Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Clown of Unknowing

I was listening to my favorite show just a bit ago, "Music for Lava Lamps." Before it could be replaced by "Mambos for the Gormless," I tried to relax and float amongst the astrals, but to know a veil. I'm far too riddled with guilt and riddles to enjoy the echo of thoughts on the vastness of my tiny skull, so, instead, I read a bit of Dorothy Parker and some Francis Hutcheson. One of them was a lot more pleasing to me than the other, I can tell you, and even though it was a story she had failed to finish. My danged fool lava lamp was looking more like a poop lamp than a lava lamp, and I understood why one fool damned himself by putting his on a stove top. It's supposed to be a lamp, and lamps are supposed to be hot.

So, there is Hutcheson, next big thing of 1725, trying to save poor Shaftesbury (the good one, not the Zimri one) from a grumbling hive of killer B's. Bernard (the killer bee) had said that everything was selfishness, and Shaftesbury had talked about an inward goodness that generates a sense of morality, and Hutcheson tried to ... really... just replicate Locke. (He's a major philosopher why?) Locke's empiricism has needed five senses and an inward common sense. I.e. it had specified a sense innate in the human (even tabula rasa) that synthesized and distinguished impulses. This common sense was necessary to save us from being vegetables turning toward the sun. Hutcheson just says that there is an innate common sense of morality that takes actions of beauty and rightness and synthesizes and distinguishes them. Big deal. To my knowledge, Mandeville never returned fire, but it would have been amazingly easy to do so. Even as Hutcheson's "greatest good for the greatest number" (it's his phrase, y'all) turns into Utilitarianism (and you thought it was their phrase), Mandeville's cynical retort is always lodged just beneath the flesh. Let's say that that inward sense of morality and common good is not a sense but a need. Let's say that it is the need for either getting goods or the need for simple company. Let's suppose that humans are naturally social. I mean that they're naturally social. (We know, as clever citizens of the future, that humans are.) Mr. Hutcheson, meet situational ethics, which will knife you the moment no one is looking.

I was hoping for more. It's not that I thought I was going to get very much more from Hutcheson, and his aesthetics are great for swinging the hinge on Samuel Johnson's more out-of-depth Rambles, but it was rather sad all the same. What's worse is that the edition I got was published by some highly suspicious group. It's published by (and I say this to my great remorse) The Liberty Fund, Inc. of that mecca of metropolitain thought, Indianapolis, Indiana. Oh sadness! Finally, 18th century philosophers reprinted, with decent introductions by real philosophy types, and done by a Liberty Fund, a fund, no doubt, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and that all governments are created in Hell. Oh, my! How does the introduction begin? With a quotation of the Commonwealth of Virginia declaration of rights. What is the spirit of the introduction? Francis Hutcheson is important for American independence. All of that is true, but all of it is worrisome.

I don't worry that they stop the clock in 1765. I worry that they excerpt the clock. Bernard de Mandeville is much closer to David Stockman and Ronald Reagan's philosophy than Shaftesbury (the good one) is. John Locke would take one look at Alfred W. Newman, the current Prednisent of the US, and shriek. Heck, the entire ship load of 18th century philosophers would stand, mouths agape, staring in disbelief at Goldwatery conservativism. They never once thought of their "liberty" as the defense of the rich against obligation. They never once thought of freedom as being the tax cheat's rally cry for his survivalist time share in Montanna. Furthermore, they were men always in dialog with one another. The certainty of each brings out the skeptic in the other. Because the "John Locke Society" (click on that only if you have taken your dramamine) and Liberty Funds of this world present only the selected highlights of the thought they think instrumental, they leave out what that thought was thinking about. They leave out the earlier positive statements that their demurrals refer to, the earlier provocations that their assertions seek to stabilize. They also cut out all those nasty clarifications and challenges that would make these versions of empiricism look naive.

You want to read Locke? Do. Read Swift, too, though. You want to read Essay on Man? Do. Read also Caleb Williams.

I'm a long way from Music for Lava Lamps, I'm afraid, but this is why I couldn't space out. There are people out there who swing dead philosophers like truncheons, who know not one end from the other but who nevertheless shove them forward whenever their absurdity and illiteracy is pointed out. Those people, then, are exalted as intellectuals by the manifestly anti-intellectual "conservative movement." "Oh," they say, "you should read George F. Will! He's an intellectual!" No. He's just another craven egoist.

Conservativism as it exists in the United States is all about selfishness. It might reach as far and climb as high as being vaguely eugenicist, but it's generally the life of the market, and the market is about a profit now, not about an investment. The only miracle is that these people managed to ever plan anything, given how much instant return they demand, and they only planned in the sense that they kept repeating themselves for lack of anything new to say. Conservativism isn't about "values," except as they allow the conservatives to beat up on others and define themselves as Not Them. (Do we really need the rogue's gallery of GOP congress golems caught with their pants down this year alone? Do we really need to name all the ones divorcing multiple times, leaving dying wives, and sleeping with same sex partners of various ages?) It isn't about Christianity, except that it gets them elected (as Bush makes fun of fundamentalists while claiming to be one and the GOP national convention arranged the rostrums to look like Calvary, which would shock a devout person with its hubris). It isn't about the market, except that it is about profit. (Can we find one who hasn't enriched himself with shady deals?)

Conservativism is about denying the common sense, the moral sense, the universal sense of the beautiful. It is about appetite and cancerous expansion. It is voracious, anti-moral, and as thoughtful and intellectual as a reflex.

How can I mellow out? How can I rest and listen to Sigur Ros noodle meaninglessly in authentic New Norse Gibberish? I was better off reading Dorothy Parker, I think. She only had the horrors of Warren G. Harding's illegitimate daughter and the profundity of Calvin Coolidge to complain about. While she never seemed to go see a good play, at least there were plays to go see that hadn't yet been subverted to glorifying the greatest dunces of her age. In her day, the conservatives at least had the good sense to wear top hats and spats, so the poor people weren't so duped as they are now.

My stupid lava lamp still looks like a stool. Everything kind of does these days.

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