Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pope Francis and the Politics of Establishment

Change of Cast: As soon as a religion comes to dominate, it has as its opponents all those who would have been its first disciples.        -Nietzsche, Human, all too Human, a.118

The new pope is pissing a few people off, unsurprisingly, and it makes for some intriguing moral politics.

I want to start out here by saying that I like the new pope and I think he was a good selection for these times. Francis knows what he's doing, and has all the makings of a leader who can resuscitate the image of his faith throughout the world. Acting as a man of the people works for the same reason that politicians kiss babies and wear cowboy-ish jackets straight out of Brokeback Mountain. We like the notion of a leader that is relatable, who serves instead of presides, and we like powerful people behaving humbly, so Francis' charm offensive is working wonders. He's a fantastic PR pope. If you think that a church should follow the teachings of Jesus and act as Jesus would have acted, then Francis is likely a great pope to you, his lack of grandiosity refreshing.

But the contrast with Benedict XVI's old "pomp and circumstance" routines makes for an intriguing question. Does the regalia matter? Many people today would simply answer, no. It's fairly clear that, as a matter of general sentiment, there is no role for publicly displayed institutional arrogance. But if such displays are really bad for those in power, then why have they lasted so long? What's the point?

Take the questions seriously, and it's easier to see some of the problems Christianity is dealing with today.

The Moral Mess of the West

More than most people tend to admit, it's difficult for morality as we know it and individualism to fit together. Given that karma is a wish and not a fact, moral behaviors - kindness, self-sacrifice, humility - must be celebrated as good in their own right, and not be dependent on utilitarian justification. These behaviors are based on the principle of dis-empowering the self for the sake of others, and because of that, the church's role as an institution of authority and the church's original principles don't mix well in the eyes of some people, relying pretty much entirely on metaphysics for legitimacy. Take away a special relationship to God, and any church that claims to have moral authority over people's actions in any significant way is deeply hypocritical. Religious institutions, even if they believe their continuation serves a worthy purpose, are still institutions, still hierarchical, and will eventually have to grapple with the conflicts between survival and adherence to principles. This is a primal, long-standing paradox of morality and power in an individualist society, not just with religion but with any institution that subscribes to the self-sacrificing elements of Judeo-Christian morality.

The problems have only been amplified by modern society's view on moral decency, which is basically so Christian that it can no longer tolerate the Christian church as an institution. We look at decency as normal and assume that people want to be good naturally; it's power that corrupts, and too many people blame the moral failures of the average Joe on the usual suspects like inequality and exploitation. Thus, society can recast morality as logical, and the drive towards empowerment as irrational. Not just modern atheists, but conservative writers like Jacques Barzun clearly separate morality from religion. That's ridiculous, but the notion is tasty for those who hate power, and is at the root of much current ridicule of the reportedly moral nature of Christianity's God: why would a loving and all-powerful deity allow people to be hurt? Why set them up to fail? It's a good question with no good answer, unless, like me, you look at the church as a social institution and don't take its metaphysics seriously.

Now, looking at the Catholic church specifically, much of the debate over Francis' behavior stems from a bifurcated understanding of what a church is supposed to be, and this has caused tremendous problems for the faith. One assumes the Catholic church must subscribe to Christian principles. But the Catholic church really can't do that; if it had, it would not have survived, or thrived, or been the slightest bit functional as an empowered institution of Western civilization since the fourth century. If people had any understanding of the way that institutions function, they would understand that the Council of Nicaea meant the end of Christianity in the vein of Jesus' teachings (actually, more the Apostle Paul's teachings), and the beginnings of a political body tenaciously playing the game in order to survive. Power flows up, not down, and even though pure Christian ideology inverts this, the church has always followed all the conventions of power in practice. So Catholicism must exist with split ideals where it both promotes self-sacrifice and stubbornly refuses to sacrifice itself.

This is not a slam against the move to institutionalize. Quite the opposite, the West as we know it would have been impossible without the church, and anyone who says otherwise is a moron. Even Mark Twain said as much, in Connecticut Yankee, and he generally disliked religion. I'm pro-establishment, and I respect Catholicism for its power; establishments stabilize and bind societies together, a role of tremendous value that most people today take for granted or find outright disgusting. I don't; I'm not an egalitarian or an optimist on human nature, and no one else with a history degree should be, either. I'm not of the opinion that an institution works better if it debases itself to the lowest of the low, which puts me against Francis as a matter of principle, despite liking the guy. These are among the reasons I strongly prefer the Catholic and Orthodox churches to any Protestant denomination: Protestantism has its roots in a form of intuitionism, and it's extremely difficult for a Protestant church to exercise any form of discipline on its members because of it. This is also why Protestant denominations are constantly splitting off over inane questions of theological detail.

It's easy to say that being authoritative and arrogant breeds resentment and disrespect, since this is our immediate gut reaction to threatening power, but the reality is not that simple. Plenty of us have bosses who irritate us with their insistence on being treated as authority figures, and yet, they are. Even as we mutter obscenities under our breath, we put up with it, and thinking people still know the exercise of power is necessary. Deep down, subconsciously, below the veneer of moral self-righteousness obtained through Christian ideology that prizes weakness, even those who don't think much still recognize and respect power for what it is. Benedict was willing to bring back the role of the church as an authority, and his taste for splendor reinforced the image of the church's power; Francis is willing to put that role off to regain "hearts and minds", and my disdain for these tactics resembles my disgust with democracy; you do not become a moral shot-caller by undermining your own authority.

But the modern church does not have the power that it used to have, anyway. In the old days, the Catholic Church held a monopoly over morality in the same way that the state holds a monopoly on violence, and its modern trials come from the end of this privileged position. We are not in the twelfth century anymore, and Catholicism today must compete in the marketplace of ideas. In a society that chooses its moral principles and authorities like it chooses its wireless service provider, this means changes.

Where are the Catholics Headed?

Francis' strategy is going to be effective, at least for a while; he will probably retain more of the lay population that would otherwise leave the church, and might draw in a few from the outside. Both strategies for handling the new reality of religion - the bunker mentality, built up against the secular world - have their benefits and drawbacks, but Francis will get Catholicism to the next stop. That's all you can ask of him.

But there may come a time during his papacy where uncomfortable questions come up about the wealth of the Catholic church and the hypocrisy of being so rich while purporting to be chiefly concerned with humanism and the welfare of the poor. This argument gets amplified for Catholics more than other denominations because of the Vatican's incredible wealth, and Francis' behavior will draw attention to this issue. This is one of those elements that undermines the image of the church as simply a collection of Christ-like do-gooders. It IS an institution, and the benefits of its existence as an institution - authority that promotes generally civilized behavior, education of a population into a shared sense of right and wrong, providing sanctuary with its resources, the regular practice of traditional community-building behaviors, a shared sense of identity for those who attend - give it value. Francis needs to be looking forward to making this case. It's going to be difficult enough to pull off the necessary defense of his organization in a society so cynical about religion.

The long-term question here is whether or not the Catholic church is going to continue as a respected institution at all. If Francis' acts do not place emphasis on the notion that the church is more than just a charity, that the beliefs and discipline and traditions of the organization hold value, then it will probably do well in the short run and poorly in the long run. Charity is enjoyable for a while, until the newness wears off and the futility and exertion becomes so obviously pointless to the rational mind. The primary function of a charity is the self-esteem of the giver. The Catholic church cannot adopt that role and survive.

In any case, Francis is facing unprecedented problems, issues that Catholics have been trying to avoid. I will be particularly interested to see, not only how he addresses the question of poverty in contrast to the church's wealth, but also questions of, say, the integration of women into the priesthood and whether priests will be allowed to marry. One way or another, it's going to be an interesting papacy.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gay Marriage: Runnin' Out Of Fucks...

A decade ago, Bob Lutz, former chairman of Chrysler and GM, published his list of rules for ballsy businessmen to follow, and among the rules was this gem: when everyone else is doing it, don't!

That's great advice for entrepreneurs going after untapped markets, but when it comes to blogging on political issues, it can be damn hard to follow, because the topic of the day is constantly in your face and people won't shut up about it. These last few days, the topic has been gay marriage, which I personally care very little about and wouldn't ordinarily address.

But given that my Facebook friends list is now littered with red = signs, gray = signs from the libertarians, a few =/= signs from the more religious types, and one joker using the same red = motif with the phrase "let's all just fuck, ok?"; and given that every newspaper over the last few days has splashed the shit on the front page; and given that I can't check my email without the news feed showing protesters and loving gay couples waiting for "justice", temptation to talk about it becomes overwhelming. So here we go.

The Proponents

The proponents of gay marriage push the notion of freedom (absurdly so), but if you want freedom, the best position would be the libertarian one, where government gets out of marriage altogether. You can have a committed relationship without needing a government certificate saying "yep, yer in love!", so what's the advantage? Logically, it makes no sense for liberals to give a shit about marriage as an institution; the notion of an exclusive, traditional lifetime grouping that imposes limitations, costs, and possible punishments on the individual smacks of inequality and exploitation. Maybe you wonder about child custody, but it would be far simpler these days with only one person having legal guardianship over the child. That's about the only thing that matters, because without children, the institution of marriage is pointless. But liberals love marriage as a romantic gesture, so that's what it's been turning into. Liberals know the value of symbolism, and use it well.

Gay marriage matters to the left for two reasons. The first is that married couples enjoy financial and legal benefits, although if that were the primary purpose of supporting gay marriage, then the civil union idea might have actually been taken seriously. Clearly it wasn't. The second reason is the real reason: because they want to fast-forward the public's acceptance of homosexuality as being absolutely equal to heterosexuality. It's cultural manipulation, and no other purpose makes sense. Bestowing the title of marriage on gay relationships pushes the perception that those relationships are legitimate. Again, they know symbolism.

The timing is excellent, because the moral ecosystem surrounding marriage and child-rearing has changed radically and supporters of gay marriage have used it.

One of those changes is that couples who procreate are no longer required by society to raise their children. Giving up a child for adoption is not seen as shameful or irresponsible, and in fact can now pass as a sign of maturity for a woman. The result of this has been less of what we've called "shotgun marriages" and simply less of a connection between sex and childbirth; adoption was an emergencies-only proposition in the past, but no more. With the decline in the expectation that a child's biological parents raise them, marriage seems to be less focused on providing a child with structure, and is more focused on emotions; if the parents want to raise the child, then it's all well and good, but they aren't required to. The most important part of being a parent today is that you really, really want to have a child.

I have serious doubts as to whether enthusiasm is the most important criterion for good parenting, but the specifics of that question matter less to those who support gay relationships. They have taken the opportunity to retain some semblance of family attitude towards marriage by saying that gays can adopt, and make the claim that therefore, the procreative difference between straight and gay couples is null. All that remains is to push the non-progressives in society into treating the new type of family equally. They don't phrase it that way, because it can start to sound like they are telling people what to do, which they are. But they know people well enough to emotionally engineer a coalition instead of looking pushy, so they are going to win.

The Opposition

The opponents of gay marriage I know are split between two reasons for their opinion. The first is religious, which should be self-explanatory; religious people, believing their rules have greater value than the desires of individuals, don't want their children growing up in a society that insults their once-respected worldview at every turn. Christians have been made very aware that the libertarian notion of every individual living without affecting others doesn't work, and they know that acceptance of gay marriage is another stake in the heart of their perspective.

The second opposing reason has to do with the value and definition of family. I'm of the second school, because I'm simply disgusted with people for considering the structural value of conventional, blood-tied family obsolete.

I hate to be repetitive, but if you would, take a minute to appreciate just how much family has changed over the last century. A sixty percent divorce rate, a viciously large generation gap that sees children disrespecting their elders like never before, and a near-absolute expectation that children will be raised more by schools and step-parents than by biological family... These things take their toll.

Marriage, without the romanticism, would probably be outlawed if we were starting over today; people regularly prove themselves incompetent to make such arrangements that last until death with heavy financial consequences for breaking it, and in other cases, the government has taken it upon themselves to dissuade individuals from signing into agreements that have a high chance of screwing up their lives. But the romantic image of marriage still makes people demand it, so the social response has been to make breaking that contract easier when the urge comes up.

The underlying purpose of committed relationships is that we have always needed to team up to raise families for practical reasons, and with the advent of government support, the economic basis for the institution of marriage is effectively dying. The family as a support and investment organization makes sense when there is no other form of reliable support to fall back on. Family is about dedication, trust and reliability, and it's become very clear that those features of marriage no longer operate as they used to. Gays are not to blame for this. If you want to assign blame, you'd be better off looking to the welfare state and the no-fault divorce. These are changes of the 60's and 70's having made their mark on social attitudes, coming home to roost a generation later.

Given that, you have to ask why marriage continues to exist. For some people, they might realize the lifestyle options have no depth, that living for self-interest sucks after you go through the cycle of bachelor-to-committed-to-disgruntled-to-bachelor over and over again, but long vision is not this generation's strong suit. Really, it's probably just an accident; we have centuries of romanticizing true love and consummating it with marriage, and that's the way the narrative flows for us. We aren't too capable of seeing it differently at this point. I have nothing but admiration for my friends who continue to believe that true love is marriage and actually stick with it tenaciously, but they are definitely a minority. It gets more grating to see those who ecstatically get married, get disillusioned after a little while, go through hell getting divorced, then meet someone new and do exact same thing all over again. Most people I know can lay claim to that story. They lose money, they get angry to the point of violent, they have children who enjoy all the pleasures of split custody, and they refuse to remember it as soon as a new partner appears, like a George Orwell novel where the popular image of the institution overpowers the observed reality. It was never about being happy; I know more unhappy married couples than happy ones, and they would all probably be happier without that damned piece of paper. Commitments do not happen for the sake of happiness. Commitment happens for the sake of stability, which happens because children need it, and parents have always had to sacrifice in order to provide it for their children.

Without the practicals, we're probably just seeing the slow death of marriage, caused by the institution's lack of economic value. The word "marriage" will continue to be thrown about, but it's not what it was and it's losing relevance. It's just this generation's version of "going steady" and the law will continue to adapt to the immaturities of those who sign up for it.

What Matters to Me

First, I'll tell you what doesn't matter to me: Sex.

I don't give a damn whether or not you are having sex with anyone - animal, vegetable, or mineral - so long as your selection isn't screaming "NO" or bleating loudly in the vain hope that the farmer will show up with a shotgun. 

I don't care about love, either, which is the fallback justification for all causes liberal. If for no other reason, I don't see this as relevant because I've never known anyone who has only ever loved one person. If love is the underlying purpose of our relationships, then marriage as a lifelong commitment should be outlawed to keep people from attaching themselves to one person at the cost of others in a way they will later regret. Those who believe that love is somehow dependent on marriage - that legalizing gay marriage is akin to legalizing gay love - understand nothing of marriage, and probably understand nothing of their own motivations.

What matters to me is this shit getting over and done with. I'm tired of thinking about it. It's just culture war, and the winners and losers are decided more by who has support in the press than by anything else.

This is going to happen, people. The other side has the power today. Their desire to be liberators and civil rights heroes is more powerful than the desire to live in a culture that works. You can adapt, or get pissed. I get pissed in my weaker moments, because I do think that the strictures of society are generally what makes society feasible and what gives character to our personal development, while our emotional, Epicurean ways are the worst and most childish part of who we are. But then I remember that I have the option to not care, and I can start the process of distracting myself. It would be really nice if the shit just got passed and then went away, but then we get to see what horrid injustice they will attack next while they're high on victory juice.

In some cities, it's a bad idea to walk around with cash; in America generally, I think it's a bad idea to walk around with fucks to give, because it's gonna hurt if you ever have the urge to give one of these precious fucks and do it. My fucks are reserved for people I trust and understand, and this attitude is required when you live in an individualist society.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pole Position Equality

My usual defense of hierarchy almost always gets the same response out of people: "Oh, I'm fine with people not being equal, but I don't think they should start out that way." Obama pushed this ideal in his State of the Union address: everyone deserves a shot, theoretically the same shot, so they can succeed according to their talents and drive.


I hear this opinion often enough that it's easy to think it's a majority, and it gets really tiring after a while. This sounds so reasonable to most people, and I rarely actively fight it because doing so would require hacking through a lifetime of sloppy thinking on the part of whoever throws it out as common sense. And, of course, I look like a dick. I'm fairly sure that most people who say this think that they're saying what they need to say to be on everyone's side at once, making a good compromise. They don't want to piss off the libertarians and conservatives who insist on talking about merit. They don't want to piss off the liberals who insist on talking about the trap of inequality that holds down the bottom, including - oh noes! - children! The poor children!

Well, supporting the idea of everyone starting out equal and then allowing people to become unequal by their own decisions is one I call pole position equality. You want the test of merit without the backlog of the past, which totally misses the point, but I guess I need to address the idea anyway.

To understand why pole position equality has such popularity and to begin understanding why it is so flawed, you need to understand that the concept is attached to understandings of identity that are relatively new, and it has ideologically displaced something that came before it. That "something" is the institution of family; pole position equality and family as an institution are directly opposed to one another. Suffice it to say for now, the institution of family has been beaten into submission, just an emotional connection to people and not a critical economic one, where the parents are responsible less for the material welfare of the child than their self-esteem, and where elders are not authority figures but just the people who are expected to always let you crash on their couch. Society has been trying to ditch that ideal of family as a full and cohesive institution for some time now, based on a preference for pure individualism that says children don't deserve to be hamstrung by the mistakes of their parents. Structurally, it's an ugly, stupid mess that's assaulted our sense of accountability, as well as our sense of who we are.

Is This Even Possible?

Take their position argumentatively. Let's be clear about what you're saying: you want people to be able to start out on a level playing field, but you don't want equality. In a society where time continues to pass, you want there to be some zero-point where people start from - where everyone starts from - that is the same, that being at the beginning of their lives. If that isn't happening, then merit, as a concept, is bullshit.

Okay, try describing a world in which every child starts out equally. The first and most obvious element would be parity in financial investments for the child, like education and health care. But beyond this, what would equality entail?

Well, what wouldn't it entail? What would not be covered under the banner of equality? Certainly, the inequalities of education and health care are not the end of the story; really, given all the impact parents still have, would it be feasible at all to allow children to even live with their parents, if you were seriously going for childhood equality? No, of course not. Anything of substance that the parent gets wrong - or right - would affect the children later on. Confidence, practical knowledge of the world, talent, and expectations are to some degree still a product of family-taught lessons. As soon as society begins to address one problem in the quest for equality, we begin to see the layers of character shaping that go into a child, and the entire notion of making them all equal at the start has to go out the window. You would have to sequester children from their own parents to take the next step beyond what we already have, and what we have is already a waste.

Then there's genetics, which many people want to pretend is completely irrelevant despite the mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary. Every child is equal? Please.

Family is the primary structure of socialization, and attempts to thwart the advantages conferred by family are attempts to devalue it. What we're seeing here is the result of institutional competition, where the benefits of scale available from the government, namely extreme wealth, are overwhelming the institution of family. The popular conception of family today - as simple relationships between people who love one another, and that's that - fades when treated no differently than ties outside of blood, and so do the incentives and sense of responsibility that goes with raising a family. The nature of family inherently infers inequality, because the actions of parents are motivated by genuine risk of failure. Without genuine responsibility, including that risk, the meaning of the institution dies.

The practical problem with notions of equality, regardless of time frame, is that we do not live in a world where people "start out" at all. Birth is not a buzzer that indicates the point at which who you are starts to get shaped according to your wishes. Your wishes get shaped by your environment in a constant process that started long before your conception. You are the result of that environment, with its causes and effects in everything from the orbit of the moon to genetic mutations to TV ratings. Because of this, one way or another, you have to look at society through a lens that spans generations. It is not a sport where someone fires a gun and the race begins. Trying to make things "equal" turns into an apologia to the disadvantaged that goes on forever.

People today hate the reality of this. They want to be individuals, not their parents' children, just like they don't want some authority figure telling them what to do. We clearly hate our past and ignore elements of legacy in favor of our individual self-interest. But there's no organizational way around the potential for family-based advantage. Every child is an investment, and family investment is a constant historical process that does not restart along the time dimension with every individual birth. To want everyone to start out in the same place, in the pole position, is to want society to build a track that is almost infinitely wide and which has no length. There is no occupied track behind it and none in front. The perspective is that of only one life, starting from a vacuum and ending there. This isn't a compromise of different valid concepts. It's the result of egoism so pervasive that we can't see it anymore. Trying to start the race over because we have a "superior" understanding of what constitutes social justice now is pure arrogance and more a tactic in a power game than anything connected to reality.

All the problems with trying to get rid of hierarchy continue to exist, and isolating the point of equality to the non-existent starting line helps not one iota to make it more practical, unless you're willing to make every child a ward of the state, doing the egalitarian thing and fucking everyone equally.

It gets very messy, as people have their own children and continue to want advantages for them. Nepotism be damned, parents have a hard time telling other parents not to help their children; they know that, in their position, they would do the same. Parents still want to pass on their lineage, live vicariously through the kids, get them the best - meaning better than others - in health care and education, even pass on their religion and their love of country and everything else of value to them. But they don't see it as fair that they can't provide the same benefits conferred by the more successful parents, likely because of disadvantages conferred by their parents. Cutting into people's personal and family business to break the cycle always seems like a moral good. This isn't mean-spirited on anyone's part, but in the face of an arbitrary universe, humanistic types choose to start everyone over wherever they can. This is a society where the kids who are bad at the game, or their friends, are constantly yelling "do-over!" Lessons end up going unlearned when the incentives line up this way, and people stop taking on those unfair burdens of the past.

Not Merit but Meaning

I'm not here to push the notion of individual merit; that concept that has no reality outside of a specific cultural context, and what we recognize as merit is actually nothing more than fluent ability within one system. What does matter, what really does have existence as an idea outside of our perceptions, is accountability, totally different from merit. Accountability means that the past is laid at your feet at birth, the situation - the debt - passed on to you. If you had good parents, then a surplus is passed on, hatred of inherited wealth notwithstanding. There are different forms of inheritance; our present IS ruled by our past, defined by it. And if this idea hurts you, then your sense of appreciation for that past is so screwed up that pretty much no one can help. Yes, we have to deal with the shit of our forefathers; we also have the incredible privilege of existing thanks to them, and there's little reason to believe that we've now reached some magical point where we no longer need to organize responsibilities in a way where people face pressure and adversity from their background. Carrying on a proud lineage or overcoming a shady one provides much needed identity for the individual, the struggle not obsolete, not irrelevant, only unpopular to accept.

But still, the broader society handles more of the task of shaping the child today, more than ever; the ideal is that same egomaniacal, atomistic individualism that flatters in the short run and destroys in the long run. Pole position equality, as a concept, promotes individualism rigidly by viewing justice in purely individualistic terms, but it damns it with its insistence that child welfare is a social issue like environmental regulation. I'm sure the people who support this want to look at the system as existing for the sake of the individual, allowing them to pursue success, while retaining some compatibility with popular notions of social justice, but that isn't going to happen. You cannot damn individualism and use it for your political purposes at the same time, then expect to be taken seriously. At least with straight egalitarians, we have consistency. The pole position egalitarians don't even have that, and all the dissatisfactions that go along with hierarchy will be amplified by their failed attempts to create a society that is objectively fair; you're better off accepting class, raising proud plebeians with a sense of place rather than promising shit you can't deliver.

At the end of the day, this becomes a matter of identity. We have been raised by movies, TV, magazines, the web, and public schools. They set the standards for what constitutes good upbringing, they determine what success looks like, and they have the power to monopolize attention needed to promote that perspective over the long term. Our parents, in comparison, are less and less relevant to our worldview; we like that, too, cleaning the slate. That sounds fair to you, doesn't it? More and more, we becomes less members of our family and more members of a amorphous cultural blob who's values change like stock market trends. The alienation of this sort of life is damning. We weren't built for this. We weren't built to pick and choose our sense of self like we're shopping. And we certainly were not built to go without an identity attached to the people who birthed us. Naturalism is not a defense of anything - family works better from the perspectives of fiscal solvency and moral ecosystem management as well - but why the hell did we ever think otherwise? Were we just too childish and disrespectful of others to mind our business? We had to get our stupid, grubby fingers into the relationships between parents and children that had been established in that dynamic for centuries, and for what? To spare ourselves the heartache of seeing some families fail?

For men in particular, the current situation creates terrible gaps where the ideal of leaving a family legacy used to reside. Their primary value in the family - economic provisioning - is too easily discarded, and they are left only as helping hands to the emotionally supportive mother. The advantage of the new individualism is that they need not have their personal goals screwed up by lack of birth control, but that's a child's preference. For adult men who would take being a head of household seriously if they were offered due respect for it, you cannot tell them that providing for their children matters when society will provide for them regardless of what they do. They know they are irrelevant.

Want to change this? I do, too, but I'm not holding my breath for people to come back around to family. They'd rather create, and leave, "families" whenever they feel something intuitively, the Disney version of family: your family is whoever you like. This is not working; it doesn't push people to stick together. They don't need each other so much, so after a while, they look for greener pastures. If you turn family into a commodity, people will treat it like one, with all the disposable devaluing that implies.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Branding, or Lack Thereof

A recent American Conservative article:

And a direct quote:

The party has stumbled into exactly the wrong mix of libertarianism and Christian conservatism—the libertarians are now seen as bringing what I called a “heartless ruthlessness” to the party’s economic thinking, or at best an only theoretical concern for the poor, unemployed, and middle class; while the Christian conservatives have picked up a reputation as a force for intolerance.

The wrong mix for what? For bullshitting people who are liberal into thinking that the Republican party is liberal, too? That we can be just as permissive and naive and shiftless as the left?

Say what you want about Mr. McCarthy; I say that he's a liberal. Or maybe just an idiot. He's more worried about winning the election than being conservative. Actual conservative ideals hold to the notion that charity and assistance are private matters best carried on by private individuals and institutions who know the people they're helping. One of those institutions is the church, and the notion that a community should have some unity of faith goes along with conservatism as well. This is always intolerant if you're viewing the situation through leftist principles.

And this article does view the situation through leftist principles, and we know those principles. Government-funded economic relief is taken as directly equivalent to caring about, and helping, the poor. Not supporting gay marriage is taken as directly equivalent to intolerantly attacking gays. The perspective that is required to see this is a liberal perspective grounded in secular humanism, that undifferentiated, characterless materialism that will perpetually cower for the sake of keeping a peace. It is the ideal of a world without integrity. And Mr. McCarthy here thinks that presenting such a face is necessary to survive. Unfortunately, the insight into voter ideals may not be wrong. But if this is a political brand going bad, then it's not the ideas of that brand that have changed, but the views of the people it must sell itself to. Plenty of people know this by now, but for those who don't, it's very simple: we must now assume that we're talking to children.

But even if the right does compromise itself, I doubt it will work.

If you play this game with the people who created it, there is no sensible reason whatsoever to think that you're going to win. They run a better propaganda game than you. They know how to use media better than you. They know how to manipulate emotions better than you; the government programs exist so they can play the compassionate role, no matter how poorly they work. They are better at this than you. They can cast any standard of behavior as evil. Sex has gone from being a private matter to a cause for public discourse, while religion has reversed, gone from being public and community-based to a private matter you shouldn't even discuss with others. It's a stupid shift of ideals, but it's already happened. They can turn thousands of years worth of gender-specified family organization into pure oppression. They already have. It's done. You've failed. YOU now see it through their eyes, because you operate in a democratic system and you have to do what they do, just to stay competitive: you must dive to the level of the lowest common denominator.

In a society where righteousness is a matter of media perception, where personalities dominate principles and there is no conceptual center for anyone except as a matter of their most infantile intuitions, the left has every advantage. There's no sense to diving further into where those intuitions come from, why they are unworkable and ridiculous, here. That worldview is dominant, and that's what matters to some people that would turn the right into an alternative left party, maybe slightly more pragmatic and with a soft spot for free market fundamentalism.

If you're more interested in being liked by people than in being respected by them, then it's over and no stable ideal can exist. The status quo is always hated when people gets emotional about wanting something they can't have. God, I hate politics. With the blood-soaked rage of a meth'd-out Chuck Norris, I fucking hate this pathetic, retarded game that is the democratic popularity contest.

The last hope here may be to let the left take the system, stand back, keep them at arms length but do not seek greater responsibility, provide them with no political resistance, no sturm und drang they can play kabuki theater with. I'm not saying a full Atlas strike, but a little of what this guy suggests: work less, try less, take your finger out of the dike. Your society doesn't respect success - unless you also put huge efforts into media manipulation and image management - so why strain yourself? Just offshore your money and do as little as possible. Wait. Wait while you keep your head down, put bars on your windows, and fantasize about founding a micronation. When their vision implodes - and it will, it's not based on reality - then they can take the image hit, they fold, they collapse, and the adults come back and take the wheel, as intended. Can you imagine the political left without an establishment that enables them to play the underdog?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Tolerance and Respect

If you read my first post, titled "The Introductory Intolerant Rant," I may have disappointed you thus far, since the introduction sets the tone for future production. It's not that I don't rant - obviously, I rant like an elderly Fox News watcher, particularly when I'm in a cynical mood, which is most of the time. But I haven't really displayed much in the way of intolerance, except for some doubts about the dismissal of gender roles.

I need to fix that, and I'll get on it one of these days, promise.

Tolerance is central to much of the worldview I've rejected, not as a practice but as an ideal. In practice, using colloquial terms, what tolerance means is that you restrain yourself from beating the living shit out of people on a daily basis, which is obviously sound advice for those of us who want to avoid prison. We have to tolerate that which irritates and provokes us, both in terms of people and in terms of the furnace which makes a weird noise we can't afford to get looked at right now, and the smell of the office after lunch at the Mexican restaurant, and pretty much everything that happens to your body past the age of sixty. That meaning of the word is obvious and intuitive. But in moral discourse, tolerance has been given a fresh position in the last few decades.

In contemporary ideological terms, tolerance is basically indistinguishable from non-judgmentalism. It's all about rejecting bias based on race, creed, gender, whathaveyou. It's about accepting, not imposing, being permissive. And it means precisely the opposite of what I've been saying people actually do; evaluate one another. Tolerance is distinct from minding your business, because tolerance is an attitude being imposed on you, an attitude of explicitly refusing to make value judgments on people and looking at them "neutrally."

You can see in modern attitudes how this sentiment of not evaluating promotes itself as a moral good. We always hear about the people who seem different, but at the end of the day, are just like us, thus undermining our intuitive evaluation. We must "save" everything, preserve it and protect it from those who continue to consider their value like assholes; many forms of change - and particularly, the creative destruction of capitalism - are looked on with disgust. Who are we to evaluate the world, and affect it according to our evaluations? Who are we to judge?

Through this perspective, it becomes easier to see the most flagrant problem with tolerance; it is a standard in itself, and holding this standard leads to intolerance, because you de-value the intolerant. And we know this happens; everyone evaluates, so let's not talk about this as if it's genuine Christian self-abnegation put into practice. It's a shifting of values, not a dismissal of them, and the people who insist on the behavior they're seeking are every bit as judgmental as anyone else. Anyone who really believes in the low value of their perspective would never have opened their mouth in the first place.

Awesomely, there is such a thing as a "paradox of tolerance", in which the obvious case of hating intolerant people is itself intolerant, and none other than John Rawls has spun his brain cells around the notion before finally saying that we need to decide to tolerate intolerant groups on a case-by-case basis. In other words, he gave up and said nothing of value, which makes perfect sense given the value of the rest of his thinking. But it brings up the ultimate point about the idea: trying to create pluralism is self-defeating. Pluralism is an ideal, with its own goals and valued states, which means that other states are not as good. So, if that ideal is superior to you, what about other ideals?

It's ridiculous: social norms and shared values exist because addressing conflicts of interests is the most difficult and necessary job in the continued quest for human advancement, and these tolerance-spouting idiots have decided that the best way to handle it is to not handle it at all.

The notion of being able to have whatever you want without conflict is ludicrous when you actually consider it - it's a competitive society, dumbass - but like other affecting ideas, it's a product of our old worldview and our current power structure. The old worldview started with individualism nd seems determined to end there; the current power structure favors market exchange, and the ideal of pluralism is purely consumerist. You're supposed to pick and choose the ideas that you like and want to adopt as if you're choosing what looks tasty on a restaurant menu, nothing worth fighting over, which annihilates the meaning of it.

Of course, by the time you're consciously making these decisions, the important value programming has already been done, but plenty of liberal ideas align with the notion of the self as capable of full autonomy in personal matters. That's essentially Nietzschean thinking, powerfully existentialist, striving for authenticity. And yet, most people who buy into pluralism seem so sure that everyone can strive for this authenticity but still get along peacefully and happily, everyone working for everyone else's welfare, a humanity inherently good. Nietzsche didn't buy that shit. Nietzsche recognized the power instinct for what it was, and knew that conflicts of interest were inevitable, that hierarchy and cruelty were to be expected, that suppressing aggression required threat of pain and internalization of that cruelty. Nietzsche wasn't much interested in delusions. He wanted to understand how people actually were. And his conclusions about who they were - and are - reflect economic realities, the realities of people competing in a situation of scarcity.

Nietzsche's Economic Man

As humans operate in their social environment, some behaviors are simply necessary, including evaluating other people. It should be obvious that people size each other up, noticing things about each other's appearance and mannerisms that indicate facets of character. When we talk to someone, we further get to know them and formulate a theory of the mind that describes what kind of person we're dealing with. This sucks if you're a non-judgmental, tolerant person; we shouldn't judge books by their cover. And it's true that our evaluations are fallible, but that's less relevant than the reality that they are necessary evaluations. We must grade one another; some people we want to meet, we want to talk to, be around, get to know, learn from them, use them. Some people, we don't want anything to do with, or at least, there are others that are more worthy of our time. But you have to choose; you can't walk into a room with a hundred people in it and say to yourself, "I think I'll just get to know everyone." You don't have the attention span. And if your values guide you towards someone like you, or if you think of yourself as open-minded and your values guide you towards someone because they are purposefully unlike you, then either way, your values have been displayed, and you have implicitly rejected everyone else you could have introduced yourself to.

When the bullshit is put to the side, we have value to one another because we can be used: do you want to spend time around people who do absolutely nothing for you? Not funny, not smart, not attractive, not friendly, not comforting, not capable of intuitively understanding where you're coming from? Not unless you're absolutely desperate for company, and there are precious few decent people who are without companionship, because decency is valuable to others. Decent people are worth the attention, worth the time, and worth the investment of understanding who they are and forging bonds.

In what we do, and what we don't do, we inevitably affect each other. Choices are made, and must be made. This is called "being alive". The choices of people broadly follow patterns in a society that holds certain values, communicates them, and passes them on to their children and other newcomers; the decisions create a series of interrelated norms which constitute our moral ecosystem, and a society needs these norms to reduce friction on the parts. This is called "decency" or maybe "manners".

Human interactions are economic interactions, and they are competitive. Attention, one of our scarcest resources now, must be spent selectively, and we have always chosen our company based on the quality of the options we have. Who we spend time with, and don't spend time with, always makes up a series of rejections and reinforcements. Even if the values change, even if the deeper elements of character - like morality - are ignored as just cultural bias, some other, more shallow set of values takes their place, attraction based on lesser traits like some fashion statement. To a person who prizes tolerance, the opportunity costs of acknowledging one over another constitutes a tragedy. But there is no culture in which all are equal and costs are not met, where structure comes to the service of the individual at the bottom instead of the top. Even today, with our teeth-gnashing populism, the situation is still under the control of business-people and those who can use the media effectively. The unfortunate are just there to be held up, a tool for the manipulation of our fragmented ethical wanderings. Don't even suggest to these people that any sort of ostracism can be defended as maintaining cultural standards; they want those standards gone.

What People Actually Want

Economists describe products in a variety of ways, and one way is by dividing them into normal goods and inferior goods. These notions have demonstrable, mathematical definitions, of course: a normal good is one that, if you find yourself with more money, you will typically buy more of. Most goods fall into this category, as more is, rationally, almost always better than less. An inferior good is one that, if you find yourself with more money, you will buy less of. The examples are more intuitive than anything: Ramen noodles are an inferior good, because it's what broke-ass college students eat in lieu of real food. Basically, an inferior good is something we acknowledge as crappy but acquire anyway, since we can't have what we actually want.

The point of this is simple: tolerance is an inferior good. Tolerating is something we have to do with shit we cannot change. And if you, as an individual, want to simply be tolerated by the rest of the world, then there is something terribly wrong with your self-esteem. No one wants to be tolerated. None of the demographic groups we look at as being in need of tolerance would, if the terms were laid before them with clear meanings, want to be tolerated. Those who have been disenfranchised by society do not want to be tolerated. When people find themselves around others that they value, tolerance is simply not what they're after. What they want is much more compelling:

They want respect.

The pushing of tolerance is actually a push to try to create low-cost respect, but by definition, respect is not cheap. Rawls tried to make self-esteem a "primary good," one owed to the individual by society, but to do so would kill all the meaning because respect must be earned. Within a society, respect requires understanding, a gauge of value, a standard to judge by. Respect across cultural lines requires a respect for the lines themselves, a natural product of the inherent conflict that comes from having ideals and being willing to stand up for them. Trying to blend the two into a tolerant state in which your ideals are not acted on negates the ideals themselves, reducing them to mere consumer preferences, leaving only the bare animal of man fighting for his material self-interest.

This is not a light assertion, but it is a rational one. Garnering respect requires making yourself valuable to others, which requires knowing and conforming to their value system. The utility of living in a society with clear, broadly shared values, conventions, and standards of behavior is obvious from this perspective; it allows people to be a society. Of course some are worth less than others according to any coherent value system: that's what gives the values definition. Pushing tolerance only haphazardly allows people to be in relatively close proximity without killing each other, and in any situation - like the distribution of attention - where scarcity asserts itself, tolerance should not be expected to prevent conflict or encourage anything resembling unity. Tolerance as a social good just leads to a society with less trust, more locked doors, a society more alienated, less functional, with higher transaction costs and a well-earned reflex towards insensitivity. A society needs ideals, needs a template of shared values and legitimate hierarchy which provides a lens through which the world can be arranged, a standard of excellence.

A society without that standard is a society in a state of entropy.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Catchy Political Blog Title

Here's a recent article from The American Conservative that inadvertently displays much of why I've been an asshole about politics lately:

The subject is ostensibly the failure of the Bush administration and its political repercussions for conservatism, and while Dubya's disgusting failure on many levels cannot be denied, take a long look at the first paragraph and take away the most important lesson: high-quality politically conservative thought is not successful in the democratic marketplace. Not in a world that follows the whims of the attention economy. 

The hook for the article is the final issue of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, described as "always serious, often well-written, and rarely interesting." The paragraph goes on by saying that the journal's failure was not due to the quality of the content, but "rather, it was the blandness of the content, much of which repackaged the conventional wisdom of the conservative establishment at greater length and with more erudite footnotes." Thus, it is failing. 

It mentions the observation that the counter-culture of the 60's is now the mainstream culture, and highlights the failure to point out the disaster of the Bush 43 administration, but as is absolutely universal in the vast majority of political thought, it questions little on a deeper level.

The deeper level matters, though. Explain this to me: why is it that serious political thought must be consistently attention-getting and entertaining? Why do we absolutely, positively have to shake up shit in order for the concepts being refined to make a difference? Why did the title of that AC article have to rip off Al Gore, of all people? Trying to be clevah?

The answer is obvious; because it's politics, man, and politics is a freak show. It is not serious ideas and rational discourse and careful weighing of risk and reward; it is not mature individuals of proven capability making decisions along the lines of well established principles that we can all agree on due to a consistently strong cultural upbringing; and it is certainly not stable or sustainable. Those notions are antithetical to politics in a democracy. In times of crisis, everyone's attention gets drawn to the serious problems by the overwhelming need to evaluate data in ways that promote our survival. But in a strong and prosperous nation where people have little to REALLY worry about, the attention must be drawn by the grunt labor of simulating crises and manipulating the lowest common denominator into thinking that minor points of policy matter to them. Particularly in a decentralized, individualist country, that is rarely true, and in the event that it is, the average voter is in no position to be figuring out the best course of action in between commercial breaks of American Idol. It is the great ego of a democracy to think that the average voter should do any such thing.

But that's what the system is now. Image management and emotional manipulation rule the day; competence, now a purely subjective matter, is a question of demographic appeal. The people who run the system are still under pressure, still trying to maintain their positions. But this election crap does not lead to more virtuous leadership. It leads to powerful people doing what they've always done, staying up late to ponder the most politically advantageous moves that allow them to stay in control. They just do it by more skillfully messing with people's heads, using media and cheap psychology. Of course they manufacture crises and tease out your empathy and bullshit you constantly. They do it because it works.

Low-information voters are not the concern to me; they may profitably stay at home and mind their business. What concerns me more are the millions of voters holding on to a perspective formed by selective attention to information that supports their emotional intuitions. The American populace does not want competence; they want passion and charisma. They want to vote for someone who can convince them of their righteousness and goodness and value as unique and decent people, regardless of the underlying reality. And they want to be empowered in an environment of constant struggle. No consensus or equilibrium will be forthcoming in such an society.

The failure of Policy Review, a competent but boring journal, evokes a reminder of just how poorly this system works. It fails to surprise when kids get their news from Jon Stewart and supposed grown-ups get it from Rush Limbaugh, where every news network is either flagrantly partisan or so watered-down and accessible as to become meaningless.  Of course we take stupid risks in the stock market and can't keep a marriage together. It's not just our movies that must be entertaining here; our movie critics must be entertaining, too. And our teachers, and our bosses, and our parents, and our academic intelligentsia, and our political commentators, and our spouses. This is the land of Honey Boo Boo and Jerry Springer. It makes perfect sense for the respectable, and respectability itself, to fall here. You cannot say this side of our culture doesn't exist. And if you pay attention to the big picture and have any sense of historical perspective, you know that it's dominant.

Such is the nature of a populist democracy. We don't want a stable, reliable system run by competent people. We want action, and nothing is ever good enough. I don't blame politicians and corporate types for being short-sighted and selfish and dishonest when dealing with this society. That's rational behavior for them, and they might as well, since no one really respects them anyway and garnering praise from one will royally piss off another with every decision. Being in a position of explicit authority here means being a professional scapegoat, so of course they take the money and run. If you think you wouldn't do the same, you're badly deluded. Democracy is a cynical, chaotic system with a single advantage; it's more difficult to use power, and therefore, to abuse power. That's not worth it anymore.

So forget the egalitarian ideals and the sad democratic instincts that have been drilled into us. Forget trying to make a system based on bullshit salesmanship become something more than that. You can't do it. Instead, try thinking about building a system that, even using stupid humans, actually works. What would THAT look like?