Two faces

Change is in the air...and here I am. This morning I talked with Aziz a bit about politics and he invited me to post here to offer a different perspective. My plan is to post once a week on a politically related topic.

If you don't know who I am, and most of you likely don't, I am Razib Khan, and I run the weblog Gene Expression. I have filled out a political quiz, and you can view the results here. I am by self-description a small-l "libertarian," though I am a small-r "republican" first and foremost. Though Aziz and I disagree on many political issues, talking to him a few times in the past week (I am visiting Houston for business) has exposed the reality that though we are very different individuals we share deep ontological commitments.

 As an illustration of my priorities, I will offer that I would rather live in a socialist or social conservative democratic republic than in a libertarian regime headed by a "benevolent" monarch. Process matters a great deal to me, because I implicitly assent to the maxim that the life we live now is interwoven with a promise that we make to generations that will come after, and a reverence for those who have come before us. It is through process that we preserve the means to extend our polity into the future rather than fixating on the ends of the next few years to the point where we mortgage our descendent's inheritance.

Enough narcissistic prattle. I must come clean to readers of this blog, I have said a great many negative things about American liberalism on my weblog over the past few years, a fair amount of it laced with sarcasm and contempt. But as I become more reflective politically, I realize that part of my anger was shaped by my college experiences at the University of Oregon, where a particular type of fashionable liberalism was normative. It is also influenced by the reality that I reside in a small southern Oregon town where New Age spiritualism and a hyperliberal sensibility are omnipresent (to make it more concrete, last year, 90% of bumper stickers were for Dennis Kucinich, with the balance being for Howard Dean). I believe my objection is to a particular type of "liberalism," rather than the whole broad swath of center-Left ideology.

Already I have stated that I share many ontological beliefs with Aziz. I will be more explicit about them now:
  • Operationally we must assume there is an objective universe.
  • Truth has meaning outside of any "social construction."
  • Ideas can transcend culture, that is, universalism, can triumph over intellectual particularisms.
  • Intellectual discourse must be grounded in good faith.
  • Reason is not a Western superstition, but a common human tool.
I could go on, but the general sketch is now before you. There are many liberals who I have met who I feel to be kindred children of the Enlightenment in the sense outlined above. We might differ as to our means, but our ends, our basic core values of individual liberty and equality serve to anchor us in our dialogue.

On the other hand, there is a new strain of modern liberalism which draws my ire, which I will term "Romantic." This liberalism manifests itself in emotional appeals to Nature (the capital is purposeful) and has an idealized vision of non-Western cultures. This liberalism will often speak of Women's Ways of Knowing, or Linear Western Thinking, as if the various classes of human (divided by gender, race or religion) are fundamentally and categorically unintelligible to each other, separated by a chasm of unshared persuppositions. I have had many negative interactions with this sort of liberalism, and showing will be much more illuminating than saying, so here are two anecdotes.

About 4 years ago I was sitting in Starbucks with a friend of mine whose father is an Israeli-Arab and whose mother is Scottish-American. Physically he resembles your typical American kid. He was rather fixated on the Second Intifada (his family still resides in Nazareth in an Arab region of Israel proper) and so we were discussing the situation. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a young man staring at us. Finally, he strides up to us and asks us why we are talking about Israel. I replied that we were just talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. He stated that he didn't understand why I wasn't talking about my own culture. I asked him what he meant, and he responded that I was obviously South Asian, so as a Hindu I seem to have a peculiar interest in the Middle East. Then he turned to my friend and said as a white man he could never judge what was happening in the Middle East clearly. He then offered that he was of Jewish origin but had backpacked through Jordan and Turkey, and found Arab culture "beautiful."

My friend was incensed at this point, because he was of course ancestrally half-Arab, no matter that he "looked white," while I was totally irritated, since my origin is Muslim (though I have pretty much always been an atheist), not Hindu. When I explained the situation, the individual in question seemed to back off on criticizing my friend for his interest in Israel, after all, he was an Arab, but he still stated that Islam was not my "natural" religion, that as a South Asian I should be Hindu. It mattered little to him that my paternal line is filled with imams of mosques, or that one of my great-grandfather's is a local Muslim pir (saint). My brown skin meant that I was a Hindu.

The second anecdote I will offer is of someone I met on the plane. He was talking about how much better non-Western cultures were, and that his time spent in Turkey showed him that Islam was a religion much more sensible than Christian superstition. As an apostate who has experienced a non-trivial amount of harassment, I get tired of this sort of talk, so I pulled out the "feminism card." The feminism card is simply pointing out that Islamic cultures are by and large not particularly liberal in the realm of female autonomy, whether you believe this is intrinsic to Islam itself, it is a plain reality on the ground. I particularly get irked when men who have visited the Middle East as tourists tell me how great those cultures are, since they haven't experienced them as natives, least of all as women. The feminism card is generally a way I have used to push some of my friends away from an uncritical lionization of non-Western cultures. And it always used to work. But of late it hasn't been working as much. My friend on the plane responded that well, cultures differed, and who were we to judge? Cultures might differ, but universal human values do not, and in good liberal tradition I happen to believe that there are universal values, that slavery is wrong, that state sanctioned sexism is wrong, that religious intolerance is wrong. But for some people, as long as sexism or religious fanaticism wear's a brown skin, well, that's just a different culture.

The anecdotes above lead to my next assertion: there is a strain of modern liberalism that is turning its back on the Enlightenment, rejecting the West, rejecting objective truth, rejecting universal values, and resurrecting romantic nationalism as an organizing principle of society. This strain of liberalism is I believe closely related to the rise of Post Modern thought, which negates standards and undermines the legitimacy of reason. If you reject reason, where do you turn to? Tradition! And tradition is often embedded within ethno-national cultures, and here you have the tendency to view individuals as members of groups instead of as ends in and of themselves. Now, to some of you out there this might be a peculiar concept, but over the past few years I have had the recurrent experience of being first thought of as a member of an ethno-national group (after physical inspection of my appearance) and so resulting in a barrage of questions about South Indian Hindu temples, vegetarianism and the like, and when I respond that this is inappropriate, most people have the decency to be embarrassed, but several have simply stated to me plainly that I should know what my true culture is. The implication is that my true culture is encoded in my DNA, in my blood, in my ancestry. There is where the flight from reason will always lead.

Now, why is this relevant? Well, it depends on who American liberals want to ally with. A flight from reason, a turn back toward organic traditionalism, will mean that people like me, highly secular libertarians, will always oppose the march of "liberalism." I stand with the Enlightenment, I stand with the West, and no matter that they aren't my literal genetic forebears, I stand with the Dead White Males who gave us modern science, abolished slavery and ushered in the age of affluence which has freed man from so many of its persistent plagues. Such assertions today mean that I am often labeled as a "conservative" in my social circles, but the reality is that the revolutions of the past 200 years are worth preserving rather than suborning, there is a great deal I wish to conserve. If that makes me a conservative, than I accept that label. And labels, typologies, ideologies matter, because thought and consideration always precedes action that is not reflexive.


Anonymous said…
I agree with most of your bullet points, and also agree that irritation with college-town lefties is understandable, but no basis for a system of government.

I wonder if you could clarify bullet point #2. You say, "Truth has meaning outside social construction." Leaving aside mystical contexts, "truth" is a quality of propositions. Propositions, though, do seem to derive their meaning from an already-given web of meaning that is neither an immutable feature of the physical world nor a matter of individual choice.

To put it another way, no utterance can be true or false unless it is meaningful (although an utterance can be meaningful without being true or false). As a materialist, I would accept that, in some sense, meaning is *ultimately* a property of the physical world, but it is a very ultimate ultimately. Meaning is, at least to some degree, mediated through history. Our conversations would not make sense to everyone who is biologically human, and not just for the most obviously "linguistic" reasons.

This doesn't mean that all propostions are equally true, or that the truth of scientific propositions is unrelated to the mind-independent state of the physical world. It just means that all propositions, including scientific propositions, are acts of historically situated people, and could not be otherwise.
Razib Khan said…
this is razib.

on bullet #2 i exaggerated for rhetorical affect. i am *operational* materialist, not a *metaphysical* one.

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