Quick Roundup 368

Thursday, October 09, 2008

It's the Culture, Stupid!

Before I go on, I must note that I really hate the James Carville formulation ("It's the economy, stupid!") to which the above sentence alludes. It's dishonest, self-righteous, and wrong all at the same time. It's both an argument from intimidation and a package deal (of concern for a problem and a particular political agenda that purports to solve it). Its main purpose is to club anyone who hears it over the head with a sound bite before he can respond, said sound bite being catchy enough that it will likely be all anyone remembers of such an exchange.

That said, I found the Quin Hillyer piece of the same name in The American Spectator thought-provoking in two ways. First, it makes a suggestion to John McCain on how he ought to counter Obama's political advantage on the economy. Second, in doing so, it makes an interesting error in calculation precisely because its author, being a conservative, fails to fully grasp the nature of American culture and so fails to realize that McCain is ill-suited to follow what would otherwise be excellent political advice!

Hillyer does a great job of indicating Obama's far-left contempt for American culture -- while unfortunately also package-dealing the virtues of said culture with Christianity. But he is giving this advice to someone who does not understand the importance of freedom of speech and actively endangers it, wants to enact a program of national service, and -- like Obama -- blames capitalism for the current government-induced financial meltdown.

McCain's own convictions are contrary to freedom and individualism! Even if he attempts to follow this advice by pretending to uphold them at the last minute, he risks sounding insincere, as he already has to the extent that he may have realized on his own that he may need to stop being the Media's Favorite Republican long enough to campaign against his ideological twin. His lack of fire in the belly and the dullness of the debates are symptoms of the fact that McCain and Obama are similar under the skin and of the fact that McCain does not sincerely oppose Obama's premises.

But there is another angle to the formulation, "It's the culture, stupid!" that is worth considering, and that pertains to how we came to this situation in the first place. Americans overall still, in a confused, sense-of-life way, value their freedom, but many do not have at their disposal a clear, intellectual grasp of what freedom is, or what it depends upon. If more of us did, neither candidate would have even gotten very far in the primaries. For more on that, I refer the interested reader to Mark V. Kormes's latest post, "America's Anti-America Candidates", at Principles in Practice.

In sum: Forget McCain. We'll get a terrible president no matter who wins in November. This whole damned predicament -- our predicament -- is due to the culture. It's not obvious. You're not stupid, and I hope you consider what Ayn Rand has to say about the nature of freedom and its importance.

Setting Terms

An ongoing discussion I have been skimming through has reminded me of a couple of things...

In intellectual debate, one must be very careful to define terms because people often use the same word to mean different things. This can lead to disastrous results, because intellectual ideas have real-world consequences when they are put into practice. Just consider the so-called Libertarian Party, home to hoards of people who feel that it is not necessary to know what the term "freedom" means in order to fight for it -- and all manner of people (e.g., anarchists) whose "pro-freedom" positions would actually destroy freedom were they to be implemented.

For that reason, there is an interesting discussion going on at HBL about whether Objectivists ought to use the term "greed" as a description of virtue, much like Ayn Rand did "selfishness". I do not intend to hold that debate here, but I do note an interesting aspect of intellectual debate that came up in that discussion.

A problem with almost any abstract term -- like selfishness -- is that there can be multiple meanings that are widely-enough accepted to occur in dictionaries. In fact, as the first two entries here show, a given dictionary can even fail to define the term in the sense one intends at all. (The first definition is fine until the end, where it appends, "regardless of others". Only a fool would attempt to pretend that one can ignore a fact of reality such as the existence of other human beings!)

I note here that we can set aside the word "greed" completely here. "Selfishness" offers plenty of challenges on its own!

One participant in the HBL thread noted this problem and added something to the effect that to fail to define one's terms is more than a semantic issue: it is to concede ground without a fight! Just considering "selfishness". Suppose I thought something like, "Well, everyone thinks I'm a baby eater the moment I say I'm selfish, so I'll pick (or invent) an new term to sidestep that problem."

What would happen? The correctness of an idea will not determine anyone who happens to bump into it to accept it. There are plenty of people who both oppose selfishness and realize that a great way to prevent its wider acceptance as a virtue is to cause people to confound it with such things as self-centeredness, envy, and criminality. The new word would quickly become just as misunderstood. (Of course, there are also some who, being in positions of power, will simply try to stop you from even getting to make your point. (Paul Hsieh recently blogged about such an occurrence at Noodlefood, but I can't seem to locate the post!)

All of this reminds me of political correctness, which was all the rage when I was in graduate school (and remains so in some quarters), so much so that intellectual thugs would seize upon even common words as excuses to put meanings you clearly did not intend into your mouth and start a fight.

Quote of the Day

The article is depressing, outlining in gory detail what Obama wants to do if he is elected, but the writer in me enjoyed this line, which comes from the book Peter Ferrara is reviewing:

The political class seems to be almost intentionally steering the United States economy into the abyss -- and, to borrow a phrase from P.J. O'Rourke, the American electorate, alas, seems ready and willing to hand them the keys and the bottle of whiskey to do it. [italics added]
I'd initially written "depression" for "depressing" above. Freudian slip....


This week's Objectivist Roundup is hosted at Titanic Deck Chairs, and Martin Lindeskog recently hosted Carnival of the Recipes.

Exceptional Post

Strangely absent from the Objectivist Roundup is a very insightful post about self-centeredness versus selfishness that I read yesterday. It ends in this way:
The selfishness vs. self-centeredness misunderstanding is fairly common among Objectivists. Its an easy error to make, but it can be a difficult one to rectify. If you value relationships, make sure you take the selfish approach. And get over yourself already! :)
I thought that the following observation was particularly good:
Since many aspects of one's personality become automatized, the self-centered man may get the feeling that he is socially awkward, but he doesn't know why. Social ineptness due to self-centeredness can build on itself, as one automatizes the impression that new people do not value him properly. [bold added]
Notice the vicious circle that failing to appreciate the value of other people that can result, and consider that it can eventually significantly hinder the attainment of other important goals besides friendship! How are the odds of getting married or finding a good job or achieving greatness in a career affected by the premise that others do not generally evaluate one properly? All of these goals also depend on the opposite happening and on someone being confident that it will eventually occur!

Very thought-provoking!

More Beautiful Pictures!

To end today's roundup on a positive note, I direct my readers to Dianne Durante's blog, where, I belatedly note, she has posted some stunning photos of the Manhattan skyline.

-- CAV


Mark V. Kormes said...

Thanks for the link, Gus. BTW, my personal blog Rational Passion might be of interest to you.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome! And thanks for mentioning your blog. I was completely unaware of it until now.