A Nation of Sophists?

...[Aristotle] says that the sophists either identify political science with rhetoric or subordinate it to rhetoric. If there are no things which are by nature just or if there is not by nature a common good, if therefore the only natural good is each man's own good, it follows that the wise man will not dedicate himself to the community but only use it for his own ends or prevent his being used by the community for its end; but the most important instrument for this purpose is the art of persuasion and in the first place forensic rhetoric....[T]hey believe that it is "easy" to discharge well the non-rhetorical functions of government and to acquire the knowledge needed for this purpose: the only political art to be taken seriously is rhetoric.
—Leo Strauss, "On Aristotle's Politics," The City and Man

Something which I have been noticing more and more often is that large segments of society place much more emphasis on saying the right things than on doing the right things. Harvard president Lawrence Summers, whose administration is arguably one of the friendliest towards women that Harvard has ever had, was pilloried for daring to make a statement in an academic conference that ran afoul of the ideological orthodoxy. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued after President Bush made his statement about Iraqi purchases of yellowcake (never mind that it was already official US policy to remove Saddam, ever since Bill Clinton's second term). The United Nations commands the respect of many because it can cloak its depravities in the flag of universal peace and brotherhood, and an attack on the UN is seen as an attack on humanity's desire for peace itself!

Granted, words are important. They warn of future action, and project ideas and affinities into the world. This is especially true in the realm of politics, where words often seperate the world from endless war. Yet, often governments have used words as a substitute for action, not as a prelude to it. Tens of thousands are dead in Darfur, and most of the world makes portentous speeches full of sorrow and resolve, and then retire to their collective drawing-rooms for tea and crumpets. Much the same happened during the Rwanda genocide, or during the long decades in which Islamist extremism festered and spread through the sea of brutal Arab dictatorships.

Now we have a President who actually follows words with deeds, and much of the world is aghast. Why is this cowboy upsetting the boat? Every president says these things, so why doesn't he do what they did?

Regardless. Why is it that much of the West, and much of America even, is so contented by empty genstures and symbolism that they feel no need to actually take action? If a situation is dire enough to merit opposition in speech, should it not merit opposition in deed?

I think part of the answer lies in the creeping advance of moral relativism. Many people believe that no culture can impose its beliefs on another. After all, nobody can lay claim to the truth, so who is to say who is right? So what they can do is protest, cajole, plead, and hope that the culture eventualy agrees that what it is doing is probably not so great, and changes itself. But how can you actually act to change the world? That's not being tolerant of others!

Note that feminist groups were united in their condemnation of the Taliban government's treatment of women, right up to the minute that President Bush promised to go to war against them. Then suddenly the feminists turned against the warmongering imperialist US government.

In a society where colleges are overrun by majors in communication or English (both concerning use and manipulation of language, neither involved in actually doing something constructive), it is unsurprising that we develop an unhealthy fascination with abstraction and symbolism, to the exclusion of the concrete.

(Admittedly, it is odd for such sentiments to appear in a blog, written by a political-science major. But I started college as a physics major, and much of that mindset remains with me. I need to see tangible action, not intangible fluffery. Example: I will not believe that the new Palestinian Authority is any more sincere than the old one until we see multiple large-scale gun battles between PA security forces and terrorist groups. So far, none have been forthcoming.)

But for those who actually believe in Good and Evil as concrete forces in the world, words are insufficient. They are useful, but they are not decisive. In the end it takes action, and sometimes violent action, to make the world a better place. A thousand "give peace a chance" posters will do nothing to create that peace; that job is happily left to the "rough men [who] stand watch in the night on our behalf." So be it. But it is frustrating indeed that so many people refuse to see the obvious. Perhaps we should, like Plato, propose educational systems that develop moral virtue and not individual whim.

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