Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Demagogue's Corner a.k.a Thomas Paine's Corner

Steve Best's latest essay over at Thomas Paine's Corner is titled "The Loss of a Halo: Francione and the Mask of Jainism." Reading it was an experience that moved me to nothing but derision. In fact, it is difficult to imagine someone being so hard up for something to do as to write such an insipidly verbose screed devoid of sense and decency. It is a screed that exemplifies Best's predilection for theatricality, which is aided by his tin ear. The latter prevents him from being able to check his unpardonable rhetorical excess, ranging from self-indulgent prolixity and self-important self fanfare, often soaring (albeit unintentionally) to the heights of comical absurdity, to his bewildering profusion of absurd images and corny metaphors, and finally to his deadly ridiculous accounts of situations in which he himself is involved (or imagines himself to be), no matter how marginally or peripherally, and of his perceived enemies, especially Gary Francione.

The whole essay is a purely invented melodrama, indeed a comedy of persecution, in which Best wallows perversely in fulmination against Francione. It begins with Best's setting the stage on which he craves to appear. For in the spirit of rendering a difficult, but obligatory public service, he says that there is a "war" going on. This "war," however, is not the "war" against animal industry, but the "Best-Francione wars," in which the protagonists "locked horns...and traded a number of blows," in which Francione has "put on some brass knuckles [and] dangerously escalated the conflict" because he "apparently grew restless in the calm of the détente," and so "escalated it in a provocative and dangerous way." All of this merely prompts the question: how has such melodramatic nonsense become possible in the animal rights movement?

Next, his heart overflowing with the desire to set the record straight, with tender concern for the truth of every word he writes, Best depicts Francione as a veritably satanic figure, the devil with scorched wings, that is, as "arrogant, controlling, insulting, duplicitous, conniving, aggressive, and verbally abusive...a pseudo-pacifist who thrives on conflict and hostility" and is "filled by toxic hated [sic] and violent emotions." Moreover, according to Best, Francione's "accusations are...insidious, dangerous, and destructive" and his "tactics [are] designed to demonize and destroy individuals and unleash forces of repression and fear," because he is "thirst[y] for revenge." And finally, Best proclaims, with half-witted triumphalism, that he has exposed Francione as "a Machiavellian wrestling in the mud," an image which - when I first read it - caused me to burst out laughing.

By contrast, when Best talks about himself and his role in this "war" in particular, he does so with tender solicitude, at times even lapsing into sentimentality - a cantingly pious self-characterization, indeed, which is prefaced by him with the incredible claim that it has nothing to do with his "ego." For example, he says that he is "relatively satisfied" with his confused jumble of impotent thoughts - sorry, I mean his "critical work"; is "Never one to hide [his] commitments and beliefs"; engages in "philosophical justification" as opposed to "wild and reckless accusations"; is not an "irrational chest pounding demagogue"; and was "motivated by a grave concern" over the fact that Machiavelli is wrestling in the mud. Indeed, he says that, "after careful study," he came out against the muddied wrestler and in favor of the ALF, or something like that.

Next, he uses his "war" with Francione as an excuse to give us an abridged version of his intellectual biography ("In 2004, I published...") as well as to regale us with the melodrama of another one of his battles, this time with David Martosko who in the presence of "powerful politicians" and "top FBI brass" described Best as "the ALF Kingpin, the Bossman, the Capo, the Mack Daddy," even though he was just "a lone critical voice on campus." It brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it?

The problem here is that it's not an easy task for Best to maintain that he is just "doing philosophy," or providing "philosophical justification," when his writing exemplifies exactly those characteristics from which philosophical writing should be free. Indeed, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that he is doing anything but philosophy. His rhetorical style, for example, goes beyond the limit of prudent sanity in that it is marked, on the one hand, by its disturbingly shrill tone and hyperbolic language, and, on the other, by its opaque academic jargon and intellectual affectations; the former is designed to stir up people's emotions and prejudices while the latter is supposed to be a sign of his intellectual authority, but is, in fact, a meretricious substitute for it.

I mean, what is one to do in the face of Best's critique of Francione's abolitionist theory as homogenising the "contextualist and pluralist" multi-dimensionality of the "dialectical both/and" into the "iron cage" of the "a priori" "either/or"? What is one to do, that is, other than to shrug one's shoulders with bemused condescension?

But this does not mean that Best's writings are unpopular. Satirists like them.

Concluding his screed, Best announces with much cheap ceremony that he is "throwing down the gauntlet" to his nemesis. Throwing down my own gauntlet, I challenge anyone to provide a single shred of evidence that Best is an "irrational chest pounding demagogue" who takes refuge in an histrionic style characterized by jargon and alliteration, by melodramatic fulmination against "adversaries," and by fanciful interpretations of reality: "Best shows what philosophy means in a world in crisis."