Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Intellectual Nostalgia

Going Private discusses the "shallowness" of our understanding in the information-age. Specifically, GP contextualizes this discussion with reference to an article by Carol V. Hamilton, and augments this with numerous quotes from the movie "Being There" which as described by Hamilton centers around "a character named Chance the Gardener, whose entire existence has been restricted to watching television shows and tending a walled garden, [and who] is suddenly thrust into the outside world."

While Hamilton compares Chance to current and past political leaders, GP wonders if Chance's shallowness is not a "defense mechanism" that we all use: "
What reader hasn't at some time related to Chance's defense mechanism, feigning understanding in a meeting, nodding despite confusion, in the face of the fear of being discovered as shallow or unprepared. " She also wonders: "If such a flat character can, in fact, meet with nearly unbridled success and fortune, what value is merit?"

The problem here is that GP is making the same mistake that many Ayn Rand devotees make: When you get to write the story, you can make any lesson you want sound convincing. Would a character like Chance really have such success in the world, or would he actually flounder foolishly without an appropriate context? Would Rand's characters really be able to create capitalistic utopias, or are there more complex forces at work that can be conveniently ignored by the selective storytelling that an author of fiction naturally employs?

GP is also concerned by the "tendencies, recent in my view, to penalize those who can perceive the complex and therefore profit by it....To the extent these actors are successful in the market and attract resources with which to augment their influence in the pricing of assets, the banality of flat surfaces (oil company greed and conspiracy being responsible for price fluctuations in gasoline for instance) might be repelled. But what if these same actors who bring rationality into the equation are routinely vilified and attacked by a society that casts confused and envious eyes in their three dimensional direction?"

Is the envy and vilification of those who are more successful than us really a new phenomenon, or are we merely more well-informed about our place in the socioeconomic pyramid? I think that GP is more correct when she says that "
shallowness has always been the opiate of the masses, but that its delivery is no longer an endeavor confined to wealthy and influential institutions, or the higher "estates of the realm." " -- When the privileged parties have a vested interest in the status quo are able to manipulate the naturally shallow worldviews of those who are unable to dig deeper (because of lack of education, lack of time, or for whatever cause), we get heroic kings rather than villainous robber-barons.

I doubt that, on average, our perceptions of the world "as it is" are any more or less accurate than they have been historically. The information age has merely moved the paintbrush of the spin-artist from the hands of the privileged few to the hands of the often-envious many. We should
not see those who are successful in the world as either villains or heroes, but rather recognize that our system of economic and financial incentives rewards certain behaviors. Some are better at figuring out those behaviors than others, or better positioned (through birth, education, or luck) to perform the associated wealth-generating or wealth-aggregating tasks.

[Edited to reduce sexism]


Anonymous Equity Private said...

I'm a "she," not a "he."

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Equity Private said...

I might also add:

"The problem here is that GP is making the same mistake that many Ayn Rand devotees make: When you get to write the story, you can make any lesson you want sound convincing."

Except that this is Hamilton's premise (and she personifies this example with Bush) not mine. Supposing her assertion true of Bush, why are we concerned, I ask, given the lack of potency political leaders actually have. A closer re-reading of my text might help.


3:07 PM  

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