Saturday, September 13, 2008

President Palin, Pt 1: "The Revolt of the Masses"

Until watching Governor Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention, I always felt the need to apologize for the title of one of my favorite books. The book is by the Spanish philosopher and contemporary of Schumpeter's, José Ortega y Gasset. It was published in 1930 in Spain with the title "La Rebelion de las Masas." For those whose high school Spanish is a bit rusty, that's "The Revolt of the Masses."

Now, if you haven't read this book, the title makes it sound hopelessly outdated--either embarrassingly revolutionary or alarmingly reactionary. In fact, I think it is just about the most incisive analysis around of the state of our political world today, up to and including the presidential campaign of 2008.

What was this "revolt" to which Ortega y Gasset was referring? The revolt of the masses was not a political revolt, or an economic one. It was the revolt of barbarism over culture.

Ok, barbarism? At least a 50% chance you've stopped reading. If not, here's more of what Ortega y Gasset had in mind:
"Under the the species of Syndacalism [a.k.a. Communism] and Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions."
The conditions for barbarism he gives as follows:
"There is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow men can have recourse. There is not culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal. There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred... When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism... Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made."
One last bit, relevant to Governor Palin:
"To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reason for our ideas is discussed."
To assert the existence, and necessity, of standards of discourse to which ideas must be subject is a line of argument that is likely to be least as unpopular with campus deconstructionalists as it is with Alaska fundamentalists. Ortega was not, in a manner of speaking, seeking the good opinion of either. He was, quite simply, describing the world as he saw it. It was a world that, as early as 1930, was making way for an array of demagogues whose primary claim to power was their ability to mobilize collective indignation. We know who such demagogues turned out to be in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. This country had the likes of Huey Long and, later, Joseph McCarthy.

All in the past? Can we think of a failed President of the moment who scorns inquiry, refuses to submit to standards of legality or discourse, and seeks legitimacy to rule in incitement of fear and insult to intellect?

And now, the next step in the devolution of democracy: Governor Sarah Palin. In the renaissance René Descartes reduced the scope of certainty to the phrase "I think, therefore I am." From there, inquiry began. As Ortega y Gasset anticipated, the reaction to the complexities of modernity has been a rejection of inquiry, and a reversion to the raw unfettered power of pronouncement. The motto for the new age: "I think therefore I know."

Or, in the case of the possible President Palin, "I think, therefore I am ready to be President of the United States."

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