Friday, February 25, 2005

On the Necessity of God and Enemies

If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent Him. But all nature cries aloud that He does exist; that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it.

~ Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778)
Voltaire, the author of Candide,  was a bit of a dilettante philosopher, but he did have some good ideas.  The quote above really is provocative.  The first sentence -- If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him -- implies that there is a possibility that god does not exist, and that perhaps he was invented.  Of course, the second sentence obviates that possibility; in 18th-century Europe, reputable gentlemen, at least the nonsuicidal ones, kept any agnostic or atheistic thoughts to themselves.   

Today's NYT has an editorial (blogsafe link) by Paul Krugman.  In it, he ties together two seemingly disparate themes: the slime attacks on John Kerry, and the attacks on those who oppose the privatization of Social Security.  (I like the technique of making a point by tying together two seemingly disparate topics -- like, for example, the writings of Voltaire, and those of Krugman.)
The slime campaign has begun against AARP, which opposes Social Security privatization. There's no hard evidence that the people involved - some of them also responsible for the "Swift Boat" election smear - are taking orders from the White House. So you're free to believe that this is an independent venture. You're also free to believe in the tooth fairy.

Their first foray - an ad accusing the seniors' organization of being against the troops and for gay marriage - was notably inept. But they'll be back, and it's important to understand what they're up to.
Krugman's point is that a subset of  neoconservatives made a point of casting Kerry as an enemy.  Now they are doing the same thing to the AARP.  Rather than framing an issue as a debate among friendly equals, they frame it as a struggle against a morally inferior enemy.  It can be an effective technique. 

But why resort to such a method? After all, is it not preferable to engage in spirited intellectual debate, rather than a bitter adversarial process?  Yes, if you think you can win that way, or if you can tolerate the narcissistic insult that comes from loosing.  On the other hand, if you think you cannot win any other way, or if you don't have the emotional wherewithal to tolerate loosing, you might do anything to win.  Even if it means disrupting the fabric of society.

In a polite society, such as that of Voltaire, adversarial contests are to be avoided, if possible.  It is sort of like the concept of resorting to war, only after all other means of resolution have failed.  Such a society often is spoken of -- metaphorically, -- as a fabric.  A society in which adversarial processes occur rarely, could be likened to a silk tapestry; a society in which adversarial processes are actively created, could be likened to a ratty burlap sack. 

Which would you choose to decorate your living room?

Those who seek to consolidate their power often resort to the tactic of creating an enemy, if one is not present already.  I would not say that if there is no enemy, it would be necessary to create one.  But there are those who do exactly that.  They do it to consolidate power. 

This probably was the motivation for 9-11.  It was not a blow against infidels.  It was not retaliation for support of Israel.  It was a self-serving means of consolidating power for al Qaeda.  Now, the sliming of the AARP does not rise to the level (or sink to the level) of 9-11.  But there is a common element.  Both are forms of social vandalism.  Both rend the fabric of society.  Both take topics that could be the basis for legitimate debate, and transmogrify them into adversarial conflicts. 

If you see people resorting to such tactics, do not think of them as the enemy.  Think of them as pitiable narcissists, who can't stand the thought of loosing, or sociopaths, who don't care about the cost of winning. 

You can have a silk tapestry in your living room, or you can hang up a feed bag.  It's your call.  One last thought:
Jean Paul Sartre has said that all of French Existentialism is to be found in Ivan Karamazov's contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted.

-- Katharena Eiermann
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.  If there is no God, everything is permitted.  Both are ingeniously ambiguous.  Did Sartre mean that, in the absence of god, things more terrible than those currently in existence could happen; or, did he mean to imply that if there were no god, the world could be made a better place? 

What would Candide think?  Maybe I'll consider that some other time.