To Promote Dialogue, Fight American Pluralism
A very close friend of mine and I have a common acquaintance who is a newspaper columnist of some influence in Catholic circles in the United States. He is also a fervent defender of the Bush Administration. When the likelihood of war in Iraq became more obvious, my friend wrote to the journalist with his clear arguments against any incursion in the region. Not only were these comments rejected; they were summarily dismissed. "The dialogue", the columnist announced. "is over". "Funny", my amazed friend complained to me. "I do not remember it having taken place at all."
I doubt if there has ever been a time in history when people have spoken more about respectful, public, democratic dialogue than today. And yet my own experience, both with reference to the Iraqi War and other serious issues, exactly parallels that of my friend. Those of us who wish to have an honest public dialogue find, in practice, that this discussion is generally over before it ever begins. For "dialogue", in modern western society, does not mean "dialogue". Normally, it signifies nothing other than a superficial chat within very restricted limits; one which is designed to lead to a common affirmation of the contemporary Zeitgeist and its Dictionary of Received Ideas. What is alive and well today is not a public dialogue based on mutual esteem, but a great deal of sloganeering about the value of mutually-respectful public dialogue, and an endless babble regarding the precise mechanical tools and conditions required to conduct it. Westerners are so occupied with praising themselves for recognizing the importance of open, democratic discourse that they have no time or patience left over for actual debate on issues of real significance. Heaven forbid that they should devote attention to a precise definition of the very words "dialogue", "respect", and "democracy" as such. Anyone tackling the question of how to cultivate a truly considerate and thorough-going public dialogue must, therefore, first and foremost, come to terms with this dichotomy of language and reality, understand its seductive but disastrous influence, and, ultimately, discover ways of circumventing it.
The chief cause of the problem is the fact that contemporary dialogue is dominated by rhetoricians and the tools that rhetoricians employ, to the disadvantage of a serious, philosophical hunt for objective truth. These tools were forged in another age of civil and external strife, in the period stretching from the beginning of the Peloponnesian War to the Macedonian Conquest of Greece (431-336 B.C.). They were brilliantly analyzed by Plato, who criticized their reduction of political discourse to a discussion of ways to gain a power, glory, and wealth whose value one was never allowed to study and call into question. Rhetorical tools are forced upon modern western democratic dialogue by the dictates of American pluralism--a political theory rooted in European Enlightenment thought, fully developed in the United States, and now eager to spread its vision globally. In practice, American pluralism does nothing more than shape the age-old, anti-intellectual rhetorical approach into a more complete and technologically sophisticated system. It takes full advantage of innate weaknesses in modern democratic thought and practice to impose its ferocious will.
Rather than attempting to describe scientifically the nature and historical development of pluralist democratic society—something which I have already done here in the past--allow me to spend the brief time at my disposal demonstrating how such a rhetoric-driven social order seeks to destroy any attempt to dialogue profoundly, publicly, and considerately with one’s fellow man. This work is necessary, not only because tools, tactics, and methodology in general are all that count in a rhetorical world, but also because the approach taken by pluralism to defuse dialogue has proven to be so incredibly effective.
The pluralist assault on intelligent discourse rests on three often completely contradictory pillars: 1) a constant, loud, repetitive assertion of its unquestionable and incomparable protection of individual freedom, personal dignity, and democratic institutions; 2) a belief in the basic depravity of the natural man. This position allows it room to express a seemingly pious admission of human sinfulness, a condemnation of futile utopian ideologies, and an insistence upon the need for a "realistic" social control mechanism, accepting and even stimulating individual and group vices to check and balance one another; 3) and finally, an abandonment of serious public discussion of intellectually and spiritually explosive issues—including the very pluralist definitions of freedom, democracy, and social order themselves—as a necessary means of attaining civil peace and material prosperity. There is nothing logical or respectful about the psychological warfare that this offensive unleashes. The attack relies on an ad hominem argument in which an opponent it simultaneously told that he is a corrupt cynic, a naïve fool, and a child whose chatter has indeed amazed everyone, but who now has to learn to grow up and face the practical facts of life. Depending upon the nature of a specific topic, the time devoted to each of the parts of this argument and the order of their use can vary considerably. Nevertheless, their interaction in debate falls into a regular yin-yang pattern.
Let us, for example, return to my friend’s criticisms of the Iraqi War, which were founded upon the fraudulence, injustice and pointlessness of that conflict. Were he to press his case more insistently upon our journalist acquaintance now that the American mission has wreaked its predictable havoc, he could readily expect to be greeted with the tripartite, ad hominem response outlined above. Caricature though the following presentation of that response may seem to be, my daily experience of public discourse in the United States makes me insist that it depicts an all too familiar reality. And, once again, the chief purpose of this argumentation would be to make it crystal clear that only a dangerous misfit would wish to resurrect a dialogue that had already been laid to rest by sensible people before the war.
"What a cynic you are!", the columnist would begin. "Have you no love for the Iraqi people? Or the Kurds that Sadaam murdered over oh so many years? No appreciation for their liberation from oppression, after decades of torment, through admission into the free, pluralist world? No satisfaction from the peace which this brings in its train? What is it that has so embittered you, hardening your heart against such obvious blessings? The emptiness necessarily accompanying a life of self-centered grasping? Investments in French companies in pre-war Baghdad, now brought to naught by high-minded international intervention? Or have you simply been bribed to play the shameful role of spoil sport? How can you live with yourself after displaying such a lack of charity towards fellow inhabitants of our global village? Have you no love for either God or man?"
My friend, ready for this retort, would certainly counter that the freedom given to the Iraqis was rather limited; that it amounted to doing whatever it was that the American and Israeli ideological, political, and economic interests manipulating the pluralist order permitted Iraquis to do; and this while assuring much more chaos than peace in the entire region of the Middle East. Here, two possibilities would open up before the journalist. He could stay on the "cynic" track, lamenting that pitiful lack of Faith in the pluralist, democratic system which itself was clearly responsible for any failure to "live up to its unquestionable promise". If, however, he sees that an appeal to doctrinal certainty might not have the immediate desired effect, then he could decide that it was time for him to move on to step two, emphasizing his opponent’s impious, arrogant, romantic, idiotic failure to recognize the obvious depravity of his fellow man.
"How naïve you are", he would then sneer. "Satisfaction of self interest? You attribute this war to the desire to satisfy our own self interest in Iraq? But when does a man not seek his material self-interest? Such concerns emerge from the very nature of life itself! Yes, from life, with all its cruel, nay, brutal realities. Life is not the paradise you utopians imagine it to be. Life is hard ball. A struggle for power, and control of the means to power. A tussle for dollars and cents. Sentimentality cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the iron-clad laws of the Machtpolitik that guide this fallen world. Please! Let’s show some humility and a little less yearning for Heaven on Earth. A sensible person should indeed revere the all-holy God, but watch his own back in this Valley of Tears, teeming with sinful, egotistical men. A mature adult would know that if we were not in Iraq, defining what freedom means to our own advantage, somebody else would be there doing exactly the same thing. And what would happen to all that oil as a result? Why, just some other self-interested villain would get it. As for chaos? Well, what else do you expect from a fallen world but chaos? God bless a little chaos, too, I say. For it is through public chaos that the creative individual best protects his freedom from tyranny. So let us love God. Recognize our limitations. Honor self-interest. Preserve the laws of supply and demand. And, for heaven’s sake, watch out for the anti-American competition. Amen." And so on and so far, into as many pits as a belief in the basic corruption of the human person can drag even a religious mind gone utilitarian.
Perhaps taken aback by this completely contradictory blow, my friend might nonetheless courageously lash into the one-sided, sin-obsessed, vulgar, materialistic "reality" that such "laws of nature" promote, and, if successfully promulgated, more than guarantee. He might rail against the hypocrisy of masquerading this clear expression of true cynicism with reference to a high-minded concern for spreading freedom and peace the world over. But were he to do so, the last component of the pluralist response would mercilessly drill into him the fact that sensible people were simply bored with this never-ending discussion of the war, that the dialogue was indeed definitely over, and that all and sundry agreed that he had obviously lost.
"But, still, what an incredibly interesting and well-constructed argument you’ve made!", he would then say. "Bravo! Everyone I know really respects you for it. And doesn’t the fact that you are here arguing it so cogently indicate the wonderful work that the pluralist system which is now liberating Iraq has already done in forming lively people like yourself? You have to admit that that gives us yet another reason for appreciating it the way that we do. No pluralism? No extra special you. Anyway, now that you’ve made your point so splendidly, we can put it eternally to rest. You’ve said more than anyone can say on behalf of a very impressive, though pointless outlook. Surely you don’t want to waste your life on the side of a losing proposition, do you? So let’s achieve closure and move on. Enough is enough. There’s no ground for destroying our friendship over some subtle nuance, is there? People disagree, that’s just a fact of life. We all do agree on what really counts in the end, though, don’t we? Isn’t that what civilized people are into? Agreeing? Don’t we all want to end up on the same team? And now we’ve seen that we both have got our little cynical side, right? I uncovered yours; you, I must confess, did an excellent job in demonstrating mine. Well, I wouldn’t want to get bogged down in that melancholic meditation, so let’s return to what counts. Producing. Selling. Bringing in the big bucks. Doing our own thing. Packing up our troubles in our old kit bags and smiling, smiling, smiling. Oh, look on the screen over the bar! They’re playing that comic video of Bush hunting for weapons of mass destruction under his desk. This is what’s great about pluralist society. The ability of all opposing elements to shake hands around the bar at cocktail hour and laugh at one another’s silliness together. Want to hear some Iraqi Army jokes? Play a little table tennis? Can you pat your head and roll a hand over your tummy at the same time?"
If, by this point, my friend had the stomach to continue, all hell would finally break loose.
"What? Still at it?", the disbelieving journalist would shout. "Refusing to reach consensus? Insisting upon making that childish, pedantic point of yours after the debate is unmistakably over? Piling fact on top of self-righteous fact? Don’t you know when to quit? Don’t you understand that adults get fed up with overkill? That factual evidence ruins parties? And you have the nerve to pontificate without having consulted the thousand latest web sites (all making the same rhetorical point) in favor of the war as well! Don’t you realize what discomfort your negative attitude is causing? The bartender is glaring at you. Your mother is crying. All because of your selfishness. Because you want things your way. What kind of authoritarian mentality do you have? A Communist one? Nazi? What are you? A Mullah in the making? Or are you simply, yes, that’s it, feeling a little…funny? Maybe you’re in need of, you know, a kind of extra specially good therapist for that extra special you? And a little…quiet time?"
Rare is the man who by this point has not seriously lost his composure, frustrated over being labeled cynical, naïve, childish, arrogantly over and under prepared for debate, totalitarian, and psychopathicaly divisive, all at one and the same time. Perhaps my friend would now lose his temper. All that this would accomplish, however, would be to convince the journalist still further of his need for extra special help: the kind provided by a timely visit from the Happiness Police to deal with his continued failure to integrate into the party of life on the side of the winning team; the type resolved by a stay in a Soviet-style psychiatric hospital, where a good daily shot of something very, very strong would permanently quiet him.
On the other hand, perhaps he would succeed in calming himself down. Maybe he would feel obliged to say something, anything, conciliatory about the dialogue-killing system, if even just to end his mother’s distress over his misanthropic personality. He could make a nice, non-disruptive, totally irrational comment, solely for the sake of a moment’s tranquility, simply in order to finish Easter lunch in peace. But take care! This comment would amount to his intellectual wrist slitting. It would render him utterly incapable of any future effective discourse. It would repeatedly be used against him—shamefully and hypocritically, of course--to prove his baffling inconsistency, his vicious duplicity, and, pour comble de malheur, the unconscionable cynicism that blinds his sort to the horror of spraying chemical weapons at the Kurds. Give the foot soldier of pluralism a momentary armistice and he will eat your public discourse alive.
But, in fact, there would be little fear of a renewal of hostilities. My friend’s farewell to arms would probably be permanent, and this because submission to the rules of the pluralist game does yield certain seductive rewards. The restoration of fraternal unity might prove to be attractive to this increasingly exhausted and isolated combatant. Praise of his return to "common sense" could be comforting to him after being treated like the village idiot. Material benefits might accumulate. People would again invite him to ball games. Offer him parking places at the shopping mall. Access to all the latest investment tips. Maybe a column in the journalist’s own newspaper. But best of all, he would be given an escape route from the very sting of death itself! For pluralism tosses theology, philosophy, history, sociology, and the whole heritage of western and non-western civilization into the waste basket as a troublesome waste of effort. Anyone accepting its rules is freed from knowledge of most of the divisive problems of human existence. He is taught how to survive without living, and, thus, offered a methodology for life-long euthanasia. How could he fear mere physical death when he would already have committed intellectual and spiritual suicide long before the ambulance arrived at his front door? So ends the pluralist democratic dialogue. Killed by suicide even before it began.
Perhaps someone might argue that I am exaggerating; that there are, after all, critics of the war; that some 300,000 of them appeared on the streets of New York last weekend; and that a public dialogue is thus indeed taking place. But this would confuse what is actually a show of force for an intellectually lively public debate. One need only probe the arguments of the vast bulk of these critics, or speak to them about other topics, ranging from a definition of "true Islam" to abortion, to discover that the same, basic, dialogue-killing, utilitarian, rhetorical-pluralist principles still guide them. They, also, have no time for serious discussion. Other viewpoints are hoffähig insofar as they are can integrate properly into a progressive Manhattan cocktail party. Appeals to the properly adjusted machinery of the One True System reign supreme. All that ever seems to be required to assure the victory of freedom, dignity, and order is to return to "true pluralism". This invariably means breaking the power of "fundamentalists", defined not as they ought to be—namely, dialogue-killers –-but, rather, as those committed to any objective position that cannot be unthinkingly abandoned at the snap of the fingers of a pluralist Inquisition. I thank the anti-war movement for being anti-war. I believe that it is promoting a good cause. But I do not think that dialogue will gain anything in the long term from its success. What active, public dialogue requires is both a conviction that there really is something objective and universal that can be learned by all parties to a debate, as well a humility regarding one’s own possible intellectual weaknesses. Most of the anti-war critics with whom I speak do not sufficiently accept these essential prerequisites. Yes, they do, indeed, present arguments on behalf of their position. But, in the long run, good pluralists that they are, their points are selective ones and can never touch the root issue of ultimate truth. That subject has been placed by their Faith on the Index of Prohibited Topics. In the last analysis, they, like their opponents, want what they want mainly because they want it. They cut off discourse when and where they feel like it. This reduces their position to the level of a child’s plaything. When a child tires of a toy, it throws it away, only to pick it up again whenever the mood should strike. Similarly, so long as will rather than objective truth is at the root of his position, today’s anti-war activist can easily became tomorrow’s equally headstrong imperialist. And never have to explain the change either.
Now we have arrived at the most horrifying reason why dialogue is killed wherever the rhetorical-pluralist rules of the social game are enforced: the fact that public discourse is ultimately smothered by willfulness. For pluralism, with its deification of a freedom whose nature cannot be investigated, and its simultaneous insistence on accepting and encouraging as something natural the vision of a helplessly wicked, self-interested, humanity, blesses and unchains passionate individuals and groups to struggle with one another for control of the social jungle. In such an environment, it is almost inevitably the strongest wills, the most criminally passionate ones, which rise to the fore. These can use all tools, both evil and good, to impose their personal wishes and destroy those who cannot or refuse to do the same. Moreover, pluralism permits criminally passionate men to call up its arsenal of devastating anti-dialogue arguments to prevent a public, intellectual discussion of their misdeeds, and even to claim to be defending freedom and civil peace as they manipulate and pervert society. Such criminals can be moved by ideological or physical passions. The Iraqi War was willed by a combination of both together, including Americanists, neo-conservatives, apocalyptic evangelicals, supporters of a Greater Israel, and Halliburton beneficiaries. Predictably, these willful forces have gleefully used the doctrines of pluralism to glorify their work and ridicule and silence the thoughts of the opposition. Their sole weakness, as the ideologue becomes more recognizably thuggish in his messianic project and the ordinary criminal more ideological in his need for self-justification, is that their contradictory final goals may block each other’s path.
If a true, thorough-going, public dialogue worthy of human beings is really desired, then, under current conditions, the first crucial step towards achieving it has to be that of breaking the hold of the American pluralism over modern western democracies. Pluralist democracy is not what it claims to be—a merely practical means for protecting individual freedom and social order. It is a Faith, an unexamined Faith, a methodology transformed into a Faith and vigilantly guarded by the terrible criminals it engenders. But it is a proven seductive Faith, one which places before individuals and nations in a still more intensified fashion the age-old rhetorical either-or alternative: either join and gain the immediate material benefits of our thoughtless but winning mafia, or waste your life alongside a band of losers on the long, hard, frustrating, ill-paying, and often disruptive road of serious philosophical dialogue. We must examine ourselves honestly to make certain that we are not playing games with public, democratic dialogue; that we do not artificially place limits on discourse due to our own half-conscious acceptance of criminal pluralist doctrines, temptation by their mythological fruits, or fear of their powerful control mechanisms. Only a wholehearted rejection of the pluralist ideological yoke can give us the kind of dialoguing democracy that it falsely claims to provide. Only this will allow us finally to begin to think like free men and hunt together for a wisdom that goes beyond teaching us how to overstuff our bellies and unjustly conquer the world. Long live a truth-seeking dialogue ennobling the human person. God punish a pluralist system that makes out of cultured nations prisons for their own peoples.
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