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Symbolism Revisited

I wrote recently, with much disgust (which I will not redact), about the use of symbolism. The implicit message which should have been made explicit, is that relying on symbolism to “run” an extended order will destroy it. But to coin a presidential phrase, let me be clear on what else I see in symbolism: relativism. When I hear and see symbolism I see a removal of (moral) truths from our debates. These are rejected whole-heartedly by those who embrace symbolism – moral truths have no validity at all independent of the “values” preferred by those who support such symbolism. And I am afraid that appealing to the idea that “values matter” (even as I am 100% behind that notion) is simply a slipped in way of saying that “my values” matter more than yours and ought to be imposed on you in some collective action process.

And THAT is NOT what folks like me mean and support when we say values matter.

When did I start thinking this way? It must have been when I was sitting through my Amherst College graduation in 1996 reflecting perhaps for the first time on the meaning of my college experience. Our motto was (and is) Terras Irradient which sounds great: “Let them enlighten the lands.”

I was always under the impression that letting me enlighten the land meant that I was supposed to enlighten it with truth. Presumably I would have spent 4 years seeking truth and learning about how to search for it over my entire life and to share that journey with others.

But even when I was at Amherst and not quite clear thinking, my fair college had abandoned the notion that truth was something real, something to be sought after and even treasured. Oh, we sure said a lot about it, but again, we are what we do, not what we say we are. At graduation as I sit there among my fellow hung-over classmates, I was trying to think of a single truth that I learned in college. Crickets. Not a one. Not about the way the world works. Not about the character of a good and enlightened person. Nothing. It was simply not something that was much on the minds of folks – so either I was being taught that there were no truths at all, or I suppose I had to surmise that there were many truths. For enrichment, I think I took classes in every department (I exaggerate) but I did take African Studies classes, religion classes, english and gender classes, history classes, classics classes, law classes, math, physics, economics, music, anthropology and others. I was searching for truth (I think) and cannot honestly tell you what I came away with.

Well, I know I came away with understanding that everyone had a claim to being correct about any issue, and that it was probably not OK to try hard to search for profundity in Western Civilization and its origins. What I was learning (and agreed with at the time) was that the Western tradition was authoritarian and fundamentalist and that the stuff we were doing in these classes had a deeper meaning than all of the authoritarians who talk about truth. I still see this today – people regularly scowl in some economics lectures because they see it as an elaborate defense of a propertied, exploitive class of people (I guess they mean the formerly unpropertied me) who gussied up some fancy sounding theories to keep everyone else stupid and down. To suggest that trade is voluntary, that private property can produce good outcomes and is ethical, that price controls are harmful, the relativists and symbolists attack that truth is more a verb than a noun, and it eschews the cold, hard reality of scarcity and downward sloping demand curves.  Symbolists refuse to recognize that truth does exist, even if unknowable. If one wishes to talk about truth (or heaven forbid directly engage in the use of the term morals) you end up being considered an angry, reactionary, patriarchal white male. Maybe I am – I apologize for not winning the relativity lottery of life and ending up someone else. I’ve been told and it has been inferred (see yesterday’s e-mail link) that I have violent and oppressive tendencies. I only talk and teach of course, but my talking and teaching is a sanction of oppression and perhaps worse – violence (after all, some people believe property is theft).

Ironically, the symbolists and relativists play the violence card by playing meek, by using terms like non-violence themselves because, I can only gather, the truth is intimidating. And those of us who believe deeply in fundamental truths about the world, human nature, the way we relate to one another become beasts in the eyes of them, so much so that their “non-violence” is in fact a buzzword for precisely the opposite.

The relativist symbolist denies the individuality of each of us, even as they claim to speak on behalf of “us” being freer. The reason symbols resonate is that they send a message to a group. The reason symbols are important is that they tell each of us that we cannot think for ourselves, or achieve on our own, or choose freely, rather we are all members of some newly sacred group (old ones are outdated, right) – part of some broad evolutionary continuum which really makes a thinking sentient caring human no different than a mouse. Rally around the symbol. Let the symbol represent who you really are. Proudly display the symbol. But this is the opposite of what it means to be an individual – find me a “liberal” or “conservative” even who fits every single check-list item of what it means to be a “liberal” or “conservative” there are none to be found – even as each denies the importance of their individualism. Invoking symbols is a way to assert authority by questioning authority. For the relativists, all authority is wrong. For symbolists among us today, appealing to symbols is a way to reject any authority other than their own preferences for how the world should be run. I see little difference.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is said to have written in his Nobel speech, “One word of truth will outweigh the world.” It’s the reason the Soviets exterminated millions of enemies. It’s the reason Pol Pot exterminated the educated class. Truth can be suppressed, but it will make its way to the fore. So while some folks may see little harm in symbolism or even in relativism because of its seemingly positive message against authoritarianism and fundamentalism, I see it as precisely the opposite. And while the hardcore supporters of relativism have to conjure up elaborate stories of exploitation of the working classes and the like to make their points, and they get vast head nods of approval when doing it, folks like me point to the hundreds of millions of people whose blood was gruesomely spilled throughout the ages in the name of these harmless sounding ideals, and are roundly ignored when doing it as either being dramatic, disingenuous, misleading, and more. It’s all because the truth is not really what is in question here. Ask a hard question – see if the response is, “well, that’s YOUR opinion.” Ask a hard question, and see if the response is, “where do you invest your money?” Ask a hard question, and see if the response is, “well, who else do you hang around with.” You’ll surely get them from folks who not only are not honestly seeking truth, but who roundly reject the possibility that any real truth exists.

And to be honest, if it were only tiring having to deal with this charade that would be no big deal. It certainly IS tiring having to discuss whether minimum wages are a good way to help the poor who simply as a core belief believe that property ought not exist and that entrepreneurs are villains. And it is tiring having to see the elaborate dancing people do to cover up what they really want to be arguing about. What is the point of me presenting study after study after study after study and theory after theory after theory that affirms the truth that scarcity exists and is unrelenting when there is no such truth that could ever be relied upon to settle a discussion. If it were only tiring that would be OK. But I must say that there are times that I worry about far more serious consequences than that – and it is in that context that the “leave me alone” response from me comes. Many who criticize me for just wanting to be “left alone” do it because it just sounds crass. Rather it is a far more deeply held conviction, and when I invoke it I do it for my own personal safety. And so I see the invocation of symbols right in line with this tradition. Sadly, some folks view those of us who use “truth” as a “defense” as the same as some sword wielding zealot. But go back and read the bible about what Jesus said about sinners (I am myself a fallen Catholic, but am drawn deeply to many messages). The Bible condemns the Pharisees who had good moral rules but had no love for those who struggled with them. To wield truth like a sword leads to the kind of Pharisaic moralism that virtue cherishing truth seekers rightly denounce.

So the folks who love symbols only wish to talk about civility and sitting together in the world’s big giant hot tub. The folks who entirely are on the other side only wish to talk about rules and authoritarianism. But it is the truth and real truth seekers who are neither. They live lives in concert with the soft-values that are essential for self-fulfillment and also for life among others on earth to be tolerable. But at the same time, they do not sacrifice truth in the name of these values, nor do they use truth to strike down those values in others.

One Response to “Symbolism Revisited”

  1. Harry says:

    What a great piece, WC. I will reread it to divine the fine points, but you are right about the perniciousness of relativism. In case you think you were alone at Amherst, relativism was raging when I went to college in the ’60’s, when we were taught by the apostles of Sarte and when Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer were the Next Big Thing.

    Relativism, I think, is essential to modern tyranny, providing an amoral foundation to replace the Pharoah and the King. It also animates those who think the world would be better off without humans. That argument is easier to defend when there are no values.

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