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Machiavelli’s Escapism

January 24, 2011
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A particular concept came to mind when Prof. Manty’s remarked on the similarities between video games and Machiavellianism: escapism.

Escapism has been on my mind since I read an opinion piece by David Brooks in the New York Times entitled, “Amy Chua is a Wimp.” The article is a reaction to a recent book by a Yale researcher who struck out against the perceived “coddling” of American children.

Brooks claimed that the sort of parenting advocated by Dr. Chua, a tough example of a stereotypical parenting style typical of many Asian mothers, is just an expression of Dr. Chua’s cowardice and ignorance when it comes to “the most intellectually demanding activities” of childhood.

He writes, “I’m not against the way Chua pushes her daughters…I just wish she wasn’t so soft and indulgent,” and I find his analysis pretty convincing. It is true that the classroom can be hard work, but I can believe that navigating a sleepover can “impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/opinion/18brooks.html).

It seems that Brooks’ logic can be applied to both video games and Machiavellianism.

Here are the three ground rules Prof. Manty laid out in lecture:

1)   Strategic focus

2)   Ends are given/unproblematic

3)   No end-independent normative constraints.

All three of these concepts make sense in the context of video games. An unquestioning goal-centric motivation without outside constraints makes sense if you want to create a successful video game. Of course, this is not a rule, but they have not been challenged (to the best of my knowledge).

It seems less sensible to apply these rules to political science. I agree that politics require strategy, but goals are never “unproblematic” in the political sphere. Unlike quests in WOW, most political ends cannot be fulfilled without undoing achievements in other sectors.

For example, two principles at the core of democracy, security and liberty, are fundamentally opposed. As one is increased, the other diminishes. However, we desire both ideals despite their contradictory ends. How can a pluralistic state be understood in a Machiavellian system? I believe it is impossible.

The last stipulation for Machiavellianism, that there be no outside restrictions upon the decision-making, is as equally flawed as it is redundant. There are no situations that, when carefully considered, encounter “end-independent normative constraints.”

Prof. Manty gave morality as an example of such a restriction. Morality, when given a superficial analysis appears to be an artificial stumbling block to reaching an end. However, morality is not artificial. Individuals acquire morals when the consequences of certain actions or inactions are fully understood and incorporated into the unconscious decision-making process.

What Machiavelli might consider extraneous in the attempt to reach a particular end are in fact valuable components of wise and forward-thinking policymaking. Many of the most disastrous policies have been the fruit of an attempt at Machiavellian statesman ship.

The clearest example is the Holocaust. The direct product of a Machiavellian response to the “Jewish Question,” it has become clear that the resources allocated towards exterminating the Jews instead of winning the war against the British and the Russians played a key role in the German defeat in World War II. Hitler and Adolf Eichmann, the man who worked on the logistics of the genocide, displayed a striking example of Machiavellian ignorance of the true relationship between political ends.

The application of the Machiavellian system of thought to video games makes sense. Unlike political science, video gaming is viewed as escapism (think of the popular online gaming magazine The Escapist) and is not considered seriously. That is why, no matter how much sociologists and psychologists complain about the detrimental effects of first-person shooters and the like, these games will not cease to be popular in the near future.

Political science, on the other hand, has far more significance to the quality of human existence. It is the foundation for policymaking and affects every human alive, citizen or not. It determines the laws and when it is necessary, if ever, to sacrifice human life for a greater ideal.

Such an important discipline should not be viewed through the lens of Machiavellianism, for Machiavellian political philosophy is barren – it is only the myopia of ignorant escapism.

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