Archive for May, 2011

Column on Students and their education

Students and their education

Tibor R. Machan

Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times, now sadly a reliable lapdog of conservative statism, has come out, in his May 31, 2011 column “It’s Not About You,” against college and university students regarding their education as a means for advancing themselves in their lives. No, he believes their education ought to serve society, the country, the nation, the public, humanity or some such vague purpose.

Brooks begins with an utterly false premise, namely, that commencement talks routinely address graduates with the message that they need to use their education to advance their own lot in life. After 40 years of college teaching I can testify that this is not what most commencement speakers advocate, quite the contrary. Instead what most of them do is echo John F. Kennedy’s detestably statist sentiment that one ought to serve one’s government or country and not insist that government or country serve oneself.

However much praise this sentiment has received over the years, it is straight out of Nazi and communist propaganda. The citizen in those systems must be subjugated to the state. Indeed, individual lives in such systems matter only as they serve to promote the will of the state, not at all as they themselves flourish in life. So to echo JFK is a mistake and goes contrary to the notion that one’s life is supposed to be dedicated to achieving one’s own happiness first and foremost, after which come others–family, friends, neighbors, citizens, and so forth.

Brooks’s message is way off. As professionals, teachers, not only physicians, dentists, plumbers, and so forth, are put to work mainly to help their clients. Not only is the idea of promoting society or country utterly vague, so one can invent nearly anything as a candidate, but it is mostly used as an excuse for some special group in society to rule the rest for the sake of the public good. Just consider, as a simply case in point, how whenever lobbyists plead their case in the corridors of power, they always do it with the pitch that their cause will serve the public interest. Which, of course, is mostly a lie. And indeed if teachers fail to serve their students, they are perpetrating malpractice.

From time immemorial people have been hoodwinked by those of their fellows who aim to rule them for their own ends via the mantra that the public or common or national or some other collective interest requires their sacrifice. But a moment’s reflection will show this to be very dubious: whey do the goals of the people or the country or humanity matter so much but one’s own hardly at all? Who are those who comprise the people, country, humanity, and so forth but you and these other people. And then why is their advancement in life such a superior goal compared to one’s own? Makes no sense at all.

It does make a bit of sense in certain circumstances to preach community solidarity–united we may stand while separately we may fall–but mostly because that is indeed everyone’s best bet. To contend that we should all abandon caring for ourselves, improving our health, wealth, and happiness–including as we aspire to learn about the world and prepare to live in it successfully–is a ruse and it is best that we realize this early on otherwise the price we pay is our own sovereignty, our right to govern ourselves.

There are millions of people out their who sadly prefer living off the rest of us instead of getting ready to live for themselves and cooperate with their fellows on a win-win basis. It is best that these folks do not get the upper hand. Whenever they do, the result tends to be the tyranny of some over the lives of others.

Mr. Brooks, by the way, was to be a voice of American, individualist, conservatism at The New York Times, which is to say the voice of the philosophy of the American Declaration of Independence. He has become, instead, the voice of European, collectivist conservatism. Maybe that is why he is so welcome on the pages of The Times.

My Fathers’ Day Column

My Fathers’ Day Reflections

Tibor R. Machan

On my drive to work the other day I was listening to the local all news radio station and suddenly I am hearing President Obama chiming in with one of those “public service” messages on how fathers should comport themselves toward their children. Maybe this was supposed to be in honor of fathers’ day.

Gee, I had no idea that this is a presidential task, nor that anyone from Washington, DC, could possibly be familiar enough with my family situation to take up the task of advising me on these matters. I figured that Mr. Obama has a full enough plate with, say, being commander in chief guiding the military to do its proper duty, to protect our rights, being the presiding officer for the federal government, raising the funds needed by government to take care of the enormous debt that’s been accumulated by its profligacy over the last several decades, not to mention all the diplomatic problems and challenges he faces around the globe so he could leave the task of acquiring the skills of parenting to us, the citizenry.

But no. Here he is again, deploying his one-size-fits-all social philosophy, kind of like a totalitarian statesman is supposed to do. I recall when I was growing up under the Soviet socialist regime that was tried out in Hungary during the early 1950s, Comrade Stalin himself was supposed to be called by us all “our dear father” (edesapank). And sure enough that befits the head of an aspiring totalitarian regime since it’s political program is to subsume the full management of the life of the citizenry.

Under that kind of system there is no private realm. Everything is of public concern. One is supposed to be part of a collective, kind of like termites are parts of the colonies to which they belong. Individual differences are simply denied. Everyone is a specie-being, an entity of the group, a cell in the organism of society or even humanity. So with such an overall social philosophy it makes sense that those who deem themselves the leaders would presume to know it all about how to live life, everyone’s life that is.

I was actually surprised that nearly all the instructions about how one ought to carry on as a father happened to fit my case. I did in fact go out to throw pitches to my son; taught him and my daughters to bike; read them books, sang them songs, took them on long walks and drives and trips around the globe and on and on. (I even co-authored a little book with my younger daughter, a kind of reminder that “cute is not enough” in her life, which became the title of the small volume!)

OK, so Obama listed some of the activities I managed, lo and behold, to figure out as my own parental tasks. But other parents, more musical or athletic or culinary or nature loving than I probably choose different undertakings in which to involved their children–indeed, thousands and thousands of different ones, reflecting as it should their and their children’s individuality and opportunities and interests. But no, Mr. Obama had this list which he decided he should promote for all fathers to follow, as if he had been hired by them all to given them blow by blow guidelines and as if they couldn’t take up parenting without his regal guidance.

Maybe there are some parents so unprepared for what they have chosen to embark upon when they decided to have children that a little help from their friends is welcome–a bit of personal, private nudging or encouragement from people who know them well enough so it wouldn’t be an affront to butt in with such advice. But that is just it–to do any successful, valuable butting in one needs to know those parents intimately, as a psychotherapist would who has been called upon to lend a hand to those who are a bit clueless. Without such involvement in the life of parents, issuing the advice can only be insulting and quite likely misleading. Children are not produced by cookie cutters, all the same with need for identical parenting to help them grow up.

Of course, this is one of the main problems with Mr. Obama’s social philosophy, namely, that it fails to pay attention to our individuality, or specialness. Doesn’t he realized that just as our fingerprints or DNA fit us personally, with close attention to who we are (not merely some vague notion that we are all people), so must our upbringing. No one from the White House is equipped to give advice except in the most general way, like “Pay attention to what your children need from you!”

Column on A Brief on Time

A Brief on Time

Tibor R. Machan

I consider much of common sense to be correct about the world, not always muddled or, let alone, wrong. This is a position associated with the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reed and, also, with Aristotle. So I wish to briefly defend the view that time is real.

By “time” I mean, among other aspects of the world, what we record for departure and arrival of planes and trains, what we learn from our clocks and watches, etc., etc, what we aim to save as we go about doing our various tasks, what we complain that we have so little of while others have too much of it on hand. Time is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries and millennia. And the motion of things in the world, including even the speed of light, is, in turn, measured in periods or spans of time.

Some, however, would have it that time is not real but it is unclear to me what this could mean. Others are “looking into the notion that time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past….” But that concept “might” is very slippery—it could mean nothing more than that there is no explicit formal, logical contradiction in thinking that time flows backward, which is very far from its being possible. Nor is it clear what “flow” means here, since what is supposed to be flowing isn’t at all like the water in a river, the paradigm flowing thing.

As to the idea that time is not real, this also poses puzzles and isn’t at all very clear. The claim being made is itself usually written down in a computer or on a piece of paper, either of which takes time or involves duration, starting at T1, proceeding to T2, and on to Tn. Then there is usually a deadline at the publication to which scientific or scholarly papers that advance these sorts of arguments are submitted, and that, too, involves very real time.

Time then appears ubiquitous in our lives, at least at the level at which one considers it in a discussion such as ours. The very length of writing or one’s entire life is measured in time. Then again the idea that “time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past,” to quote Discover magazine writer Zeeya Merali, seems to suppose that time is some kind of object or entity instead, as more naturally supposed, a kind of measurement of the duration of something.

Paradoxically, even in the act of denying the reality of time that same reality is clearly manifest—it takes a bit of time to deny that time exists, whatever time is exactly. It doesn’t seem to be unreal or fictional—that appears to be evident all over. Why some think time isn’t real has to do with how often theorists will fail to appreciate the different contexts within which their theories hold or apply. It’s possible that at the subatomic or astrophysical levels what time is ordinarily—on the earth human beings need to deal with—is not recognizable because the context is so different. But this doesn’t support the denial of the reality of time.

Take as an analogy the claim that the earth’s entire surface is curved, so “plane surfaces aren’t real”. And then consider the tables on which the games of pool and billiards are played which, to all rational appearances, are flat. Does the former claim contradict the latter? Not necessarily since the contexts are markedly different. Yes, the earth is mostly curved but, also, the pool table is normally flat. No contradiction here, only a change of context.

The same holds with denials of time: in certain spheres of inquiry or observation time is real but in some circumstances, say at the subatomic or, going in the opposite direction the cosmic level, perhaps time, in the sense in which it is familiar to us and very real indeed in our daily lives, is entirely absent. The view that because in some contexts time could be dispensed with it can be dispensed with entirely in all contexts seems to be false.

Column on Protesting Austerity Measures

Protesting Austerity Measures

Tibor R. Machan

Throughout Europe it is now routine–but it is not unfamiliar by now in the US either–for people to march and otherwise protest (sometimes with out and out reckless violence) austerity measures the government officials have decided to deploy so as to cope with the enormous debt they have amassed, mostly from committing to paying out huge entitlements that are not covered by funds either present or promised.

This is happening in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and other countries and only a few are somewhat prepared to handle them internally, without depending on getting funds from other countries. Of course, many in those other countries are themselves protesting these efforts to rectify profligacy by raiding the treasuries, with EU sanction, of the better managed ones. (Not that any of these welfare states have escaped completely their considerable financial malpractice!) But a substantial portion of the citizenry of Germany, for example, does not view this public wealth redistribution with enthusiasm. And while such welfare states as Germany may have numerous citizens who favor wealth redistribution within their societies, most stop at the border (which goes to show you what kind of “generosity” and “compassion” is involved in welfare statism).

The puzzle is that so many people seem to be aghast at the fact that when the politicians and bureaucrats, most often with substantial support from large segments of the citizenry, accumulate enormous debts, the country not only runs out of funds but looses its credit rating so that borrowing becomes more and more troublesome. Yes, and this is something the USA faces as do Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc.

But why are people protesting? Isn’t it a plain fact of public–not to mention private–finance that one cannot get blood out of a turnip? Aren’t people aware of all this form their own personal economic situations? When one maxes out one’s credit cards, is no longer able to refinance one’s home, and experiences all sorts of economic setbacks–caused, usually, by a smorgasbord of malpractice throughout the economy (which is nearly impossible to sort out so that it might be possible to tell the guilty from the innocent)–why is it that folks insist that somehow, anyhow, all this just get papered over or simply overlooked and that their hefty entitlements based on the fantasy of eternal welfare statism keep being undisturbed?

There can be numerous states of mind that may account for this. One of them is certainly the kind of political shenanigans perpetrated by the likes of those who insist that it is all the fault of the wealthy, who are soaking the treasury somehow–and if so, mostly with the complicity of the self-same politicians–and if only the rich could be soaked back, it would all get fixed. The idea that all this is a zero sum game–so that some are raking in huge gains at the expense of others and it would take but a bit of thorough investigation to sort it all out–is quite prominent in the minds of many, judging by the comments of prominent pundits and media figures on Op Ed pages and talk shows.

Yet there is also the plain delusion on the part of millions of people that one can indeed get blood out of a turnip, a delusion backed by some academic economists’ fancy idea that all it takes to remedy matters is to carry out some kind of magic–like deploying the famous Keynesian multiplier effect whereby the bureaucrats pump a bit of funny money into the economy via artificial money printing and public spending only to have it turn into massive wealth down the road (via the creation of employment based on such phony spending). Still, to make this credible one needs a large portion of the citizenry who all believe in magic to start with, that somehow debts can be wished away, not paid up, for example. That something can come from nothing (and idea that some philosophers actually propose)!

I am sure there are many other sources of the idea that when countries run out of funds, these can be made up by engaging in some imaginative accounting or something, so that there is no need for austerity, certainly for any austerity that will have an impact on the entitlements received by people to whom promises were made based on, well, sheer hope and wishful thinking.

So why aren’t politicians and bureaucrats–and their academic cheerleaders–coming out with some honest explanations, insisting that the citizenry face up to all this and stop throwing hysterical fits when finally the chicken come home to roost? Because most of these public servants are cowards and refuse to make any effort at genuine leadership, statesmanship. So much for their serving the public interest.

Column on Israel and Obama: What’s Up with That?

Israel & Obama: What’s Up With That?

Tibor R. Machan

Once again I hasten to point out that this isn’t something I know very much about, especially if to understand it one has to be informed about the entire history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Still, as my mother used to say in the last years of her life, it is difficult to fathom why Israel is being picked on so much? Is it religion? Is it its closeness to the United States of America?

Some will say Israel is an artificial entity but that cannot be it–nearly every country is an artificial entity. All borders are made up. The only difference is how recently! And, as the work of Professor Barry Smith of SUNY Buffalo has shown, some of them are more sensible, as when they follow some coast line or river, than others, when they attempt to carve out some kind of geometrical area for themselves.

But here the issue of borders is moot. Let’s just realize that when a country has deadly enemies around it, the size of the area which separates it from those enemies makes a lot of difference. President Obama has proposed that Israel go back to the pre-1967 borders where it would be surrounded by such groups as Hamas and separated from them by only six miles. A great many influential people living in these regions are on record wanting Israel to disappear, to be abolished as a country.

Even if one has little sympathy for Israel’s official viewpoint, no one in his right mind can expect the leaders of that country to comply with President Obama’s suggestion. It is a recommendation for suicide.

But why? Mr. Obama himself appears to be committing something near political suicide since a great many Americans of a wide variety of persuasions about Israel would not favor his recommendation. Responses to his proposal confirm this. It just makes no sense given how the main purpose of government is to protect the citizens’ rights and for the Israeli government this must mean keeping the likes of Hamas at a distance that is safe. And no one can argue that by going back to the 1967 borders this task can be achieved, not especially with the great technical advances in the range of offensive weapons since 1967!

So I just do not get it. What is Mr. Obama after? Does he want to endear himself to all those countries that are anti-Israeli? Is he trying to befriend anti-Semites around the world? It isn’t even fathomable that he has thought this through carefully, at least not with the information available to those who have been following his public utterances about the matter. Does he perhaps simply want to foster a total stalemate, given how it makes no sense to think that Israel will follow this suggestion or even that Mr. Obama could believe that Israel would do so.

Whatever one’s view is of Israel it cannot be sensible to demand that the country voluntarily abolish itself. So then what is this all about? Is it just some kind of geopolitical gambit to the effect that Israel can be given up, even after decades of “investment” in the country made at the expense of the American taxpayer? (Not that this could be justified morally but perhaps given the statist nature of most diplomacy it could make some sense.)

Or is it really simply plain, unabashed anti-Semitism? I was once witness to this, when I lived briefly with my father in Munich and in America where he never let up on his virulent hatred of Jews. I remember that it was completely irrational–for instance, at one time he concocted the notion that Jews in Hollywood conspired to cast actors who “looked Jewish” into heroic movie roles so as to gain the Jews favor with the movie going public. His example if I recall right was when MacDonald Carey, who was supposedly Jewish looking by my father’s warped assessment, starred as a hero, opposite Rhonda Fleming, in the movie Odongo (the plot of which I have completely forgotten).

Now I recount this only because it illustrates for me, at least, to what lengths anti-Semites will go to promote their bizarre conspiracy theories about Jews. And my father held a responsible job at Radio Free Europe back then, although he wasn’t very public about his anti-Semitic views by the mid-50s, unlike he was back in the 40s when Hungary was filled with rabid anti-Semites–I believe they were of the Iron Cross persuasion.

So it is not at all unpalatable to me to consider that some highly placed American politicians could well harbor blatant anti-Semitic sentiments. Mind you, none of this comes from any inside information about Mr. Obama and his administration. What it comes from is my desperate effort to make sense of something so senseless as Mr. Obama’s recommendation to Israel that the country commit suicide by going back to the 1967 borders which would certainly leave them utterly vulnerable to destruction by its avowed nearby enemies! Some people do feel about Jews and about Israel in ways that could conceivably lead them to make such proposals.