Monday, March 9, 2009

Different thoughts are necessary to go in different directions...

... which is certainly a platitude, but it's one I am examining fairly closely this morning.

One of the things that has struck me over the past two weeks, both here and throughout our local element of the political blogosphere, is the routinization of argument. Most of us have settled--now that it's not election year any more--back into our comfortable political/ideological grooves and are cherry-picking stories, facts, or even factoids from the news to wave in the faces of people with different ideas, seeking the "I told you so" moment from which they will never recover.

I did that here recently in the prolonged, multiple-post interchange with anonone over the flap at Central Connecticut U. and the student who had the gun control argument in class and later got interrogated by the campus police. I'm not rehashing that one, but I'm thinking about where the conversation between myself and A1 took us. Both of us went through detailed examinations of the facts as they could be gleaned from the stories we had available (which stories mutated themselves as the days passed), and explained to each other what inferences we drew from the facts, and why. Both of us admitted (at least in passing) that our inferences about the facts were driven by a combination of personal experience and political perspective (in my case working in a university; in A1's case having literally been attacked with death threats after a letter to the editor).

And in the end (as it says on Abbey Road), we resolved nothing, even if we had a good discussion and learned a lot about each other's viewpoint. Nor did we make any progress (even notionally) toward solutions.

And that, to me, is one of the problems in current discourse.

With respect to America's financial meltdown, deepening recession, continuing military interventionism, and ongoing argument of the nature and role of government in our society, very few people are thinking about doing anything different.

Now, wait, I know--doesn't he realize that President Obama is utterly transforming the role of government? [whether that's leading toward utopia or socialist hell]....

Except that what President Obama is proposing, for the most part, is not different in an intellectual sense, merely in a political sense. By that I mean: the items on his agenda have been on the general liberal agenda for years if not decades, they just haven't been adapted. Hell, all you have to do is read Krugman, or Reich, or Steiglitz to realize that they are talking about using old Keynesian methods for jump-starting the economy. They want desperately to use their moment in power to implement the programs they've been advocating for years, but...

... the fact that they've been advocating them for years is part of the problem.

Let's see if I can make this point without it sounding partisan: the world is changing, and American society and way of life are necessarily going to change with it. Continuing to prop up the old economic and social models--or to try and institute a different old economic or social model--is not going to work in the long-term, because the wheels are coming off the bus.

What it means to be an American is something different today than what it meant 200 years ago, even allowing for cultural and historical continuity.

But what is that? What are the core values, the essential aspects of being an American?

The difficulty in answering this question is that ideology always gets in the way. As a Libertarian I want to start with the fundamental that any definition that does not begin with individual rights and limited government can't possibly be correct. On the other hand, my friend Dana Garrett, would start with the fundamental (this is a guess, Dana, be kind) that any definition that does not begin with guarantees of basic common necessities for every American citizen (food, shelter, medical care, education ) can't possibly be correct.

When I write down those two positions, in the stark cold print, they look like they can't be reconciled: the extent to which one position wins is the extent to which the other position must lose.

Except that I know Dana, and he doesn't want to take away my political rights any more than I want children to starve.

So I conclude that there is something wrong with the way in which we are conducting the dialogue (in general: Dana and I have no trouble talking).

Freeman Dyson suggested something like this years ago in his book on nuclear disarmament (Weapons and Hope). He pointed out that policy makers were primarily quanitifiers, interested in throw-weights, kill-ratios, and acceptable losses, while nuclear opponents made primarily anecdotal arguments involving qualitative observations about burned children and poisoned milk.

Dyson argued that the two sides could not even hold a meaningful conversation until they developed a third language in which to do so.

I'm not at all sure how to do that, how to get people working on the intellectual problem of moving beyond win/lose dichotomous thinkings into the realm of consciously trying to think differently about political dialogue rather than thinking about how to score points. Hell, I don't even know how to get myself to stop in any way that doesn't resemble unilateral disarmament (as jason says, every time you stick your ass out of the trench you get it shot off).

But I do know that how we're talking is not working anymore, and that the fundamental intellectual disconnect has far less to do with political ideology than most of us would assume. We live in troubling times, and in troubling times people tend to hold onto what they consider fundamental rather than embracing the future.

As understandable as that is, it's almost always a mistake.


Anonymous said...

Interesting and thoughtful post, Steve.

I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who once wrote about a paradox in argument that is basically when one person takes an extreme position on one side, it forces his/her opponent to take the opposite extreme position on the other; in other words, you can't counter and win against an extremist by arguing from the middle.

I haven't been able to find away around this, and many others have tried. I think that this paradox is responsible in a large part for the polarity that exists in the blogosphere and the country. If the solution is in the middle, it is going to be difficult to find. (Not that I believe it is in the middle.)

I thought your reference to Freeman Dyson's thesis was interesting.

As for me, personally, I'll listen to anybody who brings verifiable facts and proofs of their points to the discussion. What I dislike (and see a lot of) are generalizations without facts, statements of magnitude with out comparison (i.e. "tax rates are too high!"), innumeracy, bigotry, and accusations without evidence.

Oh, and membership in the repub party. :)


Brian Shields said...

We forgot the meaning of the word "compromise." You are either right or wrong. Black or white. No gray, no common ground. You are either with us, or a wingnut/moonbat.

Does anyone concede a point and admit they were wrong anymore?

Brian Shields said...

Oh, wait, now I know why.

It is because we rarely think for ourselves (present company excluded), and spout off talking points as fact when they are only spin.

If we can't distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and lies, points or spin from the team we are supposed to be rooting for, then how are we ever going to be able to discuss things rationally and logically?

Steve Newton said...

We are generally so insecure that we believe deep down somewhere that being introspective and allowing the fact that our ideology does not explain everything will create an intellectual avalanche that destroys us....

It's not compromise I'm after, really, but synergy and innovation.

For an example: I am not interested in finding a point somehow halfway between me and anonone on gun control: it would be meaningless to both of us. I want to find (a) a different way to frame the question or (b) a completely different answer.

What would it look like? Dunno. I'd be making a hell of a lot more money if I did.

Anonymous said...


This is what you're looking for:

"The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them."
- Albert Einstein


Bowly said...

How fitting that I saw this quote today, on another blog (specifically referring to a reluctance to use the term "socialized medicine"): "When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side." -- Ayn Rand

I know there's a lot of anti-Rand sentiment out there, but this statement rings true to me.

Anonymous said...

This is Harry Springer, posting as "Anonymous"

Dear Libertarian

You are very right. Most conversations of this type only exist to pre-position the writer's political clique for the next showdown. Thus truth, being a mixed bag, and not favorable to either side, is avoided. Certain small truths about how the knowingness of the recipients tends to dilute (even to destroy) the altruistic intent of help programs is in order. Under the regimes in place during the mortgage bubble, certain malicious instigators in minority communities approached people on the street, prisoners in the jails, and other random folks , offering them a small opportunity.They would be given $500 to pose as a home buyer. They would be brought in to an office, and would sign papers in front of a complicit loan officer, "buying" homes they had never seen, or would never see. The instigator would pocket a large sum, having calibrated the loan to be $50,000 more than the cost of the phantom home. This overage became his.(Or was split with the lending officer).The lending institution would report another mortgage upward to its MBS packager, and the person signing might get $100, or $500, or in the case of small, attached multi-unit complexes (custom built for poor occupation), might actually move in. If they moved in, it was without any thought of ever paying a mortgage payment. These became the notorious "Quick defaults" we've heard so much about.

This was a level of intentional criminality unimagined, and thus never mentioned by authors of any mortgage bailouts. This two-pronged hustler's attitude of total dependence upon, yet total subversion of a nominally altruistic program ( mortgages for poor folks) stands in the way of every so-called socialistic endeavor. In order to avoid the descent of a society to whole cloth general criminality, a motivational hurdle, or screen, can be imposed by a modicum of induced scarcity, thus short circuiting the easy scams.

To answer your friend Dana Garrett, about his notion of food, housing, clothing, etc. being the right of every person, we might just point out the difference between absolutely guaranteeing these items to each person ( in which case the entitlements generally breed criminality), and the mere accessability of these same benefits, to be earned by a modicum of effort on the recipient's part.

A great aunt of mine (once a sherriff in Landover Md) told the story of the "bum wagon" coming through Landover during the 1930's, transporting whatever hoboes had been apprehended on the town outskirts, to a camp a bit farther out of town. She said each man was given this free ride, and a loaf of bread. She told us with a laugh about a hard case bum who, when given his loaf, asked the sherriff " Ma'am, can ya soak the bread for me?"

This was her parable on the limits of altruism, when confronted by the canny hard case victim.

Those arguing the most altruistic measures, might appraise their own gounding in poverty realities (or lack of same) before going further with naive measures doomed to criminalize both giver and taker.

Have a nice day.