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Belmont Club

For Our Own Good

October 25th, 2011 - 2:36 pm

Wired describes how the FBI is actually engaged in the ethnic profiling of Muslims because they’ve found a correlation between being Muslim and the commission of certain types of crimes.  The data collected underlies “crime maps” and has proved useful to the Bureau.  However, the discovery of the correlation is itself being treated as a scandal. How dare the Bureau suggest such a thing, whatever the evidence?

Last month, Danger Room revealed that the FBI was training its agents that religious Muslims tended to be “violent” and that Islamic charity is merely a “funding mechanism for combat.” In response, both the FBI and the Justice Department promised full reviews of their training materials.

The ACLU … blasted the mapping effort, and in an interview with the New York Times, FBI agent turned ACLU attorney Mike German tied the maps to the incendiary anti-Islam trainings first revealed by Danger Room. Agents who received the briefings might be “predisposed to treating everyone from a particular group as suspect,” German said.

Everybody knows that correlation is not causation, but even supposing there were a causative relationship between a certain belief systems and a particular sort of behavior, there are some who would argue that truth of this sort should never be recognized for the public good. One person who believed this was Plato, who coined the concept of the “noble lie”. In his Republic, the philosopher said that “we want one single, grand lie which will be believed by everybody – including the rulers, ideally, but failing that the rest of the city.”

Plato’s example lie was to claim that the gods had pre-ordained the difference between the social strata. By acccepting  that this “foundational myth” as mandated by heaven, those who would otherwise take offense at their overlords would meekly submit to the divine will and the general peace would be preserved.

What lies would be told? Those chosen by the Guardians, or the “Philosopher Kings” — another Platonic concept — for the good of all. According to this theory, “we can’t handle the truth”, and therefore it is in our own best interests to let our betters guide us, telling us such fables as are necessary to lead us on to progress.

John Izzard, writing in Quadrant Magazine, cites the peremptory demand that everyone accept the doctrine of Climate Change as an example of how it is now impolite to question our betters.  The pestilential tendency of individuals to challenge the consensus, to try and figure things out for themselves, was destabilizing society. He cited various pronouncements by famous academics to prove is point.

as Professor Clive Hamilton put it: “instruments of democratic practice” were “adroitly used” to “erode the authority of professional expertise”.

Another unhappy intellectual, Professor Robert Manne, stated in his recent essay, “Bad News” that:

Democracy relies on an understanding of the difference between those questions that involve the judgment of citizens and those where citizens have no alternative but to place their trust in those with expertise. …

The practices of democracy at times do not sit comfortably with the best advice of those most qualified and knowledgeable…

They [citizens] have attempted, with considerable success, to undermine the authority of climate science by skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilization of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office. In this way democracy has defeated science.

Victor Davis Hanson, a classical scholar, noticed this tendency from the start.  In Real Clear politics, he wrote that in the view of some, the people ought to just shut up and obey.

In Plato’s ideal society, philosopher kings and elite Guardians shepherded the rabble to force them to do the “right” thing.

To prevent the unwashed from doing anything stupid, the all-powerful, all-wise Guardians often had to tell a few “noble” lies. And, of course, these caretakers themselves were exempt from most rules they made for others.

In a world ruled by the Guardians the right people, could from an Olympian height, still recognize the ‘secret truth’, the one not vouchsafed to the excitable masses. The Guardians might dispatch the Furies, otherwise known as Reaper and Predator Drones, to any point on the face of the planet and zap whoever they want. The Great Unwashed are consoled with the thought that the world is inhabited by the “religion of peace” so that the Philosopher-Kings can discreetly command the men at the remote flight consoles to treat it as a “religion of war” without arousing too much excitement.

We  can’t handle the truth, so the Guardians give it the necessary spin.  One suspects that the FBI will simply denounce their map of Muslims as a politically incorrect abomination — and then go right on compiling it just the same.  The problem was not the map. It was never the map. The only problem was that the Obama administration was caught out telling their Noble Lie.

But the problem with the habit of treating the voters as if they were children is that the Philosopher Kings does violence to the real foundational myth of the United States, which holds that everyone potentially has the ability to discover the truth directly from “God” from an inquiry into the facts through the operation of reason. The idea that all men are created equal under a “Creator” is the real foundational myth of democracy, one that is anathema to the Guardians.  Ayn Rand in her testimony before Congress called the concept of the “noble lie” nothing more than the “theory of the Nazi elite”. Speaking of the fictions told about Soviet Russia she said

If it is to deceive the American people, if it were to present to the American people a better picture of Russia than it really is, then that sort of an attitude is nothing but the theory of the Nazi elite — that a choice group of intellectual or other leaders will tell the people lies for their own good. That I don’t think is the American way of giving people information. We do not have to deceive the people at any time, in war or peace. If it was to please the Russians, I don’t see how you can please the Russians by telling them that we are fools.

But if telling Nobles Lies is generally evil, do not all foundational myths stand condemned? Tolkien for one, argued that not all myth was pernicious. He maintained that the truth might appear as a lie, since we could only ever apprehend it imperfectly, but for so long as we never mistook the current state of knowledge for absolute perfection, it was possible to treat the “lie” as something glimpsed “as through a glass darkly”, a child’s representation of the real thing; a provisional mistake that would in the fullness of inquiry be corrected.  Tolkien, arguing with CS Lewis said, “we have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”

We just have to keep remembering at every step along the way that we haven’t gotten to the end of the road yet.

The key proposition in seeking the truth is each proposition should either falsifiable or immediately assigned to the sphere of faith about which no rational determination can be made. “Falsifiability or refutability is the logical possibility that an assertion can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment.” The problem with asserting that “Islam is always a religion of peace” or “global warming is the truth” is that neither of these propositions is a falsifiable proposition under the rules of political correctness. They are true no matter what. Adducing evidence against them is not allowed. As tenets of a religion, such concepts are fine. But as articles of scientific knowledge they are defective.

Perhaps the worst thing about “noble lies” told us by the Guardians is that once exploded they are replaced by equally unprovable and unfalsifiable propositions. If the statement “Islam is always the religion of peace” is proved false, the truth is not necessarily that “all Muslims are bad”. The truth may be that some kinds of sects tend to be bad; or it may be that even those militant sects may be benign someday. But the starting point in each case must always be truthful inquiry, however unpalatable. A mature democracy is rarely served best by the “noble lie”, but for those who don’t want to take the trouble to think for themselves, it is often easier to accept the received wisdom.

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