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Observations on a field trip

I went to a conference this Saturday put on by some academics and noted (as one might expect) that there’s a definite orthodoxy that provides the assumed background for discussions. For my own purposes I decided to summarize the orthodoxy, and here’s what I came up with:

  • There’s no truth except the results of the natural sciences, and those are really a matter of what’s practically reliable rather than what’s true. It follows that conflicts don’t relate to something larger that each tries to approximate but no one fully grasps, they’re just conflicts. Consequently, no enduring tradition can be the vehicle of any enduring truth. Every tradition has debates and conflicts, so it’s by nature dialogic and conflictual, and that’s all that can be said about it.
  • There aren’t any essences. Things are just collections of properties that can be bundled together in any manner. It follows, for example, that there’s no “modernity” or “Islam,” there’s just different modernities and Islams and nothing much significant can be said about them collectively.
  • There’s nothing that’s objectively good except people getting what they want. It follows that power and its distribution are the key political, social and moral questions. The ultimate evil is oppression, the ultimate goal liberation (or “emancipation”), and progress is movement from the one to the other. If the progress of emancipation seems to create new forms of oppression, then that just shows we have to be more creative and clever (whoever “we” are).
  • The result of the forgoing is that peace and rationality require neutral tolerant secular institutions that reject the absolutes that create insoluble conflicts. You can take the claims of such institutions at face value, they’re not based on concealed intolerant metaphysical and moral assumptions, and they’re what “we” want. American fundamentalists, who are extremely influential in the Bush administration, are a basic threat to the stability and further development of such institutions. To the extent they are taken seriously they must be viewed as fundamental existential enemies.

I should add that these were mostly intelligent and somewhat dissident academics, and most of them, especially the smarter ones, reject large parts of the orthodoxy. Still, it was that orthodoxy that determined what could be assumed good and true even in that setting, and deviations had to be specifically asserted and justified.

To my mind such a situation shows that the orthodoxy is mostly a consequence of the understanding of reason and evidence that now orders academic life, to the extent it remains somewhat sane, and the institution of expertise as it now exists. The key point in the orthodoxy is, I believe, the first one I mention. All the others follow from it more or less directly.

If that’s right, and the problem is that basic, any cure for the PC mindlessness that has recently caused the Harvard and Duke faculties to disgrace themselves would have to be quite radical. As things stand, any randomly-chosen group of experts and academics is likely to act at least like the Harvard faculty, if not necessarily as badly as the Duke faculty. When they get together to discuss things they have to assume a common rationality, and the one now institutionalized has definite substantive consequences. There’s no truth, essence or common good, just power, so the only standard you can appeal to is equality, and opposition is necessarily ignorant or malicious and must be crushed.

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Comments

As I’ve argued before, the epistemology you describe in your first paragraph is a symptom and/or an effect, not a cause (and hardly a principle).

But more centrally, you describe an orthodoxy that believes in nothing, except itself. Its central characteristic is its emptiness. The history of this orthodoxy is that it is inherently weak and unstable, and cannot withstand challenges, even from the rabble.

It is therefore susceptible to challenge by fanaticisms, and I have in mind the various forms of secular fanaticism. It’s almost as if these people are asking to be thrown out on their duffs, at which point they’d give thanks, to be relieved of the responsibility. In the alternative, they’d willingly serve their new masters, just so long as they had jobs.

This orthodoxy embodies the ethos of the superfluous person in mass society, and tries to elevate that detached, isolated experience into something eternal, a law of nature.

It seems to me the orthodoxy is not so superfluous. It corresponds to the type of society we have today, which explains itself as a patently rational system for giving each what he wants. The point of the orthodoxy is to put the system beyond criticism. If anyone presents a basic criticism it can mean nothing because it will involve a claim not supported by the consensus of certified experts and that kind of claim will involve an appeal to objective goods or to traditions that maintain some independence of official institutional expertise. So the guy’s confused or irrational, or he’s trying to get he wants by tricking or bullying other people. In either case you should ignore or suppress him. That’s the meaning of PC.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I understand what you’re saying, and how the orthodoxy justifies and explains itself. And, it’s an interesting anthropological expedition to hear and consider how these people understand themselves, their rituals, and their liturgies; and it’s interesting to consider their selection of demons and witches for their particular demonologies.

I just don’t take it at face value; there’s a distinction between what they say, and their claim to believe what they say, and what they are.

These are highly alienated people who seek to explain, justify, and glorify as eternal their alienation; they take alienation and spiritual disorder as normative. They claim to have discovered a cosmic order that explains the superfluous existence of alienated people, and this cosmic order is all we need to know—it’s the Theory of Everything.

Of course, they will present their findings as “rational,” and their cosmic order as selected “to give people what they want.” Mayan princes and African shamans did the same.

But, it’s worse than all that; these people would never fight or die for what they claim to believe, or what they claim is truth. I doubt if they would cross the street for it. Thus, they and their orthodoxy are highly vulnerable to any challenge; they thus seek to defuse any challenge before it develops by granting legitimacy to all, and truth to none. This high-wire act won’t satisfy in the long run (or even the short run).

The adherents of this orthodoxy no doubt alienated from reality in some important ways, I suppose that’s part of what’s involved in becoming an expert (as that role is now understood) whose expertise deals with fundamental issues. It means you can’t think about basic human things like a normal human being.

Still, from a public institutional standpoint they’re neither alienated or superfluous. They’re the ideologists of the ruling order and their outlook is basic to the self-legitimation of our public institutions and has an immense effect on their operation. Think for example of the role of courts in America, and of “human rights” principles throughout the West, and the importance of this orthodoxy for the functioning of those institutions.

I agree of course that the current ruling order has its problems, and a big one is that those most sympathetic to it wouldn’t be willing to make sacrifices for it. We see that in Europe.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I agree with all you say, but just a couple of observations.

1. I object to their method by which they universalize their alienation as the default human condition, then project that understanding onto all personal, social, and political structures and understandings. This method is sinister.

2. They have a lack. Their lack is that they are not alienated from their own alienation. It used to be that sensitive, insightful human beings (particularly intellectuals) had sufficient humanity and self-awareness to be alienated from their own alienation: St. Paul, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Camus, just for some notable examples.

It’s not that they’ve despaired of healing, they acknowledge no need or occasion for healing. In Kierkegaard’s terms, they occupy the lowest level of possible human consciouness (see “The Sickness Unto Death,” a study of human despair).