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Michael Hayden’s Complaint

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On Sunday, Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the NSA, was on Face the Nation to discuss his new book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies. His quotes are taken from this transcript.

Hayden claims that we have entered what he calls a “post-truth world.” What does he mean by that? He identifies three contributory causes:

And, frankly, the first problem is us. It’s the broader society. It’s our social discourse or lack of social discourse. We’re making decisions based not on facts and data but on emotion, preference, grievance, loyalty, tribalism. We have a president who recognized that as a candidate, exploited it as a candidate and, frankly, I think, worsens it as a president by some of the things he says and does. And then, finally, we’ve got a foreign power coming in recognizing and exploiting both one and two above. And it’s all based on our moving away from basing our lives, our decisions, our dialogue on a view of objective reality rather than preference.

For this discussion, I want to stop at point one. It is valid, but it is not a new development. Almost one hundred years ago, Irving Babbitt was telling us that we were going to come to grief if we continued to move in the direction of placing emotion, preference and grievance above facts and data.

The Eighteenth Amendment is striking proof of our loss of grasp, not only on the principles that underlie our own Constitution, but that must underlie any constitution, as such, in opposition to mere legislative enactment.
Democracy and Leadership (1924), p. 250.

Babbitt was a proponent of what he called the New Humanism, which he sharply distinguished from what he identified as humanitarianism. As Babbitt saw, humanitarianism gave free play to expansive sentimentality, and no self-restraint was possible under such an ethos. He saw the religion of The People and the worship of progress for its own sake as opposite sides of the same coin.

The humanist exercises the will to refrain, but the end that he has in view is not the renunciation of the expansive desires but the subduing of them to the law of measure. The humanistic virtues-moderation, common sense, and common decency-though much more accessible than those of the saint, still go against the grain of the natural man — terribly against the grain, one is forced to conclude from a cool survey of the facts of history. Such, indeed, is the difficulty of getting men to practice even humanistic control that one is led, not necessarily to revive the dogma of original sin, but to suspect that the humanitarians, both Baconian and Rousseauistic, are hopelessly superficial in their treatment of the problem of evil. The social dualism they have set up tends in its ultimate development to substitute the class war for what Diderot termed in his denunciation of the older dualism the “civil war in the cave.”
— “What I Believe” (1930)

Babbitt found that right living requires both the intellect to know what to do and the will to do it. It is the will, more than the intellect, that falters.

In any case the assertion that one attains to more abundant life (in the religious sense) by getting rid of the don’ts sums up clearly, even though in an extreme form, the side of the modern movement with which I am taking issue. This book in particular is devoted to the most unpopular of all tasks — a defence of the veto power.
Democracy and Leadership, p. 5.

Babbitt called for more self-reform and less social reform at a time when the current was running very much the other way. Thus, few listened to him. At this time, we would do well to go back and understand what he had to say.

Already by Babbitt’s time, we had sufficient history to provide examples for those having eyes to see. Babbitt looked critically at the French Revolution:

In theory, Robespierre is, like Rousseau, rigidly equalitarian. He is not a real leader at all — only the people’s “hired man.” But at critical moments, in the name of an ideal general will, of which he professes to be only the organ, he is ready to impose tyrannically his will on the actual people. The net result of the Rousseauistic movement is thus not to get rid of leadership, but to produce an inferior and even insane type of leadership, and in any case leadership of a highly imperialistic type. This triumph of force can be shown to be the total outcome of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the Rousseauistic sense. Rousseau himself, as we have seen, would force people to be free. The attempt to combine freedom with equality led, and, according to Lord Acton, always will lead, to terrorism. As for Jacobinical fraternity, it has been summed up in the phrase; “Be my brother or I’ll kill you.”
— Democracy and Leadership, p. 127.

For Babbitt, there was plenty enough to learn, not only from how the Revolution progressed to how it ended, with Napoleon. Babbitt cited Burke’s predictions from as far back as 1790 that a military adventurer would ultimately sweep in and pick up all the marbles. Napoleon did not get much pushback from the acolytes of The People; most of them fell over one another to welcome and praise him.

After an experience of the theory that has already extended over several generations, the world would seem at times to have become a vast seething mass of hatred and suspicion. What Carlyle wrote of the Revolution has not ceased to be applicable: “Beneath this rose-colored veil of universal benevolence is a dark, contentious, hell-on-earth.”
Democracy and Leadership, p. 131.

As it turned out, this was not only true of the French Revolution, but of the Soviets and the volksgemeinschaft of the Nazis.

For Babbitt, Rousseau was the leading figure, though by no means the final word, in the development of expansive sentimentality as the preferred standard of judgment. Rousseau moved the locus of the struggle for good and evil outside of the individual. Rousseau wrote, “man is naturally good and it is by our institutions alone that men become wicked.” This grants the Rousseauvian the license to give way to his expansive desires, since they are perceived to be naturally good.

Since Babbitt wrote, we have seen the full development of emotivism, the idea that ethical claims are based on emotional attitudes. Emotivism is sometimes known as the hurrah/boo theory, because it recognizes no higher standard than what a person feels about an ethical idea. It is the total realization of decisions based on emotion, preference and grievance. It is the extreme end of the scale in this regard. A person might have a sense that this is not the way to make decisions, but could she articulate her basis for knowing that this is wrong? How would she explain why emotivism goes too far?

Meanwhile, a man in the position of Hayden is left way out on a limb. He wants to base his life and his decisions on objective reality, but in the service of people who want to base their lives and decisions on emotion and preference. He wants to uphold institutions, in the service of people whose philosophy tells them that their institutions are the source of corruption. As this plays out over time, he finds himself being ground between rollers moving ever closer together, leaving no escape. He wants to be providing means based on objective reality to people who choose their ends based on sentiment, but this is a source of increasing frustration to his public because the means do not reach the ends. He perceives, correctly, that the people blame him and those like him for not being able to magically produce the ends they desire.

What’s it like, trying to lead an organization whose function depends on recognition of objective reality, answering to people who don’t care about objective reality? Solzhenitsyn provided a compact summary:

And there were some bright engineers who pointed out a fourth reason as well: that, so they claimed, the necessity of setting up a perimeter fence at every step, of strengthening the convoy, of allotting a supplementary convoy, interfered with their, the engineers’, technical maneuverability, as, for example, during the disembarkation on the River Taz; and because of this, so they claimed, everything was done late and cost more. But this was already an objective reason, this was a pretext! Summon them to the Party bureau, give them a good scolding, and the cause will disappear. Let them break their heads; they’ll find a solution.
The Gulag Archipelago, vol. II, pp. 584-585.

We don’t have to care about your facts and data, Michael! Data is all in your head. Our feelings outrank your excuses. We can want whatever we want, and either you and your people break your heads to provide it or we’ll find someone else who will.

From this point of view, Donald Trump has produced two effects. First, he has raised the intensity of the game to the next level. More important than this, however, is the fact that he has shown the door can swing both ways. Many of the people who advocated sentimentality and good intentions assumed that people in power would always share their sentiments (Yes, we can!), and that those with whom they disagree are on “the wrong side of history.” Now, it seems history has turned a corner, heading in an unsatisfying direction. Thus we observe a sudden awakening of interest in facts and evidentiary data.

… the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.
— Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), p. 147.

The Weimar Republic didn’t end well; it voted itself out of existence and tossed the keys to the Napoleon wannabee of the era. I am not going to compare Trump to Hitler; I don’t find such comparisons warranted. The comparison Bloom made, of our contemporary society to Weimar, is much more apposite. Most of Part II of the book is his argument in support of this claim. Bloom also called our approach, “nihilism with a happy ending.” It will turn out that there are no happy endings for nihilists. The evidence for this is accumulating monthly.

If I can have my truth and you can have your truth, why can’t Donald Trump have his truth? Yes, it’s a little more scary, since he is in a position to do more with his truth, like sic the IRS on you or start a war. But either any of us get to have our own individual truth, or none of us do.

“We are approaching,” Rousseau declared, “the era of crises, and the age of revolutions.” He not only made the prophecy but did more than any other one man to insure its fulfillment.
— “What I Believe”

If each of us can have our own truth, then there is no possibility of settling our differences with words. If they are to be settled at all, that only leaves bullets as a means of settling them. Do not construe that I am endorsing violence. I would much rather be able to work out political disputes with words. But without a common truth on which to base an argument, any attempt to try to persuade another person with words is a fool’s errand. Rational citizens are scared of the eventuality of violent resolution, and rightly so, which is why so many critical issues go unresolved. The unresolved issues are piling up, weighing on us, demanding resolution.

Perhaps Trump can convince people that being out of power can even happen to nice people like you, and when it happens to you, process suddenly becomes important. Possibly, through his negative example, he can illustrate the consequences of cutting loose from facts and data when they are not emotionally satisfying, making these consequences come to life in a way no book can. If he is able to accomplish this, before we are reduced to violence, he will have done a great service to the country.

The belief that sentimentality and good intentions can provide an effective guide to morality is playing out before your eyes. Persons such as Hayden provide valuable testimony of the consequences of these ideas.

The day of reckoning is coming. Hayden provides one more item of evidence that it must come. When it comes, Irving Babbitt is still waiting to show us the way forward.


Written by srojak

May 8, 2018 at 11:13 pm