Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughts On Conservatism Part 2: Strawmen

As an outspoken libertarian-conservative, I take a lot of flack from all sorts of disagreeable persons -- i.e., from persons who get upset when I attack their positions on rational or empirical grounds. There's a lot of that going around, these days. Opinions, after all, are like assholes: everybody's gotta have one. However, few persons in our contemporary political discourse are all that good at distinguishing facts from opinions, and logic from preferences. Blame whoever you like for it; it's the least attractive feature of today's political interplay.

Among the most risible of all pseudo-ripostes to my contentions is that I'm "advocating for Utopia." A recent objector -- anonymous, of course -- seized on the following passage from the previous piece:

Choose among your values what you think most important to conserve, by all means. Then, having made your choice, ask yourself sincerely: Would any social system, any polity, any corpus of law or system of jurisprudence succeed in conserving those things without the three items immediately above? But with those three things fully in effect among the people, would any great engine of coercion be required to gain or keep what you seek?

...and said:

So, the question is "Is Utopia possible?" or, "What's you're plan to achieve perfect harmony among men?" And if the answer to the first is "No!", or the answer to the second is "I have no plan because that's not possible,"; then we should throw up our hands in frustration, conclude that government is an Unnecessary evil, and all human society is evil "collectivism".

Ignore the poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (Yes, "Anonymous," there is a Grammar and Spelling Checker. No, not at the North Pole. His name is Fran Porretto, and he bloviates at Liberty's Torch. Comment at his site and you submit yourself to his mercies.) Measure what my correspondent wrote against what I wrote and ask yourself: Does that constitute a valid dismissal of questions plainly and sincerely asked, or is it merely the largest strawman the fellow could cobble up out of his limited bile and mental horsepower?

Take a moment over that.

The late Andrew Breitbart was known, among other things, for his assertion that "Culture is upstream from politics." While the observation is important, it is not fundamental. There's something upstream from culture that's far more basic: the nature and proclivities of Man.

Culture is an expression of the norms prevalent in a society at a particular time. Though it sometimes seems to have an infinite number of facets, they can be partitioned into only three categories:

  • What is considered decent public behavior;
  • What is accepted in the arts;
  • What is accepted in the pursuit of material gain.

Note: I have omitted private behavior. Private behavior can clash dramatically with the public norms of a society; witness Victorian England. Despite our supposed permissiveness about what's publicly acceptable today, this is true in the contemporary United States as well: the domestic lives of many Americans conceal things that would be frowned upon or worse were they to become generally known.

Culture, however, is a transmission system. It relays norms and concepts, both express and implied, to a society's young. When that transmission system contradicts the norms and concepts their parents and designated educators attempt to inculcate in them, a power struggle is in progress. Whichever system has the firmer basis and the greater persistence will prevail. the results are visible only in the behavior of our progeny.

Let's review "the nature and proclivities of Man:"

  • Each man is animated by independent volition and individual desires;
  • He sees himself as the center of all things; things about which he does not know, or which he regards with indifference, cannot motivate him.
  • Though he is capable of limiting his own behavior, he must be provided with a reason to do so:
    1. A conditioned aversion to the behavior;
    2. Fear of the probable consequences of the behavior;
    3. Repugnance toward the behavior itself, on abstract grounds (e.g., a moral code).

When I composed my take on "The Algorithm:"

  1. Select a technique that you think will get you what you think you want.
  2. Will this technique require you to lose body parts, go to jail, or burn in Hell?
    • If so, return to step 1.
    • If not, proceed to step 3.
  3. Do a little of it.
  4. Are you at your goal, approaching it, or receding from it?
    • If at your goal, stop.
    • If approaching, return to step 3.
    • If receding, return to step 1.

..I had exactly those properties of human nature in mind.

If a culture at odds with the norms being relayed by parents and other trusted sources of counsel prevails over those norms, our reasons to limit our behavior come under attack. We lose any aversive conditioning to what the culture slathers us with. Our fear of unpleasant consequences is weakened. Any moral code we might otherwise have acquired is undermined, perhaps to collapse into rubble.

From that point forward, the limits on what we can and will do will consist solely of what we can get away with. There is no countermeasure except to win the previous struggle: to equip our young people with bastions of character that are proof against the seductions of libertinism (not libertarianism, damn it!) purveyed by the culture that seeks to twist them.

Considering how sharp the great majority of my Gentle Readers are, the above probably seems to most of you to be too obvious to require restating. However, consider once more what "Anonymous" wrote to me:

So, the question is "Is Utopia possible?" or, "What's you're plan to achieve perfect harmony among men?" And if the answer to the first is "No!", or the answer to the second is "I have no plan because that's not possible,"; then we should throw up our hands in frustration, conclude that government is an Unnecessary evil, and all human society is evil "collectivism".

This...person has implicitly evaded the core of my question. But perhaps I should have used smaller words and put it in really big type:

Which Works Better:
Or Character?

Six millennia of recorded history testify that coercion -- the use of the police powers of the State to enforce some standard of virtue -- is almost pointless. There are several reasons for this, but they're better saved for a separate tirade. Contrariwise, when characters are built on solid foundations and buttressed by recognition and approval, they stand firm against any and all temptation. The seeming desirability of an omniscient and omnipotent State to keep us all on the straight and narrow vanishes like a bad dream.

Does that completely obviate the need for government? Only in the minds of those who believe that private methods will suffice to deal with such matters as national defense, border control, criminal jurisprudence, and the soundness of the commons. They have a case to make, and it should not be waved aside. But for those of us who prefer the "night-watchman" State of classical liberal / Constitutional design, the answer is no. (Provided, of course, that we can manage to keep our own State within those bounds.)

In casual conversation, the proper response to a strawman such as "You're advocating Utopia!" is to laugh it aside, possibly following that up with "Is that all you've got?" However, current political interchange appears to admit such strawmen on an equal footing with reasoned argument, so one must be prepared.

The "Utopia" strawman is important because it's self-contained. Everyone knows what is meant by such an objection. More, the common response is to deny the allegation, which is a losing move. A better rejoinder would go approximately like this:

Sorry, pal. You're the one who believes in Utopia: a society made perfect by infinitely magnifying the powers of the State. I'm concerned with what works and what doesn't -- and my reading of history indicates that what works is character building and careful attention to where, how, and with whom our kids spend their time. I'm not interested in any totalitarian fantasies about making people good with the blows of a nightstick.

And with that, I yield the floor.


Anonymous said...


Weetabix said...

So the real key is "distributed character building." (That should appeal to the young hipsters.)

I'm working on that by a) homeschooling, b) having been a Scoutmaster, and c) offering carefully phrased unsolicited opinions whenever I see a potential teaching moment.

I'm open to other suggestions.

Anonymous said...

What? Another series of feckless laws attempting to legislate morality won't lead to Utopia?

Come on! All that is needed is more money to be thrown at the problem and another law to be broken.

Magnus said...

What happened to our character? How is it that the world (including Christians) has become so coarse and lacking in virtue?

Did we do this to ourselves? Was it orchestrated from without? Did we weaken ourselves, thus allowing evil to pounce on our weakened state?

Now that we are here, how do we reverse the trend?

I'm really at a loss.

Martin McPhillips said...

Character is the embedded principles and knowledge and established judgments (much of it passed through generations) that keep an individual on the straight and narrow. It has been under attack, in the broader cultural sense and in its individual embodiments for a long time but especially since the 1960s. Once an individual's character is breached from within, he is open, increasingly, to the grotesque and degenerate behaviors now advertised as normal in popular culture. The deeper culture of the West, whence the "moral sense" is cultivated, is Christianity, a transcendent God marking the right path, with love and rules of conduct (the divine and natural law). That real culture is mocked relentlessly by the popular culture. Character is built and restored by Christianity; destroyed by the popular culture, which now includes the hideous public schools.

Magnus said...

Great words, Mr. McPhillips. I do, however, still wonder about how Christianity will restore character. When I look at the Church today (both Catholic and Protestant), I don't see institutions that will go beyond their social justice and non-judgementalist, hyper-individualistic attitudes and teach true Biblical values, as well as tradition and virtue. These institutions have been corrupted just as much as the society, or, perhaps directly because of society. The Church has this pathological need to be liked and approved by the world.

If Christianity is the answer, where can this Christianity be found? Will there need to be some sort of spiritual awakening?

Martin McPhillips said...

"[W]here can this Christianity be found?"

In Christ and in *His* Church, not in the bureaucratic fogs that form around it.

Anonymous said...

No need to yield the floor, it's your website.

I didn't understand what you were saying. I think I do now. I stand corrected, and apologize.

Anonymous said...

Just found this blog, very thought provoking. And said better than I ever could. One thing that popped into my mind while reading: do you suppose the political class and liberal elites are evil (in my mind) and continue to be evil is because their paeticular culture has normalized that sort of behavior? That seems to fit in with your general premise as I understand it. There are no real consequences for their despicable behavior, so... It must be acceptable. Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in staunching the cultural bleed is tha fact that all of these creatures live and play in the same, self approving Petri dish. Clean out the dish and the whole culture would have to grow anew, hopefully into something more self regulating in regards to a moral code that actual, moral people would approve of.