Friday, December 29, 2006

Bailey vs. Ann Althouse   posted by Razib @ 12/29/2006 07:55:00 PM

Ron Bailey and Ann Althouse get into it over the Frank-Meyer-is-racist-issue. Virginia Postrel defends Ron. No one who reads this blog will be surprised with my general sympathy for Ron in this matter, in part because I agree with his analysis on the merits (even removing the new data he brings to the table), and in part because there is a non-trivial overlap in our political worldviews. That being said, I don't want to make Ann into the devil, my main exposure to her is via Bloggingheads.TV, and she seems like a nice enough person. I empathize with her discomfort in the various political camps which have coalesced on the American scene. Since Ann is a law professor at the University of Wisconsin I don't doubt that she has some g-mojo. Nevertheless, my own impression of Ann is that she is somewhat thin in her exposure to various flavors of the American ideological spectrum (e.g., her general pose is the heterodox "right-winger" among ultra-Liberals). At one point in this Bloggingheads.TV dialogue with Jim Pinkerton Ann confronts the fact that Jim was an Iraq War Skeptic from a Right-realist perspective (I would point you to a segment, but I don't recall with confidence which one!). That such beasts exist seem to be clearly something of a surprise to her from what I could tell by her facial expression (ironic, considering her own heterodox posturing). Ann's own experience had conditioned her to simply connect anti-War sentiment with Leftism, and here she found herself faced with a reality-based conservative. This was not a critique of the Iraq War in language she understood, that is, the lexicon of social justice and utopian idealism, it was a hard-headed and cynical take on the Darwinian competition between nations and the right and wrong choices which emerge out of the utilitarian calculus.

What I'm trying to say is that Ann Althouse has a finite set of mental schemas. As an A-list blogger and Iraq War hawk who is generally socially liberal without the Maoist Puritanism (e.g., she isn't an ideological feminist) she is preloaded for a particular sort of discourse based on a particular range of common assumptions and disjunctions. A mild paleo-conservative like Jim Pinkerton is a species which Ann doesn't have any defenses or offenses against, and so their "discussion" was somewhat like watching two ships pass in the night. I am bringing this all up because I think Ann was faced with the same issues at the Liberty Conference. I've been to CATO events. There are a wide range of characters, and I mean characters, who show up, from fat cat oil speculators to mainstream journalists to the libertarian math professor from a fundamentalist college. You get all sorts of oddballs as you shift several deviations away from the norm in the American political spectrum, and various questions normally not entertained are now fair game. Again, I suspect Ann was operating in a domain where her mental schemas were ill-fitted, and she obviously couldn't get her bearings. Not only was she not steeped in the abstruse intellectual history of the American political Right before 1964, when conservatives, whether traditionalists like Russell Kirk or libertarians such as Frank Meyer, were in the wilderness and excluded from access to the establishment, but I also suspect that the sea of peculiar background assumptions common to "professional libertarians" was simply lost on her. Discussions about the right to discriminate may seem very bizarre, immoral even, when extracted outside of the context of a matrix of assumptions about liberty, justice and freedom, in other words, what makes the Good Society. Ann might have seen naked dispassion and a cruel lack of historical sensibility, but I suspect that her unfamiliarity with the libertarian subculture, its working assumptions, rendered the debates even more other-worldly than they should have been.

Which leaves me to the final point which I want to reiterate, and that is the role of intellectuals in transgressing manners and mores of society. Humans are social creatures and we are bound by particular conventions, whether it be cultural or biologically informed (or, more usually a synthesis). Men walking around with their penises hanging out of their pants in public would be problematic even though a penis is just a collection of atoms. Nevertheless, in the context of modern performance art it is perhaps more understandable. Whatever you think of art, for most humans the goals of inducing awe, exhibiting virtuosity, or shocking and disgusting, are easily attained. Many artists are good at what they do. But I hold that intellectuals, those who peddel ideas, should be no different in the proper context. We should go where conventional society does not go, explore, entertain, and discuss ideas which are not conventionally discussed. GNXP has done quite a bit of that over the years, and I myself am known personally to many of my friends as the sort that causes a collective dropping of the jaws becaues of a flip assertion or question. This does not mean that intellectual discourse is proper for normal social intercourse, but, I think it has a role to play in modern post-Enlightenment societies. Though Descartes was a Roman Catholic, he entertained the possibility of the non-existence of God (only to later to "prove" His existence). This was blasphemy to many contemporaries, but I believe that Descartes is the archetype of the modern intellectual, taking logic where normal reason dictates that you stop.

As I noted before I believe emotion plays a role in human affairs, and am willing to grant that it is the ends of life. That being said, just as normal social interaction is bounded by a modicum of custom, manners and etiquette, so intellectual discourse must be characterized by emotional detachment for it to truly be effective. Emotions are a powerful tool. When you see another human cry you feel for them, you empathize, and they are humanized. All of a sudden the dance with ideas seems less important and we are brought back to normal convential sociality. Anger, happiness, all these are the ends of life, but they are also tools and weapons of interpersonal manipulation. Ron recounts that Ann broke down and cried at one point. This to me is the real "money shot," I've made people cry or break down myself because of the questions I asked and where I went. It happens. But if you fancy yourself someone of some intellectual daring, you must go where the conventional do not dare, where they cannot. Someone has to.

Of course a meeting of libertarians is bounded by their own rules and bounds of discourse. But when you go into the house of a neighbor with whom you are not familiar you need to be careful to respect their ways and habits even if you are shocked and appalled (barring abominations like child sacrifice!). Many libertarians don't live in reality, they aren't grounded, and their fantasies of the minimal state are more of a "Secondary World" than Middle Earth ever was, but, they have a role to play in the ecology of ideas. The fact that they exist, and that they are who they are, is no crime against humanity.

I've posted on this topic more than once in part because it offers us lessons for this blog "community." It is certainly bounded by rules and conventions, but it is pretty diverse in its own way. The main lesson is that if things posted by the authors of this weblog (not in the comment boxes!) make you want to cry you might withdraw and find some place more congenial. Questions of how the world should be are important, Liberty Conferences are part of the universe, but here I would rather focus on how the world is.

(now you hot ones can go back to your science fiction)