Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Public Service and Self-Aggrandizement

I didn't happen to catch the State of the Union Address last night. In fact, I probably haven't watched one in several years. But it's often interesting to see the intrepid responses to it the following day. And although this year was somewhat lackluster in that respect, a focus of a good part of Obama's speech apparently did not go unnoticed. He gave a considerable amount of thought and time to teachers and education in general. I won't bother waging into the polemics of federalism deep in the heart of a centralized democracy here - but I will peer beyond the veil into a topic closer to home; self-aggrandizement.

The web was a-flutter last night with the high-fives of teachers, speculating upon and cherishing several quotes from the address regarding the importance of... well... teachers. Now, I want to preface my response here by stating that I believe that teachers are very important; that two of my parents are/were teachers; that some of the more influential people in my life have been teachers; and that I have no qualms with being proud of what you produce - in almost any capacity. But I can't help but notice that there are a group of professions, which are largely centered around public service although not exclusively, which, for lack of a better phrasing, pat themselves on the back constantly - as to say not only are they important, but that they are somehow especially important.

Among their ranks are chiefly:

- Teachers
- Social Workers
- Police
- Firemen
- Military
- Truck Drivers

Each group makes its own arguments with respect to their relative importance. And, while some of these groups may have a more legitimate claim to it than others, no one can deny that all play an important role. I suppose my question is rather, "Why is it only these people who are so self-glorifying in a unanimously outward way?"

The teacher will claim that nothing is possible without education. The social worker will claim that without them people would fall through the cracks of society. The policeman will claim that without him, criminals would run rampant. The fireman will claim that without him businesses and residences would be wrought with destruction. The soldier will claim that he is defending your ability to do pretty much everything that you do. The truck driver will claim that you would not be able to buy much of anything if he hadn't transported the items first.

To these claims I say; fair enough.

But what, precisely, imbues your claim of importance with a corollary need to expound upon it any more than say - mine?

I sit in an office all day generating AWK code for various scripts for my employer. It sounds very vanilla and unimportant - but it too has purpose (importance). The code that I write allows medical groups to process their billing in short order and through far less people. This, in turn, means those medical groups have lower operating costs, which, also in turn, means that the consumers of health care (which I imagine would be pretty much all of us at some point) ultimately pay less for their services. I basically help doctors provide more affordable health care. But how pretentious would I sound if I walked around waving the importance of my job in everyone's face?

After all, what would I say to:

The construction worker, without whom I would have no home or business to work in?

The engineer, without whom I would have no vehicles to get back and forth?

The road worker, without whom I would have no road to drive those vehicles on?

The store clerk, without whom I would not be able to buy the every-day products I need?

The accountant, without whom I would not be able to reliably contract services through the exchange of funds?

The maintenance worker, without whom the basic facilities which I enjoy so frequently would fall into disrepair?

The lawyer, without whom I may find myself a helpless victim to the injustices of other individuals or groups?

The entrepreneurial botanist, without whom I might not be able to afford cheap, reliable food year-round?

The nurse, without whom I would not be able to take care of myself in illness?

All this being said, the ways of gauging any profession's particular importance is elusive (as the subjective nature of value is not inter-personal). Such subjective evaluation is generally revealed collectively through our actions in the price of labor. Where the demand for any one particular type of labor is extremely high and such labor is in short supply, people will be willing to pay much more for that person's services. It's the meshing of a particular person's unique ability to do something with the public's demand for that "something" to be done that determines it's literal price.

Does this mean that a basket-ball player is more important than a teacher? Well, certainly you couldn't make that claim for any one individual. But what the price-system can tell you is that there either isn't a whole hell of a lot of demand for teachers or that teachers' abilities are not exactly unique. This applies even more for, say, janitors. It applies (only slightly) less to programmers like myself. It applies marginally less for doctors. And it applies a whole hell of a lot less for hedge-fund managers, CEOs, and film-makers.

So what's my point in all of this?

My point is that any of these professions that I'm discussing isn't objectively less important from an inter-personal standpoint than any of the others. But, by the same token, it certainly isn't objectively more important either. So I'm confused as to why a teacher will jump through hoops in glorifying themselves constantly while, say, carpenters don't generally seem to feel the need to do so.

The only connection I can draw between the biggest offenders of self-aggrandizement amongst professions is that most (but not all) seem to fall under the rubric of public service. Now maybe one can feel that service of a people, through the state, is somehow more important than regular civilian service. I fail to see how that objectively pans out but soldiers are very fond of doing things "for their country." Maybe teachers feel the same way.

In that way, maybe those people think that there is some inherent sacrifice that comes with such services. With respect to danger, there are certainly a number of public occupations in which you risk your life - but there are also certainly plenty of private occupations that are equally risky (an exception might be soldiers in specific wartime periods). Or maybe teachers, policemen, and the like think that they are operating with marginally lower compensation than they would otherwise receive - although I think their counterparts in the private sector might have a thing or two to say about that.

So, I can't help but be left scratching my head. I certainly don't have a problem with people reaping the accolades and compensation from a service they've rendered; particularly if something they've done has resulted in benefiting the lives of the many. But in that respect, I don't typically find myself in the position of supporting wayward gloating and self-glorifying rhetoric. In fact, more often than not, I'm usually defending the people who have arguably done the most to benefit society (voluntarily no less) from people who not only wish to demonize them but to actively aggress against them.

On the flip side of that coin, I suppose I could ask why many people in public service, who would all but crucify the likes of Ayn Rand for her brand of individual egoism, would engage so fervently in the praise of their own individual contributions to society. Maybe the story of such behavior among these professions, whether the individuals are Left of Right in orientation (politically), is tied to statist views more than one would think. For the statist, justice is a call for theft; compassion a call for violence - why wouldn't I suspect that a call for collective contribution might be bore out of an inflated sense of self-importance...even entitlement?

Maybe this is the tragedy of the way things are; that there are a vast many of marginal importance bellowing the sordid incantations of sacrifice and piety. Whereas many who shake their heads at this are met only with the echo of their own voices when we proverbially ask, "Where is John Galt?" Indeed, the John Galts of this world are perhaps too busy giving birth to new epochs of mankind to revel in their own boastful incantations.

Actions speak louder than words.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Death of Language

I'm not going to delve too deeply into the fray regarding the national debate that was sparked by the recent tragedy in Tucson - largely because I feel that the discussion that ensued was so utterly childish and pedantic that I find it less than unfruitful to address it in full. But I will take note of something about this particular case that I happen to find intriguing.

We've heard a substantial number of people harangue their political opposition over the use of martial imagery and metaphor which they believe, apparently, is indistinguishable from the literal for some of us. We have been told that, because a person could take a euphemism and extrapolate an entirely different message from it, that these verbal colors are not acceptable for the public pallet - that we must stop the proverbial waving of the red cloth in front of society's deranged bulls.

Now, to be sure, we've had this collective argument before in different capacities. Shifting the guilt of individuals onto political rivals isn't a new sheet in anyone's playbook. Society found its witches at almost every point of contemporary tragedy (Waco, OK City, Columbine, you name it). But I've never recalled the accusations being not only so particularly vague but also unfounded. Normally when one of this nation's wayward sons travels out into the thick with a firearm and bad intentions at hand, we find ourselves going back through things that the person was connected to - the things in his life that might have influenced him so profoundly.

In the case of Waco, we found religious fundamentalism. For OK City, we found anti-government (pro-militia) sentiment. For Columbine we found "scary" music and movies. But in this particular instance, we found no need to even dig at all to support our superficial hypothesis of causation. We were pointing fingers before we, quite frankly, knew a single thing about this killer - and we did it, un-mistakingly, for political expediency.

Now several days have passed.

Should I be somewhat surprised that our usual witch-hunt has not ensued to the point of actually tearing through his objective influences? Because I am. For once, I'm actually surprised by the sheer intellectual laziness of many of my fellow citizens, but perhaps less surprised by the political opportunism which has subsequently been employed in its stead.

So where do we stand now?

Well, we stand even deeper in this political bog. But why? Why should I or anyone else feel the need to defend the concepts that Western civilization was built upon - free will, personal responsibility, free speech? We're not engaging some group of transcendental relativistic nihilists here; these are our fellow Americans - who live the majority of their lives by these simple principles, even if they don't commonly recognize it as such. Have we really become so far removed from a liberty so fundamental as our most base means of communication - speech - that we now honestly question if the weight of our words can irrevocably drag us off of the cliff of reason, like lemmings being lead to their death?

In some respects, I suppose it's hard for me to imagine that we're really having a conversation about what kind of language is acceptable. I find that no less contemptible than us having a conversation about what colors are not appropriate for painting. It's almost provokes more confusion than ire.

However, the sensibilities I'm putting forth haven't been lost on all of us. A great many people have stood their ground in defense of liberty and common sense. And given the panic and outrage that has unforgivably been pointed in their direction, they surely deserve all the credit due to them. They have put forth rebuttals that even I can't bring myself to write out of a sheer lack of respect for liberty's detractors.

The one point that I do find interesting in all of this - and one that I haven't seen anyone pick up on - is that we're having this very off-putting debate about the language we use in political discourse..... in light of the crimes of a crazy man who believed (apparently) that language itself was a form of mind control. It's incredibly unfortunate that this irony is lost on all of us in the middle of the mess. What may prove harder for me to discern, at this point, is if the criminal's belief in "language as master" is any less crazy than the public's apparent belief in it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Bird in the Hand

I've only occasioned to catch Alex Jones' commentary a few times over the past several years. But he did a brief segment today on a radio show I frequent during my morning drive. The subject: Birds dropping dead from the sky in Arkansas.

Of course, it didn't take long for the conversation to make an outward spin towards talk regarding more general and larger conspiracies. But for a short time some conspiracies regarding the death of said birds were discussed. There was a time in my life where I was far more open to conspiracy theories (as I was to New Age philosophy and spiritualism - but that is another story). But it seems like in recent years, at least for me, most talk from conspiracy wonks meet their end in a long path of logical fallacies. In short, it's hard for me to listen to most conspiracy-theorists without them sounding a little crazy - or at the least unfounded.

Luckily, Alex didn't disappoint.

Unwinding the story, he relayed how "suspicious" it was that the birdly body count kept rising from story to story. I couldn't begin to tell you how quickly my brain began to dismiss every tidbit of opinion that followed that statement. "Suspicious?" I thought. Body-counts (avian or otherwise) rising as a story unfolds doesn't sound suspicious at all. Generally the numbers will match what can be confirmed at any given time. And over time, you might expect that number to remain the same, but it wouldn't be particularly suspicious if it with any story about a flood, earthquake, or bombing.

In fact, what would be "suspicious" is if that number decreased over time. And even then, I would generally attribute that to over-zealous and shoddy early reporting...not to some global conspiracy to kill us all off via fluoride in our faucet-water. Then again, maybe I'm just one of the "sheeple" as Alex would put it.