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Not-quite-quietism

November 6, 2012

Today is election day in the United States. I try not to talk about politics here, sticking mostly with aesthetics and metaphysics; but why? It’s a question I sometimes struggle with; what can I say without making it sound like I’m running away from real-life problems and into a world of make-believe? My answer tends to be like that of Alan Jacobs:

What people call political realism often seems to me a kind of short-sightedness. The idea that valid political action requires us to choose from among the most prominent current alternatives — in short, to decide whether you’re going to be a Republican or a Democrat and then work to bring your chosen party more closely in line with your convictions — makes sense if your chief goal is to gain a political victory and to gain it now. Or soon.

Sometimes for good and often for ill, I am temperamentally incapable of thinking in that way. I tend to see politics in terms of a history that’s considerably longer than that of today’s political parties, or indeed of America itself. My political vision, such as it is, has two components: a long defeat followed by long joy.

Or, if I’m feeling Heideggerian, I might find myself agreeing with Nicolás Gómez Dávila, who wrote about “The Authentic Reactionary”; (though to be honest I’m not sure I fully understand what he’s saying):

If the progressive casts himself into the future, and the conservative into the past, the reactionary does not measure his anxieties with the history of yesterday or with the history of tomorrow. The reactionary does not extol what the next dawn must bring, nor is he terrified by the last shadows of the night. His dwelling rises up in that luminous space where the essential accosts him with its immortal presence. The reactionary escapes the slavery of history because he pursues in the human wilderness the trace of divine footsteps. Man and his deeds are, for the reactionary, a servile and mortal flesh that breathes gusts from beyond the mountains. To be reactionary is to champion causes that do not turn up on the notice board of history, causes where losing does not matter. To be reactionary is to know that we only discover what we think we invent; it is to admit that our imagination does not create, but only lays bares smooth bodies. To be reactionary is not to espouse settled cases, nor to plead for determined conclusions, but rather to submit our will to the necessity that does not constrain, to surrender our freedom to the exigency that does not compel; it is to find sleeping certainties that guide us to the edge of ancient pools. The reactionary is not a nostalgic dreamer of a canceled past, but rather a hunter of sacred shades upon the eternal hills.

History as “long defeat,” the reactionary championing “causes where losing does not matter”; I like these thoughts. Taken one way, they’re noble, in a resolutely stoic kind of way; taken another they’re cowardice. It’s like the almost-invisible difference between mysticism and quietism. Politically, quietism would mean a belief that any action we can take can only cause harm, that what we need to do is stop acting, stop trying to fix things, stop talking, simply exist in a state of expectation. My goal, however, is not to cease acting; it is to find the bare minimum.

My desire to avoid actual quietism while on my quest for not-quite-quietism manifests politically as a distrust of voting for a third party. It often seems like the perfect way to act politically without compromising oneself; it often seems like a way of not doing anything at all. I don’t want to go too deeply into the subject here, but this is an interesting piece by Julian Sanchez about why it’s not on the face of it absurd:

Yet in the real world, we can often predict with great confidence that we will not persuade literally everyone to follow our course of action. It may, rather, be highly probable that we will persuade enough to make the mission to rescue Group B successful without any realistic risk of drawing off so many people that the effort to rescue Group A now fails. To be sure, in this case, the argument for publicly advocating that people join the B mission does take as one of its own premises the assumption that this advocacy will not be perfectly persuasive. But if that premise is true, and known at a very high level of certainty to be true, then this is not actually “problematic”: It is what allows all 110 people to be saved instead of only 100! Now, obviously, if you’ve calculated your probabilities wrong, you can imagine such a choice backfiring badly, but in the real world every aspect of the decision process (including the projected consequences of mounting each mission) is ultimately probabilistic, and you’ve got to make the choice you think will do the most good given the information available. So we can quibble about the numbers, but there are surely probability ranges in which it’s clear that what you morally ought to do is advocate that people join the B mission, or to heed that call given your knowledge about what others are likely to do.

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