Everybody seems obsessed with placing me in a ‘proper’ political position on a 2-dimensional line where I am either conservative of liberal. According to this model, everyone initially agrees that I make good points and one of ‘us,’ but as they probe more, they start to suspect me of being on the ‘other side’ in an argument that holds only two positions. Left-wing liberals become convinced that I am a member of the right, since I read business news as the source for what’s going on in the world. Right-wing conservatives belief I’m a member of the left on account of my feeling that liberty is the key to American greatness, and the more liberty we have the better off we are.
I object to being so placed by people who are more set on their own configuration of experience than on what I am actually saying, but after 30 years of being misunderstood I have come to expect it. Nevertheless, I don’t feel that I am obligated to be saying things just because I am misunderstood to be saying them, so I press forward.
Today, I want to explain my attachment to business news, rather than MSNBC or Fox News, as my main source of information about the world. Like a lot of my intellectual opinions, this has to do with my graduate school experience. I watch both both Fox and MSNBC, because I truly believed my elders when they told me that it my obligation as citizen to inform myself on the issues of the day. This is why I listen to Rush Limbaugh, as well. It has always seemed to me that not listening involves missing not one of but the primary driver of political culture in the last generation. It would be like trying to explain the ecosystem of MP3 distribution without any knowledge of Steve Jobs or Apple. You could do it, but you would be missing the primary driver of change in that system.
This is not how people react in the Age of Limbaugh. Rather than listening to all sources of news, people choose their news. This is, I think, of the rise of new media, which, unlike traditional media, can appeal to individual people on the basis of their own preexisting predispositions. That is a good thing in general, as it gives people a deeper appreciation of people who can reach others in the world who share their deep interests. I, for instance, subscribe to a medieval list server that connects me to medievalists all over the world. It would not be possible to have had a conversation with someone New Zealand who shares my belief that Aristotle was much more important than medievalists give him credit for, as I once did after the Internet was invented.
But such depth of experience comes with costs. It has turned people inward to feed their own predispositions and leaves those who are not in the inner circle feeling slighted and somewhat offended that people are texting with their phone rather engaging those in their immediate proximity. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and my father thought that the Pepsi Generation was too self-involved. This trend inward has continued, as niches get broken down into more and more detailed segments.
The news is fairly latte in this process. After Rush, Fox News came to fill what turned out to be a major niche of those folks who were not hearing what Rush thought was the ‘other’ point of view. So now, the choice people make between Fox News or MSNBC is a matter of individual preference. A liberal will watch MSNBC to the exclusion of Fox News; a conservative will watch Fox News to the exclusion of MSNBC. Each will see the other as ‘other,’ and their feelings will be supported by the vitriol that spews from each for the other. This transforms the ‘other’ from a principle of difference over similar arguments into the intrusion of evil into the pure sphere of well-intentioned but misunderstood people. Rather than getting along. Each party feels obligated to rid themselves of the evil in their universe in order to recover their otherwise pure community.
That seems to me to be a very harmful effect of a general good. Cultures eventually balance such over-reaching, but that does not mean that the individuals who make up that community realize their small part in the larger picture. This means that all those young women who breast implants or who get tattoos on their lower backs will grow old in an age in which people who have enormous breasts and back tattoos are mocked by the young who think that enormous fake looking breasts and back tattoos are disgusting things that only pornstars have. I have been saying this to my wife for years, as this is what my father complained about in the 1960s, where he wanted his son to have short hair in a world in which everyone had long hair. Culture won over individual. My wife, however, doubts me. Go figure.
This style of thought is supported and even encouraged in academia, where arguments that rely on a secure environment in which to make judgments have given way to a less structured environment in which structure is associated with control and constraint, while freedom from constraint is associated with ‘doing your own thing.’ This is opposed by conservatives, who still hunger for stability in a world of change. This is the reason that I think I got in so much trouble when I was in graduate school. I agree with liberals that there is more than way of looking at the world, but I do not agree with the conclusions that my academic colleagues have drawn from their experience with the loosening of interpretation away from the secure moorings of New Criticism.
My academic colleagues were still suffering from the legacy of existentialism, which proposed that all we had to do to be authentic was to do our own thing. At first, the culture divided people into an ‘in culture’ and an ‘out culture.’ The ‘culture’ was named The Pepsi Generation. But the trend did not stop there, and soon people were dividing their culture into smaller and smaller niches.
Academia, too, grew away from a sense that the needed one ‘master narrative.’ Instead they decided to throw interpretation to Reader Response Theory, which as Wikipedia says “stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader’s role in re-creating literary works is ignored.” I support such developments in academic criticism over New Critical methods, and if these two poles were all there was to this problem, I would side with open reader response over closed New Criticism. But these do not appear to me to be the only choices.
The Business Response to the Same Phenomena
In the business world, which I had experience during the 4 years after I dropped out of college and during which time I discovered the postmodern problem, and to which I went back to after graduate school, they thought differently about the world. They were not as skeptical of knowledge as they were in the academic world, and thus they were not as worried about the mind’s ability to engage the world. While I respect the fact that philosophers have come to realize that there are problems with the modern world’s configuration of aesthetic experience (see Roger Scruton’s Short Introduction to Modern Philosophy, #7 on my list of my current favorite books, as well as my references to Scruton in my take on modern art).
Never a skeptic myself, I have always been drawn to answers to skepticism, which are rare. This is why Augustine’s Works appear as #13 on my complete list of my favorite books, and why Charles Norris Cochrane’s work appear as #3. Both give answers the skeptical question that appear to my academic colleagues in the work of Derrida.
In business news, they are not nearly as skeptical of the mind’s connection to the world as they are in academia, and this is one of the reasons that I have been so comfortable in the business world. But it is not a matter of their being ignorant of the mind’s connection to the world or of being too confident in it. In response to the mind’s tenuous connection with the outside world, which skeptics had located in Plato, business people did away with such definite connections. They transferred their allegiance from the secure authentic individual who could lead markets based on their deep sense of history to more passive sense of following after changing markets. Such market behavior cannot be predetermined by historical precedents. It could only be partially determined after the fact by those who are not swayed by their rhetorical constructions of how they want the world to appear to them. All the business person has to go on is the market price. In a world where “Price is truth”–one of my favorite saying in economics–no one has a firm grasp on truth. That changes one’s attitude from being a person who’s in control of one’s own life, which is given to them as their birthright, to a role of follower of the ups and downs of a wavering price-truth.
This makes sense in the business world, because markets change direction, and what the market is doing today it may not be doing tomorrow. This is why every ad says ‘historical performance may not be indicative of future results’ and why it is so important that each person takes responsibility for their own action and not rely on other people when it comes to making money. The way to do this is not to feel that someone knows what is happening in the market and we put our faith in them to guide us through the labyrinth of choices secure in the knowledge that someone knows.
Poor Choice in the English Department
I view this more than a personal choice in a universe in which we make choices from an infinite store of possibility, as my English teacher thought in the 1990s. Some choices are really bad, like the student who offered the following explanation of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping on a Snowy Evening’: ‘it’s about Santa Claus.,’ she said. I’m not a cynical man, and I have heard a whole lot of clichés like this from cynical English teachers who swear that things like this are as common as and regular as a bear urinating in the woods. Not being as cynical as such teachers, I am more likely to equate it with the far more unlikely Pope-Bear switch in the woods, but I swear that this happened in Craig Abbott’s English 200 class.
Frost was not thinking about Santa Claus. Dr. Craig Abbott was one of my favorite professors, but he was so disgusted by this answer that he let our class go early that day. His problem was that he had no answer to the problem of reading other than to give us his expert opinion. But, as those people in the 60s had recognized, his pursuit of his own authority was the surest way to control over others. He didn’t want that, either (and for the record, neither do I), but he had no other choices available to him than to throw the field open to his poor misguided student and allow her to have her opinion. That was not an option for him (or for me. See my Writing for People Who Hate Writing if you’re interested in my solution the problem of my 20 years of encountering these types of readers).
Now if Dr. Abbott had read my Poker Tales ((c) 2007) back in 1986, he would have known that there are other ways of looking at the world that do not divide the world into ‘us and them’ along the 2-dimesional lines of Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, I hadn’t figured out my answer to this problem, yet. But when I did, I put it like this: In poker, as in the stock market, we don’t get do-overs (which Michael Moore is after in his public statements). We make our bets and hope that we are correct. Even stock market geniuses like my favorites Gil Morales and Chris Kacher, authors of Trade Like an O’Neil Disciple: How We Made 18,000% in the Stock Market and founders of the stock advisory service Virtue of Selfish Investing, a service to which I subscribe, make mistakes in their stock picking.
In the 3-dimension world that I outlined in my Poker Tales, knowledge will not give you a winning hand every time, but careful attention to the cards your opponent holds in his hands will make you a winner more often than a loser. And means that we need to curb our outburst at others who don’t agree with us every issue, accusing them of bad faith (born from false consciousness in many cases).
A Better Way
A better way to resolve these debates, if you ask me, is not to continue in a behavior that systematically alienates people by deciding that they are either with us of against us, but instead to reevaluate our entire configuration of the universe we now live in but which those of us old enough to remember know we have not always lived in. This will allow us to come together in the middle, where cooperation and reason have always resided.
When I was in my conservative phase (1992-1994), I stopped subscribing to Time Magazine and started to read Business Week. Business Week, as opposed to Time had an obligation to focus on the future, because if they focused on the past they would be out of business. Information about the past is available to anybody with access to a library. But access to the future is up for grabs. There is only one Steve Jobs, only one Bill Gates, only one Jeff Bezos. These are not just ‘winners in life’s lottery.’ They are members of the entrepreneurial class. But lest anyone think that I a blind optimist about being an entrepreneur, I can’t forget that for every Jeff Bezos, there are a hundred thousand people who fail in business.
The most successful entrepreneurs are those with a little bit of education (Gates and Jobs dropped out of college; Bezos was a Princeton graduate), a little bit of knowledge about how the world works, and a much (much much much) better idea about how to accomplish the same tasks in a more efficient manner. They must not only invent a better imaginative construction, they must implement their solution in the real world. That is a far different thing than is pursued in the halls of academe, where Derrida teaches us that enything that can be constructed can be deconstructed. In academia this puts a premium on not taking a position but instead trying to appeal to everyone with every sentence we utter. For those of you who have not had the experience of academia, you see this every time a fashion designer starts talking. They say things like ‘It’s a cool look that uses hot colors’ (is it hor or cool?) or ‘It’s a high fashion look that uses the look of grunge’ (is it high fashion of low?).
The key to realizing what is going on in the fashion world is to realize that everybody is attempting not to alienate anyone. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if the business press took the same tack as a fashion designer, no one would watch them. That is the difference between an aesthetic position, which attempts to be all things to all people by aligning itself with the metaphysical tradition, and a scientific business position, which does away with not only the metaphysical position, but all interest in the microcosm’s reach for the stars of the microcosm. These positions have been failing since I was born in the 1960s.
This state of aesthetic affairs is not yet complete. I would go so far as to say that it never be. The problem I see in my academic colleagues is that they have not yet come to terms with their helplessness before the future. Despite their deeper sense of history and (dare I say it?) tradition, they have not enough of a sense of the possibilities for a a very rapid change in the immediate future. See my argument with my Facebook friends over my believe that the ‘warfare’ in class warfare will caused the beleaguered few who nevertheless pay 80% of taxes to take their money and leave this country. If I am right, it will be the end of America in the face of globalization. Democracy will be the cause of it, and will get the lion’s share of the blame in autocratically-governed countries like China. Now I have to say that I am not certain that this is the only imaginable future. I am sort of shocked by one of my most liberal friend’s response to my argument: ‘Let them go.’
Even Fox News, which is the flavor of the day on the left and the right (albeit for different reasons), is still too wedded to the notion of ‘fair and balanced‘ news. This, too, will pass, as all ideas once powerful ideas fail. With fall of Fox, MSNBC will pass away as well, as people start thinking of the universe in way that are now ignored and perhaps unthought of by the current crop of very smart and otherwise wise members of the intellectual class.
My point is not to resign from life because we know we are going to die. That, it seems to me, is an apt metaphor for how deconstruction sucks the life away from its most virulent adherents (academics) while giving them confident that they are better than everyone else because they don’t belief that they are competitive. They flee to a position where they think they will be safe from deconstruction. And yet, Derrida warns us not to behave in the way that most of his followers are behaving. They ignore things that don’t accord with their own beliefs about how they want to be.
But it is not okay to ignore things just because they don’t fit in with your or my view of how we wish the world to be. That only leads us to the Land of Cockaigne (for those of you with a medieval bent to your thought) or to the Big Rock Candy Mountain (for those of you with a more American bent to your thought), pictures of fantasies without any underlying reality. And no one wants that, especially not someone like Derrida, who believes that the best criticism comes from being able to unearth things that have not been obliterated from the universe but merely suppressed by acts of raw power, awaiting an insightful critic to dig up from the margins things not apparent to those who stand at the center of things.
In the meantime, I prefer watch CNBC’s specialist knowledge about business, which is scientifically-based (with all the good and bad that science brings to news) to Fox News or MSNBC’s competition for who can be more partisan in a two-dimensional univers or CNN’s competitive hook, which is apparently to be even more ‘fair and balanced’ (and less committal to any position) than the rest of them.