Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The American Experiment

It's a phrase I haven't read, and certainly haven't heard, for a long time. Yet it was a reminder of how radical the American idea was and is, and how uncertain its prospects were.  Somewhere along the line we must have declared the experiment a success and started taking it for granted.  It may have gone out of fashion before I was born and I only encountered it in reading older material, but I rather think it went away after WWII, as the European nations did finally fully imitate our expectation of individual rights, and half the newly-independent colonial nations immediately held elections and opened parliaments. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, this international preference for representative government and freer markets was one of the themes of The End Of History. 

Thus, we take it for granted now, no longer as impressed with what a remarkable achievement it is, nor that it may in fact be fragile, dependent on public virtues that are waning. We expect that things will go on as before, simply because they "always" have.  We wave our hands in easy dismissal of doomsayers who come and go - we have heard it all before.  Nasim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan caught me up short in this, right out of the gate. This excerpt, about his clan's experience in Lebanon, is sobering.

My FB feed is awash with educated Christians who believe that Trump will usher in the Apocalypse. I find who puts these things out to be utterly predictable, and attribute a great deal of their upset to his arrogance offending against their culture, not to the arrogance itself. Had they objected even mildly to the arrogance on display eight years ago and for the last eight years, they would have more credibility with me now.  It's too late.  They don't really care about arrogance per se, only from certain quarters.  So are we all, but we should be cautious about shouting, because the listeners remember. I do anyway. 

I write this because Obama and Clinton are far more arrogant, and these people did not object eight years ago.  the arrogance is different, certainly.  Trump is the high school braggart, those particular Democrats fit more the collegiate or even graduate level contempt. Reading Screwtape (and The Great Divorce, The World's Last Night, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, "The Inner Ring" - not to mention Paradise Lost and Dante's Inferno) I have no question which is worse spiritually, and from that conclude it is likely to be worse for us in a practical sense. (Though perhaps not. That may simply be a Christian myth that humble rulers are better.)  Let me add that I don't it's even close.  The latter arrogance is deeply worse.

Trump is more of a buffoon.  All politicians are, and we don't recognise that enough, but this crop is the stuff of legends. Conservatives tend to think of Obama and Clinton as too imperious and calculated to be buffoons, but that is exactly how they manifest it.  Yet Trump greatly exceeds even them there. Intelligence?  All have some cleverness, none is that impressive.  Hillary's background suggests that she should or could be, but it never materialised.  Even the private statements that leak out, when they are not merely coarse, are banal, hackneyed.  I have learned on Quora that any estimation of Obama's intelligence that declares him less than genius opens one out to charges of racism, but he's no great shakes either.  IQ 115-120.  Respectable, not what he believes about himself or his followers claim on the basis of bad evidence.  Trump is quick on his feet and his words are clever even when he is offensive and stupid. Above average.

There is a lot of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith said and Churchill quoted, and we have survived one of these fools already.  Perhaps we shall endure whatever comes next.  Nations are becoming less important after all; corporations rise and fall insterad, ideologies, both for anger and for uplift, cross boundaries, technologies both liberate and enslave the individual in new ways. We say that the future will be mixed, because that is what we always say, and will continue saying, right to the gates of heaven or hell. It may be the end, and Hillary or Trump could hasten the world to chaos.  Or they might turn out to be largely unimportant, revealing to us that the ground of power has indeed changed in the world and will change going forward.


herfsi said...

politics seems to have become a form of all star wrestling.
half the crowd yells, "bring on the midgets!"
& the other half sees it as the end times.
twas always thus?

james said...

Nations rise and fall, true, but there are some irreducible necessities that corporations aren't terribly good at providing--like defense. "In any case no man will die for practical politics, just as no man will die for pay." The best they can do is provide mercenaries, and we know how well that tends to work--good for messing up a remote place but lousy locally.

If the nation will not provide defense against enemies foreign and domestic, the local tribe will.

Sam L. said...

We've been told over and over that Obama is brilliant, yet no college transcripts that might document it have come to light. No Law review articles. Many of us think "Is he real, or is he Memorex?"

james said...

I'm told he reads a teleprompter brilliantly.

FWIW, I have not heard more than a minute of him in the past 8 years. Nor of pretty much any other politician. I wait and skim the transcripts. I figure their acting coaches make sure they always sound good, so I won't get any cues that way.

Grim said...

Just out of curiosity, how do you estimate someone's IQ in that way? The President's refused to put out any of the ordinary materials we'd use, though we've certainly seen a lot of him these last few years. Is there a reliable method for coming to a ballpark figure?

Edith Hook said...

Your mention of Churchill reminded me of something I read about historical figures. If you read Churchill's, or Wm. T Sherman's, or Patton's biography among others, it seems as though their whole life was a preparation for their brief shining moment in the sun. Sherman, for example, had several failed careers, yet all this experience came together as he commanded the "Army of the West" in a kind of serendipity. He was the right person, at the right time, though he was held in low regard and had many detractors. I don't know what my point is exactly, just that it isn't exactly visionary to rely on the safe and known commodity.

Edith Hook said...

I confess to not understanding the handwringing over Trump. The ability to assess and manage risk, to visualize a project, to negotiate and finance it, to get the most out assets and resources, to coordinate hundreds of operations, to manage thousands of employees, to accomplish a goal on time and on budget requires some smarts, including street smarts, not to mention energy and focus. I will take a doer over a wonk any day. The caveat is, his staff and employees are incentivized to perform; it’s not the same as herding cats.
My issue is with his credibility. There is a price to be paid for the exaggerations, and silly, inane inflammatory remarks, in the vein of the “Little Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I worry that he won’t be believed or trusted in a genuine crisis. I also dislike the coyness. That said, I realize that most campaigns are engaged in this sort of tactic, but they hid it by using surrogates.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Grim. There isn't a quick way, unless you have a score on something that is essentially an IQ test, such as the NMSQT, SAT, or ACT, or the entrance exam for OCS. We have Bush's SAT's which suggest an IQ if 124, and his scores for OCS suggest a range of 123-128, about the same. Charles Murray estimated him at 125 on similar grounds. Kerry's OCS scores were just a tick lower, and looking at what Law School he got into, the number of times he had to take the bar, etc, he likely tops out at 124. Gore actually took IQ tests and SAT's and likely does have the 134 he claims. Obama is trickier, but we have some things. I had estimated him at no more than 119 on the basis of an extended weighing of pros and cons. Getting honors at HLS, no matte how much cynics might credit to affirmative action or charm or whatever, is still a solid pro. I don't see how you get around that. But there are holes. After arriving at that number (similar to what Steve Sailer later estimated), I saw the data point that the four students who transferred into Columbia in Obama's class that year averaged 1100 SAT's, equals 116. Yes, he could have had a higher score than the others, but if it were hugely higher then the other three would be that much lower - and how low do you think Columbia is going to go in accepting transfers? Such data is suggestive, not definitive. But when you add up all the pieces - no longer needing math scores for his academic career, the teleprompter, his off-the-cuff vocabulary, his mistakes in general knowledge that don't have other ready explanations, 115-120 seems about right.

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