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April 11, 2013

Seeming vs. Substance

Larry Elder provides a fascinating look at some of the history behind the "racist GOP" meme:

In 1960, during the presidential campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested following a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Atlanta. Hundreds of other protestors were released, but King was jailed on a trumped-up probation violation for failing to have a Georgia driver's license.

King's aides reached out to then-Vice President and Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon. They also reached out to the Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy called the Atlanta judge handling the case. Shortly after that call, the judge released King. Nixon, according to Harry Belafonte, a King supporter, "did nothing." Is that true?

...According to historian and presidential biographer Stephen Ambrose, while Nixon made no public comments, he telephoned Attorney General William Rogers to find out if King's constitutional rights were being infringed, thus opening the door for federal involvement. Nixon, a lawyer, was concerned about the ethics of calling a judge to get him to release someone.

Nixon, writes Ambrose, told his press secretary: "I think Dr. King is getting a bum rap. But despite my strong feelings in this respect, it would be completely improper for me or any other lawyer to call the judge. And Robert Kennedy should have known better than to do so." That Bobby Kennedy, also a lawyer, nevertheless made a phone call to the judge did not alter the issue of whether it was appropriate. In retrospect, an easy call, but not at the time.

Two million pamphlets titled, "'No Comment' Nixon Versus a Candidate With a Heart, Senator Kennedy," were distributed in black churches. Never mind that in 1956 Nixon revealed he was an honorary member of the NAACP. Or that Nixon pushed for passage of the '57 civil rights bill in the Senate. Or that Time magazine wrote that Nixon's support for civil rights incurred the wrath of one of his segregationist opponents, Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., who sarcastically called Nixon the NAACP's "most distinguished member."

We did not know the part Everett Dirksen played in getting the Civil Rights Act passed either:

...as a percentage of the party, more Republicans voted for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than did Democrats. For his key role breaking the Democrats' filibuster and getting the act to pass the stalled Senate, Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, a conservative from Illinois, landed on the cover of Time magazine. President Lyndon Johnson called Dirksen "the hero of the nation." The Chicago Defender, then the country's largest black daily newspaper, applauded Dirksen's "generalship" for helping to successfully push through the bill.

Pay no attention to misleading suggestions that racist, obstructionist Democrats opposed the civil rights movement. As properly educated Americans well know, the bigots bold Progressives of yore were so enraged by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the integration of America that they promptly jumped ship and joined the party without whose leadership neither of these civil rights victories regrettable developments would have occurred.

Funny how our sense of past events "evolves" with the passage of time:

The New York Times bestowed a big sloppy wet kiss on Anthony Weiner’s NYC mayoral ambitions yesterday. The piece allows Weiner to portray his decision to come clean and to resign as mostly unforced; a laudable decision to lay bare his soul to save his marriage and show his fidelity to the truth.

Nonsense.

In April 2012 it was revealed that evidence of Weiner’s potentially inappropriate contact with underage girls was the ultimate reason he was forced to resign. Somehow that fact never made it into yesterday’s piece. The following quote is from an April 2012 New York Post piece:
President Obama was willing to put up with a lot of Anthony Weiner’s antics — the bad boy congressman’s sexting with women he never met, tweeting pics of his own penis, and acid tongue.

But the White House finally got fed up when reports emerged that the pol was in contact with an underage girl.

According to a new book, the cold shoulder from the White House was the beginning of the end of Weiner’s career in Congress.

Some actors get the airbrush, others the tar brush. Thank heavens there isn't any kind of agenda at work here.

Posted by Cassandra at April 11, 2013 08:36 AM

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Comments

How ironic that Nixon should feature as upstanding defender of the integrity of the law. I suppose that sometime between 1960 and 1972 he decided to follow Yosemite Sam's advice: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Posted by: Grim at April 11, 2013 11:23 AM

Hard to say. I read something a long time ago that compared JFK, Johnson, and Nixon and concluded that none of the three had any real respect for the rule of law.

I've always seen Nixon as something of a tragic figure: a politician without the power to charm, who had a formidable mind.

Without for a moment excusing Watergate, you have to admit that the wiretapping aspect has it's amusing side. These days, we have a far more enlightened attitude towards secretly recording of political opponents.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 11, 2013 11:46 AM

Yeah, we've moved on in so many ways toward a more enlightened society.

Posted by: Grim at April 11, 2013 06:25 PM

We *are* more enlightened in many ways. In other ways, I'd say we're worse off.

We don't, for instance, have Jim Crow laws. I'd say that's a significant advance. It's easy to see the past through rose colored glasses. I imagine the law of tradeoffs operated then as it does now.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 11, 2013 09:13 PM

It doesn't matter what we do, only how we say we feel about it. RFK felt that what he was doing was for a good cause, and he didn't care if his ex parte communication with the judge should have gotten both him and the judge sanctioned. He cared more about the end than the means, which makes him a popular figure with a press of a certain un-named political bent. Nixon was guided by his principles, so even if he did what was right, and what might even have turned out to be the most effective thing in the long run, he didn't make us believe he'd do anything for a good cause. So he's chopped liver.

As long as your heart's in the right place, in other words, it makes absolutely no difference whether you're making things better or worse.

Posted by: Texan99 at April 11, 2013 10:25 PM

It's all about the PR :p

Posted by: Cassandra at April 12, 2013 08:11 AM

He cared more about the end than the means, which makes him a popular figure with a press of a certain un-named political bent.

Yeah, I hear dictators can be quite fond of that logic.

As long as your heart's in the right place, in other words, it makes absolutely no difference whether you're making things better or worse.

Road to Hell, and all that.

Posted by: MikeD at April 12, 2013 08:43 AM

We *are* more enlightened in many ways.

I'm not convinced that is true, as you know. What I'm about to say is not meant to antagonize you at all, but to explain why I question the principle. It's going to touch on some emotionally charged issues, but I mean this entirely dispassionately: it's just an explanation of why I think what I do.

I wonder how much the absence of Jim Crow laws continues because gerrymandering prevents black voters from having any serious effect on the system. The Congressional Black Caucus hasn't achieved much -- I'm not sure they've achieved anything -- even with a president who is allegedly on their side. If it ever gets to be the case that minority voters really can enact the fully socialist system that strong majorities of them seem to want, I wonder if conservatives would simply accept that system because it was lawfully enacted, surrender their property, and accept the new status.

If not, then the 'advance' isn't quite what we take it to be. It's conditional on them remaining relatively powerless. If they became powerful enough to overturn the system we live in, there's a good chance that something like Jim Crow might be re-enacted with strong conservative support. And if that's true, then I'm not sure we've really advanced at all.

I think you make a similar point sometimes about people who want to overturn the 19th amendment. Do we really mean that women can vote for whatever they want? Or is conservative acceptance of women voting conditioned on women voting in a certain way? (I think you could ask the same question about liberal acceptance of womens' right to vote: if they suddenly began voting as a strong conservative bloc, how many left-leaning thinkers would begin to ask the questions that right-leaning thinkers ask today?) So we might ask whether we've really accepted the democratic principle after all, or if we're just accepting it conditionally on people voting as we want them to vote.

But I think a more important question is, "Is enlightenment the acceptance of the democratic principle?" I take this as a serious question. There's a good moral argument for democracy, but it's not the only moral argument.

Socialism is morally wrong in many ways. That it is lawfully enacted can't morally justify the kind of theft it involves, nor the moral cost of the near-certain famines that Tex talks about. It's really a hard question as to whether it would be more immoral to refuse to honor minority voters' rights if they should enact a socialist system, or to refuse to defend the system that prevents starvation and upholds the moral principles against theft.

If you choose the first option, you're endorsing a form of Jim Crow. If you choose the second, the moral and practical consequences for society (indeed, for civilization) are quite severe.

So are we more enlightened? Do we really accept the democratic principle regardless of what voters should choose? Indeed, we must ask, is that what it means to be enlightened? Or does it mean to defend moral principles even against democracy?

Posted by: Grim at April 12, 2013 12:23 PM

I suppose we could rephrase the question in a way that makes it almost trivial, though. Instead of asking "Is enlightenment the acceptance of the democratic principle," we could ask:

"Is enlightenment going along with what everybody else wants?"

That's a question that's quite easy to answer at the micro level, but it somehow becomes much harder when we're talking about the society or civilization as a whole.

Posted by: Grim at April 12, 2013 12:53 PM

. If it ever gets to be the case that minority voters really can enact the fully socialist system that strong majorities of them seem to want, I wonder if conservatives would simply accept that system because it was lawfully enacted, surrender their property, and accept the new status.

That's a good question, but then there appear to be a fair number of white voters who want the same thing. That's what the whole 'consent of the governed' thing is about.

If not, then the 'advance' isn't quite what we take it to be. It's conditional on them remaining relatively powerless. If they became powerful enough to overturn the system we live in, there's a good chance that something like Jim Crow might be re-enacted with strong conservative support. And if that's true, then I'm not sure we've really advanced at all.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that makes no sense to me. Seems to me that conservatives won't care for socialism no matter who ushers it in. Voting Dem isn't a "black" trait - most of the party is still white. It's not as though blacks haven't voted for Republicans - see the full text of the recent post about the GOP racism meme.

I don't get why you want to link the demise of Jim Crow laws with socialism. It's clear you see a connection, but I don't. The country was headed that way under FDR and Jim Crow was still alive and well then. Which (again) undercuts the notion that there's a connection.

I think you make a similar point sometimes about people who want to overturn the 19th amendment. Do we really mean that women can vote for whatever they want? Or is conservative acceptance of women voting conditioned on women voting in a certain way?

Well, that's the question I've asked every time this issue has come up. And people wonder why the GOP has an image problem with the rest of the country.

(I think you could ask the same question about liberal acceptance of womens' right to vote: if they suddenly began voting as a strong conservative bloc, how many left-leaning thinkers would begin to ask the questions that right-leaning thinkers ask today?)

My guess is, about the same number.

So we might ask whether we've really accepted the democratic principle after all, or if we're just accepting it conditionally on people voting as we want them to vote.

Blacks don't vote the way conservatives want them to vote now. Neither do Jews, Hispanics, and single women (I'm really getting pretty tired of being lumped in with all women - a higher percentage of single guys vote Dem than marrieds, too but I don't see anyone attributing THAT to their having testicles. Why is that? Oh yeah - now I'm depressed.

Honestly Grim, I don't give a tinker's dam whether people think I'm equal (or think the law should be mostly gender-blind unless there's a damned good reason to make an exception). Actually, I do care - it pisses me off beyond my ability to discuss it civilly, but that's not going to change their minds. You can't make people respect you. You can only live your life in such a way that you still respect yourself. If other people don't get it, they're not worth the angst.

So long as they don't try to take my rights away, I can live with their contempt. I imagine most blacks feel the same way.

It's such a damned shame we want to hang so much on sex or skin color. I've never understood it, and I never will.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 12, 2013 01:25 PM

I meant to add this:

To the extent the Hatey Haters of Hatitude aren't not taking up arms and trying to strong arm the government into taking my vote away, yes - I think democracy is working just fine.

Living under a representative system of government never ensured that everyone would *like* every single law on the books. There are many laws I am dismayed by. But as long as a critical mass of people see more benefit to abiding by the laws of the land than they do in taking up arms and overthrowing it, the system is working.

How did we ever get so comfortable that pebbles in our shoes seem like daggers through the heart? Compared to most other places on this earth, America is still a relative paradise.

I know you think that if the government went away tomorrow, you'd be better off. I don't think that. Part of the role of government is to protect our rights against our fellow citizens. To the extent that government now appears to have partially abandoned that role, I share your concerns and fears.

But things would have to get a whole lot worse before I'd wipe the slate clean, because I don't have all that much love or trust in my fellow man. We'd be facing all the jackwagons who want to seize other people's property now, and if the past few elections are any indication, they outnumber us.

Unless things get a whole lot worse, I'd rather fight them at the ballot box than with guns. And despite all their anti-gun rhetoric, if push came to shove they'd get over their dislike of firearms right quickly if the incentives were favorable.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 12, 2013 01:37 PM

See, that's why I said I wasn't trying to antagonize you. I had a feeling it would antagonize you anyway, but I'm really not trying to do so. I'm really not trying to make the arguments you're reading into what I've written above. I'm trying to explain why I doubt the theory that we've engaged in some sort of progress.

My point about Jim Crow laws is just that I don't think we are as good as we're giving ourselves credit for being. We say we're more enlightened, but I think we just have a functional ceasefire. Maybe we'll change minds and hearts, so that things really do get better someday. If that can't or doesn't happen, though, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see people propose (and enact) similar solutions to the ones we now call bad. And I'd expect some people I respect to be on that side, because they were working against what they saw as a greater evil (like famine).

I don't think we, as a culture, have learned anything like a permanent lesson about how to be better people. I don't think our hearts have changed nearly as much as we think they have.

I also don't think we really even know what we mean when we talk about being more enlightened. Does it mean endorsing democracy, even if it's wrong in such practical ways as socialism and famine? Or does it mean something else? I don't think we have anything like an answer to that question.

It's just that I am very suspicious of is the argument for moral progress, absent a clear standard for measuring progress.

Posted by: Grim at April 12, 2013 05:12 PM

Grim, you haven't antagonized me.

I am genuinely puzzled by some of the things you say sometimes, and I didn't read anything particular into your comment.

You're missing my point. WHO CARES what people think to themselves? If the laws aren't oppressive, you can live with a lot of mental asshattery. It doesn't touch you, it doesn't offend you unless you're determined to take offense. First world problems, big time.

Racist laws, on the otter heiny, affect you every day. And it means a lot that society has firmly REJECTED those racist laws, because frankly most people are sheep and will bend before whatever cultural wind is blowing.

I have zero time to worry about what people are thinking. I care very much how they act. I care that that the consensus of society today is that racism and sexism are *bad* things, not the natural order of things.

Maybe you can't see the value in that, and that completely mystifies me. I know that my kids don't even consider approving of (or consorting with) people who are racists or bigots and that's progress where I come from. We can choose to obsess over whatever shadow lurks in our next door neighbor's heart of darkness, or we can just thank God they're not in favor of stringing up the darkies who are out after sunset.

Priorities, Grim. Human history is full of heartbreaking examples of our serial ability to be complete a$$holes to our fellow men and women. That there's less open a$$holery than there once was is cause for celebration, in my book.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 12, 2013 06:45 PM

"I care that that the consensus of society today is that racism and sexism are *bad* things, not the natural order of things."

I think Grim's question is whether this is an actual, affirmative belief of most the population, or just that the current cultural wind blows against racism and sexism. Have people internalized WHY racism and sexism are bad, and resolved to stand against it no matter what, or do they simply disagree with racism and sexism because everyone around them does? If the wind began to blow the other way, how far would most people go to resist it? And if they didn't bother to resist a cultural swing back to oppression, could you really call them, or the culture, genuinely more enlightened than our predecessors? Or are they merely the passive beneficiaries of a transient phase in human history, like the citizens of Rome before the fall?

Posted by: Matt at April 12, 2013 08:33 PM

Well, my argument was that the laws remain racist -- they're just racist in terms of gerrymandering people into closed districts. That's a ceasefire, but it's not a settlement: we haven't agreed on a policy we all consider just, but we've agreed on a way to keep blacks from influencing politics that they find more acceptable than not being allowed to vote. Or we've agreed on openly racist systems of preferences (like Affirmative Action) designed to mitigate bad feelings, but which don't in fact solve the underlying realities that blacks continue to occupy the worst places in every category of employment, education, exposure to crime, commission of crime... every bad kind of thing.

It is more pleasant for everyone than before the ceasefire agreements, to be sure. But I don't think it represents enlightenment. It just represents a compromise that will hold for as long as it holds. When it can't hold any more, we'll get the violence back.

What I would like to see -- what would be more suggestive of enlightenment to me -- would start with a common agreement on true north, so we could measure progress in a way we agreed on. You were saying the other day that there's man's law, and God's law. That's actually Socrates' position as well, by the way: that not a man, but a god, must be the final measure.

If anything, though, we're moving away from that kind of agreement. That's the kind of thing we'd have to defend against democracy, too, if democracy turned against it (as indeed it has). So is enlightenment following the common will of the governed? Endorsing the democratic principle wherever it leads? That's an odd sort of god: even Bacchus has more constancy of direction.

Posted by: Grim at April 12, 2013 08:39 PM

I think Grim's question is whether this is an actual, affirmative belief of most the population, or just that the current cultural wind blows against racism and sexism. Have people internalized WHY racism and sexism are bad, and resolved to stand against it no matter what, or do they simply disagree with racism and sexism because everyone around them does? If the wind began to blow the other way, how far would most people go to resist it?

Yes, that's a good part of what I'm saying.

Posted by: Grim at April 12, 2013 08:43 PM

Grim, you're going to have to make up your mind whether blacks are powerless politically or not. I think they have considerable influence in politics - a degree of influence that is actually disproportionate to their representation in the populace.

Human nature doesn't change, but it can be influenced positively or negatively. FWIW, I don't believe most people think all that deeply about any of this. If the cultural consensus is that racism or sexism or homophobia is wrong or shameful, most people eventually come to see that as basically right.

If the cultural consensus is that men are superior to women and whites are superior to blacks, a lot of people don't question that set of assumptions either. It's the status quo.

You seem to be setting a wildly unrealistic standard for enlightenment. It's not enough that the vast majority of people actually understand that racism is wrong (and are repelled by it) - you somehow seem to want to lock that current cultural consensus into our DNA.

That' ain't gonna happen, ever. People can be savage and brutal when it pays them to. Civilization merely provides a set of incentives for rising above utter savagery. I happen to think Jim Crow laws were pretty shameful and I'm glad to see them gone. I'm glad that interracial marriages aren't against the law anymore. And I'm glad that most people don't even bat an eyelash when they see a black man with the white woman, or vice versa.

Perfection isn't something the human race is ever going to attain. And you're unlikely to get a common agreement on anything, unless it's by force (which ought to be abhorrent to you, and I suspect *is* abhorrent). Culture is a battleground.

As for democracy, I'll worry about all the things you mention when you propose an alternative that's not far worse. Yes, we could have a benevolent dictatorship or perhaps a benevolent oligarchy. Because as we all know, nothing *ever* goes wrong with concentrating power in the hands of an elite.

That's what you're hinting at, and I want none of it.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 13, 2013 08:54 AM

Have people internalized WHY racism and sexism are bad, and resolved to stand against it no matter what,

The majority of people are not resolved to stand against *anything* no matter what, IMO.

or do they simply disagree with racism and sexism because everyone around them does?

I think that's an oversimplification. Racism and sexism are more about completing interests than anything else. It serves a purpose to tell ourselves that group X are inferior, or that they threaten our well being. That allows us to treat them differently than members of our own tribe. It was a survival mechanism that is less directly useful in a technological age than it once was. But it's still useful. The problem is, it's also harmful.

That cuts both ways, by the way. I think radical feminism is about as sexist as it gets, and I've experienced anti-white racism firsthand. So I'm not jumping on the Lefty "white men are Evil and wrong/bad" bandwagon.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 13, 2013 09:00 AM

I think Grim's comment assumes that it's necessary to adopt an all-or-nothing kind of loyalty to democracy. I support our own system of democracy because it does a better job of preventing tyranny than any other system I know of. But my loyalty is not to democracy per se so much as to the prevention of tyranny. Many political thinkers have questioned whether unbridled democracy contains within itself the seeds of tyranny, and I think they're very right to worry.

I never suffer a moment's worry whether some political structure I favor is inconsistent with the purely democratic expression of the preferences of one or another bloc of voters, whether are not they're in the majority. The Constitution is there, for one thing, explicitly to place a limit on the nutty stuff democratic majorities are prone to vote for. I support the Constitution because it's the best thing we've got, and a heck of a lot better than the pure will of the peepul, God bless 'em. (It goes without saying that it beats the usually trashy socialist totalitarian system.) But if someone comes up with a system that more reliably restrains the forces of tyranny, I'll support that instead.

Posted by: Texan99 at April 13, 2013 12:32 PM

I agree with Tex that preventing or avoiding tyranny is a core requirement. I think that requires SOME form of democracy -- IMHO one prevents tyranny by ensuring that those who govern are accountable for their decisions to those whom they govern.

One thing I favor about our Constitution is that, when considered together with the Declaration of Independence, it attempts to build a justification for government from first principles rather than simply create a framework for continuing what's always been done. Government's existence power over the citizens is legitimate because the governed themselves create it for the sake of protecting their fundamental rights, both from external encroachment and their own neighbors. A particular group of people constitutes the government by the consent of the governed, creating a chain of accountability that can be used to keep them in check. From there we proceed to What A Government Ought To Do in order to protect those rights, the powers it requires accomplish those roles, and the structure needed to exercise those powers. Rather than decree the specifics of how the government does What It Ought To Do, the Constitution takes a broad-level view and lets the elected officials hammer out such details as appropriate to the times.

Some months ago this blog discussed the difficulty in changing the Constitution (in response to a government official complaining about it in a foreign setting, IIRC); to me, given the above, this difficulty is only logical. A change to the Consitution means re-thinking those fundamental principles of What A Government Ought To Do, or the powers necessary to carry them out. It's a change not only to the workings of government, but the philosophy of government, and should not be undertaken lightly.

A side effect of this is to put some things very nearly above even democratic change, at least in theory. The Bill of Rights, if I remember right, was added to the Constitution practically as a condition of its ratification for that reason.

Posted by: Matt at April 13, 2013 04:19 PM

"The majority of people are not resolved to stand against *anything* no matter what, IMO."

Even so, don't we often define integrity as "who you are in the dark?" And is it possible to have enlightenment without integrity? On the personal level, it seems to me even worse to be enlightened without the integrity to stand behind one's enlightened convictions, than not to be enlightened at all. Is it not worse to do wrong, KNOWING it to be wrong, than to do wrong out of ignorance?

I think it safe to say that we live under a more tolerant, enlightened set of social mores than our ancestors, and we're better off for it on balance, but I'm not sure I'd say that we as a people are more enlightened on a personal level than our ancestors. I worry that, as a culture, we've thrown out God as a measure of "true North" without anything more than consensus and social inertia to replace it. As you've said, Cass, most people just don't seem to think about these sorts of things. Can we maintain our current level of regard for others' rights with only a consensus that nobody thinks too hard about?

I know the original response was to Grim, but personally, rather than wanting to see the current cultural consensus against racism and other forms of systemic oppression "locked into our DNA," I'd settle for a reasoned explanation for the basic rights of human beings, the inherent qualities those rights derive from, and how systems of oppression (and, for that matter, basic everyday wrongs against one's fellow man) inherently violate those rights. Even if such a theory isn't universally accepted, having something like that as a starting point for discussions of morals and rights seems a lot more coherent than relying on consensus and peer pressure.

Posted by: Matt at April 13, 2013 04:54 PM

You seem to be setting a wildly unrealistic standard for enlightenment.

No, I'm not! I'm asking for standards, not setting them. I'm questioning some assumptions we might have about what it means, but my honest position is that I don't think we have a good idea of what it means to be enlightened.

One thing I'm suggesting is that it can't be a pure loyalty to democracy (Tex, I'm responding to your comment here as well). I don't think that holds up because then you have endorsed any evil thing that a passing majority might sometimes approve. There are enough bad examples of that in history for us to know it is unwise.

But this is also a problematic view. Insofar as we do set limits on democracy, what do we do with those who persistently vote against those limits? Something like Jim Crow -- either we strip them of the vote, or we stop voting on these issues somehow.

Now that was just what the Constitution was for -- to put some problems beyond ordinary democracy, so that only in super-majority cases could we alter these basic principles. But it has proven to be true that the Constitution is easily revised by judges, who are appointed, and approved by a bare majority of one house of Congress. So the Constitution has failed to be a hedge here, and there is no reason to believe it will be a better one in the future.

Yes, we could have a benevolent dictatorship or perhaps a benevolent oligarchy. Because as we all know, nothing *ever* goes wrong with concentrating power in the hands of an elite. That's what you're hinting at, and I want none of it.

No, it isn't, because the judges and the Senate are a big part of the problem. (Indeed, you shouldn't suspect me of this of all things, given my Jeffersonian leanings to your Hamiltonian ones).

What I think I'm saying is that I don't believe we have an answer to these problems. I think we're convinced that we're on the road to enlightenment without really even knowing what we mean by it; and so we're racing along the road of "Progress!" But we don't really know where it is taking us, or where we want it to take us, or even where we ought to want it to take us.

It's a dark road, but we are gaining speed.

Posted by: Grim at April 13, 2013 07:18 PM

If anything, Grim, it seems like your leanings are in the opposite direction of benevolent dictatorship or oligarchy -- you prefer to see power even less concentrated than it is now, so that more of human society is driven by voluntary interaction than by the demands of law? A government that uses the minimum amount of lawful power required in order to prevent its citizens from using unlawful power to oppress or coerce each other?

Posted by: Matt at April 13, 2013 08:12 PM

That sounds like a good description of the kind of government I would prefer. Such a government radically reduces "democratic" power without imposing an elite: the democracy can't vote for laws to tell you to do very much, because the law is restricted to a minimal sphere. It maximizes the power of individuals.

This might also save us from the foolishness of our fellow citizens, who are so delighted to chase after a "Progress!" they don't understand. Let them chase it on their own, without the power to rope us together with them.

Posted by: Grim at April 14, 2013 09:48 AM

By the way, the quote from Socrates, above, comes from the Protagoras. It opens with a very similar concern to the one that bothers me about "enlightenment." Socrates challenges a young man who is pursuing "wisdom" from a teacher, Protagoras, without knowing what kind of thing wisdom is. Socrates regards Protagoras as untrustworthy, and the young man has admitted that he doesn't understand himself exactly what it is that he is hoping to gain.

'I wonder if you understand,' he says to the young man, 'the peril in which you are placing your soul?'

Posted by: Grim at April 14, 2013 10:05 AM

I think it safe to say that we live under a more tolerant, enlightened set of social mores than our ancestors, and we're better off for it on balance, but I'm not sure I'd say that we as a people are more enlightened on a personal level than our ancestors.

Well, we don't disagree here. When I say we're more enlightened, that's precisely what I'm referring to - our current set of social mores, not that I think human nature itself has evolved.

The function of civilization is to change natural dog-eat-dog incentives so people can trust that, in general, if they act decently towards each other and cooperate, or if they use negotiation and arbitration or call the police when those fail, they won't be murdered in their beds.

It really *is* that simple. In many other parts of the world, people can't afford to trust their fellow humans (or at least humans outside their immediate family, clan, or village). Everything is "us vs. them". There's definitely an undercurrent of "us vs. them" in our society (just think of identity groups) but they aren't murdering each other. They compete in business or compete for political influence or power, but when we go outside our houses, we don't have to worry about blacks shooting whites just because they're white, or vice versa.

In the inner city, dog eat dog is still alive and well but in most parts of America, we have sublimated competition and aggression to forms that - while still dangerous - are FAR more tolerable than constant worry about mob-style retaliation or drive by shootings.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 14, 2013 10:53 AM

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