Saturday, July 08, 2006

Being of Two (or More) Minds

Tibor R. Machan

My one time professor Robert J. Fogelin recently wrote a book, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (London: Oxford University Press, 2003), which argued that the bulk of us are pretty satisfied holding inconsistent beliefs. We think that the world can be understood and dealt with rationally but also hold out for some miracles. We think our fellow human beings are mostly trustworthy and nice but also believe that many people are rotten through and through. And even in more technical areas, we think that the world is but a huge machine that moves ineluctably wherever it is headed yet think we have free will and can change the course of events in various areas of our lives.

Professor Fogelin’s is a very challenging thesis. One problem with it is that in our criticism of how people behave or how institutions are run, our standard is consistency. Even in reading the book we must use reason to tell if it is sound. If we find things inconsistent, we regard it to be a flaw. So when certain politicians propose public policies, others and the pundits insist they be consistent. When witnesses testify in court, they are held to standards of full consistency, otherwise their testimony is discredited. Scientists, too, are supposed to advance ideas that are coherent and do not contain inconsistencies. Those who solve crimes, too, are held to such standards.

So, even about the very issue of whether inconsistencies are permissible, many of us are inconsistent. We can accept a bit of hypocrisy here, some two-facedness there, and so forth, but not too much.

If you generalize Professor Fogelin’s idea to, say, an entire country and the views of the citizenry—let alone to the whole world—what comes out is rather messy, if not out and out chaotic. Laws would turn out to favor both one thing and its opposite—for example, personal responsibility as well as everything bad one does being excusable, pro-life as well as pro-choice, and freedom as well as subjugation. Or when it comes to foreign affairs, great numbers of us believe in restraint and a policy whereby only when it is in our interest should we meddle in the affairs of foreign countries; yet there are millions who believe that humanitarian goals justify various interventions. And maybe the very same citizens think both of these ideas and make their mixed thinking evident to their political representatives. So those representatives, too, are of two or more minds when in comes to public policy—e. g., let’s cut but let’s also increase government spending.

At the personal level, too, we find that people prize integrity—keeping one’s values consistent and standing up for them as such. But they also claim that, well, one just cannot be so logical about it all, one needs to make allowances for divided loyalties and conflicting goals in people’s lives. (This was the theme of the late Sidney Hook’s book, Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life [Basic Books, 1975].) The admonition that we should all “get it together” and not run wild with mutually exclusive agendas in our lives is popular, but so, too, is the come-back that this is too difficult, too demanding, too unrealistic and even rigid and dogmatic. We need, some will insist, more of a flexible approach, one that doesn’t look for logic and reason in everything.

My take on this is not the main issue here. I am just reporting on how many influential and intelligent folks line up on the issue of how consistent people should be as they conduct their personal or public affairs. Given that Professor Fogelin’s idea is quite popular, it may require of us that we assess how things go within different areas of our lives, private or public, quite differently from how we are used to. We do tend to insist on consistency where other people’s ideas and conduct are concerned; even with ourselves we often feel guilty when we do not think and live consistently. Yet at other times we make much allowance for inconsistencies. Perhaps we need to appreciate this a bit as we look at the world.

For my money the effort to live rationally, with integrity, consistently, is a supremely worthy one. But let’s face it, lots of people aren’t very interested in such an approach to life. And some very bright ones even contend it is pretty much a hopeless undertaking. Should we hold up reason as the ideal and keep judging private and public affairs accordingly? Is it, in short, better to stick to reason and leave fancy to the imagination, as Socrates once suggested?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Al Gore’s Unconcern for People

Tibor R. Machan

Only a few sentences of Larry King’s recent interview with former Vice President Al Gore caught my eyes and ears but they were enough to confirm what I had been suspecting all along. Asked about his view of the famous Cambridge University astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s idea that human beings need to prepare to eventually move into outer space, Gore flatly dismissed it.

Anyone who is seriously concerned about how human beings might cope with ecological problems here on earth would need to consider as at least one possibility the emigration of people from earth to some new frontiers. These would surely be possibilities worth considering by those who believe, honestly, that in some centuries or even decades to come, earth will no longer be capable of supporting human life.

In principle, the idea Hawking has floated, by no means original with him, is merely a logical extension of what has been happening on earth for as long as living things have been inhabiting it. The more there is of them, the further away they need to move from where they were initially hatched, as it were. Birds, fish, and humans—you name them. When they increase in numbers, they slowly extend the territory they can successfully inhabit. Not that this always happens smoothly or that it can happen rapidly. Living beings that are unable to change their environment on their own initiative have needed to slowly adjust to some of the new areas to which they had to migrate. But just consider one clear case in point: in time some fish move on to shore and managed to live there as land based animals.

But when it comes to human beings, the possibility of migration from earth to some other planets can be seen to be more promising that what the slow process of evolution illustrates with most living beings. That’s because human beings need not await the workings of natural selection in how they adjust to new regions where they can successfully survive and flourish. People are unique in large measure because they can choose to transform their environments, not merely evolve to be able to live in them. The evidence for this is overwhelming.

One of the flaws in the panicky kind of environmentalism Al Gore & Co., promote is that they ignore the human capacity for creativity and innovation. That flaw, of course, includes failing to seriously entertain the possibility that in time people will migrate away from earth, changing their new habitat to accommodate their needs and wants.

Not that such expansion of human habitation beyond earth may not involve missteps of various kinds. Just consider the problems already evident with the (largely government run) space program. But what I am talking about and what Professor Hawking referred to wasn’t some infallible process of changing how people live on earth to some other part of the universe. The point is that such a change is a clear possibility for which evidence is already accumulating.

The suggestion of this possibility, even if quite rational, would not impress someone like Al Gore, of course. If he took it seriously, it would remove from his propaganda arsenal the element of fundamental fear. No longer would it make much sense to hand over all our decisions to the environmentalists with Al Gore as the leader—or should I say “Fuhrer”? No, the idea that in good time people will recognize what they need to do to cope with the possibility of having used up the resources available to them here on earth strongly suggests that an unregimented approach to coping with the environment is preferable to one imposed on us from above.

What Gore & Co., clearly lack is the confidence that human beings, in the main, are fit to handle the problems that arise in their lives. Or might it be that they fear that confidence because it robs them of the chance to grab power over the rest of us? Seems to me that this is not such a remote possibility at all.

When Gore so quickly dismissed that people could well migrate from earth elsewhere to solve some of the problems he claims he is concerned about, this possibility suggested itself quite readily, at least to me.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Journalistic Malpractice?

Tibor R. Machan

Now and then I peruse newspapers from around the country and on one such occasion I ran across the article "Hundreds rally to place crime fighting tax on ballot" in The Palo Alto Daily News. The title was itself of interest to me because “hundreds” just doesn’t strike me as an imposing figure.

As I read into the piece, however, something more important came to light. It read exactly like a press release from those who support the measure. These folks want to have an additional property tax imposed on residents of East Palo Alto so as to raise funds basically to help ex-cons to get jobs, to facilitate their reintegration into the community.~

For the moment never mind about the propriety of a public policy measure that spends other people’s money on helping out convicted criminals. (One may even consider this double jeopardy against the local citizens!) What struck me as curious is that even though in a previous effort a similar measure lost at the polls, there was not one quotation from skeptics provided in the news report. Instead quotations followed quotations from supporters of the idea.

What kind of journalism is this? Could the reporter, Luke Stangel, find no one who objects to this idea? I cannot believe that.~The article thus ends up to be little more than propaganda for those who want to tax property owners to fund yet another welfare measure in East Palo Alto.

And Mr. Stangel wasn’t the only one who got on board with this mission. After a bit of research I discovered that Neil Gonzales, of the San Mateo County Times, in his piece, “East Palo Alto Coalition Seeks Tax to Fight Youth Crime,” did virtually the same thing—turned a supposed news report into virtual propaganda as well.

I am somewhat familiar with small papers and how some of those writing for them are community activists, so their “reports” are actually advocacy pieces. We have a monthly newspaper in my own community that engages in this kind of “journalism.”

Yet this is not at all unavoidable. Publishers and editors could easily insist that when an activist switches hats and becomes a journalist, his or her behavior change and instead of engaging in what in informal logic is called the fallacy of pleading one’s case, a balanced report be produced that reflects what is actually going on in the community. And if there are serious opponents of a measure being proposed for a vote in a community, someone who takes on the job of telling about it in a newspaper—instead of a political pamphlet—has the responsibility to include different views on the issue being debated.

But no. Both of these journalists have produced “reports” with no mention of the opponents’ viewpoints, let alone providing any quotations from them or reasons why some oppose the measure. These pieces, in fact, read very much like the kind of “reports” I used to encounter in the newspapers back in communist Hungary, where no one but the government had the legal power to produce them.

Maybe, however, when a paper is the sole provider of news in a small community, there is a temptation to get lazy and some, like the two journalists whose reports I read, cave into this instead of upholding professional standards. Readers, in turn, need to be vigilant in such circumstances because the ordinary forces of media competition are missing. Yes, some small competition might exist from bloggers and the like. Still, it is probably best to make sure whether a story has some other angle to it than what is presented in lopsided reports like those I ran across.

It is one of the widespread myths propagated by many journalists and their teachers that when it comes to news reporting, journalists can be independent, non-partisan, and fully relied upon to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However, in fact no journalist is without some, perhaps well hidden (even from oneself), point of view that guides who will be interviewed, what stories will be covered and followed up on, etc. So what may start out as a report intended to be informative of how things are in a community turns out to be, well, a piece of propaganda.

Both of the reporters filing stories on the proposed East Palo Alto ballot measure managed to become advocates for the measure and thus undermine their journalistic integrity. Or that is, at least, what comes through from reading their “reports.”