Sunday, May 10, 2015

The GTOFTS Gazette: Audiences

     (No points for guessing what the acronym stands for; some things are simply too obvious...or should be.)

     If there’s a phenomenon that characterizes America’s public discourse more accurately than any other, it would be the separation of the politically engaged into two camps so hostile to one another that neither one is willing to confront the arguments of the other. This goes beyond motivation, evidence, and reasoning; it’s rooted in the under-strata of identity and identity management upon which social acceptance is founded.

     Inasmuch as I once called myself a libertarian, I’m familiar with the sort of ideological divide-crossing that a consistent attitude toward freedom requires of the politically aware American. Michael Emerling based a persuasive technique on it, which he called “political cross-dressing.” The technique harnesses the arguments and evidence of one side of the conservative / liberal divide to a position held on the other side. It’s frequently the most powerful way to analyze a new policy issue...if you’re interested in freedom as an other-than-instrumental value, that is.

     Perhaps I should spend a few words on that “other-than-instrumental value” business, lest the meaning be lost to a skimming reader. A value is instrumental or, alternately, relative, if it’s prized mainly as something required to gain some other value. Such a value is, in a sense, without independent meaning; is importance derives from its utility in reaching that other thing. A value prized for itself, without regard for what one could “use” it for, is non-instrumental or absolute. We want it because we want it, not something else it could help us acquire.

     Strictly speaking, there’s only a single completely absolute value: happiness. Aristotle defined happiness as that which we seek as an end in itself and for no other reason, which both captures the essence of happiness and conforms to the partition above. However, there are many values that have both relative and absolute aspects. Which of those aspects predominates is one key to analyzing political claims.

     Consider the eternally contentious subject of the legality or illegality of various “recreational” drugs. Time was, the conservative was absolutely against their legalization, while the liberal was somewhat in favor of it. The conservative position was based on a visceral reaction against the drug culture that was essentially absolute – i.e., no argument about utility was capable of overcoming it. The liberal position was akin to its arguments in favor of abortion on demand – i.e., that one should be free to do as one pleases with one’s body, that to do otherwise is to create crimes and outlaws where none exist. That, too, is an essentially absolute position, as we can see from the left-liberal refusal to confront evidence about prenatal awareness, suffering, and the unborn child’s right to life.

     Yet both camps’ positions were vulnerable to the other’s arguments from an instrumental perspective. To legalize a particular drug would rip its marketing out of the hands of organized crime, thus advancing the conservative value for crime fighting and “law and order.” To keep that same drug illegal would deny easy access (in theory) to children, long a specially protected community of interest in left-liberal thought. Was one argument stronger than the other? Of course, but we’re talking about the process of argument itself here...and the salient fact about this issue is that until one side agreed to see the other’s position as worthy of examination, neither side would consider demoting its rhetorically central value from absoluteness to something less.

     But this is only the beginning of this morning’s journey.

     Thomas Sowell has lambasted “the anointed,” by which he refers to the political elite to the left of center, for their relentless approach to disliked conditions as “problems” that “must” have “solutions.” In this he’s quite correct, for as H. L. Mencken has told us about political “solutions” to “problems” inherent in the nature of Man:

     [Havelock Ellis] admits that the disease is bad, but he shows that the medicine is infinitely worse, and so he proposes going back to the plain disease, and advocates bearing it with philosophy, as we bear colds in the head, marriage, the noises of the city, bad cooking and the certainty of death.

     If we omit consideration of those whose true aim is increased power rather than the “solution” to an inherently insoluble “problem,” we become capable of appreciating the ostensible motives of the advocate of such “solutions,” and of honoring them to a limited extent. Here is where the vectors of many political maladies may be found, for he who professes such motives might hold them for an instrumental reason. Indeed, it’s not necessary that he be consciously aware of it for it to be true.

     The instrumental reason behind the conscious motive is the holder’s desire to be identified with, and accepted by, a particular community that regards itself as a bastion of correctness and / or propriety. Such a community needn’t be as impenetrable as Eric Hoffer’s “compact and unified church,” but it can come awfully close. It will usually inculcate among its members an attitude of disdain, if not contempt, toward those outside its number. When such attitudes harden, they insulate those infected with them against any evidence or reasoning from an “outsider.” By insulating error from the counterevidence and counter-argument that could reveal it, this obstructs the improvement of public policies. Nothing could be more obvious about our current political dynamics as that the Left and Right refuse to converse as mutually respecting participants, nor that the consequences include a kind of stasis that favors only those whose sole aim is power. Yet it is among the most persistent political attitudes to be found in these United States.

     We must ask why – and refuse to be put off without a believable answer.

     One of the inevitable fruits of “problem / solution” political thought is the drive by an ever-multiplying gaggle of interest groups to have their particular interest deemed suitable for political methods. Contemporary feminism is a perfect example. The great Charles Hill makes the key point about this dynamic in his Vent of yesterday:

     The red-headed stepchild of Marx's dictum is the feminist argument "The personal is political." It is so only if you believe that there exist only political solutions to your personal problems. And if you wail "But we have no power!" I will point out that if you truly had no power, you'd be out on the margins with all those other folks who have surrendered personal agency in the hopes of getting free stuff.

     As clear as that is, why does it not penetrate the minds of the “feminists” who ceaselessly agitate for political intrusions into more and more areas of traditionally private life? Especially since the instrumental value of those intrusions has been decidedly negative.

     The self-protective nature of group identity is the only reason I can imagine. The evidence is plain...but those offering that evidence are rejected as having low motives. The reasoning is just as plain...but it can make no headway against feminists’ self-identification as “an oppressed community.” More, there exists a “hit squad” of particularly strident feminist activists ready to punish deviations from orthodoxy. Here’s one:

     [E]lites supply the labor for the decision-making classes -- the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks. If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or from indifference. Media surveys reveal that if only one member of a television show’s creative staff is female, the percentage of women on-screen goes up from 36 percent to 42 percent. A world of 84-percent male lawyers and 84-percent female assistants is a different place than one with women in positions of social authority. Think of a big American city with an 86-percent white police force. If role models don’t matter, why care about Sandra Day O’Connor? Even if the falloff from peak numbers is small, the leveling off of women in power is a loss of hope for more change. Will there never again be more than one woman on the Supreme Court?

Worse, the behavior tarnishes every female with the knowledge that she is almost never going to be a ruler. Princeton President Shirley Tilghman described the elite colleges’ self-image perfectly when she told her freshmen last year that they would be the nation’s leaders, and she clearly did not have trophy wives in mind. Why should society spend resources educating women with only a 50-percent return rate on their stated goals? The American Conservative Union carried a column in 2004 recommending that employers stay away from such women or risk going out of business. Good psychological data show that the more women are treated with respect, the more ambition they have. And vice versa. The opt-out revolution is really a downward spiral.

     And courtesy of Stacy McCain, here’s another:

     Feminist research consistently shows the objectification of women and the pressure of feminine beauty ideals to be problematic and limiting to women. Consequently, the dual emphases of women’s freedom and adherence to feminine beauty standards seemingly render this popular form of feminism, not only internally incoherent, but counterproductive to women’s equality.... On the one hand, popular feminism applauds strong women and seeks to empower young women to achieve their goals, become educated and attain a greater level of self-respect. On the other hand, beauty ideals that are unattainable for most women are still held up as a standard to emulate and those who vocally support popular feminism are often those who also objectify themselves in order to conform to a male-driven understanding of what is ‘sexy.’... Feminism in its current, popular form, then, would seem reluctant to confront or criticise male power. These tensions between a ‘sexy’ popular feminism and more substantive challenges to the patriarchy are also played out in women’s magazines.

     The author of this bilge was apparently “triggered” by the following quote from the May 2013 Australian edition of Cosmopolitan:

     “I shave my legs, I own red lipstick, I wear five-inch heels. I love my job and I love men....I’m a feminist and I’m proud of it. I hope you are too.”

     Such deviationism cannot be tolerated. The speaker must be made to feel like a gender traitor, so that she’ll repent and bow before the orthodoxy being promulgated by her betters.

     In the above we see virtually the whole of the dynamic that closes persons to rational exchanges with those who differ with them. Needless to say, “feminism” is only one case among many, albeit a particularly pernicious one.

     There are many conditions around us that are less than optimal by someone’s standards. The coagulation into mutually hostile groups unwilling to talk to one another is not an inevitable consequence of this, but of Charles Hill’s observation:

     [“The personal is political”] is so only if you believe that there exist only political solutions to your personal problems.

     But let us not slide past the terms involved without casting at least one gimlet eye upon them:

  • Who decided that thus-and-such is a “problem?”
  • Who insists that only a political “solution” to it will do?
  • Do those persons have ulterior motives for defining thus-and-such as a “problem,” or for insisting that political methods be applied to it?
  • Is it possible that the “problem” is inherent in the nature of Man? If so, what can we expect to come of an attempt to “solve” it by the method of government – i.e., by force?

     These are the questions that virtually no one asks. They’re the only questions that have even a chance of dispelling the fog of cant, restoring a degree of respect among persons who differ, and reopening the possibility of freedom to a badly beleaguered America. Though we can do nothing but wait for the revelation to strike, quite a few of us are getting too old for this shit.

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