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.