This is an article I wrote during the last presidential election for the Western Standard Shotgun Blog. The election-specific parts are really not the crux of the post, so I think it’s still relevant.
A colleague sent me this article by Michael Knox Beran for the City Journal, titled, “Obama, Shaman”. The article is fantastic, not because it is a critique of one candidate from one party, but because the insights are far broader and can be applied to nearly any political or cultural folk-heroes of today. Beran draws upon strains of thought throughout ancient and classical literature and philosophy to highlight two very different worldviews.
America has a strong tradition of the worldview that sees man as fallible and existence as including pain and discomfort. Indeed, this worldview sees any life without some form of pain being a life without cause and effect, without choice; a robotic reality that would really be no existence at all.
The other worldview, the author points out, has surfaced in various forms throughout history and is the impetus for movements that nearly always result in a great deal of concentrated power. Since man need not be fallible, giving “the right person” unlimited power to do what is good for all is not viewed as dangerous, but rather necessary. From Machiavelli to Saul Alinsky, strategists have created a playbook for an ascent to power by those believing pain can forever be alleviated if only they are given the absolute power to enact their reforms. But the strategists only lay the plan; the philosophy that engendered the belief that such a plan could (or should) actually work came first. In the article, Beran describes many of those who have championed a paradigm which makes this belief possible.
As I’ve written before, paradigms are powerful, and hard to change. The lens through which one views the world, especially the human world, will determine the conclusions drawn from any set of data. Data, sensory perceptions, are completely devoid of actionable meaning without a theoretical framework through which to interpret them. For this reason, establishing and continually re-evaluating one’s framework becomes the constant task of the honest intellectual.
All good political philosophy and economics is essentially an effort to synthesis data and extract some kind of meaning from it – to create from observations a viable paradigm of human action. Knowing human nature is the most important and foundational element of ethics, political philosophy and economics. As the old adage goes, “knowing thyself” is the best place to start. I submit that the best way to know thyself is to find out what your worldview is (you have one, whether you know it or not).
What kind of lens do you look at the world through? What are the assumptions you take with you into every situation? Know your worldview, analyze it for logical consistency, test it against observation, discard or reform it if need be; this is the most difficult, rewarding and necessary task of human understanding.
Some snippets from the Beran article below should whet your appetite to read the entire piece:
“In his unfinished treatise Economy and Society, Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality in an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber was able to do little more, before he died in 1920, than give a pseudoscientific élan to an idea that had been kicking around for centuries. Most of what he said about charismatic authority was stated more cogently in Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, which described the great-souled man who “may truly be deemed a God among men” and who, by virtue of his greatness, is exempt from ordinary laws.
What both Aristotle and Weber made too little of is the mentality of the charismatic leader’s followers, the disciples who discover in him, or delusively endow him with, superhuman qualities. “Charisma” was originally a religious term signifying a gift of God: it often denotes (according to the seventeenth-century scholar-physician John Bulwer) a “miraculous gift of healing.” James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, demonstrated that the connection between charismatic leadership and the melioration of suffering was historically a close one: many primitive peoples believed that the magical virtues of a priest-king could guarantee the soil’s fertility and that such a leader could therefore alleviate one of the most elementary forms of suffering, hunger. The identification of leadership with the mitigation of pain persists in folklore and myth. In the Arthurian legends, Percival possesses an extraordinary magic that enables him to heal the fisher king and redeem the waste land; in England, the touch of the monarch’s hand was believed to cure scrofula.
It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt—milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.”
“The danger of Obama’s charismatic healer-redeemer fable lies in the hubris it encourages, the belief that gifted politicians can engender a selfless communitarian solidarity. Such a renovation of our national life would require not only a change in constitutional structure—the current system having been geared to conflict by the Founders, who believed that the clash of private interests helps preserve liberty—but also a change in human nature. Obama’s conviction that it is possible to create a beautiful politics, one in which Americans will selflessly pursue a shared vision of the common good, recalls the belief that Dostoyevsky attributed to the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionists: that, come the revolution, “all men will become righteous in one instant.” The perfection would begin.”