Friday, December 11, 2015

Why The Politics of the Impossible? OK, I'll Bite

“People routinely say with apparent certainty serious things that are if not patently false at least highly uncertain. And there is no debate, no confrontation of facts or analysis. The things people say are not meant to be measured on the scale of truth. They are only the signs by which one indicates which team one belongs to, like the ‘identification friend-or-foe’ signals that warplanes emit.”

-Herbert Stein, 1989

At The Federalist today [link at the bottom], Mark Hemingway notes that progressives are now calling for the confiscation of guns in America and have established the goal of eliminating gun violence and he asks why, given that neither the tactic nor goal has any real chance of being realized? Now as The Heminator isn’t your typical Oregonian to be found naked in a field, I take it his question is one of them rhetoricals, but why let that stop me from chiming in with an answer?

I would start by pointing to Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. Minogue’s thesis is that traditional morality is gradually being replaced by the “political-moral.” Instead of moral concerns and markers like honesty, trustworthiness, humility, duty to be moral is now associated with voting for the right politicians and supporting—publicly of course—the right causes. Participate in an ad for ending gun violence and you can cheat on your spouse, steal water for you lawn, and treat the help shabbily.

Next, I would point to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos which suggests by way of example that the things we typically designate as tragedies have a positive aspect. Yes, the storm that rips through your town destroying everything that’s in its path is bad and a tragedy, but it also makes life exciting and provides a break from the every-day tedium of our lives. The Percy Formula—copyright @LMandrakeJr, LTD—stipulates the more impossible the cause the greater its value. Pick a finite goal like stopping the XYX Development or building a park in the East River Area and soon you’ll be back in the existential emptiness of not having a cause. That the cause is eternal is a feature, not a bug.

Finally, I would argue that what Hemingway has noted is symptomatic of what Michael Oakeshott (the philosopher, not the welder) defined as rationalism in politics. Oakeshott maintained that our current politics were thoroughly rationalist and went on to describe some of its characteristics:

“He [the Rationalist] is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary, or habitual…He is optimistic because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion, or the propriety of an action.

He does not recognize change unless it is self-consciously induced change.

The politics it inspires may be called the politics of the felt need; for the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment.

And the ‘rational’ solution of any problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution. There is no in his scheme for a ‘best in the circumstances’, only a place for ‘the best’; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances.”

Later, in a different essay in the same collection Oakeshott memorably sketches his alternative view of politics:

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behavior in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

It is the politics of intimations rather than certainty, of tacking rather than proceeding “as the crow flies”, of incremental rather than ‘comprehensive’ reform. Yes, please!

Stop Trying to ‘End Gun Violence’. It’s Not Going to Happen, Mark Hemingway


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