Friday, November 21, 2003

with thanks to the Maximum Leader and the Air Marshal...

I don't have much time to blog today, since we're in a mad rush to prepare the house for the arrival of some houseguests, but I cruised over to the Maximum Leader's site and read the new posts.

The Air Marshal writes:

See the BH's page for some comics as well. E-mail him and urge him to continue drawing. Stalk him and demand that he use his artistic power for the debasement of the establishment. Ask him if he still has that Hamlet parody he wrote in 12th grade AP English. And while we're on the subject, whatever happened to Super Herman?

I don't know where the Hamlet parody went (the Air Marshal acted in it... as Hamlet?-- or, wait-- as the ghost of Hamlet's father? I vaguely remember: "Partake you of hot dog?"). When I think back to senior year English, I remember it as mostly fun, though occasionally burdensome. Dotty Feldman taught to the AP test, which kind of sucks, but it helped us secure high marks. The Maximum Leader once did a very rude thing to our teacher, but I'll let him blog about that.

Super Herman probably morphed into the Alien, but I can't be sure. Since most of my readers don't know who Super Herman is (and should I consider the many people who find my site while searching for "hairy pussy" or "Kristanna Loken's ass" to be "my readers"?), I should explain that Herman's a 10-inch-tall superhero who can't fly, but who is superstrong and has a gun. In fact, Super Herman solved most of his problems by shooting people. And like yours truly, he loves boobs. His distinguishing characteristic is a huge nose that hangs rather phallically off his face. I made this guy up in elementary school; he lasted all the way through freshman year in college. I still have some of the comics I drew back then; they're painful to read now, including the one I did as a college freshman. My style was (and probably still is, in some ways) a ripoff of Frank Miller, at least when I'm drawing muscular torsos. I probably stole comical facial expressions from Berke Breathed, esp. Breathed's technique of making one eye far larger than another to indicate emotions ranging from befuddlement to agony.

Further up on the ML's blog, the ML himself links to AnalPhilosopher, a.k.a. Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson, a philo prof at U. Texas (Arlington). Unsurprisingly, the Texan philo prof is a conservative. The ML comments on Burgess-Jackson's post:

After only a day on the blogroll Professor Burgess-Jackson is (again) making a similar point to one your Maximum Leader made a while ago. The esteemed Minister of Agriculture (who, by the way, really should post some sort of organic farming column from time to time in this spot) accused your Maximum Leader of creating a debating artifice by eliminating reason from his position. Your Maximum Leader said this was not the case. My position has been that one should conserve the elements of our civilization that have been show[n] to be beneficial through years (centuries) of human experience. Thus, tradition should be given more weight than it is in political discussions. Your Maximum Leader knows that he was very provocative when he insisted that "Reason is a destructive faculty (outside of scientific or mathematical discussions)." But, it is.

So, curious to see what was up, I skipped over to the AnalPhilosopher blog and read this:

Liberals worship reason. I don't mean that disrespectfully. What I mean is that liberals have faith in the power of reason to solve all problems, whether theoretical or practical. Many problems of both sorts have already been solved. The rest will be solved, once we apply reason to them properly and eliminate various obstacles. One such obstacle is tradition. Liberals don't understand why conservatives give any weight, much less considerable weight, to tradition. They say that the mere fact that something is traditional is no reason whatsoever to retain it. Everything must be thought through from scratch. To the liberal mind, conservatives are obstructionists, standing in the way of moral progress. They represent bias, prejudice, and (willful) blindness.

I don't find Dr. Burgess-Jackson's arguments all that convincing. Having theorized that liberals worship reason (he states at the beginning of his post that he has no intention of substantiating this claim, so it's pretty much an article of faith-- an article routinely contradicted by fellow conservatives who endlessly refer to liberal positions as "irrational" or "unreasonable" or "blinded by ideology"... while I don't have time to do my own substantiating here, I recommend a quick trip over to Andrew Sullivan or NRO, where I'm sure you'll find several instances of such rhetoric), Burgess-Jackson valorizes tradition:

Actually, conservatives respect reason as well, but they are skeptical that any particular human or group of humans (think vanguard of the proletariat) can do better than the accumulated wisdom that tradition represents. Tradition is a record of trial and error, success and failure. It is not to be taken lightly. One should tamper with it only where it is unambiguously bad. But this, the conservative says, is rarely the case. So perhaps it's more accurate to say that while both liberals and conservatives respect reason, only liberals exalt it.

Traditions reflect not just trial and error over a long period of time but compromises, some of which are difficult to discern.

I don't doubt that traditions are successful beneficiaries of trial-and-error, but (1) this doesn't erase the fact that traditions have beginnings, i.e., somebody had to innovate, and probably had to push against a previous paradigm, and (2) there are too many traditions still in existence that produce suffering and injustice. Clitoridectomies are a happy example of traditional stupidity. Human and animal sacrifice also come to mind as more egregious examples of this. The Chinese penchant for ingesting mercury because they felt it was the elixir vitae endured for centuries-- centuries! Traditional modes of thought that perpetuate racism while, ironically, masking the racism with reason are still in existence despite this evolutionary process.

Such stupidity rides along the memeplexes of various traditions. This undercuts the idea that the vaunted trial-and-error process weeds out the bad and leaves only what's worthy of protecting (or that which is "not to be taken lightly," as Burgess-Jackson argues). If you're going to use the Darwinian paradigm to argue your case, as Burgess-Jackson is doing here, you have to explore the analogy more fully. Species survive with a lot of useless crap attached to otherwise useful forms (I'm tempted to argue that this is true of human male nipples, but I'd need to research this question, and as you can understand, I don't feel like it).

My point is that the trial-and-error process perpetuates human venality along with human nobility. Just take a look at the Koreabloggers' constant fisking of Korean culture if you think I'm kidding. Korean culture provides mounds of evidence in my favor: stupidity can survive a long time when it's enshrined in tradition.

[By the way, if it's so important to valorize tradition, then what often happens, pray tell, when traditionalists from one group encounter traditionalists from another group? Conflict. Obviously, it's not enough to argue that "tradition" is somehow better than reason; what Burgess-Jackson is implying, as many conservatives all over the world imply, is "my tradition" is better. Do I really need to provide evidence for this? If so, I'll start with Christianity....]

I think it's a mistake to paint liberals as overly rational when that's not what you generally hear in mainstream conservative rhetoric about liberals (cf. the label "idiotarian"-- not exactly supportive of the thesis that liberals exalt reason, or any position even vaguely coherent!). I think it's also a mistake not to point out where tradition is wrong-- and by not pointing these things out, Burgess-Jackson opens himself to accusations of dishonesty, or at least willful ignorance.

Burgess-Jackson turns to the subject of gay marriage.

It is easy to criticize the limitation of marriage to heterosexual couples. If it is said that only heterosexual couples can procreate and that the state has an interest in protecting and nourishing children, the reply is that not all heterosexual married couples procreate. Nor is it a necessary condition of receiving a marriage license that one express either an intention or a desire to have children. But this is too quick. We're dealing with an institution, not an action.

We are indeed dealing with an institution, but one that has no universally agreed-upon definition, which has been my point since I wrote my gay marriage post.

Marriage, qua institution, represents a great many compromises and trade-offs, as anyone versed in evolutionary psychology knows. Marriage is a multifaceted, multilayered institution. It has sexual, social, legal, psychological, and economic dimensions.

And nowhere in this post, aside from a vaguely-proposed paradigm of trial-and-error, does Burgess-Jackson deal with the empirically obvious fact that "marriage," like all reality, is a changing, dynamic thing. (I should also note that evolutionary psychology includes a large school of thought that argues that humans aren't really meant for marriage; this school of thought gained prominence in recent ev-psych discussions about the pancultural pervasiveness of marital infidelity.)

I am not here arguing against homosexual marriage. I am suggesting that one should be cautious in altering such a longstanding and useful institution. Who knows what consequences may attend its abolition or modification? This is where reason shows its impotence. It can guess, but it can't know.

He phrases the problem incorrectly. This debate isn't really about changing the institution: at this point in the game, the change is already occurring. The question is whether and how the change should be acknowledged. This has been my point from the beginning: the people who are legislating meaning are the people unwilling to acknowledge the social changes that have already occurred and are continuing to gain momentum.

This, by the way, is the turbulence you can expect as new traditions form. The term "new tradition" is obviously oxymoronic, but how else to describe the coalescence of memes into memeplexes that survive over time?

I appreciate Burgess-Jackson's caution about exalting reason. I'm a religion student, so I don't give reason primacy of place, either. To phrase this in a Christian way: faith and reason can never be equal partners. Logical reasoning, in order to be at all relevant to human existence, has to begin with postulates, and last I checked, these are usually considered unprovable. All reason begins with a leap (or maybe several leaps) of faith. So if Burgess-Jackson and the Maximum Leader are both saying that exalting reason is bad, then I actually agree, because a worldview that exalts reason to the exclusion of tradition, etc. is bound to fail.

But by the same token, swinging totally in the other direction (and Burgess-Jackson sounds like he really wants to do this, but knows he can't come out and say it because it'd confirm he's a fucking loon) is just as bad. First off, we modern folks can't do it to begin with-- we can't eliminate reason which, like it or not, is bound up with tradition. Our very lives are sustained by products and industries and cultural forms that are infused with reason, driven by logic, upheld by notions of rationality. It's too late to unplug from that, and since arguments against reason usually have to employ reason to make their point, it's a bit auto-cannibalistic to argue too strongly against reason.

From my nondualist perspective I contend: reason isn't inherently bad or destructive. Nothing is inherently anything. Reason is a tool. In science, the application of reason can produce bombs (themselves tools for good or ill) or new agricultural techniques (also tools for good or ill). I reject any objectivist claims about what reason is or isn't.

But in the end, I think the burden of proof is on Burgess-Jackson to demonstrate the extent to which liberals exalt reason. In the meantime, I'll note he wrote a very reasoned post. Heh.

ADDENDUM: Cheering liberals need to note that I'm not a liberal, and I'm not arguing the liberal case (is there a single liberal case? or a single conservative one? what about middle ground, folks?). My response here is specifically to the good professor's arguments and claims. I don't think that Dr. Burgess-Jackson's post is completely without merit, and I don't think that painting him with a wide brush, as he does to liberals, is fair or constructive ("fucking loon" gibe aside... haw haw). While I think Burgess-Jackson does need to substantiate his claim about liberal exaltation of reason with examples (I think the ML has, to his credit, provided a few of his own in previous posts), I agree that such liberals do exist. However, plenty of conservatives also offer their position as the more rational one; Bill Whittle is a great blogopshere example of this-- he's even quoted the introductory paragraphs of Carl Sagan's "The Dragon in My Garage" chapter of The Demon-haunted World in support of his own "rational" stance. Whittle's various essays are step-by-step, reasonable, reasoned arguments for his position-- and for that, I respect him. I don't see anything productive about attacks against reason itself. They lead nowhere-- or more to the point, they lead away from relevant issues.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan says: Take the quiz. See if you can distinguish between anti-gay-marriage rhetoric and anti-interracial-marriage rhetoric.

No comments: