David Hume on Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter

The obstinate and the insincere share “the same passionate vehemence, in inforcing sophistry and falsehood.”

From the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

Disputes with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity superior to the rest of mankind. The same blind adherence to their own arguments is to be expected in both; the same contempt of their antagonists; and the same passionate vehemence, in inforcing sophistry and falsehood.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “David Hume on Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter”

  1. In the ideational welter of Palin's mind, there is often something akin to sincere belief. Coulter is sharper, and therefore able to be less sincere more consistently.

  2. I've been thinking about the trap so many liberals fall into with these people. Basically, we're suckers. Our political enterprise is one of exploration. This is why academia & journalism, two pillars of civilization, are fundamentally liberal. Professors don't get to throw up their hands and say (as the modern conservative might), "There, all finished! We've got it pretty well figured out." Journalists don't get to simply report events that unfold, like automatons.

    Liberalism is about genuine relativity – that all ideas are relative to their creator. It is corrosive to tradition and entrenched powers. But it is what it means to be a conscious human. It is an extension of the basic existential project: to reflect upon the world and find it's truth and meaning. This requires a certain amount of annihilation of self. Our model of the world is only as good as the model we are able to create. By this fact, everything then must be approached with a certain humility. When we engage the world, we must always allow for the fact that we do not have all the answers. There is no common sense for us. Skepticism begins with oneself, and then extends outward.

    Yet none of this means that there is no Truth. It only means that we sometimes have a very hesitant relationship with it. Which causes problems when it comes to taking a stand for things. We may think we know what is true – but that could always change. When faced with fundamental injustice, dishonesty & illogic, we often struggle to rise above our hesitant stance and take the leap of faith that is declaration and certitude.

    This isn't a problem for conservatives. Men are men. Women are women. God is god. Right is right. Love it or leave it. Real Americans. This is a fundamentalist mentality. Debates are not had in order to learn, they are to be won. – the model is perfect. It is one of obedience and authority. The model must not be questioned, because that is a slippery slope. Questions simply lead to more questions. There is a point where the questions just need to stop. The tap must be turned off and the sooner, the closer to the source, the less chance of contamination.

    This is not communication. This is a fight. The same sort of mentality drives men to believe that infidels are expendable. It fits perfectly with the concept of God, because what could be more perfect, more authoritative, more true and worthy? What is more, every God comes with a special book! You don't even need to think for yourself. It's all right there in black and white. Just follow along. No stopping to critically reflect, unless as a way to more perfectly correct oneself in line with the Right way.

    So do we argue with Al Qaeda? Of course not. And not only because they'd likely kill us. But because there is no point! Arguing requires an honest effort on both sides to try and understand each other. But these people do not want to understand us. How could they, when they don't even want to understand themselves?

    Sarah Palin is not Al Qaeda. Glenn Beck is not Al Qaeda. (Although some of their follows I do sometimes worry…). But their thinking shares many commonalities. It arises out of an utter lack of self-reflection. At first principles, its core assumption is of inerrancy – an obedience to the tautological premise of an idea being so demonstrably true that it must not be questioned. A zeitgeist of such folk is now coalescing, almost in the way natural disaster builds to a critical mass that becomes self-sustaining. As a movement, what matters is not the legitimacy of its claims, but the size of its mass. The lack of tolerance for deviation is fascinating.

    I'm not sure how to deal with these people. But engagement on the issues likely isn't an option. And to the degree that it is, success will come not from the strength of argument, but from the ability of the individual to reclaim some vestige of dialogue within their self. That process of self-reflection must be reacquired before any outsider can hope to have any impact.

  3. "It arises out of an utter lack of self-reflection."

    Because anybody who engaged in self-reflection would end up a liberal?

  4. Brett –

    If you reread Eli's comment I think you will see that he did not say that all self-reflective people are liberals. He said that American "conservatives" (would someone please tell me just what they are conserving?)are not self-reflective. This does not imply that all liberals are self-reflective.

    As a young conservative, I admired John Stuart Mill, the source of much libertarian thinking. Here's what he said on the issue: "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative."

  5. reading and re-reading the Hume quotation, I fail to see how it narrowly applies to Palin. In fact, it seems, it is much more applicable to Mitt Romney. Palin is a "passive" disbeliever. She does not believe anything until she says it–but once she says it, she acts as if she's discovered the truth. This may explain her ridiculous statements about her own actions that directly contradict reality. Romney, on the other hand, is an "active" disbeliever–you can't pin him down on anything because he changes his "opinions" depending on target audience.

  6. Maybe in a different way Nietzsche got their number as well, in The Genealogy of Morals (Translated by Walter Kaufmann, pp36-7):

    The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says “No” to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this “No” is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye—this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself—is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all—its action is fundamentally reaction.

    Coulter's entire discourse consists of repetitions of one theme: liberals are rotten. They are no good. Liberals are worthless. They suck. Terrible things should happen to them.

    Without liberals to react against, she would have nothing to contribute to the world at all.

  7. Prof. Kleiman's application of these Hume quotations leave me scratching my head. Is it supposed to be that Sarah Palin is "obstinate" and Ann Coulter "disingenuous"?

    I don't know, but I've seen Prof. Kleiman several times on bloggingheads, and it would seem to me that he is quite "obstinate in his principles" and is not exactly indifferent to prevailing in debate.

  8. Hume comes close here to hitting on Harry Frankfurt's idea of bullshit.

    Horseball, perhaps we can save everybody some time by taking a tu quoque argument as offered every time anybody says anything here.

  9. Horseball, I too have seen the professor a few times discussing issues with others who disagree with him. But it seems to me that he is obstinate because he believes that his views are true, or at least have the virtue of a strong relationship to reality. David Hume is talking about those "who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy from affectation."

    Your objection does not even rise to the level of a tu quoque argument. It is not sufficient to show that he is obstinate; it is necessary to show that he does not care whether he is right or wrong, but only wants to score points and frustrate those with whom he is debating. I have seen him concede many a point when the other person made it cogently and with reference to facts. One of Coulter's main purposes is, in her words, to reduce "hordes of liberals to blind, sputtering rage." It is the gnashing of teeth that she seeks to induce in her antagonists. If you have seen this kind of thing from the professor, please provide supporting evidence in the form of a specific URL and supply the number of minutes into the blogginghead debate that this behavior is to be seen.

    Without liberals, Coulter is nothing. They are her life blood. She needs them if she is to survive. That is why I think that Nietzsche had something to say in this context. She hates those whom she needs; that is one form of ressentiment.

  10. One reason I don't find these Hume quotes convincing is that they don't seem to be the timeless distillations of wisdom that Prof. Kleiman sees them as. The core question is whether the Hume quote is in fact an apt comparison of the "obstinate" and "disingenuous", rather than its particular application. I should think that two prime examples of the second group would be Mike Kinsley and the late William Safire, who often noted that he was a "contrarian", i.e., that he took positions solely for the reason that they challenged conventional wisdom. While I think that both are open to criticism that they are or were disingenuous, I don't think that either one of these is or was particularly mendacious or disagreeable.

    On the other hand, the quotation would seem to be more accurate in the cases of, say, Andrew Sullivan or Christopher Hitchens.

  11. In the first instance Hume compares pertinaciously obstinate people to disingenuous ones in point of the irksomeness of disputes w/ them, not their disagreeableness as persons. I grant his second sentence leaves room for argument about who is & isn't disagreeable, but we've all encountered disingenuous people who, despite the vehemence w/ which they stick to their positions, aren't lacking in politesse. I doubt Hume means to suggest that all disingenuous people are as bumptious as the worst cases. (Whether all contrarians are disingenuous is a separate question.)

  12. K-

    Take a closer look at the quote – he's not talking about some subset of disingenuous people, but states that such bad behavior is "to be expected". Also, he states that they will have "contempt for their antagonists", which to me is a lack of politesse.

    I don't think this quote holds up.

  13. As I hoped to say, I grant that Hume's second sentence admits your reading. But it doesn't require it, & I'm inclined to the more charitable alternative. Contempt (or voiced contempt) can be disagreeable, but politeness exists to dress it agreeably. (So we find ourselves being esp. polite to people we hold in contempt.) Again, it's not necessary to read Hume as if he'd be flummoxed by the likes of William Safire. Agreeable but unctuous characters weren't unknown in Edinburgh, or any less irksome to argue with.

  14. In Robert Caro's book on LBJ in the Senate, there is a passage in which LBJ is advised, "If you think your opponent is an idiot, you refer to him as 'the distinguised Senator from South Dakota.' But if you know that he is an idiot, you refer to him as 'the very distinguished Senator from South Dakota.'"

Comments are closed.