Two Howlers

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It can be easy to become pessimistic in the face of current political and cultural trends, even when one remembers prior examples of successful change for the better in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. For many of these trends to change, it will be necessary to challenge a large number of widespread and equally atrocious philosophical notions in such a way as to help a large number of individuals to see for themselves that they are mistaken, and to want to find a better alternative than the conventional "wisdom."

And yet, a couple of things I encountered recently make me optimistic that this can be done on the necessary scale within the few decades we can reasonably say we may have to do so. One key is finding the right place to start. Luckily, the opponents of capitalism often dangle it right before our eyes.

Why do I say this? Let's consider the examples.

The first is the following headline from Yahoo! News: "Hayward boosted BP's bottom line, but not safety." Yes, it is worrisome that something like this can actually make it into print, but what a golden opportunity this represents to defend the profit motive in ordinary conversation!

Should the spill come up, it would be incredibly easy to remember this headline, work it in, and say something like, "Hah! Obviously not. BP's bottom line would have been better served by more attention to safety." In doing so, one has helped challenge the laughable notion that the profit motive is somehow at odds with safety. Subsequent conversation may well introduce other, similar opportunities, including, for the better-informed, to discuss how government involvement actually made the problem worse.

Our intellectual establishment has degenerated to the point that it has become a tree full of low-hanging fruit like that, ripe for the plucking.

But what about higher-level abstractions? Take the following oratorical gem, which I found recently en route to other things:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
In this fine example of gold-plated foolishness, the speaker, socialist Eugene V. Debs, is (among other things) plainly ignoring why criminals get locked up, and what might happen to him should he get what he is wishing for. Variants of this idea are commonly accepted, and are destroying civilization. And yet, despite the eloquence, the projection of moral certainty, and the destructiveness of the ideas behind this passage, my immediate reaction was to laugh out loud when I read this.

Why? Mainly, it was because I comprehend with immediacy how stupid this really is. In addition, though, it is because I and many others have the knowledge and moral certainty to make mincemeat out of this. Too, socialism has been around long enough that its moral appeal is spent, and there are plenty of examples to draw upon when talking about something like this. Today's socialists are far less eloquent.

Things are tough now, but aspects of causing cultural change are made simple by the smallness of the opponent, as well as by the fact that at least on some levels, many, if not most Americans remain open to reason. Question fallacies like these enough, and the questions will start to occur to Americans without our prompting.

And then we can move on to the less-obvious.

-- CAV

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