For many a month now I have been bothered by an uncomfortable thought – a thought that, if true, is highly inconvenient, insofar as politeness is a primary convenience.
I find it hard to say exactly what this thought is. It goes something like this: Ethical correctness, beyond a certain point, becomes the enemy of human genius.
By “human genius,” I mean human genius in total, that blind monkey mind that might, by some miracle, type out Hamlet. But that’s too large a point to prove, and in any case I’m not totally sure about it.
Consider, though, this scene from Blazing Saddles:
It’s not just funny in a way that couldn’t be written today – let alone by a Jew. Far more importantly, the humor is based in the revelation of deep human genius. To put it closer to the vernacular: The Sheriff in this scene is Trickster, the primal human genius. More than that: the Author of the scene participates in Trickster. The scene is genuinely subversive, without being sanctimonious in the least.
The Sherriff is absolutely trapped, outgunned 50 to 1. In response, he puts himself on the side of his oppressors, going beyond them to a more extreme position, undeterred by the complete absurdity of it. He takes himself hostage.
I was reminded of this while reading a letter appearing in the Salt Lake City Tribune, by one
Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Utah
Black Lives Matter – Salt Lake City
University of Utah Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán
Decker means to explain in this letter why it is that the groups he/she/they/ze represent feel justified in “shutting down” Ben Shapiro during his scheduled appearance. In short: “To pretend that Shapiro does not spew racist and transphobic pseudoscience with the desire to justify and encourage violence is idealistic, ahistorical and wrong.”
Curiously, the primary proof of this violence is the fact that “Utah is already a state with a homelessness and suicide crisis amongst LGBTQ youth.” The argument appears to be that Shapiro will embolden LGBTQ to hurt themselves. Decker suggests that these youth, by means of community organizing, are going to take themselves hostage.
It’s a brilliant ploy, except that it’s insane. The Trickster Sheriff is aware of this absurdity. Decker is not. In fact, Decker must not be. The idea that we can demonstrate that someone is a threat because he makes us threaten ourselves is, and must be, deadly serious.
If your mind just went to the witch trials, I’m right there with you. Witches were dangerous exactly because they encouraged by immoral truck those very demons the rest of the people were struggling day and night to master within their own hearts, minds and loins.
Of course it’s true, but that’s the hazard we allow for in a free society. We allow for the demons so as not to inadvertently cast out the best part of ourselves.
PRIMAL HUMAN GENIUS
My contention is that this primal human genius depends on a particular relationship with authority, both external authority and the inner sense of it whose excess we know as sanctimony. In a nutshell, it seems to me we’re losing touch with Trickster. What’s more: I think Trickster is the basis of human liberty, and the American Ideal.
This gets to the basic utilitarian argument for Free Speech, such as Jordan Peterson makes. In short: as all comprehension of Reality is necessarily partial and incomplete, we defend free speech as a value because we depend on the mass interaction of imperfect speech acts to best articulate a functional approximation of the best way.
Put another way: without free speech, we tend to get lost in our own ideas.
This isn’t a new argument, but just the classical one remade. Remember that our national founders were breaking out of the domination of thought and speech by religious orthodoxy. This is the orthodoxy that kept the Roman Catholic cardinals from looking through Galileo’s telescope, and thereby upsetting their view of God’s perfect moral order.
Hence the First Amendment groups free speech together with prohibition against founding or furthering a national religion.
So, in a nutshell: from this neo-neo-classical view, what we now refer to semi-opaquely as “political correctness” amounts to a religion; and to incorporate that correctness into law, generally by definition and application of “hate speech” standards, amounts to a violation of the constitutional prohibition on establishment of a national religion.
Hence the much wondered at alliance between nominal liberals and Islam, this neo-neo-classical view explains, because both agree on the necessity of a theocratic state. They make for strange bedfellows, indeed, but politics does that, exactly in its attention to large, but not ultimate, goals.
That is: the Islamists and the Progressives agree on a vision of a morally ordered society; they just disagree on what, exactly, that Dominant Religion is. They agree on the principle of “Islam”, that is, the duty of submission, and the denigration of all who don’t submit as ethically sub-human. They just disagree on the exact doctrine every real human must submit to.
GOD IN THE GAPS
Which brings me back to Trickster and the Origin of America…
A powerful resonance has been noted by historians between Scotland and America in the 1700’s. Adam Smith, for example, most famously the author of The Wealth of Nations – virtually the bible of early capitalism – also authored The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which helped to deconstruct the sense of necessity around aristocratic rule and to validate the moral, and hence political, potential of people in general.
Gordon S. Wood is a great source if you want to understand this connection. My point in raising it is simply to give some demonstration to the principle that the best culture happens on the edge of the empire. This idea is at the heart of the the American Myth of the Frontier. It is intrinsic to the American Identity.
From this perspective, “American Exceptionalism” is not a product of “high”, but of “low”. America is Trickster.
Hence, when Twain’s Connecticut Yankee makes it to King Arthur’s Court, he is distinguished by his common sense. So, too, was Benjamin Franklin, IRL, when he was sent as Minister to France during the Revolution.
This Genius, in other words, only happens in the gaps, on the frontier between the established moral order and the wild world. That’s why Scotland and the Colonies resonated. They were both liminal lands, blending morality and nature and discovering their best hope (of actually realizing the aims of civilization and the genius of the human spirit) in Liberty.
BRINGING IT DOWN TO EARTH
So, the march toward Progressive Perfection brings with it a profound danger of obscuring the very genius it proposes to liberate. I will not be the first person to notice the profound lack of diversity, as regards opinion, within the movements for whom diversity is the touchstone.
Which brings me to a brief plug for STRANGE THOUGHT OF THE DAY #2: Irony Rules the World
Such orthodoxy is the death of human genius. Fortunately, said genius has mastered – exactly – the art of dying and coming back to life. So, no reason to freak out. I’m just sayin’….