Political Zoology: A Cautionary Tale

Man is a political animal.  But seeing what the animal is, what may politics become?  …We have the faculty of secreting political wisdom and voiding it in the form of systems exquisite in their logic and their pertinence to our needs.  But we remain illogical and impertinent, so all our systems are realized in gross imperfection, since we have to operate them.

~ Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

The trouble with liberal democracy is the illiberality of the dêmos.  The politics of identity and the affirmation of grievance govern all.  There is an almost universal lack of generosity.  I do not exempt myself.  In fact, I consider myself an early victim of this kind of unhealthy political enthusiasm.

During the election of 1980 (when I was seven years old) my parents were on opposite sides of the fence.  My father, a republican, supported Reagan.  My mother, a democrat, stood by Carter.  I don’t remember my parents debating the merits or demerits of either nominee, I only recall their preferences – and the ubiquitous images of the candidates passing over the television screen every evening.  I was a Carter man.  Not for any valid reasons, but simply because I liked him.  He looked friendly and I was charmed by his southern accent and the fact that he had once been a peanut farmer.  My friend Roger, however, was for Reagan, who had the endorsement of both his parents.

One day while Roger and I were talking in my backyard we somehow hit on the topic of the upcoming election.  Things grew heated when he insisted Reagan would make a better president, and I countered that Carter was, in fact, a better man for the job than any second-rate actor.  Roger took offense, slandered Carter’s intelligence and then punched me in the face.  I turned my back and sat on the ground and cried.  Roger turned his back to me, too, pretending interest in a nearby shrub.  A sudden fury tore through my little frame.  I grasped the hard object nearest at hand then leapt up behind Roger and cracked him on the head with a metal corkscrew spike, the kind used to secure backyard swing sets to the ground.  Then, while he held his head and cried, I yelled out something definitive in favor of Carter and promptly banished Roger from my backyard for the day.

Seeing what the animal is…

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Political Zoology: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Portrait of the poet as a young egalitarian!

  2. Amy

    I think that the illiberalism of which you speak is only one aspect of the human animal. Over time, we have observed the manifestations of its opposite with increasing frequency. It is not that our systems are perfect and we are imperfect, it is that they represent our faculty of reason, which, while imperfect, remains the better part of ourselves.

  3. You should really have broken his skull open and feasted on the still warm brains.

  4. Ian Woolcott

    Amy –

    “I think that the illiberalism of which you speak is only one aspect of the human animal.”

    ~ Mercifully, true.

    “Over time, we have observed the manifestations of its opposite with increasing frequency.”

    ~ As much as I’d like to endorse the “increasing frequency” part of that statement, I’m not so entirely sure. You’d have to take a rather long, or geographically limited, view of things, and exceptions are always convenient at hand. Rather than marking out a line of constant progress, I wonder if reason and unreason aren’t more cyclical. I’m a bit of a pessimist when it comes to the question of humanity permanently improving its own troublous nature.

    Elberry –

    “You should really have broken his skull open and feasted on the still warm brains.”

    ~ Trust me, I was tempted – and hungry. It was about time for my afternoon snack. But, wimpy kid that I was, not even a single stitch was required to mend poor Roger’s head.

  5. Amy

    I don’t think that we need concern ourselves with improving human nature. Marxist and Modernist thought makes much of this idea of altering humanity from the inside, of forging in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of our race, but such projects have yet to succeed and have mostly ended by suggesting the durability of human nature in both its positive and negative aspects. Given a different material context, however, of greater prosperity, we tend to see the more frequent manifestation of man’s positive nature. When man applies his reason not to the task of zero-sum survival among his fellows but of positive-sum interactions for mutual benefit, it becomes easier for him to display the better aspects of his character.

    I see progress as being more uneven in its pattern than cyclical. We have seen how globalization has changed progress from a long-term to a medium-term and even a short-term prospect for people in most geographic locations. The past century has seen a greater proportion of the world population lift itself out of poverty than in any previous century. Compare the material progress that mankind made over its entire history up through the Middle Ages to the progress which it has made since the Industrial Revolution. Humanity is finally escaping the Malthusian trap which has held it in a deathly grip for millennia, and it is doing so at a more rapid rate than we ever dared hope for, though the tragedy remains that there are countries which have yet to escape from it.

  6. Ian Woolcott

    Amy,

    It sounds almost as if you have two different types of progress in mind in your two paragraphs. At the end of the first you seem to refer to moral progress made possible through increased material prosperity. In the second paragraph, however, it sounds like increased material prosperity is itself what you have in mind when you say progress.

    Both are interesting points for discussion. No argument from me when it comes to the march of material progress. I would not at all be surprised to see a chart demonstrating that the percentage of the world’s population living in poverty has reliably declined since the industrial revolution. I should hope this is the case.

    I’m not sure, however, that this necessarily corresponds to any moral progress either individually or collectively. Being freed of the burden of basic self-preservation may allow for the development of culture, which I agree is generally a desirable thing. But doesn’t history demonstrate that it may just as easily afford us the freedom to expand our scope for violence, irrationality, prejudice, self-destruction, and all the other regrettable instincts compounded in our nature?

    For related thoughts on the topic, see my ‘Librarian of Auschwitz’ post:

    https://newpsalmanazar.wordpress.com/2008/08/12/the-librarian-of-auschwitz/

  7. Amy

    I was trying to yoke the two kinds of progress together. Humanity’s moral progress does not come about through internal changes, but through the the betterment of external conditions. As we have seen material progress, so we have seen moral progress, though this is a matter of increasing the probabilities for material comfort and peace in the life of every individual, not guaranteeing them for all. The past century actually saw a dramatic decrease in violence compared with centuries past (for statistics and a better explanation of why this was so, see Steven Pinker’s talk on the “Myth of Violence”: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html). Culture has integrated and reinforced these changes to man’s material condition, shrinking his scope for “violence, irrationality, prejudice, self-destruction, and other regrettable instincts,” as you say. Certain behaviors are discouraged and others are encouraged in our bourgeois culture, violence being one of those that is discouraged and kindness being of those that is encouraged. This does not prevent violence or guarantee kindness, but it does make the latter more likely and the former less so. Auschwitz is a part of our history, but it is not our entire history.

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