Monday, July 19, 2010

Why moderate? Why contrarian?

As early as childhood, I have been accused of playing devil's advocate for a host of rather impure motives on my part: presumptuous assertions lifted from crude distillations of Freudian notions of selfhood. Thus it has been said that I am the kind of man who, out of sheer sadistic glee, for drama, or even as a kind of tic, wants to assert the precise opposite of my interlocutor, bereft of genuine convictions of my own, but rather "acting out", however obviously true the assertion is with which I am presented. They fear that I would just as soon say Paris is dull when someone speaks of its sexiness and soulfulness, and when presented with evidence of Brigitte Bardot's physical virtues, would reply that she was plain.

But I will only all too gladly agree with whatever the said interlocutor presents to me if that presentation is true, even if the presentation smacks of flattering salesmanship and buttonholing, even arm twisting. If someone told me they were from Paris, most likely, barring temporary mental insanity, I would immediately reply that I loved their city without any rude qualifications. If someone told me Bardot was beautiful I would reply most quickly with little thought. Moreover I would thank them for their contributions to world culture and their hospitality when I visited their country. I would love to deliver the above in their native tongue, but, alas, my French is not what it should be.

The problem is that, it has always felt to me that most people have been wrong about most things. It is not so much that I know better; it is that usually I have though a great deal about whatever the assertion is and have had to come to conclusions of my own that diverge, sometimes in opposition, other times with qualifications.

This has nothing to do with status and station in life; it doesn't have even to do with intelligence. One can be quite uneducated and even temperamentally dim but nevertheless realize that Bush Jr was impossibly bad for us. During the twentieth century some of the most gifted and intelligent minds around the globe stubbornly clung to the myth of the superiority of command styled, state socialism, even in the face of gulags, reliable witness testimony of former comrades, and the cruel spectacle of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Mao's Cultural Revolution in China. As George Orwell once quipped, "there are some things so stupid that only an intellectual will believe them". I shall answer two and only two questions as they are not rhetorical.

I am contrarian in that I start from a position of skepticism, of suspicion towards what is presented to me, and above all, can not and will not accept any proposition or assertion without the sufficient evidence. I am Socratic and argumentative in my style and at times even a bit cranky. I admit to being a curmudgeon.

But if I am contrarian, I am also moderate too. This second position greatly inflects, informs, and humanized my argumentation. Being moderate is the most unsexy position you can take, It has no glamour in it, it seems dull and resigned, some suggest it is akin to rearranging the deck furniture while the Titanic sinks.

Yet to be moderate is to be automatically, always already in sympathy with the great mass of humanity in one important sense. To be moderate is to be most open to others because, by virtue of disavowing radical or extreme positions, the moderate wants to include parts of other's views into their own, sees in compromise the greatest virtue, and is already prepared to meet others halfway.

I am contrarian in intellect and moderate in heart or spirit.

There is not world enough and time to offer a sufficient defense of the moderate, especially when it has been so fashionable to be radical for so much of our modern and contemporary history.

Even Gore Vidal gives the radical label an honorific by deferring to the etymology of the word: that in going "to the root" of things you will more truly solve problems and get a complete picture. This is an old argument by radicals; to disable the reformist or moderate opposition as insufficiently "holistic" and as excessively in cahoots with the status quo, that formulation always already guilty until proven innocent by virtue of the crimes and horrors of the past, and by virtue of the understandable need to transform and improve out lot in this life.

But, notwithstanding my great respect for Gore Vidal, being a radical is based on a fallacy: the fallacy of the whole. (Vidal is also confusing radical with liberal here which is a conflation best reserved for attack at another date).

As a moderate I reject the notion that there is one interconnected world or whole. Thus, if there are evils in this world to be corrected, those evils do not warrant a thoroughgoing destruction of the given society in which we find those evils as such societies. I leave aside the special horrors of totalitarian or aristocratic regimes. In those cases radical measures should be taken to prevent the crimes of such regimes.

The trouble is that, in Vidal's case, and in most cases when radicalism is posited as a solution, we are dealing with rather imperfect, partially democratic societies. They are societies that so motley, so mixed up, so, dare I say it, non-holistic, that one can point to as many good or even excellent features in such societies as one can point to errors and crimes. That is why the best reformers and activists in the United States like Dr King and the women's movement, aim not to destroy, but rather force us to more fully live up to our promises and to more fully complete our attempts at self improvement. But social movements that seek change do not, at their best moments, construct a holistic picture wherein all parts of the criticized society are inherently corrupt and deformed by an evil root or center.

It is true that the radical feminist, Marxist and even anarchist movements do paint such a simple and reductionist picture. They see the world as a coherent whole so that any solution involves wholesale destruction of that whole and its replacement by an entirely new world. But that very overarching and abstract view of life is false and is precisely why I am a liberal and not a radical and why I am reformist in economics and not revolutionary.

Think about this truth: practically all of the greatest crimes and evils of the previous two centuries have been due to some kind of radicalism or extremism: the far right led to fascism and the far left led to corrupt and inefficient state economies that were at times no less murderous, in statistical terms, than their far Right counterparts. Any genuine defense of radicalism has a lot to answer for given its history.

But this problem with radicalism starts from a flawed premise, that premise being that the given society which must be overthrown is one thing and one thing alone, that it not a mixture of several competing things.

The other problem with radicalism is an ethical and temporal one in that it asks us to USE people in the present for the sake of a future that it posits and promises as inevitably better, in the abstract. As Isaiah Berlin put it: "in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain an omelette. Eggs are certainly broken, never more violently than in our own time, but the omelette is far to seek. It recedes into an infinite distance". This is why war is one of the most radical acts to be committed by nations and peoples: it violates the Kantian insight that people should be ends and not means.

And finally and most importantly, all problems to which radicalism is deemed the solution were in fact problems of radicalism, temperamentally defined.

Take the interstate highway mess, sprawling suburbia, the domination of our entire civilization by the car. Sure they were created by the status quo, but they were radical acts. It is radical to require that everyone own and drive individual cars. It was radical to develop a centralized oil system to extract that from the earth. To be so single minded in overhauling our industrial system in that way was quite a radical set of decisions. Radical in the sense of being extreme in its narrow focus and in the demands it placed upon ourselves and the earth.

Much of what currently goes by the name of radicalism is a response to rather older radicalism that has now become so ingrained that that older radicalism is now considered tradition and thus what is conservative. Perhaps radicalism is a cycle that humanity falls into: radical decisions beget yet more radical responses to those decisions to solve the side effects of the earlier radicalism.

Moderation and compromise may be unsexy; they may be unglamorous. But they could save us from a lot of excess. One of the chief virtues of Obama as president is that he refuses to impose radical ideologies and tactics upon the American people. Little wonder that radicals on both Left and Right may very well hate him. But the problem is not in Obama, whatever his flaws, but in the human need for radical action and in the human inability to compromise and negotiate.

In defending moderation I am in no way defending lack of innovation or revolutions of a different order. In painting, in representation, in culture, radicalism has been most defensible, and when it was not welcome most of the time it should have been.

But that is a realm of representation, of, in most cases inanimate objects. It is quite another thing to be radical with people's lives, to force them to fit into a prior arranged scheme against their will.

To the degree to which moderation is philosophy of caution, of trial and error, I say we should be moderate. If moderation says we should take a little bit of what is valuable there, and a little bit of what is valuable here and, with subtracting what is evil, we come to something new, yet something that honors where people have come from
, then moderation seems the best "solution".


  1. "It is radical to require that everyone own and drive individual cars. It was radical to develop a centralized oil system to extract that from the earth. To be so single minded in overhauling our industrial system in that way was quite a radical set of decisions. Radical in the sense of being extreme in its narrow focus and in the demands it placed upon ourselves and the earth."

    Radical or not, civilization as we currently know it is unsustainable and destructive, period. You seem to recognize this above, yet you go on to say:

    "As a moderate I reject the notion that there is one interconnected world or whole. Thus, if there are evils in this world to be corrected, those evils do not warrant a thoroughgoing destruction of the given society in which we find those evils as such societies."

    It does if what is "evil" (I loathe that word!) is the societies themselves. For example, rooting out the "evils" that are causing climate change and driving humans and much of the natural world towards extinction would require the destruction of much (if not all) of what makes industrial civilization what it is. You cannot dismantle the fossil fuel economy and the military-industrial complex and car culture and agriculture and factory farming etc. without major, radical changes to society as we know it.

    Economics itself it a radical ideology which assumes that everything has a monetary value, that growth is always good, and that we're better off in a world with money than in one without... Anything new that requires deep change or a paradigm shift could be called radical -- Democracy certainly was. Opposing slavery was. Anarchism is only seen as a radical philosophy because of how far removed it is from where we are now. Personally I don't see why any of its basic tenants should be seen as radical -- they seem like common sense to me. For example, the belief that power is automatically illegitimate unless proven otherwise... That's only a radical concept in a world so dependent upon hierarchy and exploitation. In a more egalitarian world, "pro-hierarchy ideas" would be seen as radical. Another basic anarchist idea: that it is wrong to "be radical with people's lives, to force them to fit into a prior arranged scheme against their will." Surely the world we live in currently does this in many ways -- "make money or starve!" being perhaps the most obvious way.

    What's radical (nay, insane) to me is to buy into a belief system which assumes that the natural world is a resource to be used instead of something to enter into a relationship with... Yet this is one of the major assumptions on which modern civilization is built. To paraphrase J.G. Ballard, we're sleepwalking into oblivion thinking only about the corporate logos on our shroud. Modern life in America is mostly about getting ahead, getting more, buying things, etc. People starve while we buy our third pair of shoes. We spend enough money on dog food and perfume to feed everyone who starves annually worldwide. Reforming this way of life requires radical changes to our values, our way of life, our policies, our society.

  2. Looking at it another way: "Thus, if there are evils in this world to be corrected, those evils do not warrant a thoroughgoing destruction of the given society in which we find those evils as such societies. I leave aside the special horrors of totalitarian or aristocratic regimes. In those cases radical measures should be taken to prevent the crimes of such regimes." By saying this you are in agreement with most Anarchists, the only difference is that they see the corporate takeover of America as fascistic. ("Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power." --Mussolini.) Bear in mind that it also isn't very hard for many "non-radical" people in America to see their government acting (directly) on them in much to same way totalitarian regimes act on their people. In Appalachia, for example, many of the people have undrinkable, toxic water and suffer from chronic diseases due to the mountaintop removal mining going on there. They're treated as a nuisance -- collateral damage for big business (the entire planet is!). Who cares if they can vote for one of two candidates if both of the candidates are in the pocket of energy companies? Here we can also see that people are indeed "used" as means to an end in our current system. And of course all of this says nothing of the rest of the world, where people are treated far worse by many of our policies. To use an easy example: those in poor countries making our clothing and gadgets for slave wages, often in unsafe (even toxic) conditions -- they too are a means to an end. Period. And look at the people of Ecuador and the Niger Delta (high cancer rates, destroyed ecosystem) where big oil has gone to find the fuel that keeps us going and going, all at the expense of most of the rest of the world and planet.

    I don't think it would make much sense to siphon all of these things out individually and label them as the "radical evil" that needs (moderate?) reform when they're all so much a part of our society and civilization as a whole. Changing these things requires drastic, radical change, and what would be left wouldn't resemble the society we now know.

    Also, it's not as if, for a "radical" (another word I loathe), the solution to every problem is automatically a "radical" one. Who cares if any particular solution is radical, moderate, or whatever; the only thing that should matter is whether or not it's the best one we have at our disposal. At the very least we ought to leave ourselves open to the possibility that some problems may require "radical" solutions.

  3. Thanks so much for your thorough and politically truthful responses. It is true I was thinking of radical as a psychological disposition primarily and I am guilty of being a "Liberal" which I see as distinct from Radical. The Anarchists have often been correct in certain moments. I think they were never allowed to flourish because of the pervasive influence of Stalinism (Spain for example). It is also true, as you point out that current economic and environmental practices are radical and destructive. I am not sure a different economy would be radical in the sense that I mean. I still am not sure either that the world is unitary. The crimes you mention are real and may well require a different kind of economy. But Economics as a discipline is not inherently guilty. There have been economists who do not assume the goodness and sanctity of growth for example. And economists have often written wisely on many issues that are not monetary in value. It just so happens that current economists are under the sway of very narrow economistic thinking.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. I meant that the idea of economics (the invention of economics) is a radical idea and the only reason it isn't considered a strange and radical idea now is because we see it as something that is almost natural, something that has "always been", something that is part of the way "the world is". It's true that I wrongly conflated the current, capitalist economic system with economics in general when I said that it requires constant growth (the capitalist system cannot contract without recessions and/or depressions in one form or another), but if you strike the phrase "that growth is always good" from my response, it changes nothing about my argument.

    Changing the current, radical economic system and the current radical environmental practices etc. cannot be done through moderate means unless, PERHAPS, we are willing to wait a long, long time. But scientists have recently warned that by 2300 the Earth may very well be too hot for humans, not to mention that the Oceans are headed towards death (and many, many other things). All of this requires a total paradigm shift (or multiple paradigm shifts). You may or may not consider the particular philosophies that need to be shifted to as being "radical" in and of themselves, but the shift itself, because of the all encompassing system we live in, is indeed radical.

    Besides, it's easy to label anything we find wrong-headed "radical"; it seems to me that the term is relative to whatever is well accepted. Women's rights were once considered radical, as was the abolitionist movement, the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun, even democracy itself. And now many of the people who see the urge for a complete shift in the way we live and view our lives (and life on the planet in general) are considered radical. It often depends on your vantage point. This is why I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense to be against whatever (or whomever) may or may not be "radical"; it's much better to be against whatever (or whomever) may or may not make the most sense in any given situation. (This alone might exclude me from having a "radical psychological disposition" (because I'm willing to take in various thoughts and ideas etc.) But then again, perhaps in some way it could be said that you are "radical in your moderateness". I don't really know what "radical as a psychological disposition" means... Maybe certain people take radical positions automatically simply because there is something about their make-up that urges them to do so? Or "radical" as a disposition that shuts out all other points of views and ideas... but that's more appropriately called "fundamentalism" in my opinion.)

    Anyway, I'm sure we could talk about all of this forever. I'm going to re-read your post (and more carefully) and see if there is anything I might have missed or read/interpreted incorrectly. Thanks for your response. As I said before, I enjoy your blog.