Monday, April 26, 2010

A Sophisticated, Glamorous Nation

Education is like drinking- the more you get the easier it is to forget who you were before you started. A. Burns

I have a confession to make. About 15 years ago, I was a well-educated ignoramus, from an Ivy League school of some renown. I don't blame the school for this. Had I spent my years there wisely I could have learned a great many things. What I learned instead was how to appear smart- how to fake it. Fortunately, I came to realize there were more benefits to "education" than appearance, like knowing what words really meant, how we got here (if not originally, at least historically), and how the world works.

I'm still, 15 years later, an ignoramus, but at least I'm aware of my condition.

It hasn't been, for me at least, an easy road, nor is my journey complete. As the Buddha said, there are two mistakes on the path of enlightenment- not starting and not going far enough. I've found many temptations to further enlightenment. Pride both tempts me to scorn those less well versed than I and forget that the only difference between me and them is the realization of my ignorance, good fortune in having the time to study, and the study itself. Pride of education is, for me, very self-defeating. It keeps me from being wonderstruck at the millions of others both now and in the past who know more (by making them invisible) and blinding me to my own past history of being ignorant of my own ignorance.

There are, it seems to me, two paradoxes at the heart of education that stymie the continuation thereof. 1) The more you learn, the more tempted you are to think you know, and the less likely you are to keep learning. 2) The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know. Paradox #1 is the "do loop" of ignorance (really a "don't loop") while Paradox #2 can be daunting, if you don't learn to love learning- heck, to get addicted to the process, not the result.

This rather long preamble was occasioned by a read of Don't ignore the Tea Party's Toxic Take on history. I was reminded of my own ignorance (and consequent misuse) of words like communism, socialism, tyrant and progressive. I was reminded of my own pride, after learning the meanings of those words, in arguing by anecdote: Take for instance the Tea Party demonization of "federal regulation" as the instrument of the tyranny that's been imposed on them. I would like every Tea Partier who has denounced federal regulation to write a letter to the widows and children of the coalminers in West Virginia who died because of the failure of "federal regulation" of mine safety. I was reminded of my own pride in seeing simple answers to complex issues: Historical fraudulence is like a disease, a contagious psychosis which can lead to mob hysteria and worse. Consider the role that fraudulent history played in Weimar Germany, where the "stab in the back" myth that the German Army had been cheated of victory in World War I by Jews and Socialists on the home front was used by the Nazis to justify their hatreds.

Tea Partiers who misuse words like communism, fascism and socialism fall into a trap I know all too well- assuming connotation (in this case, negative) equals meaning. It's a common error. To wit: sophistication has acquired a positive connotation. Not too long ago, I discovered its root referred to sophism, or the use of fallacious argument to win debate and previously had a negative connotation. Two wit: glamorous has acquired a positive connotation. Not too long ago I discovered its root referred to a magic spell- a glamour- which made things appear more desirable than they actually were. In years past, I've happily received the "compliment" of being sophisticated. And who knows, perhaps the speaker was equally ignorant of the meaning and meant to compliment? Ignorance all around, in that case, might have been bliss.

Language is a funny thing-both cause and effect, pushing and pulling, hiding and revealing.

Take the anti-anti-regulation argument above.  Tea Partiers, according to the author, should contact the families of recently deceased miners.  Makes sense, yes?  If you are against regulations you must be for the things that occur without?

Like traffic deaths.  Except that's a fairly well regulated area of human life. 

I suspect the issues of driving and mining are more nuanced that either the Tea Partiers, the author, or myself could mentally unravel, which is a far cry from enacting (or removing) policies that would "improve" the world, if such a term could be defined. 

Of course, faith in man's ability to impose macro improvement (instead of self-improvement) through political change seems strong in modern times, on both sides of the political aisle in the US.  Or has politics degenerated into another spectator sport where team victory is all.  Should I even use the term "degenerated"?

Perhaps education about our history is like peeling an onion, the more you peel, the more you cry.

I could argue; conflating Tea Partiers with nascent German National Socialists based on their ignorance might be an error. Ignorance is man's most common state, and given the amount of work required to have what is called good working knowledge of a subject, I'm not surprised.

The conflation basis of Tea Partiers with nascent German National Socialists of which I'm concerned is their (in both cases, justified) sense of getting "screwed" by some of those in power (and rather unfortunate belief that a new boss can set things right). Ignorance is common. Passion fueled by outrage about getting "screwed" is (thankfully) reasonably rare. The combination is almost always a disaster.

Thus, the key element of the Tea Partiers one shouldn't ignore is the outrage. Fortunately, this is, in a sense, an easier problem to fix. In systems of popularly elected government, the elite should work hard to not screw the common man.

Seems to make sense, to me.  So I try to deal with people on the up and up. 

Could such a view be made law and what would be the consequences thereof? 

Tough, for me at least, to reason clearly on the subject as I have little knowledge of serious political reforms (as opposed to the more naked power/wealth grabs) that weren't informed by crisis.  Law follows ethics, with greater or lesser lags.

I suspect the fix, if such were to manifest, will require us to first "touch the stove".  How hot that stove will need to be remains to be seen.

As Santayana said: we learn from history that we learn nothing from history.


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