April 5, 2009
Stop Making SenseBy Randall Hoven
I've been suffering under the wrong paradigm for decades. All this time I thought what mattered was "reality." How wrong I've been. Somewhere in the transition from trying to wade through the CBO's analysis of President Obama's budget and putting it aside to read some James Thurber, I had an epiphany.
Before my epiphany, if you had asked me about some problem or policy, I would have tried to analyze it -- asking, or even answering, what I thought were pertinent questions. Say we were talking health care. I would have looked up what we spend on it, life expectancies, infant mortality, disease survival rates, etc. I might have wanted to know what the cost drivers are, how much we spend for each year of life saved, how we compare to other countries. That sort of thing.
How silly of me. And how futile. The answer is simple: propose a "New Era of Responsible Health Care", fund it with a trillion dollars and assign a czar.
I don't say this totally facetiously. Many of us have overrated reality. Or more exactly, we've been distracted with the wrong kind of reality.
Prior to my epiphany, I thought of reality as, say, things that can kill you. Disease. Hunger and famine. Bad accidents. Murder. War.
Close, but not quite. If we think more along the lines of murder and war, we're getting closer to the reality that counts. I had a tendency to think that dealing with "reality" meant, primarily, the struggle of man against nature. Wrong. The reality that really counts is man against man.
Here's an example from pre-history. Say you were the guy or gal who invented "agriculture." You found plants had seeds; you could plant them where you like, water them, tend them, protect them from bugs and varmints as best you can. And once their fruits ripened, you'd have a feast for yourself, your family and maybe your tribe. Months of hard and careful work would pay off.
Except the guys from the next tribe, who didn't plant a damn thing and wouldn't have a clue how you did it, would show up just as your little crop ripened and take it from you by force. All your bright ideas, your months of labor, your trials and errors -- all gone in a day. And maybe your mate and kids too, to be slaves, or worse.
The answer is to think less about tomatoes and more about how to deal with the tribe next door. In fact, you start thinking: maybe you should just pillage those guys. Instead of using your brain to think about what makes tomatoes grow, you use it to make better weapons. The agricultural revolution would have to wait a few more millennia.
And the rest is history.
When dealing with other men, if you can't just kill them, you need to deal with what is inside their heads, which has almost nothing to do with "reality" in the sense of man against nature. If the other man thinks you are a devil who must be vanquished at all costs, it does you absolutely no good to know that you are, in fact, not a devil. And the things that might convince the other man that you are not a devil have nothing to do with, say, evidence, the scientific method, or looking up "devil" in the dictionary.
You share a planet with six billion humans who could, under the right circumstances, either butcher you and your family, or help you grow next season's crop. Next to dealing with them, knowing how to go from seed to fruit is a footnote.
If we can just hold off our fellow butchers for a few decades at a time, we can achieve awesome things. Transportation across continents, between continents, in the air, through space and to the moon. Communication in words, sounds, and pictures, almost anywhere and everywhere at the speed of light. The eradication or near eradication of multiple diseases, more than a doubling of life expectancies and making child birth almost certainly survivable for both mother and child. Making food production so efficient that all of us can be fed by the efforts of 2% of us using 2% of the land.
Real things like famine and disease are actually pretty well taken care of, believe it or not. The Bible warns of famine, pestilence and war. Defeating two out of three ain't bad. But that leaves war - man against man.
We've narrowed down our troubles. Neither small pox nor poor crops are really all that troublesome any more. No, our problems are now pretty much each other. (Inasmuch as small pox and poor crops are still problems in some places, see what the men there are up to.)
If you think man-against-man problems went away in ancient times, recollect the 20th century. One hundred million deaths can be attributed to communism alone. Add in perhaps 21 million more thanks to Hitler. R.J. Rummel tried to count 20th century human deaths caused by governments, not including wars between nations. His count: over 260 million. That was before the Congo (3.9 million), Sudan (2 million), Rwanda (937,000) and recent "famines" in North Korea (2 million), all since 1990.
Millions dead. Tens of millions. Hundreds of millions. Yet modern governments are more concerned about sheep farts than, say, terrorism.
If statistics don't grab you, try out these excerpts from Communist officers themselves, via The Black Book of Communism.
For a more recent example, try this excerpt from The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith:
When we were dealing with nature, rational thinking anchored in reality was key. It led to those transportation, communication, health and agricultural advances, plus plenty of labor saving devices and methods. You might think it was high-minded liberalism that ended slavery. Was it just coincidence that an institution that had flourished for multiple millennia ended during the industrial revolution?
But when the adversary is not nature, but fellow men, rationality as normally considered is out the window. We live in a world where Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are taken seriously. Where Libya is given the chair on the Human Rights commission at the UN. Where heads of state genuinely believe sheep farts are dangerously heating up the planet.
As Vladimir Lenin was commenting on "all those starving people who are starting to eat each other, who are dying by the millions," Walter Duranty was the New York Times Moscow bureau chief saying things were just wonderful there. He won a Pulitzer Prize for that.
Here is the awful truth: it's not what is true, it's what you can convince others to believe.
Bill Clinton knew this instinctively. When most of us learned about logical fallacies, for example, we thought of them as things to be avoided since they could lead us astray -- away from truth. But to Bill Clinton, those fallacies were something to adopt, since they are effective ways to persuade.
He beat an impeachment rap for one simple reason: he was popular. It had nothing to do with being innocent, or what I had called, prior to my epiphany, reality. He beat the rap because people liked him.
It's neither the law nor the facts, but what you can get the jury to do.
While absorbing that concept, consider that about one third of the US population thinks the phrase, "to each according to his need, from each according to his abilities," is in the US Constitution. One third also believes that the US government conspired in the 911 attacks. A majority thinks sheep farts have more to do with temperature variations on earth than the ball of nuclear fire the size of 1.3 million earths that is eight light-minutes away.
And now, as stock markets plummet around the globe and our national debt is set to triple in just two years, the number of people who believe we are on the right track has tripled.
My wife is fond of an anecdote about a fellow who thought he was dead. A person trying to convince him otherwise asked him if dead people bleed. The man said no. So the other person pricked this man's finger and he started to bleed. His response was, "well whaddya know, dead people do bleed."
I once knew a few things about physics, engineering and math -- subjects mainly studied by foreigners now. But I never learned how to convince "dead" people they're not dead. I apparently learned the wrong things for getting along in the 21st century.