My World View, Pt. 1

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By Mike Cronin

Every so often it helps to re-examine one’s goals and purposes.  My goal and purpose for this blog is to help others learn to look at the world through the lenses of reason and liberty.  Sometimes that means offering dry descriptions of how things are vs how they ought to be, other times it means promoting an independent viewpoint on a hot-button political issue. No doubt I have appeared to be a right-wing radical to someone on the left, while I might seem to be a leftist to the right-winger. To others, it might seem like I’m simply sitting on the fence and refusing to take sides.

I have never claimed to be unbiased.  In fact, I have described my bias on more than one occasion, but I haven’t ever really described my full worldview.  I thought I might do so now:

It starts with reality. As Ayn Rand said: “Existence exists, and only existence exists.”  Carl Sagan said that the cosmos is “all that is, all that was, and all there ever will be.”  The evidence that existence exists is axiomatic:  If it did not exist, there would be no one to ponder its nature – there would be no nature.

Speaking of nature: Humans are part of nature. Everything humans have ever made, from bone tools and mud huts to spaceships and iPhones, and every action humans have ever taken, from procreating to mass destruction, is ipso-facto natural. That is not to say it is good or bad.

Evil exists.  There are good people and bad. Context matters: good people are sometimes capable of bad things, and evil people may sometimes perform a benevolent act.  Hitler might have treated a pet well, for instance…but that cannot begin to atone for the fact that he inspired and led the industrialized murder of millions. Because Hitler was human, his actions were natural…but because he failed to credit whole segments of humans with having any humanity, he dehumanized himself. He became a monster of natural, not supernatural origin.

Nor was he the only one. Stalin. Pol Pot. Mao Tse-tung. Saddam Hussein. Every era of history has its brutal dictators and ruthless rulers who don’t hesitate to bathe in the blood of millions.  The rational failing of all of these monsters is their inability or refusal to recognize the worth of other humans as humans, or to even recognize other individuals as human at all.  They have actualized the ultimate expression of collectivism: the subsuming of the individual human being into a collective. Collectives that can be branded sub-human and disposed of at whim.

Humans have been ruled by such men as could take control of the levers of power since we were clans of hunter-gatherers.  Every so often, a breakthrough would occur and the building blocks of civilization were laid, even if technology advanced at much more stately pace. The Mesopotamians or other earliest civilizations gave us agriculture and the division of labor.  The Egyptians gave us paper and the concept of a massive library to store the sum of human knowledge.  The Greeks gave us the concepts of reasoned philosophical debate, and democratic and republican forms of government, and more.  The Arabs gave us Algebra, the concept of zero, and names for many stars we see in the night sky. The Persians or their predecessors gave us Indo-European languages, the wheel, chess (probably by way of India), and more. Largely unbeknownst to the west, the Chinese developed many of these same foundations earlier, or at roughly the same time, as their Western counterparts.

All throughout history, threads bind early developments to later ones.  The Greek concepts of democracy and republicanism found a circuitous path that eventually led to the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights…and the United States of America. An imperfect country, established with imperfect, yet eloquent documents, written by imperfect, yet remarkable men…the first country ever founded on the basis of an ideal: recognition of individual rights, liberty, and the rule of law, protected by a government chartered for that sole purpose. Imperfect though it is, via the combination of the freest form of government, ample natural resources, and the best geographical location, the US rose to become the most dominant economic and military power in the world, and to raise the standard of living for more people than any other nation, empire, or civilization in human history. That much power attracts pathological personalities –both to wield it, and to destroy it.  Thus it became inevitable that the US would make enemies. No matter how benevolent the US might be or might have been, our very existence as de-facto world hegemon is a threat to those who aspire to great power, such as Hussein or Osama bin Laden. To wit: something like 9/11 was inevitable.

As beautiful as the founders’ vision of the US was, the implementation of their vision was flawed from the start by four major areas of dysfunction, which I examined in five posts in 2014.

Slavery was chief among those, as it was incompatible with the spirit of the Charters of Freedom.  Our earliest Congress partook of the same sin as Hitler, if perhaps to a slightly lesser degree and without the nationalistic zeal: they justified slavery by willfully neglecting to grant the status of “human being” to slaves. It took nearly 3/4 of a century from the founding to end slavery, and nearly 200 years to reverse most of the direct damage of that failure. We are still dealing with the indirect damage to this day.

This is not to say that things can be put right by going the other direction. Dehumanizing and hating whites, especially white, middle class males, cannot free the long-dead slaves of times past, nor can it improve the lot of the descendants of slaves living today. Holding inter-generational grudges leads to incessant conflict – such as that between the Israelis and Palestinians, which is but a proxy for the much older conflict between Arabs and Jews.

How can we overcome the pain of the past without inflicting all new pains now and in the future?  More on that next week.

Most Illogical

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By Mike Cronin

We are often presented with the terms “logic,” “reason,” “critical thinking,” and “common sense.” They are often touted as valuable skills or traits in our society.  But are they really so appreciated?

You are likely to find enough differing definitions of those terms to keep you busy reading for a while, but there is a common thread.

I think Ayn Rand described logic quite eloquently as the art of “non-contradictory identification,” and common sense as the “unselfconscious” use of logic. Critical thinking and reasoning have broader connotations, but generally include, or go hand-in-hand with, logic and common sense.

There are formal courses on logic and critical thinking, but it’s hit-or-miss whether you encounter them outside of philosophy electives at a college or university or at law school.  By way of one example: my own formal education has included familiarization with debate (taught as a segment of sixth-grade English), and I went to a high school that prided itself on producing critical thinkers. I’ve earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Yet, to my recollection, not one of those sources presented a formal course of instruction on logic or critical thinking. Why?

I suspect that many of you can report a similar gap in your own formal education. Could it be that our educational institutions, and the governments and/or religions that run them, don’t want to produce an abundance of critical thinkers because graduates so equipped might then apply their reasoning skills against some of the irrational curricula or insane policies emitted by learning institutions or their political and financial overlords?

Consider:  In its current guise, the Department of Education, with an annual budget in the tens of billions, was signed into existence by President Carter in 1979. It’s stated mission is to “…promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

Has it accomplished that mission?  It certainly “promotes” student achievement.  Cranking out a single inspirational poster can “check the box” on that mediocre and vague aspiration. It has also made progress on the “equal access” portion – you would be hard-pressed to find someone in this country who has no access to some form of publicly-funded K-12 education. But it has failed utterly at preparing students for global competitiveness!   US scores in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving skills are now near the bottom for industrialized countries.  Perhaps the mission statement of the Department of Education has little alignment to its true purpose.

Don’t think I’m being paranoid here.  No less a luminary than Woodrow Wilson, then President of Princeton University (and later to become President of the United States) revealed the elite’s view of the purpose of public education when, in 1909, he said: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” Note again that he said those words before he was elected President of the United States, so this idea did not overly detract from his elect-ability.

Nowadays, the elite’s plan seems to be to indoctrinate everyone with as much liberal education as they can absorb! Of course, the meaning of liberal has -ahem- been drifting left somewhat since Wilson illuminated the raison d’etre of public schools.

Might not the alumni of schools and universities that failed to teach courses on critical thinking or reasoning skills logically conclude they have been cheated?

On Critical Thinking

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By Mike Cronin

A lot of people talk about critical thinking, but I seldom ever see any explanation of what critical thinking is.  Left to our own devices, we might reasonably assume that critical thinking means being critical.  That is partially right.  Certainly people who practice critical thinking are often critical of others, but that is not the essence of the term.

To me, critical thinking means examining my own thoughts on an issue for errors in logic or reasoning before verbalizing them. It means basing my positions on a foundation of rational thought. It means recognizing bias, especially my own.

I’ve written before about bias.  When you read a news article or watch a news piece, the reporters and networks pretend they have no bias, but that is absurd.  Everyone has a bias – it is inevitable, because even the wisest among us cannot see things from every and all perspectives.  The difference between my blog and some others is that I tell you right up front what my bias is.  I am pro-freedom, pro-capitalism, pro-individualism, and pro-reason.  I am against socialism and any other form of collectivism. My biases are not a result of my upbringing.  If anything, my biases are in opposition to the trends and positions espoused to me in school, church, and to some degree, the military.

Logic is another key ingredient of critical thinking.  Ayn Rand described logic as the art of correct identification.  That sounds simple, but it has deep consequences.  It is easy for a child to recognize a lemon as a lemon, but it might be a bit harder for the child to understand that the lemon can never be anything other a lemon.  It can only do or behave as a lemon.  A person might squeeze it to get the juice, or grate it to get the pith, but a lemon cannot become a bird and fly away.

Wishful thinking and other logical errors are the source of much conflict and dysfunction in the world. An example:  The current brouhaha over gender identity.  We are either born with male anatomy or female anatomy (occasions of true androgyny are exceedingly rare). “Identifying” as the opposite gender from what one’s anatomy dictates (no pun intended) is logically erroneous.  One might align their conflicted desires to reality via surgery and drugs, but until those procedures are complete, one is “male” or “female” according to one’s anatomy.

At the heart of many arguments and conflicts over logic are premises.  There is no shortage of pundits, educators, and other influential people that use well-crafted logical arguments that stem from bad premises.  Take “equality” for example.  We might hear that the difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives want people to be treated as equal under the law, while liberals want everyone to have equal outcomes.  The first premise rests on the idea that no one is more valuable as a human being than anyone else.  It creates the conditions whereby a poor person can raise themselves up from poverty on their own hard work and merit. It is essentially correct, but hard to enforce, because the rich and well connected can sometimes buy better legal representation than the poor. The second premise rests on the idea that it’s not fair for one person to have more than another, so wealth must be redistributed.  It gives no attention to the concepts that wealth belongs to whomever created it, or that individuals have any responsibility for their own situation.  It is a bad premise, because it ignores the fact that life is not and cannot be fair, and it ignores all of the evidence of human history:  Humans cannot rise above animalism without individual effort to devise technology or apply the technology to raising the standard of living.

Are you a critical thinker?

How do You Like Your Economy?

By Mike Cronin

I’ve written previously about how our country is supposed to be a republic and not a democracy or an empire.  Similarly, our economy is supposed to be based on a free market and not centrally controlled. As with our political system, our economy has become mixed. It retains some free-market features, and it suffers under an ever-increasing burden of controls, regulations, and other government and central bank interference.

Why are controls bad? Because those who do the controlling cannot possibly know every way their actions will affect the market. Ignoring this simple fact brought the Soviet Union to ruin; acknowledging it has brought China a measure of prosperity. To understand how intricately complex the market is, consider the case of a simple pencil. It only has a few parts and some paint, yet it takes thousands, if not millions, of people using lots of other products and services in many other industries in order to make pencils and get them to stores.  Interference in any of those areas could affect pencil production, and interference in pencil production could set off a chain reaction into any of those areas. A mixed economy doesn’t just affect our wallets, it affects our morality. Ayn Rand explains it best:

“A mixed economy is rule by pressure groups. It is an amoral, institutionalized civil war of special interests and lobbies, all fighting to seize a momentary control of the legislative machinery, to extort some special privilege at one another’s expense by an act of government—i.e., by force. In the absence of individual rights, in the absence of any moral or legal principles, a mixed economy’s only hope to preserve its precarious semblance of order, to restrain the savage, desperately rapacious groups it itself has created, and to prevent the legalized plunder from running over into plain, unlegalized looting of all by all—is compromise; compromise on everything and in every realm—material, spiritual, intellectual—so that no group would step over the line by demanding too much and topple the whole rotted structure. If the game is to continue, nothing can be permitted to remain firm, solid, absolute, untouchable; everything (and everyone) has to be fluid, flexible, indeterminate, approximate. By what standard are anyone’s actions to be guided? By the expediency of any immediate moment. The only danger, to a mixed economy, is any not-to-be-compromised value, virtue, or idea. The only threat is any uncompromising person, group, or movement. The only enemy is integrity.” (http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/mixed_economy.html)

Sounds a lot like 2014 America, doesn’t it?

Are You Guilty of Enjoying White Privilege?

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By Mike Cronin

On the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find myself recalling a class on multiculturalism in my MA program. During the class, one of the topics was “white privilege.”  The essence of white privilege is that being born white, especially as a male, comes with certain privileges that members of other demographic groups don’t get.  The course hinted that white men could and should feel guilty about this privilege, and that they should take unspecified actions to atone for this guilt. 

I had very mixed feelings about this. I acknowledge that, as a white American male, compared to most people in the US and the world, I have a relatively benign position in life. I even accept that due to the accident of my birth, I began life with more advantages than most. If life is a game, then I acknowledge that I started on the easiest setting.  What I could not, (and still cannot) accept, is that I should feel guilty about it.  Guilt implies wrongdoing, and wrongdoing implies a choice between right and wrong. Infants have no understanding of right and wrong, and have not developed the mental faculties to make conscious choices. I cannot be guilty of being a white male, because it is not wrong, and because I had no choice in the matter. 

That means I have nothing to atone for. On the other hand, knowing that just about every other demographic may be “playing life” on a more difficult setting than I am requires that I ask: As an adult with the ability to understand right and wrong and to make conscious choices, what should I do, if anything, about “white privilege?”  I cannot undo history, nor can I change  anyone’s heritage.  I could give money to various causes, but that would have mixed results at best. 

The answer that I arrived at: Context matters.  While, as whole, white males may get the best “starting position” of any group, all groups are made of individuals, and individual circumstances vary. Some white males had it worse than I did, and some had it better. Likewise, while as a group, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, women, or others might not have had as good a starting position as white men, there are individuals in each cohort that started life out in an even better position than I did. In other words, the answer to “white privilege” is not to feel guilty and attempt to atone for something outside of one’s control, but rather to see and interact with every person as an individual, not as a representative of a demographic group (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.). The best thing anyone can do to create a level playing field is not to dole out compensatory advantages to some members of this or that “underprivileged” group, but simply to not hate or act against others because of their differences – to not purposely be bigoted, prejudiced, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, etc. Instead, respect individuals, and be a proponent of individual rights. Since the smallest possible minority is an individual, individual rights ARE minority rights.

America: Republic, Democracy, or Empire? Part III

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By Mike Cronin

In parts I and II, I opined that the U.S. is supposed to be a republic, but that we have become dysfunctional as such, and that people think we are a democracy, but if we adopt true majority rule vs the rule of law, we will descend into dictatorship.  Whether we are a republic or a democracy or a dictatorship speaks to our domestic governance, but what about our foreign relationships?  Some say America is an empire, and we have certainly done things that are imperialistic. But what is an empire, exactly? According to Paul Schroeder, Professor Emeritus of History, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

“…empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from and alien to it. Many factors enter into empire–economics, technology, ideology, religion, above all military strategy and weaponry–but the essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another. This need not mean direct rule exercised by formal occupation and administration; most empires involve informal, indirect rule. But real empire requires that effective final authority, and states can enjoy various forms of superiority or even domination over others without being empires.”

America certainly wields enormous power and influence across the world. We have the most powerful military and the largest economy. We have a military presence in something like 75-80% of the countries, and our Navy and Air Force can hold any target anywhere on the globe at risk. A few words from the president or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve can affect the fortunes of investors the world over.  We have acted imperialistically in many historical cases, but we are not fully an empire yet. The critical distinction is that we do not maintain “final authority” over other polities. In the historical cases where we had such power, we kept it only temporarily. (For example: the Philippines, Japan post WW II, Panama, Iraq.) We may not ever become an empire…unless we do descend into dictatorship. A dictator needs to accumulate power in order to keep accumulating power. An American dictator would have enormous power indeed – certainly enough to enable his or her ambition for empire.

So, to sum up this series of posts: are we a republic, a democracy, or an empire? If the answer eludes you, don’t feel bad. If you asked 100 historians or social scientists, you’d get 100 different answers.  In my opinion, we are stuck between modes of governance, that is, we have a mix of systems, and pressure is building.  “We the people” are supposed to have a republic, with representation in furtherance of protecting our rights; instead we get lip service. Where our votes are supposed to matter, instead corporate lobbyists and issue-based pressure groups buy or bully for the legislation they want and turn America against itself in the doing. Our elected leaders pass laws we don’t want, waste money that isn’t theirs on programs the Constitution doesn’t authorize, and empower armies of bureaucrats to regulate with the force of law. Then they then exempt themselves from their own handiwork. Our Supreme Court to often tries to legislate new rights out of thin air in an effort to achieve “social justice” and ignores the  Constitution, or says it’s a living document and re-interprets it to mean exactly the opposite of what it says. Ayn Rand was prescient when she wrote: “… no one’s interests are safe, everyone’s interests are on a public auction block, and anything goes for anyone who can get away with it. Such a system—or, more precisely, anti-system—breaks up a country into an ever-growing number of enemy camps, into…groups fighting one another for self-preservation in an indeterminate mixture of defense and offense, as the nature of such a jungle demands.”

If it seems like we are the most powerful nation on the planet, but that we are in decline because we can’t get our governmental act together , you are seeing things pretty clearly.