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July 29, 2010

Sympathy for One Specific Devil

Since I'm feeling bad for Republicans and their burning hate generally, I'd also like to take time to feel bad for one particular Republican: Karl Rove.

A few weeks ago Karl Rove wrote a cri de coeur called "My Greatest Mistake in the White House." That mistake was not striking back at the horrible Democrats who, with shameless hypocrisy, said that George Bush had lied us into Iraq.

And of course he's right: almost all the Democrats saying this were shameless hypocrites. Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Bob Graham—they all said before the war that Iraq definitely had banned weapons, and then afterward accused Bush of lying when he made the same claim.

Now, obviously Rove doesn't admit what actually happened, which is not that they were all honestly mistaken. What actually happened is that they were all lying (or at the very least recklessly indifferent to the truth). Nevertheless, if I were a giant lying scumbag like Rove, it would truly chap my ass to be called a giant lying scumbag by a bunch of other giant lying scumbags.

Indeed, it would make me feel I was completely justified in telling just about any lie myself. In fact, wouldn't I owe it to my country to do whatever was necessary to triumph over such shameless hypocrites? Now that you think about it, wouldn't it be disgusting personal vanity to refuse to lie when that's what was necessary to keep these dangerous liars out of power?

So when you look at it that way, people of good will have no alternative but to lie and lie and lie and lie and lie.

AND: The ability of monsters to perceive themselves as martyrs was previously explored here.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at July 29, 2010 11:16 PM

I think after a while these guys start to believe their own malarkey.

Posted by: Rob Payne at July 30, 2010 03:12 AM

All the civilized world is asking is that Rove acknowledge our deeply held principles on the rights of man before listing the torture and genocide exceptions (e.g. "Offer not valid east of Austria and south of Boca Raton...")

Really, is that so much to ask?

Posted by: Carl at July 30, 2010 04:37 AM

Rob, everybody believes their own malarkey. I've read that there's a Hasidic proverb, Each traveler should have two pockets. In one is a note saying, "I am but dust and ashes", and in the other "The world was created for my sake."

The documentary film Bush's Brain does a really good job of depicting the kind of GLS Rove is.

Jonathan, whether one should choose one's behavior according to procedural or consequential considerations is one of life's persistent questions. As Mark Twain advised, "Always do right - this will gratify some people, and astonish the rest." But can you tell if it's the right thing WHILE you're doing it - or do you need to be able to predict what happens later? If the latter, then whether you've done the right thing depends on what other people do later, and since you're not in control of what they do - although you can sometimes predict it, to a greater or lesser degree....

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at July 30, 2010 09:31 AM

Indeed, Dr. Charley.

I believe that ethics could be in principle teleological and utilitarian — but only a God would have the required omniscience to rightly practice them that way. In the hands of us fallible humans, teleological ethics are exceedingly dangerous, and we are compelled to be deontologists (e.g. "torture is never okay, even if..."). Otherwise we too easily become little Stalins.

Posted by: Cloud at July 30, 2010 11:37 AM

Mistah Charely,

I like the quote. Believing your own malarkey is likely relatively harmless for most of us. Unfortunately you cannot say the same regarding national leaders.

Posted by: Rob Payne at July 30, 2010 12:22 PM

Hypocrisy abounds, but it isn't the whole story. Or even the most important part of the story.

I discovered some years ago that Scott Ritter in 1999 published a book by the name of Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem Once and for All. This surprised me because I knew Ritter only for his more well-known opposition to the Second Gulf War (with which I strongly agreed). I didn’t know that Ritter's published view in 1999 had been that the sanctions and inspections had failed and Saddam had to go even if a unilateral invasion by the US without allies was needed to get that done, though in his mind that was a last resort. When I learned that, I realized that I couldn't explain why Ritter’s views apparently had changed so much.

In Rove's eyes, Ritter would have been a lying scumbag hypocrite in 2003, and maybe he is, but something happened between 1999 and 2003 to affect the views of more than just lying scumbag Democratic Senators. Whatever changed turned an option that Ritter and his institutional sponsors had considered reasonable in 1999 into a course of action that in 2003 they opposed, or at least professed to oppose, tooth and nail. So what made 1999's acceptable alternative so unacceptable four years later? Not having any national security clearances, let alone the really good ones, I could only speculate, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a moral epiphany.

It's worth remembering what Daniel Ellsberg told Henry Kissinger about how the classification of information as secret affects those who have access to it:

Posted by: N E at July 30, 2010 01:31 PM

Can't do the right thing by starting with a lie.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 30, 2010 02:05 PM

mistah charley ph.d.

Everybody believing someone else's malarkey is a much bigger problem right now than people believing their own malarkey, which as you point out is pretty much inevitable. By the way, don't you think Mark Twain would have been a fabulous Hasidic philosopher?

I can't quite make myself like philosophical questions. I'v even been reading some of Leo Strauss's smart essays on Machiavelli, and they have convinced me that both Strauss and Machiavelli were pretty darn smart and too boring even for me. I don't think people in power grapple too much with nuanced moral questions until they get asked to do something that shocks them or might ruin them.

Posted by: N E at July 30, 2010 02:22 PM

but something happened between 1999 and 2003 to affect the views of more than just lying scumbag Democratic Senators.

I think they're referred to as presidential elections.

Posted by: Happy Jack at July 30, 2010 07:43 PM

It wasn't presidential elections that changed Scott Ritter's views.

Posted by: Nell at July 30, 2010 07:58 PM

Nell: Maybe he got a conscience, got religion, saw the light, GOD spoke to him, maybe Deadeye or Ole Wanted Dead Or Alive spoke to him, OR maybe he looked out the window and saw how fucked it was going to be for EVERYONE concerned. Maybe he thought of the children, either way "WE BROKE IT, WE OWN IT."

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 31, 2010 12:21 AM


I agree that it wasn't Presidential elections that changed Scott Ritter's views, but I really don't KNOW what it was. I have my own guess, but do you know something more?

(I sometimes remember, especially when I get very taken up in speculation and inferences, a story told by a math professor I had in college. He recounted that he worked on a Ph.d. thesis for two years only to have his theory and all his work shot down by a fact.)

Posted by: N E at July 31, 2010 12:43 AM

I can't quite make myself like philosophical questions.

Suppose your parents are tied to a railroad track and the Nazi's have kidnapped locked your wife in the caboose with a clock. As the train's speed approaches the speed of light, the bandit holds a gun to your head and offers you a choice: do you kill Hitler to prevent the Holocaust, or are you still free to leave the room even if you only think the door is locked?

Pick up Thomas Nagel's 'View From Nowhere'. Or read his paper 'Moral Luck'. He's a really good philosopher, writer, thinker, entertainer.

Posted by: scudbucket at July 31, 2010 03:21 AM


That's my kind of philosophy--Nazi torture at the speed of light and a last chance to save my wife or parents or everyone if I can only think! I'll check out Nagel, literally.

By the way, do you remember the musings of the Donald Sutherland character in Animal House while he was high? Always remember, the universe might really be infinitely small and infinitely large at the same time! And maybe it's also floating on the back of an infinitely large and infinitely small turtle, on the back of another turtle, and so on, though the last turtle is probably in a suitcase on the caboose in which me and my wife are traveling at the speed of light toward my parents while Hitler prepares his genocide and his Nazi underlings on the train grow old (with me?) while everyone dies and I ponder whether the door is locked for a few years, or seconds, depending on relative speed, of course. Obviously.

Posted by: N E at July 31, 2010 11:34 AM

Since you said you're gonna pick up Nagel's book, I feel honor bound to tell you that he's not nearly as entertaining as I might have led you to believe: it's still straight-ahead western analytic phil. But the topics, the arguments, and the conclusions are pretty interesting.

Posted by: scudbucket at July 31, 2010 02:17 PM


I immediately looked Nagel up when you mentioned him, and I could guess that anyone influenced by John Rawls is not likely to be as fun as someone influenced by John Belushi. (Do you think Rawls could shoot potatoes out of his mouth like a zit popping?) Anyway, I like flirting briefly with these type of ideas to see what real Thinkers are up to, especially if there is some way to use the experience to make fun of them. I onced skimmed over a book by Juergen Habermas just to try to find a sentence I could understand. Alas, I failed, but that alone made it worthwhile. A year or so after that I had lunch with someone who told me he had spent an entire semester at a German university studying one paragraph from Kant. Imagine the stimulating class discussion!

Any philospher like Nagel who writes something called "What is it like to be a Bat?" at least seems to have an interesting mind. I can't wait to find out what goes on in the Caped Crusader's head!

Posted by: N E at July 31, 2010 03:49 PM

N E,

(Do you think Rawls could shoot potatoes out of his mouth like a zit popping?)

I dunno, but there is a legend about him challenging Nozick to an egg toss competition and immediately violating the rules by throwing the raw egg directly into Nozick's chest, then decking him for being such a libertarian prick.

Not really. I made that up.

A agree about Habermas. I once made the mistake of buying one of his books. I don't even have it on my shelf anymore. Beyond Facts and Norms, I guess it was. Pure jibberish. Though my professors at the time genuflected grandiloquently that 'this was really important work'. I don't think they could understand him either.

Nagel is alot of fun (caveat: fun for a philosopher). I had some commentws about him attached to the previous post, but deleted them due to their overall Habermasian jibberishness. As you say, he does have an interesting mind, and approaches things from a refreshingly original perspective. And 'what is it like to be a bat' is one of the most influential papers on contemporary conceptions of mental phenomena, even though now - given the passage of time - his ideas seem sorta conventional.

Good luck reading that stuff. ANd let me know how it goes: analytical phil is difficult. I'd also like to hear any thoughts you might have on Alex Carey's book, if you've been reading that.

Posted by: scudbucket at July 31, 2010 07:32 PM

Just to clear up the record here a bit: Nozick formally apologized for writing Anarchy, State and Utopia, claiming that he had no desire or ntention for it's central theses to be implemented by Reaganoidians intent on destroying America. For him, he said, it was a purely academic enterprise. So let this be a lesson to all: there is no such thing as pure academics when profit motive is involved.

Posted by: scudbucket at July 31, 2010 07:42 PM


As for Carey's book, it takes a month or two for books to arrive to me via interlibrary loan. There is about a 75% success rate, which has pleasantly surprised me, so I have hope his book will come in next month or two. I'll report back. I'll definitely read that one.

I'll also try to let you know just how much over my head Nagel turns out to be, at least in the Bat Book. I don't have great patience for philosophy unless the author toys with me like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard with snazzy ideas that exhilarate and confuse but doesn't make me try to understand intricate complex philosopical systems like Kant or Rawls or just about anybody else, because even if they aren't written in German gibberish with verbs following two pages after a sentence starts, I just don't care quite enough to tough it out. So I'll let you know if I can bear Nagel, but the odds are against him.

Posted by: N E at July 31, 2010 09:35 PM

fyi re wikileaks, antiwar webcast august 1:

Posted by: N E at July 31, 2010 11:32 PM

Uncle Sam as Zombie - a metaphor for the Republic's state of health

Dead? Catatonic? Just resting? Pining for the fjords, like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch?

I suggest the American Republic is zombified, in a metaphorical sense of the literal truth of the horror movie cliche. The superstition about zombies is that they are dead, and returned to a kind of life in death by magic. The truth (and I am relying on the accounts of Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis for this) is that they have been intentionally poisoned in such a way that they appear dead, and after the "corpse" is buried the folk psychopharmacologist (a.k.a. "witch doctor") revives and enslaves them. Their state of mind after zombification no doubt depends not only on the drug regimen they have received, but their pre-existing beliefs about what has happened to them.

"The Republic", of course, is not a biopsychosocial system that can literally be given mind-altering drugs. It is a kind of abstraction for collective social behavior, and the art, science, and business of the manipulation of collective beliefs has many ardent practitioners these days (even, in a sense, those of us who blog).

I ask you to join me in a thought experiment. Let's imagine that there might be some way for Uncle Sam, now lying in his grave, to return to life - not just a half-life of working for his (and our) oppressors, the military-industrial-congressional-financial-corporate media complex.

How could that be done? What would it take for the Republic to become unzombified? What are the "antidotes" for the "brain poison"? If "ideas" and "feelings" are what have poisoned us, are there other "ideas" and "feelings" that can restore us to health? Some say there is hope - structures of oppression built by people can be dismantled by other people. Or maybe Kurt Vonnegut was right in the pessimism he expressed in his last years - there is no way in hell that the U.S. will EVER become a humane and reasonable nation.

May the Creative Forces of the Universe have mercy on our souls, if any.

[first published October 22, 2007 at]

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 1, 2010 09:41 AM

It was a search for whether I'd told this story before that led me to dig up my previous comment in this thread, Zombie Uncle Sam.

Nozick as pure academic - a personal encounter

The scene: Buffalo, New York, late 1970s or early 1980s, the campus of Buffalo State College. The Philosophy Department sponsored a talk by Robert Nozick open to the general public and scheduled in the early evening. Three or four dozen people showed up, as I recall, including myself, a graduate student in a different discipline from a neighboring institution of higher learning. Nozick was wearing a blue wool blazer, a white turtleneck sweater, and blue jeans.

During the question period, I asked, "You've mentioned two ways of examining the morality of an action - whether it corresponds to a received code of conduct, and what its effect will be on those who are the object of the action. But what about its effect on the person who DOES the action?"

Nozick thought for a minute before replying (an actual minute - I don't mean 10 seconds that felt like a minute), said, "I need to consider that more", and went on to another question.

How did I feel? Triumphant, in having shut up the famous author? Amused? Heartbroken?

As I recall, I was saddened.

In my current view, the problem that Nozick had in answering my question comes from the fact that, in his tradition, all the heavy lifting is done by the intellect, and life's persistent questions are treated as academic exercises. The last two paragraphs of Erich Fromm's The Heart of Man are relevant here:

Man's heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. It always remains man's heart. We are all determined by the fact that we have been born human, and hence by the never-ending task of having to make choices. We must choose the means together with the aims. We must not rely on anyone's saving us, but be very aware of the fact that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves.

Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good -- but no awareness will help us if we have lost the capacity to be moved by the distress of another human being, by the friendly gaze of another person, by the song of a bird, by the greenness of grass. If man becomes indifferent to life there is no longer any hope that he can choose the good. Then, indeed, his heart will have so hardened that his "life" will be ended. If this should happen to the entire human race or to its most powerful members, the the life of mankind may be extinguished at the very moment of its greatest promise.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 1, 2010 10:39 AM

in his tradition, all the heavy lifting is done by the intellect, and life's persistent questions are treated as academic exercises.

This keeps rattling around in my head in slightly disturbing way - and not because I disagree. Maybe I'm feeling some of the same tension Nozick felt back then. It's a deep problem....

btw, the conjunction of the two comments you just posted is very powerful. The force is strong in you, Mistah Charley.

I need to consider this more.......

Posted by: scudbucket at August 1, 2010 12:30 PM