Masters of Suspicion

Last time I complained about the deep attitude of suspicion that is so common in our political debate. I suppose it is mostly good old human nature at work: we tend to be very impressed with our own ideas and dismissive of others’. On the other hand, I believe there are also historical reasons why we tend to dismiss ideas with which we disagree so quickly.

A couple of hundred years ago most people were convinced that by applying the rules of human logic to any problem, be it scientific, political or social, they would invariably come up with a good solution. If they could aim a cannon ball with the simple logic of Newtonian physics, shouldn’t they be able to come up with a solution to crime or plan a more efficient economy? Even today some people believe that if we were to just all be rational and educated, all our problems would disappear.

This way of looking at the world was shattered by two 19th century critics of human reason, Nietzsche and Marx. These men pointed out that rational arguments often have an ulterior motive.

Nietzsche taught that man’s fundamental drive was the will to power. No one was really interested in knowing the truth, or arguing about the truth, what they really wanted was power.

Powerful men see the good things they want in life, and take them. Weak men (i.e. Jews, philosophers, slaves, or priests) who lack the power to get the good things of life invent morality and rational argument in order to give strong people a guilt complex. By making good things seem bad, they get a sneaky sort of power for themselves. So, according to Nietzsche, if someone argues about right and wrong, true or false, he is just a hypocritical Jew trying to manipulate you.

Marx taught that economics underlies all rational argument; “Class creates consciousness.” Lets say you were a member of the old European aristocracy. Then,  your education, religion, morality and whole way of looking at the world taught you that it was reasonable and just that you should run the country and enjoy vast wealth. Maybe you considered the responsibilities of government a burden and were nice to peasants, maybe not. Either way, you benefited and others got screwed. Behind your education, religion and morals was nothing other than economic self-interest, and if anyone suggested that the middle class or peasants should be running the show you would just state at him in disbelief. It would have seemed like such an absurd idea that there was no arguing with you. Nothing could change your mind. Even if you were otherwise a nice guy, the only way to change the country and achieve a just society was to kill you, your family and everyone like you.

This impatience with rational argument and taste for blood is why Marxists always used to claim to be “pragmatists” and not idealists, which is ironic because Marxism is one of least practical political systems ever devised.

What I think is valid about Nietzsche and Marx is that they point out that not everybody accepts the same rules of logic. What seems perfectly rational to one person is patently absurd to another. Everyone likes to claim to be the rational, educated party in a debate, but what we define as rational is often colored by our background, interests and, sadly, our ulterior motives.

What I think is dangerous about Nietzsche and Marx is that they systematically cast suspicion on all forms of rational discourse. For them all argument, especially ethical argument, is dishonest and a waste of time. Violence then becomes the sanest option, which is why carnage ensues wherever the ideas of Nietzsche and Marx take root.

Thankfully there are not many nihilists or Marxists in America. But in a way we are the grandchildren of these men. After Nietzsche and Marx, few western intellectuals believe that we can really know the truth. This has a trickle down effect into our politics where our journalists clown around talking about “narrative” instead of truth, or complain about “dog whistles” instead of critiquing what people really say.   


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