The Null Device

Rationalism and its discontents

John Scalzi claims that the great political divide of our time is not between liberals and conservatives, but between rationalists and irrationalists:
There's a more common name for irrationalists in politics: "wingnuts." But I think that particular word is both inaccurate and falsely comforting, since it suggests that irrationalists are marginalized on the edge of political discourse. A hint for you: When an irrational politician sleeps in the White House, irrationalism is not exactly marginalized. Irrationalists aren't wingnuts; they're not even the wings. They're the damned fuselage of political discourse at the moment, and I think that's pretty damn scary.
Bush's irrationalist tendencies have fundamentally little to do with his conservative tendencies, which is to say that the former are not spawned from the latter. God knows irrationalism lies on both sides of the conventional political spectrum; the irrationalists of the left who tried to expunge "dead white guys" from curricula back when I was still in school to my mind walk arm and arm with the irrationalists on the right who are now busily trying to expunge evolution. An irrationalist liberal in the White House would be no better than Bush, that's for sure.

Though was there ever a time when rationalism held sway over politics, as opposed to public discourse being buffeted by impulses, fashions, superstitions, waves of mass hysteria and the effects of human cognitive biases which probably made excellent sense on the hunter-gatherer savannah? This has been the case in Plato's day and Shakespeare's, and will probably be so throughout the future of humanity. When the post-singularity nanobot hives populated by the uploaded personalities of our distant descendants launch for outer space in 500 years' time, chances are their politics and public discourse will be just as dominated by prejudices, phobias, omens, superstitions and kneejerk reactions as they are now.

Nonetheless, while rationalism is, to some extent, a lost cause, it is one worth taking up. Sure, if you take up the rationalist banner, the multitudes may laugh at you, call you a crank and sometimes throw things at you, but with patience and perseverance, you can persuade a few people and make the heavily-armed madhouse that is the world slightly less psychotic. At least until the next wave of mass excitement sweeps through it, anyway.

On a tangent, Australian lefty cultural commentator Phillip Adams on politicians and other leaders embracing irrational beliefs, from Reagan's Apocalyptic Christianity and Blair's taste for new-age mumbo-jumbo to the Australian founding fathers' fondness for the Victorian spiritualist fad and Gandhi's reliance on soothsayers before nuclear tests.

It's certainly a recurring theme in politics. One wonders, though, whether it's a case of (a) everybody being a bit kooky, and the media amplifying this in public figures, (b) politicians being (for some reason) more irrational than the man on the street, or (c) successful politicians realising that it pays to pander to irrational beliefs, and that rationality is punished. (Look, for example, at Al Gore, and his image of being a heartless, calculating robot-like being. Never mind that he had embraced the whacko anti-technology mystical-primitivist side of the environmental movement some years before that; perhaps he just wasn't fluffy enough.)

There are 7 comments on "Rationalism and its discontents":

Posted by: Psychbloke Fri Mar 18 21:54:19 2005

I think you are spot on with this distinction. Francis Wheen, in his 'How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the world' draws an interesting contrast between the interests, preoccupations and beliefs of contemporary US presidents and those of the founding fathers. The enlightenment has truly dimmed in the White House

Posted by: Adam http:// Sat Mar 19 02:01:25 2005

I'm a Texan, but all of us, not just in the US, can be some pretty emotional people when we let our guard down. That makes us easier targets for those in charge to get us to do their bidding.

The best thing for the world right now is to take things slow and to think carefully before we do anything. When people in charge start slinging around the "patriotism" word, usually that means they failed to find a rational or logical reason for doing something, so they are taking the battle down a level into the realm of evoking emotion. You can always expect there is a catch whenever you see a busy politician. These are some of the most foul, dishonest people on the planet. So when they are busy doing something, you know it's nothing good.

I used to think people who sat back and did nothing were the problem. These days, I believe it's the people who get excited and motivated too quickly are the problem and are much more dangerous. I think we could use a decade or two of laid-back people and let the world calm do

Posted by: Psychbloke Sat Mar 19 22:55:07 2005

There's a theory that Britain resisted the excesses of fascism and communism, unlike the rest of twentieth century Europe, not 'cos of any positive national qualities, but just 'cos we couldn't quite be bothered.....

Posted by: acb Sat Mar 19 23:04:43 2005

Jeremy Paxman, in _The English_, argues that the English (and presumably thus the British) national character has always been empirical rather than ideological, and more drawn to pragmatism than idealism, hence the lack of sweeping ideologies in Britain.

Posted by: Ben http:// Sun Mar 20 05:08:49 2005

I've tried having arguments with 'irrationalists', it's a waste of time and I don't bother anymore. Just whack them over the head with the nearest rolled-up periodical.

Posted by: Schiz http:// Mon Mar 21 07:42:31 2005

Rationalism in political theory usually refers to a belief in rational or scientific ordering or reordering of society as in Oakeshott's famous critique "Rationalism in Politics". Its associetion is with tyranny and attempts to redesign human nature. Its opposite is a kind of "anti-rationalism" which stresses tradition, organic and natural social arrangements not created or enforced by the state. I think Scalzi when he talks about Bush is thinking of that long American tradition of "know-nothingism" -- which is actually highly rationalist first-principle Americanism.

Posted by: steff Tue Mar 22 00:07:40 2005

The instrumentalization of rationality for irrational ends should not be overlooked either, I suggest. In any case, the distinction btw rational & irrational as the foundational 'chasm' in society is quite a traditional one, too, and its history dates back at least to Diderot, etc. What's new pussycat ? :)

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