Monday, January 28, 2013

To All You Psychopaths Out There


What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea. --Mahatma Gandhi 
There is a new brand of Patriot on the rise in America. I call them the Distant Cousins of Liberty, a part of the Neo-Whig Renewal Movement. What are they up to?

Well, let's look at a little history and see what their forebears did.

Once upon a time--in 1773, actually--King George consented to the Tea Act. This act required that all tea shipped by the East India Company to the British Colonies in America be tainted with a certain toxin that only affected women and children. After a couple dozen of these vulnerable innocents (nobodies, really) died in agony because of poisoned tea, there was some nonsense talk among a few cowardly colonists who wanted to send that tea right back to England. Well, the "Sons of Liberty" would have none of it. They would allow NO TYRANNICAL HAND to interfere with their fundamental, God-given right to have tea! So they dressed up as Mohawks, hoisted their rattlesnake colors, and marched righteously off to protect the tea shipments from being sent away or spoiled by overreaching public officials.

And thus the Sons of Liberty were endeared to all liberty-loving American Englishmen on that day, and the cause of liberty was cemented in the hearts of all these soon-to-be-Americans. Precious tea had been saved! It was the Boston Tea Party. Perhaps you've heard of it?

Yes, indeed. Sometimes it takes just this sort of standing-up-to-injustice to set things right. People who would otherwise stand idly by will often spring into action and join a worthy cause if only the correctness of it is made very evident by a few brave patriots. Our own Distant Cousins of Liberty, against the backdrop of the most Whiggy NRA, have taken this power-play right out of the history books and are presently headed for nothing but pure success, make no mistake.

Yes, yes. I'm being facetious and making stuff up in a weak and silly attempt to make some point or other. I'm alluding to the gun-lobby, of course, and all of my pro-gun Facebook friends, of whom I'm so honestly very tired. I ought to stop looking at my Facebook, the gun-talk is so tiresome; and now here I am, ranting about it myself.

Who would have thought? Our nation experiences one of the most heart-rending tragedies in its entire history, characterized by the use of firearms against innocent children, and an entire segment of the population--one that fancies itself "God-fearing"--suddenly erupts into what appears to me to be a veritable orgy of gun worship! It's a reaction to the fear of imminent government regulation (the fear of losing one's religion tends to elicit an excessively worshipful mood), and it comes to us complete with profane statistics in the spirit of this one: "You dumb, wishy-washy liberals! Don't you know that a BAZILLION kids were killed by PAPERCLIPS in the year 2012? Huh? So then why don't we ban paperclips along with assault weapons?? Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk! Take away my idols, will you..."

Ah, the logic of the psychopath. It's insanity! What is this country coming to? A note to all you gun-worshiping psychopaths: All who have actual human feelings resent you now! You have convinced nobody who didn't already agree with you.

Which is too bad, you know; because you gun-loving psychopaths are right. I'm being serious about this one.You are absolutely right that our federal government ought to have no business regulating firearms. There, I've said it, and I mean it.

Of course, you're making it almost impossible for sensible people to see the truth of this, because it's oh-so-hard to agree with smug psychopaths. You're endangering your own cause. You are your own worst enemy and will likely reap the whirlwind. When your self-fulfilling prophecy comes true, and you find yourselves taking up arms against mechanized government forces, get back with me and let me know how that goes for you.

In the meantime, let me tell you where you went wrong (I know you're not listening. I'm only writing this because nobody will read it, and it makes me feel better). In the first place, you don't understand the U.S. Constitution (which  you also worship), because you don't understand the Philosophy behind it. And I mean "capital 'P' Philosophy," not, "oh, this general beliefy idea which I totally get" kind-of-philosophy.

That's OK, most of the old patriots didn't get it either. They, like you, were men of action.

Here's the key: The right to means is not the summum bonum of this pursuit of happiness we're allegedly engaged in. Happiness is the reason for the pursuit of happiness. Means enable ends; they are not, in themselves, the end that we seek. Right? Freedom from tyranny is itself a means to greater things. This "negative," libertarian freedom is a partial freedom only--just one half of the picture. It is absolutely necessary, but if a second tier of positive, expressive freedom isn't presently reached, negative freedom becomes a danger to us and soon enough is lost to history. The window for achieving positive liberty is closing fast, and we'll know it's closed on gun-rights, anyway, when we begin to realize that we are more likely to be harmed by that which ought to protect us.

If we're always fighting for negative liberty, we are doomed; for the most dangerous thing in any civilization is that the people will come to love their means above all else. Take any means at all, say "capital" or "liberty" of the libertarian sort, and tack an "ism" on the end of it. Congratulations! You've just named a thing that, when put in First Place, becomes a civilization-destroying pathology.

What is positive freedom? It's civic virtue. It's the freedom "of," or the freedom "to," as opposed to the freedom "from." It's the realization that the reason why we don't need government regulation is because we have chosen to regulate ourselves in a way that we, as a people (a family? a community? Yes, a "society"), choose to express. It is hard work, it requires enterprising resourcefulness, and it is not suitable for those who are unprepared for it or unwilling to take it up.

Yes, you psychopaths correctly discern that the nation is in peril. We're a people in need of nannies and have been drinking deeply from nanny-curricula for decades. But what you don't see is that your own foolhardy way to counter this is hastening our demise, not preventing it.

What drunk people don't need is more of the stuff that robbed them of their senses. In America, we got drunk on negative liberty and forgot how to behave ourselves (Regulation? Never! YeeeHAWWW!). Well, if we won't regulate ourselves, someone with a heavy hand will rise up and make us behave! You'll see. That is just what is happening today, Constitution be damned.

The proper response when a gunman massacres our kids, dear psychopaths, is to mourn our lost children and to fervently and vainly wish, for a good long time, that we had never invented such weapons in the first place. We must begin to talk about how to responsibly protect our children, and maybe whether or not our Constitution affords them enough consideration as it does our guns. We should discuss how to make guns our servants, rather than the other way around as it stands today, so that we can actually get the protection we deserve from them instead of death and destruction. It takes mastery and civic virtue of a high order to prepare ourselves to deserve such powerful tools; and to teach this respect, self-command, and reverence for others to our children. It means that we really, truly learn how to bear arms. Then we must take that proof to the King and show him that there is no need for his foolish and incompetent regulations, because--look!--we have become grown-up boys and girls and have resolved to look carefully after our own, thank-you-very-much.

But this Libertarian blindness that sees nothing virtuous but negative liberty (Why, hello there, Mr. Hobbes! What's that you say? You always knew negative liberty is the reason why kings must inevitably rise up? What? You spelled it out in detail? How thoughtful of you!) is a scourge to this nation and will see us thrust into the chains of bondage. It is invisible, systemic evil, because it replaces the Good with a pursuit of the tools that may or may not secure it, and thus prevents goodness from ever being fully achieved.

Freedom from government is an easy thing to champion. It used to sound reasonable in the days when people elevated, say, their children above their means. What needs an advocate today is the freedom to become a decent and civilized, peace-loving people as opposed to a reactionary, weaponized society predicated on the fear of each other. We have the right to bear arms but are incapable of doing so, having forgotten what it means. Guns have become playthings, accessories to whim, security blankets to ward off fear; and any angry kid can pick up and wield the sort of power over living things once possible only to a small handful of absolute monarchs.

As our means approach in potency those of the gods, so must our exercise of positive liberty become more complete. If it does not, we will no longer deserve the protections afforded by our Constitution to preserve them. Civilization in a free society is about who Free people choose to be. As I see it, we are turning out psychopaths.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Little Perspective

In the aftermath of one of the nation's most troubling attacks in its history--in which 20 young children were murdered by a deranged gunman--our full attention is now directed to these, our most precious national treasures and brightest hope for the future: our guns. Whereas our Inspired Constitution specifically protects weapons, I think we will find that nowhere are children mentioned at all. Let us agree, however, that child-killings are a direct threat to the very guns that must be protected at all costs.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Leviathan, That Mortal God

"The main mark of modern government is that we do not know who governs, de facto any more than de jure." --Chesterton, The Nameless Age, G.K.’s Weekly, Aug. 7, 1926

Election time is over. My man lost.

No, I didn't vote for Mitt "Leveraged-Buyout" Romney this time, nor for anyone else on the ballot. What can I expect? And who writes in his own guy anyway?

Interesting is the widespread angst that I have noted over this presidential election. Was it missing from the previous one, or did I fail to notice? Perhaps I have a heightened awareness of these things due to the prevalence of social media. Anyone with a few connections begins to get a feel for the social landscape. So I begin to think of the sociology of elections.

I find some of the most eye-rolling behaviors among the dogmatically religious. A number of them were praying for their chosen candidate. Some of them even witnessed that they knew the Lord's hand would be evident in this election. Yes, I suppose God came through for some of them, and they now thank Him with outstretched arms and upturned faces. Perhaps God did choose our president after all.

But for others, in spite of all assurances and the whisperings of the Spirit, God failed. What happened?

Maybe the faith of some is shaken; perhaps they have awakened from their stupor and see the silliness of this whole notion that God fixes an election. Mostly, though, I see that they turn their disappointment upon those fellow Americans whose general wickedness (it is alleged) allowed this calamity to transpire. Jesus is still King, they remind themselves, as they weep with their betrayed god for the unrighteousness of the people.

Another discouraging story is of a business owner who, in a fit of spite, fired many of his workers when his candidate wasn't elected. Now we're doomed to drop off the fiscal cliff, you see. He blames the hardships of his former employees--a result of his own stunning foolishness--on the president he voted against. I find it troubling that this misguided businessman is not alone in his particular way of thinking. These people have seen the future, and it is despair. Of course it is; all of their prophecies are of the self-fulfilling variety.

Some are circulating petitions to secede from the Union. Others are displaying the American flag upside down. There has been some rioting at southern universities. Let us be grateful, in a land of Free Speech, that we find an outlet for our anger in words rather than in violence.

It is through speech, Hobbes tells us, that truth is made; and we live in an imaginary world where perception matters far more than reason. It is the world of marketing and PR, come to dominate religion and politics, where feelings and appearances are the only things that count. In this world, our make-believes sometimes have greater consequences than material reality because we have ceased to make a distinction between the two. If we have such power over truth, why not tell happy stories?

* * *

On August 21, 1858, Stephen A. Douglas delivered a speech at Ottawa, Illinois. In it he mentioned the Compromise of 1850 with an affirmation that sent the crowd into a prolonged ovation. Then the Senator said something that is completely alien to our modern political discourse:
"My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasm."
What are we to make of this? Such a strange sort of man, who wishes to be understood more than worshiped! Contrast this to our own bread-and-circuses political conventions where the masses, devoid of civic duty, seek to be entertained whilst they bask in the glory of their sham politicians. These are events better suited to bawdy, Clint Eastwood comic routines than to the exercise of conscience, understanding, or judgment.

And what of these televised debates? The tension on stage is palpable, but upon reviewing the post-debate transcripts, I am surprised to discover that the actual positions of both candidates are very similar.

"...This country was divided into two great political parties," claimed Senator Douglas in his Ottawa speech. "Both were national and patriotic," he continued, "advocating principles that were universal in their application." Indeed, the differences expressed by our leading candidates seem to me inconsequential enough that I am surprised at the level of conflict present in the debates. 

Here's the thing: In the 21st Century, we choose our candidates in the same way we choose our sports teams. Not on substance, but by loyalty, tradition, appearance, and above all, emotion. The conflicts are therefore primarily imagined, manufactured, and staged for our entertainment. We love our own team because they fly our colors and repeat our slogans.

Now, if all these distraught people for whom politics is some kind of sport would calm down and think clearly for a moment, I believe they will find that things are only as bad as they wish them to be. The outcome of our recent election has nothing at all to do with the fulfillment of prophecy or with the second coming of Jesus. There are difficulties ahead, to be sure, but these problems don't have much to do with the man elected to stand at the helm.

As it turns out, there's not much of a rudder on this ship anyway.

* * *

It is difficult for us to believe that the remarkable things around us are not all the result of some design. As a multitude united in one commonwealth--the generation of that leviathan who holds the keys to war and peace, to poverty and prosperity--we can't imagine that our destiny is not in the hands of this Figure who looms large over America, in the imaginations of many, as its elected (dare I say) sovereign

Things, however, are not always as they appear.

As far as I can tell, Adam Smith was the first to get an inkling of the thing scientists now call "spontaneous order" or "emergent complexity." Smith noted that there seemed to be some sort of Invisible Hand at work in the economy of a Scottish country estate. Here we have a small community that self-organizes and displays some complex behaviors that aren't according to any particular design.

We know that markets exhibit spontaneous order, as do organic things up to and including the universe itself. All that is needed are some very simple building blocks that can combine in some basic ways, and we end up with remarkably complex lines of development that will eventually produce surprising things--all without a guiding intelligence of any kind. These outcomes are not by design, though we try to predict them and sometimes offer our own inputs to guide them along as best we may.

Here is a Hard Truth: The federal government is a self-organizing economy that demonstrates emergent behaviors. If we discern peril in our future, there is not much one single, slogan-wielding politician can do about it. I concede that our politicians may play some part in slowing or speeding the fate of this nation, but in the end, it does not matter very much who gets elected; our destiny will be--has been, by now, I expect--dictated by an Invisible Hand.

If anything, this year's presidential election demonstrates the extent to which our elected officials stand in as proxies for God or Satan. Leaders in complex governing economies act as agents for interpreting and casting meaning upon the inevitable; they are accumulators of censure or praise. More than the embodiment of Leviathan, that mortal god, our leaders have come to embody the hopes and fears of their constituents. Though still wielding immense power, they have lost their deterministic potency in the mortal, material world and now reign greatest in the minds of men.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

True Stories

The modern age is marked with an insistence that, for a story to be true, it must be faithful to one thing only: the immutable past. I'm convinced that a great many of our truest and most important stories never really happened at all.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is Dead

"...Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with." - Christopher Hitchens
The problem, if there is one, is not that we came to believe in God, but that we came to believe in something. All of the mighty works of men, good or bad, have a single feature in common: at bottom, they are works of certainty. It is only by accident that the truly doubtful bring to pass any great thing.

Goodbye, Mr. Hitchens, most religious of godless men! You may have doubted, but you doubted with certainty.