Saturday, October 29, 2005

Popular Opinion is Irrational

Paul Berman - Terrorism and Liberalism

I had to read a couple chapters of this and it renewed my belief in evil. As you can see from my blog on certainty I am a poster boy for liberalism (more or less). The premise of Berman’s article is that liberalism is naïve in its belief that there is no evil without a reason. Everything has a cause and effect, and to humanize the villain all a person has to do is find the reason that a person decides to do evil acts. This makes life a lot less scary because everything is understandable. Look at the cliché, ‘people fear what they don’t understand’.

Berman showed, using history, this premise can lead to dangerous sympathies. Example 1, the French socialist party during the late 1930s said that the German people were oppressed by the Jews (the Jews were financiers and being socialist fought against the financiers and didn’t see a racial distinction, so they rationalized the actions of the Germans). Berman describes,
"The anti-war Socialists wanted to know: why shouldn’t the French government show a little flexibility in the face of Hitler’s demands? Why not recognize that some of Hitler’s points were well taken? Why not look for ways to conciliate the outraged German people and, in that way, to conciliate the Nazis? ...But the political arguments rested on something deeper, too – a philosophical belief, profound, large, and attractive, which was reassuring instead of terrifying. It was the belief that, in the modern world, even the enemies of reason cannot be enemies of reason. Even the unreasonable must be, in some fashion, reasonable."
This raises for me the sympathy of the oppressed and the hatred of the oppressors. I used these terms in a class a week ago and was chastised for it because it is an old polar way of thinking. Which made me think of Chesterton saying that everything is not black and white, but neither is it grey. In everything there is black and white. The simplification into the categories of oppressed and oppressor, good and evil to explain why bad things happen is not sufficient for understanding the world. As for the French, they allowed half their country to be annexed and it resulted in the death of a lot of people.

The main point of Berman’s article was that mass movements of pathological killers exist. There is no reason why. Berman quoted an Auschwitz SS officer “here there is no reason why.” The liberal mind always asks why, so this was/is a tough one to get my head around, but he also gave the example of suicide bombings in Israel, and the rise of public support with the rise of suicide bombings, the support of murder, a contemporary version of the French and the Nazis.

In my blog on Mill’s Liberalism, Mill talked about the oppression of truth is due to the times, that is, the context. Berman showed that as the suicide bombings rose, so did the support for the Palestinian cause in the west. He linked this to an obsession with transgression “that sometimes takes an overtly sexual form.” He goes on to say that he can’t prove this, but it is interesting that the support of Palestinian causes rises and falls with the suicide bombers, not the suffering of Palestinian people. This points out our own irrationality. Those whose religion is rationality seem not too faithful in our marriage to it. So, is rationality just a cerebral explanation to follow our emotions (meaning that rational thought is illusion, we argue for what we feel?). I think it can degenerate to that, by one sided arguments (fundamentalists don’t have a corner on the market of closed mindedness). The challenge of being a rational being is always seeing the side I don’t want to see.

This gets back to the oppressor/oppressed language, in that it is very easy for me to see the side of the oppressed, and fight for that person, but I don’t want to see the side of the oppressor, I don’t want to be in dialogue with something that I hate, but I think that hate is also due to the fact that I think of a CEO as the embodiment of everything that I despise because I don’t know a CEO. Even Hitler loved some children. I also think that is where the most effective change can come from, it is much easier to effect change if I can influence people in power. I think underlying it all I have a fear of talking to CEOs because I don’t want to turn into what they are.

Back to Berman … where has reason gone wrong, why has the desire for discourse led to the support of murder? Should it be abandoned? I think reason failed because opinions are privileged. There is such a wide diversity of opinions that it is very easy to not run into important critiques; especially the critiques that don’t explain the why. So sure the suicide bombers have had a rough oppressed life, but that is not enough to explain why, and reason will not take me to some opinions that need to be voiced. For example, intuition, and faith.

I am not yet ready to abandon reason, but Berman gives a caution to absolute faith in reason. There will be sides that I am not seeing, and life is complex and cannot be explained by tight circles of logic in which a couple of steps show the process of becoming a suicide bomber. In conclusion, I think that a person can very easily rationalize things that are wrong to make them seem right at the time. Maybe this can be avoided by not seeing things as polar opposites, by not rationalizing evil acts. Sure corporate oppression is evil, but so is killing and to be sympathetic to murder because I think I can understand why they did it doesn’t make it right. I don’t think this is what Berman is trying to say actually. I think he is trying to say that we are sympathetic to murderers because of reason and shouldn’t be because they just need to be brought to justice.

I just used the term ‘we’ (not intentionally) because liberals try to bring unity to humanity, but we are faced with factions that have the goal of destroying portions of humanity. The two goals are incompatible. Berman’s point is that we can’t reason pathological factions over to our side because they play by different rules. There are people that want to kill us and we can’t talk them out of it. That leaves limited options as a response. Do we have to speak their language and hunt them down and bring them to justice for our survival, or is there a better way?

Christ said to turn the other cheek, but was he talking on the level of international relations, or just personal relations? Can I turn the other cheek to people I don’t know? Does turning the other cheek have to do with not taking insults personally?

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