Posts tagged Richard Nixon

Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???)

Here’s noted evolutionary biologist and village atheist Richard Dawkins, in the course of his review of what seems to be a laughable little documentary that he was tricked into giving an interview for:

My own view, frequently expressed (for example in the The Selfish Gene and especially in the title chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ought from an is. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism.

— Richard Dawkins (2008-03-28): Lying for Jesus?

There’s a fair amount to praise here, and a fair amount to pick at. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out that Dawkins’ characterization of Herbert Spencer — the 19th century radical libertarian sociologist and philosopher — is completely wrong on two different counts.

Herbert Spencer, dirty evolutionist hippie

First, Spencer was not a Social Darwinist. He was not, in fact, a Darwinist at all; he published his most famous work on evolution and society, Social Statics, in 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. His ideas about evolution, especially as applied to society, were Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian; which is not ultimately that surprising, since he came up with them independently of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and before that even existed in published form.

Second, Dawkins is completely wrong about Spencer’s radical political views, which bear virtually no resemblence to the belligerent Rightism and economic royalism of Thatcher, Bush, Nixon, or Rockefeller. Spencer was in fact a feminist, a labor radical, and a vehement critic of European imperialism (which he described as bearing a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers). Contrary to the most popular, and most wildly inaccurate, caricature of his social views, Spencer did not believe in cutting off charitable relief to, or mutual aid among, the poor, sick, or other folks whom the powers that be might marginalize and dismiss as unfit, in the name of survival of the fittest. (That is his phrase, but it is being misapplied.) Spencer opposed government welfare programs — because he opposed all forms of government command-and-control — but he believed that voluntary charity and mutual aid were not only a positive moral obligation, but in fact were features of the highest forms of social evolution (Social Statics, pp. 291-2), as the old militant mode of hierarchy and command was supplanted by the new industrial mode of solidarity and voluntary co-operation. Spencer devoted ten chapters of his late work, Principles of Ethics, to the duty of Positive Beneficence. He advocated the organization of voluntary labor unions as a bulwark against exploitation by capitalist bosses, and favored an economy organized primarily in free worker co-operatives as a replacement for the slavery of capitalist wage-labor.. For those — like the cartoon Social Darwinist that Spencer is so often portrayed to be — who advocated indifference or harshness towards the poor and blamed poverty on the ignorance, folly, or vices of the poor people themselves, Spencer himself had nothing but contempt:

It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you …? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed the great unwashed; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious … and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen …. (Social Statics, pp. 203–5)

Of course, there is plenty in Spencer’s views that Dawkins, as a Social Democrat, would object to. But Dawkins has not yet succeeded in identifying what those disagreements would be. Spencer’s humanitarian, pro-labor, pro-charity radical left libertarianism has just about nothing in common with the authoritarian Right-wing political economy that Dawkins rightly condemns.

Further reading:

Politics by other means

This appeared in the March 2008 issue of Wired:

On the morning of October 27, 1969, a squadron of 18 B-52s — massive bombers with eight turbo engines and 185-foot wingspans — began racing from the western US toward the eastern border of the Soviet Union. The pilots flew for 18 hours without rest, hurtling toward their targets at more than 500 miles per hour. Each plane was loaded with nuclear weapons hundreds of times more powerful than the ones that had obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The B-52s, known as Stratofortresses, slowed only once, along the coast of Canada near the polar ice cap. Here, KC-135 planes — essentially 707s filled with jet fuel — carefully approached the bombers. They inched into place for a delicate in-flight connection, transferring thousands of gallons from aircraft to aircraft through a long, thin tube. One unfortunate shift in the wind, or twitch of the controls, and a plane filled with up to 150 tons of fuel could crash into a plane filled with nuclear ordnance.

The aircraft were pointed toward Moscow, but the real goal was to change the war in Vietnam. … Frustrated, Nixon decided to try something new: threaten the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and make its leaders think he was crazy enough to go through with it. His hope was that the Soviets would be so frightened of events spinning out of control that they would strong-arm Hanoi, telling the North Vietnamese to start making concessions at the negotiating table or risk losing Soviet military support.

Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon’s plan was the culmination of a strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The details of this episode remained secret for 35 years and have never been fully told. Now, thanks to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, it’s clear that Giant Lance was the leading example of what historians came to call the madman theory: Nixon’s notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could bring the Soviets to heel.

… Kissinger had suggested the nuclear maneuvers to give the president more leverage in negotiations. It was an articulation of the game theory he had studied before coming to power. What were [the Soviets] going to do? Kissinger said dismissively.

— Jeremi Suri, Wired 16.03 (March 2008): The Nukes of October

This is how the State and its exquisitely trained court intellectuals protect you: they steal your money; they use your stolen money to hire armed men who will keep you corralled inside an artificial border; on the basis of their arrogated power over everything inside border, they then throw themselves into ridiculous posturing and pissing contests with other States, over whose artificial borders should go where, over geopolitical prestige and influence, and over politicians’ dreams of a historical legacy; and then, in the name of their own pride, they commission their trained theoretical experts to devise a thermonuclear game of chicken to play for leverage in the Great Game. It was, after all, only the lives of a few hundreds of millions of ordinary people that were hanging in the balance; not like it was anything important compared to the personal honor of Richard Milhous Nixon, or a negotiated settlement that wouldn’t embarrass the United States federal government in front of all the other governments.

… On the most obvious level, the mission failed. It may have scared the Soviets, but it did not compel them to end their support for Hanoi, and the North Vietnamese certainly didn’t dash to Paris to beg for peace. … More than 35 years after Giant Lance, I asked Kissinger about it during a long lunch at the Four Seasons Grill in New York. Why, I asked, did they risk nuclear war back in October 1969? He paused over his salad, surprised that I knew so much about this episode, and measured his words carefully. Something had to be done, he explained, to back up threats the US had made and to push the Soviets for help in Vietnam.

No, it didn’t.