Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 19

Politics of Human Nature 4: Lions and Attila. In For the New Intellectual, Rand introduce the archetype of Attila, whom she describes in the following terms:

The man who lives by brute force, at the whim and mercy of the moment, lives on a narrow island suspended in a fog of the unknown, where invisible threats and unpredictable disasters can descend upon him any morning. He is willing to surrender his consciousness to the man who offers him protection against those intangible questions which he does not wish to consider yet dreads. [14-15]

In addition, Rand claims that Attila fears reality, that he holds his consciousness “on a subhuman level and method of functioning,” that his “brain is a jumble of concretes unintegrated by abstractions, that he is motivated, “not by thoughts, but by feelings and whims, and that he feels “secretly inadequate to the task of dealing with existence.”

By forming her archetype of Attila, Rand at least can be given credit for recognizing the problem posed by men of violence. But her description of this archetype, particularly in comparison to Machiavelli and Pareto, strikes one as a hopelessly distorted caricature—a product, not of honest reflection on the facts of history, but of mere wishful thinking and moral indignation.

Although Rand is guilty of grossly distorting and exaggerating the defects of the lion, of the man of force, this does not mean that men who correspond to this ideal type aren’t generously endowed with problematic characteristics.

Here’s a list of characteristics which often go hand-in-hand with the willingness and ability to use violence: (1) Faith and religion; (2) Obssession with “honor” and “saving face”; (3) Intolerance; (4) Willingness to use force to maintain various uniformities, such as customs and other “prejudices”; (5) Neophobia; (6) Belief in hierarchical domination (i.e., caste system); (7) Dogmatic adherence to “non-contextual” absolutes.

There exists no necessity, no heavy-hand of determinism, that forces these characteristics to go together; yet, because they are in many respects complementary, if you find two or three of these traits in an individual, you’ll probably find two or three more. There are probably profound evolutionary reasons at the bottom of this. During the long period when human beings foraged for food and chased animals with spears, tribes fought among each other for access to resources and women. The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who studied the fierce and violent Yanomamo people of the Amazon rainforest, documented that in their frequent warfare and raiding, men who had participated in a killing had more wives and offspring than those who had not. The initiation of violence, when pursued strategically by a disciplined, unified army of warriors, brings with it a genetic payoff that would be selected over evolutionary time. But note: it’s not just any type of violence that is selected. Random violence by lone individuals, or chaotic violence by random collections of individuals, will likely be put down by any group united in strong sentimental bonds. What might these bonds consist of? Religious and tribalistic sentiments, mainly. Tribes would be united by ancestor worship and filial and tribal bonds. Their willingness to fight would be buttressed by strong notions of honor and self-sacrifice. In short, here we see the evolutionary roots of Pareto’s group-persistence residue. All these characteristics—tribal bonds, mania for personal honor, ancestor worship (or worship of gods associated with tribe), discipline, submission to tribal ideals, and the willingness to fight and kill and die for the tribe—would provide an evolutionary advantage to those tribes that were strong in them, so that over time these characteristics would become conjoined and reinforced by natural selection.

Now fast forward to the modern era, when a new type of survival strategy has become prominent: the strategy of intelligence and innovation. It was difficult for intelligence to break free from the thralldom of taboo and violence, but once cunning individuals succeeded, through alliances of convenience with violent leaders, to build strong political and social communities, out of which the seeds of civilization could sprout and grow, intelligence became more and more important, until, in our modern, technological world, it has become paramount, the surest path to wealth and status. But even so, there still exist many individuals who have inherited the a genetic endowment fashioned by hundreds of thousands of years of violence and tribalistic, group-persistence sentiments. Many of these individuals won’t respond to “reason” or any other attempts at civilized persuasion. They resent the modern world and its emphasis on change and innovation. Lacking the intelligence and emotional make-up necessary to flourish in this world, they find themselves condemned to occupy a lower position in society while individuals less courageous, less religious, less “honorable” than themselves rise above them in the social scale.

How, then, does Rand propose to deal with these individuals? After all, it’s not as if she denies their existence: her archetype of Attila, distorted as it may be, shows that she nevertheless recognized that this ideal type posed a threat to her political ideals. In my next post I will discuss how she proposed to deal with the man of force and intimidation whom she derided as "Attila."

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