Thursday, May 11, 2017

Je Suggere

Let us glibly pass over the fact that this blog is no longer defunct. I need somewhere to post all the essays I pass off as Facebook comments, before they slip over the event horizon and are lost forever in the supermassive black hole of internet content.

This, here, was my response to an article shared by the Rationalist Society of Australia. They shared it from Areo magazine, who seem to be some sort of thinkpiece mill for self-congratulatory "progressives", and we'll be hearing from them again soon.

The article is entitled


and continues that charming blend of overwrought hysteria and jackhammer-subtle sarcasm throughout. Presumably they thought that without ironic inverted commas around "intellectuals", the audience might get confused and show these ideas some respect.

My comment (as overwritten as everything I have ever done) on the Facebook post was:

The author of this article seems interested less in a philosophical critique of postmodernism and more in bemoaning the effect it has had on the neatly-ordered worldview of 20th century modernism (which is an argumentum ad consequentiam, right out of the gate). More tellingly, they’ve sidestepped the issue (the big one, always on the mind of the postmodernist school) that many of history’s worst atrocities were committed by the Enlightened nation-states of Europe, an observation that goes far beyond “Hitler was an atheist” fallacies. Colonialism was bad, yeah? Really bad. France, with its republican underpinnings and spirit of laicite, was massacring its North African subjects on the day WW2 ended in Europe, because their celebrations also included a call for independence (note also that, earlier, the liberation of Paris had to be delayed slightly until an all-white French battalion could be found to do it). Australia itself, privileging its rational and Enlightened culture, was kidnapping Indigenous children into the 1970s in order to cure them of those unworthy native cultures. Part of the justification for land-seizure during the colonial period was the liberal idea that if land was not being worked (i.e. farmed in European style) it should be turned over to those who would.

That last instance, in particular, shows how liberal Enlightenment philosophy is not a guarantor of human rights beyond reproach, but rather a particular doctrine and product of its time that is as open to criticism as any other. Intellectually, and removed from the actual horrors of its abuses, Enlightenment liberalism sounds pretty great; democracy, rights, egalitarianism. To a product of the Western tradition, such as an Anglo-Irish citizen of Australia, it’s also a pretty easy swallow since it is already part of their identity – the thought that it might not simply be the way of things does not readily leap to mind. The problem is when these ideas are therefore advanced uncritically and dogmatically, on the grounds that they are so obviously “correct” (and thus superior to other, unEnlightened philosophies). That not only creates a cultural hierarchy with Western Europe at the top, but justifies its forcible export and defence over the lives of others. This is an ongoing effect of cultural supremacy: America, with Australia’s assistance, spent the Cold War propping up or even establishing brutal autocracies (including the Taliban) in the name of combatting illiberal Communism. In the last fifteen years, we bombed the shit out of Iraq and fucked it for the foreseeable future with the (soothing and retroactive) justification of “bringing democracy”.

Liberalism didn’t free slaves in Revolutionary America, it didn’t free slaves in Revolutionary France; it was the pleasant face of incomprehensible sadism in the Congo Free State. If postmodernism says that modernism is NOT the objective pinnacle of philosophy and understanding, despite what is often assumed by its beneficiaries and cultural descendants, it’s difficult to empirically prove otherwise. Since this article traced postmodernism back to Nietzsche, consider that his “God is dead” proclamation was a challenge to the rational, not the superstitious, to justify their philosophies when they couldn’t appeal to divine mandate for support. Until we can provide that justification with the empiricism we revere, it’s hypocrisy to claim rectitude over others – which is admittedly a deeply unsatisfying state of affairs, but that’s why we philosophise. Postmodernism’s biggest fault may be its deference to cultural relativism rather than battling on in search of that justification, but on the other hand maybe we shouldn’t inflict a philosophy of monocultural supremacy on others with the promise that we’ll find the evidence for it one day. That seems pretty rational to me.

Postscript: it might be tempting to argue that those who abused liberalism weren’t practicing it correctly, or were cynically manipulating it for unEnlightened goals. Firstly, it may be worth noting that even John Stuart Mill felt that despotic colonialism was a way of giving “savages” the discipline to be capable of self-government – something that I didn’t know until researching this post and that really bummed me out. Secondly, we rationalists rightly criticise religion for precisely this manipulation of ideology, since what’s written down on paper matters far less than how it is actually practised.

Post-postscript: Following on from the wartime France example in the first paragraph, did you know that there were well over a hundred thousand Chinese labourers on the Western Front during the Great War? That indigenous peoples from every empire volunteered to fight on behalf of their colonisers in order to prove their worth? That those colonisers were, in turn, very reticent about using these subalterns (though not enough to actually stop them killing and dying on their behalf) lest they have to acknowledge that worth post-war? Race-based deconstruction of prevailing (read: Western) historical narratives – which are conferred the status of objectivity by the modernist Enlightenment tradition – actually brings us closer to the truth of what happened.

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