opinions as expertise

Ten years ago, in the pre-LI days, we didn’t think that much about politics. LI was a different person – oh, habitually and thoughtlessly leftist, but in point of fact, in my New Haven cocoon, my chief concern, besides love love love, was working on my novel. I was happy. Then I made some decisions, like moving away from a place where I knew a lot of people to moving to a place where I knew few. Quitting secretary work, with its steady pay, to become a freelancer, where the payscale is equivalent to what you receive after a few hours patrol with a shakily scribbled cardboard sign and a coffee can out near the intersection of Lamar and 5th street. My fictional genius, the only thing in my life that I really ever liked, dried up. And, of course, as the Bush era kicked into high gear, I became all too aware of politics and, more keenly than ever before, of the total collapse and utter worthlessness of the so called “Left”. Of course, it was at this time, too, that it became easy to go to newspapers online. In the nineties and before, I would read the Sunday Times, but in general, I could give a fuck. If you found a paper on a table at a coffee shop, you read it. Since the days of Reagan, my kind of person disappeared from politics, so it all became one big foreign sport to me, like hurling.

Such has been life for me. Or rather, my posthumous life. The bark has grown over my face, but unlike my compañeros in the seventh circle, underneath it I have become dull and listless about my own life, while burning with a perpetual flame over the horrors of the moronic inferno.

Well, as I became acquainted with the newspaper world, and blogs, and shit, I became more aware of the oddity that was opinion journalism. Often of course there is no distinction at all between opinion journalism and journalism, but since – in the last ten years – I have actually practiced journalism – calling people you don’t know up and asking them questions and building a story around what you find out – I do recognize that journalism is a trade with an actual skill – "skill" I define as the set of routines which you could actually write instructions for - at the base. An expertise. Just like the roller of cigars in my last post, the journalist has to research, has to know how to ask questions, and if the journalist is any good, has to allow the story to take him or her to the right people. It is in the moment in which the journalist let’s go that the possibility of great journalism opens, and at that point it is no longer an expertise.

But having opinions, on the other hand, is an odd kind of expertise. These figures are, recognizably, extensions of the barroom philosopher, and – on tv – tap into the same mix of aggressions and grievances. The overwhelming self pity of the affluent, which is the astonishment of the world. Which is why I want to add to yesterday’s figura (the wonder and the cigar roller) another figure – William James’ moral philosopher.

William James’ essay, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, looks at morality by way of looking at the self-image of the moral philosopher. It is a harsh scrutiny. When the moral philosopher goes beyond producing a natural history of moral systems (something like Nietzsche’s project), and tries to say something about morality itself, the mp gets in all kinds of trouble. James imagines how the world in which the moral philosopher exists implies an insoluble dilemma that the moral philosopher seemingly can’t solve:

“The moment one sentient being, however, is made a part of the universe, there is a chance for goods and evils really to exist. Moral relations now have their status, in that being's consciousness. So far as he feels anything to be good, he makes it good. It is good, for him; and being good for him, is absolutely good, for he is the sole creator of values in that universe, and outside of his opinion things have no moral character at all.

In such a universe as that it would of course be absurd to raise the question of whether the solitary thinker's judgments of good and ill are true or not. Truth supposes a standard outside of the thinker to which he must conform; but here the thinker is a sort of divinity, subject to no higher judge. Let us call the supposed universe which he inhabits a moral solitude. In such a moral solitude it is clear that there can be no outward obligation, and that the only trouble the god﷓like thinker is liable to have will be over the consistency of his own several ideals with one another. …

If now we introduce a second thinker with his likes and dislikes into the universe, the ethical situation becomes much more complex, and several possibilities are immediately seen to obtain.

One of these is that the thinkers may ignore each other's attitude about good and evil altogether, and each continue to indulge his own preferences, indifferent to what the other may feel or do. In such a case we have a world with twice as much of the ethical quality in it as our moral solitude, only it is without ethical unity. The same object is good or bad there, according as you measure it by the view which this one or that one of the thinkers takes. Nor can you find any possible ground in such a world for saying that one thinker's opinion is more correct than the other's, or that either has the truer moral sense. Such a world, in short, is not a moral universe but a moral dualism. Not only is there no single point of view within it from which the values of things can be unequivocally judged, but there is not even a demand for such a point of view, since the two thinkers are supposed to be indifferent to each other's thoughts and acts. Multiply the thinkers into a pluralism, and we find realized for us in the ethical sphere something like that world which the antique sceptics conceived of﷓-in which individual minds are the measures of all things, and in which no “objective” truth, but only a multitude of subjective” opinions can be found.”

The parallel between this pandoxia and the world of the opinion journalist/think tanker/policy expert seems pretty tight. All of those types – all of those media figures – are the decayed and corrupted progeny of the moral philosopher. Admittedly they drift among the very wrecks of reason, and lack even the tiniest speck of that intellectual integrity which would cause a real philosopher to give up a point if it were proven wrong. Admittedly, the opinion makers combine traits from another lineage – that of the court flatterer, the servant, the pimp – and enjoys a wealth founded on such deep and constant abjection and bowing before the powers that be as to make the objective observer dizzy with nausea and loathing, and itching for the rotten tomato to hurl at his pissant phiz – but I want to bracket that and ask: what do these people practice for ten years?

Of course, “these people” collects a mass of gibbering idiots into an indistinctness that may weaken our point. Because of the “left” is closer to the moral philospher line, we can get more specific by picking out a few creatures that wore their leftiness into career making trajectories – say, Hitchens, or Nick Cohen, or Paul Berman. We have noticed one thing about this type: their ‘expertise’ is founded, explicitly or implicitly, on their greater ‘sensitivity’ to the moral. For these people, morality is a form of sensuality – they are always prone to “feel” more than others. It seems odd to say about a group that has advocated for the greatest mass murder committed by a Western power since Vietnam, but such is truly the case. The logic of the case is laid out in James’ essay. As the moral philosopher deals with no objective fact – for try as one may, there are, James says, no objective moral relations among things that don’t depend, ultimately, on there being subjects – or, in other word, subjectivity is the base upon which these relations are built, even though that they are built in the way they are built is an objective fact – so the moral philosopher who seeks to convince must find a way to, in effect, idealize his own sensibility. This can have interesting effects. James outlines one of them that applies directly to the promoters of the Iraq war:

“A look at another peculiarity of the ethical universe, as we find it, will still further show us the philosopher's perplexities. As a purely theoretic problem, namely, the casuistic question would hardly ever come up at all. If the ethical philosopher were only asking after the best imaginable system of goods; he would indeed have an easy task; for all demands as such are prima facie respectable, and the best simply imaginary world would be one in which every demand was gratified as soon as made. Such a world would, however, have to have a physical constitution entirely different from that of the one which we inhabit. It would need not only a space, but a time, "of n-﷓dimensions," to include all the acts and experiences incompatible with one another here below, which would then go on in conjunction﷓-such as spending our money, yet growing rich; taking our holiday, yet getting ahead with our work; shooting and fishing, yet doing no hurt to the beasts; gaining no end of experience, yet keeping our youthful freshness of heart; and the like. There can be no question that such a system of things, however brought about, would be the absolutely ideal system; and that if a philosopher could create universes a priori, and provide all the mechanical conditions, that is the sort of universe which he should unhesitatingly create.”

Although the application of this passionate embrace of one's moral superiority in an imaginary world - which reeks of a never to be overcome infantile narcissism that hangs over these lefties in an odd way, as though they were all really big babies has its major application recently in the war, it has a larger application among the whole group of opinion journalists as they report on the economy, or the elections, or popular culture - whatever the object upon which they lay golem like hands, it is the same story. The practice of the opinion journalist - their ten years - are spent storing up the method of trying to “make a case” – ignoring all facts that may get in the way of the case, and arranging, and if necessary exaggerating as much as one can, all the facts that make for the case. This is the opposite of the objective method. But it does bring into accordance the moral philosopher and the pimp, those two forebears of opinion journalism, perfectly. James shows that the moral philosopher who falls for this trick risks becoming comic. I think I’m going to close this post with this beautiful graf:

“Now we are blinded to the real difficulty of the philosopher's task by the fact that we are born into a society whose ideals are largely ordered already. If we follow the ideal which is conventionally highest, the others which we butcher either die and do not return to haunt us; or if they come back and accuse us of murder, every one applauds us for turning to them a deaf ear. In other words, our environment encourages us not to be philosophers but partisans. The philosopher, however, cannot, so long as he clings to his own ideal of objectivity, rule out any ideal from being heard. He is confident, and rightly confident, that the simple taking counsel of his own intuitive preferences would be certain to end in a mutilation of the fulness of the truth. The poet Heine is said to have written "Bunsen" in the place of '"Gott" in his copy of that author's work entitled "God in History," so as to make it read "Bunsen in der Geschichte." Now, with no disrespect to the good and learned Baron, is it not safe to say that any single philosopher, however wide his sympathies, must be just such a Bunsen in der Geschichte of the moral world, so soon as he attempts to put his own ideas of order into that howling mob of desires, each struggling to get breathing﷓room for the ideal to which it clings? The very best of men must not only be insensible, but be ludicrously and peculiarly insensible, to many goods. As a militant, fighting freehanded that the goods to which he is sensible may not be submerged and lost from out of life; the philosopher, like every other human being, is in a natural position. But think of Zeno and of Epicures, think of Calvin and of Paley, think of Kant and Schopenhauer, of Herbert Spencer and John Henry Newman, no longer as one﷓sided champions of special ideals, but as schoolmasters deciding what all must think﷓-and what more grotesque topic could a satirist wish for on which to exercise his pen? The fabled attempt of Mrs. Partington to arrest the rising tide of the North Atlantic with her broom was a reasonable spectacle compared with their effort to substitute the content of their clean﷓shaven systems for that exuberant mass of goods with which all human nature is in travail, and groaning to bring to the light of day. Think, furthermore, of such individual moralists, no longer as mere schoolmasters, but as pontiffs armed with the temporal power, and having authority in every concrete case of conflict to order which good shall be butchered and which shall be suffered to survive﷓and the notion really turns one pale. All one's slumbering revolutionary instincts waken at the thought of any single moralist wielding such powers of life and death. Better chaos forever than an order based on any, closet﷓philosopher's, rule, even though he were the most enlightened possible member of his tribe. No! if the philosopher is to keep his judicial position, he must never become of the parties to the fray.”


Chuckie K said…
Tangential? I know no other way to connect. Friedrich Ebert was a cigar roller.