A Letter to a Friend- Concerning the Tragedy of Political Realism, and the Possibility of Objective Truth
I have attached a song from the original French Version of Les Miserables, you should listen to the first 2-3 minutes (the rest is other stuff.)
Anyhow, I will probably detail this more in other things I send you, but I am fairly pessimistic about human nature en masse, and to a degree human nature in the person. I send you this song as an example of the burden which this can be. (I send you the French version because the English version comes nowhere close in emotional power.)
Now as you can tell, being conservative and ‘Realist’ entails a good degree of pessimism and cynicism out of prudence, and anthems and mass movements in general, I look at through jaded eyes. My opposition to the Occupy movement, initially, was partisan and hypocritical, as I adored the Tea Party, at the same time, unequivocally. As I considered the Tea Party more, however, and saw it for what it was- a partisan, populist, ideological movement different from the Occupy movement only in ideology and style- I distanced myself from it and condemned it in the same ways I had condemned Occupy.
Now the wonderful thing about mass movements, especially universalist or populist ones, is, as you find from anyone who went to Occupy, that there is a great deal camaraderie and crusading that gives you a generally energized feeling which, I would argue, is expressed in the song I sent you.
As a Realist, such movements are ideologically-driven factions, liable to all the weaknesses which factions are liable to. Though it may be powerful and able to effect changes in government and policy, it is by no means the noble brotherhood its adherents (or this song) might depict it as being. The standard of averageness focuses not on a minimum standard, but on a least common denominator; and in every crowd, as in every organization, there are slime, though in crowds driven to frenzy, the slime become more prominent.
I therefore find it more efficacious to study the seats of power rather than to take to the streets in arms with the masses; when I do enter the streets it is for research and reconnaisance, not for activism.
In this song- do you hear the people sing? Do you hear the hopes for a new future, a Heaven on Earth, a new regime, separate and distinct from the corruption of the old, a world where each man will reap what he sows and no man will steal from the weak? A world where the sword has been sheathed and the brotherhood of Mankind discusses politics at a common table, their rights bestowed by the nature of their humanity alone? Is it not a glorious new sunrise? Can it not pierce you to the heart and bone, and drive a man to arms in the name of liberty? And how many have gone to their deaths as the revolutionary bands trumpeted anthems not unlike this across the fields of war? Can it not show a brightened path to Heaven?
And this hope has not escaped me. In Washington I was of the radical Republican ilk- not Republican in the notion of the modern Republican Party, but Republican in the Jeffersonian ilk- a believer in the people, in the ideals of the revolutions, a defender of rights, and a patriot beyond compare. Tradition and Security influenced my thought, surely, but my heart marched to the beat of Common Sense and Liberty or Death. Hobbes was a tyrant- Locke was a wise man- the lamps of liberty were the Patrick Henrys and Thomas Paines. Human Nature reeked of goodness, of purity, of light; and though I had not yet heard this anthem, my brain rang with its precepts.
But as I studied the works of the Founding Fathers- that privileged clique of men perhaps too wise for their own sanity- a new reality, based not on right but on power, emerged in my mind, and my pursuit of security studies further strengthened the understanding. And now, of all the Facebook Philosophers you are acquainted with, am I not the most cynical and distrustful of human goodness? Am I not the first to justify the wrongs of the past and recommend their continuation into future policy for the stabilizing demons of order and balance? Am I not the Realist, Conservative Asshole, friend of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, cynic against the likes of Liberals Classical and Modern, unbeliever in human rights and Augustinian disciple of the Cold War mentality?
Yet, though my understanding and my writing have been so jaded, you know that I as a person have still not changed. I have not grown paranoid that people will sneak up behind me, nor that I will get shot when I go out on walks. I am of the same heart- I dress up stupid, say hi to everyone, hold too many doors, am become ridiculous, ponder my purpose beneath the stars of Heaven and pledge myself to cheerful service in accordance with my oaths, and take pictures of Jingles messing up the couch. Perhaps the nature of life is painful, but if it is I seek joy in it, as is necessary for a fruitful and happy life. Though I proclaim to be a Realist, in all of my choices and terms by which I define myself as unique, I ultimately am an Idealist. My heart beats to the drum- and the song I have sent you drives me crazy, for I wish, wish, wish that it could be the nature of human life- a brotherly crusade for justice and peace, a never-ending quest to perfect the cracked world we were born to. Yet my jaded eyes remind me of the flawed nature of all human quests, and I fall again to the cynicism I held before.
I might note, that at the level of the INDIVIDUAL, I certainly believe quests of perfection are not only worthwhile but necessary for a worthy life. But the crusade for social justice, I have always thought, will forever be doomed to the shifting sands of time, and though the anthems of liberty fall upon responsive ears, mine, I can do nothing to answer. And [in my circumstance] that is the tragedy of Realism.
Relating to all this, the other day I told you I believed in a rationally discernible universal moral code. I still believe in an objective morality; but I am not so sure it is discernible by the mind of man. I shall explain:
Whenever I assume that such a morality exists, I assume that is generally along the lines of contemporary Western universalism. This is all fine and good; but upon further thought, I realize that there are various universal moral codes which, though related, are fundamentally different. How is one to follow all? Or if he is to choose one, which is he to choose? Suppose the promulgators of each code could be brought back from the dead and sat around a table, to discuss a resolving of the differences of their various ethics. I do not doubt that they could do so, being superior gentlemen- but would that not dilute each code, and reduce their conglomerated code to a merely political agreement, not necessarily based on fundamental principles, but on compromises between fundamental principles? And are not compromises, by their very nature, impure?
Take the codes. I have always been taught that Immanuel Kant established a workable Universal Humanism. The Categorical Imperative, etc- that is universal enough. Around the same time, Thomases Paine and Jefferson were establishing the tenets of Universal Republicanism, which though similar to Kant’s Humanism, existed primarily in the political universe and held citizenship in higher esteem. Lincoln was influenced by all these men and more, yet his universalism was unique as well. And did not every philosopher after Kant formulate his own universe, from Hegel and Fichte to Kierkegaard and James to Sartre and your own Chomsky? What of Gandhi, whose doctrine of amhitsa eschewed violence, and ALL violence? Whereas violence may have been justifiable by the early universalist republican philosopher-kings, the savior of India denied even its efficacy! Where can compromise be drawn? And if Gandhi is not sufficiently Western, bear in mind he was influenced in his universalist ideals by the Westerners of the Transcendentalist movement! What about Jesus Christ, whose universalism was not only nonviolent but communitarian and based upon a total defiance of all political authority as much as was necessary for worship- an ultimate breaking from the traditions of any universalists who acknowledged a King or People? Could Christ find compromise with Norman Angell, or Isaiah Berlin? And these universalists, each who arrived upon their moral tradition primarily through reason and rationality, assigned their codes a fundamental and eternal life- who was right? Were any of them right? Would a conglomeration of all these codes be right? Would we be able to arrive at something right?
Moreover, it seems that in each new generation, as technology advances, historical trends develop, and values change, the proclaimed ‘objective morality’ adapts to fit the trends. For example, to my knowledge it does not appear as though equality for homosexuals became a universalist issue until the last century; yet if it were truly fundamental and universal, wouldn’t it have become evident as the Enlightenment era authors were penning their classics? What new moral developments of tomorrow has universalism not yet encompassed?
Thus, I am skeptical of our ability to arrive at a true objective morality (or at least, a comprehensive one- the basic principles might be hashed out.) In a historicist sense, it is difficult for me to struggle through issues that tend to evolve through time, in relation to their value universally, (I have been thinking on human nature about this for a while) and so I am not quite certain that I believe universal morality to be a rationally discernible thing. I see it, at this moment, as a glimmering marble stature buried in a cone of sand. The great men of each generation struggle up it, climbing to the top, and dust it off as well as they can before the winds of time take their lives; sometimes many are there, sometimes few. Whenever they dust off enough sand with their featherdusters to reveal a sliver of the statue’s neck or leg or stomach, they immediately take out their notebooks and sketch what they can, before the wind blows the sand back over their discoveries. Then they get out their dusters and start uncovering another part, and all the while their colleagues crawl over other portions of the mountain, doing much the same thing. When the great philosophers die their notebooks remain behind, and though the statue eventually becomes, again, fully covered, their notes are saved forever, for all posterity. Some great philosophers study all the notebooks and piece together bigger and bigger pictures; yet none are complete, for no man has seen the whole statue with his own eyes, and all have either seen a tiny part clearly or a large portion vicariously and obscurely; and thus the nature of objective moral truth, while somewhat discernible, is not discernible in its entirety.