Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Land without a Crucible: How to Appropriate Cultural Collapse

In Trump's America, liberals have been reduced to 1) begging for money from the government, blind to the military-industrial complex's willingness to give them as much or as little money to keep them occupied as long as defense expenditures grow (one dollar for you, ten dollars for me); and 2) antagonizing every different-minded man, woman, and child on their quest to save the country

Warren Hinckle's characterization of American liberals has never been more apt: in 1973, he called them "horror[s]" because of their tendencies towards "self-righteousness and self-importance." (Another Hinckle gem: asked why he worked in conservative bars frequented by police officers, he responded if anyone could find a good liberal bar, he'd visit one.) 

Today's liberals can tell you about the Gulf of Tonkin but not why such an incident would be allowed to occur, or why otherwise intelligent people would feel compelled to engage in such maneuvers. Some might know about "domino theory" but not why it--and laying down dead body after dead body--would be considered reasonable in light of all available intelligence. I've heard the best minds of my generation rail against biased media (aka propaganda) using the terms "collateral damage" and "cultural misappropriation" without irony, captaining the English language to advance misunderstandings down empty harbors. Modern-day radicals are more likely to go apoplectic over a friend's recycling habits than wedding diamonds that, even if not bloody, destroy the earth while tilting local economies into de facto slavery. (Yes, Australia has done well with mining--it's the lack of economic diversification without proper safeguards that's the issue.)

Banally, America's intellectual malaise isn't intentional, making it harder to identify villains and vanquish them. 
I recently attended a Berkeley, California event celebrating books and, one might assume, critical thinking. Yet, every interview was the equivalent of a slow pitch softball game (no offense to softball players, some of the toughest athletes out there), as if organizers believed their primary job was to ensure audience members wouldn't face foul balls of complexity. Lesson: never choose interviewers who are friends or colleagues of the speaker. There's a reason journalism exists (existed?) as a profession--to create independence and therefore more freedom to ask difficult questions. Perhaps sponsors believed if they weren't nice, speakers wouldn't return, but anyone incapable of discussing potential deficiencies in his or her ideas isn't worth inviting back. 

Another lesson: whether intentional or unintentional, the result is the same. (Bonus, on war: "What does it matter to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?") None of the book festival's inanity was by design, or rather, everything was done to maximize happiness and to promote ideas. (At least they didn't require people to submit questions on index cards or limit themselves to two minutes.) 

At one booth, I discovered a book selling for 17.95 USD available for 9.99 USD online and asked for a discount. The vendor said he couldn't compete with Amazon because "we can't lose money on every book we sell." I responded that after building the online infrastructure, including the delivery infrastructure (initially subsidized by consumers paying for shipping), Amazon and publishers were both making money pursuant to an agreed-upon price split. It's true Amazon's R&D expenditures and forays into new areas (e.g., a mobile phone) cause it to report losses, but Amazon is no longer losing money on most book sales, especially not on the Kindle. (It does take a loss on some books like Harry Potter but gains brand loyalty as a result of its discounts and events.) Hoping to engage on a difficult question, I wondered out loud how brick and mortar bookstores could compete in a modern capitalist economy. Devoid of ideas, the vendor shrugged his shoulders and gave me a curt goodbye as his final rebuttal. At no point did he reveal any shame in opening the conversation with a misrepresentation. If we are living in a post-truth society, the cause is our post-humility culture
Former NY mayor Michael Bloomberg in National Geographic.
At another event, cultural appropriation was mentioned negatively, inspiring a well-meaning African-American audience member to explain the issue was rooted in economics. Meanwhile, none of London's black or brown residents would think to complain about their city's most popular food, the colorful chicken tikka masala. (It's as if the British have bigger fish and chips to fry.) Unbeknownst to most Americans and Europeans surrounded by dozens of foreign restaurants is a real-life government conspiracy: stealing the best people and ideas from other countries by any means necessary. Such a plot has existed since humans realized it was easier to steal than to invent, to build, or even to maintain the infrastructure--both physical and abstract--necessary to accept change gracefully. 

Stealing and appropriation occur because they allow Country A to gain the benefits of Country B's inventions with as little displacement or sacrifice as possible--at least for Country A. Immigration, something I've heard liberals support, is literally cultural appropriation personified. Unless the goal is to build walls or ghettos--something I've heard liberals oppose--the main reason different people should enter your hamlet or megapolis is so you can discover the best they have to offer until you're the lovely country of Indonesia but without the pollution, traffic congestion, and banking crises. 

Any other philosophy means you support using people for labor without any meaningful exchange of ideas, something Immanuel Kant warned us about in 1781: "So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." (I remember when liberals told us melting pots and mixing were good for society, then they told us they meant we should be like salad bowls (healthy, with distinct colors), and now I think they're saying we shouldn't mix at all unless everyone pays for every idea they stole. I can't predict the next iteration, but I suspect lasagna will be involved.) 

Why we are discussing imposing informal or formal rules on what people should do or say rather than a more equitable process to capture or spur innovation, I don't know. Such discourse would require complex knowledge of different disciplines, along with sustainable funding mechanisms for new ideas that protect the displaced. To this end, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Philosophy. There's a great future in it. Will you think about it?

"Our drones will never be called terrorists, and our guns will never defeat nationalism. We change the world by how we look at it." -- Pico Iyer 

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