It has taken me years of tortuous self-training to develop the skill, and I’m still not quite finished. But at least I’ve got the basics down pat.
The skill is recognising the sovereignty of an idea, its independence from the enunciator. Once an idea breaks out into the open, it either stands on its own legs or falls down on its own face.
The enunciator has made it public property, he has relinquished private ownership. The idea must be judged on its own merits, not on its author’s merits, or lack thereof.
That’s why argumentum ad hominem is among the worst rhetorical fallacies. Remembering that, I always dismiss out of hand any disagreement starting with the words “You’re only saying this because you…” At this point I invariably forget my manners and interrupt: “Never mind me, feel the idea.”
Sounds perfectly logical, doesn’t it? It does. But that’s where the problems start.
For the corollary to this preamble is often hard to stomach. We must suspend our admiration of a great man and argue against an idea of his that we find wrong. And, alas, the reverse applies as well. We must forget our contempt for a revolting man and agree with an idea of his that we find right.
Rummaging through the bulging bag of examples from my own experience, I find plenty to illustrate both extremes.
Thus I’m second to none in my admiration of Edmund Burke, whom I regard as one of history’s greatest political thinkers. And yet I’ve always argued against his assessment of the American Revolution. In fact, my whole book Democracy as a Neocon Trick is one protracted argument against that one idea.
Conversely, few people detest Putin more than I do. He is the epitome of modernity’s central figure: an important nonentity. Except that this nonentity comes packaged with unmitigated evil, a combination seldom absent from Russia’s political history.
However, when this energumen pronounces, for example, that water is wet and stone isn’t, we must overcome the gagging instinct and, unable to speak to that apparition, nod our agreement. What can you say, the bastard is right.
This brings me to one passage in his puke-making… sorry, I mean epoch-making speech the other day. You know, the one about those satanic Anglo-Saxons whose whole history can be reduced to their sole aspiration to dismember Russia and enslave her people.
This is the passage in question: “Do we want to have here, in our country, in Russia, parent number one, number two, number three instead of mummy and daddy? Are they completely off their rocker out there? Do we really want perversions that lead to degradation and extinction to be imposed on our school children from the primary grades? To be drummed into them that there are various supposed genders besides women and men, and to be offered a sex change operation?”
I’m sure most Russians answered those rhetorical questions with a resounding no. But now let’s replace the phrase “…, in Russia,…” with the name of our own country and ask all the same questions. Do we want any of that?
Any sane person’s reply will be as resounding: absolutely not. And yet we have it, the bastard is right about that.
The requisite exercise I mentioned earlier, separating the thought from its source, is particularly difficult in this case. Here’s a global thug prepared to blow up the world to assuage personal resentments and a richly merited sense of inadequacy. And he has the gall to criticise us, a force for the good – on balance, that is, for all our imperfections.
Who the hell does he think he is… And so forth, in the same vein. You know the drill.
All that is true. But, as I am trying to argue, it’s irrelevant. We aren’t talking about Putin’s personality – that issue was settled even before he moved to Moscow 25 years ago. Nor are we talking about his obsessive hatred of everything Western, apart from offshore accounts, yachts and other luxury goods.
We’ve blanked it all out, concentrating instead on that one bit of criticism. And, much as we hate to admit it, the bastard is right.
The issue he highlighted is a symptom of self-destructive madness afflicting a civilisation bent on self-harm. Like a neurotic girl who cuts herself with a razor blade to release the tension mounting inside, we slash not just the flesh of our society but its very soul.
Could it be because we’ve forgotten the soul and focused too much on the flesh? Or even worse, replaced the soul with some nebulous ‘psyche’? My hypothetical girl may self-harm because she has been indoctrinated to regard herself as the highest, self-contained and self-sufficient stage of life.
When life throws challenges at her, as life is wont to do, she looks inside herself for answers – and finds only herself there. She feels cornered, and then the razor blade sees the light of day.
Extrapolating to our society as a whole, it too seems unable to come to terms with its little demons without breaking out of the confines of its own body. Like that wayward girl, it begins to attach undue importance to little quirks, missing the forest of transcendence for the trees of petty neuroses.
And then it lays itself bare to valid criticism from even evil nonentities like Putin. If you look at the litany of his attacks on the West, you can prove each of them to be nothing but vile drivel. But not this one. Here the bastard is right.
However, there’s always the danger that we can’t help considering the source. We may succumb to the natural impulse of thinking that everything Putin says is wrong because it’s Putin who says it.
Perhaps the impulse is so natural that it’s insuppressible. Well, in that case, forget this particular source. Think of the good, sane, intelligent people who have been railing against the same thing for years – think of conservative thinkers and commentators, or simply of your conservative friends.
Suddenly, the bothersome dichotomy between idea and source vanishes. We no longer have to take rhetorical liberties — for it’s not just the bastard who is right on this score. It’s everyone in his right mind.