Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Pitiful and Helpless Anyhow

Professional journalists, especially of the video tribe, denounce the bloggers for their careless fact checking; but anybody who keeps score knows that getting the story right is a minor concern on the networks. The delay between the discovery of something interesting and important and its appearance on the news is often protracted, but not because the reporters want to make sure of their facts. The normal debate is about whether or not it benefits the corporation. Absent economic and political angles, fact checking is irrelevant, as in the recent mine disaster where the irresistible allure of an apparent miracle instantly overruled any scruples the professionals supposedly acquired at journalism school. On the other hand, where telling the plain truth can land the company in hot water, no amount of caution is too much. Thus the New York Times knew for 14 months that the administration had been conducting illegal wiretaps, but only broke the story because James Risen was going to publish it in a book in any case.

One usually bewails ownership of the media by six or seven corporations on the Madisonian theory that concentration of power in the hands of a few is dangerous to a Republican form of government, but it is the weakness rather than the strength of the corporations that causes the worst problems. What’s hurting us most isn’t the programmatic semi-fascism of Fox but the premeditated cowardice of CNN. The sheer size of the media giants makes them enormous targets. With so much to lose from the hostility of the government, the big papers, magazines, and T.V. networks cannot afford to act honorably. It wouldn’t be fair to the stockholders. Monopolies are bound to be risk adverse since the bigger they get, the less the prospect for further growth and greater the abyss below. They are inevitably timid, like everything else in the Universe with more to fear than to hope.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Courageously Making Decisions for Other People

Back in the 60s, campus radicals used to sit around plotting revolution in order to liberate the working man from the soulless monotony of the assembly line. Of course by 2006, a great many working men would be extremely happy to sign on for 40 years of deadening routine so long as this rather notional alienation included retirement benefits and health care. Indeed, although the fact is not so obvious when you’re 20, people commonly prefer predictability and stagnation over adventure and personal growth even when it doesn’t pay that well. The SDS philosopher wasn’t giving voice to a mankind immured in spiritual bondage. He was simply channeling the value system of Marx—readers of a certain age and educational background will supply the inevitable proof text here—as Marx was himself channeling the humanistic values of German Idealism, albeit in a cause that a Goethe or Herder would not have necessarily endorsed.

There aren’t a huge number of radicals around any more, and if anybody is still writing essays on the Young Marx, I haven’t seen ‘em. The temptation to practice ideological ventriloquism continues, however, only it takes place at different venues. Instead of scruffy would-be Bakunins plotting in the grimy common rooms of grad school dormitories, one finds Stanford economists in three-piece suits imposing their free market ideology in the paneled conference rooms of a Hilton. As with the earlier revolutionaries, it never seems to occur to these folks that their political economies all involve assumptions about what people want, assumptions that repeatedly turn out to be simply false. Deregulation of the electric power industry, for example, was promoted on the “reasonable” assumption that people will be willing to put up with interruptions of service in return for lower average power bills; but when the lights went out, this convenient theory turned out to be politically impossible. What made and makes perfectly good sense for a business man, doesn’t fly with the public at large because people don’t want to live like business men, at least not all the time. What the economists promote as an inevitable result, the unique solution to a giant optimization problem, is simply a way of insisting that everybody adopt the value system of a technologically savvy pirate. As with so many issues in political economy, what matters are the boundary conditions, not the equations.
Inaugurating A Dark New Year

This site is more a personal notebook than a blog. I don’t write easily or often, and I fuss too much about the English. My writing, such as it is, is more like a completed crossword or sudoku than transcribed speech; and I have been told that figuring it out is more like solving a puzzle than reading a paragraph. Meanwhile, the content, at least the non-political content, is also hermetically repellent since I write on the far side of a lifetime of mostly solitary thought and research and pursue questions and obsessions that only accidentally coincide with the interests of others. A real reader who matched up the implied reader of these pages would be a rare bird indeed and should perhaps seek professional help. The fundamental problem, however, is that I practice philosophy.

I’m not bragging. A philosopher is not somebody who possesses a special kind of knowledge or skill, though those attributes might define a good philosopher. As I use the term—and it has many other historically warranted and reasonable meanings—a philosopher is simply somebody who puts an unreasonably high value on truth without expecting the truth in question to begin with a capital t. Philosophy so defined is incurably anarchistic and probably deserving of hemlock, though the authorities have long since discovered that ignoring it is a better way of neutralizing the threat. For most people, perhaps rightly and certainly inevitably, thought is the least free of activities, policed as it is by employers, governments, religions, public opinion, the emotional blackmail of friends and family, and most of all by the hopes and fears of the thinker. To be a philosopher is to disregard all that, not in some operatic fashion or as a spiritual exercise, but as a matter of bureaucratic routine.

This assertion of principled philistinism probably sounds paradoxical. After all, Philosophers are often satirized for maintaining utterly incredible ideas and not just by op ed writers and other lumbering ungulates. Bob Fogelin, himself a professional philosopher, once wondered aloud in my hearing whether J.P. Sartre ever actually believed what he wrote in Being and Nothingness; and I’ve had more than one occasion to look up from the Monadology with similar incredulity. Years of reflection have convinced me that the apparent goofiness of philosophical ideas is something of an illusion, however. That is, the various philosophical ideas are indeed wild guesses, but they are as sensible as a dictionary compared to common sense. Anyhow, philosophers are obliged to make leaps because they are people in a terrible hurry. While the most credible self-understanding the universe will ever achieve takes place in the essentially social form of the sciences, philosophy is about how much of the world can be comprehended by an individual in a single lifetime. With a goal like that, you care a lot about probabilities and nothing whatsoever about plausibilities. You aren’t in the business of contriving likely stories—achieving verisimilitude is only important in the realms of courtesy, politics, and marketing.

Having enunciated (or confessed) my principles, I return, however sporadically, to blogging.