I swear to Jim Butcher that my next blog post on here will be about fiction I’m working on–honestly–but after the hullaballoo over Chris Hayes and the war dead, I could not help but think about how all of politics has basically devolved into religion, and how much it sickens me.
What the incident has shown me is that both sides of the American political sphere–the so-called “left” (AKA “liberals,” “progressives,” “pink socialist commies”) and the so-called “right” (AKA “conservatives,” “fundamentalist right-wing populists,” the “1%”)–are by this point nothing more than religions, with their own tenets, gods, and apostles (not to mention heretics and unforgivable sins.) They are, in a phrase, “political religions.” The guy who wrote the book on them (though I haven’t read it, unfortunately), Emilio Gentile, defined them as a:
“more or less developed system of beliefs, myths, rituals and symbols” that creates an “aura of sacredness around an entity belonging to the world and turns it into a cult or object of worship or devotion.”
Both sides of the political sphere today put down the government as essentially their core deity. Although they have other gods they more directly worship, the government–the state–is their Absolute, their Ultimate, the Neoplatonic Ideal to which they aspire. It is, quite frankly, sacred, and their give their devotion to it.
I’ve identified at least two political religions on both sides of the aisle off the top of my head. For the progressives, there are the churches of global warming/environmentalism; Keynesianism; and simple wealth redistribution. For the right, there is, well, an actual religion–fundamentalist Christianity–plus the veneration of the military, which sadly has infected even some of my more libertarian friends.
Global Warming/Environmentalism: This one is fun. Even if you get past the people who say that Brooklyn will be underwater by 2050 (which might not be entirely bad*), you find a great number who have done the impossible: they have placed their faith in science, or more accurately, scientists. Of course, science is not based on faith, and to do so is to reject science, but they have done it anyway. This is observed whenever you start really asking questions about how global warming is going to kill us all, and they begin contorting themselves into absurd positions in order to defend it, when the rational mind would have said “This is stupid” long ago and jettisoned it. A great example is when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report saying that the glaciers in the Alps were melting. They based this evidence on…an unpublished paper by a grad student, who in turn based this on…some anecdotal quotes from hikers who said, “Yeah, the glaciers look a bit smaller than the last time we were through here.” Science, people. This is science.
Keynesianism: This one is even more fun, in a way, but more aggravating. Keynesianism, in a nutshell, is the idea that the government must “prime the pump” of the economy by injecting loads of money into it. Of course, this totally ignores the fact that the only place the government can get the money in the first place is from the economy itself, so it’s just taking money out of the right pocket and putting it into the left pocket (and there’s never any consideration of what happens when stimulus must, invariably, end.) This religion’s foremost prophet is Paul Krugman, who has repeatedly demonstrated that not only he is a fool, but he’s also quite ignorant of human life itself. Of course, Keynesians like to hide behind mountains of models that “prove” their theory correct, but in the end, they never seem to translate well to the real world, and are thus very similar to such works like the Bible and the Quran.
Wealth Redistribution: Similar and linked to Keynesianism above, the Triumphant and Occupying Church of the 99% wants more money to be taken from those who are wealthy and redistributed to the poor. It literally hates success and wealth and constantly engages in class warfare. Never mind that income inequality has not changed at all over the past twenty years. They will promptly ignore that, and just call for more taxes on the rich–even though they’re the guys who ultimately get everyone else in this country jobs. They will literally put their fingers in their ears and
Fundamentalist Christianity: The only political religion on this list which is based around an actual religion, the fundamentalist Christianity that conservatives mostly follow is not, I would argue, actually devoted to serving Christ and their fellow man. It is, instead, a play for power in the halls of government, a way to keep one set of cultural values superior to all others, by using the force of government to impose said values. When you ask people who want to force their anti-gay beliefs and pro-life stances upon others why don’t they follow the “Render unto Ceaser what is Ceaser’s” maxim, you get the same sort of contortions (or just outright “that doesn’t matter”) you get from environmentalists. You can’t criticize it; you’re just a heathen.
Military: This one came out in force over the weekend with the Chris Hayes’ controversy. It largely comes down to “You shall not criticize the military” and “You shall DEFINITELY not say ANYTHING on Memorial Day. Just. Shut. Up.” I’ve already gone over this in the past two posts, so I won’t spend all that much time on this particular entry, but only that it is extremely prevalent and is becoming more and more dangerous.
The reason all of these stances go beyond ideology and have become political religions is that ideologies can change, adapt, and evolve, and that people can do so via the power of reason. Religion, on the other hand, is against reason. It is entirely based on faith, which is “X is true and I believe it with all my heart and soul and if it turns out to be false I’ll end up like these guys.” The radical environmentalism and global warming believers don’t use reason to evaluate their statements, and the Keynesians have long ago discarded reason in order to stay in bed with their government overlords (a weakness that was well explained in Public Choice Theory.) Arguably, there was never any reason applied to either the Wealth Redistributionists or the fundamentalist Christians, and the lack of critical thinking towards the military has not yet overpowered reason entirely–as evidenced by the pushback, even from military veterans themselves, on the issue–but it is growing and has been accelerating in particular over the past decade.
Without reason, we can not advance, we can not develop. It was a lack of reason and slavish devotion to the Church and feudal lords that kept Western civilization mired in the Medieval period for so long (which, while good fodder for D&D campaigns, is not so good for real life.) The lack of reason that led to the Soviets and Communism in general led to hundreds of millions of deaths. And the lack of reason that is permeating the entire “discussion” over how to deal with the financial crisis, the recession, and the looming disintegration of the Eurozone is only promising more danger, more failures, and a harder fall in the future. On the other hand, using that giant brain of ours gave us fire, the wheel, electricity, democracy, free markets, the computer, the iPhone, space shuttles, abundant food supplies, and Pokemon. (Okay, bad example.)
This is why I’m both a libertarian and an atheist (and why I’m really, really irritated that so many atheists have basically swapped out Jesus with the state; they’re not “really” atheists, they just call their god Capitol Hill). It’s also why, for the first time in many years, I’m actually getting very worried about the direction of this country. Ultimately, while many terrible things have happened over the past decade or so, it always looked to me that eventually, libertarianism and the free market would win out. People see how things are failing miserably, give it a shot, and would revel in the new found freedom and prosperity. Our logic, in the end, would be inescapable and irrefutable, although it would take a long time to get there. But that only works if people are open to reason, and if they’re not–if they’re just following political religions, which they cannot disagree with or else they will be excommunicated, their lives destroyed–then we don’t really have much of a chance. You can’t reason with them. You can hope to convert, but that’s a long shot.
For the first time in a long time, I’m a pessimist.
The above is a fantastic essay on what happening to all of Harold Camping’s followers, how they were deceived and how many suffered enormous financial, social, and emotional damage from the belief that the world would end in May on 2011…and then didn’t.
I think this is a lesson for any large belief structures. This includes Communism, American conservatism, the Most Holy and Triumphant Church of Environmentalism, and any belief in big government. Rest assured, with the way things are going, their worlds are going to come tumbling down…and when they do, they’re going to be in just as bad a shape as Harold Camping’s misled followers.
The other day, in my eternal fight against the wickedness of writer’s block, I went to the National Museum of African Art to jog my senses. I figured it might do me some good, and it’s the last bit of the Smithsonian (other than the Aquarium) that I haven’t seen yet.
I did not seriously expect anything cool to happen. Sure, I like African art, it’s one of those areas which I don’t see more of, mainly getting western and Asian art in my face. (Case in point, the Freer Gallery of Art is about 90% Asian, with a touch of Egyptian–wicked cool–and some French artist whose name escapes me.) I just didn’t expect a “Wow!” reaction from some of the things I saw.
But I did. The mask made out of crushed spider eggs and spider silk to give it good luck, the picture of the massive snake outfit used for dancing, and the libertarianism on the display in the foyer. Wait, what?
No, really. They have a staff on display with two people sitting on top, eating some sort of food (I betcha its not McDonalds.) It’s called a “linguist staff,” and was carried by royal translators to show their position, quite an important one considering the variety of languages found in Africa. What I found to be the most interesting was that the image was a proverb, and the proverb was: “The food is for the one who owns it, not for the one who is hungry.” I mean…wow. That’s a very libertarian thought, from a place that does not have very much libertarianism at all (and don’t bring up Somalia as an example, or I will beat you over the head with a captured oil tanker.) They were using it in the context of the royal throne, but it plays well to just about anything else. Do not take from others, they have spent their resources and time in order to obtain this food, why should have they put it to waste?
Unfortunately, it is not a thought that is prevalent anywhere in the world (except maybe Patri Friedman’s yacht.) Day in and day out we have “activists” and politicians and others saying we need to take more resources away from one group and give it to another, namely the poor. There are people out there chanting that there needs to be a right to food, ignoring that such a right would force others to cater to it, effectively becoming a form of slavery. Why work when your results will be taken from you?
Our world would be a far better place if we respected property rights. We wouldn’t have a need for so many police officers, or locks, or be afraid of walking out our front door in many American cities. People would be far more civil–and more charitable as well, I believe, because without some government agency redirecting money from one pot to the next, they would see poverty as something they had to take care of, and moreover, they’d have more resources to be charitable with. True, if you’re a cop or a locksmith, it might not be so great, but I think in this case, the good of the many outweigh the good of the few. (Not so much needs, as you can get another job.)
But, unfortunately, that’s a massive and indeed fundamental societal change that exists only in fantasy, for now. There’s a long way to go before property rights and individual liberty regain the admiration they deserve.
There’s also a long way to go before art stops being so damn silly.
It’s a caricature–based totally on truth, I think–of artists and art critics being snobs. Well, maybe just critics. But I hear a lot in art about this piece being a manifestation of the will to live, or showcasing the underlying tension between spirit and conformity, or some such garbage. I remember one piece, being three red lines on a white background, supposedly representing humanity. I really don’t understand how such abstract lines and colors can represent something as complicated as humanity. I would think a blood stain on some dollar bills would make more sense.
But I think we may have finally jumped the shark.
Now don’t get me wrong. The art in this exhibit is quite amazing. If you’re in the DC area, I heartily encourage you to check it out. When I’m rich and famous, I might get some of it in my lunar palace. But there’s a distinct difference between amazing artwork and pretentious artwork.
See the picture to the left for an example. Supposedly, this is a spine, laid bare. “Whether this is the result of treatment or trauma, we do not know.” Already, you can feel its nose begin to turn upwards. It does not hit the maximum point, though, until this: that it “explores the unifying structure of the backbone as a metaphor for political, social and mental stability” in another piece, which is really not that great either–it’s a bunch of burnt canvas, which is visually impressive, but how it gets its message is, well, not something I know either.
My question is: how does the above “explore” the backbone? How does it do anything? It’s a bunch of plywood. Interesting to look at, but it does not create a metaphor, nor conduct any metaphysical explorations. Maybe this is my arrogant writer talking, but I don’t think art can actually explore these concepts, unless it has some written component. (Films, which are derived from screenplays, count.) You have to work through these concepts in order to “explore” them, which can be done with characters who act and then react to the world around them. Putting up a static, abstract image does nothing. It may look pretty. It probably looks weird. But being the “metaphor for political, social, and mental stability” is just a leap of illogic.
But maybe that’s just me. Perhaps I’m way off base. Perhaps I’m just not seeing the other dimension to this work. Possible, since here it’s just 2D…What do you think?
I’ve joined the blogging team over at United Liberty, where I can spread my political writings a bit farther. That’s a good thing in many ways, since I didn’t want QMS to get overly political, just occasionally (and for some of the crazier ideas I may come up with, like reforming the electoral system.) I’ll keep you updated on my science fiction here, as well as other topics in the realms of writing and art that aren’t really related to libertarianism.
And for any United Liberty readers coming over here, hello!
If you any taste in good television, you no doubt are a fan of Fringe. Ignore for a moment that its a product of J.J. Abrams, a man who wrote the most dizzyingly confusing plot for a previous show, and made a 21st century reboot of a savored franchise that made me want to claw my eyes out. Instead, relish in the humanity of the characters, the fact that it’s driven by them rather than some outside happenings, and is based entirely on good, substantial writing. Also, relish in the fact that you can watch it on Hulu for free, which is what I do because I don’t have a TV. (Thus, I always get it a day later than the broadcast, but that’s something I can live with.)
In a nutshell, Fringe is the story of a super-secret division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, aka “da Feds,” who are investigating the crossover between their universe and a parallel one. This includes many grisly crimes of a “scientific nature,” ranging from Frankensteins, teleportation, genetic warfare, and just about anything that involves messing with people’s minds (including a program that, once it infects your computer, makes anyone looking at the monitor have a seizure and then melts their brain.) It’s like X-Files, in a sense, only it’s more understandable, and in my opinion, better written, with the plot being firmly driven by the characters. I could expound at length on how good the writing of Fringe is, but today, my main goal is to analyze the latest episode, “The Firefly,” and how it relates to an old dead Frenchman by the name of Frederic Bastiat.
“Who?” you’re probably saying. “Look, I’m pretty sure I know what Fringe is, but who the heck is this guy?”
Frederic Bastiat was a French economist who lived from 1801-1850, during the end of the Napoleanic Wars, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the Second Republic. (If only the States went through so much political upheaval.) He was later elected to the assembly during the Second Republic, but it is not his political career that makes him famous; rather, it is his economic writings. Although The Law (La Loi) is perhaps his most famous, the one more relevant here is his essay What Is Seen and What is Not Seen.
The basic crux of Bastiat’s argument is that while we can see what is right in front of us, there are myriad more factors that come into play, but we cannot see them immediately. We only see them much farther down the road, after the action itself, and they are generally negative. No one can really predict them, although Bastiat does allow that one can possibly foresee them:
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.
These are the first three paragraphs of Bastiat’s essay, getting straight to the point, instead of trying to make a lead in and then burying said point in mounds and mounds of meaningless words, as many modern columnists and writers do. (I profess to having no immunity to this disease.)
To give an example of what Bastiat is speaking of, let’s look to minimum wage laws. Many–not just economists–call for higher minimum wages, in order to better the poor. “Look at these people now!” they say. “They are so much wealthier than before! They can afford health care, food, and shelter! And they spend more, so they will better our economy!” Perhaps. This is easily the seen. But what these well-meaning but ultimately mistaken individuals fail to notice–or in some cases, just ignore–is the unseen: that, with higher labor costs, companies will hire fewer people, and thus, there will be more unemployed. So indeed, one has actually hurt the cause of the poor by putting more of them on the unemployment line. (And that certainly doesn’t better our economy.)
It’s not an easy thing for people to swallow. People like to be in control, they like to know that they understand what’s happening, and that when they set out to do something, their desired result will be the real result. It’s perfectly understandable, and its not something to really be ashamed of. (Although, in my case, cursing that my car will not go around a turn at full speed in GRID probably is something to be ashamed of.) The only bad part is that people refuse to learn from their mistakes, and thus we end up with the incalculably huge, puzzling, and nigh-intractable problems our society faces today.
Fortunately, our heroes on Fringe have the humility to learn. Well, sort of.
Note, I’m not going to worry about spoiling it, since the episode has already aired and you can easily watch it on Hulu, as I linked to it above. I’m also going to assume you know a little bit about the story behind Fringe; if you don’t, read up on Wikipedia and watch the latest five episodes (or rent a season on iTunes) in order to catch up. So here is basically what happened: when Walter returned with his son Peter, they fell in a frozen lake, but the Observer, Mr. September–who I’m assured is not F.A. “Baldy” Harper, despite my initial impressions–saved them from drowning. Unfortunately, as the Observer tells Bishop in the present, he could not have foreseen the consequences of saving a human life. Transcript excerpt taken from Fringepedia, the Fringe wiki:
OBSERVER: There are things that I know. But there are things that I do not. Various possible futures are happening simultaneously. I can tell you all of them, but I cannot tell you which one of them will come to pass. Because every action causes ripples, consequences both obvious and… unforeseen. For instance… after I pulled you and Peter from the icy lake, later that summer, Peter caught a firefly. I could not have known he would do that or that because he did a young girl three miles away would not. And so later that night, she would continue looking, trying to find another one. I could not have known that when she did not come home, her father would go out looking for her, driving in the rain, so that when the traffic light turned red, his truck skidded through the intersection at harvard yard, killing a pedestrian.
Wow. You could not have received a better form of Bastiat’s axiom for the modern audience if Bastiat himself came back to life, went to Hollywood, and wrote a screenplay about it. The seen…and the unseen, even to such a being as the Observer, whom we know is both not human and is far more powerful than one, as well as possessing some unique thought patterns; certainly, one LA Times blogger finds the Observer’s plans to be “inscrutable.” But then, realizing that LA is bankrupt appears to be “inscrutable” to the local mayor, so maybe it’s just something in the water.
Now one can’t really say that this makes Fringe a libertarian TV show. In fact, Fringe is fairly apolitical, other than the general “hey, authoritarianism and secrecy is like, bad, guys” that all shows have. And that’s okay. But I found the similarities between what the Observer was saying last Friday and what Bastiat was talking about a century and a half ago to be quite striking. (Was Frederic Bastiat visited by an Observer? I suppose we cannot rule it out.) But if you do feel a need for a concrete, libertarian connection, then you need look no further than the title of the episode. I’ll give you three guesses which libertarian show it reminds you of.