What follows are hasty reflections on some of what you said via phone Tuesday night. I wish there had been a way to “tap” the conversation with Dragon…and have your ideas spelled out in writing…ripe and ready. But I think there is much value in what you shared…recording notwithstanding.
One of a number of interesting “threads” that you weave is what I pick up as your favoring a “group/cadre/collective” of folks who presumably have THE answers to that which ails the rest of us. You make free and to some extent appropriate use of the word “class.” In some ways that’s O.K.; but in other ways it has, for me anyway, hints of elitism…of the Eastern parts of this vibrant country at that. I grew up hearing a whole lot about the elites who secured their educational exposure at the likes of “neighborly” (geographically anyway) places like Yale…or up the coast a tad to Cambridge and Harvard. My guess is that much if not most of that “feeling” is gone around the country, but perhaps I am wrong. As a side note, Stanford holds its Western own prestige-wise quite well. So be it.
Before moving along, although the subject didn’t come up as we talked, I couldn’t help but think of some of the ideas I grasped years ago from my reading of Madame Ayn Rand…Atlas Shrugged in particular. As you surely recall, Rand has her veritable geniuses taking leave -- with their demonstrated skills -- of a “gimme and ever- ungrateful society.” With the implied addendum: “If y’all can do ‘it’ without us, have at it.” There is something delightfully paternalistic about this mindset.
Something that pops out at me, and I don’t know if it is part of your thinking or not: Are there folks who are NOT members of this or these hotshot collectives who are “ordinary folks”? If we dismiss money as an essential criteria, is there “room” – and I won’t add the phrase “at the top” for others? Could an ordinary solid citizen take his or her place in those esteemed ranks? You place a high premium on a social/moral order. That being the case, I don’t see any built-in impediment precluding the admission of ordinary folks. But you may have something different in mind. So be it.
Now here’s my own admitted contradiction. I remain unabashedly nuts about astronomy. On the radio today I heard something about a space whatever named Rosetta that is fast approaching something “out there.” I won’t even try to recall all the details. What I was drawn to is the tight-knit team responsible for the at least 10 year mission. This particular effort is a project of the European Space Program; and Americans have had many teams doing the same kind of thing. My focus is on the skills, discipline and dedication of those who constitute such (elite) teams. They seemingly are able to set aside “normal” hang-ups and pettiness that get in the way of regular folks. And that’s exactly as it should be. They even use a different system to tell time…either ahead of or behind what we take for (earthly) granted. But as you well know, physical science and social science are radically different.
Jumping around, Donald sterling is a sad and yet real example of why money cannot or should not be salient criteria. And the same can be said about the athlete who dragged his girl friend out of the elevator. That’s just totally unacceptable asshole behavior. And sterling’s comments – however “sincere” – keep him on the sidelines of what I think you have in mind.
Another point: I do think “education” is crucial; but I am not limiting the term to traditional college classroom offerings…although that may well play a significant part. Exposure or experience is key.
The military to some extent does present itself as a model of sorts. The focus with the military is the CODE to which they swear allegiance…and to which military folks are expected to adhere…without exception. The only problem here is that militaries have the historical role of making real the desires of the nation of which they are a part. Yup I’m being evasive here: The harsh fact is that any given military exists primarily to kill people who “belong to” or swear allegiance to another nation/country. No existing or prospect of future war removes the need for a military. This is a collective that has perpetuity. And that’s that.
Thoughts on the persistence and “relevance” of the seemingly bothersome atheist to follow.
I try to make it clear that mine is a functional description of class. There is no 'ought' or 'should'. There simply are people who understand X, Y and Z and there are the rest of us who don't. Let us forget for the moment the instrumentality of getting a person with capability into a class, rather focus on the capability. We can make judgments about the efficacy of the class mobility process separately. What we do know is that in order to have lights on, we need electricity and although we all may be capable of consuming electricity we are not all capable of producing electricity. And among those who are capable of producing electricity, the means and motivation to do so are not always present. So there are those who have to present the means and motivation to those who Can Do. So the functional definitions can be expressed in another way, there are Enablers, there are Makers and there are Consumers.
I think anybody's issue with elitism boils down to my previously stated antipathy towards crowdsourcing. But let me qualify that slightly and say that there can be a smart form of Consumerism - ie Consumers can be emergent Enablers. But even still, this requires some market making. There is nothing spontaneous about this. It may be that there are two articles of faith:
- "Ask and ye shall receive"
- "If you build it they will come"
There is no guarantee for either of these, and if they prove true there is always some agency, there is never any magic other than chance. Given enough time, anyone can call chance 'fate' , but we are assuming cause and effect here. You can call the market makers an election, or a business, or a church. But giving the people what they want is a job that somebody has to do. There are no genies. There are real people who are real Enablers and those folks get the Makers together to make something of value to the masses of the common man who can only then consume to their fill and satisfaction. So you may ask and receive but somebody who cares and is capable has to hear your petition.
Now let's talk about the second article of faith. Note also that there are always makers who make things that they assume is necessary and useful for the masses, and sometimes this works. People can be persuaded that they need something that they don't have and can't make for themselves. The worst case of this? Think heroin dealer. There is also the person that Taleb calls a charlatain, always selling something that either isn't as good as claimed or harmful in fact. But similarly you cannot simply blame the consumer, there is Enabling going on here. It might take two to tango, but somebody built the dance floor, played the music and facilitated the meeting of the dancers.
There is something delightfully paternalistic about Ayn Rand, which is probably why she appeals to college freshmen, the sorts of youth who have just successfully made the biggest decision in their lives - to study that which will elevate them from the common man. Unfortunately the sort of university education we see today is often far from universal, owing so much of that to its failure to pay appropriate mind to those things have have actually held sway over mankind's history. All this 'nasty brutish and short' history so casually dismissed by our contemporaries with their refrigerators and washing machines - which of course they are completely incapable of building or servicing when broken. Which I hope illustrates my point about what Makers do that Consumers cannot. So long as the shareholders and executive officers of Westinghouse decide to remain in the refrigerator and washing machine market, such consumers can live in relative ignorance and luxury, but maybe one day the Enablers decide it's more profitable to enter another sort of market. Then what? Well, so far that's been outsourced to the Koreans, and it's Samsung who are delivering the goods, but they may get bored of that too.
There's a moral dimension of dignity to speak about here, but let me refresh you on why I brought all this up in the first place. I said that we have a class of Americans who say 'there ought to be a law' and so they agitate constantly for some government agency. Now I don't have so much of a problem with the intent as I do with the agency. Today on the radio I heard that there are, deep within the unread pages of the Obamacare law, some regulations about breastfeeding. Yes breastfeeding - a word I find rather Orwellian in its own existence. How else to mother's feed infants? Oh wait, we invented alternatives. And somebody built it, and millions of mothers came, and thus an industry of Nuk and Playtex and Gerber. But when the ratchets of law, and government procurement processes are set in place, they may as well be set in stone. But after all that is the point of regulating your population of commoners, neh? For their own good. What's not paternalistic about that? Well, let's look at the word paternalistic.
There is nothing wrong with being paternalistic, if you are responsible.
I want you to take me at my word when I say the best decisions are those made by a singular, paternalistic, responsible figure. And it is this paradigm I place on a pedestal of merit up against the alternatives, namely the crowdsourcers and aggregators. Which is to say quite frankly that the kids don't know what's good for them, because they are not parents, and the Consumers don't know what's good for them because they are not Makers, and the Makers don't know if what they make is any good because they are not Enablers. Each has its strengths and weaknesses but the paternalism stands. It's about expertise and experience, and we cannot afford to live in a world where expertise is dead. We cannot afford to live in a world where decisions are made by committees where the buck never stops.
Now here's a major indictment, and where I think the Founders may not quite understand what they done wrought. As I have had as a refrain to unbridled wishful thinking and exploitation of the first article of faith in democracy 'Vote and ye shall receive' (c.f. Tytler): "Who is your Leviathan?" Well people have said and voted for health insurance for everyone (Yaaaay!) and who is their Leviathan? Obama, and so Obama hath wrought Obamacare, brought to you by the Executive Branch with a little armtwisting in Congress. But wait, those friggen Founders split the power so that the Judiciary could gum up the whole works, and Congress keeps changing. What is an imperious President to do? Maybe, just maybe health insurance for everyone is something that cannot be magicked into existence in one Presidency. We certainly accepted that as truth when Bill Clinton tried it. And so now that Obamacare is challenged and Obama's ratings are in the GWBush leagues, we have to ask if Obamacare's paternalism is actually responsible. Or in general is this something whose responsibility we can entrust to the sort of government we are supposed to have with Constitutional checks and balances. The solution is not to give more power to one branch of government so the people can have their Leviathan.
The same, of course, could be said about our 'right' to live in a terror-free zone. Why should we keep stretching the Constitution in order to protect those Consumers from things they cannot protect themselves from (we say paternalistically)? Then again let's look to the classes. Who is going to Enable peace? Who is going to Make peace? Who is going to Consume peace? Maybe we don't need any Leviathans. That is my hope. And guess what? That equals power to the people. That means the Consumers enable themselves and make things for themselves through the agency of themselves. That means paternalism is little more than parents. Ick I know, it sounds like Conservative Christian Family Values .. but then again have you ever heard of any Leftists ever protest against Big Family? Hmmm.
I'll say this finally about Edumacation. Experience is the best teacher, the gallows focus the mind, necessity is the mother of invention, those who can't do teach. You've heard it all before. I am of the opinion that we are a nation of grade inflation and bullshit makework jobs, and we have come to the breaking point of where a college education actually makes Makers out of Consumers. In otherwords, somebody has Enabled a lot of Edumacation in a charlatan type fashion. How did the world possibly function without Title IX? As well as now? Truly? Can I even get an objectively scholarly expert opinion on the matter?
I'll quote Ralph Waldo Emerson:
4. As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so does our spirit of society. All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts. What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.
The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue. For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?
And then Michael Heim on Martin Heidegger:
"According to Heidegger, we notice the eclipse of the truth of being occurring already in Plato's metaphysics. Once the truth of being becomes equated with the light of unchanging intelligibility, the nature of truth shifts to the ability of statements to reflect or refer reliably to entities. With the steadiness of propositional truth comes the tendency to relate to being as a type, a form, or an anticipated shape. With being as a steady form, entities gain their reality through their being typified. Already in Plato we see the seeds of the Western drive to standardize things, to find what is dependable and typical in them. Truth as the disclosure process, as the play of revealing/ concealing disappears behind the scene in which the conscious mind grasps bright objects apprehended as clear, unwavering, rational forms. As humans develop the ability to typify and apprehend formal realities, the loss of truth as emergent disclosure goes unnoticed. All is light and form. Nothing hides behind the truth of beings. But this "nothing" finally makes an appearance after the whole world has become a rigid grid of standardized forms and shapes conceived and engineered by humans. As the wasteland grows, we see the devastation of our fully explicit truths. We see that there is, must be, more. The hidden extra cannot be consciously produced. Only by seeing the limits of standardization can we begin to respond to it. We have to realize that each advance in typifying and standardizing things also implies a tradeoff. When we first reach forward and grasp things, we only see the benefits of our standardization, only the positive side of greater clarity and utility. it is difficult to accept the paradox that not matter how alluring, every gain in fixed intelligibility brings with it a corresponding loss of vivacity. Because we are finite, every gain we make also implies a lost possibility. The loss is especially devastating to those living in the technological world, for here they enjoy everything conveniently at their disposal -- everything that is, except the playful process of discovery itself."
So what I expect of class is that we recognize the truth of it. That the only way democratic institutions can work is based upon an aristocracy of merit. And this aristocracy must be aligned with the purposes, and make allowance for the limits of government, educational, religious and business agency. We need to eliminate the wishful thinking of the masses and pretending that there are no Enablers or Makers who know better. And of course it means that we must support the good Enablers and attack the bad ones, as with everyone and everything else.
Here's one more thing about class. Everybody hates a level playing field. Think about it, then read this.