William K. Wolfrum's picture

    This Blog Post makes absolutely no difference so who the hell cares anyway?

    In a short matter of time, Conservative thinkers have leaped completely over Libertarianism and moved on to full-fledged Nihilism. The New York Times' Ross Douthat leads the charge


    After all, what ultimately ails the world is its inherent imperfectibility — its fallen character, if you’re a Christian; its irreducible complexity and tendency toward entropy and dissolution, if you’re a strict materialist. This is true on all the great issues of the day. No matter how many lives may be saved or lost because of health care policy, no lives will be saved forever, and every gain will be an infinitely modest hedge against the wasting power of disease and death. No matter the wisdom of our politicians or the sagacity of their economic advisors, no policy course can guarantee universal wealth or permanent economic growth. And no matter the temperature of our discourse, the state of our gun laws, or the quality of our mental health care, nothing human beings do can prevent the occasional madman from shooting up a crowded parking lot.

    Needless to say, DougJ at Balloon Juice didn't find this a valid argument.

    This is what I find so infuriating about conservative would-be intellectuals, the constant fall back positions. We all start from the normal starting point for argument “I think my policy will work better than yours.” When conservatives’ arguments seem weaker, there’s always the Brooksian “the limits of human knowledge means we can’t say whose will work better”, which is pathetic enough. Douthat’s “who cares which policy worked better because no policy will achieve world peace and universal immortality” represents a new low, one that I never thought would be reached in my lifetime.

    There are multiple ways of looking at this argument. But it wouldn't make any difference anyway, so to hell with it.




    I had this same revelation a couple of years ago as I was attempting to pull a tick off my dog Rico.  "What does it matter," I asked myself, "since we are all wormsmeat in the end?"  "And no matter how much I try to protect him," I mused, " there will always be some insane psychopathic tick ready to leap out of the grasses and latch onto him."   So I just stopped with the business of tick removal.  Rico now looks like a canine beach ball, swollen all over from embedded ticks.  But at least he is philosophically authentic.

    Earlier this winter, I had revved up the snowblower and was getting to work on clearing the driveway when I thought, "This snowblower is absurd.  The second law of thermodynamics makes it abundantly clear that there can be no perpetual motion machine, and that entropy is always increasing and ... something, something after that."  So I just gave up.  Now the snow is so deep that my wife and I cannot get out of the driveway, and our lives have fallen into economic ruin and disorder - further proof of my brilliant theory of entropy.

    Soon after the revelation of the snow machine, I stoped scrubbing in mid-shower, rapt with a sudden vision of chaos and hyper-reality that hit me like a thunderbolt.  "All of this scraping and scrubbing and lathering and rinsing.  Truly I am a moron, since I am only laboring ineffectually against the inherent imperfectability of man.  I can no more rid myself of this mortal dirt than I can cleanse my fallen and spotted soul of its sins.  Dirt I am, and to dirt I shall return."

    I smell quite bad now.  And I have populations of strange flora and microsopic fauna, previously unknown to science, growing in places I cannot mention.  But I walk in the path of the Lord, the creator of both sinful man and the laws of thermodynamics, and have resigned my soul to Him.

    I'd point out that this was a great comment, Dan, but what's the point?

    Welcome to enlightenment.

    But do you still stand up to pee?

    Sure, it takes effort, concentration, life-force... but... you know. A man's pride, and all.

    Then again, I get so tired. 

    *splish splash*

    Conservatives basically suffer from low expectations.  It's so much easier to throw up your hands than to dig in to try and solve problems and if you do enact any policies, hey, no heartache if they don't function as intended.

    Of course, these same people who call others naive utopians thought they were bringing democracy to the Middle East in 2003, so there's that.

    I think we need to take back the word utopian.  Yes, it's bad if your utopian ideal leads to death and destruction but for the most part it's far better than do-nothing realism, which has become something of a cult.

    I'd avoid trying to invoke the word utopia in a pragmatic sense as it literally means "no place" (as in such a place cannot exist).

    "Utopia" is derived from the Greek words ou (οὐ), "not", and topos (τόπος), "place", with the suffix -iā (-ία) that is typical of toponyms; hence Outopía (Οὐτοπία; Latinized as Ūtopia, with stress on the second syllable), "no-place-land".

    I suppose that makes dystopia a "bad place".

    Maybe instead of using utopia, we can come up with a better word/phrase?

    I think it's EUtopia - i.e. 'good' place. like EUdaimonia - 'good' fortune, etc.

    It sounds good (or eu, if you prefer), but there are many sources who claim "ou" instead of "eu":



    Also, if eu is so good, how do you explain Europe?

    Thanks for the link. The Wikipedia also has this bit...

    In English, Utopia is pronounced exactly as Eutopia (the latter word, in Greek Εὐτοπία [Eutopiā], meaning “good place,” contains the prefix εὐ- [eu-], “good”, with which the οὐ of Utopia has come to be confused in English pronunciation).[2] This is something that More himself addresses in an addendum to his book Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie.[3]

    So blame it on More's wordplay, I guess.

    As for Europe, have you seen the rope over here...? Awesome...

    We North Americans aren't interested in either U-topia or EU-topia.

    Now, ME-topia - that rings some bells. 

    Conservatives basically suffer from low expectations.  It's so much easier to throw up your hands than to dig in to try and solve problems and if you do enact any policies

    Actually, they want to conserve the old ways of doing things, no change please.

    these same people who call others naive utopians thought they were bringing democracy to the Middle East in 2003, so there's that.

    No they are not the same people, that's why those particular people created the label of neo-conservative for themselves. They wanted to change things, but only certain things.

    Didn't Douthat support the Iraq war?

    As for the claim that conservatives want to conserve the old ways... I think they're more activist than that.  They want to roll back all of the post Depression and mostly post World War II changes in society.  But that's a very activist agenda.  Or as Bob Roberts put it... "Times they are a'changin' back."

    I think it's an important distinction as to this nihilist topic. As neo-conservatives are just now more proof to conservatives that that planned changes thing doesn't work and neo-conservatiist faith in a government planning being able to affect the world is a failure. And the neo-conservatives are depressed and nihilistic over that. The Pat Buchanan's et. al. still believe their way is correct.

    P.S. Douthat = neo-conservative.

    I don't think Pat Buchanan's ever had a moment of doubt in his life.  Not even when he got all those Jewish votes in Florida.

    Desiring to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear is 'reactionary':  From Wikipedia:

    The term reactionary refers to viewpoints that seek to return to a previous state (the status quo ante) in a society. The term is meant to describe one end of a political spectrum whose opposite pole is "radical".

    Most political arguments seem to be between reactionaries from both sides.  They just disagree on which status quo ante we should return to.  


    Yes, thanks for the reminder--and is much more useful terminology, mho. Wish more would use them instead of the much disputed political labels and party labels.

    It does get at what was in the birth of the neo-conservative movement, too, to offer idealistic alternative narratie to the old fogeyism for the young folks.

    Yes.  And neo-conservative is much more vague and less commie sounding than than trotskyites.  They do like to think of themselves as the vanguard in a worldwide revolution.   Apparently they do not really care all that much about which side wins as long as they get to lead.


    Apparently they do not really care all that much about which side wins as long as they get to lead.

    Or get laid. Which ever comes first.

    So my grandson asks, "What's the point in doing all this homework, grandpa?"  Naturally, I assumed he would follow with, "We're all going to just die anyway."  But he surprised me when he said, "Just look at all the dumb guys who get rich."

    You can fool some of the people....

    Great post, but I think DougJ is wrong. This isn't nihilism. It's mysticism.

    What Douthat means is that nothing humans can do changes anything. The only person who can really solve our problems is Aslan.

    Therefore, we should stop trying to work out responsible policies and focus on thinking as much about Aslan as we can.



    I can haz immortal soul?

    I don't think any of this is new. Nor is it surprising. It's always been central to the conservative outlook that material goods - conceived broadly as including peace, poverty reduction, health, jobs - aren't really what counts in life. And so who really cares whether government ensures that they exist in adequate quantity. Actually it goes farther than that quite often: conservatives think it important that things not be provided, since the individual's autonomous will only finds its full expression in strife, struggle, poverty, and iniquity. A poor hungry man sharing his loaf is a thing of beauty. Paris Hilton throwing dollar bills at a mob just vaguely nauseating. ... at least that is the thinking, the kind of thinking that you get in circles completely insulated from any hardship.

    I remember Lalo from TPM talking about traveling around Europe, and sensing that European souls were deadened, implicitly or explicitly due to that oh-so-tragic excess of socialism - that somehow material comfort as a universal goal is psychologically unsustainable, or at least spiritually unsustaining. And he isn't the only conservative to say something along those lines. to some extent I don't think this is just projection on their part. There is a great difference in the general atmosphere on the opposite sides of the pond. In the US there is a pungent sense of 'fear and loathing', which you might find invigorating if you're into that kind of thing. And it is something that is largely absent from Europe, even in the rougher parts of Glasgow, London, or Dortmund.

    And to venerate this essentially American kind of MATERIAL anxiety - walking the tightrope without a safety net, to regard it as somehow superior to the more transparently dulling EXISTENTIAL angst you get in Europe has always struck me as odd. There just seems to be no clear explanation for it. Or for why the US and Europe decided to go down different paths over the last thirty years or so, why - that is - the US decided to abandon the fundamentally modernist project of Society providing for the basic material well-being of its citizens. It can't be put down to the Indomitable American 'Soul' or the American mythology of rugged individualism, because there was no daylight between the American and the European outlook just thirty years ago. It's something new. A form of brainwashing that has occurred over those decades, slowly nudging rightwards with a drip-feed of smaller and then greater lies, and one that can now unveil its true essence: 'we just don't give a shit about other people'. It has succeeded so well that it can present this 'governing philosophy' as not only a respectable worldview but as a virtuous one.

    Me?  I'll take material comfort and my soul will somehow manage.

    Yeah, but most conservatives are perfectly fine with political action aimed at positive worldly effects, so long as the effects suit their aims.  No conservative doubts that you can cut the crime rate by passing stiffer sentencing laws and throwing more people in jail; or that you can boost economic growth and jobs by cutting corporate taxes and eliminating the minimum wage; or that the surest way to spur entrepreneurialism and get Americans working away is to do away with unemployment insurance and move all those shiftless unemployed bums off the dole.

    It's only when liberals have a good idea for something, backed by empirical evidence that it will actually work, that conservatives go all cosmic and fatalistic about the powerlessness of human agency.

    I don't think that is quite the right way to put it. They are "fine with political action aimed at positive worldly effects" only in the sense that they don't care if stiffer sentencing reduces the crime rate, and they don't care if tax cuts or wage cuts or deregulation increases social welfare. They are indifferent to the MATERIAL outcomes of any policy. They care about the 'moral' outcomes of policy. Stiffer sentences are what the criminals DESERVE. Tax cuts and deregulation are about people getting their just deserts as provided through a market of exchange between unconstrained free agents. Of course, all this is valid only to the extent that they aren't just self-serving and self-interested, which in fairness, and in their own sociopathic way, many of them aren't.

    I don't approve of that outlook. I find it pretty repugnant. I just think it is worth getting clear about its foundation beyond throwing turds at them.

    Exactly. It's part of the Protestant work ethic that Weber talked about. The rewards, in the form of riches, prove that they, and the free markets of capitalism, are worthy in God's eyes. Therefore, their morality is affirmed, while proving that the lower classes and criminals deserve their fate. Government intervention that aims to help the unworthies is seen as mucking around with God's divine plan to make them so miserable that they (the unworthies) either die suffering or find God and start voting for Republicans.

    God sent Hayek, Freidman and Charlton Heston to speed things along. :-)

    They are indifferent to the MATERIAL outcomes of any policy.

    I don't think you're right at all.  You're only thinking about the religious wing of the Republican party, and it doesn't even apply fully to them.  America's wealthiest people are mostly Republicans, and they have armies of lobbyists prowling Washington, all dedicated to the job of making their employers even richer.

    I just talked today to a very well-off individual who was bitching at us because he had to "write a tax check to Obama."  Almost every minute of this guy's waking life is devoted to thinking about his money.

    These are the cats who determine the economic agenda of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.  If they pray at all, the prayer goes something like, "Dear God, please keep that goddam ni**** Barack Obama from taking my money and giving it to his goddam ni**** friends.  Amen."

    Don't be taken in by the religious window dressing.

    I think the high-falutin' philosophical ideas being put forward by the Right don't give us all that much traction in explaining what motivates their followers. They have some quasi-moral/religious talk, and economic/free-market/material talk, but more and more, what I see is.... resentment.

    Sometimes it goes so far as hating on other groups in particular, but basically, they just don't like the idea of others getting something, or going somewhere, or becoming someone.

    It's a pretty deep pool of disdain and resentment, and almost completely flexible in what it can be diverted toward.

    Yeah maybe. I'm out of touch over here.

    My main contact with conservatives is with my family and ex-colleagues, where the 'dumb blind rage' meme doesn't really work for me.

    Conservatives remind of drunks looking for that bar they were at a few hours ago where they were really having a good time. They just can't remember where the hell it is. They keep saying it's just around the corner, but they end up here in this bar every time they go out and look for it. So they sit next to you talking about their good times there and how this bar isn't up to that bar and if they could find their way back to it they would be the most happiest person in the world. In the meantime, they start belittling this bar and its patrons in favor of that bar and start to demand changes be made to satisy their wants, needs and desires they received at that bar they can't find anymore. And when they can't get their way they begin to get agitated which causes some patrons to quietly get up and move to the door while others start to size up the insitgator to see if he's ready to fight or maybe willing to have a few more stiff drinks, get really snockered, then wanders outside looking for that bar again and walks in front of a moving truck.

    At my neighborhood bar, we ply conservatives with drink, then roll them for their dough (they always seem to have lots, whatever the marginal tax rate). After the first few muggings, they wise up and take their custom elsewhere.

    Speaking of nihilism, I rode home last night behind these three bumper stickers:



    and last but not least....


    That last one almost seems self-deprecating, as if they're knowingly making fun of themselves (as opposed to the first two, where they're obviously inadvently making themselves look like idiots).

    Douthat's statement,

    No matter how many lives may be saved or lost because of health care policy, no lives will be saved forever, and every gain will be an infinitely modest hedge against the wasting power of disease and death.

    is more hallucinogenic than nihilistic. I remember gatherings where someone might say: "the primary motivation for wanting more people to benefit from health care is the advantage it might give us in the titanic battle with the inevitability of Death itself."


    Latest Comments