Friday, June 02, 2006

The Default, Dear Brutus, Is Not in Our Stars

Unless you’re listening to your relatives, you have a right to expect something new in every declarative sentence, some hint of surprise, since a perfectly predictable utterance conveys no information. This pragmatic rule is presumably more rigorously enforced in written language since print costs more, at least in bother, than idle conversation. Unfortunately, this net effect of this imperative can create a misleading impression of what people actually believe at any given time in history since what is written is written against a set of assumptions that seldom get stated except by mathematicians and sociologists. Statistically considered, the Zeitgeist described by the intellectual historians is not the default position of the educated people of an Age but some sort of measure of the typical forms of dissent to the mysterious dark matter of the real consensus. This problem isn’t just academic. I may not care very much about what they really thought during the Scottish Enlightenment, but I’d very much like to know what I myself am thinking right now. To figure that out, I’d have to dare to be dull; and, appearances to the contrary, I’m not sure that I’m that audacious.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Private Property is like Ketchup

The classic route to staggering wealth begins with the assumption of a huge mountain of debt. I like to use the same technique in writing essays, beginning with some peculiar sentence that makes no sense at all on its face and saddles me with an obligation to explain my way out of a fix I've willingly put myself into. The best example I know of this sort of thing and the inspiration of my title is the first sentence of one of Levi-Strauss’ books: “Totemism is like hysteria.”

If you haven’t already guessed, private property is like ketchup because both are homely items, which, though far too familiar to be taken much note of, would be sensational inventions were they to appear for the first time in the year 2006. One can easily imagine the rapturous reception the zesty new condiment would earn on the cooking shows. Similarly, the discovery of a way to ensure that cars get washed and shops get opened on time would amaze and delight the public. It’s too late to experience either frisson now, except, perhaps, to the extent that the disappearance of a thing rhymes sadly with the memory of its debut. Of course ketchup isn’t actually going away. Private property, on the other hand, is under serious attack as corporate capitalism, at last poised to fulfill the dream of Henri Saint-Simon, pursues the Wal-Mart route to socialism.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Look and See

In a public debate, those with the facts are at a serious disadvantage because their listeners have to learn something in order to understand arguments supported by evidence. Inertia favors appeals based on platitudes and commonplaces since these notions are already well known and people tend to think that ideas are true simply because they are familiar. In debates about religion, for example, it is taken as a given that belief in the supernatural promotes morality and prevents social breakdown while even a cursory examination of the historical record suggests that things are far more complex. Sometimes religious institutions have maintained order in the aftermath of military defeat and general demoralization as when the bishops of Western Europe, often members of the senatorial class, stepped in to manage as best they could the ruined provinces of a fallen empire. In these instances, as perhaps in the case of some of the successor states of the USSR, religion was important by default. On the other hand, where societies are doing well, as in contemporary Scandinavia, or manage to organize themselves around nationalism or secular ideologies, religion is often largely irrelevant. And there are also cases such as Mongolia and Tibet where a mania for religion appears to have led to national decadence. Historical sociology does not yield simple conclusions, which is not to say that it doesn’t yield any conclusions at all. The point is, you have to look and see.

By the way, the atheists are as fond of coarse answers as any believer. Every time I encounter some villager waving the bloody shirt of the Crusades or the Inquisition, I find myself wondering if any of these worthies has bothered to assess the historical record. As a cause of mortality, getting burnt at the stake is pretty insignificant compared to brain tumors or probably even lightening, not to mention really serious killers like spousal jealousy. Similarly, though there have certainly been times of terrible religious wars, there have also been long eras during which people found other reasons to kill one another. It is trivially true that every kind of villainy correlates with religiosity; but that just reflects the fact that a proclivity to superstition and fanaticism, if not part of the essence of humanity, is at least a universal accident like original sin. Indeed, on balance, it may have been a good thing that organized churches have managed and channeled our potentially dangerous spiritual impulses over the centuries. Thus even the Spanish Inquisition, terrifying as it undoubtedly was, did serve to curb the homicidal prejudices of the Spanish people, for whom being a Christian had become a matter of blood, not belief, If you think Torquemada was bad, wait until you face a Castilian mob.