The Tragic Shooting in Tuscon

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Like most people, I was shocked at the shooting spree in Tuscon that killed six people and wounded many others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. I pray for the families of those so brutally murdered and for the recovery of Rep. Giffords and the other people wounded. The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is clearly mentally ill; it is almost impossible to predict the behavior of someone so deeply disturbed, and we will probably never know what pushed him over the edge into violence and murder. There has been a great deal of concern expressed that extremes of political rhetoric may have led to this tragedy. This claim goes beyond the evidence, but political debate should be conducted in a rational matter using good arguments rather than ad hominem attacks. Both the right and the left have been guilty in this regard. However, I am not sure that in issues involving politics or religion that debate will ever be conducted without some people making personal attacks. Politics deals with the nature of government and what makes up a good society, something that affects us all. Religion deals with one’s overall view of the world. For many people, religion and politics are part of their very identity, and they feel threatened when their religious and/or political views are attacked. In addition, many people in society have been infected with the postmodern disease of not believing that reason can resolve political issues (and by “reason” I primarily mean “practical reason” in Aristotle’s sense). Distrust of reason only leaves room for emotion–and while emotion is necessary for our survival and is probably necessary for good cognition (as the work of Damasio suggests), emotion tends to go to extremes without the balance of reason. Without reason, all that remains in politics is emotional attacks that quickly degenerate into personal attacks and even into violence. Such a view ends up leading to “might makes right.” That is sophism of the kind Thrasymachus accepted as Plato portrays him in The Republic. Thrasymachus wished to attack people personally, even threatening them physically, to push forward his views. The kind of violence seen in the earlier attacks on Rep. Giffords’ office, or the vandalism of the Rutherford County, Tennessee Republican Party Headquarters (twice) is the result of such an ethic.

Concern about political rhetoric should not be used as an excuse to limit freedom of speech or to cut off debate on controversial issues. Even nasty political rhetoric, as long as it does not involve slander or libel or physical threats, is protected speech. Political debate today is nasty, but is nowhere near as nasty as it was in the nineteenth century. Yes, we should be more civil in political debate. But even those who are uncivil have the right to be uncivil. The terrible tragedy in Arizona should not obscure this fact. Sadly, the sheriff in Tuscon and many in the media have tried to politicize this tragedy or blame specific people or movements for the crime. This is the very kind of political rhetoric that is unhealthy. Ultimately, there is only one person who is guilty of the murders and assaults in Tuscon, and that is Jared Lee Loughner.

The Politics of Thrasymachus

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It is a regular habit, even among people who should know better, to call a person an insulting name rather than answering that person’s argument for a position. Terms such as “hater,” “racist,” or “sexist” are tossed out carelessly by the radical left to attack those who hold positions with which the left disagrees. Given the damage such false labels can cause, the radical left should avoid slandering people. But since it lacks clear argumentation for its positions it resorts to slander and insults in an attempt to bully conservatives into capitulating. This is especially true on social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and sexual ethics.

In behaving this way the radical left is behaving like a character in Plato’s REPUBLIC, a young Sophist named Thrasymachus. The context is a discussion over the nature of justice. Thrasymachus believes justice is simply power–the power of the strong over the weak, and that whatever the strong calls “justice” really is justice. When Thrasymachus enters the conversation, he behaves consistently with his principles, approaching Socrates and his party aggressively, engaging in name-calling, and making it difficult for Socrates to get a word in edgewise. Socrates corrected Thrasymachus on his bullying, though Thrasymachus never yielded to Socrates or changed his own position.

Both radical-Marxist influenced academics and hot-headed “lay radicals” share Thrasymachus’ view of justice–that justice is a matter of power. They tend to interpret power in terms of identity politics, focusing on the power of selected races, classes, gender, and sexual orientation. The rest of us, according to the radicals, had better go along or else. While these Marxists might not go as far as Mao’s “revolution at the barrel of a gun,” they have no problem ruining careers or reputations with spurious charges. Often this tactic does not work, but when it does, the results can be disastrous. I know personally of a faculty member who was fired for defending, at a faculty meeting, the teaching of Western culture. Thankfully, things worked out for him–he got another job and compensation for violation of academic freedom–but he should not have been fired in the first place. I have heard of several other conservative academics–and these are not raving Fundamentalists–who were fired because of the “political incorrectness” of their conservative positions. This is the politics of the bully, of the sad soul who has no self-esteem and no support for what he believes, so he lashes out at those he perceives to be weaker. The people I know personally who have those tendencies differ little personality-wise from dogmatic Fundamentalists of the Christian or Muslim stripe.

The problem is not only with the slander and harm that those who follow Thrasymachus’ methods cause. Another problem is that such individuals destroy the opportunity for rational discourse, an imperative in a democratic society. There is an irony here–in the name of liberalism and democracy they attack both by their actions. They are the true weak people–too weak to be able to argue for their positions reasonably. Like all bullies, they are cowards. Those who oppose them must stop them in their tracks before they cause harm instead of doing damage-control after a person has been harmed. Just as a child needs to stand up to a bully threatening to beat him up, conservatives and true liberals should stand against the followers of Thrasymachus when they threaten freedom, academic and otherwise.

The French Revolution, Rationalism, and the Left

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Since the time of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), French philosophy has been characterized by rationalism, the view that our knowledge comes through reason rather than through sense experience. Descartes began a trend toward rationalism in philosophy on the European continent as a whole (with the exception of the British Isles, and in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the exception of Scandinavia). In politics, it is dangerous to apply a rationalist approach, since that approach is often used by idealistic thinkers to set up an ideal political state arising from thought alone rather than from concrete human experience. In the ancient world, Plato is a good example; in his ideal state, babies are taken from their parents at birth and whisked off to state-run nurseries. There, children attain their “natural state” of being artisans or soldiers; later, from among the soldiers are chosen philosopher kings who rule with dictatorial power hidden by “noble lies” they tell the people. Aristotle rightly countered that government should start from below with the actual historical development of a people rather than being imposed via some idealistic rationalist framework.

The practical results of such a rationalist approach are seen in the tragedy of the French Revolution. What began as a series of grievances against King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, quickly degenerated into a rationalist framework being imposed on the French people. A new “age of reason” was proclaimed, tradition trashed, and the king and queen executed. Later, after Robespierre’s rise to power, the new modern apparatus of the police state was used to round up those who opposed those in power, or simply opposed the attempt to eliminate Catholicism and replace it with a cult of reason. As a result, tens of thousands of heads rolled from the guillotine. The attempt to oppose a government run by the “reasonable elite” led to tyranny. Since then, that threat became even more dangerous with Rousseau’s notion of the “general will,” which can be used as an excuse to label the most brutal tyranny “the will of the people.” The proper question to ask is “which people”? The answer is almost always in terms of the elites who run the state according to their rationalistic plan no matter how many people are killed. The cause becomes higher than the individual.

This scenario was repeated by the followers of Karl Marx. Lenin murdered hundreds of thousands of those who “opposed the people.” Stalin, though more of a psychopath and thug than an ideological Marxist, murdered millions in the gulags and his forced relocation of millions of people.

Those who wield political power in the United States are more benign–people are generally not killed or imprisoned for their beliefs that oppose the position of the state. But top-down management by elites takes place to the point that the United States often seems to have the form of a democratic republic without the content. Federal judges make mandates and force them onto the people against their will–not because those mandates are really constitutional, but because the judge has a rationalistic vision of society he or she wishes to impose on the rest of society. Government bureaucrats do similar things, with their arrogant “we know best” attitude. This arrogance is supported by media elites who despise Middle America as a group of ignorant hicks, and who believe that if their vision of society prevails, we will live in a utopia, a secularized heaven on earth. The American left eagerly supports their goals with an almost missionary zeal. When Middle America opposed the left’s goals, as in the Tea Party movement, the left does not resort to rational argument, but to name-calling. This is ironic–if the left really believed that, say, redistribution of wealth, unlimited access to abortion, affirmative action, etc., were rational, they would present arguments to support their position. But for the most part they do not do so–and no empirical evidence against their methods, no matter how persuasive, will phase them–after all, if their form of government is so clearly proven by reason, their position, they hold, cannot be touched by the evidence of our senses.

The alternative is to realizes that governments should arise from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. A government, as Aristotle recognized, reflects the geography, history, and traditions of a people. This does not mean that “anything goes;” in fact, Aristotle strongly condemns tyranny. As traditional conservatives such as Russell Kirk argued, it is best to respect a people’s traditions and not impose an artificial, rationalist ideology to remake society, including political governance, in its image.