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  • The Scribes and the Idea of Freedom

    Posted by David Foster on October 3rd, 2010 (All posts by )

    I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, but Erin O’Connor has been reading it and reviews it here. Based on her summary, it seems that Franzen’s basic opinion about freedom is this: he doesn’t like it very much. Consider for example these excerpts:

    …the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.…also: The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.

    Erin summarizes:

    “Freedom,” for Franzen, is a red herring. As a national ideal, it paralyzes us, preventing government from behaving with the rationalism of European nations (there are passages about this in the book). And, on a personal level, it is simply immiserating. Every last one of Franzen’s major characters suffers from the burden of too many choices.

    In a novel, of course, one cannot assume that opinions expressed by the characters are those of the author himself–but in this case, it seems to me that they likely are, and this opinion appears to be shared by most commenters at Erin’s post.

    What really struck me in Erin’s review is her remark that I am starting to think that this novel may amount to a fictional companion piece for Cass Sunstein’s Nudge..the referenced work being not a novel, but a book about social, economic, and political policy co-authored by Cass Sunstein, who is now runnning the Office of Regulatory and Information Policy for the Obama administration. (See a review of Nudge, Erin’s post about the book, and my post about some of Sunstein’s policy ideas.)

    Shortly after reading Erin’s review, I encountered this NYT article by a philosophy professor who talks about the “seething anger” of the Tea Parties. Two excerpts: The great and inspiring metaphysical fantasy of independence and freedom is simply a fantasy of destruction and To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. (I would think a philosophy professor should be aware that “propagating falsehoods,” even if such a charge were true, is not violence–and asserting that it is seems to me to be inherently undercutting of free speech and to be intellectually preparing the battlefield for various forms of speech-control.)

    Indeed, I’ve run into quite a few articles lately in which the memes people are bad at making choices and too much choice makes people unhappy are propagated. Often, the insights of behavioral economics are used or misused to support this thesis. The overall idea seems to be that people will be both better-off and happier if more of their life decisions are made for them by better-qualified elites. (The question of why the conceptual and emotional traps that affect human decision-making don’t also apply to these elites–the question of “who will nudge the nudgers”–tends to go unanswered.)

    It has been believed for some time that intellectuals tend to be especially supportive of freedom..but it’s not clear that this really has historical warrant, especially if we generalize “intellectuals” to “the scribe class”, i.e., people who read and write for a living, ranging from medieval clerics to British schoolmasters of the Thomas Arnold era to modern college professors. Indeed, the attacks on individual freedom and choice seem to be propagating mainly among the members of our modern scribe class. I certainly don’t think there is any kind of central Illuminati directing the propagation of these memes; however, many members of this class clearly feel threatened by current turns of political opinion, and the high degree of conformity and groupthink within this class ensures rapid transmission of ideas that are judged to be socially acceptable in their circles. It appears that the critique of choice is now such an idea.

     

    30 Responses to “The Scribes and the Idea of Freedom”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      This ties in with the Enviro video about murdering people who disagree with the elite consensus.

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      I certainly don’t think there is any kind of central Illuminati directing the propagation of these memes; however, many members of this class clearly feel threatened by current turns of political opinion, and the high degree of conformity and groupthink within this class ensures rapid transmission of ideas that are judged to be socially acceptable in their circles.

      What you are seeing is an emergent phenomena caused by the aggregation and integration of the emotional impulses of vast numbers of people all making the same decisions for the same reason. It is a form of market force. Just as the market results from the aggregation and integration of huge numbers of individual economic decisions, these ideologies evolve by large numbers of “scribes” all individually drawn to the idea that “scribes” should be the dominant class of society. Whenever any idea pops up that “scribes” should be the ruling class, “scribes” literally buy the idea and promulgate it. Repeat that over many generations (since Plato at least) and you convert the base genetically programmed drives of a group of people to an absolute truth.

      The question of why the conceptual and emotional traps that affect human decision-making don’t also apply to these elites–the question of “who will nudge the nudgers”–tends to go unanswered.

      I’m going to steal that.

      It is one of the major blind spots of leftist’s elitism that they can’t see that the behaviors that they see as corrupting individual decision-making and private organizations also affect themselves and government institutions. There is no way to evade our programmed impulses to selfishness. Almost all leftists ideas are ultimate based on the idea that an altruistic subset of humans exist who will only use the violent-based coercive power of the state for the good of all.

      The Greeks, the Romans of the Republic and the Founders knew better. The farther we deviate from that hard earned wisdom, the worse we do.

    3. Jose Angel de Monterrey Says:

      I haven´t read Jonathan Franzen’s novel either, but in reading Erin O’Connor´s review and excerpts from the novel I cannot help but to stop at his description of the Swedish man´s immigrant experience and ultimately the man´s own anger towards American government and society.

      It is in my opinion an emotional discharge particularly common of immigrants as they have to give up on their very own society´s concept of freedom back home and they try to embrace America´s but then fail to grasp its uniqueness and end up trailing in a labyrinth of solitude as their children grow to distance themselves from their parents and become normal native Americans integrated entirely into America´s society but incapable of holding on to their parent´s culture and language.

      Also, I think any discussion of freedom in America will also necessarily touch on discussing the limits and burdens that individuals, either consciously or unconsciously impose upon themselves.

      In many places in Latin America, Americans are famous for their punctuality, but arriving late to an appointment is perfectly normal in our cultures and it is something Americans always find annoying especially when they have to wait for their business partners or friends.

      I make this point because an American friend of mine once referred to me how in college he used to envy when Latin Americans would arrive late to class or to a group meeting and not feel embarrassed at all for being late, they would simply say “sorry” and act as if nothing happened. That is the way most of us here in this part of world see freedom, we just see freedom, period.

      But I think that while Americans love freedom, theirs is a different freedom, it is a concept of freedom that is deeply cemented on the concepts of responsibility for one´s actions and for maintaining and enforcing a social order.

    4. Chicago Bozo Says:

      A post about a book not read but based upon a book not yet finished and of course used to dump on Obama….now that
      is what I call scholarly. In fact what Franzen is saying is not that freedom is bad but that too much of it often leads
      to confusion…You know, freedom’s just another word for everything to lose.

    5. David Foster Says:

      Bozo, most of us have time constraints. It was entirely legitimate for Erin to offer a tentative opinion about the book, which is what she did, after having read most of it, and it was entirely legitimate for me to take Erin’s opinion as significant based on my high respect for her.

      The fact that you were unable to any deeper point here than “dumping on Obama” (who was in fact mentioned only in that Sunstein is an Obama appointee) says something about your own intellectual depth or lack thereof.

    6. Michael Kennedy Says:

      it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.

      I think the author has a point here. Of course the “others” happened to be The Church of England with respect to the Puritans, the Prussian conscription laws with respect to German immigrants, the English landlord system with respect to the Irish immigrants. The “others” were usually oppressors of one sort or another. The Russian pogroms of the 1880s brought another wave of immigrants, this time the Jews of eastern Europe.

      I think Americans are genetically selected for independence, personal initiative and impatience with tyrants. That is the source of the anger of the communitarians and progressives with this restive American voter. They just won’t bend their backs and accept the words of the master.

    7. David Foster Says:

      One aspect of the anti-choice movement is the increasingly-common idea that some information is too dangerous to be researched, discussed, or disseminated. Today Villainous Company linked a story about researchers whose work shows possible ill-effect of day care: both of them have been roundly denounced, not because of any flaws in their methodology, but because their research might suggest social-policy conclusions that the critics don’t like. I’ve also seen a story about an ad campaign intended to inform women about the increasing odds against successful pregnancy as a function of age: this was denounced by feminist groups who feared the information would be used to discourage women from pursuing careers. But whatever the intent of the ad campaign, wouldn’t a feminish who truly valued the right of women to make their own choices *want* them to have this information? The answer is pretty obvious.

    8. David Foster Says:

      Michael K…true that about American immigrants often being those who tended to resist unjust authority. (Though this was probably often so mixed with economic motives as to be impossible to untangle.) But phrases like “sociable genes” and “people who didn’t get along well with others” point in a different direction and paint us as a nation of curmudgeons. (I don’t know if Franzen has read Toqueville and other sources on American voluntary organizations)

      As I noted at Erin’s blog, it is odd to see the scribes–long the denouncers of conformity and Rotarianism–longing for “sociability.” Why, you would think they all wanted us to live in Gopher Prairie.

      I’m not sure there are really such things as genes for independence, personal initiative, and impatience with tyrants. More likely, these were personal characteristics of individuals which have been transmitted as memes for a few generations–but are subject to dying out if not reinforced.

    9. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I am not being totally serious, in a scientific way, about the genetic trend to independence in Americans but I don’t dismiss it. The American conscript army in World War II has a lot of folklore about the independence of the American soldier. Of course, there is also a lot of evidence of the superior performance of the German army’s noncoms. Maybe conformity and rigid training is superior in war. Still, I think that American independence gene is there in some fashion.

      The British middle class, the people who fought World War II with us, are abandoning the new Britain and emigrating, mostly to southern France. The size of the immigration is posing a problem for the excellent French medical care system as the British ex-pats all apply to the French system under a provision intended for the poor. They refuse to go back to the NHS for care even though it is only a matter of a few hours and is free. The emigration of the traditional Briton is little noticed here but is the subject of some concern. The smaller cities are being abandoned to the unruly young and the Muslims. Maybe that is the British equivalent of the tea party.

    10. zenpundit Says:

      “It has been believed for some time that intellectuals tend to be especially supportive of freedom.”

      We should have been thoroughly disabused of this notion by Plato.

    11. David Foster Says:

      MK….several years ago, I read an article by a Brit comparing his treatment in a French hospital with his experience in a British one. He found the French experience to be far better in terms of the attention he got and the general humanity shown in the interactions with the staff.

    12. Lexington Green Says:

      A friend of mine who is in the drug company startup business was telling me recently about foreign medical care. France he spoke highly of. Britain he said has the worst medical care of s y developed country. He said do not get sick or get hurt there, or if you do, get out if there and back to the States S soon as possible.

    13. Lazarus Long Says:

      “…the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.…”

      Well, no.

      It was the smart ones who left, it was the stupid ones who stayed.

      Which is why I am all in favor of legal immigration.

    14. Odysseus Says:

      “Today Villainous Company linked a story about researchers whose work shows possible ill-effect of day care: both of them have been roundly denounced, not because of any flaws in their methodology, but because their research might suggest social-policy conclusions that the critics don’t like.”

      That encapsulates the reaction of those steeped in the social science construct of the first half of the 20th century to developments in the second half, e.g. adherents of the tabula rasa vs heretics like the proponents of sociobiology; case in point: E.O. Wilson.

    15. Wayne Richards Says:

      Lazarus Long (8:44) said:
      It was the smart ones who left, it was the stupid ones who stayed.

      I beg to differ. I think it was indeed the smart ones who left, and the intellectual ones who stayed.

      Smart is better.

    16. Dave Says:

      The various timid urgings of “libertarian paternalist” or “communitarian” or “technocratic” thinkers should be taken as applause. The weak tea arguments they provide would have been utterly ignored previously, when the forthright authoritarians felt free to peddle their wares. Nowadays their cavils are barely compelling enough for those who _want_ to believe them to be interested. Complaining that choice can be problematic and burdensome isn’t even interesting enough to be wrong.

    17. SenatorMark4 Says:

      I am SOOOO sick of reading things where elites want to take our right to make free choices away and replace them with their “correct” choices. It used to be that in Texas you could ask a highway patrol to hold your beer for you at a stop because it was your responsibility to make sure you didn’t drive drunk. Now you can’t hold a beer while driving because you MIGHT get drunk. The political elites of both parties think they can whore for money from all kinds of special interests and still feel secure in the knowledge that they’re defending the Constitution. There is no more room for their two-faced comments. We are watching, don’t like what we see, and are intent on returning America to the ideal of “land of the free, home of the brave”. The rest of you that want to ride along without effort need to eat cheese in France.

    18. TB Says:

      I can’t help but notice that people who are “anti choice” are usually against choices for OTHER people, not themselves.

      Ever hear one of them stand up and say “I really have too many options in my own life?”

    19. David Foster Says:

      TB..people rarely say *explicitly* that they have too many choices, but sometimes they say this *implicitly* by joining & supporting political and religious movements they know will reduce their choices.

      I believe it was Erich Fromm who quoted a young Nazi during the 1930s: “We Germans are so happy. We are free of freedom”

    20. Vincent Moneymaker Says:

      “It has been believed for some time that intellectuals tend to be especially supportive of freedom.”

      The only people who are silly enough to believe that are intellectuals.

    21. Buck O'Fama Says:

      “The overall idea seems to be that people will be both better-off and happier if more of their life decisions are made for them by better-qualified elites. (The question of why the conceptual and emotional traps that affect human decision-making don’t also apply to these elites–the question of “who will nudge the nudgers”–tends to go unanswered.)”

      Exactly. It goes unanswered because if it were to be even addressed, it would shatter the whole pretense upon which the fraud is built. To go one better, if you look at the messes which so many of these self-stlyed “elites” have made in their own lives, you would question whether they should be even qualified to own a dog (exception made for a rabid one) let alone make life decisions for others.

    22. Hucbald Says:

      Follow scribe back a bit further to ancient Israel. As in Jeremiah 8:8: “Boast not that you have the law of God on your side, because the lying pen of the scribe has made it of no effect.” Scribes were lawyers.

    23. wlpeak Says:

      It is all about power and whether you imagine yourself aligned with the powerful or not. The rest is sophistry.

      It has been a particular blindside of the left ( Really the plain old Bourgeois ) that if they just support their guy into total power they will be justly rewarded. Only to find their guy is a common sociopath.

    24. Roberta Cole Says:

      Let’s round up everybody who wants to live under a European-type government and ship them to Europe.

      We’ve still got enough troops in Germany that we can probably force the Germans to let them in.

    25. Jay Manifold Says:

      I’m going to steal that.

      Shannon, TJ beat you to it: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” — Thomas Jefferson (1st Inaugural, 1801)

    26. Number Six Says:

      ”It has been believed for some time that intellectuals tend to be especially supportive of freedom”

      I don’t know anyone, apart from lefty intellectuals, who believes any such thing. In my own experience among the scribe class, I’ve found they all want to have an orderly and obedient society rather than a free one. The Scribe Class got their major life lessons from success in school, as students or teachers or professors. School teachers and Professors DO NOT WANT the students to have freedom. They want the students to be orderly and obedient. That is exactly why so many academics are infatuated with socialist theories, why they idolize Mao and the Soviet leadership who commend serried ranks of the obedient. That’s why they envy the ability of Fidel to command an audience to listen whenever he wants to make a long speech.

      Academics and the Scribe Class want the masses to be free . . . only if they will always choose to be obedient.

    27. Seerak Says:

      It appears that the critique of choice is now such an idea.

      “Now” such an idea? Where the hell have you been in the last several thousand years?

      Paternalism is as old as the hills. The Left is of a piece with the religious medievalists on that one.

    28. Cassandra Says:

      Let’s round up everybody who wants to live under a European-type government and ship them to Europe. We’ve still got enough troops in Germany that we can probably force the Germans to let them in.

      *snort*

      That should win comment of the day.

    29. tehag Says:

      ” But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special. ”

      Only an intellectual could write such a sentence. I wonder if Franzen even knows any human beings.

    30. David Foster Says:

      PowerLine has a post this morning regarding a book by a scribe (Harvard professor and New Yorker writer) named Jill Lepore; John Hinderaker (himself a Harvard Law School graduate) calls the book “a breathtakingly arrogant attack on the Tea Party movement.” Link