Archive for February, 2012
Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
The worst aspect of mass politics is that none of the basic terms are defined. “Conservative” is a loose grouping of likes/dislikes, and liberal is a social identity.
From that, each person tries to abstract out some heuristics in order to make an educated guess as to any issue. Since appearance is separated by reality through a complex interaction with context, these never quite match up as one might think they should.
As a result, we have so-called “conservatives” voting for all sorts of problems that their ancestors would think were straight out of Red China, and many liberals such as Barack Obama confused on the nature of their foreign policy. It’s chaos, a level removed.
However, it’s important to remember that leftism and rightism are essentially different, even if the examples of them are confused. We might call leftism a form of humanism, or the idea that human notions, feelings and judgments come before all else. And we might call conservatism a form of organicism or integralism, or the notion that life as a whole is more important than our subjective impulses.
Another important concept in conservative thought however is consequentialism. This is a powerful idea and like most of those, is very simple at its essence. Because of this, it has been attacked by those who try to add conditions to it in order to reverse its meaning from the original. (This is common behavior for neurotic humans.)
Consequentialism is a greater concern for results than methods. It’s more than a “by any means necessary” however. What it means is that we look first to how our actions will affect the world around us, and only secondarily turn toward moral, emotional, social and political notions, because those are constructions of the human subjective mind and do not necessarily correlate to reality.
A definition from a source that normally produces analysis of quality:
Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things, but
the most prominent example is consequentialism about the moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind.
“Consequentialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
This definition is separated for your convenience. The first part is the real definition; the second part is the socially-acceptable fix that was put in to make this definition pleasant-sounding to many people. Philosophers of the modern sort seem to be only a selective form of consumer.
Consequentialism is paying attention to the results of actions. This makes sense. However, in the second part above, the writers modify that clear definition into a muddled one. How do moral concepts, which do not exist in science and nature, get included as “results”?
As Plato was fond to point out, the human mind is like a projection screen. We project onto our world what we are thinking and then claim that our feelings, judgments and desires are “inherent” to reality. Such is the case with morality, which was never more than a choice for decent people to elect.
If we critically analyze the above definition, it becomes clear that the second part of it is entirely a non sequitur to the first. There is literally no relation. We go from paying attention to consequences to paying attention to our feelings about those consequences, which quickly translates into our feelings about the methods used.
Morality does not regulate consequences, after all. It regulates our actions and makes the assumption that a bad method equals a bad result, when that is only sometimes true (think of how we murder to keep murderers off the street, or kidnap kidnappers to keep them from kidnapping, or even make rules in the name of freedom).
The reason for this clever sleight-of-hand becomes clear later in the definition:
The paradigm case of consequentialism is utilitarianism, whose classic proponents were Jeremy Bentham (1789), John Stuart Mill (1861), and Henry Sidgwick (1907). (For predecessors, see Schneewind 1990.) Classic utilitarians held hedonistic act consequentialism. Act consequentialism is the claim that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion. (Cf. Moore 1912, chs. 1–2.) Hedonism then claims that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. Together these claims imply that an act is morally right if and only if that act causes “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” as the common slogan says.
Thus we see that the point of the definition of consequentialism as practiced in modern philosophy is to support the definition of utilitarianism. But the disconnect still remains: even the definition above admits that utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism called “hedonistic act” consequentialism, and its definition is as much hedonism as anything else.
In a stricter sense, human emotions (which is what morality, hedonism and aesthetics are) have absolutely zero to do with consequentialism, which is the study of effects. Consequentialism measures whether our well-intentioned welfare policy produces more drug addicts or fewer.
It measures whether our environmental regulation leads to more barrels of toxic waste being pushed into rivers, or fewer. It measures whether our moral intentions translated to action, and whether those in turn translated to the changes we claimed they would make.
That is a dangerous philosophy, right there. People do not want accountability for their actions; they want accountability for the image of their actions as filtered through their social group. But that is a form of leftism, and like utilitarianism, is a reversal of the consequentialist principle.
Conservatives make decisions by consequentialism because it always works. Instead of using the laboratory of human emotions and social feelings, we use the laboratory of life itself, and test every factor at once. What was the result? That result will occur again if we do the same action.
As views go, it is an accurate one. It will never be as popular as the idea that whatever we mean in our minds translates to a method which then translates to an identical outcome. But as they’re fond of saying among the intelligent, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Monday, February 27th, 2012
The Map and the Territory
by Michel Houellebecq
269 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, $16
In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje uses the map as a postmodern device, a type of meta-plot to a novel that then contorts the character-related plot around its metaphor. This is what distinguishes postmodern novels: the metaphor leads the characters, instead of the other way around.
However in The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq — a more mature and yet more emotionally coherent writer — shows us instances of maps, symbols, sensations and notions replacing actual experience. His point makes itself as his characters scramble to keep up with the metaphor, revealing that beneath all of the formalism and bluster of the human experience, there is a human experience we cannot communicate in public and it is lost to us when we let the public view of experience (the map) replace our actual knowledge of life (the territory).
Writing in the grand tradition of French literary provocateurs like Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Gustave Flaubert in that in order to explore pleasure, he first explores misery, and then like Socrates finishing his dialogue, points toward the empty space indicated by the limits of all that has been discussed. Houellebecq crafts an uneven storyline in which sudden leaps occur through the impulsiveness of the characters, but this saves us his readers from extensive exposition of an ultimately unimportant nature, and delivers us instead on a wild ride that more resembles a descent into madness than the urbane novel of modern sophistication that his writings initially pretend to be. Where the postmodern novel is about an idea, Houellbecq’s novels are about characters reacting to an idea which is incomplete. They are tormented by what is promised but not evident.
This might categorize his work as “black comedy,” or narratives where awful things are described as absurdist and amusing. However, an underlying sense of emotion guides this process, such that the dark humor is a layer of surface on top of an emotional narrative. This does not fit into the modern literature rubric which like the work of Ondaatje combines the “workshop school” with the emotional demands of commercial television and the need for the work to have a semi-technical metaphor; in the workshop school, the writer develops a situation and fills in generic characters who are defined by their reactions, and the film-style emotional ending closes out the book rather abruptly, while metaphor gets layered over the top as a kind of narrative describing the narrative. Houellebecq takes another approach, which is to work from an idea outward to characters and then to put them in a situation that reveals their inner worlds and not just their knee-jerk reactions. The result will seem uneducated to the half-educated modern reader with his heady expectations, but unlike a typical book is not linear, but like an unfolding flower.
For the enfant terrible of postmodern literature, Houellebecq is at his mellowest on this book. The hyperbole is mostly tuned down, replaced with a kind of surreality to events that should reveal an underlying confusion but instead gesture an emptiness. Without giving away too much of the plot, this book can be described as the survey of a photographer who is fascinated by the objects of meaning in life: tools, professions and maps. Each of these implies a certain degree of purpose and selectivity, yet in the artist’s life as well as those of the other characters, what is demonstrated is generally mere reactivity, or finding life as it comes and tossing back a visual approximation of a response to it. Through these he builds a theme of the book, which is the confusion of the tool or labor with the meaning that is conveyed by the sacrifice made for it, a theme echoed in the protagonist Jed Martin’s labors as an artist.
It was then, unfolding the map, while standing by the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, that he had his second great aesthetic revelation. This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls — some destined for damnation, others for eternal life. (18)
Like Scott Fitzgerald before him, Houellebecq receives criticism for the compassionate and yet disinterested way he portrays the collapse of society around him. People stand revealed for what they are, in the overlap of stereotypes and archetypes that most people use as cloaks of personality, and the result is a lifelike impression of modern life. It does not need judgment: like most things Houellebecq, a projection is made an an absence is noticed, like negative space used in a painting of a landscape at night. The empty spaces are both lack and possibility, since they await these characters to wake up and fill them with something meaningful, a light or life.
Translator Gavin Bowd maintains the unique rhythms of Houellebecq’s prose, which is Gallic to its core and in its pacing, but seems “English-aware” such that it seems alert to what will happen in translation. Unlike previous Houellebecq novels, The Map and the Territory replaces much of the quirky and fragmentary prose with solid paragraphs that rise and fall like sand dunes viewed from an airplane. The rhythms are designed to be easy and hypnotic, such that the author can introduce us to new strange worlds and then leave in our minds the barest seed from which revelation will spring. These seeds occur in each quadrant of the novel and are layered with addtional meaning, leading to a spring forth of impressions that are not stated. This allows the postmodern metaphor of the novel to remain mysterious and yet achieve clarity.
For two minutes he went through the owner’s manual of the Samsung ZRT-AV2, nodding his head as if each of the lines confirmed his dark predictions. “Ah, yes,” he finally said, handing it back. “It’s a beautiful product, a modern product that you can love. But you must know that in a year, or two at most, it will be replaced by some new product with supposedly improved features.
“We too are products,” he went on, “cultural products. We too will become obsolete. The functioning of the system is identical – with the differences that, in general, there is no obvious technical or functional improvement; all that remains is the demand for novelty in its pure state.” (105)
Like many of the books we review here, Houellbecq’s latest is not intelligent in the sense of adapting to its surroundings and profiting from them, as he easily could by writing a Barbara Kingsolver or Jodi Piccoult style novel: an enigmatic setting, fractured characters defined by their need, and a bittersweet story with an uplifting and yet moral (or politically correct) ending. While in this book Houellebecq provokes obvious scared cows and taboo gateskeepers less than ever before, the cynical view of modern society as based on lies touches every aspect of the world he portrays, and so little must be said. This is not an intelligent book; it is a genius one, and not for its “intellect” so much as its honesty, and its willingness to speak of the portion of our lives we cannot put on a map, which is the yearning of our souls for purposefulness and meaning in the midst of a modern wasteland.
Friday, February 24th, 2012
Modern society has made itself so legalistic and granular that often it cannot see the forest for the trees. It specializes in deconstruction, or separating details from the bigger picture, much like our machines chew up forests and spit out paper, on which we then write miles of law.
Among our many subterfuges is the idea that we do not need a government we can trust, or leaders we can trust. Instead, we write many laws to limit their powers, and hope that they do not in the many hours they are in office find a way of working around our little rules.
Goedelian confusion aside, this leads to a certain number of sacred cows. Privacy. Miranda rights. Freedom of speech. The right to a lawyer or lobbyist, depending on the circumstances. These “rights” make us stop striving for a trustworthy government, and instead distract ourselves with irrelevancies.
At the center of the case is Xavier Alvarez, a former California county water board member who is an undisputed liar. Among his lies is that he played professional hockey, served in the Marines and rescued the American ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis. None of those lies was illegal.
But when he claimed to have won the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” that lie was a violation of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to make false claims about receiving military medals.
Alvarez appealed his conviction and won…The government appealed to the Supreme Court, where Solicitor General Donald Verrilli…soon faced a barrage of questions about when Congress can make it a crime to tell a lie that does not defraud or defame.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg broadened the question further. Could Congress criminalize other false statements, such as denying that the Holocaust occurred? – “Is A Lie Just Free Speech, Or Is It A Crime?” by Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio, February 22, 2012
We never consider that freedom of speech can be a bad thing, because to say that is to say the ultimate blasphemy. It will make you unpopular and feared. Yet it’s unclear what freedom of speech means, and why any society would want to legalize lying.
This shows us the flipside of all politics. Any law we make is not in a vacuum; it has consequences outside of what it specifically does. There is also the question of what will be missing because of these consequences, both because we will not pursue some options and because we get distracted from others.
It is popular to claim that our view that lying should be legalized is somehow “more adult.” Only a child would say that making lying legal is a bad idea, we think. We know how much more complex it is than that. But is it?
If lying were illegal, we would put liars in jail, and people would be careful about what they said.
Detractors claim that this law would then be used to put people in jail for unpopular speech. But we do that already. If they don’t have money and a lot of supporters, they rot in jail and we the society glide right over their dead case files.
Even more, this brings us back to the same problem: if we are making laws because we are afraid of scumbags in government, why not simply go after the real problem, which is scumbags in government?
Further, we have to look at the consequences of legalizing lying. First lying becomes legal. This encourages others to lie. Then to avoid constant conflict this encourages sane people to stop pointing out the lies. Soon the average child or citizen hears 10 lies for every one truth.
Soon we will have people coming to scientists with big bundles of cash, encouraging them to disprove the idea that any idea is more truthful than others. At that point, we will never be able to agree on anything, because it’s all fantasy. Monopoly money and toy soldiers.
What is free speech? As the Founders intended it, the ability to formulate political opinions and publish them without being thrown into jail. That is all they intended.
In our modern deconstructive mode, we have separated their words from their meaning, and used them instead to create a permissive environment. We do this so we do not get shamed for our lies, delusions and half-truths.
It is a sign of sickness to fear reality and fear discovery in this way. But we are too clever for that. We have invented our rights to protect us, while they instead usher us closer to collapse.
Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
No term sounds less “political” in politics than talk of the human soul. It embarrasses us, like looking at toys from our childhoods. We view it now as a starter concept, the first fumblings of awareness in an attempt to understand our world, and we push it aside with mortification.
And yet the concept persists, simultaneously with the excessive granularity of our “adult” concepts causing them to lead nowhere, which adds some doubt. (Intelligent observers will note that all experiences aside, ice cream in summer is still the best thing in the universe, which is unchanged from childhood as well.)
When we talk about why we dislike modern politics, or modern society at large, one of the first words that comes to mind is “soulless.” It’s hard to find an adjective that encompasses the degree of obedience to utilitarian standards and lack of consideration for the value of experience and pleasure in life.
Oddly enough it is this soullessness that we desired in the first place. Back in 1789 in France, we the people wanted to overthrow the human hierarchy and make us all equal. In doing so, we signed away our souls.
In terms of cause-and-effect scenarios, equality was the cause; the effect is anonymity, which sets off a chain reaction of other effects. First comes the liberal paradise that we are promised, and then, the effects of that paradise demolish any gains it made and begin the process of destroying civilization.
Among other things, equality creates in us a need for control. If we are all equal, we all start out with nothing and only rise to an acceptable level when we have differentiated ourselves. Since only a few can differentiate themselves by ability, this results in the vast majority of people instead looking for social power, which they assert by controlling others either directly (public shaming, guilt or socioeconomic power) or indirectly (social power, covert implication, infantilization). Control is the byproduct of having no hierarchy. Now instead of having a few leaders, we have a vast sea of equal people, each trying to get his head above those of others.
The nature of equality is to reduce all experiences to their lowest common denominator. Not only does it spread resources too thin to concentrate enough for real quality, but it demoralizes those who might exceed the norm. The result is much like a Soviet collective, where each person does the bare minimum because there is no point doing more, and rising above the herd in any form — including doing more — can get the others mobilized against you.
Another way to view this is that an egalitarian society creates a false goal. Instead of having a clear target of what we want to accomplish, we are given a canvas composed only of the social strata. This becomes our target, and the reality of what we do becomes secondary. In other words, if we are all selling the same mediocre product but I come up with an excellent advertising campaign for mine, I get ahead. The new reality is the non-reality of public opinion, which is subject to trends, crazes, moral panics, illusions and fears.
Equality creates a need for us to compensate for the damage done by our equality. No one wants to be a generic person, but since we are now all faceless equals in a city, the only way to rise above is to push others down. You can do this by being outlandish or ironic, or by presenting yourself as a moral guardian of others, or even simply by having something others want, like money or intoxicants. Then you will be an equal above equals.
The real damage done here is to our minds and souls. Control makes us feel powerful. Equality is not powerful. In pushing ourselves above others, we damage the part of us that cares about real goals and replace it with the part that cares about “goals” in changing the minds of others. Money, popularity, democracy.
As this goes on, society separates inside as people are alienated from each other. It always has been this way; human nature has not changed in the past 10,000 years. And while regaining our souls may save our society, this is ultimately a struggle to behave so that we like ourselves again.
Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
I’m p-paralyzed with happiness. – Daisy Buchanan
Western governments are paralyzed by popularity. The 50% or more of our budgets that involve payouts to our citizens are addictingly popular. People simply love these freebies.
As a result, our society — which long ago made the choice to become pluralistic, eliminating all values except commerce, in the name of equality — is led around by the nose by essentially bratty human behavior.
The brat wants what she wants, when she wants it, and if she doesn’t get it, she’ll throw a tantrum. She does not care about the consequences of (a) her actions or (b) people stopping what they’re doing to take care of her desires.
Parent lore has it that giving out gifts before making the child perform for them is a sure way to make brats. In fact, the best way to give gifts is based on a sense of your child’s overall performance. “You’ve done your homework all week, been nice to your sister, and kept your room clean.”
But giving rewards for certain good behaviors, otherwise known as bribes, or without requiring good behavior, both cause destructive problems. These correspond to government-created loopholes and our welfare state respectively.
However, it’s impossible to stop these programs in a democracy. They’re like a runaway train. Lower classes like them for the freebies, and upper classes support them from a sense of social status, or a kind of moral guilt imposed on them by others. If you want to be “nice,” support these.
As a result the modern government cannot back away from its freebies, even though they are the part of the budget we have lived and can live without. Our military budgets are actually lower than they have been in the past, and our operating expenses while high are nothing compared to entitlement programs.
In Greece they can’t stop them. If the country goes broke, anarchist youth riot in the streets and burn things. If you don’t stop the entitlements, the country goes broke. But if you do stop the entitlements, the anarchist youth riot in the street and burn things anyway. And you get voted out of office.
Our countries are paralyzed. There is no incentive to fix these programs. The first person who does stop the hemorrhaging will immediately be turned upon by an angry crowd who will accuse them of every vile sin in the book.
Never mind that the money isn’t there — and in fact, it was never there, except through the magic of debt we pretend we don’t have to repay — because these programs are illusory. Like running farms on acoustic guitar tracks instead of money, sweat, labor and time. It’s mathematically inviable.
We have structured countries that through democracy, equality and subsidized enfranchisement seem designed to work by uniting the inner brat in our population. The result is a lowest common denominator of human thinking. The Dunning-Kruger effect obliterates the ability to plan for the future.
Slowly we are learning that the problem is inherent to universal democracy (one man, one equal vote, even if the man is unequal to the task). Humanity cannot be trusted when asked about what it thinks it wants or desires. What you get is the monkey within and its illogical demands.
If we wanted to save ourselves, we would turn to an unpopular but functional principle called “leadership.” Like eating your broccoli before dessert, this is a time-proven way of finding the right answer, not just the one that pleases the crowd.