Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Thing I have Learned So Far

Tibor R. Machan

I do not mean about cooking or lawn care, of course. I mean about communicating good ideas that I am convinced would, if more widely shared, improve matters near and far.

Back in the 1960s, when my columns began getting published--initially in the paper at Andrews Air Force Base, then in my undergraduate newspaper at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College, and later in The Freeman and the student paper at UC Santa Barbara, the weekly paper in Goleta, CA, and in time in The Santa Ana (now OC) Register and others, like The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Wall Street Journal (just once!), The New York Times (5 or 6 times, if I recall right) and who knows where else--I wanted to convey my strong and reflective support for the free society as I understood it. Having had experience with communism and, more personally, Nazism, and seeing the welfare state stumble all over the place, I figured I could shed a bit of light on political matters and draw some valuable lessons.

One of those who disapproved of all this was a pretty famous philosopher, Ilham Dilman, who was for a while visiting at UC Santa Barbara. Another, much later, was the expatriate German philosopher, Eric Vogelin. Both, for somewhat snobbish reasons, thought writing columns is shallow and people trained in philosophy--e.g., in the thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant and so forth--ought to deal with matters at a more in-depth, sophisticated level.

I disagreed mainly because I figured there is room for competent discussions at various levels of complexity and although I will do my scholarly works diligently enough, I also wanted to air good-ideas-in-brief. In time I formulated my writing program called “Machan’s five ways”-- the letter to the editor, the column, the essay, the article/paper, and the book--every topic can be addressed within the confines of each of these to some benefit.

But there was another thing about all this butting or chiming in. It agreed with my personality, which is not unimportant when one chooses what kind of work one should do in the better parts of one’s life. Being a teacher of serious ideas to initially not too serious students suited me because I really wanted to make sense of important matters in ways that anyone who is willing to pay heed can grasp. Not everyone ought to embark on such a career and maybe I am not the most excellent at doing so, compared to some of the great teachers and writers in human history. But making sense--now that is something I firmly believe in. How else can one get at the truth of whatever is of concern to us? (So I also helped found the magazine, still going pretty strong but not exactly as originally conceived, Reason!)

There is something I had not considered early on, though, which is that however much one may make sense of things and communicate this reasonably competently, others need to choose to pay attention before it can make a difference. Once the late Sidney Hook was lamenting to me that he was disappointed because despite making every effort to be reasonable, he didn’t appear to make much headway (despite his considerable reputation and influence). I told him that’s because others too must pay heed. Without that, nothing much develops from even the best thinking one can do.

So now, seeing how so much of the world is in political and economic muddle, not necessarily more so than before (maybe even less, and only the speed of communicating bad news leads one to forget this), I am convinced that it is worth all the vigilance but there are no promises that there will be a great payoff. (One reason I don’t agree with consequentialism.) Here, too, the human capacity for free choice is evident--no one can force ideas down people’s throats, let alone make them do the right thing. Nor can it be guaranteed that truth will prevail.

But in any case, it will have been worth it all, trust me.

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