Brian O'Connell

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Response to Prominent Americans (Not in Our Name)

Complexity and Universal Truth

From Multiculturalism to Anti-Americanism in Six Easy Steps

Andrew Sullivan

A Nickel's Worth of Free Advice

Armed and Dangerous

Asymmetrical Information

Beauty of Gray

Belmont Club

Bjørn Stærk blog


Cinderella Bloggerfeller

Cold Fury




Dr. Weevil

Eject! Eject! Eject!



it comes in pints?


Little Green Footballs

LILEKS (James)

Man Without Qualities

Matt Welch

Michael J. Totten

My Two Cents

Natalie Solent

Oliver Willis


Public Nuisance

Sgt. Stryker's Daily Briefing

Shadow of the Hegemon

Steven Chapman

The CounterRevolutionary

The Machinery of Night


The Truth Laid Bear

Tim Blair

Twisted Spinster

USS Clueless


Winds of Change.NET



Soul Bossa Nova would be cool even if wasn't the Austin Powers theme. It's a Quincy Jones number.


Complexity and Universal Truth

ArmedLiberal is hosting a debate tackling post-modernism, the search for universal truth, and totalitarianism. Just a little light reading for a lazy summer afternoon before the real fireworks start.

In a roundabout way, the debate began as a response to Stanley Fish's watery defense of post-modernism, or maybe as a response to Jonah Goldberg's attack on Stanley Fish's watery defense of post-modernism.

Anyway, writing in AL's comment area, Terminus comes up with the good point that post-modernism would tend to work against totalitarianism because pomo denies the existence of a universal truth whereas totalitarianism depends in part on complete adherence to a party line which is presented as a universal truth.

Commenter Philippe succinctly agrees: "How could you convince somebody that 2+2=5 while admitting that 2 is merely an invention?" Great line.

This got me to thinking. Up to this point, I had only considered post-modernism with respect to its effects on modern Western culture and values. What effect would it have had in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia? Of course, we have to put aside for the moment the likelihood that post-modernists who directed their pomo attentions towards such regimes (rather than towards the universalism of the West) would have been visited in the middle of the night by men in trenchcoats.

In that it denies the existence of universal truths, or universal standards by which actions or cultures can be judged, pomo would seem to be a destabilizing force in any society were it crops up (yes, like a weed).

Switching gears... The world is complex. More so than we can know. We used to think it was rather simpler, back when we didn't have enough information to know how much information we didn't have. Sometime in the late 1800's, the Newtonian model of the universe was just about complete, except for one or two small details yet to be worked out. Like why iron just glows white if you make it really, really hot- shouldn't the light it generates at higher temperatures increase in frequency into the ultraviolet? Small potatoes. We'll figure that one out soon and the universe will be understood, finally. After some investigation into the phenomenon, the outrageously complex science of quantum mechanics was developed. Analyzing another question in Newtonian physics- what is the speed of light measured against, a question that gave rise to theories proposing ether as light's medium- Einstein came upon his Special Theory of Relativity. Anyway, we now have a slightly better idea of how much we don't know.

Investigating the arcane facts that can be discovered in the handiwork of a particle accelerator seems like a dry business to a lot of people, but it's exciting for some observers who want to understand how the universe is put together. The complexity found in those photographic plates, twirling particle paths, straight-line shots to out-of-frame, the squiggles that disappear into nothingness, is not mistaken for a lack of physical laws. Rather the complexity found there is interpreted as the result of universal laws which we don't yet fully understand.

Einstein didn't say that truth was relative, far from it. He said that our perceptions were relative to our position and velocity in time and space, but that the speed of light was a universal law.

Turning from hard science to fake feel-good social science (oops, sorry), we see a complexity which mirrors that found in the physical world. More likely social complexity exceeds physical complexity. We've had unexplained social phenomena, partially understood patterns of political force, and half-assed economic theories which turn out to be wrong. Social observers' lack of much in the way of absolute knowledge was and is taken by some social theorists to demonstrate an absence of universal laws. As a result of this failure, they've come up with an entirely different Theory of Relativity, post-modernism, which indeed tells us that truth is relative and no universal laws or truths apply.

Could it be that universal truths of a social nature are merely hard to discern rather than non-existent? If true, gathering more empirical evidence to analyze would seem to be the best course of action. Acquire more records of causes and effects with which to fashion theories and hammer them into a shape describing reality. That's science. Of course, this acquisition of evidence goes on every day.

Empirically speaking, I'd bet on the results of the United States of America, whose early educated guesstimate of universal social laws, refined by constant course corrections, sometimes minor and occasionally major, has long been far closer to the universal truth than any theory dreamed up in Moscow, Mecca, or Myanmar. (Hey, alliteration!) These are the truths that properly understood and respected, unleash the human potential to the greatest extent known.

But what of the totalitarians, or the Islamists for that matter? Remember the stock footage of that guy who tried to fly using that big vertical floppy squeeze box contraption? Like many other early flyers, he failed because he had an incomplete understanding of universal laws. So it was with the communists, so it is with the Islamists. But as wrong as those two are in the specifics, they do accept that there are universal laws. The pomos don't.

To the extent that they deny universal truths, the post-modernists retard our attempts to know it. They dismiss successes as more or less equal to failures, and they accept failures just about as easily as successes. Have a cappucino. The empire that is the real world, however, will probably be more discriminating and make an actual decision: success here, failure there. Over time, this accumulation of knowledge doesn't favor the post-modernists.

Ironically, it's the very failure of communism that's proven the pomos wrong. Just as the abject failure of Islamism demonstrates that there are indeed universal truths and that a theory of life, the universe, and everything that purports to contain such truths will become extinct if it conflicts with the harsh and very real laws of reality, even if those laws are complex beyond comprehension.

Update: Great series on post-modernism from Erin O'Connor, who as an English perfesser, lives with it daily. Link via Jacob Proffit.

Update 2: ArmedLiberal's discussion continues and deepens over at protein wisdom.


Oh, Ashleigh

On the Ashleigh Banfield last night, the hostess conducted man-in-the-street interviews with half a dozen or so Iraqis in downtown Baghdad (a city name which will forever remind me of Woody Woodpecker, but that's a different- and rather sad- topic). She went to some length pointing out that a "government minder" was with the crew at all times observing the interviews. She even showed us the man, who had an unexpectedly meek demeanor, somewhat like Milton from Office Space.

Before presenting the interviews, she reminded us that the interviewees' responses may be influenced by the presence of the minder. May!?

One poor guy, a minute or so into his interview, was asked if he felt free to criticize Saddam and his government. The man looked like he felt betrayed by our hostess. He said (paraphrasing), "Why are you asking me this question? You know I cannot answer," as he backed away, certain that he had made a big mistake in consenting to the interview. We'll never know if he's facing any consequences for that too candid an answer.

Later on, a public schoolteacher did a fine job of parroting the Saddam line. "America is very agressive" she said approximately 10 to the 16th times. She also mentioned how Iraqis were free and all.

I wonder what CNN thinks these interviews are worth? While there's undoubtedly some genuine feeling behind these people's responses, we have no idea how much is genuine and how much is just fear of government reprisals. It seemed more an exercise in faux journalistic virtuosity: "Live from Iraq! We talk to Actual Iraqis! Because We Can!"

At another point in the show, Ashleigh mentioned something about the amount of GDP going towards building Saddam's presidential palaces, now numbering several score, as we were presented with a montage of aerial footage of several of them. "There are our first targets," I MST'd. Sometimes I crack myself up.


Useful Fictions

One of the foundations of the United States is this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed....

The Declaration of Independence of course. Jefferson speaks of all men, not just Americans. Lefty blogger Demosthenes has a rather low opinion of the self-evident nature of Rights described in the Declaration.

Arguing that the Declaration of Independence is any sort of universal law of political philosophy is completely clueless.

Gosh! He backs that up by reminding us that the Declaration wasn't so well received when it was written. King George didn't like it. The Canadians and some Americans weren't high on it either. Elsewhere he writes:

...the concept of national sovereignty has been observed for (I believe) longer than the United States has been a country, and certainly longer than any of us have been alive.

There's something vaguely authoritarian or even conservative(!) about his genuflection before that particular altar. I can imagine Jonah Goldberg, in an off moment, writing about how we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss such an ancient institution.

Demosthenes does see a downside to sovereignty, but a deal's a deal:

The problem with national sovereignty is, of course, that legitimacy can indeed by gained at the point of a gun... as Fukuyama's citation of Hegel in "End of History" made clear, deals made in the defense of one's life are still valid deals.

Are they? The deal he's referring to is a metaphorical one wherein the ruled, or "slaves", cut a deal with their rulers, or "masters", to let them live for the low, low price of enslavement. To Demosthenes, this is the consent of the governed that is required for the state of sovereignty to be said to exist. A deal's a deal after all.

Now the thing I always took away from this Hegelian nonsense is that it is nonsense. The deal described is a fiction. In some ways it might have been a useful fiction in that it rationalized away great wrongs: each side, master and slave, gained something valuable, right? The slaves won the right to live and the masters won the right to rule.

It is upon this foundation that Demosthenes' all-encompassing national sovereignty is based. But what is this really? A dictator runs the army and the secret police. Anyone who speaks or acts against him is murdered. Fear becomes the central fact of life for everyone in the country. If we invoke Hegel, we note that a deal has been struck between ruler and ruled. This is quite a fiction.

A more realistic description might be that of kidnapper and hostages. The kidnapper has the all the weapons and can kill at will. The hostages are and remain lucky to be alive, if they just follow the rules that the kidnapper has laid down. Paying ransom won't get you freedom, but only more years of slavery. Several hundred years ago, when so many of the nations of the world had that internal dynamic, an international system was born. The system Demosthenes now flogs was designed to protect that kind of sovereignty.

He nearly admits as much:

"The Great Game" is another term for how states relate to each other- it's based on the old competition between great powers in the era between the Treaty of Westphalia and the onset of WWI. It's rooted in ideas that I mentioned earlier.. that states relate to each other as sovereigns in an anarchic environment, and that the leaders of those states are assumed to be the representatives of those states.

He refers to a disparaging den Beste mention of "The Great Game":

...anyone who manages to dominate their own nation has earned the right to play in the Great Game, and to refuse to deal with them is, well, cheating. Ungentlemanly. Gauche. It Just Isn't Done.

But the United States is not based on the utilitarian idea that whoever holds power is the rightful holder of such power. We believe in grander self-evident truths than that. Hegel be damned. We're Jeffersonian.

Perhaps Jefferson's self-evident truths are another fiction. I don't believe in any god, so certainly I don't believe that I've been endowed by my Creator with certain unalienable Rights. But it is a useful fiction.

But which useful fiction should the international system -the world- be based upon? That all states are sovereign, or that all people are? It might be more convenient, politically or militarily, to play the game as it's existed for centuries and recognize sovereignty only in states, and merely assume that the consent of the governed exists. But we know that that's not always true.

The United States does not have to play the same old game. Perhaps we can change the game. Maybe we should.


Lindh Cops a Plea

BBC. Now that was unexpected. Johnny Spann's father is upset that Lindh (or Walker, whatever) will now only get twenty years instead of a possible life sentence. But I think the government made the right decision here. A public trial wouldn't have been any help to us, and twenty years is a long time. Plus Lindh has agreed to cooperate with government investigations and future trials.


Ozblog 2: The Sequel

So Don Arthur repsonds to Paul Wright by saying that Paul is unthinkingly applying narratives he's learned from several cheesey movies to the current War on Islamofascists. (Ozblog 1 is here.)

Don's response is really a non-answer, a deconstruction that makes no attempt to examine the real world. He nearly admits as much:

I think that this is what Paul and I have been doing to each other - Paul tells one kind of story and I respond with another. Rather than argue over discrete facts or claims, we try to get others to accept our narrative as a whole.

If it's true that Don and Paul have been shouting stories at each other rather than discussing facts, perhaps the solution is to begin to discuss facts? No. The solution is to begin attacking the alleged sources of the narratives.

Don's moved beyond mere facts to a search for an explanation of how a Paul Wright could possibly believe such a self-evident untruth as "there is an enemy and we must fight them". Must be the movies. (At least Don never uses the word "discourse".)

Today Americans and others in the west are again feeling themselves under threat, and in order to understand this menace they are resorting to the same kind of archetypal stories popular in the movies of the 1950s and early 1960s.

He then runs through the plots of "The Thing", "Them", "Forbidden Planet", and "Dirty Harry", though that last is a product of the 1970's.

Just before the "Dirty Harry" review, he offers "Most Americans (and especially War Bloggers) prefer the action genre." Where'd that stat come from?

He doesn't tell us what genre he prefers nor does he give us a run-down of his favorite movies. He concludes:

The stories we carry around with us in our heads give us the illusion that we know what we're talking about. They make us believe that a few hundred words in a newspaper of couple of minutes worth of pictures on TV each day makes us well informed enough to be offering each other foreign policy advice.

This is multiculturalism reduced to one's movie-watching habits. "We like different movies; there can be no agreement on even the most basic assumptions; we talk across a vast cultural divide; we must accept that the best we can hope for is mutual respect since we'll never have mutual understanding; etc."

Hollywood PoMo. There are no objective truths, only different scripts. Just make sure I get an American ending, one where the terrorists will not have won.

He could have argued that he prefers happy sing-songy Disney cartoons while hawks prefer the far more violent Warner Bros. cartoons. Now there's a deconstruction I can support.


The Sovereignty Thing

Bunch of posts on Demosthenes' site which make the claim that the US can't violate another nation's sovereignty by invading it or instituting "regime change" no matter what the political character of the nation is- i.e. how brutal or awful they are. In a response to Robert Musil:
...put down the Federalist Papers and go read some Hobbes- legitimacy does not come from elections, it comes from the consent of the governed (the subjects) to obey the will of the government.


In other words, governments that do not conform to these "universal" principles [liberal democracy] don't lose their legitimacy- their subject-derived legitimacy invalidates the universality of the principles.... That's why national sovereignty is, in the end, so important: if countries tried to impose their vision of good government on everybody else, the world would never cease warring, and most people would, unfortunately, be too dead to argue.

There's an internal inconsistency in this logic that will be his undoing (dramatic, no?).

He seems to be a total suck-up to existent power when it comes to a dictator such as Saddam Hussein. He's all about the fact that Saddam has control- runs the country- and therefore his government has sovereignty, which according to Demosthenes flows from the fact that the Iraqi population is unwilling to revolt against Saddam's rule. Demosthenes calls this "consent of the governed".

Yet in the international arena, Demosthenes opposes giving any respect to force, supporting instead a "rule of law" which states that no one may mess with the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, regardless of the brutality of any particular nation's leaders' hold on power.

It would seem that he supports the concept of "might makes right" within a state but opposes it when it comes to behavior between states.

This is not automatically inconsistent because it doesn't necessarily follow that standards that apply among people within a state should also apply between states. But I think Demosthenes does owe us a rationale that explains why two separate standards should apply to behavior among people and behavior among states.

After all, if a dictator can rule over people with respectability by virtue of the fact that he has the consent of the governed, i.e. no one has the balls to oust him, why then should a hegemon not also rule over states with respectability by virtue of the fact that no one can mount a challenge to the hegemon's rule? If sovereignty flows from power (or from the powerlessness of others, really), why would this apply in one situation and not another?

I can see the utilitarian rationale. Power plays within a state are bound to be less destructive than power plays among states. But there's human suffering in both. The difference is just a matter of scale, with an arbitrary distinction between them. And if it's possible that a war between the US and Iraq might actually lessen human suffering, doesn't even this argument go away?

Then Demosthenes goes on to say:

The U.N. does serve as a useful way of justifying abrogations of national sovereignty in the name of human rights....

I can only take from that statement that he does see a democratic ability to violate sovereignty, in that a majority of states (which may or may not be democratic themselves) can vote to violate an otherwise sovereign nation's sovereignty. But why is brute force rejected between states in favor of democracy while brute force and democracy are equally valid within a state?

Note: I posted an earlier version of this post in Demosthenes' comments area for this post.

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© 2002-2004
Brian O'Connell,
for what it's worth.