Rationalism in wartime
It turns out that the premise of the film Don’t Look Up, in which the media refuses to acknowledge that an earth-destroying asteroid is hurtling towards the planet, is false. If any such object appeared in the sky, the press would be actively cheering it on, perhaps demanding that NATO attach some rockets to it for extra impact.
Just watch the clips of White House correspondents self-righteously asking why the US hasn’t imposed a no-fly zone on Ukraine. It doesn’t matter how often NATO and Joe Biden have pointed out that an NFZ would mean shooting Russian planes out of the sky and bombing Russian anti-aircraft bases, effectively inviting Vladimir Putin to start destroying NATO targets, and thus would be the overture to an increasingly brutal war between nations armed with enough nuclear warheads to destroy life on earth; still the media, from populist voices like Piers Morgan to such venerable commentators as Simon Tisdall, just can’t leave the idea alone. (One CNN headline inadvertently summed up the mixture of indignation and ingenuousness: “What is NATO and why hasn’t it imposed a no-fly zone in Ukraine?”)
And it doesn’t matter how often you invoke the obvious lesson of Iraq—that one can, with the best of intentions, intervene to rescue a suffering population from a murderous tyrant, and still make things ten times worse. Still, luminaries of the Anglo-American security establishment, from Tony Blair to Michael McFaul to Tobias Ellwood, flirt with the prospect of a reckless military intervention. It doesn’t matter, either, that Ukraine has been sent tens of thousands of weapons and billions of dollars’ worth of aid, or that Russia’s economy has faced a globally unprecedented onslaught of sanctions; still, admired commentators like Bernard-Henri Lévy and Bruno Maçaes will wave this away as the West “not acting” or “passively watching” or “doing nothing”—“nothing” in its new meaning of “anything that isn’t shooting people and bombing stuff.”
Some observers have described this war-hunger as a wave of emotionalism. But most of us have the same emotions about this conflict: we are sickened by Putin’s wanton destruction, and we want desperately for the war to stop. What turns people’s minds towards human-race-threatening escalation, the Pineapple would suggest, is the mentality described by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott as “Rationalism.”
The term, which appears in Oakeshott’s 1962 essay “Rationalism in Politics”, might conjure up an image of a desiccated logician. Not at all. The Rationalist is violently swayed by whatever wind is currently blowing:
The politics it inspires may be called the politics of the felt need; for the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment… That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense.
There should be no obstacle to responding to such needs, because in the Rationalist’s world—this is the essence of Oakeshott’s portrait—reason is supremely able to solve every issue. The Rationalist is a kind of heir to the scientific revolution; not its benevolent aspect, the expansion of knowledge and technology, but the ideology which grew out of it, and which places its faith in the ability of the human mind to reason its way to a solution.
The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems… There is no place in his scheme for a “best in the circumstances,” only a place for “the best”; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances…political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of “reason.”
So the current crop of Rationalists can’t bear to be told that there is no perfect way out of this situation; that our choices may be between 1) a long and horrifying war in Ukraine, 2) an international conflict, potentially World War III, with Ukraine as its epicentre, and 3) a peace deal which nobody especially likes.
The Rationalist is a perfectionist because, as Oakeshott depicts him, he believes politics to be a matter of technique. Traditions, institutions, unwritten laws, cultural norms, virtuous leadership: these have only a secondary place in a world which is about the conquering of circumstances through reason. And this even applies to morality:
The morality of the Rationalist is the morality of the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals…morality reduced to a technique, to be acquired by training in an ideology rather than an education in behaviour.
To be honest, this part of Oakeshott’s essay has always been unclear to me. What would it mean to see moral issues as technical ones? Then I saw this tweet from the Atlantic senior editor and former Bush speechwriter David Frum:
I don’t know enough of Frum’s work to say how exactly he fits the type, but the choice of words here is Rationalism distilled: “It doesn’t work.” When a grotesque injustice is committed, it must be an engine failure in need of a mechanical fix.
The Rationalist has his virtues; none of us—as Oakeshott happily concedes—can totally escape Rationalism. Some problems really do need solving, and justice is rarely brought about except through a vigorous, single-minded pursuit of it. But in a highly volatile situation, the Rationalist creed is a dangerous faith, because it leads people to flip every switch and pull every lever that looks like an answer. And if you try to restrain the Rationalist by pointing out that the last time that lever was pulled the building fell down, you will be accused of “doing nothing.”
In the opening scenes of 28 Days Later, set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse which has wiped out almost the entire population, there’s a celebrated moment where the camera slowly pans upwards to reveal a piece of stairwell graffiti reading REPENT: THE END IS EXTREMELY ----ING NIGH. Well, if in the Pineapple’s lifetime we do all end up in a nuclear conflagration, I will find a large blank surface on which to scrawl: OAKESHOTT WAS RIGHT!
Image: CIA reference photograph of Soviet medium-range ballistic missile, Red Square, May 1 1965 (Wikipedia Commons)