Tag Archives: politics

Per Capita Reality and the Plague

My friend Mister Hans Moleman has just posted an interesting perspective on the current plague, informed by some statistics showing that this crisis has less to do with US politics than we sometimes think. And on a per capita basis, the US is better off than some other advanced countries.  He writes:

[I wrote the following message to a good friend of mine, who is so depressed about the current crisis, and so obsessed with our president, that he says he will emigrate to some other country as soon as a vaccine is developed.]

I am glad to hear you will not be emigrating any time soon.  I hope you reconsider when this present crisis passes (as it will).

It is all too easy to see this as a failure of our political system, especially if one particularly dislikes our present leader.  The “Orange Man” is certainly dislikable; but that doesn’t lay this at his door.  To the extent that this is a political crisis, it is a widespread one, being felt throughout the western world (and perhaps far beyond.)

My wife has found us a good source of reliable statistics on the Covid-19/Coronavirus mess, at Worldometers.info.  It is revealing.  For instance:

Inadequate as our testing seems to have been, the US has done more testing than Sweden, France, the UK, or the Netherlands (per capita). Yet we have had way fewer deaths than those countries (per capita). And we have had fewer deaths than Italy, Spain, Belgium or Switzerland, even though those countries have done a lot more testing than we have.

Asia (except China, and who can trust their reports?), Africa and South America seem to have escaped the worst of it, for reasons that are unclear and probably varied; but some of them may simply be late starters.

As for the US, we must consider that right now we have a very lopsided epidemic: New York on one hand, the rest of the country on the other.  NY state is 6% of the US population but 45% of Covid deaths.

And Iceland, the nation that has done the most testing (12% of their population), has had more cases and more deaths than Montana. IC is one third the population of MT, but has 4 times the cases and almost 3 times the death rate.

So, whatever is driving the dimensions of this crisis, it doesn’t seem to be politics. And the solution will not be political either.  It will probably be scientific (treatment and vaccines) and behavioral (social distancing and hygiene, like learning to wash hands and cough/sneeze carefully). Mundane stuff.

And on the non-mundane level, I also think prayer will help.

Meanwhile, our task is not only staying healthy but also staying sane.  In that regard I recommend avoiding people that infuriate you, especially on TV (you know who I mean).  And keeping a sense of perspective.

I look forward to seeing you guys once the all-clear is sounded.

The Great Sophist

Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle (the third volume of his Order and History) studies Plato’s exposes of the Sophists, especially in The Republic.

It has become clear to me that these clever men, whose inherent corruption so troubled Socrates/Plato, were the true models of much of modern Western society.

“Plato described the Athenian society in which he lived as the Sophist written large, explaining the peculiarities of Athenian order by referring them to the socially predominant sophistic type,” says EV, and it seems to be true again in our own day.  The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

In EV’s words, “In Plato’s immediate environment the sophist is the enemy and the philosopher rises in opposition to him; in the wider range of Hellenic history, the philosopher comes first and the sophist follows him as the destroyer of his work through immanentization of the symbols of transcendence.”

These “symbols of transcendence” seem to me the rhetorical use of reason, the existence of truth and right order, and the concept of justice.  These are the classic tools of the Advocate, taught in law schools and embodied in politics.  But they have also become the tools of the mass media and higher education, among others homes of the elite.

Again EV paraphrasing Plato: “The general social environment in courts, assemblies, and theaters is the principal formative influence on young men, not the teaching of this or that individual sophist.  The many who exert the continuous pressure are ‘the Great Sophist’.

Plato/Socrates, The Republic:  “The individual sophists who teach for money have no doctrine of their own but echo the opinion of the multitude; and that is what they call their wisdom.  The professional sophist is rather comparable to a man in charge of a ‘great beast’;  he will study the habits of the animal and find out how to manage it.  Good will be what the beast likes, and bad will be what arouses its temper.”

Another “type” which seems to characterize modern society is the Therapist, as ably articulated by Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic).  But I begin to suspect that the Therapist is yet another variation on the Sophist.  He is an Advocate for the person paying the bills, spinning arguments to demonstrate that the subject is not responsible for his own problems.   (Consider the modern role of defense psychiatrists in courtrooms, invariably arguing for a frame of mind that renders the accused person less than fully responsible for his crimes.)  As EV put it, “The sophist proclaims his disease as the measure of human and social order.”

Flannery O’Connor wrote that “Plato’s enemies were the Sophists, and Socrates’ arguments against them are still today the classical arguments against that sophistic philosophy of existence which characterizes positivism and the age of enlightenment.”

Plato puts the contrast between philosopher and the sophist in the starkest possible light when he writes in The Laws: “God is for us (philosophers) the measure of all things, of a truth;  more truly so than, as they (sophists) say, man.”

Or, as EV put it, “The validity of the standards adapted by Plato and Aristotle depends on the conception of a man who can be the measure of society because God is the measure of his soul.”

Becoming a Political Agnostic

When I graduated from college, I was agnostic on the question of God and religion, and 100% certain about everything else.

This was especially so about politics and economics. “Social science” clearly bore the only real truths.   So I knew that only a selfish, evil, or stupid person could fail to see these plain truths.  I knew that humanity was a malleable object which we, the clever enlightened ones, could mold, shape, and adapt to our higher purpose.  Our purpose was whatever we decided it to be, so I felt no need to search for any purpose higher than my own preference.

And so, I set about building a better world – that is, one more suitable to my tastes and more likely to place a high value on someone like, say, me.

A lot has happened since then, and I have observed and thought about some of it.  I am now a believer in religion and a near-believer in God (more – much, much more – on this later). So it is no surprise that I have grown agnostic on all politics, economics, and virtually everything else I was once so certain about.  (Indeed, I find that “social science” may be the least scientific thing ever thought up. More later.)

In political debates, I see few issues on which I can whole-heartedly take sides. I see few politicians on whom I would comfortably confer even a small amount of power.

But I know with absolute certainty that men will always make themselves miserable in the absence of a legitimate and consistent system of morality.

What else do I know?

I know that men are driven to make themselves the center of as much of the world as possible. The will to power, egotism, libido dominandi, call it what you will.  It makes men selfish, uncaring, and aggressive.  This drive can be described in evolutionary terms as easily as in religious ones (All the great apes display conduct that is chillingly familiar in these terms.)

I know the institutions of our civilizations are all constructed to restrict these urges and to channel them toward positive results.  Family, religion, government, society of peers, all reward good behaviors, punish bad ones, and attempt to channel energies away from destruction.

I may know a few other things too.  But I don’t yet know the big thing, the thing I really want to know.  I’m still searching.  And I’m getting too old to be too casual about the search.