Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Convenient Untruth

All –isms are crazy. This is because each emphasizes self-supporting truths while ignoring or dismissing contrary ones. They therefore are systematic self-delusions.

This doesn't mean we can do without them. Craziness may be a condition of existence for human society. Besides, a concerted effort to do without them becomes an -ism too, to wit pragmatism which also emphasizes and ignores realities with abandon (in fact, formal pragmatists readily argue that truth is contextual and tentative). The world and society are just too complex to be considered at all times in all their detail; if we tried, we'd never get through our analysis of any situation in time actually to do anything about it. Our –isms provide us with simplified models of life that let us make rough-and-ready political and personal choices with reasonable speed. Still, some –isms are crazier than others.

What brings all this to mind is an autobiography I've been meaning to read for years and have finally started, Living My Life by the remarkable anarchist activist Emma Goldman. It is a fascinating book; early on, she describes her childhood and early sexual experiences in such a way that I was forced to ask, "What would Sigmund Freud have made of this?" It turns out she knew the man, so she probably knew the answer, and may have structured the book with it in mind.

As someone whose preferred –ism is of the classical liberal variety, I have sympathy for her distrust of government, for her zeal for human rights, and even for her ideal of free love. That we actually can do without government altogether, however, strikes me as particularly crazy. The idea seems especially so in the context of her egalitarian socialist economics. Anarchists of this ilk argue that government force defends property and inequality. Well, yes. In the absence of it, non-governmental force defends property and inequality. Above the level of small scale communes, socialism is achieved by heavy-handed statist force: the more socialist the economy, the heavier the hand. It is no wonder that, after early enthusiasm, Emma was disillusioned by the 1917 Russian Revolution and turned strongly anti-communist (though still not pro-capitalist). To me, discussions of a total end to the state merely bring visions of Mogadishu: neighborhoods run by gangs and warlords, effectively little governments. I prefer states shackled but there.

The book, no doubt contrary to Emma's intent, is a reminder that our simple models (and not just the politically ideological ones) distort reality, sometimes dangerously. It behooves us to notice occasionally that even the most odious –isms are based on some truths; if not they wouldn't survive at all. Even the most congenial ones conceal truths and tell lies. A reality check now and then doesn't hurt – actually, it may hurt, but it is worth it.

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