June 16, 2006

Heads Up

There is a terrific interview with Paul Berman in the current Democratiya. Excerpt:

In the pre-modern age the rational and the irrational could both be understood. It was possible to think and to speak about such things as the soul in political terms, and to think about distortions and perversions of the soul. This became impossible after the rise of liberalism. Political language became impoverished. If you read Plato, his idea of tyranny is very different from a modern liberal idea of tyranny. For Plato, tyranny is not a system based on bad institutions. It's a perversion of the soul. The tyrant is someone who has lost the proper discipline over his soul and so is lost to his appetites and desires. There is even a fleeting passage or two where Plato mentions the tyrant might succumb to an appetite for cannibalism. This is amazing to see because it means Plato has already identified a cult of death as a temptation, one of the possible perversions of the soul that can take place. This is exactly the kind of thing that—after the rise of liberal ideas—it became harder for people to understand. We took all the questions of the soul, and of virtue, and of the perversions of the soul, and removed them to a corner reserved for religion or psychology. In a different corner we assigned political questions. In the political world, just as in the economic world, we wanted to accord everyone rationality, so we took all the questions of irrationality and put them in a different place entirely. It became very difficult to conceive that people might be behaving in irrational ways or might have succumbed to the allure of a cult of death.
Posted by Dr. Frank at June 16, 2006 04:38 PM | TrackBack

I find it interesting that Berman does not draw out his own analogy of the cult of death with respect to the "romance of the ruthless" that he applies to the neocons; those two Ideas seem essentially the same to me, albeit differently cloaked.

So whilst on some level Bush's public expressions of his anti-terrorism motivations (such as the "see into our hearts" bit) fit adequately into the picture of blind rationalism that T&L describes, the fact of the matter is that the active ideology has not been Bushism but, as even Berman admits, Rumsfeldism (I'd maybe call it Rumsfeld/Cheneyism). And R/Cism is, in the modern business school sense, an ideology (or lack thereof) that has gone full circle round the dial of rationalism to end up once more at "cult of death".

Berman writes "that an ideology as peculiar as Rumsfeld's could have prevailed... has not been examined enough." I strongly second the motion. The abrupt firing of Gen. Jay Garner, which figures prominently in Greg Palast's new book, sheds some light -- the U.S. military has now been structured so that it does not, or cannot, participate in any battlefield of ideas; it is a mere command and control structure under the discretion of the executive branch, and its management, as has been shown time and again, is outside the checks and balances intended to inject debate into American public institutions.

Put another way: it's hard to fight a war of ideas against an unarmed opponent.

Posted by: Wesley at June 19, 2006 12:31 AM

We do consider people rational actors in economic theory but only in a very strictly defined and limited way. Essentially,we just say that people's preferences at any given time are rationally ordered such that if a is preffered to b and b to c, then c cannot be prefered to a by any individual at any given time. This basic structure that gives rise to price matrices has withstood 200 years of hypothesis testing. In this regard any belief is "rational".

Posted by: josh at June 19, 2006 04:24 AM

Plato was a mystic in his own Platonic way

Posted by: buckeye bill at June 19, 2006 11:56 PM

"Put another way: it's hard to fight a war of ideas against an unarmed opponent."

Can you put it yet another way? Still no clue what you're trying to say.

Posted by: JB at June 21, 2006 08:40 AM

Hmm. I'll try putting it into the language of hip-hop:

They got no ism in their ism, fo' shizzle, fo' sho',
So ain't no one comin' blowin' down the neocons door.
(blow da man DOWN, BIIIIATCH!)

Posted by: Wesley at June 21, 2006 10:17 PM

A Beautiful Mind (really good bio btw, have not seen movie) has a description of John Nash's reaction to two colleagues who were experimenting with game theory. It seems these two had decided to collude against the game, in order to discover the strategy that would provide maximum benefit to both parties. And Nash's response to this was something along the lines of, "They're scientists, I would have expected them to be more rational."

It's hard to know what Plato would have made of a guy like John Nash, though it seems fair to say that Aristotle would have had a better shot at understanding an empiricist, or 'rationalist', which in itself suggests a lot about the way things have fallen out in Western Civ.

Though the excerpt you quoted was really interesting to me, maybe it's not that we've lost sight of the 'irrational', so much as we've pretty much always been struggling unsuccessfully to assimilate the ineluctable truth of 'Nature red in tooth and claw.'

So the neocons et al. can easily exploit the fear engendered by the fact that the lion won't lie down with the lamb. Kill or be killed! You can say that to a cowardly person and he will not only believe it, but also act conveniently like a deer in the headlights. The secret of the Red menace is that they are the cowards. Whereas you tell a liberal, Kill or be killed! and he will just say eff off.

Posted by: Maria Bustillos at June 26, 2006 09:06 PM