it goes (it doesn’t go far enough, in my view, because it offers no alternative). But to lay the blame on reason seems wholly inappropriate. You want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I take your point about the importance of action to realize racial integration in the South. No amount of reason can convince some people. But, in order to take those actions, a mass political constituency had to be mobilized. Civil rights leaders used reason to do that. Appeals to self-interest wouldn’t do, owing to the compelling self-interest of prospective participants to free-ride on the civil rights movement — to enjoy the benefits of its success without contributing to the costs of attaining that success. If the civil rights leaders relied on the self-interest of their constituents, there would not have been a civil rights movement, much less a successful one.
This problem — the free-rider problem — is the reason your appeal to self-interest is mistaken. When we rely on self-interest, small groups that can easily police their membership to prevent free-riding tend to form, while large groups that cannot police their members do not. This is why producers of goods are organized, while consumers of goods are not. It’s why teachers are organized, while students are not, etc. I expect you already know this anyway. In any event, you should reconsider your appeal to self-interest in light of it.

By the “we” who set social policy, I mean “all of us.” I’m not naive enough to presume that we live in a democracy, but I’m not cynical enough to deny that we can have voice, should we choose to exercise it.

I would want your “what’s good for me” maxim for “what best promotes human flourishing.” Your maxim is the one that has produced all the ills you enumerate. Mine is the norm that should (if it doesn’t) motivate inquiry, social and natural.

See Bacon, Wittgenstein, and (Hilary) Putnam.

I won’t apologize for taking an academic approach, as that pays the bills around here.

Gavan Duffy

Ah, Duffer, you soar with the eagles. What fun that you’re occasionally willing to take time from your busy schedule to swoop down and shred a few of us groundlings.

But, hey, boy-o! Some of us ain’t going down without a struggle (as you’ve already noticed). Being a journalist, and therefore more practiced at brevity than you academic types, I have just four points.

First, you can stop grappling with postmodernism. It’s dead. PoMo performed a useful function in destroying the metanarrative of modernism (and it was never designed to be anything but a deconstructive force, so don’t hassle the pig for its failure to give good milk), but now that PoMo has effectively done its work, it’s finished. We’ve begun moving into construction of the next story. Difficult to say what our next metanarrative might be, but my guess is that it’s likely to be fueled by some of the insights being gleaned from research into complex adaptive systems. Anyway, better to invest your limited time in that construction work than flogging a dead horse. A lot of people haven’t recognized PoMo’s death yet because they’re distracted by all the residual zombies of modernism — the walking dead — some of them in high places.

Practical advice. There’s widespread agreement that you can’t kill a zombie, because it’s already dead, but you can permanently disable it by cutting off the head. (In case Bert Gerding is still watching, that is only a figurative allusion, Bert.)

Second, reality. I won’t quibble too much with your words, because I think you’re pretty much on target. Most consciousness theory these days acknowledges that while “the truth” is probably out there, our view of that is just so much amateur homebrew. It is (and probably always will be) largely inaccessible to us. But, as you suggest, there’s no point in going all grumpy about that. Better to dance with the one what brung ya than to sit there sulkin’ because you can’t get nowheres close to the prom queen.

Third, truth. I kind of hate that word. Mostly because it’s always shacked up with belief, and belief is so riddled with insecurity that it becomes completely obsessed with stomping out the non-believers and contrary-believers. Humility is in order. Better to acknowledge that all this truth stuff is just so many aging hypotheses, many of them still doing useful work, but generally just hanging on until they’re forced into retirement by some younger, more vigorous hypothesis. Even all the supposedly factual data and observations that support our hypotheses… homebrew at the end of the day. But, again, drink up. No margin in going thirsty all night. Just don’t get all huffy about this brew’s being the end-all and be-all.

Fourth, reason. Aw, shit! Now I’m going to be camped out somewheres apparently closer to that Reavis guy than to you, Duffer. But maybe only apparently. I’m not sure you’re actually contradicting each other. We’re talking about an appropriate instrument for managing human systems. Dick says self-interest and force are the prime movers. You counter that that’s exactly our problem. And that we need to let go of the “what’s good for me” maxim in favor of “what best promotes human flourishing” — i.e., the application of reason. But, hold on now, didn’t we already establish that there’s a synergy between those two a few millennia ago? In the overall scheme of things, what’s best for us is best for me (or, at least, for the collective me’s, if not necessarily and always me personally) and, by implication, vice versa. Clumsily applied as it often is, collective human self-interest rules. And it rules by force — consensually in the better circumstances but, in any case, inevitably. Are we collectively flourishing? Qualitative aspects aside, just ask all those extinct species we’ve elbowed out of the way to create more parking space. Will we continue to flourish — and hopefully to flourish in better as well as (or perhaps instead of) bigger ways? That’s where you and Dick ought to be able to find some common ground. Especially in our rapidly globalizing reality (so-called), it is a failure of reason not to recognize that the decimation of Africa’s population (to cite just one example) is not in my long-term, flourishing self-interest. And it is a failure of reason not to recognize that an inequitable distribution of power (i.e., the potential for exercising force) is not in my long-term self-interest. I think there’s no contradiction, at least in the longer term, between self-interest and applied reason. We’ve just gotta disable some of those zombies who can’t figure out how to put the two together in a more effective fashion. (Figuratively, Bert, figuratively!)

Dennis Fitzgerald

How I’ve enjoyed this discussion. None of us are as far apart as we might presume, and the talk is still civil!

I especially enjoyed Fitzgerald’s post: I wish I could write like that! The first mention of Gerding really had me laughing.

On another subject: I don’t know how many people know me or have kept up with me, but in 1995 I wrote the book of record about what happened at Waco with David Koresh and the FBI. I said that the FBI negligently killed innocent people, and that the press bought the government’s story rather than studying the events. I was effectively blacklisted, couldn’t find a job for three years and am still suspect. Some of my liberal friends decided that I’d finally gone around the bend (others may have decided that of late!)

Well, on Nov. 11, 2005, in Hempstead, N.Y., according to the New York Times, Bill Clinton said that he’d changed his mind about Waco. He said:

“I think we made a mistake letting the forces go into Waco instead of waiting them out, and I will always regret that. This is another thing you need to analyze as President: When do you take your experts’ advice and when do you do what you think is right? How do you know when to follow your gut and when do you listen to others? I think the answer is when your gut feels strong, and when it’s an area you know something too. If you’re blind ignorant then you ought to listen to someone else, and if you don’t have a real strong feeling. I had a real strong feeling. I dealt with problems like Waco when I was Governor and we should have waited them out. Janet Reno was new on the job. She got enormous pressure from the FBI to go ahead and go in there. And I am responsible for that, because I told her if that’s what they want to do and she thought it was right. It was a mistake and I am responsible. And that’s not one of those things you get A for effort on.”

I just learned of Clinton’s recantation tonight. It’s been a good night for me!

Dick J. Reavis

My point about saying that I have no time for this: I knew you would respond forcing me to respond, etc. I really can’t get that involved. I am not retired, Dennis.

Here are some BRIEF responses to Dennis.

— First, you can stop grappling with postmodernism. —

Postmodernism has always been at the margins, where it wants to be. But it’s hardly dead. As neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism.

— Difficult to say what our next metanarrative might be, but my guess is that it’s likely to be fueled by some of the insights being gleaned from research into complex adaptive systems. —

Do you mean John Holland and friends? If so, I’m skeptical. Genetic algorithms, neural nets and the like are pretty good at learning. The trouble is this: when you open them up and inspect them, all you see are a bunch of nodes (or units or whatever you want to call them) and some weights governing their interactions. That doesn’t comprise a theory or anything else that can be expressed propositionally. So what good is it?

— Anyway, better to invest your limited time in that construction work than flogging a dead horse. —

I do this in my work. But this is the Raglist.

— Practical advice. There’s widespread agreement that you can’t kill a zombie, because it’s already dead, but you can permanently disable it by cutting off the head. —

Now you’ve become incoherent.

— Second, reality. —

We are all blind pilgrims feeling our way through the world. We are so susceptible to illusion (and delusion) that we must consult one another. What we call “true” is just what coheres with everything else we think is “true.” But we may have it wrong, so we must be prepared to give it up. We are more prepared to give up propositions on the periphery of our knowledge than those nearer to the core. But we are always prepared to give up any proposition, if in doing so we advance the global coherence of our knowledge.

— Third, truth. —

Well, yes, I agree. But I will insist that there’s a truth to the matter, regardless of whether we know what it is. Else, it would make no sense to seek a truth of the matter or to posit truthful claims.

— Fourth, reason. —

No. The individual pursuit of self-interest does not necessarily maximize collective self-interest. At some point, those initially successful in attaining their interests enhance their chances even more by exploiting others.

— Clumsily applied as it often is, collective human self-interest rules. —

Even collectively, people organize into competing groups. If by “self” in “self-interest” you mean “all of humanity present and future,” then there may be no difference between pursuing self-interest and promoting human flourishing. I can’t see how you can posit that equivalence though.

Maybe you are confounded by my use of “promoting human flourishing,” which, by the way, is a phrase of Wittgenstein’s. By this I mean (and I take Wittgenstein to mean) the flourishing of all of humanity, not of particular individuals and groups.

Bentham identified the good as the sum of returns to expected utility for all persons present and future (where utility is total pleasures minus total pains, recognizing that for some pain is pleasurable.) But this doesn’t work, because we maximize that sum by allowing the better-off to exploit the worse-off. We get justice, argues John Rawls, only if we attenuate Bentham’s conception by arranging inequalities such that the prospects of even the worst off in society are still improving. This implies that we lower aggregate returns to expected utility (or collective self-interest) to achieve fairness for the worst-off members of society. Yet this ENHANCES human flourishing because it removes the incentive of the worst off to destroy society altogether. This is the liberal argument at least. Whatever you think of it, it trumps the Benthamite self-interest argument that you and Dick appear to advocate. Dammit, I’m not being brief.

— And it rules by force — consensually in the better circumstances but, in any case, inevitably. —

Being responsible caretakers of the environment promotes human flourishing. Making them extinct to create parking spaces does not.

— Will we continue to flourish — and hopefully to flourish in better as well as (or perhaps instead of) bigger ways? That’s where you and Dick ought to be able to find some common ground. —

You can create these recognitions only through the application of reasoned argumentation. But these aren’t failures of reason. They’re failures of people to use reason.

— I think there’s no contradiction, at least in the longer term, between self-interest and applied reason. —

There’s no contradiction if you redefine the terms so that they’re more or less equivalent. That’s what you seem to be doing here. Yes, it is in every individual’s long-term self-interest to promote human flourishing. But that’s not what Dick meant by self-interest. He meant what’s good for Dick.

Anyway, Dennis, Go tell it to Halliburton.

When I worked for KPFT, I had occasion to interview George Brown, founder of Brown and Root, now a main subsidiary of Halliburton. I asked Brown if he regretted building the tiger cages for use in the Vietnam War. I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “No, whatever the Navy wants us to build, we build it.” Now there’s self-interest.

I apologize for being more didactic than brief.

Gavan Duffy

I feel almost insulted by Mr. Duffy, who says, “it is in every individual’s long-term self-interest to promote human flourishing. But that’s not what Dick meant by self-interest. He meant what’s good for Dick.”

What? My self-interest is not the universal self-interest of humanity? Isn’t it patent that I represent all of humanity? How could any reasonable person doubt that?

I insist that what I want is, ipso facto, what’s best for humanity, and further, that if everybody respected himself or herself in the same way, the world would not be run by Halliburton.

These guys on top blind us by getting us to believe in things like “reason” instead of our own self-interests.

Dick J. Reavis

— Do you mean John Holland and friends? If so, I’m skeptical. Genetic algorithms, neural nets and the like are pretty good at learning. The trouble is this: when you open them up and inspect them all you see are a bunch of nodes (or units or whatever you want to call them) and some weights governing their interactions. That doesn’t comprise a theory or anything else that can be expressed propositionally. So what good is it? —

A much more fruitful source of emergent-systems theory is the work of Stuart A. Kauffman (collected in “The Origins of Order” and popularized in “At Home in the Universe,”) which uses chaos theory to explain the emergence of qualitative and structural system features that are inaccessible to incremental adaptation. While Kauffman’s primary focus is on biology, his coherent-novelty-out-of-chaos analysis explains a great deal about revolutions, political or cultural. (I applied it to education in this.)

Hunter Ellinger

Chaos theory never got very far in political “science,” although there was a group at Wisconsin-Milwaukee that was very into it.

Systems theory needs revitalization in the social sciences generally. The trouble was that the cold warriors got ahold of it and mistakenly (perhaps on purpose) construed societies as closed systems. So they focused on homeostatic “pattern maintenance” — maintaining current equilibria, or the status quo — instead of change, homeorhesis.

Exceptions are Karl W. Deutch’s “The Nerves of Government.” Also, Walter Dean Burnham on political realignments. Deutsch is long dead, but Burnham is emeritus at UT and lives in Austin. I was a student of both, years ago, and helped recruit Burnham at UT.

I am reminded also of Ilya Prigogine, the Nobelist, I believe, in biochemistry, who when he was alive would enthusiastically regale all who would listen about order-from-chaos and dissipative structures outside the PCL at UT.

Gavan Duffy

I have no idea what any of you are talking about these days, but I find it highly amusing. A free dinner to the person who can explain it to me so that I understand.

Lori J. Hansel

I’m fairly sure that your remark is facetious, but I’ll give you my take anyway.

Gavan says that Reason is a good approach to life, and we should use it more. Dick says that this approach will waste our time; let’s just go for it. Think old-school SDS intellectuals (Hayden, Thiher, Calvert) vs. PLP; praxis-axis vs. action-faction.

Alan says that self-interest is equivalent to navel-contemplation. Dennis wants to avoid a conspiracy-to-murder rap. Hunter is trying to move the discussion toward a dialectical synthesis (i.e., take the best parts of the debate and move forward.) Michael wants to look for political/philosophical/moral progress in technical progress.

Do I get dinner?

I have enjoyed the Ragstaff letters, and this has been the most fun of the whole list. I stand with Gavan, Alan, Dennis, Hunter, and Michael (dialectical synthesis.) I am certainly glad that Gavan has taken the time to be didactic with us.

I’ve been reading Reavis for 30 years, and I am amazed that he would throw back to PLP at this juncture. At any rate I agreed with him about Waco, and I’m glad that he sees vindication now.

Paul Spencer

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