I have neglected this blog for two reasons. First, it’s high summer and time to sail and fish (with distressingly little danger to the fish population of Monterey Bay, I must confess). Second, my French friend, the Last Communist (Le Dernier Communiste, le 12 Juin 2013) is visiting.
The Last Communist is an uncommonly gracious man. He allows me to do what I have little opportunity to do with American “progressives”/liberals/greenies. He slows down long enough for me to dissect what’s wrong with his thinking. Like his American cousins, he shows a tendency to change the subject when he finds himself unable to answer an objection. He does it slowly enough though that I am able react. (Also, sitting at my dinner table kind of blunts his reflexes.)
At one point, he invites me to explain to him the causes of the American Civil War (of the War between the States). Quickly, he specifies which kind of explanation I must use and which ground I may not tread:
The War has to be the result of a crisis of capitalism. If I present my explanation without this kind of sub-explanation, he will not believe me, he asserts. And then, if I say something to the effect that the population, the rank-and-file Americans, became disgusted with the facts of slavery, I will lose my credibility in his eyes.
Now, considering the possibility that any social or political crisis has economic roots is one of two things: It’s a good habit of thought, a useful tool, or it’s a religious belief.
Now, interdicting the kind of explanation that makes moral crises autonomous can only be based on a religious belief.
My friend invites me to explain a complex event without violating his religious convictions, convictions that I understand but don’t share. The experience is a lot like trying to argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses who show up at your doorstep, all nice and neatly dressed, and smelling of soap: “Yes, -they say – but Jesus loves you nevertheless.”
I can’t just make light of my friend the Last Communist. He is a mature man of talent with remarkable achievements to his credit and with demonstrated courage. He is also a kind person, very easy to like. This makes his sort of dogmatic obstinacy, his forceful yet unconscious rejection of straight rationalism even more difficult to understand.
Like the very concept of individual liberty, the pursuit of rational argument free of superstition is a rare event in human history. The space to invent and re-invent the first and to engage in the second must not be taken for granted; it needs to be carefully protected.