The Goat of the Gaps

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Some time back, I think it was through this Greg Perkins post at NoodleFood, I was introduced to the term "God of the Gaps":

The history of mankind has been one long account of religious explanation being crowded out by scientific discoveries and rational understanding. This pattern of poor thinking is so common that it even has its own name: the "God of the Gaps," where a supernatural agent is cited as the reason behind something we do not understand. Here's the clincher: just notice how it always goes one way -- natural, rational explanations are never displaced by supernatural "explanations."
Today, news that huge, existing and projected federal budget deficits might threaten some of Barack Obama's massive spending programs alerted me to a type of argument we can expect to hear incessantly over the next four years. I propose to call this argument the "Goat of the Gaps":
Yet while Obama stressed that he'll inherit the $1.2 trillion deficit -- and on Tuesday called the Bush administration irresponsible for adding to the national debt -- he didn't identify any Bush-era policy that he'd reverse to reduce the deficits and mounting debt. [bold added]
On the one hand, this is just another example of "more of the same" from the candidate for "change", and, too, blaming other politicians as cover or diversion is common. On the other hand Obama's slickness gives those of us who know better a valuable opportunity. He is using Bush to distract us from his own intellectual bankruptcy for a reason: Regarding the origins of the economic crisis, he does not want to go there at all. This is valuable information.

In a sense, Obama is hoping to do what Greg Perkins has never observed: replace actual knowledge with a convenient non-explanation. He hopes to use the gaps in many people's understanding of the financial crisis (or whatever else, like the "war" in Iraq) to scapegoat George Bush even as he prepares to follow essentially the same course of action. The bad situation is already Bush's fault, according to Obama, so who can blame him if he has a hard time resolving things?

Although the chance for most of us to challenge Obama directly on the national stage will be slim to none, we can still go where Obama doesn't want us to go -- in daily conversation and in any forum open to us. Obama expects his followers and admirers to accept what he said uncritically and repeat it often enough for it to become the conventional wisdom.

The solution to Obama's tactic lies in using whatever opportunities we get to challenge what he says. For that reason, it is worth taking note of what Obama said, why he said it, and what he wants to remain unclear.

But how? As Myrhaf once pointed out, we can't explain capitalism anew in every single conversation, or even convey how horrible Obama's policies would be when put into practice.

But we can raise the questions Obama is hoping nobody will ask. McClatchy indicates for us at the very end of the article where the line of questioning should go when it notes that Obama "didn't identify any Bush-era policy that he'd reverse to reduce the deficits and mounting debt."

-- That Obama has never said how he will differ from Bush. -- is what one must bring up when hearing capitalism blamed through the convenient proxy of Bush (Who is far from being a capitalist.) Your mileage may vary, as I recently saw, but it is always worthwhile to indicate that, at the very least, not everyone simply takes Obama's word as received wisdom.

Obama wants us to act as if he differs in some significant way from Bush. We must question that at every possible time, and, when we can, note that neither man is a capitalist. Bush holds a large share of the blame for lots of what is wrong today, but he is not the only one to blame. And we cannot allow Obama to get away with making things worse through essentially the same policies, while making Bush the "Goat of the Gaps".

-- CAV

PS: Related to this, I recalled a favorite old Myrhaf post of mine.
Understanding capitalism requires an ability to think in higher abstractions and principles. With progressive education teaching people to think in the opposite manner, in isolated concretes that never integrate into principles, we're in big trouble. Stupidity and freedom do not mix.
This is a huge problem, but should not deter one's efforts.


Burgess Laughlin said...

"This [inability to integrate] is a huge problem, but should not deter one's efforts."

I agree. When I discuss or debate an issue--for example, on Facebook--I remind myself that I am writing for the one person out of fifty, the one who is basically rational but unware of objective principles in ethics and politics.

Individuals who are cognitive train wrecks can present no reasoned opposition to a movement for a rational society. At most they are merely repeaters in a chain. It is the beginner of the chain who matters, not the repeaters.

Gus Van Horn said...

You comment reminds me of a further issue I touched upon during the Brian Phillips interview, in terms of assessing one's own performance as an advocate of reational ideas, but had not considered from the angle of morale: Don't let yourself be dragged down by the appearance of futility.

That one person in fifty you reach will eventually be worth it!

Anonymous said...

I person in fifty? Worth it? There are times when I think it would be better to let the whole thing collapse. Thanks for the pep talk.

Gus Van Horn said...


The ideas people hold affect politics, so ultimately, it's the quality of your future life you're talking about when you whine that it would be better to "let the whole thing collapse" and then snipe at me for failing to give a "pep talk" to your liking.

If you want to give up so easily, that's your problem.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will assess the task before us realistically and act accordingly.


Michael Labeit said...

Both men are, unfortunately, "capitalists" if the definition of capitalist is one who readily has financial capital at one's disposal. Both men have enough income to weather any financial storm. Yet, suffering from George Soros syndrome, they are financial capitalists who hate philosophical capitalists. Its seems that the sincerity of the proposed "change" is losing its legitimacy.

Galileo Blogs said...

I agree about seeking out the beginnings of the chain, and ignoring the many links (to continue Burgess's analogy).

Consider that every movement is started by one, carried forward by a handful, and ultimately sustained by not too many people. Everyone else, which is the vast majority numerically, are to greater or lesser degree followers or just "ballast" (to use Ayn Rand's term).

We will reach one rational mind at a time. That is what I fight for, and I am motivated by it.


Gus Van Horn said...


I'd go even further and say that the proposed "change" was never sincere, and that it may soon (finally) start becoming obvious to almost anyone that it isn't.


Thanks for expanding on the point that in intellectual movements, it is quality -- not quantity -- that matters.

Quality is worth spending the time to find.


Anonymous said...

You misunderstood.

It was a thank yo

If you never feel like I do sometimes, that's great.

I wonder what Galt felt as he walked out the door of the factory, knowing that it would all collapse except those that could survive.

Galt or Dagny; Cause the collapse or hang in there. Is it not a legitimate choice?

Gus Van Horn said...

"Is it not a legitimate choice?"

In today's context, no. And in most plausible scenarios I can imagine for at least the next decade, no.

Not to rule out going on strike in all contexts, but this was a plot device in a work of fiction. A real collapse would be nowhere near as bloodless and anything but as easy to recover from.

As far as thanking me goes, strive for clarity next time.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are right, it is a work of fiction. And I will strive for greater clarity this time.

I think I said something fairly simple. But it was rather less than the whole of what I wanted to communicate. So here's the whole thing.

You speak of the job ahead as difficult enough to have to face the possibility of being dragged down by the appearance of futility. And you say that the one person in fifty that I reach will eventually be worth it.

How futile is futile? How soon is eventually? Peikoff has commented that he refuses to read the newspaper, because if he did, he couldn't work. I commented that there are times -- I didn't say all the time, or most of the time, or frequently -- when I think it would be better to let the whole thing collapse. So I was saying that there are times when I do indeed feel that the whole thing is futile.

Why do I sometimes think it would be better to let the whole thing collapse? Precisely because I want it to be my future that I live, not Obama's. And as for the relative pain involved, I'm not convinced that the pain of Socialized medicine, government run businesses, and the long term torture of drip by drip destruction is any better than the fast swift knife of rapid collapse.

There are times when I think that way. The wholesale worship of Obama that has become a daily chant of approval and shouts of "yes, we can," only adds to the sense of futility.

But give up? Easily? You don't know that. All you know is that there are times when I feel that it would be better to let the whole thing collapse. And that I thanked you for the pep talk.

You also know that I wondered what John Galt might have been feeling when he walked out of the factory, knowing, as he must have, that it was not going to be pretty and that even though he was guiltless in what was to happen, the strike would bring what he very graphically told Dagny it would bring.

No doubt he would have pulled himself together as I do, and go on. But the alternative is not, as far as I know, a moral failing, only a choice I can make, even in these circumstances. There is nothing about these circumstances that demands that I do anything that I regard as a sacrifice.

I am truly sorry that I didn't say that in my original posts along with my sincere thanks for the pep talk.

You just misunderstood, that's all.

Gus Van Horn said...


Richard said...

"Goat of the Gaps", ha! Clever, I like that. It's also rather uniquely Objectivist seeing as how many Republicans are too religious to use such a reference, and it can imply criticism of both Bush and Obama.

Gus Van Horn said...

And if someone doesn't see how it's a criticism of Bush, that just looks like a great opportunity to set the record straight!