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How You Play The Game

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So, it’s been mostly all right around here lately, even a little on the warm side, if you keep in mind that I never turn the heat on until the house gets below 50 and I turn the air conditioning on really early in the season.

I’ve had something of a messed up sleep cycle, caused by the fact that a few days ago I didn’t just oversleep, but overslept until nearly 9 o’clock, and now my biological clock is completely haywire.  One night I couldn’t get to sleep until nearly one, when I usually conk around nine.  It’s been a mess.

In the middle of it, I’ve been trying to read a book, called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civiliation by Arthur Herman. 

I’m not going to do a big commentary on this thing now.  Let me just say that not only is this a book I got for Christmas, it’s a book I specifically asked for for Christmas, and the person who got it for me has been reading it also.

There’s a lot to say, most of it unfortunate, but I haven’t finished the thing, and the time to say it isn’t now.

However that may be, the book did bring up something that I think is interesting, or reminded me of something I think is interesting, so let me get to that.

We talk a lot here about people who have a will to power, whose basic motivation is to control others in virtually every possible way.

These people are, at the moment, busy trying to redefine free adult citizens as anything but actual adults.  They’re stupid and deluded, easily swayed by advertising, being manipulated by advertising and demagoguery, incapable of thinking rationally or controlling their worst instincts.

Given that people are such a mess, they really can’t be trusted with actual liberty.  They’ll make all the wrong choices and end up doing damage to themselves as well as the rest of us.  Therefore, their choices should either be made or manipulated by people who have been “trained” to think differently and who will therefore make the choices “untrained” people would have made if they weren’t such irrational children.

Arguments like this have always bothered me on lots of different levels, including the most obvious one–if our natural state is to be irrational children, how do we know that the “experts” are anything else, or that their “training” is anything but a different kind of irrational childishness?

Eras before ours had a kind of essentialist assumption to fill in here.  They believed, with Aristotle, that some people were naturally born slaves, and that others were born to be free and rule. 

Our present purveyors of all things expert driven believe the same thing, really, but nobody is going to say it out loud, and it remains a simple assumption without scrutiny.

We tend to talk about the people who set up this kind of thing, who are operating on a will to power–the Nurse Ratcheds, Delores Umbrages, Kathleen Sebiliuses of this world.

And that makes sense.  Without such people, the totalitarian impulse can go nowhere.

But there’s something else going on here that we always ignore, but shouldn’t.

If all that existed were the Nurse Ratcheds, they couldn’t get anywhere.

For totalitarianism of any kind, soft or hard, to succeed, it requires a vastly larger number of people who crave security to the point that they are willing to put up with anything, anything at all, to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.

Now, I want to make something clear here.

I am not talking about people who go on welfare or disability or who have Medicaid or food stamps or any of that.

Too often in this country, we discuss the issue of personal responsibility as if it’s code for getting along on your own without “sucking at the public teat.”

In the sense I’m talking about personal responsibility, though, I know, personally, plenty of people on public assistance who do take it and plenty of people (even more) surviving under their own steam who not only don’t, but reject the idea entirely.

The accept responsibility for ourselves means to accept that we are the authors of ourselves.  Luck may have a lot to do with our exterior outcomes. Influences surround us and impact us daily. 

In the end, however, who and what we are is determined by the choices we’ve made.  You can be born disabled and into poverty and still be a person of great integrity all your life.

Or not.  That part is up to you.

At about this point in these discussions, I am usually assailed with wailing and weeping and fury and righteousness.  I am told that I’m “blaming the victim.”  I am told that I’m heartless and arrogant.  Lately, I’m also told that I’m “out of touch.”

But note–I am not saying that the poor are responsible for their poverty.  Some of them are, and some of them aren’t, and we’ll have to take that up on a case by case basis, if we want to bother to try. 

Nor am I saying that the unemployed are responsible for their unemployment–although, again, some of them are and some of them aren’t.

Issues of that kind are complex and vary from person to person. 

Even the more obvious things aren’t what I’m talking about.  If you’re a teen aged girl and you choose to have sex without any form of protection, you are almost certainly responsible for the fact that you got pregnant.

But you know what?  We all get stupid from time to time.  Everybody makes mistakes.  What I want to know is how you approach the pregnancy and what you do about it and the rest of your life.

There is an awful lot of difference between the kind of person who says, “Okay, I caused that.  That’s on me.” and the person who says, “I couldn’t help it!  It was out of my control!”

It’s that second thing that fascinates me, and I had a hard time (and a long time) accepting that anybody approached life that way.

When I was growing up, my father had a thing he used to say over and over again:  if something goes wrong, hope like hell that it was your fault.  Because if it wasn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it.

There are some obvious caveats here–it is, in fact, sometimes possible to fix the problems other people have caused–but as a rough and ready guide to how to live my life, it’s always been pretty effective.

What’s more, from what I’ve seen of people doing it the other way, the other way has given evidence of not being effective at all.  In fact, of being countereffective. 

It has therefore always seemed to me to be completely obvious that people should, in the majority, opt for the first approach rather than the second.

But lots of them don’t.  Lately, I’ve been wondering if the majority of people don’t. 

That majority would include people who have jobs and houses and children, who get educations and make sure their children get them, who vote and pay taxes and put out the garbage at night.  

And yet, they will tell you, any time you want to ask, that they have no control over who and what they are.  They are at the mercy of forces beyond their control.  They want restrictions on Big Gulp sodas and bans on cigarettes not because Those People can’t help themselves, but because they themselves can’t.

The take-responsibility people want a government to protect their liberty to make their own choices.  The it’s-beyond-my-control people want a government to protect them, period.

I am aware, of course, that I am simplifying the hell out of all of this.  I think that’s inevitable in a blog post.

I still think this is something that deserves our attention, and rarely gets it.

For one thing, I’d like to know what I’m looking at.

Are these people who simply feel so vulnerable, and so weak, that the very process of living scares the hell out of them?

Or do they feel so innately guilty that taking responsibility for who and what they are would condemn them forever as irredeemably evil?

Or is there a third possibility?

Remember–I’m not saying these people actually are weak or evil, only that maybe they think they are.

Whatever it is, it makes me a little nuts.  And I’m more than a little aware that it takes both the totalitarians and the (essentially childish) vulnerables to make a restrictive society.  Maybe they’re two halves on one psychological whole.

Whatever it is, I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.

Written by janeh

January 14th, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'How You Play The Game'

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  1. I’m not going to take on the good & evil question, but I do think the “have a job” folks may in fact be part of the “protect me” contingent.

    I work for myself, and have for going on 18 years. Before that I was always an employee of small-to-medium companies, with a 3 year stretch working temp jobs where I got a WIDE experience of different kinds of businesses.

    There is a great attraction in a job where you can clock out at 5pm and walk away, with no responsibilities or obligations until you clock back in next morning. Far too many people (in my opinion) find that an acceptable compromise for lacking any creativity, challenge, or satisfaction in one’s job. Dreadful. Note, I’m not criticizing people who build actual things or deliver real services, those kinds of jobs can have their own satisfactions.

    I’m talking mostly about those jobs that require an alleged college education and consist mostly of pushing papers or even worse, *managing* others who push papers for ridiculous, concocted first-world reasons.

    The funny thing is, most people who have those kinds of jobs will fight you to the death if you propose changes that will eliminate the paper-shuffling and perhaps allow them to work directly to the core purpose of their organization, whatever that may be.

    Then they clock out, go home, watch TV or spend time online, and do it all the next day. I think you’re correct that they feel vulnerable, like other choices are dangerous.

    I’m so thankful that life circumstances pushed me into self-employment all those years ago. It’s not something I actively chose with forethought, but it’s ended up being far better for me than any however-lucrative employment would have been.


    14 Jan 14 at 2:16 pm

  2. I may misunderstand the argument, but if I’ve got it right, I’m unconvinced. For one thing, I don’t think a totalitarian state requires “natural slaves.” What it seems to require to me is a suitable ideology, a political party or functional equivalent, armed forces loyal to the regime and block wardens–lots and lots of block wardens. There are accounts of Gestapo offices without the manpower to investigate all the accusations reported to them, and I can well believe it. There’s no shortage of block wardens anywhere.

    I’m not even convinced the “stop me before I drink more” personality even exists. There are plenty of people not prepared to take responsibility for their own actions–especially when things go wrong–but I’ve yet to hear of, say, large numbers of two pack a day men pushing for an end to smoking in restaurants, or habitual gamblers pushing for an end to state lotteries. I can find you plenty of people willing to suppress someone else’s vice, but those are the block wardens and their superiors.

    (The woods are, of course, full of people prepared to say that bad things are beyond their control while taking personal credit for every good thing in sight. These are not Aristotle’s “natural slaves.” I believe the technical term is “incumbents.”)

    I’d agree that to operate successfully as a free man one needs both more impulse control and more intelligence than are necessary for most forms of slavery. But it’s one thing for me to say “Sam can’t make as a free man” and quite another for Sam to come to the same conclusion and act accordingly. Very few people volunteered to be sold as slaves, and if the Nazi Party cadre or the early Bolsheviks were dumber or less controlled than average, I have seen no evidence to that effect.

    It’s possible such people DO tend to support more intrusive government, of course–and not for ideological reasons. They’ve simply observed that while other people talk about freedom, it hasn’t worked out well for them.

    But when I want to attack Plato and all his spiritual descendants, I do not argue against the belief that people are childlike, foolish and incapable of recognizing their own best interests. That is, bluntly, the strong part of Plato’s case. It’s certainly true of some people everywhere, and you’re down to arguing numbers.

    As a Christian, I can point out that the Platonists, from Plato himself down to our current progressives, claim a right to invent morality which I concede only to God–but of course that argument is not open to everyone.

    The catastrophic weakness of the Platonic case is the other end–the belief that the right people–people much like themselves–can be trusted with absolute power. We’ve got two thousand years of famine and massacre to prove that no individual and certainly no group, however selected and trained, can be trusted with absolute power. And yet the graduate schools are full of students convinced that they and their friends are the exceptions.

    I would love to be able to watch the next 20 or 30 years from a nice safe distance–Mars, say–where I could recite “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” in peace while Plato’s idiot students demonstrate the point again.


    14 Jan 14 at 7:01 pm

  3. I think a lot of perfectly ordinary people discover at some point that they can’t control everything; that no matter how hard they try, they’re going to find it far more difficult – maybe impossible – to achieve things that others appear to do without difficulty. The ‘thing’ could be anything from earning lots of money to keeping their weight down or their drug consumption moderate to becoming a world-class athlete. Most of us eventually adjust to the knowledge that we’re actually fairly average, with certain weaknesses and strengths. But the adjustment can take several forms – perhaps accepting oneself, and possibly tackling the weaknesses; perhaps blaming others who got in our way or tempted us or cheated us. But this doesn’t mean that you want someone else to take control of your life. It means that you want to justify your ‘failures’ in some way that doesn’t reflect on you personally, because you really believe all that stuff about No Such Word as ‘Can’t’ and Every Child Can Become President…and since you did try, and then failed, the fault must lie elsewhere.


    14 Jan 14 at 7:16 pm

  4. I looked up the book on Amazon. $21.91 for the hardcover, $19.25 for Kindle. No sale! I flatly refuse to pay that sort of price for an eBook.


    15 Jan 14 at 5:39 pm

  5. “For totalitarianism of any kind, soft or hard, to succeed, it requires a vastly larger number of people who crave security to the point that they are willing to put up with anything, anything at all, to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.”

    Mixing hard and soft totalitarianism is probably a mistake. The only way to get rid of the hard version is an armed revolt and the history of revolutions is not encouraging.

    In theory, getting rid of a soft one just requires a free election.


    15 Jan 14 at 5:52 pm

  6. This puts me in mind of something Hedrick Smith said in “The Russians”, his first book on the subject following his time as Moscow Bureau Chief for the NYT, lo many long years ago now. He said (words to the effect) that many older Russians he spoke to were nostalgic for the Stalin era and, implicitly, the flavour of Stalinist totalitarianism of his rule. More or less along the lines that Stalin knew how to keep these young hoodlums in their place.

    He sure did.


    15 Jan 14 at 7:04 pm

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