Political Thinking Is Compartmentalized

[A fragment. Concluded it didn’t really fit in the book…]

Our political thinking is exquisitely compartmentalized. And thank goodness for it.

As a rule we do not extend political conclusions very far into other areas of evaluation. And we consider it slightly rude when other people do. We might even say that politics may be premised on considerations drawn from other areas, but almost never the other way around.

Many people say something like this, for example: “It is good that there is free (or at least cheap) public education, because it molds people into citizens with a shared set of understandings.” Yet the same people who say this do not shun or look down upon the products of private education. On the contrary, they continually vote these people into the highest offices.

They evidently do not consider the products of private education to be poorly molded citizens, not in the least. If they did, they would presumably show a bias in favor of candidates who had been publicly educated. If there is any such bias, I don’t see it.

Almost all of the elite among our country’s leadership actually went to private schools – are they bad citizens? No one would think it! (We might fret about an all-Ivy Supreme Court, sure, but that’s much more about class privilege than it is about bad citizenship per se.)

People may also say, “It would be good if there were universal military service, or perhaps universal civilian service, because it would mold young people into citizens with a shared set of experiences, regardless of social station or background.”

Many, at any rate, find this idea appealing (although I certainly do not). Yet these same people do not look at their countrymen, or themselves, and see only half-molded citizens, incomplete and worthy of at least some measure of contempt. No one feels contempt when others fail to live up to this narrowly compartmentalized political ideal. They may bring it up as a matter of convenience in political discussions, but it certainly doesn’t dictate their sociability.

Somehow, the advocates of compulsory national service all manage to forgive this shortcoming in others, who might have served voluntarily, but who did not. Where is the prejudice that we might otherwise predict against these people?

In like manner some might say, “It would be good to raise taxes,” yet exceedingly few people pay any additional taxes voluntarily. That paying taxes is involuntary may be easily demonstrated. First, from the just-mentioned fact that almost no one voluntarily pays more than their due; and second, from the equally obvious fact that almost no one voluntarily pays less than their due: If it really were voluntary, paying less than one’s due would be no big deal.

Is it possible to pay one’s declared measure of taxes voluntarily? Of course. Yet it strains credulity to think that everyone just happens to be doing it, and that everyone’s will just happens to coincide perfectly, down to the penny, with whatever the Internal Revenue Service decrees for that year — a sum which almost no one typically knows in advance. No one’s will is that pliable.

Could you do otherwise, you would. And if tax compliance actions were to cease, does anyone seriously believe that revenue would remain the same? Of course not.

To be clear, I am not demanding that highly politically motivated people cultivate exotic new prejudices. Nor am I calling them out on their hypocrisy, with the expectation that they will be more true to their political principles. I am simply noting that they are perhaps capable of wearing their opinions more lightly than they now imagine. And they have been doing so all along.

It is probably on the whole good that we habitually compartmentalize this way. The alternative may be a totalizing politics, or a totalitarianism pure and simple. Against which ordinary life may be a kind of remedy.

But then, what are these very strong political opinions doing for us? (No: Of course not. I’m not immune from this critique either…)

On Mockery

I am an old-time, completely unreconstructed Enlightenment kind of guy. Among other things, this means that I am a religious skeptic. I think David Hume was basically right about miracles. I thin Denis Diderot was basically right about materialism. And I think Voltaire was basically right about what happens whenever religions get their grubby hands on power.

As a direct result, I think that religion overwhelmingly deserves to be mocked. Particularly when a violent strain of religion adopts a pretense of holiness, one that it merits even less than most. Mockery is perhaps the most civilized response to violent, hate-filled bigots.

So while other people won’t go here, I will: I won’t just defend Charlie Hebdo in that grudging, disagree-with-what-you-say-but- kind of way. Oh no. When it mocked militant Islam, Charlie Hebdo mocked a very worthwhile target. They mocked an irrationalist, primitivist, utterly ugly movement, one that richly deserves the world’s contempt. Spare me your sanctimony about “punching down” – when someone brings a gun to the fight, punching down is a kindness.

Militant Islam is a movement that stands squarely at odds with modernity, democracy, free inquiry, women’s rights, the rights of gays and lesbians, and very much else that is good besides. Michel Houellbecq was wrong to say that Islam is the stupidest religion. Obviously. But if there is a stupidest part of Islam, I know exactly where to find it.

Now, let’s step back from this week’s events and state the principle as clearly as possible: We should cheerfully defend mockery. Not grudgingly, but cheerfully. Mockery is wonderful. It’s healthy and strengthening and humanizing. And if you really can’t take it, then you should in all seriousness ask what’s gone wrong with you as a person. Whatever it is, it’s not the mocker’s fault: If the mockery is worthless, then ignore it. If you find a kernel of truth, then learn it. But either way, suffer it to exist.

In a sentence that I dearly wish that I had written, Ian C. Storey writes: “One needs to resist the temptation that making fun of someone or something is the same as trying ‘to get’ that target.” Much more often, it isn’t. And, strange as it may sound, I don’t even want to “get” the militant Islamists. I just want them to get better, if they possibly can. And that is what the best mockery is for, after all. That’s why we do it. To get better.

It is written that Socrates was in the audience at the first performance of Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Its portrait of Socrates was anything but flattering. He was out of touch, incomprehensible, impractical, and often downright crooked. It is also written that the real Socrates stood and faced the crowd with good cheer afterward. The portrait of Socrates that emerges in Plato’s much later work is nothing at all like the crooked pedant of Aristophanes. Perhaps he learned a thing or two in the meantime.

And from at least that point on, mockery has been a part of the world’s intellectual heritage, a welcome corrective, one that all of us need from time to time. You want to mock my skepticism? My sacred cow? Do your worst. (“No! No! Not my sacred cow!“)

Not that I pride myself overmuch, but taking the mockery in stride is just a bit better than carping about my hurt feelings and then reaching for a gun.

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