People Should Stop Pontificating

My mother has a funny quote: “Opinions are like armpits. Everybody has two, and they usually stink.”

I can’t argue with that. Over the past few years I’ve lived in the DC area and become more involved in public policy debates, philosophical discussions, and politics, I’ve seen this ring true dozens and dozens of time over. Everybody has an opinion. And, with few exceptions, these opinions are generally awful.

I don’t mean they’re awful in that I disagree with them. I don’t mean they’re awful in that they come to the wrong conclusions. I mean that they’re awful because of shoddy reasoning, faulty premises, and often just kneejerk, instinctive responses rather than anything genuinely intelligent. You can be a smart person whom I respect even if we fundamentally disagree on certain points. But I won’t respect you if your logic is rubbish, you resort to fallacies, and you demand others do the research for you.

Why am I saying this? I guess it’s because I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror lately. I have a few posts in my drafts folder about a few high octane topics. One – which I will still likely publish soon – is over the whole “climate march” BS and the “Flood Wall Street” nonsense that went on last week. Let me be clear: I think climate change is happening. I don’t think it is anything to be worried about, and I most certainly do not want the government trying to “fix” it. But do I really have the grounds to be pontificating about climate change, on my personal blog? At most, I think what I can do is point out the absurdities and contradictions in the arguments and actions of the climate protestors, note the evidence we really have, and then just point out the potential consequences of undoing capitalism and trying to embrace some form of eco-socialism (which I personally think would be disastrous.)

But then that raises another question: even if we are not an expert in field X, does that preclude us from giving our opinions on field X? Must we refrain all the time?

I used to look at it as “Well, you can offer your opinion, but it will be weighted less than an expert in field X.” That seemed to make sense. But now, I’m starting to think that people outside a field might, in some circumstances, actually have a more valuable or intelligent viewpoint. But only in some cases. One case was when, for a group political blog, I wrote about an article where a college professor recommended that we get rid of the United States Air Force and roll it’s operations into the Army and Navy. I added on to that with some musing about whether or not we still needed the Marine Corps. Cue tons of angry commentators who said that I had obviously never been in the military and had no idea what I was talking about, but they had been in the Corps for years and knew exactly why the Corps was a necessity in this day and age. Yet, despite this, none of them presented a cogent argument for why it needed to be around. I look at the Corps, and what I see these days is a second Army, albeit one with more aviation assets and supposedly tied to the Navy. It looks redundant, and there is no reason that it’s “unique” features (namely, fast assault) can’t be rolled into the Army and redone there. (Wrong culture was one reason given; okay, then, change the Army culture.) Basically, their arguments were emotional appeals to tradition and patriotism, not logic.

I think that’s a problem when looking from the inside on any issue. You need people who are looking from the outside, who don’t necessarily have “expertise,” both to bring you back down to earth and to bring up things you may not have thought of. How many times have experts been so caught up in the weeds of their profession that they’ve missed the pasture, the river, and the neighboring forest? It happens all the time when I start programming, then I realize that nobody else knows how the heck I’m doing something, so I have to go back and make it easier for them to use. I also see it with scientists, who say “The data is saying X, ergo we must do Y” but they completely ignore A-W and probably Z, then get all pissy when people who aren’t scientists say “No, we shouldn’t.” “But you’re not scientists, you don’t understand!” Well, actually, we do, we just understand a broader context.

But overall, I’m not so confident that people should be voicing their opinions all the time. I’m not calling for restrictions on the First Amendment here; this has nothing to do with laws and regulation. I’m just talking about individual practices. Many look at Twitter and Facebook as “democratizing” the Internet, and think this is a good thing; what I see these days is that a lot of rather stupid, lowbrow people whose ill-thought opinions were restricted to themselves and a few others in their close social circles now have a platform to fling them out there into the world. Worse, a lot of these people have found others who are like them, and have banded together to promote this kind of content. Look at the calls for anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and populism. Not necessarily good things. The lowest common denominator now drives our discourse. Rather than actually research the topic at hand, be humble about what you’re putting forward (i.e., open to being proven wrong), and then present an argument based on the evidence, it’s all kneejerk opinionating with very little to back it up but more and more decibels. I mean hell if you can’t even be bothered to look up the basic facts of the subject at hand, you shouldn’t really be talking, just as a courtesy to everyone else.

Was there really a point to this blog post? I don’t know. It is awfully rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  • I don’t publish things immediately because I like to stop, think about them, and come back to them later…which other people usually do not;
  • There are an awful lot of people out there who really have no idea what on Earth they are talking about but pontificate as if they are serious philosophers;
  • Social media has turned me from a somewhat egalitarian “voice of the people” dude into an almost aristocratic conservative who thinks the peasants should really shut up now because they have no idea what they’re doing;
  • I am not above being one of the idiotic peasants.

So, basically, can everyone just shut the hell up for a little while? You’re all idiots. Myself included.

I am now (Cato) Unbound!

I’m extremely pleased to announce that I am participating in the May 2013 edition of Cato Unbound (@CatoUnbound), the most intelligent online journal of intellectualism.

The topic of this month is fusionism, specifically between libertarians and conservatives. My good friend and America’s Iron Lady, Jacque Otto (@jacque_otto) is kicking off with a lead essay, followed by yours truly on Wednesday, to then be followed by Students for Liberty Vice President Clark Ruper (@clark_ruper) on Friday and Acton Institute Research Fellow Jordan Ballor (@JordanBallor) on Monday.

This is the big leagues, folks, and I am very proud to be here. While six years ago I wanted to just do sci-fi writing, this is still extremely exciting. And I’m sure I can work it into my science fiction–after all, a great many science fiction writers were and are passionate libertarians. For that reason, HUGE thanks are in order to Cato Unbound editor @JasonKuznicki, to whom I now owe a keg of scotch. Or something.

Please read the lead essay up here, and feel free to join in the discussion!

http://www.cato-unbound.org/2013/05/06/jacqueline-otto/state-debate

Thoughts on the future of the American Liberty Movement

Quick question to those who follow American libertarianism:

Do you think that the liberty movement is going through an adolescence period, and sometime in the near future it will “grow up” and get serious and finally have some major successes?

Because looking at the crazy–mostly the Ron Paul types who can’t accept that he lost–it looks to me like a teenager who thought he was invincible until he first encountered disappointment and failure.

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Away to #CPAC I Shall Go

Oh, Jesus...

Tomorrow I will be heading downtown into Washington DC proper to attend CPAC 2012–otherwise known as the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference. Although I would rather be working on science fiction, and especially blogging about fiction writing here, the time constraints of my job and where I live essentially mandate that my entire life revolves around politics. And let’s face it, when you live in DC, the most politically-driven city in the entire world, your life is about politics.

I’m not entirely keen on going. I was convinced to go because a friend of mine who works in social media wanted me to. He has a tendency to keep dragging me to happy hours and social events, which is just his thing. That’s okay, but it means that when I show up, I usually only do reluctantly. The deciding factor for me this year was that Daniel Hannan, UK Conservative MEP, will be coming on Saturday to give a half-hour talk, and if you’ve ever seen this video and liked it on Youtube, you know you just can’t pass up an opportunity like that.

How can you see such wit and eloquence and not want to see the man in person? I certainly can’t. So, as a blogger for UnitedLiberty.org, I registered as an official CPAC blogger, and am now getting my stuff together.

There are worries, though. There are a great deal others who are attending CPAC who are far less inspiring than Hannan. You have folks like Kirk Cameron, Stephen Baldwin (Alec Baldwin’s conservative twin), Ann Coulter, and then (former) presidential candidates Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich…and Rick Santorum. You’ll have birthers. You’ll have Christian fundamentalists. You’ll have Limbaugh fanatics. You’ll have people dressed up in tricorn hats like it’s some bizarre science fiction convention. And with last year’s brouhaha over GOProud, the organization for gay Republicans, being kicked out, you don’t have any sort of balancing act whatsoever.

In short, it’s the most concentrated crazy you can get without resorting to doing lines of coke while listening to a Justin Bieber album at a Flat Earth Society meeting. Or the Democratic National Convention.

I’m deeply saddened by this. Especially now, when this country badly needs an effective opposition to the nincompoopery being spread around by an ineffective and corrupt presidential administration, and organizations that seem to have no other goal but to rob millions of Americans of their individual freedom in order to obtain yet more ill-gotten plunder at the public treasury, the opposition forces are disorganized, uncoordinated, and worse off, come across as complete moonbats. To be fair, that’s not everybody. A lot of conservatives are not as radical as the media makes them out to be, and they’re actually quite sane and reasonable individuals. Jonah Goldberg, Richard Lowry, David Frum, James Joyner, Doug Mataconis, Richard Stacy McCain (you know, the “Other” McCain), and a whole bevy of others are fairly moderate. I suppose that’s another reason why I’m hauling my carcass to the hotel where CPAC is being held: I want to see for myself, with my own eyes, just how far down the road to nuttery the conservative movement has gone. I want to see some sort of hope at CPAC tomorrow. Maybe there will be. Maybe there won’t.

But probably the largest reason anyone is going to CPAC is because it’s one large social event. You’re not really there for the speakers or the booths or the how-to panels. They’re sideshows. The main attraction is meeting all the bloggers and staffers and strategists who you haven’t seen in months…and then attend one of the nine hundred eighty-two happy hours going on over the weekend, at which point you all get smashed and wake up the next morning wondering just who the president is and what exactly is the job of the Supreme Court of the United States. That’s the real point of CPAC. For me, definitely; I’m attending a blogger breakfast sponsored by Google and hope to use the conference to pick my fellow bloggers’ brains about best practices. No doubt about it, I want United Liberty to be in the Top 100–better yet, Top 50–of blogs covering American politics. I want it to be a place where people who are fed up with the left and the right can go for a refreshing perspective on politics, where they feel that yes, they have colleagues and allies and are not alone in this miasma.

But that’s enough for now. Tomorrow, I will go to the conference. I will report. I will blog. I will meet. I will greet. I will shake hands. I will probably kiss an ass or two–wait, there’s not going to be any Democrats, nevermind.

Corporatism & Crony Capitalism Get Their Due

I just want to take a moment on Super Bowl sunday and say that I am very pleased to see that the phrase “crony capitalism” is getting more airtime in the media, such as this piece in the Washington Examiner by Glenn Reynolds (linked via reason), here on Forbes, and on this piece on prison privatization (which I actually agree with.)

Another term I’m glad is appearing more often is corporatism, which is being misused more often than not, but I’m at least glad it’s appearing and people are discussing it, such as in this reason piece.

The reason I’m happy is because this is what libertarians have been fighting against for years. Throughout the Clinton and Bush administrations, when libertarians tried to argue for capitalism and free markets, they were hounded by progressives and so-called “liberals” for supporting big businesses exploiting and plundering the American economy for their own gains. Of course, libertarians do not support corporate subsidies, corporate welfare, and corporate bailouts, but the term “corporate socialism” which I heard used was  really inadequate and made absolutely no headway. Corporatism and crony capitalism, on the other hand, both do a far better job describing what is going on in this country than “corporate socialism” ever did, because let’s face it: it’s not socialism. Sure, there many be elements of it, but it’s not socialism.

I find it even more important in the wake of the Occupy movement, because that was the original and core concern of the Occupiers. They were not socialists or bat crazy progressives, at least not in the beginning. They were average Joes and Janes who felt cheated by the system, who had done what they were expected and told to do and came away with nothing, but watched the TV and saw banking executives walking away with billions of taxpayer dollars after the market crashed. There is really no way you can argue with that, because it’s all true: corporate (and particularly financial) executives cheated. They lobbied, they bribed, and they won. It’s not fair and it’s wrong. The Occupiers had the right idea, originally.

The problem came when they simply refused to really do anything about it outside of just sitting on their bums and whining protesting. They blocked streets during the commute for no other purpose than, perhaps, to annoy everyone and cause them to lose public support. They were taken over by labor unions, socialists, and idiotic hippies who figured they had another lifeline to extend their dead-end political ideologies, not to mention several people who just wanted to be there to be “cool.” And then, of course, you had the rapes and the public health hazards that were created by the poorly maintained camps, which is cited as the main reason that police in cities across the nation have started pushing people out.

Make no mistake, the real threat to freedom and free markets today is crony capitalism, not socialism or other left-wing ideologies. It is simply corruption, and that is something that everyone–left, right, and center–can agree must be driven from the economy. Getting the word out right now is the best thing we can do, so we can educate the populace and let them know that yes, Virginia, there is truly a difference.

LP, meet Orwell

Libertarians say Paul Ryan is worse than Bill Clinton | Libertarian Party.

I don’t like mixing politics with writing on this blog–there are far too many places for that–but sometimes, there is really no avoiding it.

I will admit that I’m a libertarian. I’m not what they call a “big-L” libertarian, in that I’m not a member of the Libertarian Party, though I was once and still receive their email newsletter. It’s intriguing to hear what the party officials are complaining about, for sometimes they give you really interesting angles. The title of the above press release should be interesting in and of itself.

But the real meat of this entry is down a few paragraphs [emphasis mine]:

“Another unfortunate but predictable thing about Paul Ryan’s budget is that it continues to mollycoddle the Pentagon. Paul Ryan is the Military-Industrial Complex’s best friend. He apparently can’t find one penny to cut from Obama’s bloated levels of military spending. Only a big-government Republican could come up with language like ‘reinvesting $100 billion in higher military priorities.’

MOLLYCODDLE?

What sort of word choice was that? Heck, I’m a wordsmith and even I had to look up what that meant. And what does it mean? Coddle, essentially, which then makes me ask the question: Why the heck didn’t you just say CODDLE?

I don’t think I really need to expound on why this is a silly word choice. I mean really…

MOLLYCODDLE?

Strunk & White? STILL?

Earlier today I attended a lecture on persuasive writing, specifically on writing op-eds and letters to the editors for major papers. I felt it was pretty thin, but then, it wasn’t oriented at me, a guy who has been writing since he was four. But it did bring up some good points, namely to be quick, to the point, punchy, and no dithering of any sort.

I also liked the limits he gave–hard numbers are always good for a presentation. 150 words for a letter, 750 for an op-ed. And those aren’t targets, they’re ceilings. If you can do less, write less. Better chance of getting it in. That at least gives me a ballpark.

There was only one problem, really, that I had with it. It wasn’t even focused on, and it was a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment. But it was still: on the very last slide, on the list of “books you should read,” was an entry for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

SERIOUSLY?

Why the hell does anyone still recommend that book? Surely there are better books out there on writing (or just different ones.) I took a couple of correspondence courses back when I was in high school from a “career school” in Pennsylvania, so I got a couple of copies of Elements and read it, and I could tell you straight off the bat that it was utter trash.

First off, most of the book is simple common sense. “Be clear.” Naw, really? “Omit needless words.” ZOMG, manna from heaven! Come on. Even American high school graduates would know this stuff, and they’re some of the worst offenders of writing out there. (I know. I am one.)

But the rest of it is just garbage. The writers didn’t even know what they were talking about half the time. I could elucidate, but rather, I’ll leave it up to a professor from Edinburgh who explained it so well two years ago:

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying “The bill was paid by me,” with no stress on “me,” would sound inane. (I’m the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. “The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor” sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.

[…]

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”) I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)

The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.

“Put statements in positive form,” they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent “not” from being used as “a means of evasion.”

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”

I lose a dash of respect for people who tell you to read Elements in order to be a better writer. It’s like they never thought about it; they’re just repeating what everyone said before without analyzing it. Note that the person in question, who I’m leaving nameless, is someone I respect overall, and this is a rather tiny slight, but still. I’m disappointed.

Suffice to say, I put the Elements of Style in the same category as Shakespeare’s work: overhyped bilge that should have been junked years ago.

On (the English) Language

Yesterday I attended a great lecture, from Tom Palmer, an amazing scholar on history and political philosophy, on clarity in language. The principal text we read was George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, a fantastic work that everyone should read. Orwell’s idea is that if one controls the language, one controls the public’s thought processes, a core theme of his famous novel 1984.

Orwell was by no means a libertarian; instead, he was a fan of democratic socialism, which is socialism not by gun and revolution, but by protest and ballot box (in other words, what’s slowly going on in the United States.) However, he made some really great points on how language can easily confuse and muddle the truth and thus lead to oppression and authoritarianism wrapped in the guise of liberty and democracy. He was also pretty good on getting writers to become better writers.

The core message, the core principle, is simplicity and clarity. The great thing I got out of the lecture was the history of English, namely, that we have two words for everything. Ever hear the phrase “cease and desist?” It’s really quite redundant, with the words having the same meaning. Why waste time uttering two words when you just use one? As it turns out, it comes from the Norman conquest of England, where the Norman rulers spoke French and the Anglo-Saxon peasants spoke, well, Anglo-Saxon (also known as “Old English.”) So in a court of law, they had to make sure everybody knew what was going on: “Okay, you people, cease, and you, desist.” The same thing was observed with food, which Palmer noted as an example of “class struggle” (though I think he was being sarcastic): If its on your plate, in the castle, it’s called pork or beef, but if its out in the fields in the mud, it’s called pig or cow. (You wouldn’t ask someone if they wanted to eat some cow, now, would you? Sounds weird.) It also leads to some interesting observations: while the French-derived word is more elegant, the Anglo-Saxon derived word is more powerful. Which is better?

  • The Russian journalist was defenestrated.
  • The Russian journalist was throw out a window.

I bring up this particular example because I saw the former example in an article about a Russian journalist being murdered by the Putin regime a few years ago (2007, I believe?) and I thought, “Why did they say “defenestration?” I actually thought it was kinda cool at the time, an example of better writing, but really, it isn’t. If it makes your reader stop and think about what the word means, instead of thinking about the article itself, it’s probably not a good word choice (unless your article is about words, like it is here.)

But there were still some things that threw me off. The main thing was “dying metaphors.” We had a good talk about these phrases that shouldn’t be in use anymore, because the contemporary audience doesn’t understand them, but I’m not sure. I’m 21, not especially intelligent, and I understand all of these “dying” metaphors:

  1. swan song: the last work before retiring or leaving the scene; from the myth that a swan knows when it is going to die and sings an utterly beautiful song that leaves one in thrall and then expires
  2. barking up the wrong tree: focusing on the wrong thing or take the wrong course; I think the origin is clear here
  3. throw a monkey wrench: stop something, foul up somebody’s plans or agenda; comes from a metal wrench that is thrown into wooden gears, destroying them
  4. sacred cow: something you don’t touch or mess with; I think it comes from the sacred cows of India, though I’m not entirely sure.
  5. third rail: same as the above
  6. whistling in the dark: being confident some good will come out of some mess that it obviously won’t come out of

Yes, it is true that these are sometimes misused (“He threw a monkey wrench into their sacred cow.” Poor cow) but I think, overall, the population understands all of these phrases, even the young iGeneration (to an extent.) Therefore, I don’t see using these phrases as bad or confusing language. In fact, they may be quite helpful, especially with the other dictum that Orwell offers: Be short. (Thank goodness for Twitter then, amirite?)

So am I right on this–or am I totally an outlier and off my rocker?