I have decided that we humans are fundamentally lazy, that is, we travel with the herd and we will do what we have to for our own survival, but for the most part we will ride on the efforts of others as much as possible. It is best and safest to be in the middle of the herd, for those who travel on the periphery are far more likely to be picked off by predators or somehow get separated from the herd, to their destruction. Basically, all we want is what the members of any herd want, the freedom and safety to graze and reproduce. Now what, exactly, does this have to do with financial literacy? Everything, dear Reader, everything. Literacy requires effort, mostly mental effort, and time spent reading and thinking and conceptualizing and comparing new knowledge with old knowledge, accepting some, discarding others, and continually challenging the orthodoxy of the day. Orthodoxy is what is generally accepted by the herd, and to challenge that orthodoxy is to place ourselves at the fringe of the herd, to be viewed with suspicion, or even to be shunned. This would mean willingly placing ourselves in a minority of our own choosing, the minority of independent thinkers.
I am not speaking of pseudo-free thinkers: those individuals who seek to differentiate themselves, not by real thinking, but by faking its supposed trappings, meaning strange dress, odd behavior, loaded language, secret meetings, or anything that will draw attention to themselves as being fringe for the sake of being fringe. These people are also lazy, seeking to acquire the image of independent thinking without the mental effort of achieving the reality. They are fakes. The most obvious example of these folks are the young, who will blindly take to the streets with little information and bold slogans to demonstrate against the status quo. These are the same people who will adopt the dress and mannerisms of their pop idols and who in their own way become the greatest conformists of all. For them, to be, is to be AGAINST something. And the definition of courage is to find something worth dying for, because at that point in their life they haven’t found anything yet worth living for. They are AGAINST whatever IS, at the moment. As opposed to conservatives, who are against any CHANGE of what IS, at the moment. None of this is critical, or independent thinking. It is all nonsense and herd mentality. But the herd exists, and it behaves as it must, as a herd.
I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, the same as the family of the recently deceased Michael Jackson. There was a lot of good in how I grew up, including a respect for hard work and honesty. Honesty in some things, deception in other things. We believed in material honesty, in not cheating or defrauding others. That honesty did not extend to matters of the mind. That’s where the fraud began. One of the first hallmarks of intellectual dishonesty is to label anything that differs from our own beliefs, and to use those labels as a substitute for thinking, as a shortcut around thinking. Instead of critically evaluating, you simply label a thing and that absolves you from the effort of genuine, honest, open thought. There was danger in free thinking; one might be seduced by differing ideas. The belief system must be defended at all costs. The most efficacious way to achieve this goal is to constantly warn of the dire consequences of opening the lid to Pandora’s box by even a crack, and allowing the seeds of doubt to enter our minds. To facilitate control of the herd, access to outside, or conflicting information needs to be closed off. It is absolutely necessary to gain control of what information gets through to the herd. If truth was what mattered, truth being loosely defined as reality, what IS, there would be no danger from the herd having full access to any information out there. But truth is not what matters, belief is what matters, and therefore every power broker in the history of mankind has sought control of what information becomes available to the herd. The politician, dictator, guru, ayatollah, or leadership insists on becoming the only acceptable channel, or conduit, of new information. The minds of the herd need to be forcibly protected by seizing or controlling the media. All news is filtered and given the proper “slant”. The editing of information and news may be subtly nuanced or flagrantly propagandistic. Success is finally achieved when the herd polices itself, and takes over the job on behalf of the State, the organization, the enterprise. Belief has finally taken on a life of its own and requires no further rational defense. Belief now substitutes for thinking. Everyone can now get on with the serious business of grazing and reproducing.
I knew growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness that we were often labeled as a cult, and I used to wonder what that really meant. In time I learned that it was an elusive term that seemed to take on a different connotation in every different context. Ultimately it meant any belief system inspiring intense devotion, and that was outside the herd thinking, i.e. outside the orthodoxy of the time and location. Cults often seemed to attract people who were lost souls to begin with, the disenfranchised, those without purpose or direction, those looking for someone to tell them what to do next with their life, or to tell them what to believe. Many of these people had no idea what they believed, they simply sought an unearned elitism of being AGAINST something. They identied their Devil before they acquired their God. Intellectually, they wanted something for nothing. They were not really independent thinkers, but seeking a new herd with which to identify themselves. They are more like the very young offspring of a species who become imprinted after prematurely losing their real parent, and who then are brought into close contact with a representative of another species and adopt that one as their lost parent. This produces charming absurdities, as we see a duckling adopting a cat as its parent and following it dutifully. Humans who get separated from the main herd are vulnerable to becoming imprinted by any stray subgroup or guru that happens along, and strongly identifying themselves with that new group. They develop a new, and possibly absurd, new identity.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were no different from anyone else, but they certainly had no corner on the market of intellectual dishonesty, or trying to control the flow of information to their followers. We knew who the enemy was: it was the other churches, first and foremost the churches of Christendom, and extended from there to the full range of all the Moslem and eastern religions of the world. It became necessary to learn the weaknesses of the competiton, but to assure that the membership of the herd was not influenced by the competition. Therefore, all higher education, meaning college education, was strongly discouraged. Our youth were encouraged to find blue collar jobs and vocational school training. If the children of church elders went to a college, it placed the position of the elder in jeopardy. Who knows what contaminated ideas the young and impressionable might be exposed to at the altars of higher learning? The Humanities departments of our universities were the breeding grounds of wrong ideas, and were therefore the enemy. As in all herds, access to ideas had to be carefully controlled. The irony of all this is that thought control, or political correctness, is nowhere more prevalent than on the university campuses purportedly dedicated to open inquiry. Hence the professor who achieves tenure as protection from coercive practices of the school administration, and who then introduces punitive actions towards students who do not subscribe to his own version of orthodoxy. Each minority, when the tables are turned, proceeds immediately to a repetition of the behaviors of the preceding majority.
In time I lived at the headquarters of the church and was able to observe the workings of the organization at the very top. It was disillusioning. I did not see evil as I would define it. I saw victims of victims. I saw closed minds and the power of belief. I saw true herd mentality, circular logic, propaganda, power struggles, and sex. I saw the masses happy to be told what to do, what to believe, and how to behave. I saw the viciousness towards any who broke from the herd; I saw the pack turn on them with a ferocity never quite directed towards those who had never belonged to the herd to begin with. I saw the confusion of the herd when they occasionally perceived glimpses of internal power struggles and ideological conflict. It was necessary for the herd to believe all was harmony, that there was still a final authority, and that God forbid, no one had to do any thinking of their own. Everyone wanted something for nothing.
When we would go from door to door, canvassing for new converts, I was amazed at finding the same phenomenon everywhere. Someone would say, as a defense to engaging us in unnecessary or prolonged conversation, that they were sorry, they were not interested, because they were, say for instance, . . . Catholic. I would ask them what it meant to them to be a Catholic. I never once, in years of proselytizing received an intelligible answer to my sincere question. As a matter of fact, the question was usually received as an absurdity, as if it was unaskable and unanswerable. No one knew why they were a Catholic, instead of, say, a Methodist or Presbyterian, or God forbid, a Buddhist or Hindu. They just were what they were. It was unchallengeable, unassailable, and accepted as axiomatic, something that required no defense or thought. Belief had become a short cut for thinking. Something for nothing. No mental effort required.
Belief in God was accepted without thinking; belief in the Bible was accepted without the necessity of reading it; belief in the Koran was accepted without the necessity, not only of reading it, but of reading anything at all; belief in Communism and the triumph of the proletariat was defended and died for, without ever reading its Manifesto; belief in economic Central Planning was accepted without any comprehension of money, production, the creation and preservation of wealth; belief in every boondoggle imaginable was accepted by virtue of its constant repetition in the media, as if anything that received enough Twitters could turn nothing into something. The billions of parents of the world sent their own children into the furnaces of armed conflict to die for causes they never understood, but accepted and believed because they had heard the holy mantras repeated so often they must be true. Slogans were substituted for thinking.
Now let’s get back to financial literacy and the purpose of this blog. Why do I write, dear Reader? Because I have unanswered questions, and you should too, if you do any thinking at all. And the answers matter. In the last ten years hundreds of thousands became millionaires on paper, only to lose it and become paupers. What was going on? Was it the failure of capitalism, or the forceful intervention of governments into free enterprise? Is the solution more intervention of governments, or a return to free enterprise? What is capitalism anyway? What are inflation and deflation? They say we should buy gold. Should we? If we do, what do we do with it? It won’t earn interest in our closet. Who do we sell it to if paper money becomes worthless? Will we be able to buy a loaf of bread with a bar of gold? If the government wants our gold, what is to prevent them from knocking on our door and confiscating it? If they do that, what recourse do we have? They have the guns and we don’t. What about the national debt? They say we are mortgaging the futures of our children. What does that mean, anyway? Are our children all going to get an invoice in the mail, like a credit card bill, but from the government, saying they will have to make onerous monthly payments to Uncle Sam? And if not, exactly HOW are our children saddled with our debt? This doesn’t seem real, and so we don’t really care about it, and why should we? None of us want to become accountants or economists, and how much do we really need to know? Why isn’t it enough to just believe? Like being a Catholic or a Democrat or a Scientologist or a Kenynesian or a Liberal or a Libertarian? Why can’t we just accept a label of our choosing and go on grazing and reproducing, which is all we really want to do?
When I was a Jehovah’s Witnesses, the herd organized lots of meetings, assemblies, conventions. We were often regaled with lengthy dissertations so dense and obscure that no one really had any idea what had just been said. Happily, however, it never occurred to us that the obscurantism was intentional obfuscation; that the problem was not our failure to comprehend, but that the message was incomprehensible. After such a program, we often said to each other, in discussing the recent content, how intellectually “deep” it was. Little did we realize that we had long ago given up the sovereignty of our own minds, and now accepted any imposter’s substitute. Now I listen to the same intellectual sleight-of-hand in the form of endless economic and political sermonettes disseminated on the 6 o-clock news as divine truths, using jargon and slogans that gain credibility with their endless repetition.
I have already been accused on this blog site of writing too many words. Can’t I reduce concepts to Twitter-size feeds, or sound bytes, that tell us what to do and what to believe? And actually, as a card-carrying member of my herd, I really don’t want to be disturbed with new information, or the introduction of conflict and mental discomfort into my carefully fabricated perception of reality. As a philosopher said long ago, I have never seen a subjugated people that didn’t deserve it. As I would say, if we have not the will to impose our own terms on life, we must be prepared to accept the terms life imposes on us. And when that happens, we will have no comprehension of how we got there, but will we really care, as long as we can go on grazing and reproducing?
Why can’t we have something for nothing?
As always, thank you for stopping in. Leave a comment if you wish, and come again. John Bechtel