Certitude vs Doubt

I find it interesting that many Republican politicians, upon leaving public office, undergo a curious transformation. Their right-wing fervor subsides, they mellow out and turn into normal, reasonable, even compassionate human beings. Look at Bush II and Schwarzenegger. Such post-factum metamorphoses don’t befall Democrats; retired Dems don’t become hardline pro-life, supply-siders and foreign policy hawks after leaving office. Such ideological shift is a purely Republican phenomenon. I won’t be the first to conclude that right-wing politics is a total act, a show. Fox News would be a prime example of such a glittering, buffoonish arcade, selling Tarot reading to the gullible. In fact, this ‘total act’ theory holds up if you look at how any of the GOP and its satellite outfits operate: they put on a show to sell you a product.  And when a right-wing pundit or a politician leaves the racket he doesn’t have to be a salesman anymore. Thus the subsequent mellowing. A John Kasich is more likely to become a hippie upon retirement than a Chuck Schumer to become a hardliner. Democrats believe in their product, thus they have no need for a later change of heart; Republicans merely use their product as a tool, easily discarded when no longer useful for business.

 

Right-wing politics is an act that doesn’t require special training. All it requires is a projection of certitude. Perhaps such certitude is why it is easy, for a liberal, for the sake of argument or for fun, to assume the role of a conservative. We can make ourselves sound like Bill O’Reilly without any effort. Hell, a Fox News personality is an easy game. To take it a few notched up on a difficulty scale, any leftie in my circle can provide a lucid, informed argument, quoting both dead and living conservative intellectuals and sound like William F. Buckley in the process. Normally, they would be talking about personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, etc. They would be quoting Burke, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, etc. We’d talk about the deterioration of traditional values and sound like Frum and Brooks and Charles Murray. Of course, that doesn’t mean we would agree with the argument we were making; it means that we are informed enough to be able to make it, to assume that kind of mindset, to see where the other side is coming from. An average informed liberal, if asked, can defend conservatism better than an average conservative. We just don’t want to.

 

Conservatives are incapable of a similar role-play. A conservative’s attempt to play a liberal would quickly deteriorate into making an over-the-top caricature: “Let’s put all the disabled Muslim lesbians on welfare; let’s abort all babies; let’s take all the guns away!” Conservatives are incapable of speaking the language of liberalism, even for the sake of gamesmanship, because that language eschews simplicity. Liberalism is an awareness of the essential duality of a human nature. If conservatives made an honest attempt to speak liberal, honest being the key word, it would make them pause and ponder, which would then prevent them from engaging in a half-assed, mocking affectation. (Btw, that also explains why the majority of actors and screenwriters are lefties: they are required, by their trade, to ponder what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes). A conservative worldview, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, is a rather simplistic, one-dimensional realm where bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. A well-written conservative character, on the other hand, would, through a personal accident or a personal flaw, begin to see others’ humanity, not just his own. A priest who doubts the existence of God; a Wall Street shark who finds Jesus – you get the idea. Real life makes that happen to a conservative, but not before he leaves the circus for good. On twitter I follow several former Bush staffers and GOP operatives who don’t hold any public office anymore, and all of them have undergone a massive turn of heart. Today they sound like bleeding-heart liberals, talking about helping the poor, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

 

A thoughtful argument of a conservative trying to imitate a liberal would go something like this: Personal responsibility is a great idea, but there will always be people among us who will need help. As a society, we can’t leave them on the side of the road. Free markets is also a good idea but they can’t function properly without at least some regulations: the vulnerable must be protected from the unscrupulous and the contracts need to be enforced. These functions need government interference. Abortion is bad, but banning it is antithetical to individual liberty – a revered conservative notion, btw. Religion has a place in society but should be kept private and if you must bring it up in public life, focus on its calls for mercy rather than on a watchful, vengeful Deity.

 

To come up with these arguments a conservative would be forced to think about a particular circumstance, an individual story, a person behind the statistic. But nuance and ambivalence don’t sell. Simplicity and certitude do. Today’s Republicans operate on such a contrived certitude; they claim to know how things should be, and the reason things are not this way is because the pure, unentangled experiment in their minds has not yet been tried. If you point out that it has, like in Kansas, they will counter that we should just give it more time. Paul Ryan knows, just knows, that health care for every American is a certain road to serfdom. Why? He just knows.

 

If Paul Ryan were to write a story, his main character would be devoid of a pensive, wistful state. If that character were to find himself thinking, it would be about how to maximize profits or defeat the baddies. His life story would be a cookie-cutter amalgam of hard work, overcoming adversity, becoming rich and driving into the sunset in a convertible. There would be no underlying theme, no personal struggle, no moral ambivalence.

 

For the foreseeable future Republicans will keep successfully selling their product; they have perfected the trade over the decades and they have a talented salesman. In the meantime, Democrats can ponder about the following narrative: an effete hipster from Brooklyn moves South, buys a gun and becomes a badass.

 

Plato’s Republic

I’m in the process of reading Plato’s Republic, and, incidentally, this 2500-year old text is also at the center of a recent Andrew Sullivan treatise about how a democracy can be susceptible to tyrannical forces.

Plato’s political sentiment might not play well in our modern-day uber-democratic approach to politics. He devotes chapter after chapter to building a case for a caste of Philosopher Kings – a group of people, selected through rigorous mental and physical training, to rule the Republic. They are required to forgo the pursuit of material accumulation and fame and only concern themselves with the wellbeing of the state. They would subsist on a modest public allowance. In popular culture this kind of selfless servants of the Republic can be found in Star Wars mythology – the Jedi Knights.

Plato is aware of the many pitfalls where during the training, or later, during the actual governing, one might veer off the intended path. There are just too many temptations along the way – fame, riches, vanity, military glory. He acknowledges this risk, and while his solution – more rigorous selection and cultivation of the needed qualities (which include wisdom, courage and moderation) – might seem weak and susceptible to various impostors, he believes it is still our duty to proceed on this path. Just because something is difficult and has not been done before it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. Or, as Tyrion Lannister would say: ‘It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be.’

Further, in a beautiful allegory about how we perceive the world, Plato employs a thought experiment that came to be known as Plato’s Cave. Imagine there’s an underground den, a cave, where people are chained to a wall from their birth. They can’t go outside and they can’t even move their heads, as the heads are too constrained by a vise-like device. During the day a sunlight comes through the hole and those cave dwellers can see images on the wall, shadows of objects that live and move outside the cave – people and animals. But the prisoners have no concept of life outside the cave, so for them the reality is represented by those shadows projected on the cave’s wall. That’s all their eyes can see. And, of course, they believe their eyes and thus think of the shadows as ultimate reality.

This is a metaphor for our own epistemology, a way of learning about the world. We believe our eyes and what we’re able to perceive with our senses, and describe the world around us according to those findings. This method involves, of course, more than just our vision; our sense of touch and smell and hearing are also a part of that big illusion.

Plato argues that in order to come closer to the truth – a universal truth – one has to abandon such method of inquiry and employ a purely dialectic method, that of reasoning alone.

The cave metaphor carries greater implications. Imagine someone from that cave somehow made it outside. It would take him a while for his eyes to adjust to the light. (Btw, I love it how Plato recognizes that enlightenment is both the sunlight illuminating objects so that we can see and learn about and describe them and also that light, in this case, is a facilitator of knowledge that is outside of our immediate surroundings, an allegory of pure knowledge.) As soon as the prisoner is able to see in the light he would be perplexed to see strange things that have no definition in his old underground world. Plato believes that there are a lot of perplexed people out there – whether by stepping from darkness into the light or vice-versa – and it is for us to determine the reason for a person’s confusion and to help him along the way. Plato takes it even further to posit that it is the duty of those residing in the light world above to descent into the cave and help those still chained to the wall, even at risk of being ridiculed and/or executed.

But modern-day elites forgot what their position of power should be all about. Such amnesia is thoroughly examined by Thomas Frank in his recent book about elite liberals who, in their pursuit of meritocracy, forgot the very people (the working class) they were supposed to represent. Instead of going into the cave and helping the prisoners out, the modern-day liberals ridicule those unfortunate for their ignorance, while sipping champagne at Davos and TED talks, wallowing in their superiority.

There’s someone who went into the cave though. Trump.