The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, October 28, 2011

Populism Part Two: The Dangers of Democracy

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard. – H. L. Mencken

“The European philosophical tradition”, English mathematician and philosopher A. N. Whitehead once said, “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Within the European philosophical tradition can be found the history of serious Western political thought. This too, to a great extent, is an expansion and commentary on ideas first presented by Plato in his dialogues, especially The Republic and The Laws.

After a century like the 20th, in which utopian ideologues caused never before seen levels of human suffering in their attempt to politically and socially engineer a paradise on earth, it is understandable that many look with apprehension and suspicion upon the exercise in theoretical city-state building which Socrates and his friends enter into in Plato’s Republic. As a result there has been much written which pits Plato and Aristotle against each other, purporting to find in the two Athenian philosophers the source of rival political traditions, one utopian and idealistic, the other empirical and realistic that have influenced the Western world to this day.

While there is a degree of truth to this, neo-Thomistic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that Aristotle is best understood, not as Plato’s rival, but as the first and greatest interpreter in the Platonic tradition, with the role of interpreter necessarily including that of corrector at times. (1) This view of the relationship between Plato and Aristotle in the history of Western thought seems to me to be more accurate than the other.

Moreover, those who regard Plato as the father of modern utopianism seem to have missed much of the point of The Republic. Plato was not trying to draw up blueprints for the perfect city-state which he expected actual governments to build. The city-building exercise was part of an attempt to define and defend the concept of justice against the cynical view expressed by Thrasymachus in the early part of the dialogue.

While the sophist Thrasymachus was a historical person, in Plato’s Republic he is made to be the mouthpiece for the view that justice is an irrational concept created by the strong to serve their interests. Justice constrains self-interest, but those who impose it upon others are not themselves bound by it, Thrasymachus argues. It is to the advantage of the strong to be unjust themselves and to force those weaker than themselves to answer to the demands of justice. This is encapsulated in the familiar saying in English “might makes right”.

This viewpoint expressed by Thrasymachus is what Plato wrote The Republic to refute. Justice, in the Platonic tradition, serves the common good, not just the good of the strong, and injustice ultimately serves no one’s good. It is the standards of justice which determine the right and wrong uses of power, not power which determines what is right and wrong.

Thrasymachus’ view has had its advocates down through the years. In the 19th Century, Friedrich Nietzsche distinguished between “master morality” and “slave morality”. These were two different ways of identifying “good” and “bad”, the first arising out of the thinking of the strong, the second out of the thinking of the weak. Nietzsche favoured “master morality”, which he associated with Greco-Roman civilization, over “slave morality” which he associated with Christianity. Placing an announcement of the death of the Christian God in the mouth of his fictional prophet Zarathustra, he set before mankind a choice. Embrace the values of the strong and rise to the heights of the Übermensch (Superman) or choose the morality of the slave and sink to the depths of mediocrity occupied by der letzte Mensch (the Last man).

In the 20th Century, Leo Strauss once remarked to George Grant that he was “lucky to have lived in the present period, because the most comprehensive and deepest account of the whole has been given us by Plato, and the most comprehensive criticism of that account has been given us by Nietzsche”. (2) In his The City and Man (3), Strauss radically reinterpreted Plato. He argued that the views placed in the mouth of Thrasymachus were actually Plato’s own views and that they were the central message of The Republic, that Socrates’ was in essential agreement with Thrasymachus and that the appearance of disagreeing with the view that justice is the advantage of the strong is an example of the kind of “noble lie” Socrates recommended to the rulers of his hypothetical city-state.

Nietzsche and Strauss were both opponents of modernism, who rejected pre-modern Christianity as a viable alternative to the liberalism and relativism of the modern era. They identified – falsely in my opinion – Christianity as the source of the liberalism they despised. Rightly suspicious of modern democracy, they failed to see that it is fundamentally an example of Thrasymachian “might makes right”.

Most proponents of modern democracy fail to make this connection too. Indeed, they see democracy as being quite the opposite, as the form of government that is uniquely “fair” which empowers the weak and places them on an equal level with the strong.

When I say “modern democracy” I am not speaking about all forms of democracy. I am not speaking, for example, about democracy as one element of a balanced, mixed, constitution. Canada is a parliamentary monarchy with a constitution derived from that of the United Kingdom. That constitution is a mixed constitution which includes a democratic element, along with an aristocratic and monarchical element. This is the best form of government the world has ever known, in my opinion, and the democratic element is a fundamental part of the constitution.

In our constitution of parliamentary monarchy, the constitution prescribes that certain offices of state be filled by individuals chosen by popular elections held on a regular basis. This is the democratic element of our constitution. This is how the members of our House of Commons are chosen. Other offices of state, our constitution prescribes, are to be filled in different ways. Our head of state, for example, in whom political sovereignty is vested, inherits her position according to constitutionally established rules of succession. In our constitution democracy and monarchy are two principles, both of which are necessary, and the balance between the two makes for a superior constitution than either would be on its own.

The doctrine of modern democracy is very different from this. Modern democracy is based upon the idea that “the people” possess both a) a collective “will” and b) sovereignty, which means that “the people” have a right to have their “will” enforced. 18th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau romanticized this idea of the “general will” and the idea that to be legitimate government must be the voice of the will of the people. From Rousseau’s day to our own, this idea has spread like wildfire, and an increasing number of people have come to regard modern democracy, based upon the idea of popular sovereignty, as the ideal form of government.

It is no such thing, of course. There is no ideal form of government and the very idea of an ideal form of government is itself a dangerous one. When I say the British/Canadian constitution of parliamentary monarchy is the best form of government the world has ever known I am not saying that it is an ideal form of government. An ideal form of government is a supposedly perfect form of government, drawn up on paper, which because of its perfection is believed to be something towards which all societies should aspire. The temptation that comes, when we think up ideal forms of government, is to try to force our imperfect societies made up of imperfect people into the mold of our ideal constitution. That, as the Twentieth Century bears witness to, causes massive problems and suffering for large numbers of people.

The problems with modern democracy, however, go beyond the mere fact that its advocates regard it as an ideal form of government. In our traditional parliamentary constitution democracy is one element which must be balanced with others. In the doctrine of modern democracy the “will of the people” is an absolute which cannot be balanced by other elements.

Now some modernists do try to balance democracy with the doctrine of liberalism. Liberalism is the idea that the individual is more important than the community or the society and is possessed of natural rights which government of any sort cannot legitimately interfere with. A “liberal democracy” is a government which is constitutionally restrained from interfering with the private affairs of individuals, but where matters which pertain to the common good of the community are decided by the principle of majority rule - or if it is a liberal representative democracy, are decided by elected representatives of the people.

Liberalism alone, however, is incapable of providing balance to democracy. If “the will of the people” is sovereign but the rights of individuals are absolute who decides what the rights of individuals are and where the dividing line between “the common good” and “the private affairs of individuals” lies? If the answer is “majority vote” then democracy overrules liberalism and liberalism balances democracy in the same way that a feather balances a large lead weight. If some higher law established rights of individuals which government of any sort cannot legitimately interfere with then it is that higher law and not the “will of the people” which is truly sovereign.

This does not matter much to the believer in modern democracy. Balance is a classical idea. To the modernist, the classical idea that good statecraft consists in harmonizing the parts with the whole, and balancing the good of the individual with the good of the community, and the good of the few with the good of the many, is outdated, a thing of the past.

So is the idea which Christians call “Original Sin” – the idea that suffering and evil in this world exist because of a flaw in human nature called sin, which resulted in man’s exile from Paradise, which man cannot regain through his own efforts. Modernism rejects this idea, which supports the classical ideas of limits and restraints on human ability, in favour of the idea that Paradise is attainable through political means if the social causes of evil – poverty, illiteracy, inequality, discrimination –etc. are eliminated by democratic government.

The modern egalitarian argument for democracy is a utopian dream. The argument goes that democracy is the “fairest” form of government. What makes it “fair”? It gives everybody an equal say – one vote per person. If democratic governments have not given us Paradise on earth, therefore, it is only because the ideal of egalitarian democracy has not yet been met. This is the thinking that lay behind the constant expansion of the franchise towards the ideal of universal suffrage that took place over the last couple of centuries.

First the vote was extended to all classes to achieve the ideal of “one man, one vote”. Then the women’s suffrage movement came along and “one man, one vote” because “one person, one vote”. Still Paradise on earth had eluded us. Now the franchise has been extended about as far as it can go – although one hears calls to eliminate the age of majority and end “age discrimination” from time to time – and so those still enamoured of the democratic dream have switched their demand from universal suffrage to “proportional representation”.

The idea of proportional representation is the idea that the makeup of the body of representatives should reflect the breakdown of the popular vote. The popular vote is the total number of votes cast by all voters in an election. If 55% of the votes went to the Rhinoceros Party, 25% of the votes went to the Christian Heritage Party, 15% of the votes went to the Libertarian Party and 5% of the votes went to the Green Party, then, each of these parties should have the percentage of seats in the House of Commons according to the notion of proportional representation.

Why does this not already happen?

It does not happen because people are not just individual members of a large body of voters. They are members of neighborhoods and communities and our constitution evolved to take this into consideration. Members of the House of Commons are elected to represent areas we call ridings and when people are asked to vote in an election they are not asked to vote for what percentage of the House should be given to a particular party but for who should represent the riding in which their neighborhood, their community, is located in the House.

The established electoral system is superior to proportional representation because proportional representation dehumanizes people. Instead of being real people, the faces and names who live in a community, proportional representation treats people as faceless numbers and percentages.

To those who believe that achieving “true democracy” will finally usher in a golden age of fairness and justice for all, however, the traditional electoral system is just another roadblock in the way of the will of the people as represented by the popular vote which must be thrust aside. While previous revolutions such as the reduction of the role of the monarch to that of ceremonial figurehead and the extension of the franchise to all men and women of the age of majority failed to achieve Paradise, this time around the proportional revolution is sure to succeed.

Some true believers in democracy have gone even further. After the most recent provincial election in Manitoba, for example, Frances Russell in her October 6, 2011 column for the Winnipeg Free Press blasted what she perceives as the injustices of the traditional electoral system and wrote:

Taken together, it builds an ever-stronger case for genuine democratic reform involving some form of proportional representation and Australian-style compulsory voting. Alone among British-origin democracies, Australia has had compulsory voting since 1924. The law is enforced with a modest fine of $20, rising to $50 if the voter cannot supply a valid reason for failing to exercise his or her franchise.(4)

So if you have a valid reason for not voting you are only fined $20? What happens if the non-voter doesn’t pay the fine? Does he go to jail?

In this suggestion we have a chilling reminder that the father of modern democracy and the father of totalitarianism were one and the same – Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Although many naively equate democracy with freedom, the more democracy has evolved in the direction of the ideally “fair” system of “one person, one vote”, the more democratic governments have felt free to impose their will upon us in areas of our lives that were until recently considered to be entirely private. The simple fact of the matter is that modern democracy is a form of “might makes right” of the imposition of the will through force.

Imagine you were walking down the street and someone came up to you and pulled out a shillelagh and said “you are now my slave, you will do everything I say, or I will bash your head in”. Would the fact that this person is armed and capable of following through on his threat mean that he has the right to boss you around?

Of course not. The use of force – or the credible threat of force – does not confer legitimate authority upon anyone. We have a word for the person who relies upon weapons and the threat of violent force to make others obey his will. That word is “tyrant”.

Lets alter the situation somewhat. This time you are walking down the street and someone comes up to you and says “you are now my slave, you will do everything I say”. This time he does not produce a weapon. You say “No way am I going to be taking orders from you”. He responds with “I will make you”. To which you answer “Oh yeah, you and what army”, at which point he says “This one” and a gang of thugs steps out from the back alley and surrounds you. You are hopelessly outnumbered. This time around would you say that the gang boss has the right to give you orders?

Of course you would not. The two situations are virtually identical. All that has changed is mode of force. The first would-be-tyrant relies upon a cudgel the second upon a gang of thugs. The force you are threatened with in the second situation is the force of numbers.

There is also, however, no substantial difference between the thinking of the second would-be-tyrant and the theory of modern democracy. The theory of modern democracy asserts that having a large enough number of supporters – a majority of the population – makes a government and its policies legitimate and just. This, like the thinking of the thugs in the hypothetical situations above, is a variation of the idea “might makes right”. Modern democracy – democracy as the theory of popular sovereignty and majority rule – is an inherently violent form of government.

This is one of the most important reasons why democracy needs aristocracy and monarchy to balance out a constitution. (5)

As we noted earlier, most advocates of modern democracy do not think of their ideal of “the sovereign will of the people” in terms of domination by force. They prefer to think of democracy as being “fair” as “empowering the weak” and “giving a voice to the voiceless”. There is, however, a kind of movement that recognizes democracy for what it is and embraces it.

Populism is the name we have for movements like this. A populist movement is a movement which charges elite groups with having betrayed the public interest. It gathers followers in the hopes of gaining large enough numbers for its claims to speak on behalf of “the people” to be taken seriously. It makes demands in the name of the sovereign will of the people.

In populism, the violence and reliance upon force that is inherent within democracy is not explained away or hidden but brought to the forefront and put on display. Populism knows of no moderating force. The will of “the people” is law and its demands must be met. Successful populism is the “tyranny of the majority” which Alexis de Tocqueville warned the Americans about in the 19th Century.

What populists and other advocates of democracy do not often tell you is that “the rule of the majority” is a fiction. Unless you live in the smallest of communities the governing of the community will always be conducted by a minority – an elite. Even if your community is small enough that every single decision pertaining to the affairs of the community can be decided by majority vote an elite will still rule. The people in the community who are the most skilled at getting the majority to vote their way will be the elite in such a community and they will call the shots.

This is inevitable. It is what Robert Michels called “the iron law of oligarchy”. (6) It cannot be changed, it is just the way things are. Complaining about it is as foolish and unfruitful as complaining about the law of gravity.

For our purposes the significance of this fact is two-fold. First, it shows that the doctrine of modern democracy is built upon a false foundation. The reason a minority always controls a group, community, organization or society is because there is no such thing as “the general will” or “the will of the people”. Rousseau’s volonté générale does not exist. It is a fiction. Only individuals have wills.

Secondly, it shows that populism is itself a means for a few – the leaders of the populist movement – to gain and exercise power. The people – the crowds of supporters of the populist movement – do not themselves possess power. They are the power – the power which the populist elite uses to challenge the governing elite.

While it is always true that an elite minority will hold the reigns of power in any society the constitution of the society and the ideals held by the society will affect the kind of elite that a society has. When democracy becomes the overriding principle of the constitution and popular sovereignty becomes an ideal of the society, this does little to improve a society’s elite. The more democratic the constitution, the more selfish, deceptive, and power-hungry the people who compose the ruling class become. This is really quite self-evident. To win an election, you have to first run in an election. To run in an election you must desire power. The desire for power is not an admirable trait in a leader but a dangerous one. After a person decides to run in an election they must win the election before they can exercise power. That requires convincing more people to vote for you than for your opponents. That generally involves being the best liar of the bunch which might explain why so many politicians used to be lawyers.

What kind of elites do populist movements tend to produce?

Since populism embraces the force of numbers inherent within the concept of democracy it would be reasonable to conclude that successful populist movements have a tendency to give power to people who desire power and are willing for their power to be rest upon force rather than constitutional legitimacy. History bears this conclusion out. It is full of people who desiring power for themselves, gained followers by accusing the elites of corruption, then when they had enough popular support overthrew the constitution of their country and ruled tyrannically in the people’s name. Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the last days of the ancient Roman Republic, defended the ancient constitution against populist movements which condemned the Senate and the patrician aristocracy, movements which popular generals and war heroes like Gaius Marius sought to exploit for their own personal interests, and which ultimately led to the overthrow of the constitution and the rise of Caesarism. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, the conservative and Catholic aristocracy in Germany, watched with dismay as Austrian demagogue Adolf Hitler gained supporters through a populist campaign, was elected into office, made himself dictator, and maintained a high level of popular support even as he madly plunged his country and the world into a disastrous war. The ultimate populist ideology – Marxism which accuses the elite “haves” of oppressing the many “have nots” and calls for a universal revolution to bring about a property-less, classless, egalitarian society – established “People’s Republics” around the globe in the 20th Century, which made slaves out of all but the elite members of the “Communist Party”, threw millions of people into forced labour camps, and murdered about a hundred million people.

While you cannot blame an ideology for everything that is done in its name, it is the very nature of populism to place the democratic concept of the will of the people above the constitution. This makes it a natural means for those who would overthrow their constitution, seize power, and rule tyrannically.

We have looked at a number of the dangers to a stable, constitutional order and a free society that lie in democracy and populism. There is an important question that arises out of this. What if the populists are right about the elites? What if they really are betraying the interests of their country, their society, and the public?

This question is vitally important because there is a great deal of evidence that says that the current elites are doing just that.

I will address that question in Populism Part Three: Treacherous Elites.

(1) This interpretation can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

(2) Grant recounts this in his essay “Nietzsche and the Ancients” in Technology and Justice (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1986).

(3) Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964).


(5) There are many ways in which diluting democracy by mixing it with monarchy and aristocracy lessens its potential danger. Perhaps the most important is that it separates sovereignty from the people. In a monarchy the people are never sovereign. The constitution vests the office of the monarch with sovereignty and the king or queen who fills that office inherits his or her position from the previous monarch in accordance with a line of succession defined by the constitution. This sovereign authority is therefore derived directly from the constitution and not from the “will of the people”. This is true even if the authority of the king of queen is exercised in the sovereign’s name by elected officials.

(6) Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: Collier Books, 1962), a translation by Eden and Cedar Paul of a book which first appeared in German in 1911. The phrase “iron law of oligarchy” is Michels’ but he acknowledges his dependence on Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto for the concept behind it. See also James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, Gateway edition (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963) originally published by John Day in 1943.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Populism Part One: Dissent, Left and Right

On September 17, 2011, a mob descended upon Zuccotti Park in the financial district of Lower Manhattan. Calling themselves “the 99%” and declaring their intention to “Occupy Wall Street”, they have been squatting in the park ever since. Their actions have since inspired malcontents elsewhere and “Occupy” protests have sprung up in other cities in the United States, Canada, and indeed around the globe. Here in Winnipeg, “Occupy Winnipeg” has set up its tents in Memorial Park across from the provincial legislature building on Broadway.

Certain friends and family members who have asked me my opinion of these protests, expressed surprise at the strongly negative terms with which I spoke of the “Occupy” movement. They thought I would have been in support of it. This, in turn, surprised me. These are not strangers but people who know me and my opinions on most matters. What could possibly make them think I would be in favour of the “Occupy” movement?

The “Occupy” movement is all image and no substance and it is an ugly image to boot. When its members say “we are the 99%” they are representing themselves as being, or at the very least speaking for, 99% of the population as opposed to the extremely wealthy “1%”. The membership of the “Occupy” movement does not consist of anything remotely close to 99% of the population, nor, according to polls, does its support run anywhere near that high. If their membership does not consist of 99% of the population and their professed supporters and sympathizers do not add up to that amount what gives them the right to self-identify as the voice of that percentage?

The term “99%”, of course, is a gimmick chosen for its rhetorical effect not its statistical accuracy. The “Occupy movement” is a movement with a negative focus. It is much clearer about what it is against than about what it is for and what it is against is the “1%”. What is the 1%? If you arrange the population into percentiles according to wealth with the wealthiest at the top and the poorest at the bottom the “1%” is the top percentile. It is a completely arbitrary number. It does not mean anything. While there is a large distance between the top percentile and the bottom percentile in terms of wealth, as one would expect wherever there is freedom, to say that there is a huge gulf between the top 1% and the remaining 99% would be far more accurate if we were describing a country organized in accordance with the ideals the “Occupy” movement seems to admire – a country like the former Soviet Union for example.

Now I don’t much care for the concept of “too big to fail” and the way governments have bailed out large corporations and financial institutions in recent years. I do not think governments ought to reward bad management with bailouts on the principle that when you start paying for something you get more of it. And yes, I too was quite annoyed with the arrogance of banks and companies who had been bailed out by government with the taxpayer’s money then turned around and gave their executives large bonuses.

The anger of the “Occupy” movement, however, is not directed towards bad concepts like “too big to fail”, towards politicians who voted to bail out big banks and corporations, or executives who arrogantly recorded large profits and awarded themselves large bonuses after having been bailed out. It is directed rather towards “the rich” or the “top 1%”. The two are not synonymous. “The rich” and “the top 1%” are defined solely by the extent of their wealth and not by their business practices, ideas, arrogance, or whether or not they have received government bailout money.

By turning legitimate complaints against specific ideas, business and government practices, and politicians and executives, into an attack upon the wealthy in general the “Occupy” movement is engaging in what is called “class warfare” – pitting one social layer or social group against another – and what is known as “scapegoating” – placing the blame for all of the problems a society faces upon a particular class or social group.

While the “Occupy” movement is clear about what it is angry about, and who it is opposed to, it is notoriously vague about what it stands for and what its specific demands are. It claims, of course, to represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Progressive and left-wing groups, to whom “inclusiveness” is an ideal, frequently speak of themselves this way, although one sees little evidence of it in their boring, repetitive and redundant ideas and causes. When interviewed, the “Occupy” protesters will often say that it is “change” they are demanding – bringing to mind the vapid, substance-free, rhetoric of the campaign that swept Barack Obama into the White House in 2009. The placards and t-shirts of the movement carry anarchist and socialist slogans. The closest thing to a legible demand on the part of the movement is that government confiscate and redistribute the wealth of the “1%” through “Robin Hood” taxation.

There is no way I would ever support such an agenda. While I believe firmly in the concept of noblesse oblige – that the privileges enjoyed by the upper classes in society come with duties towards the lower classes attached to them – I do not accept the idea that a modern state should be taxing one part of society to pay the expenses of another part. The purpose of taxes is to raise the revenue of government and one of the most fundamental roles of government is to administer justice. Taking money from middle-class, working class, and poor people to bail out bankers and executives who made bad business decisions is not justice. Neither, however, is taking money from the upper and middle classes and giving it to the poor, no matter how many people falsely label this “social justice”.

The “Occupy” movement describes itself as a “leaderless” movement. This is nonsense, of course. There is no such thing as a leaderless movement, never has been, and there never will be. The “Occupy” movement is clearly organized – however poorly. Its organizers, and the people who speak for it from behind pseudonyms on its website, are leaders, whether they wish to acknowledge the fact or not. The movement’s claim to be leaderless is intended to bolster the image the movement wishes to present of itself as a spontaneous protest on the part of “the people” themselves.

The “Occupy” movement contradicts itself in its language. It describes itself as a “peaceful protest” yet its call to its supporters is a call to “occupy”. Its use of the word “occupy” evokes the military sense of the term – to take possession and/or control of something by force. It is an ugly and violent term – and perhaps the most honest term in the movement’s entire vocabulary. The idea that society should obey the “will of the people”, the concept that is the foundation of both modern democracy and populism, is a form of violence, a form of the idea “might makes right” which Plato refuted in The Republic 2400 years ago. I discussed this in my review of John Lukacs’ Democracy and Populism and will go into it at length in Populism: Part Two.

Now conceivably someone reading the last paragraph might respond with the question “What about the Tea Party? They are also a populist movement, demanding that government obey the will of the people. Would you say the same thing about them?”

My answer would be that I dislike this in the Tea Party as much as I dislike it in the “Occupy” movement. Perhaps even more.

In other areas I have much more sympathy with the Tea Party than the “Occupy Movement”. Rather than pretending to be the voice of an artificial construction like the “99%” the Tea Party purports to champion the interests of a real, if endangered group, the American middle class. Its agenda is clear and simple – less taxes and less government spending. This is an agenda I heartily approve of. Furthermore, while this is not central to the Tea Party’s platform, it is a movement which has shown itself sympathetic to the concerns of Americans who object to the cultural revolutions which have transformed their country in recent decades – liberal and illegal immigration, forced secularization, the inversion of traditional moral values, etc. These are concerns I share with conservative middle Americans because the same cultural revolutions have taken place in my own country.

Some Canadian conservatives have expressed a desire for a Canadian “Tea Party”. While I would certainly like to see taxes lowered, government spending cut, and a reversal of the social, moral, and cultural revolutions that have taken place in the name of “progress” since World War II, the thought of a Canadian “Tea Party” is unappealing to me. The biggest problems, Canada and the United States are facing, have been brought upon by revolutions conducted in our countries in the name of social progress, revolutions aided and abetted by the new corporate elites. A couple of centuries ago, Joseph de Maistre in his Considerations on France wisely wrote that “What is needed is not a revolution in the opposite direction, but the opposite of a revolution”. What was true of France following the Revolution of 1789, is true of 21st Century Canada and the United States.

Both Canada and the United States are extensions of the British tradition, in which most of the fundamental concepts shared by both countries, such as the importance of personal liberty, are rooted. Canada is the more conservative country of the two countries. Our country was founded, not upon a revolutionary break from our parent country, but on continuity with it and its ancient tradition. (1) As George Grant famously wrote: “As Canadians we attempted a ridiculous task in trying to build a conservative nation in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth.” (2)

The United States, however, was founded out of a revolutionary break with the parent country. The Americans were fortunate that the “natural aristocracy” of which Thomas Jefferson wrote, took charge of their revolution, and prevented it from going to the radical excesses of the Revolution France succumbed to less than a decade after the United States won its independence. That natural aristocracy, kept the societies the American settlers had been building since the days of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies intact, and confederated them into a country under a classical republican constitution that served them well until they began to ignore it in the late 19th Century.

The Boston Tea Party is part of the founding mythology of the United States. It can therefore be used as a symbol, by Americans wishing to call their country back to its roots.

It can never be such a symbol in Canada. Here it is not part of our founding mythology and can only symbolize rebellion and revolution, the Whiggish forces against which the counter-revolutionary conservative must contend.

Apart from the matter of symbolism, however, there is a similarity between the populist and democratic assumptions of the Tea Party and those of the “Occupy” movement. In “Part Two” I will explain what those assumptions are and how they are closely related to some of the most fundamental errors of the times in which we live and will consider the question of how legitimate populist concerns can be addressed without falling into the pitfalls populism poses.

(1) The Dominion of Canada was founded by the Loyalists – members of the 13 colonies that remained loyal to the British Crown when the colonies rebelled and fled to what is now Ontario/Quebec to escape American persecution, together with the French Canadians who had been guaranteed their language, culture and religion in return for allegiance to the Crown after Britain won Canada from France in the Seven Years War, and British North American settlements which had not joined the 13 colonies in their rebellion.

(2) George P. Grant, Lament For a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (Carleton Library Edition) (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1965, 1989), p. 68.

Monday, October 10, 2011

All A Matter of Taste

There is an old Latin saying that goes “de gustibus non est disputandum”. Its meaning would be rendered in English by “there is no arguing about taste.” It is not a descriptive statement about the way people behave. If it were it would be palpable nonsense. People argue about taste all the time:

“You put ketchup on your toast?”
“How can you stand listening to that kind of music?”
”She has horrible taste in men!”

You hear variations of these questions and statements every day. Taste is one of the things people are most likely to disagree about and argue over.

The purpose of the Latin saying, is not to deny this reality but to declare that arguments of this nature are pointless. Taste is personal and subjective. People like what they like and dislike what they dislike and you are not going to argue them into changing their likes and dislikes.

The saying and the perspective on taste which it expresses have been around for quite some time. We do not know who coined the Latin expression although it is usually believed to date back to the late Middle Ages.

Is the saying true?

It is more important today than ever before that we ask that question. For the idea that everything in the realm of taste lies beyond the realm of that which can be legitimately judged and criticized by others has come to be a very powerful idea. As that notion has become more widely accepted, more and more elements of our everyday existence, particularly those which are considered to belong to “culture”, have been relegated to the realm of taste.

The first step in determining whether or not it is in fact true that taste is entirely subjective and not a matter for legitimate criticism is to distinguish between the different ways in which we speak of taste. We will consider three basic senses to the word taste, the first two of which are closely related to each other and could be spoken of as “literal” taste, the third of which is a metaphorical extension of the meaning of the second.

In the first and most basic sense we use the word taste to refer to a physical sense in which information is collected by the body and carried to the brain. This is the taste which is akin to sight, hearing, smell and touch. Located in the tongue it tells the brain whether food is sweet or salty, spicy or bland, sour or bitter.

After this information passes from the tongue to the brain, our mind processes it and passes judgement on whether or not we like the food. As we experience different flavours, patterns form in how we evaluate them. We develop preferences for foods which taste a certain way and aversions to others. These patterns of preferences we also refer to as tastes.

It is not only the information that we receive from our taste buds that we evaluate and form likes and dislikes over. We do the same with information we receive from our eyes and ears. We look to the east as the sun is setting, see the various shades of red, yellow, and orange that form in the sky, and liking what we see, we call it beautiful. Conversely, we walk along the sidewalk and all of a sudden a car comes racing down the street at highway speeds, swerves out of control and hits a hydro pole, and the driver is propelled through the windshield. The sight of his mangled, bloody, carcass repels us, and we use words like ugly, gruesome, and hideous to describe it. We like the sound of the birds singing in the tree outside our window. We dislike the sound of fingernails drawn across a chalkboard.

While we generally don’t think of our reaction to those types of sights and sounds as tastes we do consider our evaluation of sights and sounds which are the products of human creativity to be tastes. We look at Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, the Reims Cathedral and the Venus de Milo and, taken away by their beauty, we pronounce them to be among the greatest achievements of man’s creativity in the history of the world. Or we listen to J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”, W. A. Mozart’s Mass No. 17 in C-Minor, “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” from Joseph Haydn’s The Creation, and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria and make a similar evaluation of the acoustical beauty of these masterpieces.

Then again we might look at Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista and be sickened, be angered by the emptiness of the void which is John Cage’s 4’33", or be absolutely appalled at the way self-indulgent, self-destructive hedonism is celebrated in lyrics sung to computer-generated formulaic tunes in the latest hits by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or Ke$ha.

All of these are tastes.

This final, extended sense of the word taste is quite broad and covers more than just the way we think about visual art and music. It also includes our likes and dislikes when it comes to literature and theatre, and more recently television and the movies.

It is important that we recognize that these different meanings of the word taste are related to each other. Why do we describe our likes and dislikes with regards to movies, music, and books as “tastes”? We do so because they are judgements which are of a similar nature to those we form about our food. Some people develop a preference for sweet flavours over salty ones, others develop the opposite preference. Similarly some people prefer romantic comedies over spy thrillers while it is the other way around for others. The concept of taste in matters of culture is derived from the concept of taste with regards to food.

What does this tell us about the question of the subjectivity of taste?

Note that while our tastes in food are undoubtedly subjective they are based upon an objective element. When one person says “I like roast chicken with mashed potatoes” and another person responds with “I prefer fried chicken and potato salad” both statements are subjective judgements. When, however, someone says “honey is sweet” and another person says “olives are salty” they are making statements which are objective.

Both sets of statements express something about taste. What makes the one set objective and the other subjective?

An objective statement attributes a quality to something which can be verified or falsified by other people. “Sugar is sweet” says something about sugar which we can all experience for ourselves by tasting it. Everybody experiences the taste of sugar as sweet unless there is something wrong with their taste buds.

A subjective statement, on the other hand, is a statement about how you experience something which other people cannot enter into, although they might have their own similar experiences. When you say “I like Brussels sprouts” no other person can test the truth of the statement because while someone else might eat Brussels sprouts to determine whether or not he likes them, he cannot enter into your experience of Brussels sprouts to determine whether or not you like them. Now you might grimace while eating Brussels sprouts giving us cause to doubt and question the veracity of what you say. In that case, however, we doubt because your testimony contradicts itself. Your facial expressions and your words are saying two different things. Your actual experience of Brussels sprouts we cannot directly evaluate – only your testimony as to that experience.

The cause of objective tastes – the salty taste of potato chips or the sweet taste in ice cream – is found in the foods themselves, which is why if our senses of taste are all functioning normally, we agree as to what those tastes are. The causes of subjective tastes – whether we like or dislike bologna sandwiches or whether we like them more or less than we like peanut butter sandwiches – are found within us. This is why taste in the sense of our hierarchy of likes and dislikes differs from person to person. People are different and their differences affect and are reflected in what they like and dislike.

Now if you like hot dogs loaded with sauerkraut, pickles, and hot peppers you are going to think other people should like them too. That is the very nature of liking something. When you say “I like spaghetti and meatballs” what you are saying is you have judged the experience of eating spaghetti and meatballs to be an agreeable experience. Ordinarily, when people find an experience to be agreeable they wish others to share it as well, and when they find an experience to be disagreeable they wish others to avoid it. It is true that we often hear people say “Ew, this is disgusting, here try it” but when people say this they are looking for confirmation of their own evaluation and expect the other person to agree with them.

There is nothing wrong with thinking that what you like other people ought to like as well and that what you dislike should be disliked by others. If we did not think this way, if our lists of what we like and dislike were completely separated from our judgements of what other people ought to like and dislike, we would be completely isolated from others. Communication and sharing, which are fundamental elements of the cooperation between human beings necessary for us to live together in communities and societies, would be virtually impossible if we did not have an expectation that other people would like the same things we like.

There are different ways in which we can draw expectations from our own tastes as to how other people will like or dislike certain things. Lets say that you really like banana milkshakes. From this you can conclude that other people will like them as well. You might, however, draw the conclusion that everybody will like them. The first conclusion is entirely reasonable and appropriate. The second conclusion is less justifiable because it cannot be drawn without losing sight of the fact that people differ from each other.

There is also the possibility of a third conclusion. The third conclusion is that because you like banana milkshakes other people ought to like them as well. If you draw this conclusion you do not make the same mistake as someone who would draw the second conclusion. You recognize that people are different and that not all people will like the same things. Your conclusion, however, is radically different from the first two conclusions because it is a judgement about what other people ought to like rather than whether or not they will like it.

If you draw the first and most reasonable conclusion you might be inspired to act upon it in a number of ways. You might go around telling your family and friends how good banana milkshakes are because you do not wish them to miss out on something you have enjoyed and which they might potentially enjoy as well. Or you might open a banana milkshake shop in the hopes of turning your conviction that others will also like what you enjoy yourself into a profitable venture. There is nothing wrong with behaving in either of these ways.

If you draw the third conclusion, however, you might decide to try and make people like what you think they ought to like. You would not succeed. The most you could accomplish by, for example, telling people that they must like banana milkshakes or you will club them over the head, is getting them to all say they like banana milkshakes when in your presence. That does not mean that they will actually like them and more likely than not your acting in this way will in fact turn people off of banana milkshakes.

It is unlikely that you would go to the extreme of using coercive force to try and make people like banana milkshakes. People form likes and dislikes, however, about a wide spectrum of different things and when their likes and dislikes clash with another person’s there is potential for disagreement to escalate into violence. It is for this reason that we encourage the quality of civility among people. Part of that quality, involves reflecting upon the fact that no two persons are exactly alike and that if members of a community are going to live together in peace, harmony, and cooperation they will have to allow each other to differ from themselves. Out of this, the idea enshrined in the Latin expression we have been considering, arose.

Just as, however, the reasonable expectation that others will like what I like can be taken to the unhealthy extreme of “others must like what I like”, so we can take the idea that taste is subjective too far. We can say that taste is entirely subjective and does not contain an objective element. We can say that the concepts of “should” or “ought” ought never to be applied to taste. In both cases we have taken the subjectivity of taste too far.

If taste were entirely subjective then the statement “vanilla ice cream may be sweet to you but to me it salty and spicy” would be a valid statement instead of blithering nonsense. “I like vanilla ice cream” is a subjective statement. “Vanilla ice cream is sweet” is not.

Now someone might say “yes, that is true of taste concerning food, but taste concerning art, literature, or music is different”.

That, however, is manifestly not true.

There are statements about our artistic and cultural tastes which are clearly subjective. One person might say “I like Paolo Uccello’s triptych on The Battle of San Romano” to which another person might respond “Well, I prefer Pablo Picasso’s Guernica”. Or someone might express admiration for Titian’s Venus of Urbino to another person who replies by stating his preference for Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. I like Caravaggio’s The Card Sharps. You, on the other hand, might like C. M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker series. These are all subjective statements because no matter who is making them, or which painting is preferred, they are all “I like” statements which are statements about the person doing the liking and not about the painting which is liked.

Yet these are obviously not the only kinds of statements which can be made about art. We can also objectively discuss the works of art themselves. Pages upon pages have been written about each of the paintings mentioned above which do just that. Nor, are the two kinds of statements unconnected with each other. If I say “I like strawberries” I am saying something about myself and if I say “strawberries are sweet” I am saying something about strawberries, but what I say about myself is partially derived from what I say about the strawberries, because the sweetness of the strawberries is one reason why I like them. Similarly, when I praise the religious theme, the use of colour, and the craftsmanship in the Ghent altarpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck these form part of the reason why I like the piece.

Just as it is not true that there is no objective element to artistic and cultural taste neither is it the case that we should never speak of tastes in terms of “ought” or “should”. While taste should not be enforced with coercion it is proper for us to speak of things we ought to like and things we ought to dislike. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it is better for us to like certain things than to like other things.

Consider our tastes in food. One person prefers meals which are home-cooked and nutritionally balanced. Another person prefers to eat in the kind of restaurant where you sit down and wait while your meal is cooked and a server brings it to you. A third person gets most of his meals from burger joints, pizza parlours, fried chicken places and other fast food restaurants. Finally, a fourth person seems to survive entirely on a diet of potato chips, soda pop, and chocolate bars.

Can we say that each of these preferences is equal to the others and that none of them is a better taste than any of the others?

Of course not. The first person’s taste is the best and the second person’s taste is second best. While the third person’s taste is bad the fourth person’s is even worse.

What is the basis of this judgement?

A number of factors contribute to it. The quality of the food and the method of preparation is one factor. Fast food and junk food are mass produced to be sold cheaply in large quantities. Quality is always sacrificed when things are produced in this manner. The nutritional value and effects upon health are other factors. The flavour of the food is also a factor. While some might argue that this is part of the subjective element of taste the flavour of a home cooked meal tends to be far superior to that of junk food which relies upon sugar, salt, and various chemicals to produce its very limited range of flavours.

This does not mean that we should only ever eat home cooked meals or that we should pass a law saying that people must only ever eat home cooked meals. It means that the person who shows a persistent preference for home cooking has good taste while the person who shows a persistent preference for junk food has bad taste.

The same thing is true of cultural tastes. There is good taste and there is bad taste. Or, more accurately, there are various degrees of better and worse tastes.

What is it we are judging to be good or bad, or better or worse, when we classify tastes in this way?

It is our ability to properly distinguish between the good and the bad, or between the better and the worse. Our discernment in other words. It can also be the extent to which our personal likes and dislikes reflect our discernment.

Good taste in food is the ability to distinguish between food which is nutritious, delicious, fresh, and well prepared and food which is unhealthy, mass produced, and quickly prepared and to identify the former as being better than the latter. It is also a preference for the former over the latter. Bad taste in food can refer either to a lack of discernment about which foods are better than others or a pattern of preferring the worse foods over the better.

Good taste in culture is both the ability to rightly distinguish between what is good and bad in culture and a preference for the good over the bad.

Can good and bad, or better and worse, be distinguished in literature, music, and art?

Of course they can. Natural talent is not equally distributed among artists. Some artists are tremendously talented others have only a little talent. All other considerations being equal, the works of artists with more talent will be superior to the works of artists with less talent. But other considerations are not equal. Training also contributes to the quality of art. Some artists are apprenticed, others are trained in schools, and others are self-taught. These things make a difference. So does the amount of effort an artist puts into his work. One artist may painstakingly labour over every detail of his work while another slaps his paint onto the canvas with only a minimal attention to detail. All of these factors together contribute to the quality of art.

These are not the only criteria by which we can distinguish the good and the bad in culture. Just as some foods promote good health while others tend to be unhealthy so culture can have a good or a bad effect on us. Some literature, music, and art encourages us to worship our Creator and be thankful for His many blessings, inspires feelings of piety towards God, our family, and our country, and promotes virtuous behavior. Other literature, music, and art does the exact opposite of all of this.

Culture can be good in one sense and bad in the other. Literature and music can have an entirely wholesome message yet be uninspired, dull, and boring. Or it can be original and exciting and at the same time subversive and evil.

Culture can also be good in both senses. The masters of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael – possessed inspiration and genius on top of talent, and constructed their masterpieces with precise attention to details, striving for perfection. Their works – such as The Creation of Adam, The Last Supper and The Transfiguration – are spiritually and morally uplifting.

Then there is culture which is bad in both senses. Examples include Robert Mapplethorpe's pornographic photographs, Andres Serrano’s P*** Christ, and Damien Hirst’s pickled animals. These works are not aesthetically pleasing, they display neither talent nor genius, and they are spiritually and morally subversive.

There are, of course, many other distinctions which can be made between different works of music, literature, and art which are not matters of good or bad, or better or worse. This has to be kept in mind as does the fact that when we read a book, listen to a song, or look at a painting and decide “I like this” or “I don’t like this”, these decisions are about us as well as about the works of art themselves. The ability to distinguish between differences in art which can be expressed in terms of degrees of quality and differences which should not be expressed this way and to recognize the difference between an objective evaluation of art on the one hand and your subjective response to art on the other is itself an indication of good taste – the ability to distinguish and discriminate properly.

Good taste is not something we are born with but rather something we acquire. What kind of foods do children generally prefer? Cake, cookies, candy, ice cream, soda pop, potato chips, chocolate bars, hot dogs, hamburgers, and basically everything loaded with sugar or salt. What kind of foods are children most likely to squinch up their face and say “Ew, gross” over? Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and vegetables in general, especially the green ones. It is natural for children to have these preferences. There is something seriously wrong, however, with an adult whose tastes have not matured, who has not developed an appreciation for better foods than these, and who opts to make “fun” foods the staples of his diet.

Likewise, our capacity for appreciating the better elements of our culture is more limited when we are children and must grow and develop. We begin with nonsense rhymes and as we mature develop an appreciation for the sonnets of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Milton. The music we like as children consists of songs with fun lyrics. As we mature we learn to like songs with more serious lyrics and instrumental pieces. Our attention span is quite short when we are children but it gets longer as we grow older allowing us to learn to appreciate longer music works like Mahler’s 8th or the operas in Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen.

The way in which our tastes change, expand, and hopefully improve as we get older is a vital part of the process of maturation, of growing up. The idea that taste is entirely subjective is no friend to this process and can be a hindrance to it. If one taste is just as good as another why should we learn to restrain our impulsive desire to eat nothing but cake and ice cream and learn to like those icky vegetables? If tastes are entirely subjective who are you to say that I should move on from Sesame Street to Shakespeare? If we stop distinguishing between the good and bad, or the better and the worse, we will have no conceptual framework within which to strive to improve ourselves and our tastes.

If our tastes fail to mature – if their growth is stunted somehow – then we will fail to develop good taste. There is also the possibility that our tastes will develop but in the wrong way. We may come to develop a preference for bad things over good things. Instead of learning to love Brahms’ concertos or Elgar’s marches we might develop a love for death metal or, perish the thought, gangsta rap. We might reject King Lear and Othello in favour of slasher films or “reality” TV. Of course these two ways in which taste can become bad – failing to mature or developing in the wrong way are not entirely distinct from each other. One of the most notable characteristics of contemporary North American pop culture – the very epitome of bad taste – is its immaturity. Not only is most of it now produced with a teenage target audience in mind, even that which is ostensibly produced for adults is primarily distinguished from the rest by obscenity, gratuitous violence, and profanity – all of which scream adolescence rather than maturity.

There is one final question that we need to consider. If everything I have argued above is true, if art, literature, music and other cultural works can be objectively evaluated and a hierarchy of better, good, bad, worse identified, and if our taste itself can be judged to be good or bad on the basis of our ability to properly discern the better and the worst in culture, why do so many people think otherwise?

The answer is that we live in an era in which people have become increasingly hostile to the idea that they should be held accountable to external standards. A cult has formed around the self which identifies self expression, self-discovery, self-esteem and self-worth as all-important positive values that we need to strive for. Restraint upon the self – such as that represented by external standards – is naturally rejected by this cult. This is all the more the case when the standards are applied to something like taste which does include a strong personal and subjective element.

This exaltation of self is an unhealthy development which has caused a reasonable principle to be taken too far. We should not judge a person’s “I like X” statements in the same way that we judge his “X is better than Y” statements. The two kinds of statements are completely different and are not subject to the same standards of right and wrong. If a person cannot properly distinguish between which is better, X or Y, this can reveal itself as a pattern in that person’s “I like X” statements, however. This is where the distinction between good and bad taste comes in. It cannot and should not be rejected in favour of pure subjectivity.