Friday, 18 January 2013

The Importance of a Sound Thrashing

In the wake of the beating of a policeman in a sleepy New Zealand town, a meeting of citizens was held to plot a better future. One of the concerned members was heard to say that the source of the problem was shamefully clear: 'Too many bloody do-gooders'. He elaborated on this expostulation by ruefully noting the fact that we can no longer administer a sound thrashing to our children, as happily we could in the past, and that therein lies all that is wrong with our world. And I would like to suggest he was quite correct.

We have become too soft. Our children are too mollycoddled. They are misled as to the ways of the world and have come to think that life is all about them and that it should be pleasant and enjoyable and diverting, one endless stream of good times and satisfying moments. We may think it a service that we are doing them, easing their way, forming their fragile inner selves so that they are unshakable in their faith that around each of them revolves the planets and the stars. But this is no service. It is a dreadful disservice, for all of them will—with the odd, odious exception—at some time or other come terribly a-cropper on the very sharp rocks of reality. They will learn that life is no lark, that individually they feature pretty much nowhere in the grander scheme of things, and when they do learn this, they will be very annoyed. And rightly so.

We need only look to history to see what happens when we indulge our children in this way. Gibbon was only partially correct in attributing the Roman decline to indolence and luxury. It was at least as much to do with the lax views on child-rearing, of which little note has, unfortunately, been taken (historians having decided that their careers were unlikely to be promoted by focusing on domestic concerns at the expense of invading hordes of Goths and instances of gargantuan excess and licentiousness).

So what are we to do? The first step is to ensure that every child receives a regular beating. Perhaps once a week, regardless of behaviour or attitude. This will teach them that life is not always fair and that they should respect others. In the privacy of each home, all will learn to become worthy members of their families. But it is not enough that children learn how to behave in the home. They must learn how to behave as good citizens, as members of the res publica. To this end, the state must administer, for a time at least, some particularly stringent punishments for minor offences, to teach our youngsters that putting just one foot out of line will lead to most unpleasant consequences, whereas the straight and narrow path of blind obedience will lead to the contented bearing of the virtuous. What I have in mind, therefore, is that the next child caught shop-lifting or perhaps skipping class should be shot. Or hanged. It hardly matters how the punishment is carried out, although it should be done in public. What matters is that there is a brief but unrelenting demonstration of state power, for this will soon have the children back in line.

And so it is that only by administering a regular beating will we teach children that beatings are not to be administered, and certainly not to police-officers (who alone may administer beatings as they see fit). It may seem a paradox, but then so is life. Harden up.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

In Search of the Good Times

As the world drifts increasingly into dark waters, the peoples of the world's great democracies cry out to the heavens, beseeching someone to do something to make it all safe again. Usually the someone is a politician, a leader of virtue and a beacon of hope, upon whose powerful shoulders we can place our burden and rest our fondest wishes.

But politicians today are accustomed to doing their work by doing nothing. They have graven on their hearts the mantra let it be and so they do. But when a ship is listing alarmingly to port, it is no time for the captain to be standing by and letting things be; the crew expects commands, directions, at the very least some helpful suggestions as to which ropes to pull and which sails to hoist. It is one thing to have one's hands off the tiller when the sailing is smooth, quite another when the waters are rough. And so we turn to the politicians to do something, to guide us through the rough waters to a haven, sweet and gentle. Which, all things considered, the politicians seem to find rather a dashed nuisance.

John English New Zealand House Of Representatives Meet In Wellington
John Key and Bill English chuckle at the thought that they might actually do something.

Out of dubious nostalgia and unrelenting despair, we look back to the golden age of the post-war years—the years of innocence and ease, luxury and contentment—and ask ourselves what it was that our wise leaders did then that the leaders of today are failing to do. For it is obvious, we think, that the good times came about through wisdom and forethought, sound planning and rational analysis. The notion that the good times might have been little more than a serendipitous turn for the better, jollied along by a cracking good world war, does not tend to cross the minds of most; and if it does have the temerity to do so, usually at some ungodly hour when we are most vulnerable to unsettling thoughts, we muster all our mental forces to turn it out and send it packing, for it is no use to us. Our faith in reason and the ability of our leaders to work things out, it must never waver, for it is all we have left us.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Whirling Dervish of Rationalism

The progress of Enlightenment is limited. It hardly reaches the suburbs. The people there are too stupid, too miserable, and too busy. There it stops.—Diderot, 1759

In Diderot’s lament, we hear the anguish of all those who have resigned themselves to the inability of Enlightenment’s illumination to push its way into the dark miasma of the dreary suburbs. And there is perhaps reasonable grounds for that resignation. However much we might take comfort in the idea of universal equality—whilst taking pleasure in observing our own humble virtue—it is a simple and rather mundane fact that there are some who know much, and some who know very little indeed, and those who know little are not well placed to judge usefully on matters of importance. This is no mark against them; it is not a question of gauging who is the better human being. It is merely a statement of the way the world is, and however much querulous, hysterical tub-thumbing some might undertake in protest, it would be as futile as protesting the despicable tyranny of gravity.
Diderot lamenting the stupid, the miserable, and the busy.
But getting bogged down in ructions of that kind is, in any event, entirely pointless, for there is another simple fact which renders Diderot’s observation redundant: the matters of real importance in this world are too far beyond our ken to be susceptible to rational solutions. It is only foolhardiness underwritten by hubris—against which the old-school conservatives such as Burke, Hayek and Oakeshott warned—that convinces us otherwise. Even if we were ourselves, in some meaningful way, rational creatures (which we are so far from being, it’s odd anyone could think it were true), we can quite rationally want a diversity of ends which would make any attempt at unity impossible. To this can be added the rationally possible diversity of means to the diversity of ends which we might rationally make use of. With but a few short, rational steps we see the multiplicity of variables already beginning to spin wildly out of control, a sort of whirling dervish of rationalism.

The true rationalist would counter that we are much mistaken if we believe there to be a multiplicity of ends. Reasons is one; to any given question, the same answer must apply, to everyone, at all times, at all places. That is the essence of rationalism. And it’s the very reason why apostles of rationalism ought never be allowed to have unfettered authority over our lives, for in its essential form, rationalism becomes authoritarianism, and it in no way eases the weight of the chains to know that they have been placed about us in a rational manner.

So what does this leave us with? It leaves us with muddling along, getting by as best we can, choosing to care or not to care, as is our wont, making our way gamely through life’s trials until those trials are done. There are no grand plans, no masterful strokes by which all is made right. There is just the inordinately complex fact of billions of lives being pursued—vigorously, timidly, fretfully, ignorantly—and each one of those lives of necessity sure of its own infinitude because the mind cannot encompass something so vast as nothingness. It may not be a vision to inspire, but the universe remains obstinately indifferent to our desires, and the steamroller of reality will flatten us all, however much we might stand in its path, frantically waving our arms in our madness and delusion.