October 26, 2004

"It has already produced immense cataclysms, and will no doubt produce others in the future" (Uncle Bertie Joins the Reality-Based Community)

I have already blogged about my reaction to reading Ron Suskind's latest demonstration of the Bush administration's mendacity, malevolence, incompetence and total, deliberate disconnection from reality.* I admit, however, that I omitted one thing from that account. It reminded me of a passage I'd read more than a dozen years ago; it took me a while to find the place where I'd copied it out.

The most important effect of machine production of the imaginative picture of the world is an immense sense of human power. This is only an acceleration of a process which began before the dawn of history, when men diminished their fear of wild animals by the invention of weapons and their fear of starvation by the invention of agriculture. But the acceleration has been so great as to produce a radically new outlook in those who wield the powers that modern technique has created. In old days, mountains and waterfalls were natural phenomena; now, an inconvenient mountain can be abolished and a convenient waterfall created. In old days, there were deserts and fertile regions; now, the desert can, if people think it worth while, be made to blossom like the rose, while fertile regions are turned into deserts by insufficiently scientific optimists. In old days, peasants lived as their parents and grandparents had lived, and believed as their parents and grandparents had believed; not all the power of the Church could eradicate pagan ceremonies, which had to be given a Christian dress by being connected with local saints. Now the authorities can decree what the children of peasants shall learn in school, and can transform the mentality of agriculturalists in a generation....

There thus arises, among those who direct affairs or are in touch with those who do so, a new belief in power: first, the power of man in his conflicts with nature, and then the power of rulers as against the human beings whose belief they seek to control by scientific propaganda, especially education. The result is a diminution of fixity; no change seems impossible. Nature is raw material; so is that part of the human race which does not effectively participate in government. There are certain old conceptions which represent men's belief in the limits of human power; of these the two chief are God and truth. (I do not mean that these two are logically connected.) Such conceptions tend to melt away; even if not explicitly negated, they lose importance, and are retained only superficially. This whole outlook is new, and it is impossible to say how mankind will adapt itself to it. It has already produced immense cataclysms, and will no doubt produce others in the future. To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time.

Thus Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy (1945, pp. 728--729). Of course, as good empiricists, we can't really believe that, when he was writing this in 1943, Uncle Bertie parted the mists of time and saw what would happen when the world's hegemonic power was ruled by madmen. But it's not like he didn't have striking contemporary examples of people mistaking their own power for omnipotence, is it?

* (extra bonus shrillness): Since then, it's come out that the Bush Administration managed to let an Iraqi stockpile of over 370 tons of high explosive, which they knew about, be looted, followed by a year and a half of some mixture of obliviousness and cover-up. (Let's not even get into the dual-use equipment, helpful for aspiring Oppenheimers, looted from the same site. Juan Cole: "How bad a job Bush is doing is clear when we consider that we might well be relieved to know that this equipment went to Iran, since that means Bin Laden doesn't have it.") Even before that, people who served as advisers to the Bush campaign in 2000, but are not deluded about the world and what Bush wants, are refusing to vote for him this time. (I think Drezner is being grossly unfair to the people of Mongolia, however, when he calls our war a series of "Mongolian cluster-fucks". After all, the Mongol conquest of Iraq succeeded.)

The Continuing Crisis; Philosophy

Posted at October 26, 2004 23:34 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth