Automaton Nation

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My foraging through the news and commentary sites this morning led me to two very different examples of the same fundamental mistake. First, we have the President of the United States achieving self-parody through his use of a teleprompter to address a bunch of sixth-graders. And second, we see conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, reading the tea leaves of the recent Scott Brown electoral victory and concluding that politicians can indeed "count votes."

First, let's look at President Obama. What's important here is not so much the fact that he chose to use a teleprompter in the situation he did, but the fact that he does so with such regularity that his habit became a national joke long ago. Clearly, Barack Obama, who has bragged about his oratorical prowess, places a high value on making sure his speeches are delivered perfectly. The question is: Why?

We don't need Thomas Sowell's intellect or vast reserves of knowledge to tell us that Barack Obama can count votes. We have that from Obama's own telepromp- -- I mean mouth: "I'd rather be a really good one-term president..." Obama at once confirms Sowell's main point -- that the will of the people is still what drives American politics -- and turns that into cold comfort. But more on that momentarily.

We still have the matter of why Barack Obama is so obsessed with what he deems to be oratorical perfection that he'll risk looking like a fool. As Sowell indicates with ObamaCare -- and we have seen in Obama's disdainful comments about "bickering" as well as his snitch line -- Barack Obama is not merely proposing his side of an argument from the bully pulpit. Rather, he sees himself as a teacher delivering content to heads full of mush. There is, in his mind, as much room for debate about his agenda as there would be for debate about English grammar in grade school. This is doubtless why it seems not to have occurred to him that a teleprompter in such a setting would be ridiculous: He doesn't see a kids' classroom as a different situation than, say, his upcoming State of the Union Address.

To such a mind, a speech is an opportunity not to convince rational voters of the facts of reality that support one's opinion, but an opportunity to mold a consensus in a world where facts don't really matter because reality is shaped by social consensus. And, if facts don't matter, neither do rational debate nor reason.

But what of Sowell? His column actually makes some very good points, and could have been a clarion call for intellectual activism. It deserves a full read for this reason, as well as to see what he missed. Sowell is right that Americans intuitively grasped that something was wrong about ObamaCare. ("[T]he way it was being rushed through in the dark ... told us all we needed to know.") But his assurance about the soundness of the judgment of the American people falls flat the moment we remember that Obama won his election decisively!

Sowell's major intellectual shortcoming I have elaborated long ago:

His error is a common one, in which he treats an implicitly rational, reality-oriented philosophical outlook as a given, rather than as an implicit example of just another possible ideology. My last would doubtless strike many, probably including Sowell himself, as moral relativism at first blush, but it is not. For if the rational, "adult" ideology that Sowell implicitly favors can be judged as an ideology, so must all other ideologies be examined under the cold light of reason, and compared against the facts of reality, which include the requirements for man's survival.
Sowell fails to regard (and, in doing so, also, in an important sense, dismisses) the implicit political philosophy that elected Scott Brown as a political philosophy, and in doing so, rejects the premise that reason is the sine qua non of republican government.

Sowell's mistake will allow a few battles (like Massachusetts) to be won, but will ultimately concede the war to the likes of Obama -- or a more "competent" version, if you will. People do not have an innate desire (or appreciation of the meaning of) freedom: They have to learn it from somewhere, and that "somewhere" is the culture. An Obama does grasp that a culture can be shaped. But only the de facto forfeit of a Sowell's will permit such to win.

The will of the people saved us this time. However, unless someone with a firm, rational grasp of the principles underlying American greatness appeals to the minds of the American people -- to encourage them where they are right and to change their minds where they are wrong -- we will not be able to count on a Scott Brown some other time down the road.

The American people don't have everything right -- they elected Barack Obama. But they don't have everything wrong, either -- they voted against him later when they could. Likewise, neither preaching to them nor assuming they'll eventually "get it" will improve our current cultural trajectory. To do that, we have to do what the Founding Fathers did and fight a battle of ideas, starting with a proper identification of the right ideas and continuing with proper advocacy of those ideas. As with Obama, the American people need to see for themselves what is wrong, and not just with his particular policy ideas, but with his whole approach to government.

Obama fears the rational mind and Sowell thinks that it doesn't exist past a certain point. Both men are wrong. We are not a nation of automatons.

-- CAV

Updates

1-27-10
: Minor edits.

8 comments:

by golfmage said...

Just what I needed. More homework. :)

Grant said...

(Comment 1 of 2)

Gus,

The irony, in my opinion, is that the will of the people that saved us this time was exactly the same will that brought about the danger in the first place. My explanation for Brown's victory is the self-defeating nature of the liberal world view. What I mean by that is that because, ultimately, it doesn't correspond to reality, the only way to to continue to believe in it is to perpetually redefine it by means of non-essential characteristics.

In the case of mainstream Massachusetts voters - which, regardless of party affiliation, are on the whole liberal - what sustained their support of Ted Kennedy for so long was that he provided them with the excuse they needed to not have to face the basic emptiness of liberalism. Whenever it threatened to expose itself, they could look to Kennedy for two things: one, the excuse that even if they didn't know exactly what liberalism stood for, he must. Why else would he be able to have such a successful career? And two, which is more relevant to this discussion, is that he provided a superficial impression of a committment to authentic political values people could fool themselves into thinking they had. Whenever the fact that liberals have no authentic political values to fight for - and that that's the reason why they're opposed to tradition (and not because they consciously regard certain conservative traditions and values as bad) - they could look at Ted Kennedy and take solace in the fact that he'd been in the same place for so long. It allowed them to believe that their world view was, at root, just as tried and true as the conservative (which does a better job of giving that impression). In other words: Ted Kennedy being in the Senate for 50 years "proved" that they aren't just a bunch of wishy-washy cry babies who are pathologically addicted to change, but that they're committed to stable government and law and order as well.

Grant said...

(Comment 2 of 2)

Once Ted Kennedy was gone, neither of those excuses were available to the average Massachusetts voter. Martha Coakley didn't have the accomplished political career that Kennedy (or at least his family) had, so if they wanted to avoid having to actually, independently define liberalism - instead of passing it off to their elected official to pretend like he had - voting for her was out. They only had one other option. They weren't going to be able to avoid having to define liberalism in some way, so they picked the first thing available to them: voting for Scott Brown. By voting for him they were able to pat themselves on the back and say, no matter what amount of secret self-doubt I have in my political convictions, and no matter how much I think I dislike Republicans, at least I'm true to the conviction that a democracy is best served by including as many viewpoints as possible. It's an extremely superficial approach to politics - the United States is not a democracy and truth is not arrived at by consensus - but it's something; which is better than the nothing of explicit nihilism. So they voted Scott Brown into office.

It's tempting, I know, to think that even average people in Massachusetts realized just how bad Obamacare really would be, but the fact of the matter is that if there's any group of voters who should realize it but don't, it's Massachusetts'. After all, it was Scott Brown and the Republicans who made their state level version of Obamacare into law in the first place - and Brown certainly hasn't denounced that. If they were capable of even a viceral rejection of Obamacare, they certainly would have been able to realize that Brown had to be rejected as well. They voted for him only because he was "opposition" - a "loyal opposition", something liberals love to describe as essential - and the will of the people in today's culture is all about creating the illusion of self-esteem and values, instead of actually achieving those things. Obama did it for them directly in 2008; Scott Brown's mere presence helped them sustain it in 2010.

Gus Van Horn said...

Golf,

When I give homework, you learn from it, unlike in our state-run "education" system!

Grant,

Our state-level socialized medicine is the worrisome thing about the Brown victory. Many of his voters (and he) support Massachusetts's program.

So at least ObamaCare got stopped in the short run, but Brown is an unreliable ally against some "Lite" form of it and that fact will make it easy for Democrats (and many big government Republicans) to argue that the American people are not really against big government.

Gus

Steve D said...

So Obama and Sowell don’t ‘get’ each other’s ideologies and neither one is able to defend his own ideology in any sort of rational way.

I wonder though that since Sowell’s ideology could be defended and Obama’s can not be that Sowell might just be open to reason if pushed hard enough to justify his ideas. After all, he would have no reason to invoke a psychological defense mechanism. For the most part the correct philosophy would actually justify his ideas, not threaten them.

It is interesting that the American people elected Barack Obama and are now turning against him. What did they expect him to do once he was elected if not to do his best to institute socialism? His election has been somewhat puzzling to me since Obama’s agenda and ideology have always been completely obvious.

Similar to other dictators (or would be dictators), Obama made the mistake of too much too soon. It may or may not turn out to be a fatal mistake but still the correct strategy would be slow and steady and under no circumstances show your true colors.

So now the US has survived two attempts to socialize medicine. This is actually one of the very few recent promising occurrences since I don’t think that could happen in any other country in the world. It says something about how difficult it is to change a culture and a country’s sense of life.

Gus Van Horn said...

"It says something about how difficult it is to change a culture and a country’s sense of life."

Does it? That's what I'm wondering.

On the one hand, what saved Americans here was their honesty: Once Obama's cards were on the table, the people left him.

On the other, Americans are naturally suspicious of people wanting to change how they live. This unfortunately can translate to suspicion of a named "ism" -- as I think we see generally in Thomas Sowell. (Not that many "isms" don't deserve to be avoided!) To the extent that suspicion of ideology is a reaction to the many lousy ones out there, the problem will, in time, be solved (at least in part) by objectively presenting rational ideas. Therein lies a major challenge of intellectual activism.

Overall, I suspect that improving the American culture may be easier in some respects than degrading it has been for the left. We have reality on our side and they don't: They have been working on this for DECADES. Granted, we're not out of the woods yet, but look what just happened to Obama.

Mike N said...

"He doesn't see a kids' classroom as a different situation than, say, his upcoming State of the Union Address."

I couldn't agree more! All of the leftists in government think this way as do most of the leftist press.

Gus Van Horn said...

It's too bad they see education as the passive absorption of content, rather than the nurturing of rational minds.