Friday, June 03, 2005

Column on Impossible Idealism

Ideals One Can't Practice

Tibor R. Machan

One very troublesome influence of the philosophy of Plato, one of three
very influential ancient Greek philosophers, is the popularity of
idealism. Of course, "idealism" is used to mean different things but his
version was widely interpreted as meaning: an impossibly perfect version
of something. So an ideal apple, for example, simply cannot exist in the
actual world, nor an ideal political system. (Less extreme versions of
idealism ask not for some kind of impossible dream but the best of what is

The bad influence of this version of Plato's idealism is evident in how
people so often depict what good people would be like, especially in
fiction. It is ironic--major Hollywood studios or New York publishing
houses give us stories in which the heroes, for example, routinely demean
making money and profit, only to earn big bucks from the sale of these
movies and books.

I was a fan of Rockford Files, the long running show staring James Garner
as a PI who lived in a trailer, parked near the Pacific shores by Los
Angeles. There were some pretty nifty aspects of this show but one always
irritated me: Rockford always made a point of losing money on his cases.
His clients could rarely pay him and he could rarely pay his associates,
including his attorney. And this was presented on the show as a virtuous
trait of the protagonist. At the same time, of course, the show itself was
making gobs of money for all those involved in its production, certainly
not excluding its star, James Garner.

William Lashner is a best selling author of legal thrillers and his
attorney is another of these heroes who keeps losing money hand over fist.
That's supposed be a part of what makes him heroic, while, of course, if
his books didn't bring in big bucks for HarperCollins Publishers, they
would not be published, at least not for long.

Then there are all those annoying actors, actresses, pop signers,
musicians, and other show folk who keep telling their TV talk show hosts
and fans everywhere how little they care about money, all the while raking
in tons of it from their gigs and letting their staff worry about
negotiating their percentages and salaries. How they get away with
pretending not to care about money while actually caring about it via
their highly paid delegates without being called on this beats me.

But, of course, these are just the more mundane versions of the bad
influence of reckless idealism. The notion that we must all strive to
achieve the impossible dream--in morality, politics, foreign affairs,
fitness training, and the rest--is far more serious and, indeed, quite
destructive. Out of this attitude, which places on us all demands that
cannot in principle be satisfied, arises a widespread attitude of cynicism
and defeatism for many people. Why bother trying if the chances of success
are hopeless?

Some answer this by saying that it is useful to have such impossible
goals because then people will keep on trying to do better and better.
Yes, if they are stupid. But if they have any brains at all, they will
abandon the task of doing well since they will quickly realize that it is
an impossible one. Unfortunately they usually haven't the time to figure
out that this entire scheme is a misguided one from the get go. So then
they will turn to pragmatism, the idea that all principles are useless.

Plato appears to have gotten the notion of the impossible ideal from his
admiration of geometry. In that discipline we do have notions of the
perfect circle, square, triangle, or straight line that simply cannot be
achieved in actual practice. They are mere models, kind of like those
beautiful people on the covers of Vogue or GQ. No one expects any actual
circles or squares to be perfect like those formally defined in geometry.
Unfortunately, even the models on the covers of these magazines can do
some harm by creating persistent frustration for people everywhere as they
strive but cannot ever achieve the looks depicted there.

If one could live a purely non-profit life, perhaps it would be a good
thing, although I doubt it--there is a good chance that this would lure us
into thinking that neither effort, nor, especially, budgeting, is required
for living successfully. But as the world actually is, these images are
highly misleading. Sadly, many people take them seriously, which is one
reason ordinary profit-seeking business people get such a bad press while
non-profits are admired.

Here it may be useful, ironically, to learn a lesson from Plato. He also
taught that the arts are a bad guide to truth. Maybe if we remembered
this, we would stop demanding of human beings that they live up to the
expectations projected via impossible dreams.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Column on Race vs. Class Card

Race Card Out, Class Card In!

Tibor R. Machan

A while back Bill Cosby made news with chiding black parents for not
being responsible enough with their kids? education. Stop buying them huge
speakers, start buying them books. This made sense because it does appear
that when one is surrounded with even a modest library in one?s youth,
one?s more likely than not to get used to books, even read some of them,
without parents having to badger one about this. Worked in my youth?I was
never told to read, unlike I was constantly forced to do sports?but the
apartment where we lived had a substantial library. I fell in love with
the books but rebelled against the relentless push to be athletic. While
one swallow does not a springtime make, this is more than just one case?I
have found my own and most other children responding much better to gentle
or subtle than to harsh or fierce urgings.

Alas, the idea that there is anything poor blacks could do other than
what they are actually doing is anathema to modern liberals. They love the
idea that the poor, black or white or whatever, are simply helpless and in
desperate need not of mustering initiative but, you guessed it, government
programs. So Mr. Cosby had to be placated.

Ah, but Mr. Cosby is black, so charging him with the vice of racism would
not work too well. It could carry no punch with which to silence what he
suggested, namely, that black parents can and ought to straighten up their
parental acts. Had his words been spoken by some prominent white
commentator, that ploy would still have been appealing to the modern
liberal establishment. Call the messenger a racist and thus squash the
truth about what parents can and should do for their kids.

But what to do now, when a prominent black figure delivers this piece of
sensible insight? How can it be squelched, neutralized so we can keep
going to government to answers?

Come to the rescue The New York Times, via the ?Editorial Observer,? one
Brent Staples (5/29/05). The problem with Bill Cosby isn?t that he is
white?no, it?s that he belongs to the upper black classes. The class card,
thus, takes the place of the race card.

Mind you ever since the 19th century, the class card has been a potent
weapon by those who loved the state, who would have government resurrected
to its previously prominent place of the ruler and the caretaker of the
realm. That used to be the role of benevolent monarchs?or so the story was
told to rationalize the monarchy. But monarchs had become discredited by
too obviously drifting toward despotism, with not much benevolence in what
they did as the top down rulers of countries. So the new idea was that all
the oppression perpetrated by the upper classes against the lower classes
didn?t simply require busting up the entrenched, legally protected class
system. No, instead it became fashionable to promote the notion that some
kind of benevolent people?s government could bring about the process of

That this simply made that government grossly unequal and perpetuated the
institution of a ruling class?this time consisting of politicians and
bureaucrats?didn?t phase the advocates. After all, they were going to be
the ones who made up this new class. They were going to be the
intelligentsia in service of the people, via the state.

Once again this reactionary nonsense is dished out for us in The Times
that hopes our envy of the well off will bring us on board and get us to
join in the class warfare. Bill Cosby, who clearly cannot be charged with
being a racist, can now be dismissed because he is part of the upper black
class and that, of course, fixes his mind in a way that isn?t worth any of
our attention. And the class card gambit may help continue the notion that
the poor, especially the black poor, cannot fend for themselves, cannot
become better parents, cannot help with the improvement of the children?s
future. So, goes the refrain, ?We need the government, after all.?

Let?s not fall for this new trick, please. And let us not accept the
insulting notion about poor blacks but heed Mr. Cosby?s idea that black
folks?any folks?can and ought to do something about what ails them.