Sunday, March 02, 2003

The following is the first of a three-part installment. The second and third installments will be posted over the next two days.

What’s A Philosopher To Do?

In the ongoing debate between France and the United States over the war in Iraq, we might well wonder where the intellectuals stand in all this. Since the 1960’s, both American and French intellectuals have generally been seen as liberals, even radicals. Today however, things aren’t quite so clear.

From the French, and from Europeans overall, comes the criticism of George W. Bush that he is, to be blunt, a moron. But as I’ve said before, this perception wasn’t one that originated with the Europeans. The notion that Bush was none too bright began with domestic American politicians and journalists, most notably during Bush’s campaign to unseat Democratic Texas Governor, Ann Richards. As far as the Texas Democrats were concerned, their lady was head and shoulders above Bush in the IQ department. Thus, when it appeared that Bush might actually win the governor’s mansion in Austin the Democrats were appalled, not least because the Democrats had dominated Texas politics since the Civil War. It was unimaginable that Bush, with his self-conscious Christianity, his lack of worldly wisdom and his Daddy’s boy image, could defeat a serious, thoughtful and urbane woman like Ann Richards. And so, the Texas Democrats and the media resorted to casting Bush as a nitwit. As we know, he still won.

When the 2000 presidential election rolled around, the story repeated itself on the national stage. The floundering fool from Texas was going up against the ponderous, knowledgeable and highly experienced Al Gore. With his years of political experience and eight years as a member of an economically successful Clinton administration, Gore should have walked away with the prize. At the outset though, it was Bush who had the lead in the polls. So the Democrats decided to use the same strategy that had failed in Texas: they were going to show up Bush’s evident stupidity in contrast to Gore’s measured sobriety. Liberals in the American media jumped on the opportunity to refer to Bush’s simpleton stature, thinking this would distract voters from Gore’s insufferable mannerisms and his bureaucratic condescension. It almost worked, but not quite.

Well, if it didn’t work in the US itself, it certainly had an impact in Western Europe where the general public quickly took to the notion that Bush was not up to the job. When said image combined with the disputed outcome of the election, it was evident that Bush had no chance of getting anywhere in European public opinion. All this thanks to a campaign strategy originating in the trenches of Texas and Ann Richard’s inner circle.

This raises a rather interesting question: why is intelligence associated with espousing liberal doctrines? Isn’t it perfectly possible that intelligent people, geniuses even, might completely disagree with the prevailing attitudes of contemporary liberalism’s cutting edge? Or, to put it another way, why should liberal attitudes make such exclusive and tyrannical claims to understanding? The reason, I think, lies in the fact that modern liberalism is based upon an idea – that of abstract equality – rather than on a real political experience – ruling and ruling in turn (to quote Aristotle). This isn’t to say that the founders of modern political thought – people like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke and Montesquieu – were intellectuals. In fact, they generally all had nothing but contempt for the professors of their day. However, there is a difference between a professor locked up in his study and an intellectual deigning to descend among the crowd and offer his precepts for the foundation of an egalitarian society. An intellectual, unlike a simple professor, tends to take a direct and active role in changing or revolutionizing his society. Throughout the history of modern thought, this has increasingly become a revolution seeking equality. Though this wasn’t necessarily the intention of someone such as Machiavelli, we can certainly locate an egalitarian strand in his work such as his contention that the desire for freedom on the part of the oppressed many is more legitimate, and therefore more amenable to manipulation on the part of the prince, than are the efforts of the oppressive aristocracy seeking to preserve their natal privileges, privileges that have nothing to do with their natural virtues. Modern thought incarnates the view that equality is natural while hierarchy is purely conventional. This notion has continued working its way through modern and post-modern philosophy in a myriad of ways, even going so far as to turn against much of the substance of those who first employed a justification for equality as the basis of their political views. Today we’ve arrived at the point where any form of differentiation or exclusion, such as beauty or natural intelligence, are under attack as legitimate sources of distinction, unless of course, one is not intelligent enough to submit to such leveling, and then we are subjected to the treatment dished out to George W. Bush. At the same time, the individual rights first founded on this doctrine have come under attack from those who would extend equality to cultural or social groups rather than individuals, producing the odd situation whereby, in the name of cultural equality and empowerment, we are now powerless to condemn a social, religious or political practice, regardless of how oppressive, provided it is carried out by someone other than a western political leader. And so we have the interesting spectacle of anti-war demonstrators who are so utterly misguided and so completely enslaved to the dominant egalitarian ideology that they can fill the streets in carnival-like revelry to denounce George Bush as a murderer, while uttering not a word about the butchery of Saddam Hussein. Additionally, it says a great deal about the state of our Western religious leaders that they more or less acquiesce in this view. So much for the vaunted claim of leftist Christians that their mission is to empower the weak and oppressed.

The point of this rather longwinded description finally, is that intellectuals have been at the vanguard of each progressive stage toward egalitarian recognition for the downtrodden. Consequently, only a fool, a liar and a man concerned to protect his unjust privileges would battle against the necessity of intelligent progress. Now, I’ve put the notions of the fool, the liar and the oppressor together because in the modern dispensation, they are essentially synonymous. As mentioned above, modern thought assumes, and it is only an assumption, that equality is purely natural while conventional distinctions based on accidents of birth are totally conventional, therefore without justification. An intelligent person would then, by necessity, work to extend equality while destroying all sources of exclusion.

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