Sunday, March 13, 2016

Notes From the American Underground

In Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, the narrator rails against rationality since it detracts from being fully human.  By looking at everything logically and pragmatically, the narrator would cease to truly live since taken to its rational end, any decision can be quantified into a better and worse choice.  By always picking the better choice, then what's the point of living?  Without a set of core values and reduced to picking the quantifiably better choice, life becomes meaningless and sterile.  So the narrator's life in squalor with his pained liver, and irrational spite and rage makes him human because he does things that does not make sense, thus proving his freedom and humanity.

Of course this is his own rationality for being an unrepentant narcissist and it is the tell-tale sign of a full fledged narcissist that he is able to rationalize his own illness as a symptom of society's problem rather than his own.  Yet he has a point about these rational people who maximize self-interest.  Once you no longer have any core values, and only rely on cold logic to maximize quantifiable gains, you are no longer human.  When news outlets are questioning why Americans are so angry in 2016, this is why: we are battling a societal, yet internal, conflict between morality and self-interested pragmatism.

First, pragmatists who weigh the pros and cons have always been in power in almost all successful societies.  Dogmatic leaders like Mao or Hitler are failures because they had these unwavering ideals that couldn't be reasoned away from, even when all the evidence pointed to the opposite.  Yet there was something captivating about their supernatural devotion to obviously irrational principles, which is evidenced by their respective cults of personality.

The relatively successful societies with pragmatic leadership look out for national self-interest, yet this isn't the complete picture.  What really happens is that this leadership rationally looks out for #1 while appealing to the mass's morals.  Depending on how cynical you are, the Vietnam War was either a calculated gambit to rationally block Communist influence or a moral war against injustice and evil Communists.  Similarly, America's entry into World War II seemed to be 100% an act of defense against Japan's day of infamy, but the greater context of oil blockades against Japan was missing from the national conversation.

Note the disconnect: policymakers look at pragmatic solutions while the masses need to be coddled with morality, a code if you will.  Soviets talking shit half way around the world?  Arm these Islamists, but tell the people it's because the evil Russians are trying to build an empire and only the righteous and justified USA can stop them.  This worked just fine except for some crackpots like Ron Paul who ran around like Cassandra telling anybody who would listen that the USA government was corrupt and power hungry like every other government, but there was little alternative to the official narrative: USA is good, X (insert Russia, Iran, Iraq, China, etc here) is bad.

But then GWB ruined everything.  At first, it was going to go like every other war.  Name them as part of the Axis of Evil, then start talking about weapons of mass destruction, make sure to play up the brutal despot angle and the general public should feel morally justified in invading Mesopotamia.  But because GWB and his cronies were so woefully incompetent, that shit all fell apart.  First, it turned out Iraq had no WMDs, then Iraq somehow became worse after Saddam.  People started peeling back the layers and realized Iraq wasn't special--it is the modus operandi of many American-involved conflicts in the past one hundred years.

A few years later in 2016, one of our glorious allies Saudi Arabia is beheading people left and right. The same Obama who extolled against terrible dictators such as Qaddafi and Assad sits amusingly silent against the equally brutal Saudis.  It's because Obama is pragmatic.  They sell us oil and we sell them a shit ton of weapons; everybody is happy.  But the masses who were taught for the past hundred years that America is supposed to be the beacon of morality are now realizing that this is all bullshit.  We are realizing that our government is just as selfish and self-interested as the dictators that we overthrow.  This isn't to point out that America is somehow evil, but rather the opposite: America is banal in the sense that it does what every other country does.  The take-away message is that the American people are realizing that the morals and principles that makes America exceptional--standing up for what's right, freedom and democracy, etc--is fraudulent and is essentially a market campaign to get the American people to go along with the leadership.

Another Dostoyevsky quote:

Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.
We all have an internal code of ethics; lawyers do not--that's why they study the law--to fill that gaping hole.  Whether it's from religion or simply what our parents taught us, that has always been our truth.  But we are now wrestling with the lie: if our leadership lies, cheats, and steals to remain #1, should we do it too?  After all, it's the pragmatic thing to do.  Look at our likeliest next president: Hillary, who gleefully recounts the time she had a hand in overthrowing Qaddafi, ignoring how much worse Libya has gotten.  We are battling this cognitive dissonance because we can't separate our high living standards from what America had to do to ensure those standards.

Our current election highlights this perfectly.  The only establishment candidate left: Hillary is the paragon of cold rationalism cloaked in false morality.  The two insurgent candidates in Sanders and Trump are able to overcome their varying degrees of bat-shit insanity simply because a plurality, if not majority, of Americans recognize this schism between what America "stands for" and what America does.  They peddle American values, even though neither has a pragmatic plan on how to truly get there.

Notes from Underground isn't just a criticism of rationalism over morality, but rather a warning like those old Greek tales.  Once a society believes that the lie of cold hard pragmatism is more important than standing up for one's morals, the Underground Man is what you get.