[LINK] Joseph Bottum on Politics as the Mindkiller

by Salemicus1 min read27th Feb 201424 comments

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One of my favourite Less Wrong articles is Politics is the mindkiller. Part of the reason that political discussion so bad is the poor incentives - if you have little chance to change the outcome, then there is little reason to strive for truth or accuracy - but a large part of the reason is our pre-political attitudes and dispositions. I don't mean to suggest that there is a neat divide; clearly, there is a reflexive relation between the incentives within political discussion and our view of the appropriate purpose and scope of politics. Nevertheless, I think it's a useful distinction to make, and so I applaud the fact that Eliezer doesn't start his essays on the subject by talking about incentives, feedback or rational irrationality - instead he starts with the fact that our approach to politics is instinctively tribal.

This brings me to Joseph Bottum's excellent recent article in The American, The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America. This charts what he sees as the tribal changes within America that have shaped current attitudes to politics. I think it's best seen in conjunction with Arnold Kling's excellent The Three Languages of Politics; while Kling talks about the political language and rhetoric of modern American political groupings, Bottum's essay is more about the social changes that have led to these kinds of language and rhetoric.

We live in what can only be called a spiritual age, swayed by its metaphysical fears and hungers, when we imagine that our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken, but actually evil. When we assume that past ages, and the people who lived in them, are defined by the systematic crimes of history. When we suppose that some vast ethical miasma, racism, radicalism, cultural self-hatred, selfish blindness, determines the beliefs of classes other than our own. When we can make no rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree. The Republican Congress is the Taliban. President Obama is a Communist. Wisconsin’s governor is a Nazi.

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The real question, of course, is how and why this happened. How and why politics became a mode of spiritual redemption for nearly everyone in America, but especially for the college-educated upper-middle class, who are probably best understood not as the elite, but as the elect, people who know themselves as good, as relieved of their spiritual anxieties by their attitudes toward social problems.

Video of a related lecture can also be found here.

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