Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Feint, Shift, And Thrust

     I just saw something pregnant with “twins from two fathers:” implications for mental missteps of two divergent kinds. It’s got me unsettled. I’ll show it to you in a moment. First I’d like to lay some groundwork for an important idea. It’s one that many people, including some otherwise bright and insightful ones, don’t take into consideration nearly as often as they should.

     “Well, Sire?”
     “You think, then, that I must apologize to my lady wife?”
     “Do you think so, Sire?”
     “The notion is unattractive, Duke.”
     “What was it you told me last week day about unattractive notions?”
     “That they seemed to be good indicators of the proper course.”

     [Steven Brust, The Phoenix Guards]

     In the snippet of dialogue above, a reigning Emperor is confronting an unpleasant truth: specifically, that he had been misled into thinking his wife unfaithful. The passage that led him to that conclusion is quite brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s too long to reproduce here. His interlocutor, a Duke, leads him to see how he was manipulated by asking simple questions about the order of events and who was involved in them. When the scales fall from the Emperor’s eyes, he realizes that it is he who has done an injustice to his wife, rather than the reverse: hence, the “unattractive notion” cited above.

     Many critical bits of wisdom — remember that word; don’t confuse it with “knowledge” or “information” – are dismissed by the hearer when he first encounters them, because of his opinion of the person espousing them, or because they clash with some ardent desire he harbors, or because they’re simply unpleasant.

     Wisdom is not about knowledge or information. It’s about seeing widely enough, understanding one’s nature well enough, and possessing enough maturity to assess what one has seen, heard, and learned without prejudice. There’s another word to hold onto. It doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

     Wisdom takes time to develop. The broad perspective, insight into human nature, and sense for one’s own limitations are seldom the possessions of the young. Strongly held beliefs founded on a narrow perspective, insufficient respect for the innate nature of Man, and an immoderate belief in one’s own insight and potency are obstacles to it. They give rise to swift and inaccurate conclusions that are often regretted afterward...sometimes, soon afterward.

     More often than not, the broadening of a young person’s perspective, his acquisition of respect for the immutability of human nature, and his acquaintance with his own limitations are painful experiences. In this connection a phrase from a review of one of my novels popped to mind: “a man from the days when a ‘man’ meant someone with a moral code and wisdom often born of pain.”

     Most wisdom is born of pain.

     The great monsters of human history have all believed themselves capable of remaking our species according to a new and preferable plan...well, preferable to them, anyway. That lack of respect for what we are and must be, owing to our bodies, minds, and souls, has killed so many millions of persons over the century past that the historians cannot agree on its upper bound. If anything could adequately underscore the critical importance of such a respect, that death toll ought to do it.

     Yet on occasion, such a monster has emitted a nugget of wisdom. The paradox is greatest when the nugget is about the nature of Mankind, for it is normally the unwillingness to concede that there is such a thing as immutable human nature that characterizes the human monster. Think about the infamies, depravities, and atrocities of Hitler, of Stalin, of Mao, and of Pol Pot, and see if you can reach another conclusion. Those men saw themselves as gods: capable of anything, given firmness of will. Such inheritors as they have in our time are equally afflicted with supreme hubris.

     And now we come to the experience that triggered this essay:

     Note the name at the bottom of that graphic. He founded the American Nazi Party. While he never rose to power as did Adolf Hitler, in the horror of his beliefs he was Hitler’s equal. Have a few sentences about him from Infogalactic:

     In March 1959, Rockwell founded the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists (WUFENS), a name selected to denote opposition to state ownership of property. In December, the name was changed to the American Nazi Party, and the headquarters relocated to 928 North Randolph Street in Arlington, Virginia.

     ....One of the reporters, Reese Schonfeld, asked Rockwell how he would treat Jews if he came to power in the United States. Rockwell replied he would treat Jews just as he treated any other American citizens. If they were loyal Americans, everything would be fine; if they were traitors, they would be executed. When Schonfeld asked what percentage of Jews Rockwell perceived as traitors, Rockwell replied, "Ninety percent."....

     In summer 1966, Rockwell led a counter-demonstration to Martin Luther King's attempt to bring an end to de facto segregation in the white Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois. He believed King was a tool for Jewish Communists to integrate America. Rockwell believed integration to be a Jewish plot to rule the white community.

     Rockwell led the American Nazi Party in assisting the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups during the Civil Rights Movement, in attempts to counter the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But he soon came to believe that the Klan was stuck in the past and ineffective in helping him wage a modern race struggle. After hearing the slogan "Black Power" during a debate in 1966 with Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, Rockwell altered the phrase and started a call for "White Power". White Power later became the name of the party's newspaper and the title of a book authored by Rockwell. Rockwell was a Holocaust denier. In an April 1966 interview with Playboy journalist Alex Haley, Rockwell stated, "I don't believe for one minute that any 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated by Hitler. It never happened." When asked in a 1965 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation if the Holocaust were true, Rockwell replied by claiming he had "incontrovertible documentary proof that that's not true."

     Pretty monstrous, eh what? Hitlerian in all but the speaker’s name. Surely evidence that the man who held those beliefs had evil intentions and must be thwarted, right? And yes, Rockwell was thwarted...ironically enough, by one of his former supporters, who spent eight years in prison for murdering him.

     But does any of that make the sentiment Rockwell expressed in the graphic above false? Indeed, do Rockwell’s racial and political beliefs have any bearing upon that sentiment at all?

     Think about it – and about your reaction to seeing Rockwell’s name under an opinion you yourself might well hold.

     Remember that phrase “twins with two fathers” from the opening? It’s time to meet them. It’s possible you and they are already acquainted:

  1. “A Nazi said it, so it must be false!”
  2. “It’s obviously true, so there must be some value in Nazism after all!”

     A common prejudice lies beneath both those “conclusions:” that the idea expressed must be indissoluble from the speaker’s other convictions and opinions. Why? Is it unthinkable that an evil man might hold one (or more) true beliefs? Or is it necessarily the case that a man who has expressed one true and important conviction must therefore be right about other things?

     The first of those misconceptions is connected to the ad hominem argument, in which the speaker’s associations are used to taint an idea he’s expressed. The second is akin to the argument from authority, in which the soundness and power of some of a speaker’s ideas are used to impute virtue to others he has expressed. Both are logical fallacies – and both have been used to mislead the shallow, ignorant, and headlong for centuries. Many persons allow one or the other of them to mislead themselves.

     The key insight here is too important to languish in a small font:

The validity of an idea is independent of the character, background, associations, and other convictions of him who expresses it.

     That lesson is lost on many. Indeed, there are persons whose mission in life is to suppress it – and to silence those who are aware of it.

     It’s a bit of wisdom that has extraordinary importance in our current social and political milieu. Don’t let it slip away from you.

     "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it -- no matter if I have said it! -- except it agree with your own reason and your own common sense." -- Buddha


pc-not said...

I guess the key word here is caution. I often find myself jumping on a particular bandwagon based on prior conceptions of what the person has promoted. Many times I will skim over an opinion article assuming I know what the author's conclusion will be. Thank's for the caution sign Fran. In the future, I will try to try to seek wisdom.

SiGraybeard said...

I think Barack Obama was roundly criticized last week in the left wing media for saying virtually exactly this message.

Which coincidentally grants independent validation to your money quote that, "The validity of an idea is independent of the character, background, associations, and other convictions of him who expresses it.

Manu said...

In today's cancel culture, everything is an Ad Hom. Moral perfection (by the Left's standards) is the requirement for consideration of opinion or belief, without which you are an unperson.

A friend of mine posited that modern day Nazis serve as a sort of hate heat sink for the Left. Emotionally-driven folks must have a thing to serve as a hate nexus, and modern day Nazis fulfill the role just fine. Unfortunately the amount of hate has exceeded the limited capacity of that hate sink.

And so it has spilled over onto the non-Nazis, and now anyone to the right of Trotsky, really.