Thursday, December 29, 2016

Big Ideas Will Numb You

At Andrew Klavan's suggestion, I'm currently listening to Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. It's a peek into the world of the Russians after the fall of communism. It's written as a series of topic-based interviews with ordinary Russians about life right after and 5-10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I was in Russia in 1998 and my impression was that everything worked, but just barely. It was run-down and ragged, but deliberately so. When Russians repaired things, their workmanship was so bad that it could only have been done purposefully. For the most part, they were grumpy, shiftless and unskilled and clearly felt that whatever it was that needed to be done, it was someone else's job. As an America, the whole thing was stunning. Second Hand Time fills in some of the gaps in my understanding.

P. J. O'Rourke has a good take on this in his comments about Big Ideas.
The 20th century was a test bed for big ideas—fascism, communism, the atomic bomb. Liberty was also a powerful abstraction in the 20th century. But liberty isn’t a big idea. It’s a lot of little ideas about what individuals want to say and do.
In a nutshell, that's the cultural difference between Americans and Russians, circa the late 1990s. Socialism is a big idea. Saturated in it for 70 years, the Russian psyche had been warped into thinking about everything through the lens of their Big Idea - Socialism. Americans take charge and solve problems in their lives while the Russians talked and talked and talked, mistaking words for accomplishments.

The examples from the book are legion. There are a ton of them discussing how in Soviet households, there were plenty of kitchen discussions of abstract ideas, but with the advent of Capitalism, it turned out that abstract ideas buttered no bread. The loss of their dorm-room-bull-session-as-accomplishment metric for success caused them tremendous pain. "Everything is about money now! In the good old days, we may not have had goods to buy, but ideas mattered!"

This makes me think of my progressive / Social Justice Warrior friends. They're always going on about some big idea or another - the White Patriarchy, for example, but there are precious few posts about woodworking, rebuilding a car or cooking something exotic. Instead there's one Robert Reich video after another and lots of "Resist Trump" nonsense. It's all Big Ideas in place of personal action.

Maybe that's why they'e having a hard time processing the ruins of Venezuela's socialism. It's too practical.


Ritchie The Riveter said...

It's all Big Ideas in place of personal action.

Our big idea: the heavily-implied "social contract" of what Walter Russell Mead has named the Blue Social Model ... where the masses have been led to believe that personal action is to be subordinated to the decisions of "experts" and "leaders" who are So Much Smarter than the rest of us, even when there is no way they can tell YOU and YOUR needs apart from the hypothetically-average citizen.

Millions have been led to believe that ...

All you need to do is show up for work or go to school; we have experts who have the answers to your housing needs, your health care needs, your financial needs … no need to plan for your future or actively manage your career, since we can do a better job than you can; just trust us to solve those problems FOR you.

... and have placed blind trust in our "experts" and "leaders" to such a degree that they have become comfortably numb to their own vulnerability to the errors, greed, mendacity, and delusions of these notables among us.

The SJW's you describe are wannabe "leaders", looking for their own platform of Big Ideas to stand upon so that they too can be treated with the deference they think their "enlightened" minds deserve ... while ignoring Callahan's Principle of Leadership - a man's got to know his limitations - as they seek to jam their Big Ideas down our throats with the arrogant self-assurance of the fundamentalist.

But it is the Big Idea of the Blue Social Model and its "social" contract, that is THE fundamental problem that has begotten so many of our other dysfunctions ... from the exodus of good jobs to our dysfunctional health care system, and even this social-justice warfare ... as its symptoms. It has led us to replace the responsible exercise of individual initiative, with passively waiting for others to "fix things" FOR us from the top down as we just punch in, do what we're told, and punch out.

And we have internalized it, by our own free will ... even those who call themselves conservative, but bitterly cling to parts of the Blue Model that bring them personal benefit.

Meet the enemy ... he is us.

Robert Arvanitis said...

Isaiah Berlin wrote of the hedgehog (big idea) and the fox (many little ideas)
In this reckoning, Tolstoy was a hedgehog; Shakespeare a fox.

Nothing wrong with organizing one's thinking with a big view; it's the quality of the perspective rather than the size.

Same with "whatever works" little ideas, which risk incoherence or even contradiction. That's the real failing of the Left, which imposes specific demands that cannot possibly work together. Just look at the need for a hierarchy of grievance classes = Hispanics are a protected minority, except when they are "white Hispanics" oppressing blacks, or when they are "Cuban-Republicans" rather than "real" Hispanics.

1101doc said...

America is not a wily, sneaky nation. We don't think that way. We don't think at all, thank God. Start thinking and pretty soon you get ideas, and then you get idealism, and the next thing you know you've got ideology, with millions dead in concentration camps and gulags. A fundamental American question is "What's the big idea?"

-P. J. O'Rourke

Sam L. said...

There was what was reputed to be an old Soviet saying, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." There's also "No use tryin'; things ain't gonna get better."

K T Cat said...

As a favor, can someone let me know who linked to this post? It's getting about 10x the traffic of my normal blog posts, but blogger stats isn't telling me who did it. I'd like to thank them.

Ever since the demise of SiteMeter, I've not had a decent stat system.

Anonymous said...

Glenn Reynolds at instapundit.

Tyler H. said...

You got posted on instapundit.

Anonymous said...

I got here from Instapundit.

K T Cat said...

Sweet! Thanks for stopping by!

mikesixes said...

I also got here from Sarah Hoyt's link at Instapundit. So I guess I'm part of an Instalanche. Your post deserves the traffic.

K T Cat said...

Thanks, everyone! Great comments, all. God bless you for stopping by.

Sam - "No use tryin'; things ain't gonna get better." - That's the essential lesson from Hillbilly Elegy and Please Stop Helping Us, two books about the American experience from the poor point of view, one white, the other black. When you lose believe in your own agency in your own life, you end up where the Soviet Man, Homo Sovieticus, did.

I see a strong analogy with the Social Justice Warriors who focus on victimology rather than self-help. I've mentored fatherless young men and the key to success is getting them to take charge of their circumstances.

This will take some of the red meat taste away from the post, but I think we all share a common goal with many of the SJWs. We all wish people success. It's just that we know from experience and recorded history that success is almost perfectly correlated with self-reliance.

Jon Dager said...

Well said.