Saturday, June 10, 2006

Against Optimism

The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault
It rains into the sea
And still the sea is salt

The world is a horrible place. It has always been a horrible place. Barring some huge and unforeseen miracle, it will always be a horrible place. The sooner people realize this, the sooner we can start having realistic political discussions.

Conservatives seem to think that the world is OK – maybe not great, but OK – if only governments would stop screwing things up. To anyone who takes off his or her rose colored glasses for a few minutes (as liberals generally do from time to time, if only to see how conservatives are wrong), this point of view is nonsensical. The world is clearly not OK, and government intervention – while it might cause some harm – cannot seriously be thought a sufficient explanation, given the severity of the world’s not-OK-ness.

Liberals, on the other hand, think that the world’s problems – most of them, or enough of them, anyhow – can be solved. To anyone who thinks through the issues (as conservatives do occasionally, if only to see why liberals are wrong), this point of view is nonsensical. When you try to solve a problem (“you” being a hypothetical political leader with the aid of an inefficient bureaucracy and subject to the usual political motivations), you typically create bigger problems, and you seldom succeed in solving the original problem.

Though I’m rather a social liberal myself, I think the only people who are close to having it right are certain religious conservatives who believe that the fallen state of the world is a punishment for man’s sin and that the only hope of redemption is religious rather than political. In some cases, these are people who do foresee the “huge…miracle” that I earlier described as “unforeseen.”

As for me, Osama Bin Laden has convinced me that religion – Western monotheism, anyhow – is not the right way. And moreover, somehow, I no longer understand how the idea of Original Sin ever made sense to me. (I won’t get into the theological details here.) Maybe I could buy Buddhism (you know, “Life is suffering; there is no self; all is emptiness”), if only these damn American Buddhists would cut their hair and dress like Episcopalians.

(Am I the only person that still reads Housman?)

(Apparently not; Sognaluna does. Jivacandra does. So does St00pidN00bie.)

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Anonymous mvpy said...

What can I say?

"The world is a horrible place. It has always been a horrible place."

I shudder to think that this is what strikes you when you wake in the morning. We all have our share of problems, but the liberal view only perpetuates those problems. Someone rightly said "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional". I think conservatives take this seriously. Liberals say, well, lets just harp on the "suffering" part and, in that sense, suffering becomes inevitable.
Regarding solutions, conservatives believe in people. Liberals believe in government. People know best who to solve their own problems; thats my conservative view. Liberals say, well, government can solve my problems. Does some guy living in Washington know whats best for me. Dream on, knzn. OF course not. At times, I myself dont even know whats best for me. So conservative -rightly, Id say- are highly skeptical of government. Especially, given we believe political failure is enormous and compounds problems. Liberals for the past six years have done nothing but bewail the government. And then they go on and ask for.. well, more government. I dont get it; I never will.

Sat Jun 10, 06:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger knzn said...

“I shudder to think that this is what strikes you when you wake in the morning.” No, I try to remember to put on my rose-colored glasses before I go to bed at night.

“Liberals say, well, lets just harp on the "suffering" part and, in that sense, suffering becomes inevitable.” Suffering is individual. Why would harping on suffering at the political level make suffering inevitable at the individual level? And how would failing to harp on suffering at the political level make it any less likely at the individual level?

“Does some guy living in Washington know whats best for me. Dream on, knzn. OF course not. At times, I myself dont even know whats best for me. So conservative -rightly, Id say- are highly skeptical of government.” This doesn’t follow. I often don’t know what’s best for me because I haven’t had time to study all the issues and draw conclusions. In principle, the government might be able to do this more efficiently than I can. The problem is, I don’t necessarily trust the government to act in my interest. There are tradeoffs.

Sat Jun 10, 06:41:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous battlepanda said...

Buddists that look like episcopalians...that's awesome. I think the new-agey trappings of buddism actually hides a religion that is more interesting and less sentimental than most. Instead of focusing on love and hate, for one's friends and enemies respectively, Buddism focuses on suffering and mercy, which is the alleviation of suffering. It is the only religion I know of that aligns with utilitarian elements (I consider myself an utilitarian in philosophy). Chinese buddists, for example, might be vegetarian on certain days of the month as a way of sparing life and building a bank of good deeds, wheras in the west being vegetarian for moral reasons is pretty much an all or nothing deal. Nepalese (or maybe its tibetan?) buddists consider it less of a sin to eat beef than chicken (they need some meat to live comfortably in the high-altitudes) because there is more meat on each animal.

I don't think I could ever be buddist though, because though it is funny to describe such a pacifist religion thus, I find it quite nihilistic in a way. It is not enough to come to terms and to minimize suffering, to be a good buddist is also to abdicate pleasure . Garlic and onions are considered undesirable foods because they taste too strong and worldly -- liable to knock the serene mind off the path to enlightenment. Maybe my reading is shallow, but I find the idea that the path to heaven is the gradual chocking off of desires through successive reincarnations rather uninspiring.

Sun Jun 11, 02:30:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous mvpy said...

"No, I try to remember to put on my rose-colored glasses before I go to bed at night."

Im sure you look hot in them, knzn. The gals would love this!

"Why would harping on suffering at the political level make suffering inevitable at the individual level?"

The entire liberal movement is essentially, to me anyhow, about inciting guilt. Guilt about poverty, guilt about racism, guilt about inequality, guilt about the environment, guilt about.. ok you get the idea. In this sense liberals intentially try to induce suffering; thats their political message. You feel guilty, but, heh, we can alleviate that guilt for you. So, I dont listen to liberals or read any of their stuff; namely, its designed to inflict suffering. There!

"I often don’t know what’s best for me because I haven’t had time to study all the issues and draw conclusions. In principle, the government might be able to do this more efficiently than I can."

This gets to the essence of the problem. Im actually rather taken aback by your candor here. This "not having time" thing just doesnt cut it, knzn. Get real. If theres an issue thats important for me, Ill be damn sure to look into it. Indeed, I can do so at the click of a button nowadays. And, oh, wheres homo economicus? What youre saying seems to violate fundamental principles of economic theory.

And as for the "in principle" thing, yes, of course, but, again, get real. Do you really believe some guy in Washington can help you run your life. I doubt it. I hope not. And just think. We're all different in any case. Im pretty sure what you think is optimal deviates from what I do. What you think a vice or virtue deviates from my perceptions. And so on. It sounds a tad subtoptimal to impose one set of principles on everyone else. Ok, you can counter, well, we're in a democracy. Well, many liberals havent been very happy over the past six years in this democracy. Have they? No. Indeed, Ive been pretty damn unhappy with all the gov expenditure, and these guys are meant to be representing my worldview. So, knzn, get real. Okay?

Sun Jun 11, 06:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger knzn said...

battlepanda, I like your linking of Buddhism and utilitarianism. I never thought of that, but the doctrine of karma is kind of like a utilitarian ethical theory. On a philosophical level, I’m actually rather attracted by the nihilistic aspect of Buddhism, but in real life, I don’t have enough confidence in that teaching to actually start trying to renounce pleasure. Right now, I would say that I am a “theistic atheist,” meaning that I believe that God is a non-entity and as such, an appropriate object of awe. I see this as related to the Mahayana Buddhist idea of voidness: to affirm the concept of deity while assigning it to a non-entity is essentially to say that all things are fundamentally void (i.e., the core of being is nothingness). But it also seems like the logical conclusion of Western religion (at least Christianity, wherein the all-powerful God becomes simultaneously weak and is symbolically annihilated; resurrection could be seen as a metaphor for my idea that a non-entity is an appropriate object of awe). [Uh-oh, shove me in the shallow water…]

mvpy: “If theres an issue thats important for me, Ill be damn sure to look into it.” The problem is, most issues aren’t very important, by themselves, but there are so many issues. I’d just as soon have the government make most of the little decisions for me.

“What youre saying seems to violate fundamental principles of economic theory.” Well, yeah, economic theory is just a tool. Just because I find that tool useful doesn’t mean I have to be philosophically committed to its principles.

A leftist friend of mine (back in the days when Marxism was still a real movement) once said (not seriously), “Guilt is one of the most progressive emotions of the bourgeoisie.” But I think liberalism is about compassion, not about guilt. Some liberals are Calvinist, but others are often accused of rejecting responsibility. And my liberal self does tend to reject the idea that anything at the political level is somebody’s fault (either individually or collectively). My liberal impulse says that the world just happens to suck, and I want to fix it (though it tends to be countered by a conservative impulse that says it can’t be fixed).

Sun Jun 11, 11:24:00 PM EDT  
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