That strange relationship between power and truth

May 11, 2009 | By | 23 Replies More

I have a question for readers and a request for guidance.

My gut feeling is that political power has nothing to do with truth. It doesn’t matter that someone is encouraging me or threatening me to believe that 2 + 2 =5. The truth is that 2 +2 is always 4. Even if someone enacts tax incentives for me to say otherwise. Even if police officers put guns to my head. Even if every other person in my country ostracizes me and calls me immoral.

It seems, though, that there are what seem to be (to many people) strange but unrelenting version of truth that are guided by the exercise of power. This occurs most often in closed systems. For instance, one would be scolded if one stood up and announced that Mary wasn’t a virgin while in a Christian church. If you take a megaphone at a Fourth of July picnic in middle-America, you’d better damn well say that the United States is the world’s greatest democracy, even though our voting rates are pathetically low and even though our political system is thoroughly corrupted thanks to legalized bribes termed “campaign contributions” (see this telling comment, which SHOULD shock us into starting a massive revolution).

Within a closed social system, then, it seems as though political or social power can be used to make many people mouth many blatant untruths. After mouthing them for long periods, many of these people start believing these untruths. For instance, did we invade Iraq to confiscate known weapons of mass destruction? That idea served as truth to many people during the run up to the invasion (some people still cling to that falsehood). Now, with a new power order in place in Washington DC, the prevailing truth is that the Bush Administration intentionally conjured up fake evidence regarding WMD.

This inter-relationship between truth and power reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s suggestion that scientific fields undergo periodic revolutions (“paradigm shifts”), in which the nature of scientific inquiry within a particular field is abruptly transformed.  I’m also somewhat acquainted with various “post-modernist” writings that seem to address this general issue. For instance, consider this definition of postmodernism by Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler, which I pulled from Wikipedia:

A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.”… Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture. Therefore, any system or statement that tries to communicate truth is a power play, an effort to dominate other cultures.

I see this power/truth formula at work all the time in at the courthouse. Prior to 1954, if I were advocating to keep black children out of my white school, I would cite to the legal “truth” of Plessy v. Ferguson. After 1954, my opponents would cite to the legal “truth” of Brown v. Board of Education. I’m aware that the Critical Legal Scholars movement also picks up on this power/truth issue.

I’m wondering if any readers or co-authors can direct me to other writers who I should consider in my explorations.

What is driving my questions is this. I would certainly be tempted to “create” truth using the barrel of a gun (or the power to threaten another with hell) whenever one has that power. It would be ever so tempting for someone who was not self-critical to cut off discussion whenever it threatened one’s own sacred cows. Governments and religions excel at this technique, and it seems to be the source of some of the fruitless conversations I see at this site and elsewhere.

Here at DI, of course, we don’t have any power to threaten anyone with anything. If you don’t like what we’re saying, you can quickly go elsewhere on the Internet. But many institutions can threaten people to “Believe X or else,” and it seems to me that, at least on a local level, that technique is quite often successful. I suspect that it drives most of the DI comments where many of our authors and a few readers seem to be eternally condemned to be ships passing in the night, intellectually speaking

That’s my question, then. I’m looking suggestions for a reading list to further explore this relationship between truth and power.

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Category: Censorship, Communication, Community, Education, ignorance, Language, Law, Politics, Psychology Cognition, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. distal muse » Blog Archive » Truth and Power…and Other Stuff | May 13, 2009
  1. Karl says:

    I suggest "I Don't Believe in Atheists" by "Chris Hedges."

    It could have equally been called I don't believe in "fundamentalists of any creed."

    Although it doesn't directly address your "power versus truth" angle it does directly show how fundmantalists of any worldview are indeed involved in using their social influence to shape the world as they believe/wish/desire it to be.

    Hedges is not accomodating to any specific worldview that seeks to silence others through the use of protected or priviledged status, no matter how this has come about in a culture. Those who step behind any cloak of superiority have much they are not examining about themselves.

    http://books.simonandschuster.com/9781416567950

  2. Tony Coyle says:

    Karl

    You are, perhaps, reading more into Mr Hedges title that what he, and the book, actually says. HAve you actually read it?

    Hedges criticism is of the New Atheists, as exemplified by Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. He calls them "fundamentalists" in their own right, no better (and perhaps worse) that religious fundamentalists. He accuses the New Atheists of racism (especially in regard to their response and commentary on Islam and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism). Hitchens is on record (as is Harris, I believe) stating that what is wrong with Islam,

    it makes the same mistakes as the preceding religions, but it makes another mistake, which is that it’s unalterable. You notice how liberals keep saying, “If only Islam would have a Reformation”—it can’t have one. It says it can’t. It’s extremely dangerous in that way.

    He also suggests that the New Atheists are proponents of the Neo-conservative agenda and criticizes what he calls the "utopianism" of the New Atheists. His basis for this last is his personal skepticism about any moral progress for humanity. While Hitchens may be conservative, he is certainly not neo, and is willing to change his stance based on evidence.

    You will note, however, that the strongest force behind the Neo-conservatives is in fact Christian Fundamentalists, in the form of the Evangelicals. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

    Mr. Hedges seems to pick at the truth, and despite his obvious credentials as a reporter in other areas, his own personal biases are hanging out for all to see. He disagrees with strong atheism. Fine. But to support his thesis, he crafts a number of very weak strawmen arguments that would be laughable in a cub reporter – but are simply egregious in one of his standing. Equating atheism and religious fundamentalism is the weirdest – one is simply that god is an unnecessary accoutrement to life – the other is that god and his specific dogma is everything. That is not equal, that is opposite!

    I personally desire the world to be rational and thoughtful and accommodating to a multiplicity of viewpoints (including your's, Karl). Such is not feasible if society is held hostage to bronze age mythology and 'hidden' truths. If speaking against such dogmatic adherence to institutional delusion is 'fundamentalism' then I happily accept the label. But to conflate my desires (for open, honest dialog and respect for all views) with religious fundamentalism (which seeks to impose a rigid one-sided dogma upon all) is nothing less than shameful dishonesty.

  3. Tony Coyle says:

    One last point about Mr Hedges and his book. He states that 'new Atheists

    peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress.

    and states unequivocally that this is a completely bogus stance without evidence.

    I think that this is the straw that breaks the back of Mr. Hedges argument, since nowhere do any atheist's espouse such 'progress' as inevitable.

    Do we desire such progress? Of course!

    Are we blind to the challenges? Not at all!

    The world is full of intolerance – religious and secular – and to pretend otherwise is to live in a fantasy world.

    Mr Hedges seems to still have much of the seminary within him, and seems truly uneasy at the thought of 'no religion' – perhaps this is at the root of his diatribe against the 'new atheists'.

    Lastly: new or old, atheists are simply refuting the necessity to posit a god. The only thing truly 'new' about new atheists, is that they have, at last, a voice.

  4. Karl says:

    I have read the book. While I find many aspects of what he has to say about religious fundamentalists’ offensive and not how I would characterize myself or even the majority of evangelicals. I know there are those who would use the political system to legislate morality to force others into an Old Testament Theocracy. In this regard, I consider this as an offensive stance towards these issues which would characterize Christianity as a blind disinterested agreement to an externalized compliance that then manages to have loophole after loophole that is a form of worthless legalism. Like the US TAX CODE.

    From his perspective of how he views the interactions between any groups of fundamentalists, I can see how he would perceive things the way he does. He sees the offensive nature of both sides of the issues.

    His calling aspects of the new atheist’s agenda offensive towards the religious fundamentalist’s perspective as he sees it. He wants dialogue which will not happen if values are associated with power and politics.

    And it is indeed the case that many perceive that the new atheists believe they can fill the void and bring progress simply by convincing others of their rationality in how they deal with the really important issues.

    He calls the new atheists “fundamentalists” in their own right, no better (and perhaps worse) than religious fundamentalists.

    If you read the book he's not sure of much more than the end of human civilization will likely come from opposing fundamentalists, otherwise few would find the need to try and shape the world into a haven for their superior perspective or worldview.

  5. Briefly, Erich

    (We've had this conversation several times over the years)

    The problem is in the variability of the term "truth"—like many such words, we stretch it to include things which are related but not the same. There is Truth and then there is Fact. 2 + 2 = 4 is a fact. It may, if analyzed sufficiently, yield a fundamental "truth" about the universe, but in an of itself it is only a fact.

    When someone comes along and insists, through power, that 2 + 2 = 5, the "truth" being challenged is not in the addition but in the relation of the assertion to reality and the intent of the power in question. The arithmetic becomes irrelevent. Truth then is in the relationship being asserted and the response to it.

    Similarly, in your example vis a vis civil rights era court decisions, there is a conflation of ethics and morality. Ethics deal with the proper channels of response within a stated system—in which case, Plessy could be seen as ethical given the criteria upon which it was based. But not moral, given a larger criteria, but to establish that larger critera would require "unethical" behaviors in changing the norm. The "truth" of either decision is a moving target, albeit one based on a priori concepts of human value as applied through ethical systems that adapt.

    Bringing this into the realm of religion, it gets tricky. Because the concept "god" can be formulated according to personal criteria that have only desultory relations with what we might call Fact (for instance, "god" can be seen as purely a philosophical notion identifying certain characteristics of human response to the sublime as well as characterizations of personal assumptions about states of being which cannot be derived by deductive reasoning), to make the claim "there is no god" is functionally devoid of truth. The best you can say is "there is no god for me." If I acknowledge, for example, that my "god" is purely a mental construct I carry around inside to allow me to function according to a set of precepts, your claim that there is no god is merely opinion, just as unverifiable or testable as my assertion that there is. The "truth" lies outside those opposing statements, which are really trying to establish fact in a realm of ideation. Conversely, to say "there is no god but god" can only ever be a personal statement of belief, unattached to any factual content. The truth is personal, disconnected from material fact.

    Likewise, then, you get into the difficulty of determining moral behavior as opposed to the simply ethical based on these personal apprehensions.

    Power introduces a third element that distorts all sides of the Truth/Fact, Moral/Ethical discourse by rendering all elements subject to arbitrary force. The force is a fact and may well establish am ethical ground, but it will always have a tenuous (at best) relationship to Truth and Morality.

    (Sorry, that wasn't as brief as I wanted to be, And that's a fact.)

  6. SteveH says:

    I would suggest Ayn Rand. Here is a link to her writings on the meaning of truth: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/truth.html

    In short, truth is based on reality. It is up to the individual to develop his reasoning faculty to discern reality and therefore the truth. The simple example of 2 + 2 = 4 is based on the reality if you put 2 sticks with 2 sticks, you end up with 4 sticks.

    When people and society are involved in a "truth", most attempt to confuse matters by adding non-essentials (i.e. race, gender, ethnicity, religion, earnings, etc.). Reality is that "society" is nothing more than a group of individuals. Truth, in a social context, starts and ends with the individual regardless of these non-essentials.

  7. SteveH,

    You must be 14.

    Truth is not so rigid. There are, in fact, instances where 2 + 2 do not equal 4 (check chemistry, for instance).

    It is the individual's responsibility to develop reasoning…but the kind of reasoning we're discussing is not "natural." It requires training, and I haven't seen any evidence that isolated individuals can develop from first principles to Socratic logic without help.

    Which means an education. Which means it doesn't happen in isolation. Which means the individual must depend on others for instruction. Which is often an act of altruism. Which sort of undoes most of Rand's ideology of self reliance.

    The problem with Rand is that you have to be a well-educated, near genius to implement her philosophy.

    You need to expand your reading list. Try Popper.

  8. SteveH says:

    I had written much more in response to this. But I decided to trim it to the essential message. In editing my response I left off one comment I would like others to think of.

    Many would probably agree that power/truth has created the 'virgin' Mary or Bush's WMD reasoning for invading Iraq. What about your sacred cows?

    Is global warming a 'truth' that is being created by those in power? Why is diversity inherently good, not to be questioned? Equality is another 'truth' or goal that can not be questioned. I view all these ideas as 'social truths' that have no basis in reality.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      SteveH: My question was meant to be (and should have more clearly suggested) that it was an equal-opportunity question. I do wonder how many of my "truths" are skewed by power issues (though I have always been suspicious of political power–maybe I'm more likely to assume the opposite of the prevailing political winds!). As far as scientific issues, it is my assumption that good science will often take care of itself, since those truths are born of a process founded on skepticism and experiment. Not all scientific conclusions are equally strong, I'll admit, leaving room for social concerns to sometimes warp the process.

      As far as climate change, I was concerned about this issue for a long time before it became an issue long before the media or politicians jumped on board. I'm on board due to the scientific data, not because it became a "popular" issue.

  9. SteveH writes:—"Is global warming a ‘truth’ that is being created by those in power? Why is diversity inherently good, not to be questioned? Equality is another ‘truth’ or goal that can not be questioned. I view all these ideas as ’social truths’ that have no basis in reality."

    No basis in reality…

    So the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets aren't changing, melting? I'm going to assume that what you're referring to is the causal link of global warming to human action, because one would have to be an idiot not to recognize that climate change is happening.

    As for it being "created by power", bear in mind that the Powerful fought against the idea for a long, long time. This is "truth" that made its reality felt in the face of power.

    Diversity. Interesting question. It has no single answer, which is also an attribute of Truth. Firstly, on the most basic level, diversity simply is. It exists and apparently cannot be destroyed. Inherent goodness is not relevant to that fact.

    But going from there, since throughout human history power has striven mightily to reduce diversity to conformity, usually at the expense of individuals (and since you're a Randian, this ought to resonate). Hitler, to use the largest example, wanted social conformity and genetic "purity" and was willing to slaughter any individual that dared to veer from his ideal of what should be. He was anti-diversity. I think it is worth elevating the concept of diversity to a common Good in order to form a bulwark against that kind of reductionist thinking.

    Equality is a misused term, I agree. What is meant is equality before the law—no one gets special treatment, either to their benefit or their detriment. It is an ideal, however, and it is something not found in nature. Does that make it any less valid? Many things humans do or make are not found in nature and can be considered good. We establish systems to try to achieve these concepts. We do this, we try, and that is a fact. We fail. That is also a fact. But the subject—equality—is a concept, a goal. How can it be construed as Not Truth?

    It gets misapplied when people try to pretend that everyone is the same in every other regard. But as long as people use differences in capacity, potential, or inclination as justification for oppression, we have to tread carefully about how we challenge that notion of equality. (See remarks about diversity.)

    As a good Randian, you must acknowledge that one of her precepts was that humans make their own reality, so when you claim that all these things are "social truths" that have no basis in reality, you are contradicting your own stated beliefs. Social realities are very true—they exist, we live with them, we accept or deny them, they are there, so they are very real.

    What statements like that usually mean is that someone—perhaps like you—doesn't like those concepts, those conditions, and wishes people would stop treating them in ways that run afoul your notion of how the world ought to be. It's not that they aren't "true" but that you object to them and wish they would not be true. You wish people would stop annoying you with them. Oh, well.

    As for my sacred cows? I have them, but I am willing to discuss them rather than hold that any counterargument is a lie. See? I'm treating your arguments as sincere and worthy of response.

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    SteveH, I get your drift.

    before the advent of the World-Wide Web, people were accustomed to getting their news pre-filtered. reputable news agencies took the time and effort to verify their facts, and tended to report as honestly and objectively as possible.

    There is a general technique to mass indoctrination that is derived from the same brain laundering techniques used by cults on their new recruits. This follows a few premises.

    First, in the absence of personal knowledge of a subject, a person will believe the first answer they receive from anyone they think is more knowledgeable on the subject.

    Second, the answer they receive most often from multiple sources is what they will be come convinced is the truth.

    Third when this person becomes firmly convinced that this answer is the truth, they will add their voice to the multitude of other self-proclaimed "experts" in order to "Teach" the uneducated the answer.

    The internet offers totally unfiltered information, it is up to the user to discern the veracity of the sources. It is often overwhelming. These principles of mass manipulation are often used by corporations and political extremists advance their political and pecuniary goals. It works like this:

    The backer either a company or a political group, sets up several web sites, each with hundreds of pages, through shell companies or affiliations with individual and groups holding similar views. Each site has hundreds of pages, with each page containing a set of keywords that they expect the target audience to search on. Many of these sites are structured to look like some obscure independent "Think-Tank" website, and often these various sites cross link to each other, using an obscure page in one sites as a corroborating reference for another. This gives the impression of an unbiased expert commenting on the subject. They are anything but unbiased.

    The large number of websites and pages causes the biased sites to rank high on search engine results and the sites are used to satisfy the requirements of the first two principles, putting into play the third principle which causes a snowball effect as the self proclaimed experts post links and references to other self proclaimed experts and work to convert others to this point of view.

    The relationship between political power and Truth is that the Truth can be dictated by anyone with enough power.

  11. Dan Klarmann says:

    "Diversity" may not have a single answer, but it can be proven to be "good" in most contexts.

    Diversity necessarily underlies evolution. Any healthy species must support a wide range of characteristics to survive the next crisis.

    Tolerance of social and racial diversity is a trait of all long-lived civilizations, as well. Although one could argue about the chicken-eggness of diversity vs. longevity.

    But monocultures (genetic or social) are always overwhelmed by predators, parasites, or conquerors. Diversity is a powerful survival tool, even if it seems to be an inconvenience in the short term.

  12. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Good point, Dan. In simple terms, it is far far better for your family tree to have broad branches, then to have no branches at all.

  13. Steve H says:

    Well, I thank you all for your responses. I would like to clarify a couple of things that were offered as counter arguments.

    Mark, you state that Rand postulates that human's make their own reality (I paraphrase). This is not entirely true. What she teaches is that reality exists independent of a reasoning mind. In other words, absent of humans, the environment, the planet and the universe would behave in a certain way with strict adherence to nature laws. In the human realm, there are things that have similar 'natural laws' like an economy. This is what I mean when I say 'reality'.

    Your response comes too close to the idea that man's mind distorts reality or that man can not know reality or that there are several different realities/truths or that man somehow can dream up his own reality. I do not agree with that notion. This notion, when applied to practical situations in society, leads to distortions. These distortions may be able to exist in the short term but reality always has the final say and will frustrate our efforts to maintain them.

    Let me attempt an example. Please do not get bogged down in the example and try to refute my contention. Simply use the example to understand my definition of reality as it applies to human relations and the economy.

    Our government has tried to distort reality in relation to lending standards and banking.

    A proper bank will have standards that prevent them from lending money when there is a high probability that the loan will not be repaid. That is good and proper. Can anyone argue that point? The reasoning behind this is that the bank is in business to make money. They can not make money if a loan goes into default. That is reality. It is hard to argue this point.

    When those standards are applied, often times poor people can not get loans. Or the property being bought with the loan is in a high crime area and there is a risk that the bank will lose it as collateral on the loan. So, applying the objective standards of banking, these people do not get loans.

    Unfortunately, many see this as discriminatory because a high percentage of these people are black or hispanic or they live in the inner city. Suddenly, the government sees discrimination. Rather than apply the reality of objective lending standards, government introduces the non-essential matter of race. Their claim is that banks discriminate on the basis of race, when in reality they are discriminating on the likelihood that the loan will be repaid, it just happens that many of those refused loans fall into a certain group.

    So, government decides to introduce laws that force banks to make more of these loans. These laws do not erase the reality that poor people have trouble repaying these loans. To placate the banks, government papers over this fact of reality by offering to buy these loans. Again, the government has not eliminated the risk that the loans will not be repaid. The risk is still there. They just wish to 'change reality' by distorting the objective standards of banking. Like I said, this distortion can exist for some time, but reality (that these are risky loans with a higher than normal rate of default) does not go away.

    Rand does teach that man has the ability to shape the world around him. But she stipulates that he must shape it in accordance with reality (Nature to be commanded, must be understood). Reality is that there are people that have trouble repaying loans and banks can not make money if the loan goes into default. Just because you or I wish poor people could afford a house does not mean we can change that reality. So reality dictates that banks should use objective standards with the primary goal of making money off loans that have a high likelihood of being repaid. Race never enters the equation.

    Niklaus mentions that the web provides a wealth of sources for news and information. It allows us to find things out for ourselves (if we choose). Unfortunately, I find that people, in general, will settle on their favorite source(s) and stick with it. Basically, they re-enforce the ideas that they already hold. So, I am not so sure the web is as liberating as some would have you believe.

    SIDE BAR: I found your site because there was a post on Ayn Rand and I was curious to see what you had to say. I continue to visit because it helps me hone my understanding of my own beliefs by analyzing the ideas you post. Further, most of the comments seem reasonable (they use faulty logic, but reasonable). I did not feel attacked by your commenters which so often is the case when I visit sites with an opposing view. I would encourage others to visit sites with opposing views. Read their arguments and analyze them critically against your beliefs. Find the principle behind the idea and refute the principle rather than the specifics. I have been doing this for some time and have come to understand my beliefs a lot better (because some arguments take a tremendous amount of effort to refute).

    Your example of mass indoctrination has the wrong focus in my opinion. I agree that people (many more than I would like) behave in the manner you point out. But those aren't the people I worry about. I believe that Americans have an uncanny ability to sense a scam when they see one. They may not be able to explain why they are uncomfortable with an idea, but they will recognize when they are uncomfortable with it. When the proper ideas are presented, those folks will likely follow. What I am looking for is that person who provides the correct direction.

    Your example seems to demonstrate a generalization that people are sheep willing to follow the loudest, most popular orator. While it is tempting for me to believe this after Obama was elected, I believe his ideas will eventually be seen as uncomfortable. I am waiting for the 2010 election before I make my decision on whether America can recover. (Come on! Did you really think I could resist the temptation to take a jab at Obama?)

    Dan, you talk about diversity in terms of biology. The problem is that laws put this in terms of hiring. There is a vague notion that diversity in the workplace is a good thing. Don't question it, it just is good.

    I don't care who I work with as long they are ambitious and productive. I have worked with Indians, Chinese, folks from the Carribean, Yugoslavia, the Phillipines, various ethnicities in the US and elsewhere. I did not value the color of their skin or their place of origin. I valued their work ethic. Many of them pushed me farther than I thought was possible. That should be the only criteria for hiring.

    Again, there is this mythology that around every corner is a racist and the government has a duty to protect us from them. In reality, this just isn't true.

  14. Mindy Carney says:

    Steve, I have no doubt that many of our other DI bloggers will respond to your thoughts with much more educated responses than I. Finance is most definitely not my area of expertise. But I will submit that you are underplaying the issue of race as it plays out in the public arena, just as you suggest it is overplayed. I would submit that the true reality falls somewhere in between. Of course banks must have criteria in place for lending money. And you are right that a disproportionate percentage of those living in poverty are minorities. But just because those facts are true does not mean that minorities are not unfairly eliminated from borrowing money, nor does it mean that assumptions based in insidious racism are not causing unfair scenarios to to play out daily in the lives of minorities everywhere.

    Here's just a quick example. I have worked with a group of black women, all of whom are well-educated and successful. Through them, I have made several contacts who are very active in the African American cultural community where I live. A young woman I met recently lives with her new husband in a part of town that would be considered by the bank to be risky. It is one of those urban neighborhoods that is primarily black, the houses are older and smaller, and some of them are rundown. Most of them, though, are tidy and well-kept. She grew up in the neighborhood, so it is familiar, and their adorable little house is a great starter home. It is in immaculate condition, they keep the yard nicely manicured, and most of all, they could afford it. As newlyweds, they'd planned on renting, but were able to afford this because he serves in the National Guard on top of their full-time jobs. She told me, though, that they had a very hard time securing the loan on the property. They ended up having to have parents co-sign for them. And there was no reason for it. They had saved up the down payment, they both have excellent credit and college degrees. It is a starter home for them – but they had to jump through enormous hoops that my niece, for example, did not have to do – to purchase a similar-sized home in a new subdivision. My white niece, who is younger than this black woman and just graduating from college. She and her fiance, who is also in the National Guard but not working right now as he just returned from his second tour in Iraq, just bought that starter home on their own. They didn't need a co-signer. They have less credit experience, altho' I'm sure their credit is very good, because they are several years younger; she is just graduating college.

    I understand your post and the bank's rules – but do you see how yes, racism comes into play here? The young black couple want to start out in the area where they grew up. But they are penalized for not wanting to flee to suburbia, because of those rules about which you speak. If it's only about the safety, etc. of the area, then we should just let the housing stock fall by the wayside, and not support these young professionals who want to stay in their neighborhoods and be part of turning them around?

    I'm not saying there are easy answers. Just curious how you see this being managed appropriately?

  15. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Steve, The example I cited actually happened. And there have been several similar cases since then including many that are on-going. Anyone with a good background in social psychology is aware of these techniques. Unfortunately for the public, the best and brightest social psychologists work in PR and advertising.

    The banking example you mention is really bogus. You are parroting the Bush hype blaming the Community Reinvestment Act for causing the meltdown. This was not the case. See this article for details.

    The CRA was designed to encourage local banks to offer loans to people in urban areas to encourage individual home ownership. The houses in this case were older low to medium valued properties and the programs that came out of the CRA often involved more stringent requirements for the borrowers than other mortgages. I should know. I bought my house through one of the subprograms of the CRA, A program that worked through a cooperative effort between federal, state, and local housing agencies, require homeowner responsibility training, budgeting classes, and allowed (in my case), first time home buyers to get a 30 year mortgage with no down payment, not some overpriced predatory sub prime loan that was sold off to an investment bank,

    "Unfortunately, many see this as discriminatory because a high percentage of these people are black or hispanic or they live in the inner city."

    Actually to purpose of the CRA was to reverse the inner city blight and to help lift people out of poverty. This works because the pride of home ownership and the fixed rate mortgage allowed the homeowners to keep the same house payment while the rent on commercial properties increased. My house payment has increased by 25% (mainly the result of taxes and insurance) in 15 years, My property value has doubled in that time , and all the rental houses in my neighborhood rent for about twice the amount of my combined mortgage, insurance and tax payments.

    "Suddenly, the government sees discrimination. Rather than apply the reality of objective lending standards, government introduces the non-essential matter of race. Their claim is that banks discriminate on the basis of race, when in reality they are discriminating on the likelihood that the loan will be repaid, it just happens that many of those refused loans fall into a certain group."

    The discrimination that was observed was purely on a financial basis. Banks had less overhead on large commercial loans and actually could make more money at lower rates on a $250,000 business loan than on 5 $50,000 Home mortgages.

    "So, government decides to introduce laws that force banks to make more of these loans. These laws do not erase the reality that poor people have trouble repaying these loans."

    The CRA related loans had much more stringent qualifications that new home loans. Furthermore, most of the homes bought under the program were really cheap, but in good condition. They were on the market for various reasons, including some that were seized by the DEA.

    "To placate the banks, government papers over this fact of reality by offering to buy these loans. Again, the government has not eliminated the risk that the loans will not be repaid. The risk is still there. They just wish to ‘change reality’ by distorting the objective standards of banking. Like I said, this distortion can exist for some time, but reality (that these are risky loans with a higher than normal rate of default) does not go away."

    This last part is a purely speculative assessment base on misinformation.

    That you believe this is proof of what I described.

  16. Steve,

    First off, let me state up front that you express yourself very well and handle your arguments admirably. I actually don't have much to quibble with your example, except this caveat: do not make the mistake of accepting Rand's basic postulate that capitalism is somehow "natural." It is not. It is, like anything humans make, an artifice. When I said humans make their own reality, this is part of of what I meant.

    Rand reacted powerfully to the contrast between the Soviet system she escaped and the democratic republican system she embraced. I believe she mistakenly assumed our freedoms were based directly on capitalism. She formed a philosophy that enshrined it and made it into some kind of inevitability that all clear-thinking humans would eventually embrace.

    The way capitalism is conducted today and indeed the way it was conducted when she came to the United States is nothing like it was in its infancy, when Marx railed against it. It had to modified. It benefited the avaricious and clever. Insofar as it imitated the tooth and claw simile of nature, you could argue that it brought out the predatory in some and turned the rest into prey.

    Capitalism has worked better than its predecessors in providing the most for the most, but it is far from ideal.

    Consider, following a bit on what Mindy said, the very power to grant loans is not value neutral—it bestows the power to determine who will get them. It might appear that banks would grant loans to those best able to pay them back, and base their interest rates accordingly. But that very ability allows them to decide, in advance, who will be able to pay them back. As it has functioned since its inception it has gone hand in hand with a class system to keep certain people out.

    Rand made the argument that if people shed their short-sighted prejudices, capitalism could be the best system for elevating the bulk of any population, regardless of background. That's what I meant when I said she shared a misconception with Marx. Rich or poor makes no matter, people are not fundamentally good nor even fundamentally practical.

    Even so, setting that aside, capitalism has many shortcomings. There are certain moral exigencies to which capitalism is a bane. Making people pay for their very existence by means of a system capable of denying them the means of doing so is merely the broadest and most obvious. Rand, possibly without intending to, bought into a form of social Darwinism that sounded noble on the page but in reality—that world out there that actually exists regardless of how we might wish otherwise—it is as prone to abuse as any other economic system.

    Economics does not exist in nature.

  17. Steve H says:

    Mindy, You don't manage these things. It is a personal choice, up to the individual who is experiencing the issue.

    I am faced with a similar situation. The country I love dearly has been following a path for some time that can only lead to ruin. I plan on doing what I can to demonstrate that bail outs are for losers, mandatory volunteerism is an oxymoron, talking to dictators does not bring peace and collectivism is not the answer to the problems we face.

    But in the end, if the electorate decides that Obama and his programs are correct, I will have to make a decision for myself – stay and watch things get worse or withdraw my consent and leave. I will not wail, gnash my teeth and protest in the streets. I am not asking you or anyone else to 'manage' this for me. I take responsibility for my own life.

    Your friend had the same choices in her search for a mortgage. I would find it hard to believe that she did not have more than one choice in mortgage firms. I would find it harder to believe that ALL mortgage companies would refuse her a loan without jumping through hoops. It may be harder for her to find a mortgage, but she had choices. No one can manage those choices but her.

    We all have faced problems like this. Part of being an adult is facing them and solving them – on our own. I take issue with the suggestion that somehow these things can be managed – either by the government or some other large agency. To believe this is a proper role for government is the wrong concept of freedom. It is wish to be free from living as an adult.

  18. Mindy Carney says:

    Steve, I wish the world worked as you want it to. I think this culture of which you speak is an admirable goal – but it is not realistic. You are speaking of idealism, taking the wide range of human capability and need out of the picture. That can't be done in the real world. You are speaking of world without gray areas, one in which all human beings have the capacity to achieve the same things, one in which every human being has the same access to the same resources as every other. The world simply doesn't work like that. Human foibles cause challenges at every turn, and often the foibles of some cause challenges for others. I believe we are finally turning onto the right track, a noble track from which we'd wandered too far. We – the collective we – are at our level best when we are helping each other. We find talent and heart within ourselves, sometimes that has been left untapped for far too long, and I think Obama's goal is to tap it. I do agree that mandatory volunteerism is an oxymoron, but I do not agree for a moment that "bailouts are for losers…talking to dictators does not bring peace and collectivism is not the answer to the problems we face." I don't believe we are headed toward an actual system of collectivism. We are taking steps to work together to help the many – but you are exaggerating the destination.

  19. Erich Vieth says:

    Steve H: I would love for you to live a parallel life where you are born into poverty and to compare how the two Steve H's turn out. The poor Steve H would most likely struggle for a lifetime while the current Steve H lectured him on what a loser he is and how it's all a necessary part of life that losers keep losing and that it would upset the natural order if we, as a country, tried to remedy abject poverty. BTW, interesting Washington Post article today documents why many poor people stay poor (link).

    I'm not denying that many poor people are poor because they make terrible choices. But many these bad choosers were born into a situations that guaranteed that they would become the kinds of people to make bad choices. We can either scoff at them and their families or we can try to do something about it.

    So sit back and tell me about what poor Steve H would think about you lecturing him and condemning him to the status quo instead of offering a helping hand by voting for political leaders who show some empathy.

  20. SteveH writes:—"Your friend had the same choices in her search for a mortgage. I would find it hard to believe that she did not have more than one choice in mortgage firms. I would find it harder to believe that ALL mortgage companies would refuse her a loan without jumping through hoops. It may be harder for her to find a mortgage, but she had choices. No one can manage those choices but her."

    Man, I hear echoes. Brings back memories.

    You did not read Mindy's post. When the system in which you must work makes larger choices than you can counter (i.e. this person is high risk based on our perceived metrics—black, young, wanting to purchase in a high risk neighborhood) your choices become quickly smaller, through no fault of your own. This is reality. This is how it works. This is what all the bitching and complaining of the last 50 years is all about. It is not simply accounting. Humans are in charge of these institutions and humans are often jerks. Period. And when the jerks have the money, they call the shots.

    Except, theoretically, here, in a democracy. All the things you wail about here ("I will not wail, gnash my teeth and protest in the streets.") are part of the methods by which large scale change happens. (My dad used to complain about the anti-war movement, saying that marching in the streets was not the proper way to change the system—but it turned out that without those marches, the system is more tenacious than anyone understood, the marches were necessary.)

    You say:— "But in the end, if the electorate decides that Obama and his programs are correct, I will have to make a decision for myself – stay and watch things get worse or withdraw my consent and leave."

    To which I say one word: coward. If you really believe in something, you stay and fight for it. Picking up your marbles and leaving is the response of someone who at bottom just doesn't want to be bothered. (Again, an anecdote from my dad. We argued once over the morality of the draft dodgers during Vietnam and he told me that if I had gone to Canada—which I wouldn't have, but that's another matter—he would have hunted me down and killed me. I told him that was counterproductive, that if I really thought the system was wrong, what should I do? He said—and it stunned me—"You stay and fight. You go to jail and I will hire the lawyers. If you believe in something, you never run away." I consider my dad an exemplar of what it means to be an American—pardon me if that sounds a bit hokey.)

    That is at the heart of Rand's entire aesthetic—that if you don't like something, rather than engage to change it, you ought to just leave. That's the message of "Atlas Shrugged" and it is a heinous message. It presumes you have such absolute knowledge, by virtue of being a good Objectivist, that you can decide to let something collapse rather than try to make it work. It might collapse anyway, but if you have such superior abilities, and it's your home, you engage, you work.

    Of course, the problem for the Objectivist (as with any absolutist philosophy) is that engaging risks the possibility that you might learn that you're wrong. Safer to leave, content in the comfort of your own preconceptions and mollifying ideals. Leave before you are touched by something that might contradict those perceptions, before possibly finding out that the world and its variety are worth more than cataloguing them into neat philosophical packages.

    Right around 18 or 19 I was fully in thrall to Rand's ideas. It was the perfect adolescent fantasy, that I could be so important that if I left the human enterprise then the world would suffer, that I was one with others who were so valuable that their absence would cause everything to stop. That my way of seeing the world was so correct that no one of similar talent and ability could possibly disagree with my point of view.

    And I didn't have to get messy working with others. I didn't have to risk having my head turned by a reality that didn't conform to John Galt's polemics.

    If that's how you feel, SteveH, go ahead and leave, and don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. Sorry to get so incensed, but that kind of attitude is the most counterproductive waste of human potential.

    You know what you should do—take a turn in Habitat For Humanity for a season or two and find out. People get born into situations that others—bankers and their ilk—prefer they remain in. That is a reality that raw, unformed ability and talent cannot overcome. At some point, everyone has to rely on a community to get somewhere else, somewhere better. We do not do so alone.

    Apologies to others for the screed.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: I was also enthralled by Ayn Rand's work when I was a teenager, but I also became highly disillusioned for many of the reasons you have written in your well-articulated comments.

      It also became clear to me that Rand and her close followers offered a one-way conversation. I signed up for the Objectivist Newsletter (offered in all of her paperback books) and I was stunned by how Rand's followers railed at anyone who dared veer from their sacred text, and all of these people being yelled at had subscribed to the Newsletter because they found some merit in Rand's arguments. This was a terrible approach to building a movement. Yes, you want control of the message, but all messages that succeed are living messages–the followers need to become ever new leaders for any movement to take off. It also seemed to me that Rand's approach was essentially top down–real world evidence contrary to her writings were totally ignored.

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