Monday, October 22, 2007

A Tocquevillian Look at American Egalitarianism and Egoism (Part II)

Well, now I endeavor with the most timid of spirits to enquire into the nature of reading and literacy in our democracy in these contemporary days and how perhaps our equality of economic stature has tended us toward an egoism which sadly may undermine our uniting societal fiber, although there is a clear hope for a corrective.

I have always thought it something of an oddity that our culture has tended to lead us all away from being in touch with the important news items of our days and can be assured that this is the case since I too am a product of that, only recently beginning to work my way from the ignorant womb which encourages the childish attitude which so readily declares, “I care little for the goings on in the outside world, for it is nothing more than pageantry and arrogance which affects me but the slightest.” I always equated this condition to be linked to perhaps a dwindling care in our culture for anything which required more than the smallest amount of reflective thought and never wholly attributed it to the growing individualism in the country. It had always seemed to me that the most individualistic persons would take heed of the movements of the world in order to secure a more prosperous future by means of being better informed than those who were viewed as being in direct competition with them. However, after reading a section in Democracy in America on the nature of the press and the arts in democratic societies, I begin to question this tenet of mine and find that we are perhaps in the place of an intellectual stupor precisely because we have become so disconnected from the greater whole of humanity through our relative, independent affluence.

As I spoke of in my last post, it is very evident that the rugged individualism which often is promoted in democratic/republican societies easily and quickly leads to something of an isolation of the individual from the greater structure of the community. (Of course, I must assert firmly that I do not think that rugged individualism is an ill without qualification, for I am in many ways a staunch old-school liberal/libertarian who only yearns for a societal connection to be established among individuals – as opposed to utter fragmentation.) The world becomes more of a realm of individual choice and delectation because humanity, becoming more equal and independent, views much more of the world to based upon the principle of personal choice and self-direction than the common descent of man through the ages toward a certain goal. In many ways, this is quite a remarkable and salutary benefit of individualism, for it elevates all choices to almost an ontological level which affects the whole being of the individual in his or her choices and tastes. However, the danger always lies in the tendency to forget that the world not only is to be built up by us but also that the whole of reality is also a given which we can neither deny nor forsake on the path of personal amelioration and edification. In forgetting that the world (and hence the whole of our communities) are something which we must accept a priori, we forget that we have a true relationship not only to those choices which we have made but also the body of humanity which is inextricably united to us by means of historical and sociological bonds.

There are two prime examples of this detachment of individuals from the substratum of humanity, namely within the two tiers of community which are common to the entire Western world and indeed all of humanity as technological progress marches onward. First of all there is the question of a detachment of one generation from the next, something which seems to be of great strength in many cases as we blur the lines of parenthood and friendship as well as chip away at the respect which the young should have for elders in the community. However, this commonly lamented lack of interest in our previous generation is, to my mind, merely a passing trend which marks nearly every generation and often is surmounted by all, although such realizations lamentably come too late.

More important to me is the continued development of consumer-driven media which is particularly characterized by the culture of the iPod and iTunes as well as the on-demand nature of online news. Now, let me first of all say that I think that great good comes of all these media, for individual choice is perhaps the strongest force for the affixation of a human person to causes which are of the greatest import to all of humanity, linking the human person and his or her choice to each other with greater and truer strength than perhaps any other force in the known world. However, the danger lurks here in the fact that we are also seeing a rapid decline in much of the periodical (newspaper/magazine) industry, for less interest is taken in the local affairs of our provinces as well as in the larger community created by the regular readership of a newspaper. It is as though we do not have the stability which is necessary to retain a sustained connection to a single free association which is created by the choice to be a devoted reader of a given chronicle of news. De Tocqueville struck me deeply when he commented that a lack of readership for the press is more indicative of a lack of communal spirit than it is of a lack of pecuniary means of paying for the reception of the evening post. In the final analysis this is very true, for the readership of a given media is implicitly a community in which rebukes, praises, laurels, and lances are all proffered by the readership to the editorial staff, and this is also found in the readership of magazines.

Now, of all my fears listed in my first entry, this one area is the one for which I have the least amount of despondency, for there are many signs of hope which point that we may yet remain a society united in our literary tastes if only we make sure not to be wholly obliterated by the power of individuation which is possible by means of online pick-and-choose media. The hope which I have is that local reading groups – which much to my delight still exist in great numbers (although more for my elder generations than my own) – will function as a focal point for much unification for the somewhat disparate tastes which are growing in the current age of self-driven media. Perhaps of more import to me is the growth of online communities which are devoted to common reflections on many media sources upon a unified platform. It is quite conceivable that there will come a time when we can combine our reflective possibilities in a new synergy which will create something more of an extended tribe of humanity with even greater power than the felicitous media hybrid of the telephone and the talk radio show.

However, the danger which I fear is that we will become more interested in our own sundry choices in media, a path which certainly will lead us only further apart and into that egoism which certainly will diminish our character as a people. Such a tendency could ultimately lead to a despotism which unites all of society under the solitary banner of “freely chosen media” which means that we will no longer have any choice but to choose to be isolated in our reading tastes, a reality which will without a doubt have foul ramifications for our powers to freely assemble as a sovereign people. Marshall McLuhan considered the media to be defined as any of those methods by which mankind extends its inner life into the physical sphere. If we approach a point in which we no longer desire to extend our own lives into the extensions of our brethren, we will find it a difficult task – at best – to unite ourselves but under an external force, for when we no longer freely assembly, we must do so under duress, as we will have forgotten what it means to undertake the task of human unification.

Blessings and all the Best.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Tocquevillian Look at American Egalitarianism and Egoism (Part I)

While reading a selection in Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, I was struck by something in his reflections on the dangers of individualism and – more importantly – the relationship between the press, free civil associations, centralized government, and individualism. Much of what I had read from a conservative / neo-conservative standpoint regarding Democracy in America had focused on Alexis de Tocqueville’s stress on the existence of freely-convened civil associations and their necessity for the continued existence of liberty in a democratic society. To my mind, this stream of thought led me to believe that Democracy in America must surely be nothing more than a Frenchman’s panegyric reflections on the benevolence and generosity of the American spirit. It was not until I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty that my interest in de Tocqueville was raised once more as I saw Mill reflect on the dangers of the tyranny of the majority and cite de Tocqueville as an influence in his thought. Upon further examination, I have come to see that Democracy in America is much more of a prophetic work regarding the influences and products of egalitarianism in democratic society.

Of all things that struck de Tocqueville about America and growing democracies was their tendency toward material egalitarianism and social unification (or de-stratification). Coming from a lesser aristocracy and from a European clime which had only so recently seen the downfall of some forms of aristocratic governance, this lack of social stratification in emerging democracies must have struck him deeply, for the entirety of the later portion of his work serves merely as a reflection on how egalitarianism affects the individual and social mentalities of the populace. Perhaps the most prodigious effect of this material equality and lack of stifling stratification was the fact that people quite easily established themselves as islands of individualism, separate from the greater portion of humanity. Often individualism is used pejoratively, although it also can have a meaning more akin to the expression “rugged individualism” which often denotes the attitude of the pioneering spirit. Nonetheless, this individualism also can lead one to the pernicious state of egoism or – as Fr. Justin Nolan O.S.B., one of my philosophy professors in college, would say – utterly crass individualism which forgets that there is a greater social unity.

Whatever the title be, egoism or crass individualism, one cannot doubt that such isolating forces can do nothing but tear a society apart. To assert such is both trite and common sense – at least in its assertion. However, what is more intriguing is the line of thought which leads one from social equality to crass individualism. We often glory over the middle class in America – and for good reason – for it is the middle class which can so often drive the kernel of society to either great things or mediocrity, given only its temperament and direction. So often, it is the middle part of society which works very hard to continually ameliorate past mistakes and expand the circle of their pecuniary and social influence, bringing forth new and better products for all of the society. It is this middle class which establishes a multitude of families which are able to brave some financial storms and not worry about whether or not food will be on the table on a given night. It is therefore this middle class which establishes that demographic of people which is – to varied degrees – assured of its own self-sufficiency.

This ruggedly individualistic middle class, the decrease of which is being lamented greatly by the political demagogues in this portion of the never-ending election cycle in our country, was at its apex of formal establishment in the generation of my grandparents, Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. It is of little surprise that the riots of the sixties and seventies where brought into being by the children of these iconic American workers who were able to provide for a period of great prosperity which solidified America’s central role in the world. It was commented by theologian Hans Kung that Pope Benedict XVI was able at first to be something of a (mild) radical in his early academic life because liberal exploits are easily undertaken when one has the surety of conservative stability. It was such for the hippies and other such protesters who took to causes great and small during the tumultuous period of my parents’ youth. For their own part, this generation was able to ride out the storms of their lives and establish a prosperous existence as well, effectively leveling much of the playing field in America for my generation.

However, as we come to my generation and the present day, it is quite easy to see that the individualism of the sixties, seventies, and (in a different form) the eighties was quite different from the rugged individualism of my grandparents. The world was much more comfortably established (not in all places, including my birthplace in southwestern PA) and able to be safely isolated from the vicissitudes which often accompany reality. It is my generation, more than any before, which seems to lust inordinately for the security of socialism and wholly believes, without much qualification, that it is right to say, “Nobody should ever tell me that my opinion is wrong.” Upon the stable foundation of the established, safe middle class, our culture is quickly moving toward a land in which we are ready to pay any price to maintain our individual egoistic spheres at the expense of liberty. De Tocqueville reflected that such is the natural tendency of those established in a secure social setting, for equality is much more palpable to maintain and also much more difficult to remove quickly when compared to liberty.

However, my intent in the next few blog entries will not be to take on the trite subject of individualism in America and its normal symptoms. Instead, I intend to focus on how we can easily see individualism in our habits of reading, musical activity, civil activity, and view on government. I will look at each of these individually and will then cap things up to give my thoughts a framework related to Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophetic reflections. I think that it is important to listen to these words of the past, for they may be able to stir us from some of the lethargy which is the end egoism of that rugged individualism which has made America such a great beacon of hope for the world. More importantly, as we approach what appears to be yet another involution of the world and find that individuals are becoming globalized (to use Thomas Friedman’s thought on the matter), it is of prime importance to me to reflect on what forces will destroy the beautiful possibility of a truly united world. Crass individualism will unquestionably destroy that possibility but a proper industrious spirit of individualism with free social bonds may be that which saves us from the only other method of world-wide unification, namely oppressive despotism.

Until my post on the morrow, highest blessings,

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"How (and Why) a Libertarian Came Home to PHP"

Now, for those few of you who have followed my pontifications on this blog, you will note three striking characteristics of my demeanor and philosophy of life. First and foremost, I add entries to my blog with that sort of capriciousness which only befits my otherwise ADD-riddled life. However, in the realm of philosophical considerations, you will have noticed that my mental landscape is dominated by two forces which most would think are intrinsically inimical to each other. Namely, I take a pontifical tone and stance on many issues because of my passionate adherence to the philosophical religion known to the world (with varied degrees of disdain and adulation) as Roman Catholicism. However, my cognitive paths are also shot throughout with steams of libertarianism, a fact which I do not find inimical to my convictions as a Catholic. (It only takes a brief reading of the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae from the Second Vatican Council to realize that there are intellectually justifiable reasons for holding both of these views.) Nonetheless, there are times when the vying forces of absolutism and liberalism come into direct contact, unleashing something of a quandry which can, even over the most ridiculous of topics, throw me into an existential crisis.

My friends, such a crisis came to full head in a late, lustful little fling which I had with the programming language known as Ruby. In my past experiences with Ruby, limited that they were, I perceived something of an elegant fluidity to the constructs of the language (as well as the libraries available for my delectation). For some unknown reason, my first, pubescent glance at this language in college gave me something of an unknown giddiness which made me desire for some time to delve deeper. However, my path took me down the road to free-wheeling LAMP-stack development using PHP as the interface to the database persistence.

Having moved to Virginia several months ago and knowing very few people in the area, I have had quite a bit of time to indulge my personal pleasures of the flesh - reading and programming. (Yes, I am quite aware that I am a pitiable nerd but am also proud of said fact.) In a moment of overwhelming temptation, I decided finally to jump into Ruby and Ruby on the Rails Framework like so many other programmers now-a-days. Having spent the previous two years doing quite a bit of work in PHP and Javascript, I was much better prepared for the intricacies and wonders which one can do with ease in dynamic scripting languages. My new excursion into the land of Ruby was indeed one of bliss-filled, exuberant wonder. At first the language dazzled me with its consistency, its object orientation, and the particular beauty (and ease) of passing around code blocks. Although my experience with Javascript had exposed me to this, I had always found the dynamic code execution of PHP to be a bit clunky-feeling (albeit wholly possible) at best. The Rails framework aside, the language in its core was all that I dreamed it could be. After having contemplated the very Forms of programming, I seemed to look back at PHP as though it were in the cave of my limited vision, thinking, "Well, PHP does have great libraries and documentation, but the sheer beauty of this experience seems to belie that you purchase such ease to the detriment of the higher parts of your soul."

However, it was at this moment of exhilaration that I realized that I could not turn my back on my beloved PHP with such an effete, snobbish tone. The very fact that PHP allowed me to sink into the depths of terrible practices with ease unknown to much of mankind (except those gladly in touch with the lower-bowels of the coding world) could never be a justification for my abandonment of the language. To do so would break a cardinal rule of my Libertarian nature, mainly that you cannot dismiss anything on the pretext of its potential abuse.

In many ways, Ruby is the aristocratic, successful, yet-lovable cousin of PHP. "He" speaks with the eloquence of the highest degree yet also remains wholly accessible to the mind which is open and bright enough to comprehend the elegant parts of his speech. He is consistent almost to a fault, following proper procedure and etiquette for all sorts of situations. PHP, on the other hand, is quite a bit more in character like me. "He" comes from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, wears checkered shirts, and drives a simple little Chevy Cavalier. If he desires, he can be intellectual in his speech, although he often wishes he could permanently slip into a nearly-unintelligible accent and jungle of provincial colloquialisms. Often he slaps things together, like a cowboy or an ADD-ridden child, writing out code which creates the most cryptic of mazes which baffles even him to his very core when attempting to recall the purpose of his exploits at a later time. However, there will never come a moment that he will say, "I can't do that because it just doesn't make sense to do it that way" or (more likely) "that doesn't follow convention, so I won't even attempt to do it that way." Instead, PHP will look you in the eye respond with lilting voice, "Ah, Hell, let's give 'er a try." Often these escapades end with the participants looking backward and reflecting, "Boy, that's uglier than sin sweating from a hog's back." However, once in a while, these exploits allow for the expansion of technique and the formation of new practices for the community at large. Once in a while, a dazzling gem comes forth wholly unseen from the vantage point of more conservative realms of coding which are highly predictable and efficient but often blinded to the latent power of the utterly unbridled human spirit.

Perhaps I just sound like a crazy wind-bag who has taken by far too much time to elaborate on the most meager of his thoughts. Nevertheless, this very reflection touches on one of my deepest-set philosophical convictions. I love the elegance of doing this within the conservative "frameworks" of well-tested conventions like those found in the Ruby (particularly on Rails) community as well as (to the N! ^ N! degree higher) in the Java community. However, in my heart of hearts, I'm a boy of the hills of Pennsylvania and a Libertarian American at heart. I look at both the provincial founders of our country whose brilliance lifted the yokes from our necks with the simple message which could easily have sounded like nothing more than the angry tirade of a yokel defending his farmland to ears less trained in liberalism. I will study Ruby, just as any good philosopher studies all philosophical systems, for where the Truth is, it is uttered by the One Spirit of God. Each reflection of the Gem of Truth expands our mind a bit more, teaching us anew how to see the whole in light of the parts and the parts in light of the whole. However, I will always remain, at heart, a yokel of a PHP coder.