Tuesday, September 14, 2010

America the Irrational

Ben Smith of Politico sees it as a sign of liberal despair. Link here.

Liberals like George Packer of The New Yorker and Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic are in despair at losing the argument. They are none too happy to see the national mood and public opinion speeding away from the principles they hold dear.

They doubled down on Obama. They promised the moon and the stars, hope and change. Now, they are trying to come to terms with the fact that America is about to vote No in an election that has become a referendum on their president.

How can they rationalize their own poor judgment? East, they can denounce the great majority of the American people for being irrational.

Ben Smith identifies this developing trope in two important liberal journalists. We will surely hear more of it.

Sullivan sternly declares, "that unreason seems to have taken an almost pathological turn. It is as if America is intent on destroying itself, its civil society, its fiscal future, and its next generation in an endless fit of mutual recrimination, neurotic nationalism, and religious division."

When America was being swept off in a rapture over an untested, untried, and inexperienced presidential candidate, did you hear Andrew Sullivan denouncing America for being pathologically irrational?

When Barack Obama was spending trillions of dollars of borrowed money on a failed attempt to produce new jobs, did you hear liberals complaining that he was destroying America's fiscal future?

And when Barack Obama turned out to be the most divisive president in memory, the kind of master dialectician whose goal was to sharpen differences between himself and the opposition, did you hear any liberal say that he should become the conciliator that he pretended to be during the campaign?

When the Andrew Sullivans of this world gnash their teeth and wring their crying towels over the overreaction to terrorism, do you ever hear them try to explain why the vast majority of hate crimes in this country, around 67%, are committed against Jews, while a small minority of said incidents, around 7%, are directed against Muslims?

True enough, the American people are turning against Barack Obama. Equally true, no one really knows how the election will turn out. How can a rational person deliver a graceless concession speech before the election has even been held?

And since we are dealing with the rational and the irrational, a clever person might say that the American people were duped, tricked, deceived, and defrauded by the Obama election campaign and by those who so fervently supported it in the media.

Someone less generous than I could easily argue that voting for an untested and inexperienced candidate, based on no evidence whatever, was an exercise in irrational hope.

Now that the American people have seen the error of their ways, why not say that they have returned to reason? Being angry does not make you an irrational loon. It depends on whether you have a good reason for the anger and express it appropriately, at the ballot box.

Writing in the New Yorker, George Packer will have none of such caviling. In his words, even though "crazy, murderous violence hasn't spread across the land,... unreason, cheered on by cable news, has won the day. We have undeniably gone sour on interfaith tolerance."

One does not want to nitpick, but there are places in this world where crazy, murderous violence is, or has been, the order of the day. Does Packer know which countries have been inflicted with extreme intolerance? At the least he should know that America was not among them.

Back in the old days liberals would go to the proverbial mat to defend the first amendment rights of someone who was going to blaspheme a deity. No more. A foolish pastor from Florida has been denounced and threatened by the highest government authorities for saying that he was going to burn a book that many people take to be holy.

Not only were liberals not defending his rights, they were using the occasion to denounce cable news, i.e. Fox News, and anyone who had the temerity to refuse to follow their intellectual lead.

Of  course, when Packer calls Obama "the voice of reason incarnate" he is not just making a fool of himself, but he is echoing the fourth Gospel. As everyone knows, the Gospel according to John opens by saying that the Logos, the Word, aka, Reason, was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

At least Packer is not hedging his bets. He does not see Obama as a new Messiah. He sees Obama as the old Messiah.

To buttress his argument about irrationality, Packer offers a quotation from Jonathan Franzen. He calls it: "an epigraph for our times."

You may or may not know it, but modern liberals bow down before creative talent. They imagine that novels present higher truths and that we must accept them as such. We can neither question nor doubt the opinions of a great artist.

I confess that I am not a fan of Jonathan Franzen. I tried reading The Corrections: A Novel and, after a couple of hundred pages, found it tedious and uninteresting. I have not read his more recent tome: Freedom: A Novel.

I will mention in passing that I used to teach English literature at the university level. So, I do have some serious credentials in the field of literary fiction.

I respect novelists. They traffic in make-believe. They create fictional worlds. They tell stories about things that are not real. There is nothing wrong with that.

But that does not make them authorities about much of anything beyond the fictions they create. When the nation is in crisis you are not going to convene a group of novelists or stand-up comics to analyze the situation and to offer guidelines for dealing with it.

That much being said, here is Franzen's line, which Packer seems to believe can stand on its own, because it says it all.

"The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage."

It may sound as though Franzen is saying something profound. In fact, he is saying something that makes very little sense.

When I first read the sentence I did not see a piece of enlightened wisdom. I saw a glob of rhetorical phlegm. I was happy that Franzen had cleared his throat, but less happy that he and George Packer want us to examine it as though it were a thing of beauty and a pearl of wisdom.

Packer may not have noticed, but the sentence is poorly written, clunky and awkward, without much substance. It is a throw-away line.

It says, in short: "The personality ... is a personality...." A fine tautology, but no real wisdom there.

I think it stretches things to say that your personality is susceptible to anything. You might be drawn to a dream of limitless freedom, but I doubt that you are identical to your personality.

When it comes to dreams of limitless freedom, artists are the people most susceptible to get caught up in such dreams. Isn't that what attracts people to creative work? Aren't artists prey to the illusion that, unencumbered by fact and reality, they can make it up as they go along. Don't artists believe that no one, not even Oprah, can interfere with their ability to shoot their mouths off.

I suspect that Franzen is not referring to artists. He is probably referring to libertarians. If he is, then he is simply off the mark. No libertarian, not Milton Friedman, not anyone else, believes in limitless freedom.

Libertarians believe in the constraints imposed by the free market and by the free trade in ideas. They believe that free individuals should make the major part of their own decisions, unencumbered by too much government regulation. They do not and have never promoted a world of limitless freedom.

That they left for the artists.

As for whether the dream sours or goes sour, let's not nitpick. I am sure that Franzen has twisted the syntax to sound as though he is an artist.

As for Franzen's salient point, that when people who dream of limitless freedom are disappointed their personalities, as he would put it, are prone to misanthropy and rage.

Here, he might have a point. If he is talking about artists, that is. Adolph Hitler was a failed artist. When he failed at art he became an enraged anti-Semite.

I suspect that Franzen is not tell us to beware of artists whose dream has soured. 

And I doubt that he is referring to bands of enraged libertarians, because libertarians, being children of the Enlightenment, tend to be peaceful and reasonable folk.

If you want to find a group that is constantly enraged, in a misanthropic and also, to be fair, misogynistic way, why not evoke the example of Islamic terrorists, especially of the al Qaeda variety.

Did the terrorists become enraged because they dreamt of limitless freedom?

Not at all. They became enraged and lethal because they hated the freedom of others. They see freedom as a threat and a danger to their god. They caricature freedom loving people as licentious, as having no boundaries or limits. They hate it when people exercise their free will and choose not to worship as they do.

I hope that that clarifies the issue.


The Ghost said...

my first thought when reading the Franzen quote was ... Is he talking about Obama voters ?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point... because I think that he wants to be criticizing those who disagree with him, but ends up aiming at himself and those who supported Obama... and who have been enraged misanthropes.

Interesting that no one was complaining about rage and misanthropy when it was trendy to hurl the worst vitriol at GW Bush.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Why....

Liberals like George Packer of The New Yorker and Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic are in despair at losing the argument. They are none too happy to see the national mood and public opinion speeding away from the principles they hold dear. -- Dr. Schneiderman

....am I suddenly reminded of some warnings I've read from over 2000 years ago about over-weened 'Pride'. In other words, it relates to an item provided here down the 'hall' from here. Something regarding 'effete intellectuals'.

And what makes anyone think that Sullivan and others of his 'ilk' are NOT that?


[The power of paradox opens your eyes and blinds those who say they can see. -- Michael Card, God's Own Fool]

David Foster said...

Erin O'Connor, an excellent blogger, has a post today on the Franzen thing.


Proud Hindu said...

"Not at all. They became enraged and lethal because they hated the freedom of others. They see freedom as a threat and a danger to their god. They caricature freedom loving people as licentious, as having no boundaries or limits. They hate it when people exercise their free will and choose not to worship as they do."

Ridiculous. You really think these people were thinking, "Oh those damn Americans. They get to wear bikinis to the beach and we don't"????

Come on.

A few of them were frequenting stip clubs, as Muslim men are wont to do.

Meanwhile, the Ground Zero Mosque and the CIA


Stuart Schneiderman said...

They were probably thinking that these American women were setting a very bad example for other women and that they needed to be punished and terrorized.

Whether it is wearing bikinis or going to school, the notion that women might exercise a free choice in the different aspects of their lives is apparently a serious threat to Islam.

Proud Hindu said...

That has absolutely nothing to do with the Twin Towers Episode.

Orthodox Hindus also think mainstream American culture is shameless, heck, so do MOST people around the world.

That has nothing to do with 9/11.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Lots of people think that the shamelessness of American women, and no small number of men, is a bad thing.

Most of them do not, as I understand it, think that the way to keep their own people in line is to terrorize them or to terrorize the people who are behaving inappropriately or to fight wars.

I recall a statement by Lt. Col. Ralph Peters on the news one day. He said: "The Taliban will fight to the death for the right to beat their wives."