Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Problem of Evil and the Rousseauan Other

For anyone interested in the intellectual foundations of liberalism (such as they are), Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions is an indispensable text. Sowell was intrigued by the seeming contradictions between the various interest groups within the broader liberal movement, and in this book he set out to find the common thread that bound them together. He finds this thread in Rousseau's notion of the Noble Savage, the idea that human beings are born innocent and pure, only to be corrupted in later years by the malign influence of society. To the Rousseauan, evil is external and imposed, not inherent in the individual. Contrast this with the modern conservative, who believes that we are born with the potential for both great good and great evil, and that a good society is one which through law, custom, and if necessary coercion, suppresses the evil in the individual and brings out the good. Sowell sees this conflict as the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives, one which drives all other disagreements between the two groups.

In the years since I first read Conflict, I have often puzzled over an internal contradiction in the Rousseauan ideal as it actually works itself out in liberal behavior. To wit: liberals believe that no person is inherently evil; a man may behave in evil ways, but this is only because external social influences have alienated him from his true self. This, however, begs the question of where those evil influences originate. Who made the institutions of the alienating society, and who maintains them? Since liberal ideology does not admit of demons or other malign supernatural influences, it must be evil men. But men cannot be evil, only misguided. Perhaps the influencers are themselves influenced? Then who influenced the influencers? More of the influenced. No matter how far the Rousseauan follows this chain, he cannot find the first cause of the corruption that spoils his perfect man. Following this infinite regression, the Rousseauan should search in vain forever for anyone to blame.

As anyone who has read or watched the news for a few hours knows, liberals never find themselves at a loss for someone to blame. Conservatives, Republicans, pharmaceutical companies, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, multinational companies, evangelical Christians, Newt Gingrich: the list is endless. Either Sowell is wrong, and liberals are not really Rousseauans, or something else is going on.

I still believe that Sowell is right, and that the fundamental conflict of visions is as he describes. It's just that Rousseauan idealists, faced with an apparent flaw in their ideology, long ago found a way around it. Since no human being can be inherently evil, and yet someone must be the prime cause of the evil that human beings do, that someone cannot be a human being. From this syllogism is born the Rousseauan Other.

For the Rousseauan to maintain the core principal of his ideology, he must dehumanize those he deems responsible for the alienating influences of society. He must separate humanity into two groups, one whose members are inherently good, and another whose members are simply not human at all. The International Jew, the Kulak, the Neoconservative: each one, in his time and place, has served to carry and explain the evil which, by Rousseauan principle, must be external to true human beings. They are the Rousseauan Other. Utterly stripped of their humanity by this reasoning, they are legitimate and even necessary targets for disenfranchisement, persecution, exile, genocide. The project of denying the potential for evil in each individual by externalizing it, frees men to commit acts of the greatest depravity.

Recently conservative commentators have described how Democrats have been overtaken by what they call the "paranoid style" in politics, as if this style is something they have adopted, and could choose to reject if only they came to their senses. This is not possible. Paranoia is the logical conclusion of the Rousseauan ideology that lies at the heart of modern liberalism. It is the only way to resolve the essential contradiction in its conception of evil, and prevent the infinite regression of unplaceable blame that would paralyze it. The paranoid style is ultimately inseperable from liberal politics.

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