Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Innocent Ideas

Let's be honest. Nobody likes thought police, or at least nobody I want to have anything to deal with. The business of searching other people's minds for sickness, danger, and evil is the business of coercion. We all have violent impulses. We all have treacherous feelings. We all have some inherent instincts and urges that can be hard to understand even in our own contexts, much less if we are expected or forced to justify them to some other asshole.

That said, I resent the impulse to say that ideas don't kill people, that "real communism" doesn't explain Stalin or "true fascism" doesn't lead to the extermination of other ethnic groups (I actually heard that once, if you'd believe it) or, as a family member told me (naturally, after support became unpopular), "I thought Bush was a conservative," or now the endless line of liberals who say that Obama isn't a "true liberal," that he's "betrayed" not the people or basic decency, but liberalism itself.

As I have said numerous times, victory has many fathers while failure is an orphan. Nobody wants to claim the violence and terror that follows from many a thought, and I will say this and I mean it that I will deny everyone and anyone the defense of "but I didn't mean that!

This is not political maneuver. This is not smearing of my opponents with the brush of horror and death. I do this to my own "side," whatever it happens to be at a given moment. I am aware of the crimes of putative anarchists even as I am sympathetic to the cause of their Victorian iteration. I have taken this up when discussing "revolutionary violence" with the respectable Jack Crow. I do the downside, and I'm comfortable with that.

So if you're a liberal who says that you have some black politician on hand to defend your prosecution of the drug war to "keep communities safe" and jail millions of economically and ethnically downtrodden, then you're not simply an asshole. Your ideas are wrong. Ideas alone are not enough to try you and punish you, but they are not pure, Platonic ideals that exist on some ethereal fucking plane. They are real.

And likewise for the millions of people in this world who, whether they follow first and swallow the belief system later or whether they, in classical, probably mythically rationalist pattern, think first and act in accordance. Your ideas fucking matter. They lead you to maintain or adopt stances, tell narratives about others, tell stories about yourself and your behavior. They flow through your words and your acts and your relationships. They lend context to the whole of this bloody world affair. And even as I defend the right of any and all to any manner of stupid, cruel, and murderous thought, to any belief in superiority, any will to dominate, any desire to punish and break and humiliate and ruin and own, any articulation of reason and justice behind this imposition of power or that artifice of rule and command... Don't say they're innocent. Maybe all intellectuals have done since the time of scribes is drink the piss of the mighty and call it wine, but I wouldn't call philosophy impotent. Even today's ideology of hostility toward ideology is itself an idea of great power.


  1. Well said. Lately I'm noticing the degree to which people will use utilitarian arguments to justify whatever position they want to take. Very obvious in the political sphere. It's interesting to watch because it exposes the inadequacy of the very ideas (or ideology) that the individual espouses.

  2. A utilitarian or pragmatic stance (Obama's great with this, and he's the heir of Kennedy and McNamara) misdirects the audience to think in terms of effects, which is important but which should never eclipse one's criticism of the tools being wielded in order to bring about the effects. Dems in Vietnam, Repubs (and now Dems) in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many of us fall into the trap of discussing "will this work?" as opposed to "do we have the right to exercise this power we're wielding?"

    "Pragmatists" and "idealists" are each philosophers, but only one group is aware of it.

  3. Oh, and of course, when we go to the world of ideals, people just want to talk about intentionality. The intentionalists don't want to do effects ("my faith is private," "ideas don't kill people," etc...) and the pragmatists don't want to do ideas ("I'm just trying to get a job done," "will it work," etc...). That kind of dualism also springs from heavy doses of culture...