Democracy In Action

This Poseidonian just realized that one of the parties is likely to nominate a centrist prone to fanciful self-reinvention, a man who gave an important speech tackling head-on an irrational prejudice against him, a man who has worked harder than most American politicians to use the levers of government to make health care more available and affordable. But the question is: can he beat Obama?

The Goldbricker Speaks

Ordinarily I wouldn’t put something like this on the blog, but a computer defect at the OregonLive website makes it repeatedly ask me to accept a user agreement, which I repeatedly did, to no effect. So my comment will appear here.

You said:

“Make all professors teach; if they are ‘full’ professors that should mean they have that much more knowledge to impart to the students. Get rid of tenure and make all professors, of all types, teach at least 6 hours a day! Most professors are in teaching because they can’t survive in the real world, or they like the near nobility confered on them with a professorship! Get them up off their rear ends and make them earn their salary!”

The first question I put to you, which you may answer any way you please, is: do you accept the legitimacy of democratic government, and the authority of such a government to tax the public and spend that revenue for the public good? No? Then you need to stop complaining, stop voting Republican, buy some guns, and start a violent revolution. I’ll wait.

You do? Good. Let me explain something to you. You voted for your representatives in your legislature, and on your behalf, they created state universities. I think the idea was that Harvard was too expensive, or wouldn’t have your children anyway, and you thought this would work better. As someone who sees the thing up close, I think by now the more plausible hypothesis is that you simply want diplomas to fall on your children like rain, for free, and though a Xerox machine and a piece of paper that reads “I Haz Kolleej” would be much cheaper, creating the appearance of education in your children is more complicated: it requires the appearance of a university. I don’t really care what your reason was. The point is you did this. I did not kidnap you and force you to create a university. You say your neighbors kidnapped you, that they don’t speak for you? Work it out among yourselves. This is not my problem.

You have undergone the pretense of hiring me to give your children an education, but I take you at your word, regardless of what I think you really want, and I give them an education. I do not complain about how much I am paid; I am grateful for the work. And work it is. Now when you are engaged in an internal discussion amongst yourselves about how public revenue will be spent, some of you tell others of you that less should be spent on the place where I work that you created, and on me. Some of you say that I am robbing you blind. Fine. Close the school and buy the Xerox machine. No problem. But be aware that you are also being lied to.

Those who want to shift the state’s funds from education to other worthy things will tell you “did you know that he is only in the classroom eight hours a week?” That’s true. I’ll wait for you to absorb the shock of this outrageous admission. I’ll bet it’s even worse than you thought! The problem is that you have no idea what that means.

Universities are not run the way that businesses are, for better or worse. All the managerial work below a certain level is done, not by full time professional managers, but by the teaching faculty themselves. While you were surfing the internet yesterday (my calendar says that was Saturday) looking for things to get your ire up, I was writing personnel reports. Since I need about twenty-five hours a week to research and prepare my lectures, that means that what I would usually do in four days, I will have to do in three. One of those three days is today, Sunday, the “day of rest.” I don’t know what you’re doing, but when I’m done with this rant, I will be returning to reading books about a figure I don’t much care for, and the writings of that figure himself. Here’s another thing that will surprise you: I argued for the creation of the class because many of the evangelical Christians among the students wanted it and felt underserved in the past. I know you think that all I do is lay about at home and occasionally clock in to force decent people to listen to secular humanist propaganda, but I actually don’t. Once I read a description by David Horowitz of some leftist propagandizing that took place in one of the classrooms of one of the faculty in my department. It was clearly pure fiction, because we didn’t have a faculty member who met the description at all. This led to an interesting conversation with David Horowitz in which I explained that as a voting Republican (I was once, until, as Reagan put it, the party left me) I thought defamatory fiction an imprudent method of persuasion. All this led to was him putting me on his email list. The unsourced and unverifiable (no names were given: of the student, the professor, or the class) slander against my department remained on his website.

I am in my office two hours a week. Outrageous! But I give all my students my email address, and I leave the email software on, with its cheerful chime, twenty-four hours a day. If a student asks me a question, I answer it, immediately, or get up from elsewhere in the house and answer it moments later. If I don’t, I was probably in the shower, or picking up groceries. I do not just keep office hours two hours a week in my office. My life is my office hours and I am always here, waiting to talk to your children.

By all means, quadruple the time I spend in the classroom. I love being in the classroom. But we will have to hire someone else, then, to do those personnel reports (yay! I get my Saturday back!). And I will no longer be writing ten page e-mails to students struggling with difficult material at 3 a.m. I also will not be arguing for new classes I’ve not taught before on figures popular with students that I don’t know well. No. I will be teaching the same class, over and over again, from a prefab textbook. I will stop assigning take-home essay exams and carefully grading them (I gave up on term papers years ago, lacking the resources to pursue the rampant use of commercially purchased student writing). I will administer multiple choice exams instead. The residual differences between our university and a bad high school will vanish, and then you will be happy, because I know how much you love high school teachers.

I know what you’re thinking. Summers, right? Actually, I’m not paid enough to make it feasible to take the summer off, so I teach an additional terms’ worth of classes then too. Not one person in my department doesn’t do the same. Pensions? I renounced mine. I will have to depend on my savings, and Social Security, unless of course you abolish it first. I won’t complain; I don’t intend to retire.

Those who can’t do, teach, yes? Actually, I had a successful career in title insurance. I started as a delivery boy and worked my way up through three promotions to title examining; later I got a law degree and was admitted to the Bar. I actually did title examining one summer even after I got my PhD. because the preceding and following one year contracts paid so poorly. (I had to conceal the fact that I was actually a sunlighting college professor but after they found out, they still wanted to keep me on, despite their discomfort, because I was so good.) In my life I have bussed tables, waited on tables, short-order cooked, dishwashed, babysat, done commercial real estate research, messenger delivery, customer service, title searching, title examining, written judicial opinions, written books and taught college. While I taught college, I also was a house-husband with two children. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at being a college professor in 1987. I received tenure twenty years later. I am now fifty. I am rather tired.

Yes, I know. You are taxed too much. I agree. And I would far prefer to be working at a private university. And (based on your comment) I hear you when you say that you feel you are not sufficiently respected by those more fortunate than yourself. I understand, and all my life I have fought against and called people out on that creeping contempt that one finds in schools for those outside them. Everyone has their own way of making themselves feel special in a universe (and society) that doesn’t really give a damn if they live or die, and too many of my colleagues use their pride in their intelligence and knowledge to do that for themselves. I’m sure you have your own ways of propping yourself up and feeling special. But I will tell you something: this is not the contempt of a privileged aristocrat for peasants. We are really a lot more like your local dentist than feudal lords, and like everyone in all walks of life, people like to bitch about their customers. I’ll bet you’ve done it yourself. And it’s not as if we don’t have in our society people who are very like feudal lords, and in many ways they do have more control over your life than you do. Some of them are paid with your taxes. I’m sorry about that, but I didn’t do that to you. I will say this: I respect you. I know your taxes pay my grocery bills. You don’t know it, but I’m actually working very hard to make the time your children spend with me mean something. I am trying to help them think more clearly about themselves, their lives, their world. I am trying to help them write clearly, persuasively, beautifully. And I am trying to tell them about some of the glories of our civilization so that the memory of it will not die. You remember in Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure when Simone said, of France, that her boyfriend thought that everything over there was set up to make guys like him look dumb? I am not doing that. I want to make the treasures of your culture’s past accessible, and I want to help your children fall in love with them and thereby enrich their lives. I don’t know what other professors do, I can only speak for myself. I think that I am actually giving far more than you asked for, expected, or realize. I am not a cog in a diploma mill or an ornament on a football program. I am not a pig feeding at a trough. There are, however, people who stand to gain a lot if they can prevent you from knowing that, if they can get you good and angry at a phantom. If you let them, I can always do something else, I don’t care. But please: find out what I do, and what I do for your children, first. You might want me to continue doing it. Also, I hope you don’t mind, but I corrected your writing above slightly to make it sound better; it’s something of a compulsion of mine to take the world as I find it and try to leave it a little better than it was.

The Fundamental Problem With Objectivism, Ctd.

There’s a difference between denying that (1) we can’t know (2) that we’re not dreaming, and denying that (1) we do not in fact know (2) whether highly speculative empirical claims about very complex systems (societies, human history) are true. Objectivists routinely argue that rejection of highly speculative empirical claims is tantamount to rejecting the possibility of knowing anything. Cartesian skepticism, in turn, is associated with rejection of science and technology, moral indifference and the condoning of evil. Peer pressure and vanity does the rest. This way one can come to think that one is morally obligated to believe things for which there isn’t sufficient evidence, and moralize against those who disagree. Much of the psychology of this is common as grass, but the use of Cartesian skepticism as a strawman is, as far as I know, unique.

I Am Living In The Parallel Universe Where They Made A Movie Of Atlas Shrugged

Since I’ve already stuck my toes in the water of talking about Ayn Rand and Objectivism here, I might as well wade in a bit deeper. The first thing that is important to understand about this film is that it is based on a book by a woman who occupies a very strange position in our culture. Somewhere Nietzsche comments that “great men” (meaning politicians) are noteworthy primarily for the art of appearing to create waves when their only real aptitude is for riding them. This phenomenon is difficult to suss out, both generally and in individual cases, because sometimes individuals really do make a difference, but when they don’t, they will often look as if they did. In Michael Moorcock’s Behold The Man, a time-traveller from the present goes back to see the historical Jesus, and, finding him not up to snuff, reenacts his career as he remembers it from the Bible. The results for subsequent history are seen to be negligible; what was needed was someone to represent certain things at a particular moment in time.

Ayn Rand is almost impossible for anyone to be objective about, because, as we all know, capitalism itself is either her fault, or to her credit. She descended from heaven and made it happen. Her not inconsiderable aptitude for self-dramatization, the increasingly contextually hazy settings of her novels, and her continued ideological influence on partisan politics, guarantees that she cannot be read the way one reads figures from the more distant past. Somehow one cannot respond to her writing in terms of the influences on it. Somehow one cannot regard her sexual shenanigans without judgment (presumably because all other writers and artists have always been such models of emotional stability). To read her as if she were a normal figure, to situate her historically, to judge the quality of her prose and thought, automatically also ushers in the Sarah Palin Presidency, and the ensuing Fall of the West. I focus on the absurdity of how detractors respond to her because I don’t think there’s any shortage of people who have, over the years, focused on the contrary absurdity.

Now all of this is quite unfortunate. First, the very phenomena alluded to above are themselves screaming for someone to come along and deconstruct them, and to my knowledge, the only person to even try, however glancingly, was Zizek (yes, that Zizek). One would think you pomo commie theorists would be all over this shit, because not only is she an expression of what you take to be prevailing ideology, but possibly the purest and largest cultural symptom of capitalism we’ve got! One can dream… Second, Rand represents a very peculiar moment and vantage point in our culture, and one we would do well to understand better: she represents an intersection of all sorts of ambivalences, mostly about modernism and liberalism, as seen through the eyes of an immigrant whose prior knowledge of America was conditioned by Hollywood movies and Soviet propaganda. While Maureen Dowd complains decades later about a fictitious bombing of some public housing as if it had actually happened, few fans or detractors seem to know that, on the one hand, Beaux-Arts, and on the other, a character modeled on Gertrude Stein, are mocked in the same book.

Anyway. They made a movie out of Atlas Shrugged. Now this is not a particularly original observation, but this is her worst book. I fear to mention its evident shortcomings as literature, because enough people have already done that, and despite the subtle but important differences, her earlier fiction will tend to get tarred by the same brush. And, indeed, there is no shortage of people willing to say very harsh things about all of it:

My position in regard to Rand is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me—namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Rand is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one—with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between… A good third [of readers] do not know the difference between real literature and pseudo-literature, and to such readers Rand may seem more important and more artistic than such trash as our American historical novels or things called From Here to Eternity and such like balderdash.

And on and on it goes, pretty much nailing the shortcomings in extraordinarily closely observed detail: the characters who are not so much observed from life as constructed to prove points, the ideological fervor, the overheated moral imagination, the almost nauseatingly vivid descriptions of settings and persons disapproved of, etc. etc. etc. Except that in the preceding quote from Vladimir Nabokov, I’ve written “Rand” where he had written “Dostoevsky.” That’s just how bad she is!

Atlas Shrugged was said by Rand to take place “about ten years from the time when one reads the book” but I think that its fedora hats, Trumanesque president, Oppenheimeresque physicist, half-communist Europe, recently tested mega-weapons, enthusiasm for tobacco and apparent absence of an inter-state freeway system, pegs it as taking place in an alternate reality that looks an awful lot like the early 1950s, when much of it was written. What happens? Well, it’s very Hollywood: there’s this conspiracy of corrupt corporate executives trying to take over the government by stealth in order to protect their mismanaged corporations and fleece the public, all under the auspices of dirigiste economic policies that would do France under a conservative government proud. A vanguard of the oppressed and productive decide to tune in, turn on and drop out; they start a commune of self-sufficiency and free love somewhere in the woods in Colorado. Since late capitalism is doomed to destruction if the workers’ species-being is not set free, this is more or less what happens. In the meantime, there are a lot of rich suits who behave despicably in hotel lobbies. The whole thing is presented in a prose-style that conjures up visual images from a ravishing form of socialist realism. It’s absolutely riveting.

You think I’m making this up?

Through some profound misunderstanding, this woman, and this book, became very important to conservatives, despite the vigorous attempts of the National Review to warn people off. Ever since, its fan base has been growing and growing, and with it, the demand for a movie. The general consensus was that it was, like Lord of the Rings, unfilmable. It opened Friday.

You will either love it, or hate it. You will be wrong. It is a fundamentally misguided project. First, it is set in the near future, our near future, making it very difficult to explain how the world of 2011 becomes so like 1953 so quickly. This is, I suppose, partly deference to Rand’s conception, explained above, and partly an attempt to make it topical. After all, aren’t the shortcomings of dirigiste policies pushed by corrupt corporate executives our biggest policy challenge today? (Maybe in China, sure.) There is a serious point here: because of Rand’s attempt to characterize the events in the story as ahistorical, readers both sympathetic and unsympathetic seem incapable of seeing what is before their eyes, or, more seriously, distinguishing between fact and fiction. It is perhaps the most un-topical plot for an American political film I can think of.*

The production does the best it can within these constraints, which is surprisingly well. Given what I understand was a limited budget, production values are solid, if somewhat 70s-ish. The narrative is compressed but intelligible. Crucially, an excess of venom has been bled away from the dialogue without destroying its content; failure to do this would’ve ruined the film. And lastly, the actors really do act. A small quibble: in the book, the question of what “Who is John Galt?” means is left undetermined for a surprisingly long time, and as we begin to suspect that there is such a person somehow responsible for the state of the world, it remains unclear for even longer whether he is a good guy or a bad guy. All this is jettisoned almost without a second thought, probably because the filmmakers have forgotten what it was like to read this book for the first time, or assume that most of their audience have.

But in the end, it just doesn’t work, and the proper adaptation of Atlas Shrugged remains unmade. A proper adaptation would be fifteen hours long, and look like a cross between Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator and Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It would star Megan Fox, be directed by Zack Synder, and it would be completely awesome.

*Let me explain. Since the crash of 2007-08, there has been a resurgence of people claiming topicality for Atlas Shrugged. This is because she describes a world falling apart for economic reasons, and we live in world falling apart for economic reasons. I would set the bar higher, however, and insist that its topicality be attributable to it offering a cogent economic analysis of our current situation, and this I do not think it can do. The book focuses on antitrust and intellectual property law, along with voluntary industry wide self-regulation, as the primary forces bringing about the collapse. Whatever one may think of any of those things, it is just not credible to think that this is where our current problems lie, which is with fiscal and monetary policy. To shift to a higher level of abstraction and say that our current problem is government and the book says that too is just too vague to amount to topicality. I do not recall the book discussing fiscal or monetary policy at all, but if I’m wrong, gentle readers, please enlighten me (with page numbers).

What, Then, Am I Doing?

Many years ago, I began to notice something peculiar about American politics that seemed to differentiate it from the politics of my parents’ generation (I suspect but cannot prove that this dates from the Seventies). Though partisanship involved commitment to beliefs and moral preferences to a degree, it was understood that partisanship was also about the furtherance of interests by alleging that those interests to some degree coincided with the interests of the community as a whole. It was also understood that partisanship was something of a spectator sport. If you wanted to feel like a member of your community, however, there was, for most of us, some community to feel a member of. Oftentimes, this community was based on religion. But in the meantime, something changed.

I began to notice that for many people, partisanship no longer seemed a matter of rooting for the home team, or furthering one’s economic or regional interests, but that the party had become a substitute for community itself. The party had become one’s church, one’s nation.

Consider the following quote: “Well, I don’t know if we’re checkmating. But we’re trying — we’re trying to score a victory for the Republican people, for — for the American — for the Republican people — trying to score a victory for the American people, not for the Republican Party,” – Mike Pence. One could make too much of this, of course, but whatever the cause of Mr. Pence’s linguistic confusion, it might illustrate one version of what I’m talking about. And please note: I am not criticizing Mr. Pence for apparently regarding Democrats as not Real Americans. That’s the treason canard, which has its own interesting history. Rather, I’m suggesting that it has become natural for Mr. Pence to think of the Republican Party as his nation.

The metaphor I prefer, however, is a church, because churches have doctrines. I think that people now participate in politics, whether actively or passively, because these are communities based on models of reality and moral narratives that make those within the fold saved, doing the Lord’s Work, and those without, the damned. Reassurance about the correctness of these commitments then flows from community participation. Now I would have no objection to any of this, were it not for the fact that these religious communities of Left and Right don’t simply want to gather weekly and sing songs, but want to control the State and dictate policy.

Since I do not know who is reading this, I cannot address your own experiences and assumptions head-on. All I can say is that the religious character of a community is quite obvious to its non-members, and that both sides have become quite adept at portraying the cult-like character of its partisan opponents. But the moment of epiphany in which one realizes that one is precisely the same as the Other, seems to have largely not occurred to anyone. This is because awareness of the cult-like character of the opponent arises most naturally out of one’s experience of the other as ludicrously remote from factual reality. Of course we are not simply in the Immediate Presence of a Revelation about the Nature of Factual Reality. We are in the presence of our beliefs about it, arrived at by following the epistemic norms and cognitive assumptions of the community in which we find ourselves.

I know what you’re thinking. This is some sort of postmodern relativism coming, right? Wrong. I assume that there is some sort of reality out there which we represent. Some of it we are extraordinarily good at representing. But very complex, uncontrollable systems are very difficult to understand, and human social life is perhaps the hardest thing to understand of all. This means that in this area our beliefs will always outstrip our evidence enough to prevent the truth from being obvious. And if the truth isn’t obvious, there will be a plurality of beliefs… just as there are a plurality of churches.

There was a time, I’m ashamed to say, when Western societies thought it was perfectly reasonable to kill or imprison people because they had the manifestly wrong religious beliefs. We no longer do this. I would like to think that the reason why is because the wise words of Locke and others have so penetrated our consciousness that they have become second nature to us. Yes, some of us may be in possession of the religious truth. All of us think that that is ourselves. We can’t all be right about that, and no one seems to have found a way to settle these disputes, so the sensible (and peaceful) course is to recognize our epistemic limitations and endure our misguided fellows despite disagreements on matters we care passionately about.

Yet precisely this attitude is almost completely lacking when we change the subject from religion to political philosophy. I assume that this is because political philosophy involves reasoning and argument, and so it is far more tempting to think that one’s conclusions come from the Voice of Reason Herself. We are less suspicious here, now, than we are about mere claims to infallible revelation. But speaking as a philosopher among philosophers myself, I can tell you that very little ever gets settled to the complete satisfaction of the philosophical community, despite the prolonged efforts of hundreds of highly trained minds working for decades. I’d be quite surprised if our political ideologues are better at solving these problems than Rawls or Nozick (though of course they have their own important communication and leadership skills, which are not to be sniffed at).

The tendency to think that one’s political philosophy is simply, obviously correct has many of the same causes as religious commitment. The dangers, for a democracy, of citizens animated by a near-religious fervor when pursuing political goals puts me in mind of the religious wars that ripped Europe apart during the 17th century. The cure is humility born of awareness of one’s probable ignorance of that which is exceedingly difficult to know, recognition of the possibility that one’s opponents may have stumbled on to the truth, and a willingness to regard all as acting and believing in good faith until proven otherwise. In a word, toleration.

Wikipedia Propaganda On The Deficit

Until a moment ago, Wikipedia contained the following words:

“The 2009 deficit includes the cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program ($154 billion in 2009), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 ($202 billion in 2009, $353 billion in 2010, and $232 billion in 2011 forward), and the 2009 Omnibus spending bill ($410 billion).”

Yes, the numbers are not far off, but these words, emanating from a now deleted account named “Numeropolix” apparently expressly created for the purpose, are propaganda. To see why, begin with the meaning of the word “fungible.”

Now the purpose of the sentence is to create the appearance of a value-neutral fact that appears to immediately entail that The Democratic Party caused the deficit by coming into power in 2008. All but the first program is attributable to the Democrats, and the first one, TARP, is widely (among conservatives) but falsely believed to be attributable to the Democrats. Thus, the solution to the budget deficit is to not vote Democrat.

But, alas, money is fungible. This means that without more, all one can say is that the deficit is caused by spending more dollars than we receive in revenue. There isn’t a special little red dot sticker attached to the physical dollar bills spent on TARP, say, that says “from bond-holders; for TARP; do not spend in any other way.” Now intuitively, everyone understands this when it comes to their own budget. What counts as having caused a shortfall depends upon how one conceptualizes what one has spent. You are now short by exactly the same amount as your new car payment. Shouldn’t have bought that new car? Maybe. But maybe the problem is you should’ve bought a cheaper house, and then you could’ve afforded the car. You had to put your groceries on plastic last week. Is this because you eat too much? Or because you don’t like to cook? Or because you prefer the ambiance of the expensive store that buys local and organic? It’s not any one thing, it’s all of those things, to the extent that they contribute to you not having enough.

So was everything just peachy until the Democrats came in and in an instant spent a trillion dollars we don’t have? I don’t know, and neither do you, because it’s not a factual question, it’s a normative question. Iraq, which an awful lot of people now think was a pretty bad idea, has cost about $700 billion dollars. That’s almost three-quarters of the way to the trillion plus shortfall. Extending the Bush tax cuts to 2020 would increase the national debt by $3.3 trillion; I don’t have any data on how much damage the cuts did previously, though I do know that Bush’s last budget was already running a $400 billion deficit.

Now one can reply that tax cuts are non-negotiable because “it’s our money” and that taxation is theft. One could say that Iraq is legitimate because it is defense spending and defense is one of the few legitimate government functions, unlike almost everything else our government does. But those are just normative claims, no different from the normative claims that preparing for and waging war is always immoral, or that un-equal distribution of wealth is always unjust. By all means, keep making them; naturally your normative claims are the correct ones (whoever you are reading this) but in the meantime we must all make these collective decisions, and it looks like during this meantime, we do not agree. The only thing we are all sure of is that our opponents are thieves.