Friday, May 01, 2009
... I'll be frank.
Through the twitter feed over at GeekPress, I got wind of a very good article (at National Review Online, of all places) about John Allison, the retired CEO of BB&T and an Objectivist philanthropist known for working through the "BB&T charitable foundation [to donate] millions of dollars to dozens of universities to establish academic programs devoted to [Ayn] Rand's philosophy."
On the second page of the article, the following passage piqued my interest:
[During his a presentation, Allison] relates the following anecdote about Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who had portrayed a lack of housing as the source of all evil: "I had an interesting conversation with Barney Frank -- he's the bad guy in my opinion because he’s a very smart guy. I said to Mr. Frank, 'Housing's a good thing, but if it's so good as you describe without any kind of constraints, the next time someone commits a crime instead of putting them in jail, why don’t we give them a house?'" The crowd of college students erupted in laughter, and Allison went on: "You laugh, but he thought I was serious. It was scary." [bold added]"Hmm. That reminds me of Poe's Law," was my immediate reaction. I'd recently encountered the notion randomly, probably as a tag line to someone's comment at a blog or on a forum somewhere.
Poe's Law, according to RationalWiki (a site that doesn't strike me as particularly rational):
... relates to fundamentalism, and the difficulty of identifying actual parodies thereof. It suggests that, in general, it is hard to tell fake fundamentalism from the real thing, since they may both espouse equally extreme beliefs. Poe's law also works in reverse: real fundamentalism can also be indistinguishable from parody fundamentalism. [link removed]Barney Frank is not, of course, a fundamentalist, and this entry's modernist distaste for "extremism" -- an anti-concept Rand thoroughly demolished in "Extremism: The Art of Smearing" within the very book Allison calls "the best defense of capitalism ever written" -- actually makes it difficult to identify the grain of truth beneath the original quip by the man who gave this "law" its name.
Why is it that Barney Frank fell for Allison's absurd suggestion? And how come it can sometimes be so hard to tell the difference between fundamentalism (for example) and parodies thereof? Part of the key lies in the very framing of Poe's Law within the entry at RationalWiki as a phenomenon pertaining to "extreme beliefs," which is a package-dealing of rationality (manifested as a healthy suspicion of arbitrary assertions) and the philosophical skepticism that so permeates secular culture (manifested in part in the belief that any firm conviction is, ipso facto, arbitrary).
If one believes that the whole realm of philosophy is outside the realm of facts and logic (i.e., of objectivity), then of course one will regard any consistent application of any particular philosophy as ultimately absurd. Such a person will see such "extremism" as a vice and the fast track to gullibility. One will also necessarily believe that it is impossible, through reason, to reach the truth.
But the joke is on the skeptic, for he misses an interesting point. It is not how consistently ("extremely") one applies a philosophical system that poses a problem, but the fact that a person has allowed himself to integrate the arbitrary -- the "not even wrong" -- into his thinking. The elephant in the room that nobody talks about is that almost every major philosophical system and every religion out there is riddled with arbitrary, thought-destroying notions. As an example, just consider the contortions so many Creationists go through to explain away the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution.
The same is true of Barney Frank, whose ethics are so altruist and whose politics are so collectivist that he never asks why we are "supposed to" redistribute wealth or, as recent events indicate, how our country is supposed to survive economically by doing so on a massive scale. Allison didn't nudge Frank over an ideological cliff and Frank didn't "fall for" anything in that exchange: Frank jumped off that cliff long ago.
Past a certain point, Poe's Law doesn't just describe a resemblance between the words of a "fundamentalist" and a jokester, but an identity: Depending on how well a given pronouncement is crafted to "fit in with" the overall mis-integration of a system that incorporates the arbitrary, the only difference between a frank statement and a joke will be in who is making it.