Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Moderately Happy Medium

The Crystal Ball, 1902, by John William WaterhouseYears ago, I had an office next to a guy named Don. He was the Network Administrator for the same company that employed me, and, like most network guys, he had a strong libertarian bent. It goes with the turf — a network administrator is like a yeoman smallholder, guarding his domain fiercely from cyber-intruders: “No one’s gonna f**k with my network.”

On any given question — gun control, affirmative action, political correctness, global warming, government spending — Don held what would commonly be known as the conservative position. I doubt he voted for Democrats very frequently, even though he viewed Republicans with an almost equal contempt.

Yet Don took great pains to identify himself as a moderate. “I’m not a liberal, and I’m not a conservative,” he told me. “I’m middle-of-the-road.” I doubt the average Kerry supporter would have agreed with his self-identification, but that’s the way he thought of himself.

Why this desire to distance himself from the people he fundamentally agreed with? Why not identify himself with his natural allies?

There’s a normal social urge not to be held in contempt by one’s fellow humans. The fact that more people agreed with Don’s positions than disagreed with them was not enough to save him from a nagging feeling that his opinions were beyond the pale. Everything he took in from the larger culture around him — the TV news, the pronouncements of government officials, the unctuously politically correct magazine advertisements placed by large corporations — told him that his natural tendencies were atavistic, hateful, and wrong. He couldn’t bring himself to adopt a liberal stance, so the safest thing was to be “middle-of-the-road”. No one could fault him for that.

If you adopt a moderate stance, you won’t be mistaken for a racist or a Nazi or a theocon. Nobody will call you a “right-wing extremist”.

But have you ever noticed that liberals don’t sweat being confused with Trotskyites, or Maoists, or Stalinists, or anarchists? It doesn’t bother them particularly to be seen as further left than they are. From the point of view of the larger culture, they have nothing to lose by being mistaken for communists — after all, it only means that they get to bathe themselves in the hallowed red glow that surrounds Che Guevara and the other icons from The People’s Sourcebook of Communist Saints.

All this goes to show who controls the national conversation. There are only two available positions: Left and Further Left. Anybody claiming middle-of-the-road status is well-advised to announce repeatedly, “Hey! At least I’m not a conservative.”

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There’s another kind of “moderate” stance which is very much in vogue: the idea that the best course of action, not mention the truth, always lies somewhere between two extremes. This was brought to mind by a comment on one of my recent posts:

The major downside of blogs is they allow people to tune out any alternative opinion and hear only what they want to hear. This not only destroys communication, creating ever greater divides between groups, but it also serves as an echo chamber pushing people further and further to the right or left. I think this partially explains your growing paranoia. Political studies show that as people move further right or left, they become increasingly convinced that not only is the ‘other’ party wrong, but also their own. Taken to the most extreme, you end up with groups like Daily Kos or truthers, willing to believe even the most ridiculous paranoid rants because it conforms to their pre-determined expectations.

This is the number one problem with the counterjihad in my mind. The conservative message is not ‘Islamic fundamentalism is a problem that must be stopped’. Instead, the conservative message is ‘Islamic fundamentalism is only a problem because of the liberal media, the left wing conspiracy to overthrow the west, and because our own leaders are really secretly working against us’. Meanwhile the liberal message which necessarily has to be the opposite of the conservative one is now ‘there is no terrorist threat, it was a huge plot by republicans, and any terrorism that occurs is orchestrated by the USA’. As a result, the messages are restricted to groups that are too small to effectively stop the jihad.

There are several false premises at work here. Our commenter’s point is that there must be a “happy medium”, a position somewhere in between the extreme liberal and extreme conservative positions. The middle-of-the-road approach of necessity reflects the well-reasoned, thoughtful, moderate, and dispassionate truth, and following it instead of the overheated extremes is bound to bring success.

But is this necessarily true? Is the happy medium always the truest and most moral course to take?

Let’s take some instructive examples from history. Consider the ancient controversy over the idea of a geocentric cosmos. At one extreme were the traditionalists who insisted that the Earth lay at the center of creation, and the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars all revolved around it in a set of concentric crystalline spheres. At the other extreme were the radical proponents of the heliocentric universe, among them Aristarchus of Samos, Ptolemy, and Copernicus.

Did the truth lie somewhere between these two extremes? Was there a model of the universe which included some geocentric elements? Maybe we could tinker with the original theory and have the moon and the stars revolve around the Earth, while the planets could revolve around the sun…?
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Or consider Communism. At one extreme were Lenin and Stalin, who believed that private property was an unmitigated evil, that the socialist state had the right and the duty to control all aspects of people’s lives, and that the extermination of the bourgeoisie was a moral imperative. At the other extreme were capitalists, who believed in the sanctity of private property, the rule of law, the right of people to live free of interference by the state, and the value of private contracts to promote the general welfare.

Is there a happy medium between these two extremes? Is there an ideal way to construct a polity which includes elements from both sides? Maybe we could allow people to keep some of their property, but force them to surrender other parts of it. Maybe we should permit them to live free of government interference except when it’s for their own good. Maybe we could eliminate the bourgeoisie by taxing away their prosperity, rather than by hauling them out of their beds in the dead of night and shooting them.

Actually, these prescriptions sound pretty much like life under the European Union today. And don’t get complacent — we Americans are no more than a decade or two behind our comrades across the Atlantic.

For a final example, consider slavery as practiced in the antebellum South. At one extreme were the plantation owners, who believed that their Negroes were their property, just like their cattle and their chickens, and that they had a right to buy, sell, and abuse their property as they saw fit. At the other extreme were the Abolitionists, who thought that the slaves were human beings no different from white people, and that holding them in bondage was an unmitigated evil.

Was there a happy medium between these two extreme views? Did the best course lie somewhere in between them? Perhaps we could have forbidden the ownership of Negroes as property, without recognizing them as full human beings. Maybe they could have the right to hold some property, though not the same rights as white people. We could allow them to live autonomously, but not to vote, nor to share schools and other public institutions with white people.

Wait a minute — haven’t we heard this somewhere before? Do you really think it would be a good idea to try it again?

This is not to say that a successful political system never involves compromise. In order for our political structures to work, they must always allow for compromise.

But sometimes one extreme or the other represents the truth. It’s not always true that “both sides” have validity. The best course is not always the happy medium. We have to take the issues on a case-by-case basis.

And sometimes we just have to grit our teeth and hold out for the “extreme” view because it is, well, right.

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Another false premise presented by our commenter is that if we stopped “preaching to the converted”, if we could somehow broaden our audience to include people who are not members of the VRWC, we could convince them of the rightness of our cause.

It’s been my experience that no matter how soberly and judiciously and reasonably I present an argument, I never convince anyone who isn’t ready to be convinced. Not only will someone who actively holds an opposing position not be convinced, the more reasonable I am in my argument, the more angry and vitriolic will be his response.

Carefully-written argument is aimed at those whose opinions are not fully formed, people who may have an inchoate sense of the truth, but have not yet articulated it or even brought it into consciousness.

Our goal as polemicists is to reach out to such people, to strive for an eloquence and cogency that makes them snap their fingers and say, “You know, he’s right! I never quite thought of it that way, but what he says is absolutely true.”

I will never convince a liberal that my ideas are right. There’s no point in trying.

But there are innumerable people out there whose minds have been fuddled by decades of one-sided MSM propaganda, people who know that there’s something not quite right with all the PC nonsense that irradiates them every day from all the outlets of the popular culture. They’re aware that there’s something vaguely wrong with the way they feel. The culture has taught them how they’re supposed to feel, but they can’t quite manage to feel it.

Our job is to reach out to them and deliver a message that is immediately recognizable to them as true.

It’s hard to tell how many of them there are because they are separated from us and from each other by fifty years of liberal domination of the culture. The smothering blanket of political correctness has made their opinions doubleplus ungood, so much so that they will lie even to political pollsters about them.

That’s why it’s so hard to determine how vast this untapped reservoir of public opinion is. We know it’s out there, but how do we determine its extent?

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The future Baron Bodissey recently related to me this story about an experience he had in college:

I was talking with a friend of mine, and the conversation, for whatever reason, turned to the subject of Israel and “Palestine”.

He made some typical liberal knee-jerk comment about Israeli “terrorist tactics” (I can’t remember his exact wording, but it was hostile). This guy was (and still is) a good friend of mine, and I knew him well enough to know that dislike of Israel could only be a result of various indoctrinations.

So I said, “Wait a minute You’ve been talking about Israeli targeting of so-called civilian areas. Consider this: Palestinian terrorist leaders have issued manifestoes proclaiming their intention to kill as many Israelis as possible, including children and pregnant women. Israeli military leaders have given press releases in the same vein — except that they say they will, and currently do, go out of their way to avoid killing women and children.

“So this assertion of yours about ‘Israeli terrorism’ is spurious.”

He paused, and thought for a minute, and then said, “You know, you’re right. I just never really thought about it.”

The future Baron’s friend is my intended audience. Not the staffers at the State Department, nor the editors of the New York Times, nor the readers of Daily Kos.

I’m talking over their heads to Don and the millions of others like him, people “who have no skill to speak of their distress, no, nor the will.”

And I’ll repeat once again the words of Walt Whitman:

I do not say these things for a dollar, or to fill up the time
                                while I wait for a boat;
It is you talking just as much as myself — I act as the tongue of you;
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.

15 comments:

OregonGuy said...

Something from another blogger, Bill Vallicella at Right Reason.

Quoting from Leszek Kolawowski, "It is important to notice, however, that when tolerance is enjoined upon us nowadays, it is often in the sense of indifference: we are asked, in effect, to refrain from expressing -- or indeed holding -- any opinion, and sometimes even to condone every conceivable type of behaviour or opinion in others." ("On Toleration" in Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal, Penguin 1999, pp. 36-37.)

Something from another blogger, Baron Bodissey at Gates of Vienna. He writes:

"There’s a normal social urge not to be held in contempt by one’s fellow humans. The fact that more people agreed with Don’s positions than disagreed with them was not enough to save him from a nagging feeling that his opinions were beyond the pale. Everything he took in from the larger culture around him — the TV news, the pronouncements of government officials, the unctuously politically correct magazine advertisements placed by large corporations — told him that his natural tendencies were atavistic, hateful, and wrong."

I too, have struggled with the "happy medium" question. I think that using the bell curve as representative of large groups is a useful tool. When it comes to questions about how much or how little control to accept or impose as part of, or over, society, I think it's helpful to recognize that on separate issues individuals are able to accept or grant, more control from or to the individual, or from or to society. I haven't been able to find a good way of representing this breakdown using Venn diagrams on this computer, but imagine a smaller circle "C" fitting entirely into circle "A". This could represent those who self-identify as Libertarians or, in the late 19th century, anarchists. These are those who would view the imposition of any outside authority their actions as objectionable.

A small circle "D" fitting entirely within circle "B" could represent those who self-identify as Totalitarians or, in the late 20th century, anarchists. These are those who would view any imposition of authority they impose as necessary.

Notice above that the intersecting areas of circles "A" and "B" are apparently less than a third of either circles. To view the area found within the first standard deviation of the Bell Curve would mean that about one-half of a third of each circle would be outside the intersection of circles "A" and "B" (that is to say, about 68% of the total population would be represented by the intersection of circles "A" and "B".)

When we look at societies sometimes we lose sight of the forest for the trees. By fitting the small circle "C" within the boundaries of "A" we introduce an artifact of homogeniety that doesn't exist within the bounds of normal distribution. (Unless we look at areas, like the Pearl District in Portland, which, when I was growing up was the crummy part of downtown. Now that it has a cool name it's home to some real limo lefties.) Likewise, when you attend a meeting of whatever group you tend to see the group identity rather than the group as individuals.

If you would allow, this is an almost hermeneutical approach to gauging public opinion. It allows us to see that the degree of homogeniety within our society is actually quite high, while the ideas that separate us are quite slight.

Freedom versus slavery? We're pretty much of one mind.

Apostacy versus submission? Hmm. The Jesuits have one mind. The Salafi, another.

Tolerance versus intolerance? Another hmm. From Baron Bodissey, "There’s another kind of “moderate” stance which is very much in vogue: the idea that the best course of action, not mention the truth, always lies somewhere between two extremes."

I think now we arrive at the crux. I would posit that for society the best course of action is somewhere between the two extremes. The Baron responds, "Let’s take some instructive examples from history. Consider the ancient controversy over the idea of a geocentric cosmos. At one extreme were the traditionalists who insisted that the Earth lay at the center of creation, and the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars all revolved around it in a set of concentric crystalline spheres. At the other extreme were the radical proponents of the heliocentric universe, among them Aristarchus of Samos, Ptolemy, and Copernicus."

"Did the truth lie somewhere between these two extremes? Was there a model of the universe which included some geocentric elements? Maybe we could tinker with the original theory and have the moon and the stars revolve around the Earth, while the planets could revolve around the sun…?

In another place I have argued that it's important to know the difference between knowledge and belief. And I think this is where the Baron gets off track. In the aggregate our world is filled with shades of gray. It is only when we begin the process of disaggregating that we can effectively change or influence peoples thinking. Plutarch wasn't the first guy to point this out. We tend to be suspicious of "other people's" ideas. Which is where, I think, both Valicella and Bodissey both conclude that tolerance is the greatest value that binds us as a society.

Bodissey writes, "This is not to say that a successful political system never involves compromise. In order for our political structures to work, they must always allow for compromise."

"But sometimes one extreme or the other represents the truth. It’s not always true that “both sides” have validity. The best course is not always the happy medium. We have to take the issues on a case-by-case basis."

And Valicella writes, "A toleration worth wanting and having is valuable because truth is valuable. It is threatened in two ways. It is threatened both by those who think that have the truth when they don't and those who are indifferent to truth."

Even fifty years of repeated falsehoods don't invalidate simple truth. It can create a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Hence the phenomena of the Jacksonian. I think it's possible that these are people that represent the silent majority. That is to say, if you look at the bell curve above and put "Give a Damn" at one end of the spectrum, and "Give a Damn" at the other, that most people will be somewhere in the middle, not giving a damn. Until something trips them up. Unless and until, they're happy with watching the CBS, NBC and ABC version of the news, with some of them wandering over to the populist--Jacksonian--Bill O'Reilly.

In both of these gentlemen's words I would point out that I disagree with the tone of their dismal conclusions. I both loved the title and the movie starring Alec Guiness, "Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious". What we refer to as Mainstream Media continues to update Sgt. Lucky Finder with bad news about the war. As new Europe defends itself from the intrusive EU promulgated by the Left in France, Germany and Britain, as Iraqis pick up the war against al-Qaeda, as the Lebanese fight Syrian and Iranian intrusions, as the middle-class in Afghanistan asserts modernity as a countervailing force against tyranny, and as long as there is an Israel, we will continue to celebrate freedom, tolerance and dignity.

And truth.


Images available at OregonGuy

Ypp said...

I believe, there is one good point in the commenter's piece. Indeed, we are in danger because of both the external treat and liberal ideology, which work together against us. However, what is the the best way to fix current situation? Should we fight liberals hoping that fixing our society will itself help us to win over external threat? Or should we combine efforts with liberals in order to defend our society as a whole from the external threat? The answer depends on liberals themselves, on which side they are. That is what liberals must decide themselves and prove their intentions. Actually, the commenter proposed us an alliance, but immediately started to criticize this blog for extremism. That is like saying: OK, we are your allies but only if you don't use aviation and artillery. We can agree on bayonets and revolvers, but don't use automatic rifles. That is against our principles.

Stormgaard said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Baron Bodissey said...

Stormgaard --

I appreciate your comment, and I mostly agree with your sentiments, but we have a PG-13 language rule here.

If you'd like to rephrase your thoughts to fit within these parameters, I'd be happy to see them.

Stormgaard said...

Coward.

I look forward to your fate.

Baron Bodissey said...

Stormgaard --

please read my above guidelines, if you're interested in being heard here.

It's easy -- just remove the f-bomb and similar words.

7/04/2007 11:55 PM

Ypp said...

Who was that? Intellectuals strike back?

Alexis said...

Calling those Muslim allies we have "moderate Muslims" does a horrible disservice to them, as the label "moderate" makes them seem compromised or cowardly. Islam is not a moderate religion and it certainly is not a religion of peace. If I were to cast Islam in the most praiseful and glowing terms, I would never call it moderate or peaceful. Indeed, calling our enemies "fundamentalists" or "extremists" probably enhances their image.

Instead, those Muslims who do take our side against al-Qaeda should be regarded as enlightened, wise, and righteous. And it would be very accurate to refer to Islamists as ignorant, as they are very ignorant about the ways of civilization.

Al-Qaeda and its allies seek to plunge humanity into a new age of ignorance. And while the majority of Muslims are mired in anti-scientific superstition, it would be unwise to treat the admittedly tiny minority of Muslims who see something horribly wrong with their religion as "moderate" when they most certainly are not "moderate" in anything other than mainstream media gloss. The word "moderate" sounds altogether too much like "collaborator".

Was Galileo a "moderate Catholic"? Was Charles de Gaulle a "moderate Frenchman"? Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a "moderate Lutheran"? Was Lech Walesa a "moderate Pole"? The word "moderate" in all of these cases does a disservice to these men. So it is for any Muslim who would be our ally.

A moderately honest man with a moderately faithful wife, moderate drinkers both, in a moderately healthy house: that is the true middle class unit.

-- Maxims for Revolutionists, George Bernard Shaw

carpenter said...

Is there a happy medium between these two extremes? Is there an ideal way to construct a polity which includes elements from both sides? Maybe we could allow people to keep some of their property, but force them to surrender other parts of it. Maybe we should permit them to live free of government interference except when it’s for their own good. Maybe we could eliminate the bourgeoisie by taxing away their prosperity, rather than by hauling them out of their beds in the dead of night and shooting them.

Baron, that's Europe in general and Sweden in particular!!

David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 07/05/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

xlbrl said...

Your observation is profound, Baron. I've been sitting here trying to add to it and cannot, so it has the virtue of brevity and clarity as well. Euripides advised us that the language of truth is simple.
As you say, there is no middle ground between function and dysfunction in many issues we try to solve. The device the subject of your post uses to negotiate the odd corners of human behavior illustrate why it is easier to put a man on the moon with vacum tube technology than cure human afflictions and affectations.
Men's minds are ingenious in devising for themselves a better self-conceit.

mistkerl said...

Well written piece Baron. And, I have no doubt everyone here will agree with it 100%.

Unfortunately, you completely misrepresented my positions. Still, I'm happy it could be used as the basis to point out the clear flaws in the idea of common middle ground being the ultimate answer to everything.

"There’s another kind of “moderate” stance which is very much in vogue: the idea that the best course of action, not mention the truth, always lies somewhere between two extremes."

First, I'm no moderate, I'm just as far north into libertarianism as you are east into conservatism. I certainly don't think the best course of action or the truth always lies between two extremes, just as I hope you don't think that all truth does lie at the extreme. If you read my comment, I think it's pretty clear I never said or implied anything of the sort. And, since we have worked together frequently, you know that I am not sympathetic to islam in even a marginal way. So, I'm surprised that you would suggest it.


"There are several false premises at work here. Our commenter’s point is that there must be a “happy medium”, a position somewhere in between the extreme liberal and extreme conservative positions."

That was not my point at all. In the other thread which that comment was written for, you asked about the purpose of blogs in general, and gave an explanation to address the conservative readers that you were apparently alienating as you moved further right in your views (specifically citing your anti-Bush / burning Mo posts). As you yourself noted, some people were getting upset and I simply posted my observations. The two that you copied above, were:

1. That blogs are helping to isolate people within like minded communities. This has many positive effects (like conservatives finally being able to get non-liberal biased news), but it also has many negatives ones. Two of those negatives are the lack of differing opinions and the tendency to become more extreme (as in further right or left) over time; both of which I observe happening in varying degrees here at GoV.

2. That the message being pushed by conservatives is not on target with the goal conservatives claim to want (which is that they want everyone to 'wake up' and realize the danger and do something about it). If fundamental islam is the greatest threat to our way of life, then that’s it. But, the more I observe, the more I see that conservatives (the ones in power) have just used it as a political tool. The purpose of the message on right wing sites isn't to stop the jihad, instead, it's being used to prove that conservatives are right and liberals are wrong… which is exactly the same thing the left does with science issues on the other side of the spectrum. I actively read an equal amount of left / right leaning blogs, and I am finding the growing similarities between the two very frightening.

Clearly, neither of these points were about happy mediums, being moderate, or discarding your conservative values. Nor do I think any objective person would say either point is inaccurate.

"But there are innumerable people out there whose minds have been fuddled by decades of one-sided MSM propaganda, people who know that there’s something not quite right with all the PC nonsense that irradiates them every day from all the outlets of the popular culture. They’re aware that there’s something vaguely wrong with the way they feel. The culture has taught them how they’re supposed to feel, but they can’t quite manage to feel it."

Exactly, but the answer is not to recreate a dogmatic conservative blog version of the MSM to spout pro-right propaganda. Unless of course your goal is to make people become conservative. The people in the middle are are being kept out by the continuing rightward trend in coverage of the issue. The issue is presented as a sledgehammer to attack liberals and prove that conservatives are always right; something that is far less appealing to those of us who don't happen to be conservative, :)


"Our job is to reach out to them and deliver a message that is immediately recognizable to them as true."

Then the message should be 'jihad is the greatest danger to our civilization' instead of 'liberals are the greatest danger to our civilization'.

Baron Bodissey said...

Mistkerl --

Then the message should be 'jihad is the greatest danger to our civilization' instead of 'liberals are the greatest danger to our civilization'.

That is our message. Over and over again.

It's in our mission statement and our masthead. I don't know what could be clearer.

If I condemn liberals along the way, it's because that they are facilitating, intentionally or not, the great evil of Islam.

Nancy Pelosi in her veil and the other liberal collaborators are illustration of that unholy alliance. A condemnation of Islam includes by necessity, as a byproduct, a condemnation of modern liberalism.

Not that the Republicans are much better. The "we sold our souls for oil and the good opinion of the NYT" Bush administration is absolutely disgusting.

Ypp said...

I think the question is as follows: Can liberals fight? Is there some (not immediately obvious) way of fighting that liberals are engaged in, or there is not. If they can fight, we can make an alliance. For that we should stop criticizing them (temporarily) and possibly modify our positions in order to find some common principles. But if they can't...

Mistkerl, you said that leftwingers blame conservatives same way as we blame them. So, what is their program to fight islamization? Is there any?

Christine said...

Mistkerl saysThat the message being pushed by conservatives is not on target with the goal conservatives claim to want (which is that they want everyone to 'wake up' and realize the danger and do something about it).

Actually I've seen a real trend on blogs - Malkin, LGF, stoptheaclu, certainly jihadwatch and MEforum, others can be listed if you need, in the last 6 months to move towards action - providing fax #'s, phone #'s and email addresses for readers to contact congressmen on this bill or that, aggregating research on topics for fast turn around investigations, and certainly a faster and tighter ability to distribute political information for local action. I think it's a general trend as many folks experiment with various ways to bridge between writing and acting, the blogosphere and the political sphere. I think blogs played a useful role in defeating the immigration bill, and some are gearing up now for the next wave of legislation coming up this summer. It's early days with these experiments and I would not expect all to work, but change happens incrementally. Some conscious experiments with using blogs for targeted community activism - for single rallies or local causes - have also been started more - see standwithisraelrally.blogspot.com or stopthemadrassa.wordpress.com .