Why They Fail, continued
July 15, 2012
In a previous blog, I proposed a project or rather a couple of questions: Why does our government fail so often? And: Why do those men who seem to be and actually are quite competent fail so often? Well, I think I have found part of an answer to the second question and I found it in a place I would not thought to have found it, in a commentary on the history of what I call political philosophy, a history written by Eric Voegelin. Here are some of the relevant quotes.
“Pragmatic rationality of action, disregarding the participation in right order, is a dangerous indulgence that may grow into an irrational force destructive of order.” [The World of the Polis, p. 41]
“The strict rationality of a struggle for power, without regard for the order of Hellenic society, had indeed become the standard of action in political practice.” [ibid.]
“From the causality of rational action, as understood by Thucydides, nothing could result but a power struggle to the death. Restoration of order could only come from the soul that had ordered itself by attunement to the divine measure. This entirely different conception of history was Plato’s.” [p. 43]
What is striking about men like Rumsfeld and McNamara, but also even Dick Cheney, is their rationality, as Voegelin has it, their “pragmatic rationality,” their unquestioning faith in “rational action.” Rumsfeld and McNamara were what might be called “information junkies.” They desired to amass as much information as they could, thinking that by doing so they would know what to do, not thinking that by amassing information they were actually blinding themselves to what I like to call “real reality.”
What follows from amassing information and acting on it are what are called “progress reports.” These reports invariably find that “progress” is being made – which is not all that surprising given that they are called “progress reports.” Again and again, during the Vietnam War, the progress reports indicated that progress was being made, for example, in the “body counts” or in the number of Vietnamese who had been “relocated.” Insofar as they could be, these progress reports were accurate. Still, they were blinding. For example, no progress report indicated – or even could indicate – that something like the Tet Offensive was about to occur. This would have required insight and that is not what progress reports are about or what they provide.
So the blindness is in a real sense self-imposed because these men, while seeming to have “sight,” have no insight. Insight, as the word implies, requires looking within. “Information” is that which is available on the surface and as this “data” is amassed it actually becomes harder for and less likely that human beings will look within. And it could be that insight is the work of the imagination and, of course, if one attribute helps to define “pragmatic rationality” it is a distrust of, even the dismissal of the imagination. [Read your Machiavelli, central chapter of the Prince, where Machiavelli dismisses the usefulness of those who have based their political philosophy on “imagined republics.”] But if it is the imagined that provides insight, then “pragmatic rationality” or “strict rationality” is blinding rather than illuminating. And those who call themselves “realists” are anything but. They are bound to fail because they have lost touch with reality even while thinking that they have not.