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Why Am I Not Surprised?

Al Gore thinks (or at least thought at one time, and there's no reason to think that he's changed his opinion) that Rousseau is worth quoting.

You know, if I were going back in history and assassinating someone to prevent great harm to the world, my first choice would not be Hitler. It would be Jean Jacques Rousseau, the father of totalitarianism in all its forms. Though probably someone else would have come up with his vile notions independently.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Somehow, this seems related. An excellent essay on Obama's charisma, and messianic campaign.

The danger of Obama's charismatic healer-redeemer fable lies in the hubris it encourages, the belief that gifted politicians can engender a selfless communitarian solidarity. Such a renovation of our national life would require not only a change in constitutional structure--the current system having been geared to conflict by the Founders, who believed that the clash of private interests helps preserve liberty--but also a change in human nature. Obama's conviction that it is possible to create a beautiful politics, one in which Americans will selflessly pursue a shared vision of the common good, recalls the belief that Dostoyevsky attributed to the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionists: that, come the revolution, "all men will become righteous in one instant." The perfection would begin.

The Founders were Lockean. Obama seems more an heir of Rousseau, though perhaps an unwitting one.


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Carl Pham wrote:

Only some of the Founders were Lockean in this sense, Rand. The obvious exception was Jefferson, who admired the French philosophes that indeed preached that the revolution (in particular the French Revolution) would initiate a golden age when government force became forever unnecessary. But they didn't believe men would be transfigured in that instant, they believed that men were by nature innocent and social, and it was only the pernicious mechanisms of the ancien regime which made them appear otherwise.

Also, not all of the Founders believed that the "clash of private interests" would be enough to preserve liberty. The branch represented by both Adams believed that the voice of the majority was just as susceptible as any other voice to behave tyrannically, and believed some representation of aristocratic interests was necessary in government in order to hobble the ability of the majority to have everything its way.

Anyway, it's not Rousseau's fault. Oppression in the name of the collective good is as old as time. The wars of religion in the 1500s and 1600s were about little else. Modern speakers as varied as Ann Coulter and Vaclav Havel have made the connection between the modern leftist collectivism and religious crusades of previous centuries.

Jeff Medcalf wrote:

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who sees Rousseau in this light. Carl, what makes Rousseau so problematic is not his belief in oppression in the name of collective good — as you note, that is as old as mankind for all we know — but his belief in the perfectibility of man via a system, once the non-believers in the system are removed. The root of essentially all Western ideologies that have failed, at the cost of millions of lives, since the Enlightenment is Rousseau's flawed philosophy. Fascism (and its National Socialist offshoot), Communism, Marxism, Maoism (which combined the mandarin/bureaucratic Chinese system with Western Marxism), Islamism (which combines the Arab tribal barbarism, Islam's less pleasant features, a kind of Communism, and Fascism), and Environmentalism (which hopefully won't turn into a genocidal communalism) are just a few of the truly bad ideological descendants of Rousseau.

Carl Pham wrote:

It's a good point, Jeff, but...I'd say the perfectability of man (in this generation! Right now, if you vote for me or buy my product in this exclusive TV offer...operators are standing by...have your absentee ballot and/or credit card ready...) is also a perennial.

The idea that man is a sinner, has always been, and hasn't much changed his moral constitution in the past 50,000 years is a pretty minority opinion in the United States, if not in the West generally. Most people believe we're on some general upward trajectory, that each generation is smarter, more moral, and more capable than the previous. The only thing that distinguishes the more radical revolutionaries is just that they think the perfecting process has reached some magic enabling level (where government is unnecessary, or -- in the modern version -- where direct democracy is possible and individual rights are unnecessary) right now, instead of some day far off in the future. That's a difference of degree only, albeit an important practical one.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on July 14, 2008 8:40 AM.

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