By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Kinds of Fools
The “ontological argument,” a mainstay of introductory philosophy courses, purports to establish the rationality of belief in God on the grounds that to deny God’s existence is to make a logical mistake – because “God cannot be conceived so as not to exist.”
The argument’s flaws are well known; but, even apart from that, hardly anyone has ever felt compelled to believe in God for the reason that the ontological argument provides. Even those who find the argument sound don’t find it convincing.
But because it touches on a number of venerable philosophical issues – among others, what existence is, what essences are, what notions of perfection entail, and what it is to be a necessary truth – some philosophers and philosophically minded theologians still find it worth engaging, for pedagogical reasons and for its own sake.
Saint Anselm of Canterbury started it all nearly a millennium ago. The text in which he set out his version of the argument began with a verse from the Psalm 14: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God…”
I recall a distinguished philosopher, years ago, riffing on about how only some fools are fools in Anselm’s sense. Those are the kind that would deny, for example, that triangles have three sides or that bachelors are unmarried men. Anselm thought that atheists are fools like that, but even he would be hard pressed to come up with other examples. Anselmian fools are rare to non-existent, and Anselmian folly is harmless. On the other hand, the kinds of fools who thought that, for example, the United States was in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese were everywhere, and some of them were dangerous indeed.
In the late sixties, it was not unusual for high-flying academics to talk that way. Despite what some campus radicals thought, the times were far from revolutionary. But, in academic precincts, with the Vietnam War raging and the war at home gaining steam, those were, as Dickens said of revolutionary France, “the best of times,” and “the worst of times.” In the shadow of death and destruction half a world away, disabling proprieties sometimes gave way to untrammeled truth telling and bold action.
There is more sobriety now, but the level of foolishness – and the dangerousness of it – has not diminished.
Fools of the kind that thought that the Vietnam War was about helping the Vietnamese have a special fondness for electoral politics. Both of our semi-established neoliberal, military-friendly, imperialistically inclined political parties are full of them.
Hillary Clinton draws them into her ambit the way that a bright light attracts flying insects. This is one of the few things that she does well.
Is she one of those fools herself? The evidence is equivocal because, in her case as in her husband’s, it is seldom possible to see clearly what is going on; the cloud of inauthenticity that covers all they do is too thick.
There is therefore no way to tell, for certain, what she actually believes and what circumstances lead her to say that she believes.
And so it is that when she wraps herself in the mantle of President Drone, as she has been doing for the past several weeks, and when she castigates others, not just Bernie Sanders, for not praising Obama wholeheartedly enough, she is either a world-class non-Anselmian fool or a world class non-Anselmian fool imitator.
There is no doubt, however, that her supporters, especially the self-identified “progressives” among them, are fools in just the way that Hillary herself might be. When Abraham Lincoln said “you can fool some of the people all of the time,” he was talking about people like them.
Anyone who praises Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments and abilities, her understanding of world affairs, and her diplomatic acumen is right up there with the fools, dupes and suckers who take Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or any of the less colorful bozos in the Republican goon show seriously.
There may indeed be plausible reasons for preferring Clinton to Bernie Sanders – though, apart from their anatomical differences, I cannot imagine what they might be. But there is no doubt that Hillary supporters who believe what they say about her judgment and abilities and “progressive” values are fools on stilts.
Thanks to the Internet – the reporting of Dan Froomkin, Lee Fang and others at Intercept comes immediately to mind, though there are scores of other excellent sources – the word on Hillary is finally getting out on an almost daily basis. Much of it is reported here at CounterPunch. There are also plenty of sustained, analytical studies documenting her cluelessness and ineptitude. Diana Johnstone’s Queen of Chaos is an outstanding example but not the only one.
However, we Americans are bombarded relentlessly with mind numbing pro-regime, pro-status quo propaganda. This is why it is always worthwhile repeating information that is out there already.
For now, though I have two considerations to add. One has to do mainly with Hillary’s bizarre, and newly discovered, Obamaphilia; the other with the similarities between one species of pro-Clinton foolishness, and the foolishness of the man (or woman) who “hath said in his (or her) heart that there is no God.”
When they debated in South Carolina, even Sanders, a gentleman to the end, couldn’t help but point out that, eight years ago, it was Hillary, not he, who ran against Obama for the Democratic nomination. He might also have added that it was she, not he, who kept the fight going well past the time that it was clear that she was bound to lose.
After he was elected President, Obama and the Clintons, each for their own reasons, found it expedient to put Hillary inside the Obama administration. And so, she became Obama’s Secretary of State. This was, to put it mildly, a bad move – not for Hillary, but for the world.
She was in way over head, though few Americans, including ostensibly progressive Democrats who should know better, seem to realize this even now. The Clintons’ public relations machine is that good.
In Libya and throughout the greater Middle East, not just Syria and Iraq, people know well how much harm Hillary did. Pakistanis and Iraqis know too; as does everyone worried about maintaining peace with Russia and China.
There should be a “special place” in heaven, as the monstrous Madeleine Albright might say, for all the victims of America’s clueless diplomatic and military “humanitarian” interventions in which Hillary played a direct or indirect role. This would include most of the world – not just the Middle East, Eastern Europe and southern Asia. She has left her deleterious imprint all over Africa, East Asia, Central and South America, and in Haiti and other beleaguered spots in and around the Caribbean Sea.
The whole world now knows too that Hillary and the never-to-be indicted war criminal Henry Kissinger belong to a mutual admiration society. No surprise there! They probably beguile each other with regime-change banter, the pillow talk of the truly debased.
Obama must have thought that it would be a smart move on his part to put his former rival in a conspicuously powerful position. This was not unreasonable; he wanted to assuage the fears of Democratic Party donors and functionaries.
He had been well vetted, of course, but there were still concerns about his enthusiasm for the military and national security state. Also, many donors remembered that, in the distant past, Obama had sometimes spoken out in commonsensical, morally decent ways about Israel and Palestine. In their minds, this put his servility to the Israel lobby, and therefore to the government of Israel, in doubt.
Obama wanted Hillary to help him secure the confidence of the worrywarts. She was good for that; no one could doubt her bellicosity or the extent of her servility. It was clear, of course, that donors and mainstream Democrats had no reason to be nervous; they didn’t need a Clinton on the scene. But with all that jibber-jabber about “hope” and “change,” Obama must have felt that they could use a little reassurance.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State job was good for the Clinton brand. “To remain viable within the system,” as Bill once put it, Hillary had to remain in the spotlight.
There was a danger, of course, that her clueless machinations would catch up with her. But Bill and Hillary were, and still are, in denial about her abilities; and, in any case, they believed, correctly, that their public relations machine was up to the task of making Hillary look good – or at least not awful.
It was not, and never has been, a smooth alliance. Bill, especially, has had a longstanding problem with the interloper who, in his mind, deprived his First Lady of her rightful place in the Oval Office. Even now, while Hillary justifies herself by claiming to be the one who will carry on “Obama’s legacy,” Bill is not above suggesting – wink, wink – that his wife might just be a stronger leader and Commander-in-Chief.
It would be better for Hillary if the Clintons could get their stories straight, but Obamaphilia is just not Bill’s thing; he is a lost cause. Hillary, however, has no shame. This is why, for now, most of the effusiveness is emanating out of the Clintons’ distaff side.
Obama needed, or thought he needed, Hillary in 2008. Why would she think she needs Obama now?
The short answer is: the South Carolina primary. If the gods are merciful and Hillary gets schlonged there, her chances of winning the nomination will be toast, no matter how many “super delegates” she currently has in her pocket.
The slightly longer answer is that the Clintons don’t want all their years of flattering and cajoling black politicians to be for naught. They think that African Americans owe them; and indeed many of their notables do. But when the people those notables purport to represent start removing the scales from their eyes and/or if they start thinking of Hillary as a loser, the jig will be up: it will be plain to all that it was all a waste of time and effort.
African Americans in South Carolina forsook the Clintons before, in 2008, but at least that was for one of their own – sort of. If they do it again, it will be for a septuagenarian Jewish man with a Brooklyn accent. This must get Bill and Hillary’s goat.
The Clintons understand identity politics; Hillary is playing that game now to win the votes of women of a certain age. But they have always treated adversaries to their left with contempt. Thanks to the Sanders campaign, Hillary has lately found it expedient to strike leftish poses. Under the skin, though, the old animosities remain.
She and Bill simply cannot abide the thought of being beaten by a “democratic socialist,” someone who espouses an up-dated version of the old fashioned liberal political line that the Clintons have been working their entire lives to eradicate. They are therefore pulling out all the stops. If that requires strategic extrusions of shameless Obamaphilia on Hillary’s part, so be it.
It wasn’t supposed to come to this. Weeks, even days, ago, the Clintons could reasonably hold fast to the belief that, like the poor (and for much the same reason), African Americans would always be with them.
Now, though, they are starting to wonder if they can trust anybody — black, brown or white — under thirty. They have reason to be concerned: black youths in South Carolina are fast becoming as lucid about the Clintons and Clintonism (Democratic Party style neoliberalism and liberal imperialism) as their white counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In view of the Clintons’ role in encouraging the mass incarceration of African American men, and their assault on the already feeble welfare state institutions that used to keep oppressed and impoverished African American communities on life support — and in light of their role in forging trade and industrial policies that have decimated the entire American working class — this was bound to happen eventually. But Hillary was counting on it not happening soon. The question now is whether consciousness can dawn quickly enough to throw her off her track.
One would think that she and her handlers could think of a better way to stave the inevitable off than by lauding Obama and vowing to continue his good work.
Good work? Obama’s being there has, no doubt, boosted morale. Beyond that, there has only been neglect.
There is a debate to be had about how benign that neglect has been, but there is no doubt that, were Obama as lily white as Hillary, few African American Democratic voters would now be supporting a candidate who says she wants to continue along the lines he pioneered.
Let’s hope that large enough numbers of African American voters in South Carolina realize this in time. The old guard won’t. They are as invested in the Clintons, as the Clintons are invested in them.
Indeed, could anything be more pathetic than the Hillary endorsement delivered by the lobbyist-ridden, corporate-friendly, Congressional Black Caucus PAC? The justifications offered by that PAC’s chairman (stoolperson) Gregory Meeks (D-NY) were outright embarrassing.
A case in point: when asked to comment, by Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” on Hillary’s expressions of admiration for Henry Kissinger, all he could say was that gleaning insight and wisdom from a former Secretary of State is just what a Secretary of State ought to do. One wonders what he would say if Angela Merkel were to announce that she is now studying the teachings of her predecessor in the Bundeskanzler’s office, Adolph Hitler.
Yes, I know, it is an axiom of our political culture that no one compares to der Führer, he was evil itself. But it would be hard to deny that the main reason why Kissinger is not now regarded in the way that Hitler is is that Hitler’s wars led to Germany’s defeat and (temporary) decimation, while the United States survived the wars Kissinger started and sustained, notwithstanding his war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the peace.
Too bad too that John Lewis is now actively bespoiling his own reputation by promoting Hillary’s civil rights bona fides. This has been in the works for many years. Tragic as it may be, Black Lives Matter activists and other militants in the struggle for racial justice would be justified in calling him to account for it. Twenty-first century versions of the kind of person John Lewis was sixty years ago can do no less.
Civil rights movement veterans and later-day black leaders who think that Hillary will be good for persons of color, like “progressive” feminists and well-meaning liberals who buy Hillary’s line about progressive pragmatism, are fools – in the way that people who thought that America was in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese were.
But the problem with them goes beyond their false beliefs, muddled thinking and strategic obtuseness. It is that in the struggle to turn the country off its Clintonite course, they are on the wrong side.
The glory, but also the downfall, of the ontological argument is that it depends on logic alone – not on how the world is.
This is why, ultimately, it can never tell us anything about what is the case. Even were Anselm right in holding that “God cannot be conceived so as not to exist,” it still wouldn’t follow that “God exists” – at least not in the way that proponents of the ontological argument believe.
Triangles would be three-sided plane figures and bachelors would be unmarried men even if there were no triangles or bachelors in the universe; or even if there were no universe at all. God would exist too, in just the same way, were Anselm’s argument sound.
Then atheists would be mistaken in a different way from believers in Hillary’s pragmatic progressivism; they would be mistaken from a logical point of view.
Sometimes Hillary’s fools get the logic wrong too. But then their mistakes depend not just on logic itself, but also on justified true beliefs about the world that they, like everyone else, would endorse; matters of fact that are too uncontroversial to be reasonably denied. Concede those facts and illogic takes over from there.
This would not quite make them Anselmian fools; just sisters (or brothers) under the skin.
That Hillary is a dunce in foreign affairs, and that she has messed up almost every policy project she has undertaken – from reforming health insurance to remaking the Middle East — and that her “pragmatism” is a mask for her determination to maintain the status quo is obvious as can be. But, in view of how widely this plain truth is denied, those contentions cannot be considered certain enough to be thought of in a way that approximates the logical truths that true Anselmian fools deny.
It is different, however, when she presents herself as the candidate of “change.” No sane person can plausibly deny that Clintonism – whether in Obama’s version or her husband’s or her own — is precisely what proponents of “change” want to overcome. This may not quite rise (or fall) to the level of denying that triangles have three sides, but it comes close.
And so, for Clinton to declare herself, at one and the same time, a proponent of change and a continuator of the Obama presidency, for her to wrap herself in the mantle of Obamaphilia and then to depict herself as the real “change” candidate, offends logic itself.
Ironically, those who hold that view are, in a way, even more foolish than Anselm’s atheists.
It has been known for a millennium, thanks to the work of hundreds of commentators, starting with Gaunilo of Marmoutier, an eleventh century French Benedictine monk, that one can coherently deny that God exists.
But one cannot, at one and the same time, be an anti-establishment proponent of “change” and also an abjectly loyal Obamaphile, who castigates others for not being similarly abject.
Who can say what kind of fool the psalmist really had in mind! Maybe, he or she was less interested in logical truths than in thinking logically about the world. This is certainly what mattered to all right-thinking people before Anselm, and to nearly all that have come along since. It is what matters now.
Distinctions can be enlightening, but even if, in the end, it turn out that the kind of foolishness that bothered Anselm is politically inert, and that there is only a difference in degree, not kind, between the foolishness involved, say, in thinking of Hillary as a well-meaning pragmatist and the foolishness involved in thinking of her as an anti-establishment rebel, so what!
The distinction can be important in some philosophical contexts, but because nothing of political consequence hangs on it, the political difference is nil.
What matters is just that all the foolishness clustering around the Clinton candidacy end. Clearing it out is a daunting task because so much of it is so deeply entrenched. But, yes, we can.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).