Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When Cynics are Right: A Reluctant Nod to my Pessimistic Peers

I am, by nature, not a cynical person. I am an optimist. I like to be happy, and happiness is caused by strong, loving interpersonal relations. These require trust in other people, and for the most part, I have it. I have developed the ability to distrust people when necessary and I am not naive. But when in doubt, I tend to give people the benefit of that doubt.

Cynics are people who are the opposite, who don't trust people, who are pessimists, who look for the bad in people and automatically assume the worst. They're generally not very fun people to be around, and I try not to be around them as much as possible. This is true for politics as well. While I recognize that people's vices are never going away, as a Libertarian I try to make people's selfish motives work for the common good. But politicians also have selfish motives, and these motives also cause problems in politics which cannot be denied. So when my Political Science professor, Benjamin Ginsberg, opened class by announcing to us that he was not a Republican or a Democrat but a cynic, I couldn't help but agree he had some valid points.


According to Professor Ginsberg, all but a very few politicians are not motivated by ideology or by the common good at all. They are motivated almost exclusively by three things, in his mind: money, power, and status. Even if they enter politics with good intentions, they can often get sidetracked by the necessity of attaining enough money, power, and status to have much sway, so that by the time they get into a position where they can actually enact change they care only about attaining more money, power and status. This is problematic because the money motivator creates policies favorable to whoever is funding their campaigns, the power motivator creates a government that's too large and too restrictive of people's liberties, and the status motivator causes politicians who try to avoid risk and polish their image instead of tackling difficult but pressing political issues. He also argued that this is unchangeable, and that politicians, just like people in the private sector, have always and will always be motivated by these same things. 

This sounds mighty gloomy and pessimistic even when it's just the prognostications of a cantankerous old professor, but the scariest part is that he's mostly right. He may even be correct that these personal motivations are eternal and that they cannot change, that politicians, as humans, will only ever really be motivated by selfish incentives. But where I disagree with the Professor is in the assumption that pursuing ones individual interests is necessarily contradictory to the "common" interest", whether in politics or economics or any other field. In the political example, one element of status is popularity, and this can be attained in other ways than merely grand political posturing. Many Americans are catching on to all of this, railing against "career politicians" and clamoring for politicians who are dedicated to actual principle. And just as career politicians made their livings by giving the people what they wanted, a new brand of principle-oriented politician can do the same by giving this new audience what they want: ideological consistency. They needn't even do it because they are willing to put those principles before their pride, but because they will pride themselves on their principles, and so will others. The acclaim that people receive when they stick to principles can be a selfish motivation that actually works for the common good. Just as people feel good when they give to charity and their church commends them for it, politicians can feel good when they stand by the principles on which they were elected, and are commended by the voters for this.

Perhaps it's due to my lack of cynicism, but I still believe the moods, education, beliefs and desires of the US electorate is ultimately what creates the sort of politicians we need. That electorate has proved malleable to all sorts of national challenges in the past, recognizing problems and electing leaders capable of defeating those problems. The problems of conflicting incentive within the government itself will be no exception. One might call it cynicism for the present, but optimism for the future. Once enough people realize that what's truly bogging this country down is not so much that we're following one party or not following the other, but that we're following both parties and both are in bed with special interests, the electorate will demand politicians of ideological consistency and moral substance. Like Ron Paul, for instance...

College Freedoms, College Responsibilities

I have confirmed through experience an old adage I once heard about college. When you enter college, you are free to choose what to do with your time. There are three primary types of activities students may do to fill that time: work, fun, and sleep. The problem is, college is rigorous enough and structured in such a way that you can only choose 2 of the 3 to do effectively. The three types of students you meet in college can be identified by which pairing within those three activities they chose. The students who pick work and sleep are depressed, have no life, and are workaholics. The students who pick fun and sleep have a great time, but end up either having to drop out not getting a good job/into grad school. And the ones who pick work and fun are just flat out groggy all the time. Knowing my personality, I think I'm going to institutionally end up picking work and sleep, but hopefully with covered grades in the first semester I'll slice a bit out of work and tack a bit more onto fun as I get my social bearings. We'll see.

Regardless, because of this busy schedule, I am finding it difficult to post with as much regularity as I would like, despite the frequent mind-probing that college classes provide. So please beware that I anticipate a stark decline in post frequency over the coming months.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Quotes of the Week, 8/28-9/3: George Patton Edition


“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – General George Patton

“Don't fight a battle if you don't gain anything by winning.” – General George Patton

“Some goddamn fool once said that flanks have got to be secure. Since then sonofabitches all over the globe have been guarding their flanks. I don't agree with that. My flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not me. Before he finds out where my flanks are, I'll be cutting the bastard's throat.” – General George Patton

“A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.” – General George Patton

“When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can't run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity…As for the types of comments I make, sometimes I just, By God, get carried away with my own eloquence.” – General George Patton

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reaction to the "Reinventing Diversity" Presentation

We viewed an interesting presentation today during our Hopkins Orientation called Reinventing Diversity, delivered by a man named Howard Ross, who wrote a book by the same title. The presentation challenged the notion that there are biased people and not-racist people, or even that bias was bad, arguing instead that we are all biased and that that is okay. They trick, he argued, was to separate helpful, logical biases which help us (don't touch hot stoves, run from somebody if they're charging at you with a weapon, etc.) from unfair, illogical biases which do not. He then gave advice on specifically how to do that, both individually and organizationally or culturally. I totally, 100% agree with this core element of his presentation, and I strongly recommend it to any who get the chance to see his slide show. But something doesn't feel right, here...uniform consensus is just no fun! I would feel like I'm falling short of my duties if I didn't find something in his presentation to disagree with! So here are some of my caveats with what he had to say.

1. At one point, Mr. Ross argued that oftentimes we don't control how we act, because our unconscious does. I disagree with his definition of the word "we". He referred to "we" as in our rational consciousnesses. Since many of our decisions are driven by the irrational aspects of our mind, products of our experiences, emotions, and biases rather than of reasoned thought, Ross concluded that "we" don't actually control our actions. But "we" includes our unconscious too. Even if a drug addict's brain has a chemical imbalance which makes it dependent on heroine and chemically incapable of reasonably choosing not to pursue it, that drug addict still chooses to buy (or steal) drugs. Even if a fat person is heavily influenced by his or her brain to buy food, they still choose to buy food. We are our brains! In our attempt to understand how our brains work, we mustn't separate the brain as if it were not part of our identity.

2. He made one joke that appeared to me the height of irony. In an attempt to encourage us to become more culturally aware and less ethnocentric he joked that "If somebody speaks three languages, we call them trilingual. If somebody speaks two languages, we call the bilingual. If somebody speaks just one language, we call them an American." Nearly everybody in the audience laughed. I bet very few people recognized that he had just totally stereotyped Americans! I know what he means, and I found the joke to be funny, but isn't that exactly the sort of mindset he's trying to confront? If he had made a joke about Mexicans instead of a joke about Americans, I doubt many in the audience would have laughed. Joking about ourselves is always less awkward in a group setting, but it's still a contradiction.

3. The issue of Affirmative Action arose, and he said "Now, I'm not going to tell you what to believe, but affirmative action is really no different from______". He filled in the blank with a lot of common, everyday examples which very few people oppose. Firstly, that roughly translates to "I'm not going to tell you what to believe, but here's what to believe." I am a staunch opponent of affirmative action, and even of the EEO programs he spoke of as universally approved, and I didn't appreciate his preaching. But besides that, his analogies were poor. He said affirmative action was no different than allowing in athletes who aren't quite as good academically as others. This isn't true. One is a wise business move, and one is misguided social engineering. Athletes bring in money through TV, merchandise, and ticket revenue. The benefits of affirmative action do not. College is a business, and giving one applicant a boost for monetary reasons is different than giving a boost to promote social justice. Besides, on merit alone, being good at sports is a talent, or else a learned and practiced skill, whereas race is luck of the draw. Athletic abilities are a marketable attribute which should be placed on an application, because certain people have better athletic abilities than others. Skin color is not, because nobody has a better skin color than anyone else.

4. Lastly, he also seemed to bemoan the clash of ideas in modern political discourse as narrow mined and futile. He encouraged us to preface our stated opinions with the words "I think" and recognize that our perception of the truth is not the same as another's perception of the truth. This is true, of course, but it doesn't mean a clash of ideas is bad, and it doesn't mean objective truth does not exist. Ideally, objective truths emerge from this clash of ideas when we establish what we agree/disagree on and then logically reason out the areas of contention. In a way, he encouraged politicians not to assert their beliefs as true, but then attempted, through statistics, anecdotes, and experiments, to tell us what the truth was. He didn't meekly go up there and say "well, I'm not sure, but I think that we all have bias and I think we should stop separating us from them." Rather, he trumpeted that he had 45 years of diversity training experience and that this was the way it was. Good for him for doing so! The recognition that your beliefs are heavily influenced by your perspective, experiences and culture doesn't mean you should back away from your beliefs.

Friday, August 26, 2011

That Whole College Thing...

I apologize for the hiatus in posts, but I have been uber-busy at Johns Hopkins orientation since Monday and haven't had the time to blog. Truly, I must confess I expect a steep decrease in post quantity now that the school year has started up again, but hopefully that won't be a problem because my limited audience will have less time to read during the school year too! On the other hand, college should provide a whole slew of new thought provoking experiences. And when my thoughts are provoked, they tend to appear on this blog! So make sure to keep checking if you can!

With that in mind, here's a Friday Funny:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Quotes of the Week, Mark Twain Edition


Witty quips from the all time king of wit.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”--Mark Twain

"When I was young, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not." --Mark Twain

“Put all your eggs in one basket. Then WATCH THAT BASKET!!!”—Mark Twain

“The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”--Mark Twain

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything”— Mark Twain

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”--Mark Twain