Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Economist, Hardware Stores, Free-range Chickens and Immanuel Kant

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The Economist
, like so many other mainstream publications, has become little more than a hardware store of received opinion. That fact is a great comfort, though, to many on the Left; one can shop with confidence, knowing exactly what products will be available and what prices are to be expected. They need not concern themselves with the true cost of shoddy merchandise.

Think of modern liberal orthodoxy as the Great Supply-house that efficiently and widely distributes items of dogma to uncritical retailers – universities(1), media and political elites (rather, elitists). While the products are substandard, (using a fitness-for-use criterion) they do have the virtue of immanent durability.

Since the orthodoxy of the Left (almost by definition) controls the market, it perceives no need for product innovation. Ironically, it is captive to its own creation, and absent significant competition, it is supremely self-confident, often to the point of arrogance.

Which leads me to a recent article in The Economist ‘Newspaper”, How to Fix the Republican Party. For those who find my hardware store metaphor congenial there will be little need for me to parse the article, which in essence argues, “lay down your principles at the water’s edge – join us and you will find success”. I only add that what it represents is a weary and all-too-common(2) recycling of received dogma.

It seems to me that the difference between liberals and the Republican “center” resembles the distinction between caged and free-range chickens; the latter may enjoy a more varied diet, but both remain chickens fed on dogma of one sort or the other.

“If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay – others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.”(3)

(1) Here, I think, lies a weakness in the metaphor. Universities might better thought of as manufacturers rather than retailers. In truth, they are both.

(2) Sadly, the notion that exchanging principle for political success is the certain route to Republican revival is shared by many within the party. What the “pragmatic” Conservative perceives as the “center” in actually the Liberal center.

(3) Immanuel Kant from 1794 essay. Here, he later advocates “…throwing off the yoke of tutelage…”.

Note: this submission is a proprietary cross-post.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Because They Can: The Power To Exclude

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Jacqui Smith, the British Home Secretary, has included on her list of persons banned from England the name of talk-show host Michael Savage.

Now Savage is not high on the list of well-known public Conservatives that I admire. Emotion (see previous post) and the sense of outrage trump careful reasoning in his polemic. He is deliberately provocative, and he is aggressive, often to the point of being obnoxious, but he does not encourage hate or violence.

The Left, however, is ever ready to characterize provocative* challenges as "hate-speech". They fear Savage precisely because emotional outrage is their own lingua franca, and they know it is psychologically powerful and an effective means to short-circuit debate.
Luc Van Braekel, a too-rare Belgian who speaks out in defense of free speech, is a featured writer in today's Brussels Journal. His article includes short video clips of recorded statements by Jacqui Smith and Michael Savage.

This incident, taken together with the Geert Wilders affair and others, clearly shows that Britain's fear of tolerating offensive speech has become pathological. Political Correctness, as I have said before, is nothing more nor less than cowardly dishonesty masquerading as comity and good will.

The difference in meaning between "provocative" and "inflammatory" is worth noting.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Madness of Crowds

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The tension between emotion and reason is a natural and fundamental part of the human condition. It is a fact of life, and, when kept in balance, it is useful to the ends of civil society.
But when the equilibrium is upset to extremes -- in either direction -- there is a price to be paid.

Social groups of all kinds and sizes experience periodic swings toward one pole or the other over time. An example of this phenomenon that is often used applies to literature, philosophy and the fine arts: it is the historical shift between the poles of Romanticism and Classicism. The primary characteristics of Romanticism are the free rein of emotion, freedom from constraints, the rejection of tradition and a purely rational (apriori) world-view, while those of classicism are intellect, discipline, respect for tradition and a skeptical (empirical) world-view. The scope of these pendulum swings between emotion and reason, however, is much broader than the example of Romanticism and Classicism. These oscillations may affect the outlook and actions of entire societies to include nations and groups of nations. They transcend language barriers.

What fuels and drives these shifts from one pole to the other? Because individuals -- let alone societies -- are so complex and complicated, I think satisfactory explanations will always elude us. But there are certainly clues: demographic changes, wealth or poverty, technology, trade, manipulation by elitists or governments, natural disasters and war to list only a few. How difficult the matter is can be shown by attempting to understand the divergence of the two major wings of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, there was the French, which largely shaped Continental Western Europe, and on the other, the Anglo (and its American subset) that shaped the West beyond the Continent. It would be oversimple to assert that the emotion-reason conflict was the cause of the different strains of the Enlightenment, but that argument would not be without merit.

From the divergence of the French and Anglo schools of Enlightenment thought we have inherited the intellectual, social, political and economic polarities of Modern Liberalism and Conservatism. (*)

As I wrote at the beginning, a balance between reason and emotion is useful. It is emotion that causes us to act, and reason and experience that shapes and directs action toward desirable ends. Now reason, being subject to human limitation, often fails. But actions driven by excessive emotion and ungoverned by reason almost always fail.

How does one know when emotion has become excessive? The answer is fairly obvious: when persons or groups become so emotionally invested in cherished ideas that they deny reality in order to preserve them, emotion has become excessive.

What are the consequences of excessive emotion? Again, the answer obvious: our survival and our prosperity in the world depends upon our seeing it as it is -- objectively. If we do not, or will not, recognize existential threats or facts and situations that are not conducive to our welfare, we are acting in ways that are destructive to our own survival and our own welfare.

I believe that Modern Liberalism (largely identified with the Far Left) collectively exhibits the effects of excessive emotion in their thought and behavior, and that destructive outcomes are certain to follow.

For an interesting analysis apposite this posting, please see Liberal Amnesia = Hysterical Amnesia (4/29/09). My comments derive from a mostly historical perspective, but Dr. Sanity's blog offers much that is instructive from the perspective of psychology. The author uses the term "hysteria" where I use "excessive emotion", and he says this:

Hysteria is a concept characterized by a wide variety of physical and mental symptoms that result from dissociating one's cognitive functioning from one's emotions and/or behavior. The psychological defense that makes this happen is known as dissociation.
For the hysteric, emotions are primary and are not subject to objective reality.

(*) "Conservatism" is the natural heir of Eighteenth Century Liberalism. I agree with Milton Friedman, and others, that the latter term is the better one.