Friday, August 10, 2018

Boiling It Down

     You can ponder the Twenty-First Century American milieu for a whole year. You can turn it this way and that, studying it from every possible angle. You can contemplate its shadow by the light of Sun and Moon. You can even hold it up to a funhouse mirror and muse over the images therein.

     You can do all these things, yet never arrive at a worthwhile degree of comprehension of our social malaise, unless you admit one critical fact to yourself. However, to maintain and heighten the dramatic tension, I shall delay the disclosure of that fact for few paragraphs. The better to reel you in with, my dears.

     We have our problems, as individuals. It’s in the nature of things. I’m a novelist whose novel under construction is fighting him with the ferocity of a UFC champion. This past week I struggled to rid myself of a burrower wasp infestation. Just now I’m dealing with a half-dislocated jaw – no, I wasn’t punched in the face; I got it from yawning too widely — that makes it painful to eat. Those are my current troubles. I’m sure you have a few of your own.

     But I cope. I’m sure you do, too. That’s what Americans do. It’s our defining characteristic. Throw anything at us – a natural disaster; a global depression; a world war; the Yankees being swept by the Red Sox – and we deal with it. Usually we come out stronger, richer, and happier than before.

     What spoils the tenor of our lives isn’t our individual problems. It’s our all-encompassing politics. And politics is the province of that lowest of the low of our species, the politician.

     The late, great Henry Louis Mencken, for many years the foremost opinion-editorialist in America, was contemptuous of politics in its entirety. Yes, he wrote about it – dismissively. He had reasons. He knew far too many persons who had or sought political altitude. He told many a story about them. Here’s one, which appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

     One night out in the Bible country, after the hullabaloo of the day was over, I went into [an unnamed presidential candidate’s] private car along with another newspaper reporter, and we sat down to gabble with him. This other reporter, a faithful member of the candidate’s own party, began to upbraid him, at first very gently, for letting off so much hokum. What did he mean by making promises that no human being on this earth, and not many of the angels in Heaven, could ever hope to carry out? In particular, what was his idea in trying to work off all those preposterous bile-beans and snake-oils on the poor farmers, a class of men who had been fooled and rooked by every fresh wave of politicians since Apostolic times? Did he really believe that the Utopia he had begun so fervently to preach would ever come to pass? Did he honestly think that farmers, as a body, would ever see all their rosy dreams come true, or that the sharecroppers in their lower ranks would ever be more than a hop, skip, and jump from starvation?

     The candidate thought a while, took a long swallow of the coffin-varnish he carried with him, and then replied that he answer in every case was no. He was well aware, he said, that the plight of the farmers was intrinsically hopeless, and would probably continue so, despite doles from the Treasury, for centuries to come. He had no notion that anything could be done about it by merely human means, and certainly not by political means; it would take a new Moses, and a whole series of miracles. “But you forget, Mr. Blank,” he concluded sadly, “that our agreement in the premisses must remain purely personal. You are not a candidate for President of the United States. I am.

     As we left him his interlocutor, a gentleman grown gray in Washington and long ago lost to every decency, pointed the moral of the episode. “In politics,” he said, “man must learn to rise above principle.” Then he drove it in with another: “When the water reaches the upper deck,” he said, “follow the rats.”

     The episode of which Mencken writes took place early in the Twentieth Century. From my own observations, I could never argue that politicians have improved in any respect. Quite the reverse.

     The man who aspires to political office has two and only two arrows in his quiver:

  1. Promises;
  2. Fear.

     Don’t let that slip past you. I’ve just told you exactly what you need to know about politics and politicians, now and forevermore. If you had a dim glimpse of it before this, now it should be clear.

     We want things. We want to acquire them at the lowest possible cost in money, effort, and time. And we fear: death, disease, madness, impoverishment, disfigurement, enfeeblement, failure, isolation, and losing our glasses. We want those fears alleviated. These vulnerabilities in the human psyche, coupled to a desire to believe that cheap and easy solutions to our wants and fears must exist somewhere, make us susceptible to the claims of politicians.

     Yet there is this:

Politicians cannot solve any human problem.

     Of course they’ll tell you otherwise. What else could they do to gain your support? They’ll tax the outer limits of human credulity to its breaking point long before they acquire the power to reach into your wallet. To do so, they’ll engender fears, or amplify fears that already exist, and make promises.

     The fears will be of other people. The promises will be to satisfy our wants by taking our money and buying goods and services provided by others. Think about that for a moment before you continue on.

     A couple of days ago, I posted a brief piece about a (reasonably) smart guy who said a stupid and arrogant thing. Now, I would never claim that I’ve never said anything arrogantly stupid. I’m 66 years old, and you may take it as written in stone that if there’s some ceiling atop the heights of arrogant stupidity reachable by human effort, I’ve scrawled my initials on it. So while I’ll refrain from providing details, I’ll allow that I’ve been there and done that.

     In all probability, you’ve been there too. Keep that in mind.

     We are fallible. We are afflicted by a will to believe what sounds good – especially about ourselves – and to disbelieve what sounds bad – again, especially about ourselves. These traits lead us into the most important error one can make, which is the belief that what we want can be had, what we fear can be averted, without paying the associated price.

     Let’s have a little Heinlein on the subject:

     “Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain....The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion...and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself--ultimate cost for perfect value.” [From Starship Troopers]

     Our specifically political error is to believe what politicians tell us: that is, that they can and will fulfill our wants and dispel our fears, with no need for expense or effort from us except for supporting them. Go back and reread that Mencken excerpt for reinforcement.

     A side note: A few years ago, a dear friend named Lynn Chesnut wrote an essay about “Why Broadcast Journalism is Unnecessary and Illegitimate.” Lynn’s central point was that the purpose of broadcast journalism, in which I would include all forms of unidirectional transmission of “news” and opinion, is not to provide us with the objective facts about real events. It is to propagandize on behalf of some politician or political agenda.

     Here, for me, is the most striking snippet of Lynn’s piece:

     When the Constitution was written communication from one end of the country to the other could take weeks. Our republic is designed to work admirably if most of the electorate is not up to date on every cause celebre. Leave aside traffic and weather, and broadcast journalism essentially never tells you anything that you need to know on a real-time basis.

     There you have it, Gentle Reader: an insight of incomparable penetration, diamond-hard and diamond bright. Lynn grasped that the function of unidirectional “journalism” is political rather than educational. He saw through the gauze curtain protecting the “newscaster” and glimpsed the politician standing behind it. While his orientation was conservative, his insight applies equally well to “news” outlets that appear biased toward supposedly conservative politicians and their agendas.

     Now, you who have read this far might have been saying to yourselves that “it’s just Fran’s old rant again; he’s telling us nothing new.” And so far, you would be correct. None of the above is new, even in having issued from my pen. But how much of what anyone really needs to know is genuinely new? Aren’t human problems the consequence of human nature – of the existence of Mankind itself? If that’s the case, why should we expect that some atavistic genius laboring in the shadows or in some isolated tower, would some day emerge and present us with the critical truth that would fulfill our wants and dispel our fears? Isn’t that just another version of the political mirage?

     Pause here and take a deep breath, Gentle Reader. Make sure you’re securely seated. Because here comes the haymaker I promised at the outset of this tirade.


     Your desire to have what you want at little cost or effort, and your desire to believe that what you fear, including what you’ve been made to fear by political forces and their allies, can be beaten back by wiser and more competent others: these are the problems.

     It’s a lie from first to last. Moreover, we should have known it at the outset. What politician has ever done anything by himself?

What politician has ever improved farm productivity or profitability by himself?
What politician has ever devised an important new technology by himself?
What politician has ever beaten back an invading horde by himself?

     They cannot do what they promise. Worse, the fears they attempt to inflame, when they’re real, are almost always of ourselves or others like us. That which we truly ought to fear, only we can defeat – as men of good will and voluntary associations thereof.

     We’ve been there ten thousand times. Our gullibility guarantees that we’ll be there ten thousand times more. Only by denying politicians the use of our credulity can we armor ourselves against them. This is the challenge of our age, for there is nothing more provably lethal than political power.

     And we keep sacrificing ever more of our freedom to it.

     To close, a few words about Donald Trump and his Administration.

     First, I was dubious about Trump during his campaign. Like many others, I doubted his honesty and felt his temperament was wrong for public office. Since his ascendancy I’ve come to believe otherwise. Trump is doing, at least at the moment, what he promised to do and must be done: He’s chipping away at the edifice of federal power, and so is incrementally serving the cause of freedom.

     Watch him. He wasn’t a politician before his election. Now he is one. Despite his achievements in other realms, he could prove as susceptible to the adulation, the incentives embedded in political office, and the desire to believe himself a savior that has corrupted so many of his predecessors.

     No one should be trusted with power over others. He who attains high office and uses it wisely, as Donald Trump is doing today, can also wield it foolishly...and if the past is any indication, the longer he’s allowed to wield power, the more likely his corruption, by self or others, will become.

     Anyone can make promises. Only a fool swallows them without hard evidence. There was one Cincinnatus. There might never be another. Even George Washington succumbed.

     Trust in God and the power He has placed in your mind and hands. All else is folly.


Paul Bonneau said...

Bravo! Stop believing that old time Government Religion, folks.

Back in the days when we still took the Sunday paper, I developed a habit of picking it up, bringing it inside the house, and telling my wife, "Here's the latest pack of lies." I don't know if that helped, but at least it was a gentle reminder to watch out every time we started reading it. Eventually we stopped taking the paper.

Lew Rockwell used to say something to the effect, "If you believe that anything you hear coming from a politician's mouth is a lie, you won't be far wrong." I have fantasized for a while, going to some political wing-ding, and every now and then during a politician's speech, saying loudly, "Liar!" just to see what happens. It could be entertaining.

Linda Fox said...

Most people - probably well over 90% - don't want to be that guy who sticks his neck out.

They don't want to blaze the trails - they want to trod in the footsteps of those who do. They just want to float along the river, enjoying the ride. They want to spend time with family and friends, and not have to defend unpopular belief.

Sticking your neck out is tough. You might lose your head. You might lose family, friends, fortune (the 3 Big Fs for most of us).

Stifling your speech is the norm for most. Not saying something to 'the wife' when she is disagreeable - it's just easier to go along. Not protesting when a colleague is unfairly disciplined for a SJW offense. Hey, he should have done what you did - just keep his thoughts to himself. Why risk that paycheck?

I'd like to say that the few are rewarded.

They're usually not. Even those that eventually triumph take their share - and more - of failures before that happens. It can break a man, even though he doesn't give in.

The real question is, why do we fight?

For friends? Most will forsake you.

For family? In today's world, they no longer stick with you. Most, if not all, will turn away.

For glory? Please. The 'history' vultures will feast on your body before it assumes room temperature, and your reputation will not recover.

So, why do it?

The few who do, have a rock solid sense of morality, that compels them to act. They have an inner ethical sense that cannot, will not, bend to the popular will.

It's a lonely and difficult life. But, He didn't promise you an easy life - in this world.

Anderson said...

The MSM meets all the criterion for the "false prophet" spoken about in the description of the Last Days in scripture.

Democracy also meets the criterion for the "anti-Christ", but that's a whole other rabbit hole.