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Ortega y Gasset and the Wisdom of Editors
Or the wisdom of one editor, in particular. I’ve a special fondness for Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest. I read his work devotedly long before I began writing for his magazine, and always sensed in his writing not only an old-fashioned, well-trained intellect, but a sensibility in his prose that reminded me a bit of Montaigne, or as Hoffer said of Montaigne, “He was writing about me. He knew my innermost thoughts.” I felt this especially when reading his War, water, and negotiation in the Middle East: the case of the Palestine-Syria border, 1916-1923.
So, just before the first round of the French election, Adam was valiantly occupied in turning my raving and unprintable thoughts about the Turkish referendum into an article he could publish in a family newspaper. During our editorial back-and-forth, we exchanged a few tangential e-mails about the question on everyone’s minds these days: Why is the world going to hell in a handcart?
Now, I don’t usually expect anyone to offer me a serious answer to that question; so I was surprised I got one. He kindly gave me permission to reproduce it. To put it context, I sent him an email lamenting that the world was going to hell in a handcart. The upcoming French election was Exhibit A:
[T]here’s at least a 50 percent chance that at least one total lunatic will make it through the first round, and a non-zero chance that both could make it, in which case France is doomed. I don’t at all like this wild irrationality that’s coursing through the veins of the Western body politic. It just can’t end well, even if France squeaks through this time. And I just don’t know what it’s really about, do you?
I didn’t expect a real answer, so I was surprised to receive one:
As to what is really going on, in France and elsewhere Western, well, in something I wrote not too long ago I quoted Ortega y Gasset from 1930, and I wish people would pay more attention to exactly what the man said, really ponder what he said. I (cleverly) referred to this as the “revolt of the asses” in contemporary terms:
The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: “the reason of unreason.”
As to the source of it, I can cite three interwoven elements: the Heideggerian-inspired or inflected fatigue with reason; the lapsed attention spans that render deep reading, and hence thinking, increasingly rare; and the falling away of the moral discipline of the Abrahamic moral code. As to the last one, all I can say if whosoever does not like the jealous God must prepare to contend with the crowd that preceded him, for no vacuum is possible here. It’ll be Lord of the Flies, all day every day.
All this is what I was trying to get at back in the summer with my essays on the nadir of modernity. Ah, but you will say: Look, if the problem really goes that deep, then there’s not much we can do about it. And that would, I think, be correct.
Anyway, what is happened now in France is indeed scary. A fascist, a lunatic communist, and a kept child … none of whom has any chance of connecting usefully to a parliament elected by party. Quel dommage, eh?
Think you can explain the situation better than he did in that sentence about the three interwoven elements? I sure can’t. Give it a try, though, if you’re up for the challenge.Published in General
It is a myth that there has ever been a period of mass reasonableness. We delegate thinking and analysis to a small set of people who in turn rely largely on tested methods, assumptions and paradigms with very little original thought. When that set of methods and tools no longer works because of unanticipated changes in the nature of things, the cognitive specialists who deploy them will fail and we then delegate cognitive and political authority to those who promise magic, revenge or/and simplicity until new trusted methods, assumptions and paradigms can emerge.
I certainly can’t explain what’s going on – and I don’t think Garfinkle’s comment really explains the situation either. But it certainly does describe what’s happening – and I think he (and you) are right: nothing good is going to come of this. Being a student of history, I know that it can be far too easy to simply pick a prior period of history and proclaim, “Oh, we’re doing just what they did in the 1930s (or the 1920s, or the lead-up to WW I, or during the Cold War, etc., etc.).” But, by the same token, we’re foolish if we think that simply because new and different people are involved, that we won’t make the same sort of mistakes that our ancestors did – and with similar catastrophic results. Thank you for sharing Mr. Garfinkle’s musings.
I’d like to start by restating Ortega y Gassett …
The Progressive Totalitarian species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his FEELINGS. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: “the reason of unreason.”
This began in earnest in the 1990’s and has now completely taken over the US Democratic Party. What you are witnessing in politics today in the US and in Europe is a reaction against this ‘rule by the most offended’. That, coupled by the establishment’s complete abdication in the face of this challenge. So the electorate reaches out for someone…anyone…who will fight. Yes, we’d love to have someone talented in our corner. We’d love to have Mohammed Ali or Bruce Lee on our side. But they are unavailable. So we took the best bare-knuckle brawler in the pack. We want someone willing to fight!
The Americans electing Trump is kind’a like Lincoln choosing Grant. Grant was not a tactician, or a military theorist. No Napoleon he. Just an a aggressive bare knuckle puncher. That’s Trump. Or Le Pen. It’s not that they have no vices. Rather their one virtue -the willingness to fight – outweighs them all.
How does that not perfectly encapsulate what the EU is? And why ANY candidate who will fight the EU is the preferred candidate simply because that is the most important question?
Well, I’ve been saying for years now that we’re all doomed, DOOMED! So naturally, I agree with much of what he’s said.
Let me add this: I think much of the progress that we’ve seen in the past few hundred years is largely attributable to a combination of the three factors he outlined, but also an environment that nurtured them. If early modern Europe and more recently in America, we had a reasonably limited government and space to grow. Western civilization gave us the seed, and it found good soil. That soil is now getting paved under, and the seed is stifled and choked.
Not that things were ideal before, but the ultra liberal policies that have been in place here and abroad, such as open borders and decisions that led to massive immigrant migration to the west has changed our politics. Millions forced to flee, but millions were invited who were not fleeing. Obama said to Central Americans come – you’ll get benefits. They came. Our border patrol was told to let them in. He failed to address the fires raging throughout the Middle East, deal with North Korea and let Russia do as they pleased. The burdens on social services, law enforcement, housing, medical services and schools, and trying to provide some sort of tracking has been next to impossible to keep up. This was not business as usual in recent past years. The amount of terror attacks and increases in crime throughout Europe as well as in France, in the last two years has alarmed the population and rightly so, to make different choices. Unfortunately, quality, stable candidates didn’t emerge. I’m not sure why.
I have my own private theory.
Sooner or later, students come upon the concept of axioms. You know what an axiom is, right? It’s supposed to be a blatantly, stinkingly obvious truth that’s so unshakeable that no one can deny it. Then we build the whole system on these unshakeable axioms. Quine called it a web of belief; all of the beliefs in your system depend on simple axioms.
The problem is that while axioms are stinkingly obvious … they can’t be proved. The job of proving something depends on examining the dependence of one assertion upon others, but axioms are axioms because they don’t depend on anything else. You either believe them or you don’t.
Cultures grow from mutual acceptance of axioms. The axioms might be about how you communicate (i.e., language) or where you think the world came from (i.e., history) and what matters (i.e., religion?), but the point is that cultures can only work if the people within the culture share and accept a core set of axioms. To keep a culture going, it doesn’t matter what they are, so long as everyone shares them.
Unfortunately, there are always smart-asses who discover that there’s no way to prove those axioms … so, whether out of spite or just to be different, they reject the axioms of the culture and substitute whatever’s convenient for them. And why not? You can’t prove that your axioms are any better than theirs, right? Each individual can pick whatever axioms they want, since they don’t have to justify them anyway, and call it personal freedom.
If everyman was an island, that wouldn’t be a problem. But we’re not islands. We need to do business and live with each other. And while that may mean a lot of things, one thing it can’t possibly mean is that we all have to live by your axioms, or that you have to live by mine. We need to find some way to manage our beliefs so we don’t kill each other.
Personally, I think we’re reaping the results of individualism gone amok.
See, I think a world in which Barack Obama and Francois Hollande can get elected is crazier than the one we’re in now.
Indeed. What is the transmission belt between the “Heideggerian-inspired or inflected fatigue with reason” of the tiny minority who can even spell Heidegger (although I note the ‘inflected’ get-out) and the actions of supposedly democratic nations? (“[L]apsed attention spans” is just the usual complaint about the generation that follows our own; isn’t it present in “The Birds” or “The Wasps” or the works of one of those long-dead white guys?) What is it that caused “the falling away of the moral discipline of the Abrahamic moral code”?
None of this sounds like it came from the ground up. Rather, the upper-middle class having subverted – perverted? – democracy to its own ends via the conquest of the commanding heights of government and culture by bureaucracy (and drunk on the power of ‘nudging’ citizens, treating people as Human Resources, ‘managing’ the ‘economy’ by way of chimerical economic aggregates like GDP and CPI, and eugenicizing its way to a better populace), has now so far outpaced the demos that ordinary folks are beginning to sense that the (bureaucratic) establishment has no clothes. And they don’t like what they see.
I wonder if there’s something else at work here. There is not an absence of awareness or intellectual heft out there. Rather, there’s too much.
Sometimes that can lead to passivity or indecision.
Those 3 interwoven factors are all related to the modern diminution of the Human, to virtually nothing. Humans are no longer a little lower than the angels, but minimally different from the beasts, and more dangerous to the planet. Between Newton, Darwin, and Freud, modernity has decided (see Daniel Dennett) that human consciousness is an illusion. We are Zombies, per modernity. In a strictly Newtonian/mechanical/causal/deterministic world, that would be correct. But we live in a quantum world, with synchronicity, entanglement, and Schroedinger’s cat: Our consciousness affects the denouement of reality, directly (see Wigner: physics cannot be discussed outside of the context of consciousness). Modernity has demanded Newton, and disregarded Schroedinger: the God of Abraham is a myth; (per Goedel, supposedly, but Goedel was wildly misinterpreted), human reason is inherently flawed; human existence is a(n undesirable) accident of evolution. Western civilization has no explanation for itself any longer, and despises itself. Reason, and hence any effort at thinking deeply, and Abrahamic morality have been completely jettisoned. As regards governance, modernity has utterly rejected the idea of Natural Right (which implies a sentient being able to make moral judgements in a moral universe, and act independently; Richard Rory famously wrote that the suggestion of Natural Right, along with the suggestion of God and Humans Rights, suffers from the Nietszchean suggestion that these are all myths–influenced directly by Heidegger, of course) and all of the reason that flows from that view of the Human (namely the axioms of the Declaration of Independence and the Theorems of the Constitution derived from those axioms). The axioms of the Declaration are as valid as the axioms of Euclid. And modernity has condemned itself to destruction by asserting that there is no fundamental reality, no essential morality, no meaning to human existence, no transcendence of the human being. Humans can be aborted on a whim and human existence has become entirely fungible.
Contrary to this view, Goedel understood his proofs to have definitively shown that human consciousness is Transcendent (he used the term, “Transfinite”). David Bohm and John Bell have proferred views that have led to the confirmation of the direct effect of human consciousness on quantum events. They have shown, unequivocally, that the Universe is a conscious entity, and that humans incarnate that consciousness. Consciousness is physical. Harold Bloom has endorsed that view, and correctly realized that humans are capable of transcendence (he calls himself an American Gnostic). The answer to modernity’s depravity is a new and more correct understanding of the human as a conscious, transcendent being capable of autonomous action, judgement, and morality. The power is in you, wherein you are agents unto yourselves, and inasmuch as you do good, you shall in no wise lose your reward. Consciousness inherently implies morality (“…they have become as Gods, knowing good from evil…”). We, through our consciousness, are joined ineluctably to a conscious and moral cosmos. We are cosmic beings.
Funny you should mention this, because I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to write an article about Quine, ontological relativity, developments in 20th century ontology and epistemology generally, and the effect these schools of thought had on our culture. (Even if few people know who they were, these philosophers had much more of an impact than most people realize.) I’m glad you brought it up; it confirms me in my sense that people might find it interesting. I’m not sure Quine was right; and not sure that his influence has been a good one: I think it helped to lay the foundations for the more crude species of moral relativism with which we’ve since been cursed. This wasn’t his intention, nor can the crude variants really be derived from what he wrote. But it’s a fact that his work (even among people completely unfamiliar with it) is key to the 20th century’s intellectual history. Some ideas, when unleashed, have an entirely unexpected outcome. His are among them.
Or overwhelm. I think he hints at this in his observation of “the lapsed attention spans that render deep reading, and hence thinking, increasingly rare.” We’re often well aware that there’s much of depth we should be reading, but we may be growingly unable to do it, perhaps because of the way our brains are changing in response to new technology and the demands it makes on our attention.
The jury’s still out, but increasingly it looks to me as if the evidence is pointing to it: We’re doing things to our brains that are really changing them. Many of us may, as a consequence, be literally losing the ability to think and read in certain ways. The loss of these skills, among a wide section of the population, might well make it harder for democracies to work as they’re intended, or even impossible.
If so, we’re not going to be able to go back to things as they were. The technology isn’t going to go away. It would be easier (not easy, I stress) at this point to change the way we govern ourselves. No, don’t ask me how: I haven’t the first clue. I’m only saying that once you’ve transformed a population’s basic cognitive abilities like this to such a degree, the old political structures — which all were predicated upon the assumption that ordinary people had a very different set of intellectual skills — are not going to work the way they once did.
When a conservative says, “We’ll have to change the way we govern ourselves,” she obviously doesn’t say it lightly. I realize this is no minor thing to suggest. But the cognitive revolution had already happened; lots of evidence suggests we’re different creatures already, so some adapting is going to have to happen.
As usual, on principle, I favor doing nothing drastic or dramatic. But it’s time to start experimenting with small political adaptations — in one or two states, perhaps — to see if there’s any way to compensate for what we’ve lost. A way that doesn’t make things worse.
(I do think, FWIW, that we’ve gained other skills even as we’ve lost the ones upon which we used to rely. So perhaps there’s grounds for optimism in that, or a clue about how to proceed.)
Isn’t this part of what the revolt against the ‘elites’ is about? We’ve had rule by a technocratic bourgeois bureaucracy for a while – let’s try something else. So far this seems be being done by the ballot box, but of course the ruling class isn’t taking it lying down (see the hysterical reactions to Brexit, Trump, Orban and the Polish situation, for example).
A friend says that no, it always is dangerous and unsettled. He as family historian has managed to find someone in his tree mentioned in dispatches in many of the major wars over the last few centuries.
What is happening is that it is dangerous and unsettled to those not used to danger and disruption. The tidy fictions never were really true; they simply were nice stories that really didn’t matter as everyone went about their lives. When they matter, it always means death, and since the introduction of industrial warfare, death counted in millions.
The fiction that is dying, finally, is that it doesn’t matter. The accumulation of decisions, policies, social norms all matter now. It takes two generations before the real effects show up, and we are two generations removed from the momentous changes of the 60’s and 70’s. Let me list them.
Secular societies. I would place the collapse of Christendom as the driving force of society in the 70’s. The quiet revolution in Quebec is an example, where political Catholicism was replaced with secular socialism. Europe saw the same thing, as well as Roe vs Wade in the US.
The cascading effects are the breakdown of the family, divorce rates, the collapse of the moral consensus. Hire a young man from a broken family and experience the full effects.
The world of Islam saw what happened to the unassailable ramparts of Christianity and set in motion what has come to fruition in the last decades; a closing and radicalization of Islam, recognizing that liberalization means irrelevance. These people aren’t stupid, they have decided to go down a different path. The butcher’s bill has not yet been tallied.
The 70’s saw a pervasive increase in the power and scope of government bureaucracies. Most countries increased their civil service numbers substantially, along with regulatory regimes over the environment, commerce etc. Policing and administration of justice changed as well, with an increase in crime.
The powerful lever of terrorism as a political tool was entrenched. What was the time elapsed between the murder of Jews at the Olympics and Yasser Arafat giving a speech before the UN?
Higher education became common and widespread, and no longer was simply a means of imparting education but as a political tool.
How many western governments have not borrowed money to fund their day to day operations? A common disconnect between what government does and the ability or willingness of the citizenry to assume the burden. The very idea of having to pay for anything is becoming strange.
So we have a vast number of people who are overeducated, irreligious, accepting of any strategy to gain their goals, with no sense of costs and benefits, with little personal strength of character, being given extraordinary power and influence over the day to day life of people they consider beneath them.
And we wonder why the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Count me in. I love reading Quine, even though (obviously as a practicing Catholic) I don’t share his worldview. For me, he’s a guy who brings up some core questions which any intellectually honest thinker is forced to address. In many ways, I see Quine (along with Russell and Wittgenstein) as necessary “cleansers” in the history of philosophy. By that, I mean that these guys brought a demand for mathematical precision to philosophy; in other words, more logic and less poetry.
Perhaps the best way to describe my own attitude is that philosophy should be like a trial in a courtroom. When the prosecution advances a theory, the defense challenges the theory in terms of logic, showing hidden assumptions, and questioning your reasoning. In that scenario, Quine is a terrific and tough opponent, but he forces you to be exact and scrupulous in your thinking. (That’s just a general analogy, and I don’t want to push it too hard.) I’d say that the effect of such mathematical demands has been to improve the precision of what’s said, but it also unfairly limits what can be discussed in the first place. For such analytic philosophers, you can’t discuss metaphysics because opponents take an absolutist view of evidence, among other things.
Anyway, I’d argue that such scrupulous analytical philosophy has indeed led to widespread relativism. Instead of limiting what can be said, the end result is a boomerang so that now everything can be said.
A thoughtful comment. I might like to quote it at some point, if I can have your permission. (It may not be any point soon. As with so many things I’d like to write about, it seems it always takes me at least three times longer than I plan to get to it, and then three times longer again to finish it.) But when one day I get to it — and I do, in the end, usually get there — would it be okay with you if I were to attribute this to you?
But of course. Just allow a pause for critics to immediately respond … who the hell is KC Mulville? :-)
Claire, would you care to comment on this? It rings true to me, though perhaps that’s because I live in California.
For hundreds of years, Western countries were locked in a cycle of violence. I think its pretty clear we relied on those wars to build social consensus and discipline our elites. I mean, even Napoleon noticed that war had that effect (he was a big fan of general mobilizations and conscription for “improving” the moral stature of France).
It’s been forty years since our last major war, and seventy since World War II. We’ve nearly consumed all of the social capital we got from those events, and its not clear what will take their place. We can’t rely on a WWII-like event recurring, not given the existence of nuclear weapons. But let’s be honest; no one has ever run a modern industrial society in a peaceful external environment, not for long. We just don’t know how to do it.
I don’t think we have a vast number of people who are overeducated; to the contrary, I think we’ve got a big problem with low levels of education. Year after year, US students continue to fall down in the ranks compared to their peers in other countries. To some extent, this is because other countries are developing rapidly, which is good, but it doesn’t explain why we compare so poorly to other countries that have been developed for as long as we have. So I’d say “exactly the opposite” on that.
Religiosity is definitely declining in the US, no doubt about it, though most Americans (by far the majority) still consider themselves religious.
I don’t know how many would “[accept] any strategy to gain their goals,” but I certainly sense conventional standards of decency and morality have been severely eroded. Anyone who reads what I write here knows how often I complain of this; whether there’s a way to measure this more concretely than “how often I complain of it,” I kind of doubt. But I sure feel we’ve defined deviancy so far down that there’s not much further to fall — though I should be careful about saying that, things can always get worse. Much worse. Let me rephrase: We’ve defined it down way too much, and way faster than I thought possible.
“with no sense of costs and benefits” — again, don’t know how you’d measure this, but yes, I do find that it’s hard, and seems to me increasingly hard, to have conversations about politics or economics in which people begin with the assumption behaviors and policies have costs and benefits, and that it’s extremely important to consider and weigh these. The vocabulary of “costs and benefits” doesn’t seem to be the starting point for argument anywhere near as much as I’d like it to be. Again, that’s my subjective sense of things, not something I can back up with data. I don’t know how we’d measure it. But it sure does seem to me that we’re increasingly replacing the useful idea of “cost-benefit analysis” with … a lot of screaming.
“with little personal strength of character,” … I’m in no position to say. I don’t say this as an empty platitude about pious non-judgmentalism. I just really can’t know whether someone has a strong character unless I know him or her personally. I’m loathe to pronounce, upon millions of people I’ve never met, that they have weak characters.
“being given extraordinary power and influence over the day to day life of people they consider beneath them.” — I take it as axiomatic that as soon as people, however initially humble, acquire power, they will begin to feel that this is a natural state of affairs and will begin to look down on the people over whom they wield that power. That’s the basic logic undergirding the Constitution and the idea of separation of powers, right? I take this sentiment as the healthy expression of the basic American suspicion of power. I’m not easily convinced it ever was different; if it were, no one would have thought to it necessary to write the Constitution.
I guess those are my comments, but is that what you meant?
That’s an interesting point. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but if our social divisions do date (or predate) the founding of the country, than of course the Constitution would have been designed to deal with them. And it’s true we’ve moved away from a strong separation of powers, what with Congress ceding authority to both of the other branches.
True, but the power bestowed upon some anonymous bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security in today’s hypertrophied ultra-armed panopticon state vastly exceeds – in width and depth – the power wielded by, say, President George Washington.
I would argue that subjecting so much of life to the fundamentally amoral – which is to say evil – calculus of utilitarianism is an important part of the decline of morality. (But, then, I think After Virtue is an important book.) I agree that the failure to consider even the most obvious second-order effects is a feature of modern policy ‘discourse’.