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INTERMITTENT NOTESXML

Sola Fide

"The sleep of reason breeds monsters."
– Francisco Goya

By Werther*

Early edition of PravdaAs yet more evidence for why the newspaper industry is in an apparently terminal decline, yesterday the New York Times published neoconservative columnist David Brooks' justification for more quagmire in Afghanistan. [1]

There are so many things wrong with his reasoning that we can only skim the surface. One of the defects has already been pointed out by Glenn Greenwald: Brooks apparently takes it as his sacred journalistic calling to talk to "sources" (unnamed in every case) who allegedly spend all their time thinking big thoughts about Afghanistan. [2] Miraculously, what they all advise, according to Brooks' paraphrasing, is what he has been advocating all along: escalation of the war.

As an example of the sort of sloppy, tendentious journalism by which Brooks distinguishes himself, the column is merely typical. What is more interesting is the columnist's lyrical invocation of sheer will power as the quality that will determine the outcome of the war. Believe in victory, he says, do not be distracted by any other consideration, and victory will be ours. Lack of will, by contrast, is a synonym for "defeatist." This sort of faux-Churchillian preening is a particular characteristic of neoconservative chickenhawks, but it is also key to understanding the psychology of the Right Wing more broadly.

Will, or lack of will, is just one variation of the "stab in the back" argument that has been a staple of the Right Wing in all nations that have been on the losing end of wars during the last century, most notably Germany in 1918. The Hitlerian psychological complex, whereby "unshakable will" was supposed to be superior to the mere correlation of material forces (e.g., General Paulus should have held out at Stalingrad despite the fact that his frost-bitten troops were reduced to eating rats and frozen horse carcasses), was an outgrowth of defeat in World War I.

Germany was probably more prone to this sort of thinking than most other countries because of the heavy imprint of philosophical idealism on that nation over the previous century. Philosophical idealism posits that the ultimate nature of reality inheres in the mind, and the mind's ideas. "It holds that the so-called external or 'real world' is inseparable from mind, consciousness, or perception. In the philosophy of perception, idealism is contrasted with realism in which the external world is said to have a so-called absolute existence prior to, and independent of, knowledge and consciousness." [3] It is not difficult to see how philosophical idealism can transform itself into magical thinking.

The United States is also culturally susceptible to such thinking. Beginning with the Great Awakening of the 17th century, continuing with the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century, and culminating in the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism starting in around 1970, the United States has periodically been washed over by waves of charismatic religiosity, which is a really a species of idealism. The strongly held tenets of American Exceptionalism, which is at bottom a religious notion, also contribute to the vulnerability of the American psyche to magic thinking about the exterior world. Sometimes this mindset finds a home with the Left; in the 2000s, it has become firmly lodged with the Right.

War, mankind's most characteristic irrational activity, is a perfect medium for nurturing the will power argument. Since the American Right is intellectually unequipped and psychologically indisposed to examine geographic, cultural, material, and other factors that might influence the course of wars, castigating political opponents for alleged lack of will becomes a ready-made fallback position for any military action that is going sour.

Note also that Brooks, although he is a pencil-necked geek who does his non-combating via the op-ed pages of the New York Times, openly denigrates "intellectual sophistication" (i.e., thinking) in favor of "will," that is, the dull-witted determination of a bull dog staring down a rat hole. This behavioral affectation fits nicely into the mindset of the rabidly anti-intellectual Glenn Beck Right, which resolves its own conflicted masculinity by putting on shows of belligerence and macho posturing (the excesses of the gun culture are a manifestation of this neurosis as well). Other dysfunctional subcultures, such as black street gangs, show a similar disdain for any outward show of intellect in favor of "toughness."

More broadly, the exaltation of will over intellect is an example of the Right Wing's historic preference for emotion (in all its manifestations) over reason. Since Galileo, political reactionaries have consistently taken the side of faith — meaning the nostrums of politicized religion — over science. Posterity has benefited to the extent we have the writings of Edward Gibbon, Bertrand Russell, and H.L. Mencken to show that in all eras, there have been those who could see the faith-based con game for what it was. The present struggle in America over creationism versus evolution is basically the same conflict as that which Brooks is engaged in about Afghanistan, albeit with an overlay of different factual circumstances. It ultimately boils down to the clash between evidence-based empiricism and authoritarian dogma, between the scientist and the witch doctor.


* Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.


[1] David Brooks, "The Tenacity Question," New York Times, October 29, 2009.

[2] Glenn Greenwald, "What Journalists Are Supposed To Do," Salon, October 30, 2009.

[3] Wikipedia entry, "Idealism," accessed October 30, 2009.

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Comments


Werther: First time reading the blog. Interesting comments, with which I mostly agree. But I have to ask, why use such a specific example of a subculture of anti-intellectualism as black street gangs? I don't know of a street gang of any race (or color) who would celebrate intellectual tendencies among its members. Do you?

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