Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The State of the Union Empire -- Bread and Circuses ... and B.S.

A recent montage, a compilation of video clips from previous State of the Union addresses by the President, highlights Mr. Obama at his impressive best. The excitement of his speeches is infectious. The rhetoric is, at times, electrifying. Members of congress, on both sides of the aisle, rise in standing ovation after standing ovation at the positive vision he presents for each new year of his unfolding administration. It's not hard to see what made Mr. Obama a first-rate community organizer. He's a mesmerizing speaker. The effect is almost psychotropic. But it's not just his style. It's what he actually says. If you actually take the time to listen to the content -- to the promises he makes and the picture he paints of the America he wants, it would be hard to imagine a more idyllic republic. Quite sincerely, he's inspiring. The values are positive -- values any of us could readily embrace. Never mind that each of the 112 promises in the montage, in retrospect, was as empty as the suit that failed to deliver on it, or that we've been left with our treasuries emptied, our currency devalued, and an $18,000,000,000,000.00 national debt that will surely surpass $20 trillion before the golden-tongued speech maker is out of office (unless he's crowned Emperor). That's the unyielding reality beneath the rhetoric -- and that's just the tip of the iceberg. More taxes! More free giveaways! More spending on the national credit card! Bread and circuses!

There is a reason why Harry F. Frankfurt, philosopher emeritus from Princeton University and a thinker of fairly traditional cast, wrote in his little book, On Bullshit(Princeton University Press, 2005), that bullshit is a far more dangerous thing than lying. If a man was lying to you, you could be sure that he knew, or at least thought he knew, what the truth was. You would at least be playing on an even field -- a playing field in which the truth mattered. Even when the other guy is cheating by trying to conceal the truth from you, the truth matters. But when a man is bullshitting you, he doesn't give a rip about what is true. For all you know he may not even know what's true, or even care -- like the other Princeton Professor, the late Richard Rorty, who defined truth as "what your peers let you get away with saying." All he wants is to create a certain response, to inspire or impress or bedazzle or placate or pacify or distract you. And nobody I know in recent history does that better than Mr. Obama. He is the man Plato warned us about in Book VIII of his Republic, the future tyrant who comes out of nowhere and ascends to meteoric heights of influence amidst the breakdown of a democracy by making empty promises he has no intention of keeping, and by keeping the ignorant masses in perpetual distraction in order to keep their minds off his machinations and increasingly extravagant personal lifestyle. Crown him Emperor? Caveat emptor.




Today in America politics seems like religion. And religion seems like a fashion statement.

Ralph Roister-Doister


I love that quote by Rorty. If a decree had gone forth in the kingdom that philosophers henceforth had to earn their livings as stand-up comics, I think Rorty might have done alright.

Not only is Rorty's observation absolutely accurate, it is also consistent with the practice of Evertius in the neighboring blog topic -- well, with one difference, that the latter's monitoring system had its roots in a respect for truth, for attachment to the transcendent, whereas the roots of the former's observation are in the egotism, self-aggrandizement, and ideological manipulation of the typical academic or business environment. In such environments truth is not so much absent as simply irrelevant -- which puts us quite close to the subject of Frankfurt's book.

Eric Voegelin considers ideology a deliberate turning away from transcendence. He explains why turning away from the transcendent -- the divine -- becomes popular with people: by doing so, one replaces difficult disciplines with acceptable slackness, and seeking with easy answers. Thus the old values are replaced by new, usually shortlived obsessions, and the process of familiarization is made attractive by its casting as a kind of gnostic initiation into secret knowledge. Everything from marxist ideology to exercise "dance" routines can be "sold" this way. I don't think Voegelin ever said so, but I think it is consistent with his thought to count even television commercials as little 30 second gnostic epiphanies. Thus "newness" replaces truth as that for which the seeker yearns, and technological gadgets like television and the internet become portals to new enlightenment.

That’s the beauty of bullshit: it doesn’t matter that he who utters it doesn’t care if it is true. It is the PROCESS of absorbing the new that matters. Gnostic enlightenment becomes a “spiritual” behavior whose nearest psycho-physical analogues are eating bags of “fun size” Butterfinger bars or masturbating repeatedly to internet pornography.

Not that I have stayed close to the subject to this point, but I might as well take a step further. All of the above can be considered as one take on why Catholicism is in such sad straits today: since V2 the dominant effort – though not intentional (one hopes) -- has been to sell it as a turning away from transcendence – as something new, simplistic, and "cool". As a “fun size” religion. Even with ESPN, the medium is the message. Put Voegelin and McLuhan in the same blender, and it might be interesting to see what comes out.

Pertinacious Papist


Brilliant, Ralph. Was it Science, Politics and Gnosticism you tapped for that? Voegelin rewards study. Good insights. I like your cultural and ecclesial applications as well.

Ralph Roister-Doister


"Even with ESPN . . ."


"Was it Science, Politics and Gnosticism you tapped for that?"

Sure! I read that a long time ago in the old Regnery paperback, and it definitely made an impression. But I've also recently read a superior introduction to Voegelin by Michael P Federici. Absolutely deserves a place on your wish list PP.

Raider Fan


Dear JM A write-backer at Steve Sailer's Blog, Wilkey, observed:

… We keep hearing that Muslims must tolerate blasphemy because free speech. But Europe doesn’t have free speech. In most European countries, including France, there is a long list of blasphemous statements for which one can go to jail – from publicly denying facts, like the Holocaust, to denying opinions, like racial equality.

America has a lot of ways of enforcing blasphemy taboos as well, such as being forced out of your job (e.g., James D. Watson, Jason Richwine, Brandon Eich, etc.), public humiliations, leaking confidential conversations, and so forth.

The Left is an amorphous religion from which one cannot claim religious freedom, because the Religion of Political Correctness has never been formally declared. But it has its own dogma – racial and gender quality, etc. It has its own scriptures – poems like “The New Colossus,” and plays like The Crucible. It has its own hymns – “Imagine.” It has its own deities, including one – The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior – with his own holiday. “Public schools” are now effectively parochial schools owned and run by the Religion of Political Correctness.

A belief in magic is almost mandatory these days.

It must seem to Muslims very hypocritical to claim they must accept blasphemy while banning blasphemy against the Left.

Robert Allen


I was told that Alvin Plantinga began his talk at a symposium on Rorty's work by quoting his definition of truth and then quipping 'Well Dick, we're not going to let you get away with that.'

Pertinacious Papist


Mr. Allen,

I wouldn't doubt it. Sounds very much like the Plantinga I know.

He even looks a bit like Dave Letterman!