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On Derridology Understanding Bush's Power

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What's All the Fuss About?

by Christopher Chantrill
October 23, 2004 at 8:00 pm


DAVID BROOKS observed recently that the 2004 presidential election is similar to the 2000 election.  Once again a closely divided nation is fighting a bitter, closely divided presidential election.  Yet the issues are completely different.  Four years ago “we were arguing about things like lockboxes, compassionate conservatism and how to use the surplus. Now, we’re arguing about war, terrorism and the deficit.”  Brooks reckons it all comes down to the tribal nature of politics.  Republicans belong to a tribe that wants leaders “set apart by virtue of exceptional moral qualities.”  The Democrat tribe wants leaders “who engage in constant deliberative conversations.”

Actually, both parties present themselves as the party of Reason, and experience the other party as the champion of unreason.  Rush Limbaugh insists that liberals are softheaded fools who live by feelings, whereas conservatives are the folk who do the hard thinking, using reason and logic to develop their ideas.  Democrats like to think of Republicans as the foes of reason and science.  That’s why the Kerry campaign has made big deal about the Bush “ban” on embryonic stem cell research.  Republicans are against science; get it?

Actually, the opposite is true.  The problem with humans is that we resort too much to reason.  As Senator Hollings might have said: “There’s too much reasoning goin’ on.”

We humans are mad reasoners.  We attach reason and purpose to everything imaginable in our desperate search to understand the world and bend it to our purpose.  The more desperate our life, the more we search for reasons, as Jerzy Kosinski showed in The Painted Bird, the story of a city boy desperately trying to find out how to survive the hard, cruel world of rural Eastern Europe in 1939-44.  You might think that the peasants of the North European plain among whom the boy was forced to live were sluggish and superstitious.  Not a bit of it.  They had reasons for everything, and very good reasons too.  What they lacked was a rigorous system of peer review.

We humans are so ingenious that we can put together a couple of theories about how the world works every day before breakfast.  The question is: will they work?  For instance, the Aymara people of the high Peruvian Andes believe that the way to diagnose illness is to pass a guinea pig all over the body of a sick human.  If you then dissect the guinea pig, you’ll find out what is wrong with the human, for the guinea pig will have acquired the same ailment as the human.  It’s a brilliant idea.  The only question is: does it work?

The genius of the notorious Dead White Males of the last half millennium is that they put great importance upon just this issue; they conceded nothing to anyone on the front of theoretical ingenuity, but they ruthlessly subjected their theories to the harsh test of experiment.  They knew, of course, that if they didn’t, others would.

The experimental method worked very well with the natural and the biological sciences.  It has proved to be difficult to apply it to the social sciences, because it is much more difficult to conduct social experiments that will convince the skeptics, and so the results of social science are often contested by the unconvinced.  The modern culture wars emerge out of this contested social science.  Is poverty a problem of personal character or a result of political oppression?  Are corporations monsters of exploitation or wealth generating miracles?  There are plenty of theories, and plenty of disagreement about whether they work.

In the present argument over the war on terror, the great division is not between one style of leadership over another, but of one batch of theories against another.  President Bush and his partisans believe that 9/11 is the latest manifestation of a totalitarian movement growing out of the Islamic Middle East that constitutes a threat to our capitalist democracy similar in scope to the fascist challenge of 1925 to 1945 and the communist threat from 1917 to 1990.  The War on Terror is World War IV, and we must win it.  It is this judgment that leads Republican voters to support a policy of “hard” power to defeat the radical Islamists.  Senator Kerry leads a party that believes that the trouble in the Middle East is a hornet’s nest that we stirred up ourselves with our American imperialism.  It is this judgment that leads Democrats to support a policy of “soft” power, using diplomacy and negotiation to quiet the buzzing hornets that we have clumsily stirred up.

So who is right?  Unfortunately, the scientific method is not very helpful.  We cannot conduct an experiment to evaluate the competing theories, because the problem won’t wait.  We have to take action now, and suffer the consequences if we are wrong.

Cynics might wonder what all the fuss is about.  Both candidates support early elections in Iraq and a rapid build-up of Iraqi military and security forces; both candidates favor transformation of the US armed forces towards a flexible adaptable force heavy on special forces and light on twentieth-century mechanized divisions.  Both support an aggressive policy towards Iran and North Korea.  Won’t a President Kerry be just as aggressive as President Bush? 

Maybe Brooks is right.  Maybe the culture wars are just an argument over style.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust

Class War

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Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity

Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
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James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
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Drang nach Osten

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“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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