December 1, 2014

What does an election mean?

In America today, there are basically two competing notions of what an election means.  The first idea we inherit from the framers of the US Constitution.  The purpose of an election is to let the people choose individuals from their own ranks to represent their local interests in a wider sphere of government.  “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase.  The framers were not radical democrats.  They recognized the considerable talents of elites by creating the US Senate, a body not elected by the public until the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913.  However, the framers put the powers of taxation and spending firmly in the hands of the House of Representatives – as a protection against concentrating too much power in too few hands.  Under such a system, the elites still did the greater share of the planning – but the people’s direct representatives had the final say.

The elites that now govern practically every aspect of our lives have an entirely different idea of what an election means.  For them, an election is a cumbersome process in which they must trick a majority of the electorate into voting against their own interests.  An election is an annoying anachronism they must suffer through to attain their rightful station of power.  It grows more and more  apparent that neither the president, his advisors, nor most of the members of congress – from either party – have much respect for the people or their interests.  Jonathan Gruber’s videos are a stark example of the contempt the elites have for the citizens of this country, but he is only one of many.  It wasn’t very long ago that Mitt Romney’s senior campaign manager, Eric Fehrnstrom, made the following famous remark when asked if Romney had appeared too conservative during the primary to win in the general election: “I think you hit the reset button for the fall campaign.  Everything changes.  It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch.  You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”  This is not the comment of a person who wants to help guide you to a candidate that represents your interests.  This is the comment of a person who considers you a rube.

Many Americans have been largely indifferent to politics all of their lives.  When the country was prosperous and secure, the culture fairly stable, and the standard of living on a gradual rise this indifference was understandable.  But those days are gone.  We can no longer assume our elected legislators will do anything but fundraise and lie.  Meanwhile, the real power of government has shifted to the President and the vast bureaucracy at his disposal.  It was not the congress who used the IRS to suppress the Tea Party before the 2012 election – and after 2 years of hearings the congress hasn’t really done anything about it but grandstand for the cameras.  If elections are an annoyance to the elites, then congress itself, with its roots in the protective restrictions of the US Constitution, has become an even bigger annoyance.  Obama’s executive order granting functional amnesty to five million illegal aliens is not merely an expression of the president’s internationalist ideology – it is a test case to determine how the public and the pathetic Republican opposition will react to a complete repudiation of the rule of law.  If we the people do not react, swiftly and loudly, then we will be a Republic in name only.

November 14, 2014

The liberal foreign policy game

As Vladimir Putin has marched troops into various parts of the Ukraine, we’ve watched several Obama administration officials, including the president himself, all say more-or-less what John Kerry said: "You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in a 19th century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.”  Such statements, frankly, take my breath away.  It is one thing to have weak foreign policy – it’s another thing altogether to be in denial about how reality works.  Military might doesn’t just go away because the liberal intelligentsia have agreed that it’s old-fashioned and distasteful.  Putin is a realist.  He knows that Europe and America will wag their fingers at him, but nothing more.  In the end, Putin can do pretty much as he likes.  How much does he have to fear from a bunch of anti-militarist ideologues that don’t even believe that countries should have borders?  What’s the worst they might do?  Have a bunch of political science professors at UC Berkeley threaten to withhold an honorary degree?  Arrange a mild tongue lashing on NPR?  You and I have taken worse abuse than that from Democrats and lived – Putin probably figures he will too.  The Russian president is no brilliant statesman by historical standards – it’s just that his opposition has conceded in advance.
The administration’s response to militant Islam has been equally bizarre – more about the preservation of the Western liberal worldview than about the world itself.   If Putin is playing by 19th century rules, the Islamists draw their rules from the 7th.  The grizzly practice of cutting people’s heads off still works perfectly well.  The knives don’t fail to penetrate because it happens to be the 21st century.  To be fair, I haven’t actually heard the “You just don’t do that in the 21st century” phrase used in connection with militant Islam – but only because liberals can barely bring themselves to acknowledge that militant Islam even exists.  It is an assumption of the average liberal mind that any non-white person in the world ought to know instinctively that liberals are their friends.  If forced to acknowledge that some of them don’t know this, supremely egalitarian liberals show themselves capable of the most outrageous sort of ethnocentric arrogance.  They believe the liberal culture of the West is so perfect and so inherently invincible that no backward radical of color can possibly pose it any threat.  They close their eyes and launch a few missiles to appease a fearful public, just hoping that it will all, eventually, fade away so they can get back to the business of perfecting the world.  Liberals would like to censor conservatives – but no one even talks about the possibility of censoring the web sites of jihadists.  That, you know, would be intolerant.
Iran, I think, is a different matter than the rest of militant Islam.  In the first place, it’s Shiite – in the second place, it’s nuclear.  Even if you consider the position of the Iranians objectively, forgetting that they are a warped theocracy that might actually want to use the bomb, it is obvious that they would be crazy not to build it.  George Bush’s Axis of evil consisted of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.  The Iranian leaders only have to look at what happened to Iraq (which didn’t have the bomb) and at what didn’t happen to North Korea (which does have the bomb).  Does any sane person really think we are going to talk them out of that particular piece of national life insurance?  During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian regime was willing to throw a generation of young Iranians into battle untrained and practically unarmed.  Does any sane person really think the Iranian regime is going to be particularly sensitive to economic sanctions?  The bitter clerics that run Iran don’t seem to be starving, and neither do they seem very concerned about being a politically correct feature of the 21st century.  They may be theocratic despots – but they know how power works.  They know it isn’t all about “the messaging.”
Liberals in general, and the Obama administration in particular, find the nasty, competitive, unforgiving realm of international politics distasteful.  Their revulsion toward the military only underlines this.  The liberal model of international affairs is contemporary Europe, in which a small elite of unelected technocrats have worked steadily to make nation states – and elections – irrelevant.  The goal of the left is not world peace, but eventual world government.  They love that particular game so much, they are incapable of accepting that not everybody in the world wants to play.  Putin isn’t interested in being the European Union’s overgrown awkward cousin, and the Islamists aren’t interested in any game in which they cannot crush the decadent, satanic West.

November 4, 2014

Why liberals love to hate us

Strange as it may seen, conservatives are absolutely essential to liberals. We provide them with something that their ideology otherwise lacks: standards. Think about it. There is hardly anything that any non-conservative can do that a liberal is not obliged to express a feeling of high-minded tolerance toward. A few decades ago, the phrase “I don’t want to be judgmental” was so common it sounded like an echo. “I don’t want to be judgmental” just means – “I don’t want to have standards.” I have seen high-minded liberals entertain the idea that black-on-black violence is just a normal feature of black culture. One mustn’t be judgmental. The same people who advocated for women’s rights forty years ago now turn a blind eye toward the treatment of women in Muslim countries. One mustn’t be judgmental. In the next few decades, if the trend continues, bestiality and pedophilia will probably past the one-mustn’t-be-judgmental anti-standard. We conservatives, of all the human beings on earth, are the only ones that liberals can hate with gusto – without shame. What we believe, they can freely despise. What we are for, they can oppose with righteous rage. We are, in fact, the only thing that gives their gelatinous anti-culture any shape.

Liberals aren’t necessarily anti-Christian. If your Christian church ordains gay clergy, it will probably pass the non-judgmental standard. Likewise, liberals are not opposed to conspicuous wealth. The Kennedy’s were certainly not poor, and neither is Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Oprah for that matter. It is all about what you say with liberals, not about what you do. It’s about getting the narrative right. However, if you’re Christian – and your belief includes the idea that certain things might actually be wrong, you will be branded a religious bigot and a hater. If you’re wealthy, and you don’t publically align yourself with the usual liberal slogans, you will be vilified as a member of the evil 1%. Liberalism, which was once, at least in theory, an enlightened movement of reform, has long ago accomplished those reforms and now lives on as a kind of mass institution for the destruction of any sort of social stability. You and I, who believe that certain things are right and certain things are wrong, are impediments in the path of that juggernaut.

The whole liberal obsession with racism is fascinating in itself. I’ve been to quite a few Tea Party events and have yet to hear even one racist remark. Somehow though, the liberal media managed to find a couple of racist signs at one big rally in Washington DC. Practically at the snap of their fingers, forty years of improving race relations were thrown out the window to stir up the base. The fictitious “Republican War on Women” reflects pretty much the same strategy. Essentially, they are taking a generation of young people, raised on a steady diet of ideology in our public schools, and re-running the 1960’s and 70’s for them. We don’t always even get the privilege of being hated for what we believe – sometimes we are just blank canvases for them to paint incriminating symbols on. It is frustrating, heartbreaking, and usually pointless to try to reason with people who have condemned you before you even open your mouth. I personally have gotten tired of trying. Being called a racist, sexist, homophobe or islamophobe doesn’t really hurt me when I’m being called those things by people whose goal amounts to the destruction of my country.

I don’t really worry about the left eventually having things entirely their way. What I do worry about is what will happen in the wake of their inevitable failure. A country populated by people who hate their own heritage, their own traditions, and their own symbols is something rather new in the world – but it isn’t an experiment whose outcome is very difficult to predict. Consider ISIS. The America of the 1940's or 50's would have crushed ISIS in the time it took the Obama administration to compose a dishonest press release. We live in a society paralyzed by political correctness, bureaucratic inertia, and a smothering blanket of liberal self-loathing. In the 1950's, we built most of the interstate highway system in under a decade. Now, the environmental impact study for a single pipeline can take longer than that. I was disgusted, a few years ago, that our leaders were reluctant to deploy troops along the Mexican border on the grounds that it might cause Latinos on both sides of the border offense. They now apparently feel that even having a border is an offense. A country that hates its history, its defenders, and believes that its founding institutions aren’t worth protecting cannot long exist. I do not worry about living in a liberal utopia. I worry about living in just another petty third world state – a peon, without freedom, and without a meaningful say in my own future. An alien in the country I was born in.

Liberals have no country. They define themselves solely by despising ours. If every conservative in America were to vanish without a trace tomorrow, liberals would have to re-invent us out of the most conservative members of their own ranks. All reform movements need someone to oppose. A movement which sets itself the task of reforming every aspect of people’s lives is a monster that can never be satiated. It will, sooner or later, leave the public yearning for someone, even a dictator, to end the chaos. That is what I fear.

Ebola and the liberal mind

I work and live among conservatives. Broadly speaking, I am a conservative, though personally I try to avoid labels. It is obvious to me, in speaking to conservative coworkers and friends, that they often find the liberal mind incomprehensible. They watch some snippet from a White House press conference, or see some liberal talking head on a news show – and they simply can’t believe what they are hearing. Having spent more than half of my life on the left, I am less confused – though sometimes no less amazed. Let me see if I can throw a little light upon the darkness of their response to the ebola crisis for my new brethren.

Conservatives and liberals see the ebola epidemic very differently. Most conservatives believe that the first duty of government is to protect its citizens from external threats, so either an executive order or an act of congress should stop airline flights from the afflicted areas of west Africa immediately. Or, alternatively, people whose flights originated in west Africa should be quarantined for the incubation period of the disease – about three weeks. Liberals, on the other hand, are generally opposed to stopping the flights and some are even nervous about the idea of passenger quarantine. Considering that we are talking about an extremely lethal disease that has never reached pandemic levels before, against which we have no immunity and no available vaccine or treatment, their position seems reckless – to say the least. I believe it is reckless, but it is not random, and it is not inconsistent with major aspects of the liberal worldview.

The first thing one needs to understand is that the liberal worldview is an internationalist one. Where a conservative loves his or her country, the leftist tends to consider national self-interest a dirty, backward idea. We are all just people in one big potentially happy global village, as the liberal sees it. If a liberal is committed to the idea that patriotism and borders are backward notions we need to discard, then the person dying in Liberia has as much right to access American healthcare as any US citizen. The idea of citizenship itself is rather suspect for the liberal mind. To be a citizen of the United States is to be granted special rights and privileges. To the liberal, special rights and privileges are things that should be apportioned to minorities to redress the injustices of history, but should not be granted on the basis of mere citizenship. Their ideal is a sort of global equality of all persons under an enlightened leadership of experts with appropriate credentials. To spare the US its share of a plague seems unfair to a liberal, at least at this stage – when none of his neighbors have actually died from the disease.

A second reason liberals tend to oppose a stoppage of travel or a quarantine is that both measures, in this case, would burden non-whites almost exclusively. True racism is a pretty ugly thing, but the bar required to raise a charge of racism these days is basically to make any non-white person feel bad. At this moment of our history, making a non-white person feel bad is the worst thing that a government could conceivably do. It preempts discussion. It cannot be submitted to any sort of benefit-risk analysis. Functionally, we have reached the point where risking the lives of 300 million Americans (including the 80 million non-whites) is more acceptable to many than inconveniencing a few thousand west African travelers. We aren’t talking about genocide here, or even about something as harsh as Japanese internment in WW2. We are talking about a 3-week quarantine for a few thousand people. But, for the left, it runs against a core belief. It’s just unthinkable.

The problem of the left has never been a shortage of high and noble aspirations. Their problem has usually been one of measuring their ideals against the realities of the world. If it sounds nice – it is nice. Unfortunately, when principle preempts reality, the path to their utopian vision detours headlong into the abyss. With ebola, we have the starkest of all possible examples. It is stunning to watch White House and CDC spokesmen tell us not to worry – ebola will never come here. And then when it arrived – don’t worry, it will never spread. And now, as we have more cases – brace yourselves, we are going to have to consider our strategy. They do not seem to grasp that the disease will not be diverted by getting the messaging just right.

In the end, conservatives have a notion of what the world they would like to hold on to looks like. That notion involves, among other things, keeping a set of national borders around a fairly varied group of people who share enough common values to be called “citizens”. At an even more basic level, it involves themselves and their children remaining alive. Liberals, on the other hand, are wedded to the idea that change will almost always make things better. They believe that the prosperity and relative safety they have enjoyed is a condition of nature – not a hard-won product of vigilance and difficult decisions. They cannot really conceive of a threat that cannot be placated with a nice apology or suppressed with a new law.

October 6, 2014

Hubski: a thoughtful web?

[In retrospect, this is pretty distasteful.  In my view, Hubski is an echo chamber -- but assaulting it with a verbal meat cleaver really accomplishes nothing.  Still, one should not hide one's own mistakes.  -emc]

A thoughtful web.  It's an appealing tagline.  After my experiences with Reddit, I found it a very appealing tagline.  The word "thoughtful" has two meanings, both positive.  The first meaning is considerate, as in "it was thoughtful of you to remember my birthday."  Civil might be another synonym.  What decent human being could object to that?  The second meaning of "thoughtful" is contemplative.  Involving thought.  Dare one hope – amenable to reason?  What I hoped for, and what I still believed the founders of ths site intended, was a forum for civil discourse in which people might disagree with a minimum of rancor.  A "place" in cyberspace where one might escape the various grinding and howling noises that our society makes.  This is certainly the message projected by Hubski's introductory video.  Hubski the safe haven.  Unfortunately, such a vision is tragically naive.

If you create a forum, like Reddit, most of which is moderated by live human beings, you eventually get discussions that look more-or-less like the values and biases of the moderators.  If you create a forum, like Hubski which is moderated by an individual right to filter out whatever one finds unpleasant, you do get something different, but you do not get a thoughtful web – in either sense of the word.  In theory, Hubski encourages reason and civility because if a narrow-minded pig comes along people can exercise their right to mute, but in practice if enough narrow-minded pigs accumulate to grunt their message in harmony – what do they care what anyone else thinks?

The introductory video is not what advertises Hubski.  The raw, unfiltered list of most popular posts is.  If you've never been to Hubski before, that's the first thing that you see.  While it is true that if all you want to do is talk about science or music you certainly can, the face of Hubski is that running poll of what the greatest number of members think is cool.  That face is often anything but thoughtful.

I remember running across a title a few months ago in which a member summarily condemned my entire state – every last man, woman, child, and presumably all the pets and farm animals as well.  If one had taken all the instances of the word "fucking" out of his diatribe, it would have been shortened by half.  Actually, his post could have been easily summarized as follows:

"I decided to hate Ohio before I went there.  I went there and I hated it and everybody in it.  Hubski, come validate my hatred!"

And, I have to say, Hubski willingly obliged.  Hubskyites fluttered down on the poor wounded soul like a flock of cooing pigeons on a bucket of spilled popcorn.  They all commiserated with his awful experience – notwithstanding that, by his own admission, nothing specifically bad had actually happened to him.  One or two fair-minded individuals were generous enough to point out that there might be one or two good people in Ohio – or that they had known good people from Ohio who had shown the sense to leave.  A truly heartwarming sentiment which moved me to the core.  It is true that the histrionics of one excitable twenty-something are nothing to get excited about, but what matters here is not the post, but the response.  Many of the cooing pigeons were not excitable twenty-somethings, but grown-up members who ought to have some modicum of maturity, and, one would hope, should understand the importance of civility on the forum.  When members fail to censure uncivility, they help create a feedback loop.  If I had visited the site for the first time on that particular day, I would have closed my browser in disgust.  If someone with the same antipathies as the post’s author happened to see his tirade, no doubt they where encouraged to join in the hatefest.  Maybe this is the inevitable fate of all internet forms without exclusionary access policies, but the one thing it certainly isn’t is thoughtful.  It’s thoughtless.  Or, if you prefer the vernacular, it’s fucking thoughtless.

As an inveterate outsider, it is my habit to look at the behavior of institutions holistically.  I recognize that what is true of institutions isn't necessarily true of all of their constituent members.  I will freely affirm that if one has some narrow interest and filters out everything and everyone outside that interest, Hubski is probably a pretty congenial place.  There are nice people on Hubski, and smart ones, and many who are both.  You can certainly have a good conversation there from time to time, learn things, and make good friends.  It is not an evil institution.  But the claim that it’s "a thoughtful web" is nonsense.  Or, to be more thoughtful in both senses of the word, it is a normative aspiration rather than a descriptive assertion – and a weak aspiration at that.  You can be a pig on Hubski.  You can make wild and offensive claims you haven't thought about and haven't got a prayer of proving.  You can even be a bigot in the sense that any dictionary defines it.

Another time I happened to drop in was during the height of the Ferguson episode.  The articles posted, and what I read of the discussion (admittedly, I didn't read all of it) was not about the civil interchange of ideas.  It was a chant.  Clearly, this wasn't really about Michael Brown or Darrell Wilson.  It was about an idea, that many people seem to take for granted, that white police officers shoot black men without much hesitation, and perhaps even do it as a sort of sport.  I believe in freedom of speech, and I defend anybody's right to make such a claim.  But emotion does not make something true.

There are police shooting statistics out there, and they put the total number of fatal shootings (all races) by police at around 400 annually.  Considering we live in a nation more than of 300 million people, this would give Americans, on average, an approximately 1-in-750,000 chance to be shot to death by a cop this year.  That's about eight times the chance of being struck by lightning.  By contrast, there are typically almost 15,000 total intentional homicides in the US every year – so you are more than 36 times more likely to get killed by a non-cop than by a cop.  It is true, admittedly, that police shoot young black men in a greater proportion than they shoot other members of the public.  However, it is also true that young black men, statistically speaking, shoot one another in a greater proportion than they shoot other members of the public, often more-or-less for sport.  They are their own leading cause of death.  This fact, unfortunately, incites very little public outcry or even public interest.

The 400 fatal shootings figure has been widely criticized.  It is certainly possible that it's higher.  However, if the police were shooting black kids the way Blackwater mercenaries shot up Iraqi towns, there ought to be a huge number of more sympathetic incidents than Ferguson.  Michael Brown was video tapped strong-arming a convenience store clerk a few hours before his own untimely demise.  That may not be a capital offense, but neither is it the act of the innocent child supporters have portrayed.  In any case, this is clearly an issue with two sides.  Why did I not raise my arguments when I read the posts?  Because I have had sufficient experience with offering alternative perspectives to realize that few if any people really want to argue.  Argument just messes up the rhythm of their chant.

The last straw for me came a few days ago, with the beheading in Moore, Oklahoma.  I looked at Hubski’s unfiltered feed, sorted by time, and, page after page, found exactly the level of coverage of this horrific event that I expected to see – none.  To be fair to Hubski, the membership showed no less interest than CBS showed on its news site.  (CBS did not have room for the Oklahoma beheading – but they did have room for Richard Branson’s vacation plans.)  As an experiment, I found the most politically innocuous source for the story imaginable (USA Today) and posted it to see if anyone would bite.  Not surprisingly, no one did.  So, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or whatever they feel like calling themselves) issues a call to supporters to launch attacks in the West – and a few days later there is a beheading in Oklahoma by a man with militant Islamic material and rhetoric on his Facebook page – and nobody on Hubski thinks it’s interesting!?  It is true that this one act is hardly an existential threat to the United States in itself – but not even interesting?  How could this be?  One can only theorize, but I’ll tell you what my theory is:

Alton Nolen (DBA Jah’Keem Yisrael) was black, and therefore a victim – not a perpetrator.  He was an ex-con – in other words, and innocent man wronged by an unfair criminal justice system.  He was a Muslim – well, we mustn’t take the slightest risk of being thought of as Islamophobic – Allah forbid!  Mark Vaughan, who shot Mr. Nolen, was obviously a gun owner – i.e. a wingnut.  He was the COO of the company where the shooting occurred – which is to say, and evil capitalist oppressor of the 99%.  He was a reserve sheriff’s deputy – that’s a racist bloodthirsty pig in Hubskiland.  And last, but not least, he was a white man from a culturally southern state – this is to say, in the prevalent assessment of the American left, a troglodyte.  As for Colleen Hufford, the woman who had her head hacked and sawed off with knife – well, what’s another uneducated redneck more-or-less.  The story is of no interest because it runs against the liberal narrative at every point.  If I had wanted to peak the interest of a Hubski audience, I would have posted under the following title:

Racist white executive shoots black employee for trying to cure a coworker’s headache

Hubski is not a thoughtful web because we do not live in thoughtful times.  America is not a thoughtful society.  The internet is not a thoughtful medium.  It would be nice if there was a way to bring people with disparate opinions together and let them sort out their differences with civility and reason, but perhaps this idea is nothing more than the last of the liberal fantasies I possess.  An ideology in which the narrative is elastic enough to ignore beheadings in the smiling illusion of a global village is elastic enough to justify anything at all.  It already ignores the genocide of middle eastern Christians – something that appalls me as a human being – and I’m an atheist!  I myself am angry, but I will argue a point with anyone who is both rational and civil.  On that account, I find a dwindling pool of takers and find the site an increasingly  depressing place to be.

A Note for Hubskyites: You will find unfollow, mute, and filter buttons located conveniently on my page.  Feel free to use them – thoughtfully, of course.

September 22, 2014

Addenda to The Devil's Dictionary - No.2

Artist n.
A person who calls himself, or herself, an artist.

Bright n.
An atheist in search of a congregation.

Community n.
Any grouping of people, proximate or otherwise, sharing some common characteristic and therefore assumed to have a meaningful social bond (e.g. the double amputee caregivers community.)

Coward n.
A bad guy.  A general purpose insult with no particular meaning.  Immediately after the 9/11 attacks the perpetrators, who died voluntarily for their cause, were branded “cowards”.  Since that time, this usage has persisted.  (see: “Hero”)

Denier n.
Originally, a holocaust denier (i.e. a person who denies that the extraordinarily well documented extermination of the Jews by Nazi Germany ever occurred.)  Now, simply a term of derision for anyone who is skeptical about something the speaker has come to believe.

Facebook n.
A playground in cyberspace constructed to meet the rather dissimilar needs of teenagers, grandmothers, and pedophiles.  A place where millions of people who are appalled by slavery can attempt to sell themselves to the rest of the world.

Judgmental adj.
Having standards.

National Conversation n.
US Politics:  A fictitious backyard chat between 300 million amiable neighbors.  The call for such an exchange is popular among the political elites precisely because it is an impossibility with an appealing democratic smell.

A white non-flagellant.

Small Talk n.
A species of speech act equivalent in intent to the tail wagging of the domestic dog.

A communication forum based on the assumption that a paragraph is unnecessary and verbose.  An assault on language, and ultimately on thought.  In nature, tweeting songbirds are actually engaging in mating rituals and territorial disputes.  The difference between Twitter and nature, then, is largely one of musical tastes.

(see: Addenda to the devil's dictionary - no1. )

September 18, 2014

A Weakness of Civilization

“If a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”  - Andrew Fletcher

Before I launch into my exposition, let me sketch out a couple of assumptions.  First, I assume that, all else being equal, a polity informed by facts is usually in a better position to make successful decisions than one informed by non-facts.  I am not implying, as some have, that political decision-making should be chiefly informed by academics or scientists.1  I am simply taking as a given that facts are usually a better basis for decision making than feelings, speculations or ideological dogmas.  Second, I assume that one of the characteristics of a good system of social organization (e.g. a government) is that it advances the general happiness of its participants.  By this I am by no means advocating for the superiority of socialism, but simply making the assumption that a government that creates a general state of misery by either intention or incompetence isn’t a good government.  If a government creates a living hell for the majority of its citizens, it doesn’t really matter, for our purposes, how large or beautiful its monuments are.

In an idealized democracy, or any form of government with consequential democratic institutions, an individual voter is assumed to be capable of acquiring at least enough factual understanding of the world to vote for laws or candidates that will promote his or her own interests.  Being able to vote for ballot initiative or candidate “X” over ballot initiative or candidate “Y” is obviously meaningless if one knows nothing relevant about either “X” or “Y”.  An uniformed voter undermines the concept of democracy at its root.  How, we must then ask, do people understand the parts of the world beyond their direct experience?  Broadly speaking, there are two ways one can conceptualize circumstances one cannot directly experience.  The first way is narratively.  The second is by some combination of logical inferences and statistics.  We will begin with the second.

We all know what statistics are, so I won’t bother with a definition.  When I say we can know something logically, I am not talking about a rigorously nomothetic standard, but rather the very mundane sort of induction any more-or-less lucid human being is capable of making.  For example, if one knows that a magnitude 8 earthquake has just occurred under San Francisco, one does not need any further information to reasonably assume that there has also been extensive property damage and probably at least a few deaths.  Likewise, if you know that group “A” has been protesting policy “B”, it is fair to assume group “A” at least feels strongly that policy “B” is objectionable.  This is all I mean by logic in this context – merely the predictable correlation between certain events or circumstances with others.

Statistics can be misleading, incorrect, or deliberately falsified, but if they are collected and presented in good faith they are often the closest approach to truth that we have, particularly about the kind of subjects that are the most likely to arise in a political context.  The magnitude of a problem, and therefore the amount of attention that should be devoted to it, is usually best revealed by statistical analysis.  Despite this strength, statistical analysis has its limitations as a way of communicating information with the general public.  For many people, statistics are indecipherable and boring.  I am old enough to remember Ross Perot’s abortive 1992 presidential campaign.  Perot, a businessman, made a series of half-hour television broadcasts that were essentially business presentations centered around a series of printed graphs.  Informative though these presentations may have been, the public not only yawned, but snickered.  Though Perot dropped his candidacy for other reasons, the public’s lack of interest in statistical explanations was striking.  I had never seen a candidate for anything hold up a chart before, and I don’t believe I have seen one since.

Logical induction, too, has limitations.  One can say that a magnitude 8 earthquake can be expected to cause property damage, but one cannot say with equal certainty that it will cause looting.  The behavior of human beings, a matter of paramount political concern, is much too complex to lend itself to simple causal assumptions.  Worse, the transition from the inductions one can reasonably make to those one can’t is not abrupt, but a smooth continuum.  It isn’t always possible to tell what one actually knows from what one just assumes from the “common knowledge” of long standing prejudice.  Thus, when making predictions about the future behavior of political candidates or the future consequences of policies, logical induction is easily adulterated with all manner of extraneous noise.  The nature of logic is likely to preserve a kind of internal coherence, in which a faulty conclusion follows faithfully from a faulty premise, but coherence is merely the preservation of the form of reason, rather than being any guarantor of truth.  Finally, even when inductions are reasonable and appropriate, the iterative process of basing one induction on another must eventually lead to conclusions which are not, themselves, particularly sound.
Most people, including most intelligent ones, think narratively most of the time.  A narrative explanation is one expressed in the form of a story.  Narrative explanations can also be misleading, of course, and they need not be deliberate fabrications or malicious to be misleading.  Consider the case of the first space shuttle disaster, the explosion of the Challenger in 1986.  All seven astronauts were killed, including, notably, Christa McAuliffe, who was to be America’s first Teacher in Space.  Why was Christa McAuliffe’s death especially notable?  Quite simply because it made a good story.  Children and parents across the nation were heartbroken, or at least they were told to be.  Six other astronauts died practically unnoticed.  Beyond the death of the astronauts, on an average day in 1986, 126 people died in auto crashes.  Were these other people somehow less dead?  Did their families grieve less?  Did their deaths have less real, tangible impact on the lives of most viewers of the news?  In every case, the answer is “no”.  Nevertheless, the TV networks played the video of McAuliffe’s parents watching the explosion, its significance dawning on them with agonizing slowness, and they played it over, and over, and over again.  They milked the story for ratings for a week.  They created, from the tragedy of an individual human being, a tragedy of national proportions.  What I am trying to illustrate here is not so much the well-known cynicism of the press, but the native psychology of our species that such cynicism capitalizes on.

Let us delve a little deeper.  Imagine, if you can, that you were alive 8000 years ago – a neolithic farmer living anywhere in the world.  Your perception of that world would have been completely different than your perception of the world today.   Your world would have consisted almost entirely of the people and the environment that you happen to experience first hand.  You might have had some acquaintance with a few nearby villages, and maybe some dim idea of the distant lands from which peddlers or occasional raiders came, but most of the world you would have known would have been the world you would have seen.  In such a world, a narrative explanation would be fairly likely to be both accurate and relevant.  The story of your cousin’s death might well have had real consequences for you.  A flood that removed a neighboring village could be both a real tragedy and a possible concern.  Critically, most of what you learned from others narratively could have been verified by your own first hand experience.  Such was the world in which almost all of our evolutionary history was spent.  It is true that pre-civilized societies used the narrative form to brew up deities and mythological histories for themselves, but, in a small community, in most instances narratives would have been testable.  The narrative form of understanding was both appropriate and sufficient for the context.  It is, in fact, hard to imagine what a neolithic farmer would have done with a modern notion like statistics – with the knowledge, say, that 57.8% of the neolithic farmers on his or her continent happened to suffer with tooth decay.  It mattered if the farmer himself had bad teeth, or if anyone in his family or maybe his small village did.  The fact that we no longer live in neolithic villages is the problem.

When a TV reporter shoves a camera into the face of some weeping person on another continent, the audience they are appealing to is our prehistoric inner selves.  They are, in effect, making that person part of our mental community.  That, of course, sounds very nice and decent and humane – until you realize how incredibly deceptive it is.  Consider a harmless, non-controversial example.  There are on average, about 50 fatal lightning strikes in the US every year.  Imagine that, for whatever reason, the news media suddenly decided to cover all of them, and not merely cover them in passing but in depth and intensity – breaking in on regular programming, showing pictures of the victims and their stunned and saddened relatives.  Imagine further that the legislature mandated lightning safety training in all schools and businesses, to be carried out at regular intervals.  Without any knowledge of statistics regarding the actual frequency of fatal lightning strikes, you would begin to imagine Zeus had run amok.  You would inevitably see lightning strikes as a significant cause of death, and perhaps as a national or global crisis demanding governmental action.  You would, like it or not, see lightning killing a member of your mental community on weekly basis.  While no one has a particular interest in magnifying the importance of lightning, the phenomena I have proposed is entirely real.  There is, frankly, no such thing as fair and balanced news.  When you accept someone else as a reliable source of information, whether that someone is a TV network, a web site, a magazine, an educator, or a government – you are giving them the power to rank the importance of events beyond your visual horizon.  You are accepting that, for the most part, the things they choose to emphasize will be relevant and the things they choose to ignore will not.  This is not merely a characteristic of those with particular political axes to grind, but a feature of mass communication itself, no matter how well-intended its purveyors might be.  The reality is that, while each of us has a certain set of impressions about the parts of the world that are beyond our individual perceptual horizons, those impressions are features of our minds and not necessarily the world.  In short, most of what we think we know about the world is merely a set of distortions others have created for us.

The natural human tendency when confronted with this idea is to think to oneself – “sure, there are plenty of naive people in the world who are gullible enough to believe whatever hype comes their way – but I am different.”  My contention is that no one is different.  We all get second-hand knowledge in the same limited number of ways.  People who like to see themselves as sophisticated tend to be drawn in by more elaborate and nuanced narratives than the rest of humanity, but an elaborate and nuanced story is nevertheless still a story, no more necessarily true than the crudest bumper-sticker slogan.  “Yes, but my story is supported by the data,” one might protest.  Data is a wonderful thing in principle, but we have only the data that someone else has chosen to collect, interpret, and present to us.  In other words, even the statistical perspectives we get are like pictures from a carefully chosen angle, emphasizing those parts of reality someone wants us to see, and concealing those elements that don’t advance their story.  I am pretty confident that the lightning fatality figure I cited earlier is approximately accurate – but only because I am also pretty confident that no one has much interest in distorting it.

Again, at least with regard to political knowledge, this is not a kind of error to which our remote ancestors were really subject.  The family, the village, and the clan are knowable entities.  The nation of a million or a billion is not.  The nation is a fiction of the mind, a creature made of sweeping ideas anchored loosely to a few well chosen facts.  When an official of the state makes a statement in the form “the nation grieves with the Smith family for the loss of their son,” he is making a normative statement, telling the public how to feel, not a descriptive statement, derived from the results of some sort of comprehensive national poll.  The power apparatus of the state is sometimes small and coherent enough to know itself, but the hearts and minds of millions are inevitably heterogeneous and largely unknowable.

The most obvious and painful consequence of this phenomenon is that it renders democratic processes farcical.  Even assuming the mechanisms of voting and district apportionment are left untampered with, the democratic process is ultimately reducible to a dual between competing advertising agencies – or, to use the more quaint term, between opposing balladeers.  It is a contest between two or more worldviews, each of which is an expedient mixture of carefully selected facts, promises that cannot be guaranteed, and poetic visions that mean little or nothing.

It should be noted that while democracy suffers greatly from this barrier to human knowledge, other forms of government do not fare any better.  Whether a society is governed by elected officials, communist committees, or an individual autocrat, it is still a problem that no one can grasp the totality of the populations’ desires, capacities, or needs all at once.  The cold blooded tyrant has the curious advantage of not caring much about the public interest – but this conflicts with my second assumption: successful oppression does not constitute good government.  While it is theoretically simpler for a small elite of leaders to have a decent grasp of reality than it is for some enormous national polity, it is also easier for them to pursue the most preposterous and dangerous delusions.  This is because elite minorities are naturally more insulated from the immediate consequences of their own bad decisions than democratic polities are – as well as more clever in the sophisticated task of repairing their own narratives.  An aristocrat can be persuaded that a starving peasant is actually well-fed, but the balladeer has reached his limit when he tries to convince the peasant himself with the same story.

It is ironic that contemporary humans tend to think of mythology as a feature of ancient times, while we are arguably now more deeply embedded in mythology than we have ever been.  In part this is simply because the mythology of the past usually appears childish and naive, whereas contemporary mythology seems pertinent by definition.2 That which a culture ascribes value to acquires its own aura of importance and reality.  In absolute terms, though, it is hard to say our remote ancestors were childish because they didn’t use corporate buzzwords or immerse themselves in celebrity news.  We are more technologically advanced, certainly, but much of our most soaring technological ability is used for little more than the care and feeding of various illusions – video games and fashion being only two of innumerable possible examples.  As a species, we have never really liked reality very much, and we are happy to depart from it at the first opportunity that presents itself.

While I will not deny a certain schadenfreude in criticizing humanity’s epistemic limitations, I am not an utter defeatist on this matter.  It is not the case that all suspect ideas are equally near the truth – it is just the case that we are usually neck-deep in uncertainty regarding which ideas are actually nearer to it.  To take a popular example from history, we know in some meaningful sense that the First World War really occurred.  We can induce that there are just too many photographs, written accounts, and otherwise inexplicable dead for the whole thing to have been a hoax.  We have logic and statistics on our side.  We know about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the lamentable cascade of treaty obligations that set the armies of the European powers in motion.  We know innumerable facts about the subsequent fighting.  What we do not know are the answers to the overarching “why” questions.  We cannot justify claims like Lenin’s, that the First World War was an inevitable consequence of the imperialist stage of capitalism, in which the lower classes had no honest stake.  Neither can we meaningfully claim, like the historian Barbara Tuchman did, that the French national lust for revenge was a contributing factor.  These are narrative explanations, intended to bestow a sense of coherence on events that the events themselves do not record.  It is probably fair to say, however, that both Lenin’s and Tuchman’s narratives are nearer the causal mark than those the explanations for the war that have been provided by astrologers.  There are explanations we can reasonably exclude, but beyond that we are lost in a sea of more-or-less coherent but untestable theories.  We should not confuse “what is true” with “what makes sense.”

1 I think Sam Harris at least implies this in The Moral Landscape.

2 There are exceptions.  The 7th century mythology of Islam has clearly become quite pertinent to some.

August 21, 2014

Addenda to The Devil's Dictionary - No.1

A person famous primarily, and sometimes exclusively, for being famous.

Business usage
:  A predicament. (see: “Opportunity”)

A dimensionless and locationless region in which neither the laws of physics, the precepts of logic, nor the rules of etiquette apply.  Not to be confused with hell.

Echo Chambern.
Internet usag
e:  A region of cyberspace in which obviously intelligent people assure you that you have been right all along.

A patronizing term for the general public.  Often employed by the Harvard-educated celebrities Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly.

The victim of a lamentable historic event.  (e.g., All 2977 victims of the 9/11 attacks are often considered “heroes.”)

Business usage
:  A predicament resulting from the incompetence of a superior.

Politically Correctadj.
1.  Narrow minded in an upbeat, positive way.
2. – speech:  A mode of communication predicated on the belief that an all-natural byproduct of digestion smells better than shit.  The concept may have originated in Newspeak, a fictitious, artificially constructed language from George Orwell’s novel 1984.  The principle behind Newspeak was to mold behavior by eliminating the language necessary to express seditious ideas.  What one cannot think, one cannot do.

Press Secretaryn.
US Politics
:  A person employed to shoulder some of the burden of obfuscation for the President.

1.  A mythological hominid of frightening appearance and, usually, great size.  In the 19th century well-read children believed in trolls.  From the late 20th century on, poorly-read adults do.
2.  A person resembling a troll (e.g. a person who has spent a few years on the American diet).
3.  Internet usage:  An ignorant, boorish person who, on entering an echo chamber, refuses to make an echo.

(see: Addenda to the devil's dictionary no2 )

August 18, 2014

Gaza and the Chomsky narrative

There is nothing especially surprising about the current round of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.  The two parties have, for more than half a century, been locked in a conflict over land that they are unlikely to settle either amicably or soon.  Stripped of all the interesting but muddying historical factors (religion, the artificial borders drawn after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the last gasps of European imperialism, etc.) the conflict is all too predictable on its face.  In 1948, one people displaced another by force.  That is nothing very new in world history.  In this most rudimentary sense, it isn’t much different from the English colonization of Northern Ireland – the source of a conflict that lasted over 400 years.  There are Palestinians alive today who lost their land at gunpoint, so it is just in the nature of these things that the enmity between the two parties is not going to abate any time soon.  Hatreds caused by conquests are bitter enough, but hatreds caused by actual expulsions must inevitably run deeper.

It is an entirely useless exercise to moralize about the inevitable.  War has always been a bloody and detestable affair.  What is interesting about the current phase of this miserable saga, however, is the depth and vehemence of the moral angst indulged in by third parties.  It is incredible the rapidity with which the western world has forgotten that war is by necessity nasty, brutal, and unjust – and it is equally breathtaking to watch the tenacity with which people cling to the illusion that long standing hatreds can be undone by shows of public indignation.  Maybe we can tweet our way to universal peace, but I would not hold my breath.

I’m not particularly a fan of Israeli foreign policy, which has been heavy-handed and unethical at times.  On the other hand, I have to wonder what policy the people who are indignant about the Israeli attacks on Gaza expect the Israeli government to undertake as an alternative.  Are they supposed to accept the rocket bombardment of their citizens and do nothing?  Is it really plausible that they will take Palestinian schools and hospitals off their targeting lists regardless of what Hamas chooses to use them for?  Should the Israeli government simply concede “Checkmate!  The human shield gambit works!  We lose!” and march their entire population into the sea?

There is no doubt that the ongoing fighting is a human tragedy at the level at which human tragedies occur – the level of individual dead or maimed human beings.  There is no doubt, either, that it is shaping up to be a public relations victory for a certain species of pacifism prevalent among the elites of the United States and Europe.  I can think of no one who personifies this particular mindset better than Noam Chomsky.  Not long ago, I listened to a lecture in which Chomsky argued, in his dry deadpan way, that the real terrorist nations of the world were the United States and Israel.  His reasoning was, if I may paraphrase it briefly, that terrorism consists of manipulating a population by fear – and that Israel and the US, insofar as they conduct large scale military operations with just such manipulations in mind, are the world’s greatest terrorists.  Compared to the Israeli Air Force, the logic would now run, an Iranian-made rocket launched by Hamas is just a minor irritation.  This is an effective argument if unopposed, particularly if you reinforce it with appropriate pictures of bleeding Palestinian children and crying mothers.  Unfortunately, the real world is not that simple.

If you accept Chomsky’s reasoning, you have to answer an uncomfortable question -- Who were the real villains of the World War Two?  It is a matter of record that the US and Great Britain inflicted far more civilian casualties on the Germans than the Germans inflicted on the US and Great Britain.  Moreover, many of the victims died quite horrible deaths in firestorms – meaning they were essentially cooked to death.  Deaths caused by individual raids often numbered in the tens of thousands.  Children were not spared by any means.  Moreover, the policy fit Chomsky’s definition of terrorism.  Much of the rationale behind strategic bombing was the goal of breaking the will of the enemy populous to continue the fight – a goal which, incidentally, bombing never really accomplished.  By Chomsky’s utilitarian moral logic, the Allied powers would have been the greater villains due to the sheer scale of their efforts – the German bombing of London, Coventry, and other English cities were mere sideshows by comparison.

An important question has gone largely unconsidered in all the noise.  It is this:

Assuming one side or the other is going to ultimately prevail, which is the more likely to visit the greater suffering on their vanquished party?

If you apply this question to the case of World War Two, I think contrasting the Marshall Plan with the Holocaust should suffice as an adequate answer.  In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while the Israelis have been willing to rob, disenfranchise, and impoverish their enemies – they do stop short of actual genocide.  What Hamas and their regional allies would do if they prevailed is a matter of conjecture – but if we use their own stated goals and present tactics as a guide it is fair to say the outcome would be grim.  When Israelis win, the killing usually ceases; when Arabs win, it tends to intensify.1  While it may be reaching to equate Hamas with ISIS, the example of ISIS, replete with beheadings and willful genocide, is chilling.  Even the comparatively tolerant Saudis lop peoples’ heads off without much compunction and forbid the practice of any non-Muslim faith within the kingdom.  Can one blame the Israelis, whatever wrong-doings they may be guilty of, for refusing to stick their national neck out?  Chomsky’s formulation entertains an ironic fixation with body count at the expense of any substantive analysis of intent.  The death of any civilian in a war is a tragedy, but the deaths of people butchered indiscriminately by rockets represent, I believe, the greater moral crime than the deaths of those killed unintentionally in the course of stopping that very bombardment.  It is analogous, roughly, to the difference between an entirely deliberate and unrepentant murder and an accidental homicide – albeit a gruesome one.

The reaction of the liberal west belies an underlying arrogance of its own.  The unconsidered subtext of the endless sturm und drang regarding the sins of European man is that westerners are in fact so powerful, and so superior, that any western nation can now prostrate itself before its non-European enemies with impunity.  There can hardly be any belief more implicitly racist than that.  It is notable, too, that while we tend to consider the slaughters in Rwanda, Darfur, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, and Syria humanitarian disasters, we consider the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza a crime.  It is just an act of nature, we accept without thinking, when brown people butcher one another – but the deaths of Palestinians matter because they are being killed by, more-or-less, white people.2  Ugly as it is, western liberals tend to sing the song they know.

The Arabs and the Israelis have traditional music of their own.  Unfortunately for both parties, the songs they love are so similar that they create a bitter discord.  The Israeli song is a ballad of two thousand years of pogroms, ghettos and gas chambers, to be assuaged by the restoration of the land God gave them.  The Arab song is a ballad of religious fervor and long-suffering oppression to be avenged in a return to their former glory.  Lyrics of this kind almost always end in death.

1 There are exceptions to this rule that should be noted.  During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, many civilians were systematically butchered.  While the Israelis did not engage in the massacre directly, they did stand by and let it happen.

2 My point ably made by Christopher Hitchens – may God rest his soul…

August 1, 2014

An ideological memoir with minimal decorations

The first presidential candidate I supported was Hubert Humphrey in 1968.  I was, at that time, five years old.  My reasons for supporting Humphrey were not the most impressive.  I remember the rest of my family watching the CBS Nightly News on our floor model black-and-white TV.   The TV room, which doubled as a library, was dim and un-air-conditioned.  Cats and people sprawled on the old carpet and rather worse-for-wear stuffed chairs.  Humphrey seemed rather pitiable to me – a stodgy, roundish man with a wavering voice who I sensed, though I was ignorant of the details, was drowning in a world he could not keep up with.  Being overwhelmed is a feeling most five-year-olds can relate to.  “I’m for Humphrey,” I announced.  The rest of my family, all more-or-less adults, seemed amused by this.  When you are five, amusing adults is always a good thing, and Humphrey seemed like he needed a friend.  A few days after my announcement, someone gave me a Humphrey campaign button.  Humphrey lost the primary to McGovern, and Richard Nixon won in the fall, of course.  Nixon, I remembered, looked a little like Ed Sullivan, who also lived exclusively on TV.

Some people cast votes on no more enlightened basis than this their whole lives.  They do not consider policy or study voting records.  They get a certain feeling about a candidate and they trust that feeling.  This is probably not the best way to exercise one’s franchise – but it’s probably not the worst way either.

I wasn’t born with a political party stamped across my forehead.  While I think that most of my family votes now, none of them voted then.  They had, in the way of isolated intellectuals, a certain skepticism about the whole business.  The strongest political sentiment that was present in my fledgling universe was my father’s bitter hatred of the rich.  “Bitter” is a weak word, really.  Have you ever been confronted by a dog that got the idea into its head that you were in its territory and did not belong there?  A dog that stood snarling and tense, baring its teeth, waiting only for you to make the slightest wrong move?  That is how my father felt, and still feels, about the rich.  He denies he hates them, but the denial is about as plausible as Jerry Falwell’s denial that he hated homosexuals.  People do not snarl in neutrality or love.  At that time he hated the local newspaper publisher and, to a lesser extent, his own employer.  Now the media has provided him with Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers, so he snarls dutifully at them.  I doubt his sentiment really worries Mitt, Charles or David very much.  Hatred is not a political belief, per se, but if you had a political coloring book hatred would be one of the more popular colors.  It wouldn’t be a rarely used color in the 32-color box.  It would be in the 8-color box – the one every child in kindergarten has to have.  Apart from his irrational hatred my father is a decent enough man.  He taught me how to construct rational arguments and introduced me to philosophy.  He has a good heart between his bouts of snarling.  Rational arguments are something you do get in 32-color box of political crayons.  Philosophy is a 64-color box item – a crayon for a very fussy child.

My father’s hate was not particularly contagious.  Being around that kind of hatred is unpleasant for anyone who does not share in its source.  Even a child can tell a dog is crazy when it is snarling at the air, and will have no particular temptation to snarl with it.  But, I must admit, there is something to be said for the persuasive weight of dogged repetition.  I never learned to hate the rich, but I did learn to believe that capitalism is a problem.  This put me on a trajectory of its own.

The first political precept I can remember entertaining, one that I held onto tenaciously for quite some time, is that capitalism isn’t fair.  Well, quite obviously, from a certain perspective – it isn’t.  If you have some vague general notion that equality is a good thing, and you believe that people ought to get an approximately the same reward for an equivalent amount of productive effort, then a capitalist enterprise, in which a large number of people toil for a modest reward while the owner of the enterprise collects a far bigger reward, is morally indefensible.  Period.  This really isn’t rocket science, and any young person that approaches the world with the set of moral precepts he or she was taught in elementary school will probably come to this conclusion with very little help.  Morality is a slippery concept though.  The human brain is predisposed to simplify its model of the world as much as possible – and the good guy / bad guy heuristic is a useful, if often stultifying, simplification.  The rich are keeping all the money for themselves and making others suffer as a consequence.  Voila!  And ideology is born!  I’m not saying there is nothing more to leftist thought than that – I’m only saying that there isn’t much more.  Everything that follows is merely an elaboration of this single fundamental premise – the world is a mess because we’ve failed at the task of dividing up the stuff fairly.  Armed with this powerful, hate-optional idea, I began to color the world in with varying gradations of traditional Marxist red.

Now, before you start envisioning me as some sort of dedicated revolutionary, laying down life and limb for the material salvation of his comrades worldwide, I need to widen your perspective with two minor but essential points.  First – I am a coward.  Maybe not an abject coward, but not the sort of person who is going to be found squatting in a jungle with the Sandinistas or any other group of guerillas.  I was happy to wear the T-shirt and the boots on campus.  Maybe the beret, but come on – lets be reasonable.  Second, like most twentysomethings, probably in any country and at any period of history, what I wanted, really, was to have an identity that I could live with.  To be somebody doing the right thing.  Maybe not somebody pivotally important – but somebody.  I wasn’t about to pursue a business degree, certainly – not with my upbringing.  I settled, instead, without any special plan, into being a faux socialist student among sympathetic liberal professors at a state university.  That is only a romantic image if you imagine very, very hard.  I did imagine hard.  I learned to paint, and to write short, inventive research papers with suspiciously wide margins.

Pursuing one’s identity is, by the way, about the worst thing one can do.  You end up knowing neither yourself nor anybody else.  If you want to increase the misery of the world, at least a little, narcissism is a pretty reliable way to do it.  If you want to do some good, on the other hand, stop worrying about yourself.  Gandhi once said something to that effect.  Of course, you can’t just try to be Gandhi either.  Dhotis look as stupid on faux Gandhis as berets look on faux revolutionaries.  The real trick to being somebody is to be yourself without managing to notice.  Buddha said that somewhere – probably.

In any case, I read some Marx, a dash of Che Guevara, a fair amount Lenin, and finished with some Trotsky and a little Rosa Luxemburg.  If I wasn’t really all that well-read I was, at least, well… Red.  It doesn’t seem worth the effort to discuss that literature in any depth.  Philosophically, it’s pretty thin.  Luxemburg, and Trotsky in places, are at least humane.  As a narrative, the aggregate of genuine red literature does have a certain monotonous coherence.  It is not altogether a departure from the facts.  It is a body of work that does best on the attack.  It actually does little else.  The Marxist rests entirely on the wickedness of his enemies, and of his own principles says practically nothing.  The splendid future to be expected after the revolution isn’t merely theoretical, it is in every way an article of faith.

My two older siblings joined the Socialist Workers Party at some point in the early 80’s and took me along to protests and some meetings.  It is amusing to me that conservatives of the Reagan era feared and hated little leftist parties like the SWP so much.  They were really too inert to be a threat to anybody.  If I was a coward I certainly was not alone.  What these people did, in practice, was to get together to share a steady diet of formalized class indignity.  They were interested neither in electoral success nor in bloody revolution.  They were content to walk the dogma with thousands of ordinary liberals at major protests in Washington and New York, and to boast of having a single member in some legislature somewhere in the far west.  Conservatives imagined such people were nests of Soviet collaborators ready to wreak havoc on the American soul.  Soviet agents could probably have found more useful potential agents on urban middle school playgrounds.  If the problem with the recent Occupy Wall Street movement was that they didn’t know what they wanted, the problem with the Socialist Workers Party was that what they wanted was a certain kind of revolutionary romanticism which was all too easy to attain – and having attained it they were untroubled by their own actual irrelevance.  They were me, in other words.  No one with an ounce of integrity can really stand his own reflection.  Then too, I’ve never gotten the hang of institutions based on faith, religious or otherwise.  My father did teach me to reason, as I’ve said.  Reason does not get on well with doctrines centered on belief.

I have never, at any point in my life, considered myself a liberal.  If the SWP was bad, the liberal Democrats have long been far worse.  At least the SWP theoretically wanted something that was theoretically better than the status quo.  I was to eventually conclude that even the Marxist dream itself was flawed, but at least it seemed to offer something better than a world run by the usual group of elitists painted with a coat or two of political correctness.  When liberals ooh and aah over the Kennedys or the Clintons, I get the depressing feeling that we haven’t changed much since the middle ages.  Mind you, those Republicans that pledge undying fealty to the uninspiring House of Bush don’t thrill me either, but at least they don’t muddy their stupidity with the same hypocritical blather about being somehow dedicated to political equality.  In Animal Farm, George Orwell said: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  That ought to be the motto of the current Democratic party.  At the top there are the Kennedys and Clintons of the world, followed by the lesser politicians and assorted bureaucrats.  Beneath, there is an advisory layer of academics from the best universities.  Lower still, an assortment of workaday professionals of various kinds – people who think that they are part of the planning process because they know something about wine and read the New Yorker.  At the very bottom, are the people with their hands out and their mouths open – waiting to be fed and led.  It may be that the world has always been like that.  It may even be that the world always will be like that.  It might even turn out, though I doubt it, that such an arrangement is ultimately for the best – but let’s at least not say that equality is just a clever alternate spelling for oligarchy.  It isn’t.

Despite what you might think, my anti-aristocratic fervor is not the same as a snarling hatred for the rich.  I no longer object at all if people make themselves wealthy by engaging in good old fashioned free market enterprises – the kind that produce arguably useful goods and generate employment for that most luckless of minorities – people with a work ethic.  I am less convinced that investment bankers and hedge fund managers are a net boon to humanity, and perhaps it’s not unreasonable to dislike a group of people who make money by destabilizing the entire global economy.  Still, as bad as this latter group of high rollers might be, they have at least one saving grace:  they do not, as rule, give a damn about what I think or how I live.  They want my money, if I have any, but they have no ideological fascination with curtailing my free agency.  The elites that worry me are not the ones building floating houses in the Caribbean, but the ones building utopian ant farms who insist I play the obliging role of ant.

How could I have been so blind as to have ever been a leftist?  This is not really a question, but a lament.  The question itself I have already answered.  It sounded nice.  How could something that claims to be progress not sound nice?  The real question is – how could I have been so caught up in the rhetoric and romanticism to have failed to think the inexorable logic of leftism through?  The answer to that question lies in an understanding of world history.

My mother’s major contribution to my postnatal development was to infuse me with a love of history.  She read books about ancient Egypt and she talked about them.  That threw open a window for me that for many people remains forever shuttered.  Without an understanding of history, one can only understand politics in the way an Alzheimer’s sufferer understands her relationships.  Everything just comes as a continual surprise.  Unfortunately, learning enough history to begin to get an accurate sense of how societies actually behave takes a very long time.  The primary reason it takes so long is that all historical analyses are burdened with the ideological zeitgeist of their particular period and place of origin – whether their authors intended them to be burdened or not.  To do more than merely indoctrinate yourself, you have to read old books and new – foreign and domestically produced.  A quick read of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is insufficient.  It will tell you much about Howard Zinn, but only one oblique perspective on the history of the United States.  You can learn to argue intelligently in a few months if you have the aptitude, but discerning facts from axe-grinding exercises is an art – and, even then, an imperfect art.  Read a book on any historical topic and you will usually come away with one of two impressions.  The first is that the author has taught you something interesting and valuable about the world.  The second is that the author is a brainwashed, opinionated ass.  Which of these two conclusions you come to tends to depend on what beliefs you started with.  History is not like chemistry.  You can’t just run the experiment again to see whether or not the author got it right.  In time though, if you expose yourself to enough variety of material, certain patterns do begin to appear out of the noise.  It was on reaching this sort of critical mass of historical knowledge that my illusions about leftism started to fade.  If this is vague, it can’t be helped.  Mine has never been an easy path to trace.

Looked at historically, modern socialism consistently fails to achieve its aims.  Whether we are talking about the Soviet Union of the 1980’s or Western Europe of today, it has failed to produce prosperity for the public as a whole.  Leftists can get some limited projects done, but they cannot bestow prosperity on the public after having denuded them of the agency to pursue prosperity themselves.  I remember once watching a cat who had beaten and clawed a little bird to death.  Despite the bird’s condition, the cat continued to bat the thing into the air in a miserable and obviously frustrating attempt to make it fly.  Try as it might, it just couldn’t get the game restarted.  This is more-or-less what any group of socialists is prone to do when given power over an economy.  Having wrecked the thing for their own ideological amusement, they expect its broken corpse to flourish under their ongoing punishment.  It never does.  Socialism elevates the poorest of the poor by pushing down the living standards of the middle class.  The net result is always negative.  The collective pie gets smaller, only to accomplish the modest gain that no one actually starves for want of the most miserable of slices.  This does not seem, to me, a resounding success.  Worse still, socialism’s equality project is an utter sham.  This is obvious if you simply pay attention.  Are the central planners and the public ever equal?  No.  Moreover, their inequality is not merely economic, but political in the extreme.  The central government makes all of the decisions and imposes them through the authority of the state.  The citizen obeys – or suffers punishment.  All governments coerce, but under socialism the scope of government intrusion into the life of the individual is unlimited.  There is a tragic difference between a legislative body whose members owe their stations to the public’s approval, and a body of appointed central planners who preside over the public in the public’s name.  “Social Democracy” is an oxymoron because central planning and democracy are as antithetical as two concepts can possibly be.  “Freedom is Slavery,” said George Orwell, not in Animal Farm but in 1984.  I understood Orwell’s ruthless irony when I read it, but quickly covered it up with lots of dreamy, optimistic, collectivist perfume.

The last straw, really – the final insult to my leftist point of view, was the discovery that socialism is ultimately regressive rather than progressive.  The long history of civilization can fairly be said to have been one slow, uncertain advance against the bulwark of political oppression.  In other words, the direction of progress has been that of the triumph of the individual over state authority.  Kings, pharaohs, sultans and great khans, varied and colorful though they might have been, had a set of salient features in common – their authority was capricious, arbitrary, and largely unrestrained.  The great khan may have indeed been great, but if you displeased him there was nothing in the makeup of his government that limited the amusing and horrific things that he might do to you.  Maybe, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (though, personally, I doubt it) – but it is historically undeniable that no one initially bothered with creating rights.  Rights were chiseled away from established authorities bit by bit, generation by generation, in an uneven manner and with numerous reverses.  They are hard-won things.  Constitutional government, in which authority agrees to be bound by a framework of laws – effectively on pain of public revolt – must rank among the greatest of human accomplishments.  Under the rule of law, the government protects people from murdering and robbing one another, and the people protect themselves from government by the vigilant defense of their own generally understood rights.  Rights are not given to us by government, or by God, or by anybody else.  Rights were wrested from authority by the very fact that we, the people, had sufficient collective power to effectively demand them.  Unfortunately, when people begin to feel that government should do more than be the administrator and policeman of last resort – that it should, in fact, serve as parent and provider to its citizens – the historical progress that brought us Constitutional government is inevitably undermined.  If the question becomes “How can government help?” there is hardly any personal sphere into which government cannot find justification for intruding.  Eventually, in the name of the public good, capricious, arbitrary, and largely unrestrained authority is reinstated.  There is no reason to think a committee of planners has innately better motives than an individual tin pot dictator or, for that matter, than a hedge fund manager.  Restrained by the vestiges of public traditions and democratic processes, socialism may present a benign appearance for a time, but an unelected bureaucracy’s relationship to the public – that of master to subject – is essentially the same one that existed under any ancient despot.  F.A. Heyek said this all seventy years ago, of course.  It is still worth saying.

Worse, in human terms, than my political mistake was a far broader social one.  I got used to simply disliking the people that the subculture I was immersed in told me to dislike.  That is an exceedingly crappy way to deal with real, flesh-and-blood human beings.  The fact that it is an easy trap to fall into doesn’t mitigate its essential, deep-down crappiness.  The generic leftist-liberal miasma that I lived in dictated that racial minorities and certain other groups were always hapless, noble victims to be pitied and deferred to, and that conservatives, Republicans, and Christians were monolithic, soulless, cookie cutter villains.  I know that there are many decent, caring people who believe this crap, but as a system of organizing one’s understanding of humanity it is crap nonetheless.  It is the same good guy / bad guy heuristic humans beings have been employing to justify despising one another since prehistoric times.  I strongly suspect that even the majority of four-legged animals have the good guy / bad guy trick down pat.  You can be a habitual bigot even before mastering the invention of fire.  You can be a habitual bigot even without a thumb or vocal chords.  At some level, I guess, being narrow-minded is a feature of social behavior.  Now there’s an irony, if ever there was one.

I came to live among the soulless, cookie cutter villains more-or-less by accident.  I moved from a city to a village in pursuit of a better paying job.  I was a leftist among conservatives.  An atheist among Christians.  An urbanite in a rural area.  The first thing I learned about my conservative brethren was that they know what a community is.  They have what used to be called, in rather more innocent times, a sense of social responsibility.  Many of them are habitually charitable.  There is a tendency for liberals to think that conservatives only care about themselves and their own little circles, but in my experience this usually isn’t the case.  I rarely get through a week without an envelope full of money coming across my desk with an attached sympathy card for some poor schmoe who has suffered a misfortune.  The bulletin boards of my company are plastered with charity raffles, donation requests, mission news, etc.  African charities are big here, as are charities for the usual well-known and popular diseases.  Blood drives are a vampire’s delight.  There is no coercion driving any of this that I am aware of.  It is just a feature of the culture.  The culture of these rural, redneck villains – these narrow-minded haters.  It is one thing to be caught in an intellectual error, but it is quite another to have to measure your own humanitarian pretentions against somebody else’s real, tangible charity.  It is humbling, to say the least.

Of course, there is no shortage of bad intentions among the non-progressive population.  There is no shortage of bad intentions anywhere.  We are all human, like it or not, and no group has a monopoly on ill-will or sheer, pig-ignorant stupidity.  I am not na├»ve enough to believe that people on the right end of the political spectrum are incapable of harboring some terrible ideas.  Plenty of conservatives I know believed that the Bush administration’s torture policy was commendable.  Decent people, I think, should not believe such things.  It is a hellish sort of doublethink when basically decent people somehow manage to.  I hope it hurts their heads, because it certainly hurts mine.  On the other hand, the right has no monopoly on finding justifications for inflicting pain.  When it comes to torturing their own citizens, several socialist regimes are in a class of their own.

What I have concluded, over the long run, is that ideology itself is dangerous.  It is not a matter of backing the right one.  There is no right one.  If you become so caught up in a cause that you are willing to twist reality into a pretzel to forgive its sins – or to shut your mind to the possibility that it even has sins – you cannot meaningfully say that you care either about people or about the truth.  A handful of rough-and-ready principles is probably the best that we can manage in a lifetime.  I, myself, am tired to the bone of being an –ist or an –ive or an –ian.  I will proudly stand with whoever seems to be getting it right at any given moment, knowing full well that human wisdom is always tentative and fleeting – and that any group of people moving in the right direction all at once is probably only doing so by accident.  So be it.  I leave certainty, and Santa, to the enthusiasm of the young.