It is my intention to provide my readers with a very valuable and unique service. I am a voracious reader and it is my special talent to distill complex subjects down to their simplest parts and principles (if indeed such principles exist). Much of what is written, past and present, is intentionally obfuscated for political purposes or dishonest gain, whether of the material, intellectual, or emotional varieties. It is designed to misinform or mislead. Even when the ideas are simply muddle-headed rather than intentionally disingenuous, there is rarely an understanding of where those ideas originated, or historical consequences of their application. These observations are particularly applicable to political discussions, but are not uncommon in virtually any serious discourse.
I am driven to know what is. I grew up in an intellectually closed society, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I left that religious organization in mid-life only to find a whole smorgasbord of other closed societies, whether religious, philosophical, political, or social. There is a vehemence and even fierceness of advocacy that inhibits civil conversation and betrays intolerance of different life experiences and conclusions. What is most remarkable about all of these is that either side in any of these debates would passionately agree with my observations herewith stated, but only find them applicable to the attitudes and behavior of those with an opposing viewpoint!
As the polemicists outshout each other in the vain belief that raising the volume of their cranky bombast is the key to recruiting you to the cause or the sale, regard for evidence, logic, scientific method, clarity, and other calm pursuits are left behind like abandoned children. Defense of our own position usually trumps all other considerations without any awareness whatsoever of the road by which we arrived at our convictions. My most important takeaway from my own life-altering experience is that I am the bouncer and doorman to my own mind, and I have sole discretion over what is permitted to enter. I am the final arbiter of what I accept, because I become what I ingest intellectually. This is a personal responsibility that I cannot delegate to any other person, institution, or authority. In my opinion, every one of my readers shares this same responsibility for themselves, for the same reasons and with the same rewards. Bitterness and anger about years wasted in misguided belief and defiance of reality are efforts to transfer responsibility for our own past choices onto others, but in every case it was we who negligently invited strangers, in the form of ideas, into our mind unidentified and unchallenged. Even when we absorb faulty premises in our age of innocence, responsibility to identify and correct these later in life cannot be avoided with impunity.
I frequently include book reviews on this blog, on a broad range of subjects. All of these book reviews are at least somewhat positive in nature, because I do not waste my readers time on books that are in my opinion without at least some important redeeming values. I am neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative, and these days, once you get past the rhetoric, it can be said their distinctions are often without differences. I have no ideology except the value of the individual human being. Each of us is a minority of one. Regardless of the comfort we find in each other, there is no collective brain. Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” What we think determines what we become.
I want to share some rules of the road from my personal experience.
When I was growing up, my parents taught me to eat everything on my plate at meal times. It was axiomatic that to waste food was wrong, even though our young minds rarely grasped the contradiction in the fact that we didn’t overload the plate with all that food, the grown-ups did. How could we possibly know that for the rest of our lives other BIG PEOPLE would be filling up our intellectual plates with the impassioned ideas, ephemeral notions, and absolute certainties they insisted we must ingest because it is “good for us.” As in childhood, we trust the source, the same one we associated with survival itself.
Rule #1 : The purpose of all propaganda is to become your “trusted source.”
Everyone, it seems, has the strongest notions of what is best for us, beginning with our immediate families and extending to all the institutions of our culture. What is accepted and practiced in one generation may be repudiated by future generations. The philosophy that someone else knows what is best for us is nothing more than delegating to strangers what gets put on our plate. It makes no difference whether this authority figure or expert comes in the guise of clergy, government, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, media talking heads or television and movie script writers; all of them provide us with generous helpings of their opinions and rules and they expect us to eat it, even if it gives us heartburn. They do not like to be ignored, and most of them are happy, if given the opportunity, to harness the coercive power of the state to enforce what they know is, if not for our own good, at least for the good of the greatest number. After all, Daddy knows best.
Everything is based on core premises, and unfortunately these are usually absorbed unconsciously from the Influential People of our childhood and adolescence, parents, teachers, news media, friends, and church.
Rule #2: At a tender age we are neither equipped nor qualified to evaluate conceptual content, and we know little or nothing about possible alternatives.
Content becomes indelibly associated with the persons and institutions of authority that deliver it. Because of this early childhood association between content and source, we begin to develop class distinctions based on these associations. We are more inclined to trust and believe those who dress like we do, worship as we do, get educated where we do, and who earn their living as we do. At the most mundane level it is often said that the best place for a young man to pick up a date is at a church wedding, because he benefits by association with the joy of the occasion and the trust placed in that institution by its members. A “no” response in a different context might become a “yes” at the wedding.
Rule #3: As children, content becomes truth when it is delivered by those on whom we depend to survive.
Once imbibed, these childhood-acquired core premises become unchallengeable, eternal truths, the template against which all new information is evaluated. We quickly learn to block dissonance, any new information that makes us uncomfortable. As we build the rest of our lives around these core premises, our emotional investment in them becomes such that a challenge to their veracity becomes a challenge to our identity. There is a crushing need to shut down, shut out, and utterly annihilate such threats, and this need is all the more powerful and insidious because it is experienced subconsciously, as in dis-ease. We experience anxiety without knowing the cause.
When you experience something that disturbs you, it may or may not mean it is bad for you. A bad taste in your mouth may mean a poison mushroom, or it may only mean conflict with the taste of the previous mouthful, in which case you need to cleanse your palate before proceeding. A mouthful of lemon juice may cure you of scurvy, but it could be intensely unpleasant right after eating a sweet. Likewise you may have been led to believe that very wise people are looking out for your welfare, and this goes down pleasantly, like a sugar cookie. You might have had great faith in the honest intentions and competence of Bernie Madoff in handling your life savings, or you may currently be planning an extended retirement on Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist, and it tastes sweet.
Rule #4: What feels safe and tastes good may be the prelude to the financial equivalent of a diabetic coma.
In every case, we always trusted the source. The doorman to our mind was sound asleep. There were red flags about what we believed, but we chose to ignore them.
That’s why I write about labels. I sit down to lunch with people of all stripes and within minutes I can hear, and feel, the palpable hatred as my temporary companions launch into diatribes about those who think differently than they do. The emotional intensity and intransigence derives from the speaker’s sense of certainty. A mere label such as the name of a political party, or particular belief or non-belief excites the passions and invites the derision of the group at the table. To belong is to share in the laughter. The opposite is equally true and commonplace; the willingness to blithely accept nonsense if it comes from a trusted source. We will defend what we have already emotionally invested in.
Rule #5: It is possible to have a lifetime investment in something that is indefensible by any rational standard.
How long have we known, and has our government refused to acknowledge, that our Social Security is history’s largest Ponzi scheme ever?
I used to finish reading any book I had started. Like cleaning my plate at dinner, I felt compelled to finish what I had started. I don’t always do this anymore. Life is too short. I always seek to identify as quickly as possible authors’ basic premises, and even if I disagree with them, I may continue reading if only because I enjoy the writing style or because an author occasionally drops in a redeeming original thought or new twist on something. I no longer waste my time filling my mind with garbage, but there is a balance between that and closing one’s mind. Periodically I have to remind myself to re-evaluate my own core premises to see if they still withstand close scrutiny. The final questions are always, Who says so? Why? Based on what? I am always on the alert for the hidden agenda, the sugar-coated dodge.
If some distinguished authority figure makes claims that appear improbable and unsubstantiated by the facts as you know them, assuming they know more than you is one possibility. Another possibility is that they have reasons to be less than truthful on this occasion.
If their explanations more accurately resemble circumlocutions, going round and round in circles and making no particular sense, you could assume that their explanation is too deep for your comprehension, given their special training, or you could also entertain the possibility that their non-answer is because they really don’t have an answer but won’t admit it publicly.
How do you spot obfuscations, disinformation, and hidden agendas? For starters, unless you’ve taken a serious course in statistics, distrust all statistics. Most are not scientifically sound and are intentionally manipulated for uninformed public consumption. I could say there are a thousand ways to do this, but that would not be a scientifically sound statistic. So we’ll move on. In commercial matters, follow the money. In political and institutional matters, follow the power. Look past the easy answers. Look past the obvious beneficiaries of a particular group action. The secondary beneficiary is always the real beneficiary. The primary beneficiaries receive very diffused benefits. They are the poster children of the much ballyhooed political action; the orphans, the poor, the children, the unemployed, the elderly, the American middle class, the racial minorities. The secondary beneficiary receives very consolidated power; the power to bestow or withhold. Daddy isn’t interested in your growing up. Daddy needs you to need him. Daddy needs to be in control of permissions, punishments and perks.
Rule #6: If someone is selling invisible clothes, let them run around naked.
It is better to be underwhelmed by the titles and decorations and positions of power of the so-called experts. Who even remembers yesteryear’s Nobel prize winners and Treasury Secretaries or Fed Chairmen? If anyone makes claims that to your mind seem like the Emperor’s invisible clothes, let them wear them. Plan your personal life and make your financial choices around your own perceptions, not theirs. They will usually have agendas you will never know about, and disincentives to provide full disclosure or tell the unvarnished truth. Do they really know better than you how to direct your life? Most American households’ finances are looking better than the governments, perhaps for no other reason than we can’t print money like the government does. We have been acting to correct our balance sheets, to start saving and stop borrowing. Does that sound like what they have been doing? Do they care about you, or are they far more concerned about polishing their credentials to the largest blocks of voters? This goes for anyone who is offering you advice on any subject. Would you look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on improving your sex life, knowing he is a celibate monk?
In the end it’s the same. Money is power. But government is money plus guns. By guns I mean the police power of the state. With guns you can seize other people’s money. If you get enough people behind you, even in a democracy you can decide whose money you will take, and how much of it. This is REAL power, and this is why groups will spend a billion dollars to secure a position of power that pays only half a million. The most expensive seats are reserved for those who hold court, who trade in favors and gifts, and who choose the winners and the losers. These people are not producers; they are looters who talk as if they understand production.
All ideas have a history, and if you follow the thread of an idea back far enough, there are always surprises. Every opinion, belief, and conviction—indeed every certainty, was arrived at in a certain historical and social context, and made perfect sense to those persons in their place and time, and was almost invariably the partial result of emotional turmoil in the author’s personal life. In other words, intellectuals, philosophers, clergymen, or brick layers, we are all made of the same dirt. Ideas all began with real people and every single one of them had problems, issues, and emotional dilemmas. Some of them were morons.
Rule #7: Many of the world’s greatest thinkers would be in therapy today.
Ideological sparks at the intersection of the right time and the right population periodically ignited the imagination of masses. New truths became eternal truths that have often reversed themselves, sometimes over and over again, everyone so preoccupied with the minutiae of their daily routines they fail to notice the intellectual roundabout on which they have traveled for decades or centuries. The grand ideas have all come and gone, or splintered and evolved in almost unrecognizable ways, becoming innumerable dogmas and orthodoxies, and today they make compelling narrative for the history or philosophy buff. Those who take the time to look more closely are sobered by the awareness that in every time period of history there were those who were willing and eager to kill or enslave those who disagreed with them. Our current democratic society provides some cultural and legal protections against this, but a basic meanness still often lurks beneath the surface of many human believers. I hear it in conversations at lunch.
Rule #8: There’s a troll under many a believer’s bridge.
When belief devoid of thought is extolled as a virtue, doubt becomes suspect, opposing opinions are demonized, dissenters are criminalized, and definitions of the enemy are crystalized. Hatred is born and mob action is galvanized. Ascendant mobs become the state. Other groups see opportunities to advance their respective causes by hitchhiking on the coattails of the rising group, with the idea that they will address their important differences after they achieve a more favorable situation in the power structure. The state attempts to co-opt and harness culturally powerful forces (the most powerful of which is religion) and then moves to consolidate its power by weakening, neutering, and eliminating competing groups. There are no enduring loyalties, just the shifting sands of temporarily overlapping interests.
This is why I champion individual rights in my writing. The individual is the smallest group in the world. Protect individual rights and you protect the world. Democracies are the competition and conflict between groups, but history is replete with the horrors perpetrated by one group (even elected ones) on other groups. Great evil has been done repeatedly in the name of God or in the name of Society. Even in a so-called free society there is nothing more fear-inspiring than observing an impassioned closed mind reflected in the eyes of another human being, so certain of his ideas in fact, that he will gladly sacrifice your life to prove it. On their own, they are dangerous and capable of atrocities; organized into groups with their hands on the levers of power (duly elected or not), no one is safe. Not even the members of their group. Every group has its purges.
There IS a problem with championing individual rights. It puts responsibility on the individual. There is uncertainty, and results are neither equal nor guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that no group can by itself or backed by the power of the state, make you do or be what you do not believe in. And you can’t do that to anyone else either. Not everyone is comfortable with that.
Individual rights are inalienable, meaning you were born with them and do not acquire them by permission from others–no one and no group can morally take them from you, even when those others are infused with certainty about their better idea. They may seize your property and take your life by force, but they can never do so morally. Individual rights mean the right to pursue your own life and happiness as your highest values, and you are free to seek and perform work that sustains those values. This includes buying and selling from whomever you choose, to your own benefit. Individual rights means essentially the separation of church and state and the separation of economic activity and state.
Individual rights mean the government is there to protect individual rights of all, and no one is there to serve the government. Individual rights in practice, of necessity mean small government because there just isn’t that much the government needs to do. No modern state, including western democracies, will ever pay more than lip service to government based on the sovereignty of the individual because all governments derive their power from the purse, which includes both confiscatory taxation and gross interference with free trade of its citizens. The power of government is in granting permissions. That’s where the money is.
Rule #9: The government’s favorite childhood game is “Mother, May I?”
You can recognize individual rights in action when your government fears to transgress against its citizens.
Group rights, on the other hand, are acquired by permission from a majority of others in society, and those permissions can be revoked. The herd sometimes gives little or no notice of intent to stampede. The primacy of group rights derives from the belief that your highest value as an individual is not yourself but your contribution to society as a whole. Individuals can expect to be sacrificed to the group when the group calls for it. Every single favor demanded of government by a group always implies a request for the police power of the state to be used against someone else who doesn’t want to do the group’s bidding. Otherwise, if the group could achieve its ends on a voluntary basis, arrived at through negotiation, documented and signed by the parties, why would they need to involve the state? Groups only need the state to club minority interests into submission. I use the word minority here in the very literal sense of anyone who does not have sufficient votes to protect their interests. Group rights are the inevitable political legacy of those obsessed with the certainty of their beliefs, so much so that in their minds the ends justify their means. Sooner or later the means include the confiscation of human life and property by the state–for the benefit of the greater good, of course. Group rights degrade into group warfare and lead to an indefinitely expanding state, with eventually the state dwarfing all other groups.
Group rights lead to totalitarianism, which is sanctioned and even welcomed by the public in the name of efficiency. When the cacophony of bitterly opposed groups gets too rancorous and the machinery of the state grinds down, someone with the necessary stage presence steps forward and suggests temporary consolidation of power to get through the political impasse. We all know the rest of that story.
You can tell group rights in action when citizens fear their government.
So what is my point? Am I advocating political activism in favor of limited government and individual rights? Not really. You can, of course, if you want to. All I am encouraging is to become aware of what is happening around you, and to be aware of the ideas behind the events. Keep your finger on the pulse of the politics in your community, your state, your nation. Be more careful what you believe in, and scrutinize documentation with a critical eye. In almost every location it is possible to exercise a great deal of personal freedom as long as you don’t make too much fanfare about it. Love your life, keep your mind open and your passport current, and
Rule #10: Know where the border is.
Closed minds eventually become closed borders.