The Cult of Impotence

(With thanks to Linda McQuaig for the title)

2016-03-20

In this blog I discuss ideas presented by Sam Harris and Linda McQuaig and their relevance to the ideology of extreme right-wing libertarianism which holds that the state should be practically powerless.

Sommaire en français
Dans ce blogue je pars de certaines idées présentées par Sam Harris et Linda McQuaig pour ensuite expliquer leur pertinence à une idéologie libertaire d’extrême droite qui prône un État affaibli au point d’être pratiquement impuissant.

In a recent podcast (Throw Open the Gates, 2016-02-24) of his series Waking Up, Sam Harris begins by discussing some aspects of the heated Apple-FBI controversy, i.e. Apple’s refusal to comply with an FBI request to allow government access to encrypted data on an iPhone, an issue he had addressed in a previous podcast. In this blog I will not address this specific controversy, nor will I comment on Harris’ debate with Maryam Namazie which takes up most of the remainder of the podcast. Rather I wish to concentrate here on the general question of government reach, an issue which underlies the Apple-FBI dispute.

Harris soundly criticizes those who are absolutely certain that Apple should not cooperate in any way with the FBI, those who consider that, in Harris’ words, “no human purpose could justify government intrusion into your privacy.” He even labels this point of view a new religion which he baptises the “cult of privacy” and he considers it as damaging and irrational as any traditional religion having a supernatural element. It is a “toxic” attitude based on a “total lack of trust in government,” an attitude based on “paranoia” and “dogmatism” and which is a “recipe for anarchy.”

I think that Harris is making a very important point here. However before I explain further, I would like to deal with two semantic problems which, in my opinion, unnecessarily cloud the main issue.

Firstly, I think that we should avoid using the word “religion” in this case. In my estimation, a religion always involves supernatural aspects. If an ideology—such as what Harris calls the “cult of privacy”—has no such aspects, then it is not a religion. It would be more accurate to call it a pseudo-religion or a parareligion (my preferred term) to indicate that it resembles a religion in some ways—dogmatism, irrationality, etc.—without in fact being a religion strictly speaking. Religions often rely on confusing or vague language in order to mask their obscurantist agenda (for example, relying on an extremely fluid definition of “God”), so I think we have a duty to do better, i.e. to pursue clarity and precision in our discourse.

Secondly, I find it unnecessary to invent a new name “cult of privacy” for this particular parareligion because the ideology he is describing already has a name, or several, which we could use instead: I would call it extreme or fundamentalist “right-wing libertarianism,” i.e. the ideology which holds that any government at all is probably too much, that essentially no government whatsoever can be trusted. This mentality is apparently widespread in the United States and has considerable influence in English-speaking countries in general.

So having dispensed with these two semantic issues, I wish to underline that Harris has indeed identified a toxic ideology which tends to distort debates wherever it rears its ugly head.

For the title of this blog, I have borrowed the title of Linda McQuaig’s 1998 book in which she challenges the idea—almost a dogma—widely promoted in economics, that governments have no choice but to slash social programs in order to avoid deficits, they they are powerless before inexorable market forces, that the world financial system cannot be regulated. This cult of impotence, McQuaig argues, is a big lie, or at best a misconception, a ruse to get the general public to accept an economic program—laissez-faire capitalism—which is not in its best interests.

It is obvious that the economic doctrine denounced by McQuaig and the privacy doctrine criticized by Harris have much in common and indeed are based on a common absolute rejection of governments or states as having any merit whatsoever. If taken to its logical conclusion, the consequence of this would be an anarchic situation in which might makes right, the richest and most powerful benefiting at the expense of all others. Faced with the legitimate fear that states holding excessive power will inevitably abuse that power to the detriment of citizens, the adherents of the doctrine of extreme right-wing libertarianism seem not even to consider attempting to improve the state, by mitigating and moderating its power and making it more representative of citizens, more responsive to general needs. No, improving the state is not seen as an option. Rather the state must—according to this cult—simply be abandoned or at least weakened to the point of impotence.

This is, in my opinion—and apparently in the opinion of Harris and McQuaig—completely irrational. A state which is too weak can be just as dangerous as one which is too powerful. We must not cripple the state; rather we must improve it.

This cult of impotence sometimes manifests itself in unexpected situations. We have in fact seen a lot of it—although somewhat hidden or disguised—in recent debates about secularism in Canada. It is particularly prevalent in the debate about banning religious symbols in public services and state institutions.

In addition to (1) elevating “freedom of religion” to a privileged status, giving it priority over other freedoms—in particular over freedom from religion, and in addition to (2) conflating religion with race or ethnicity, thus falsely treating religious affiliation as essential to personal identity, opponents of such bans also make use of (3) the cult of impotence to propagate their virulent anti-secularism, for if the state is powerful enough to legislate a dress code for its employees or in certain situations managed by the state, then that power must necessarily—according to this cult—be too much power. This strategy is usually disguised as an issue of individual rights: after all, if the state or government representing the collective will is to be gutted of power, then all that power falls to the individual. We thus have utterly aberrant situations such as where the state is not even allowed to apply a trivial restriction (e.g. ban face coverings) during a very short citizenship ceremony, because that would violate the “right” of the individual to absolute license.

A real solution to the niqab issue, for example, would involve a government having the political will to repeal article 17.1.b of the Citizenship Regulations, part of the Citizenship Act, which stipulates that the oath must be administered with “the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.” This article is a clear example of privileging “freedom of religion” over other freedoms (see (1) above). The former (Harper) government did not attempt to repeal 17.1.b, undoubtedly because it feared alienating its religious (i.e. Christian) electoral base. The current (Trudeau) government, given its complacent stupidity with regard to Islamism, would never consider such a move.

Clearly, we need to recognize when the cult of impotence is being used to pull the wool over our eyes and prevent us—i.e. the citizenry, as represented by our governments—from taking reasonable measures for the common good. One may, for example, disagree with the adoption of a dress code for state employees because one may consider it unnecessary (I do not), but it is dishonest to claim that such a measure is impossible and disingenuous to claim that it would necessarily constitute an abuse of power. The state imposes certain constraints on its citizenry on a regular basis, constraints which are often much more restrictive than a mere dress code applying only in specific circumstances, constraints which most of us accept as reasonable.

Our response to concerns about governments potentially having too much power should not be to weaken them to the point of incapacitating them completely; rather we must seek the best possible equilibrium between intervention and non-intervention by the state, so as to maximize the freedom and quality of life of the citizenry.


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