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The Radicals

Thought it's funny to interpret the Bush team's disparagement of the reality-based community as meaning that they are avowedly ignoring the facts, the truth is that this is a serious misrepresentation of what the guy was trying to say to Ron Suskind. The point the guy was trying to make was analagous to Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." This speaks, I think, less to Bush's religiosity (though plausible analogies can be drawn between Marxian eschatology and Christian millenarianism) than simply to the contemporary right's proclivity for taking on the worst aspects of yesteryear's leftwing radicalism. There's this shared penchant for identifying problems, then putting foreward grandiose proposals for sweeping structural solutions, and then displaying no interest in (or an active hostility toward) efforts to ameliorate the previously-identified problem, lest pragmatic modifications wind up hindering attempts at "consciousness-raising" to build support for sweeping change. The present is held to be so obviously intolerable that one needn't give any serious thought to whether or not your proposals for change are practical, the means by which you plan to implement them moral, or their likely effects actually beneficial.

There's an obsession with purity, both of ideology and motive at the expense of assessments of actual consequences; a valorization of action and mobilization, a disdain for thoughtfulness, caution, detail, comity, and consensus.

UPDATE: Mickey Kaus was on the Feuerbach angle on Tuesday. See also Robert Kennedy, "Some people see things as they are, and ask 'Why?' I see things as
they might be, and ask 'Why not?'"

October 28, 2004 | Permalink


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I think his remarks harken (love that verb) back to the Italian fascist ideal. The truth is a given. All men know it. The perfect man acts with the immediacy of an animal.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Oct 28, 2004 12:33:33 PM

Well - Duh. A bunch of freaking trotskists, didn't I tell you? But the so called 'liberal hawks' aren't much different.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 28, 2004 12:38:12 PM

MY writes: " The point the guy was trying to make was analagous to Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.""

Matt, Matt, Matt.

Why do you assume the guy himself had a correct understanding of this?

Given how badly they've screwed everything up, it's more likely that this administration person has a flawed understanding of it, and that Suskind is correct.

Posted by: Jon H | Oct 28, 2004 12:44:45 PM

"a disdain for thoughtfulness, caution, detail, comity, and consensus."

One does not treat radicals as if they were moderates, nor revolutionaries as if they were reformers. Perhaps lessons can be learned from the 40-50s, when the left, brutally forced into alliance with the very disagreeable right purged the communists from their ranks. Or the 50-60s, when some Democrats abandoned their immediate political interests to purge racists from their party.


"This is the paradox of the prisoner's dilemma, to break it requires "grudging" the betrayers, it requires a hump of even more division and social strife. This is the lesson of our own Civil War - the partisanization continued until it ripped the country apart, because no one, at any time, would put a halt to the side which was driving the partisanization.....

And it is to the moderates that the decision always rests. If they seek to avoid conflict - they will get much more of it. If they seek to side with the betrayers against those who are betrayed, they will get open civil war, since at that point those betrayed will know that they are in a state of open war with the rest of society, and that, since there is no hope of persuasion, violence is required to protect their lives.

But then Machiavelli knew this 500 years ago, to end civil strife, target those who created it, let blood run in the streets. And then pass laws to never let it happen again." ...Newberry

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 28, 2004 12:46:56 PM


Posted by: praktike | Oct 28, 2004 12:53:21 PM

It's just sneering at reporters and "critics." It's exactly the kind of thing Karl Rove would say, although I doubt Karl Rove would talk to Ron Suskind.

Posted by: Handle | Oct 28, 2004 12:56:46 PM

... and this is the result, this is what they do, always the same:

Scientists Estimate 100,000 Iraqi Deaths

LONDON (AP) - A survey of deaths in Iraqi households estimates that as many as 100,000 more people may have died throughout the country in the 18 months after the U.S. invasion than would be expected based on the death rate before the war.
The survey indicated violence accounted for most of the extra deaths seen since the invasion, and air strikes from coalition forces caused most of the violent deaths, the researchers wrote in the British-based journal.

``Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children,'' they said.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 28, 2004 1:04:49 PM

Jeffrey Davis,

I think the German expression was to "think with one's blood." Or "we need Siegfrieds, not Hamlets."

Posted by: Kevin Carson | Oct 28, 2004 1:05:28 PM

let's not forget they had proof in hand that this would approach would work -- they were in office, having stolen the election.

Posted by: Troy | Oct 28, 2004 1:05:41 PM

Sorry, here's the link: Scientists Estimate 100,000 Iraqi Deaths

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 28, 2004 1:07:04 PM

As I have said before, possibly here, Democrats REALLY need to think about what the guy was saying. One thing he was saying is that the US executive, who is in certain respects the most powerful person in the history of the world, has the power to render points moot by taking initiatives which reconfigure the whole playing field. (Sharon's "facts on the ground".)

A second is that himan social and historical reality is not a "thing" whose nature can be observed and described exactly. It is an overlapping complex of processes, including historical transformations, which cannot usually be understood in advance because we haven't learned yet what the key evidence is.

In electoral politics, Republicans are opportunistic -- always looking for the break, the temporary advantage, the new trend, etc., and always trying to change the reality. Democrats tend to be sensible, assuming that the future will be much like the past. The Republicans win that way.

I've said many times, and I think it's true though no one has agreed, that the institional affiliations of Democrats tend to be managerial, normalizing, and unventuresome -- public administration, academia (where tenure, tradition and academic civility rule), and (more in the past than now) some enormous corporations and their unions. Republicans have a lot more of the semi-criminal wildcatter, riverboat gambler, huckster, entrepreneurial streak, always looking for the advantage, and that works better.

In government and foreign policy I generally (but not always) prefer the Democratic way, but in campaigning I think the Republican way works better.

A lot of what I said is Gingrichesque. Give the guy credit. He changed the world.

Posted by: Zizka | Oct 28, 2004 1:08:31 PM

I agree with Jon. I think it's more likely that Suskind's source was misinterpreting Marx, rather than Suskind and us misinterpreting his source. What Bush was proposing was much different than forcibly changing "the facts on the ground"-- Bush proposed a radical transformation of the middle east based almost entirely on a "will to power." By contrast, Ariel Sharon seems like a veritable pragmatist.

Posted by: Constantine | Oct 28, 2004 1:36:11 PM

I don't remember exactly when I first heard the term 'cultural war' used to describe political diferences between liberals and conservatives in this country. It has to be thirty years ago or so I think. Like most Americans I never gave it much serious thought, sloughing it off as overheated political rhetoric of some radical conservatives trying to rally their base.

Then last year Justice Scalia used the term in a way that gave me a sudden epiphany. He said of his fellow jurors who voted diffent than he did that they 'had taken sides in the culture war'.

I realized then and there, and I will never forget it, that Scalia and the Federalist and the Moral Majority and the Gingrinches and others like them were perfectly serious: They have been fighting a war against American cultural values for the last thirty years and I, perhaps most Americans, did not know it. We never fought back cause we thought they still shared such values as "thoughtfulness, caution, detail, comity, and consensus." Boy was I wrong.

Based upon the wisdom that in war all is fair I now had a coherent unified theory to explain what to me had been up to that point a baffling paradox, ie how could otherwise decent respectable people, people like Ken Starr and James Baker, for example, so ruthlessly use our legal system like it was a battle for life or death, smearing, belittling, and intimidating people, over points I had thought long settled.

Sexual activity between consenting adults is not a matter for criminal investigation, I thought, lest some day it be done to you. Count the ballots, I thought, unless you are willing to have the same tactics used against you.

How naive could I have been? They were at war. I was thinking we were all in this together and they were thinking I was the enemy that had to be destroyed at all costs.

Oh well, now at least I know what the stakes are.

Posted by: ken | Oct 28, 2004 1:39:59 PM

Why so many words? You only need two: messianic megalomaniac.

messianic: marked by idealism and an aggressive crusading spirit.

megalomania: a delusional mental disorder that is marked by infantile feelings of personal omnipotence and grandeur.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 28, 2004 1:47:09 PM

There's also an interesting parallel to Nader, who has stated both in 2000 and this year that he thinks it's just fine if the Republicans win, because the worse they are, the bigger the backlash will be when it comes.

Posted by: Redshift | Oct 28, 2004 1:48:00 PM

As Kinsley said, political fads move from left to right....

Posted by: Seth Gordon | Oct 28, 2004 1:52:23 PM

I thought that there was a Theodore Herzl quote to the effect that small ideas are tossed about but a big idea has its own gravity. I couldn't find it on the internet though. The theory is that a big enough idea will change the world. "if you will it, it is no fairytale."

The Iraq war was Bush's big idea. He moved an idea that was completely off the table to something that was inevitable and uncool to argue against. By the start of the Iraq war, antiwar protestors were completely marginalized, while only a year earlier no one would have publically expressed the opinion that an Iraq war was a good idea.

Bush's fatal error was that he thought that the Iraqi people would be pulled in by the big idea as well. Bush's belief in the power of the big idea lead to post-invasion planning based on wishful thinking.

Posted by: JoeO | Oct 28, 2004 2:07:04 PM

WTF are you talking about Matt? You're one of the most radical extremists on the internet. Bush is a moderate.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Oct 28, 2004 2:07:27 PM

“There's an obsession with purity, both of ideology and motive”

I keep reading this but it doesn’t ring true. I’m of the small “l” libertarian bent, and can’t stomach the Ashcroft wing of the Republican party, but recognize that with a few exceptions they’re all talk. They have no “obsession with purity.” Sure, they talk about same sex marriages, abortion, pornography, etc., etc., etc., and scare you guys right out of your wits. But do they do anything about it other than propose a few sham bills? No. They talk about small government and free markets. But do they do anything about it? No. They enact tax cuts, but that is just a way of buying votes. The targeted business tax credit and pork bills enacted and dutifully signed by W have nothing to do with small government or free markets.

The truth of the matter is that, contrary to Matt’s thesis, the vast majority of elected Republican congressmen and our Pres don’t care about anything other than being reelected.

The Iraq war was an aberration, and I’d bet the ranch if you rewound the clock by a couple of years so that we could start all over again, by this time the 2nd time around Saddam would still be in power. W should be kicking the crap out of Kerry, and the one and only reason he's not is Iraq.

Posted by: ostap | Oct 28, 2004 2:07:57 PM

The confluence of thinking of the Bushies and Stalinists is quite remarkable - the thinking of being "objectively" right though "subjectively" wrong - as Stalin's show-trial victims often pleaded- mirrors well "those who create their own reality" versus the "reality based community."

Posted by: Mumon | Oct 28, 2004 2:13:25 PM

I really think that you are mostly on the wrong track. Before the Suskind thing came out, I was saying these same things. Democrats have to understand what they're facing and respond to it, and part of being able to respond is not to dismiss things too quickly.

I do not deny, and in fact repeat obsessively, that Bush screwed up the Iraq War. He took a big gamble, screwed up, and lost. On the other hand, I think that his tax cut adventurism will have a permanent impact. Gingrich's revolution has had a permanent impact. Norquist will not get everything he wants, but he's been effective.

Furthermore, the US presence in Iraq sharply limits future options. Almost everyone here says that Kerry can't cut and run. In other words, we're being forced to play on Bush's home field. Facts on the ground.

At the tactical level we really have to give the Republicans much more credit than we've been doing on this thread. I think that the Bush administration MAY be the last gasp of the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution, but as I said above, they changed the world. We certainly can't count on them folding when Kerry's elected; there will be a savage coutnerattack.

As an old left-liberal, I continually find myself having to argue with centrist Democrats about things that used to be taken for granted. That's the Reagan-Gingrich-Norquist legacy. And by and large, I don't think that Democrats have learned how to fight Republican adventurist politicking yet.

Posted by: Zizka | Oct 28, 2004 2:34:47 PM

zizka's got it.

Posted by: fyreflye | Oct 28, 2004 3:04:35 PM

For wonks, there's something by political philosopher John Gunnell. I don't have the exact quote here, but it goes something like, "People have been spending too much time on Hobbes -- they should be looking at Oliver Cromwell".

A very, very inexact quote, but the gist is that actors and events make history, and once the dust settles, normalizing philosophical justifications are constructed beneath the new political order for the purpose of seeming to hold it up.

Posted by: Zizka | Oct 28, 2004 3:31:28 PM

"Thought it's funny to interpret the Bush team's disparagement of the reality-based community as meaning that they are avowedly ignoring the facts, the truth is that this is a serious misrepresentation of what the guy was trying to say to Ron Suskind."

As Ariel Sharon said in the 70's, coining a new phrase, "We're going to create facts on the ground."


What I found most creepy in the Suskind article was the part of the quote that fewer have focused on: "We're an empire now."

That was the line that sent shivvers up my spine.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 28, 2004 3:37:08 PM

Yeah, Zizka's got it. Short version: they believe, whether correctly or incorrectly, that they've reached the sheer levels of power ("we're an empire now") wherein it is actually easier to change the world into what you want it to be than see what it's like without your interference.

I would argue that contrary to claiming this is not an admission of blindness, to believe that you can make reality conform accurately to your desires without an understanding of what your starting positions are is the height of blindness.

So what we're seeing is yet another replay of the core beliefs in vouge on the American right and left, at this moment in history: the right thinks that you can analyse, or you can exercise power, and you should exercise power because there's no efficacy to pure analysis. The left wants to use power, but believes that for power to be used effacaciously you have to have an understanding of just what the hell you're doing with it.

Posted by: theogon | Oct 28, 2004 3:41:35 PM

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