Storytelling and invidualism

I’ve long described myself as a classical liberal on this blog, and I’ve tried on occasion to define what that means — for example, with this doodle (above). Its point was to locate the unit of analysis of liberals in the individual, not in any groups that individuals might belong to. That’s always made intuitive sense to me, and it still does.

So consider that Premise 1.

I’ve also expressed my appreciation of storytelling here over the years, with what has (to my surprise) turned out to be the longest-running thread on this blog. My intuition tells me that humans make sense of the world and of themselves through stories, that we form identity from narratives.

So consider that Premise 2.

I was therefore delighted to be disturbed by a suggestion that Premise 1 and Premise 2 might actually contradict each other. (Perhaps that’s the definition of ‘intellectual’: somebody who delights in seeing his contradictions uncovered, espying an opportunity to learn.)

The suggestion struck me, roughly, between minutes 5 and 10 of the lecture below, by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of philosophy. (I recommend the entire course, which covers some of my favourites, from Rawls to Aristotle and beyond, in a very entertaining way.)

In this segment, Sandel introduces the British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

  • MacIntyre also starts from the premise that identity (‘the self’) is a product of narrative (ie, my Premise 2).
  • But he then concludes that individualism (ie, my Premise 1) is impossible, because narrative necessarily leads to a communitarian identity.

Specifically, Randel quotes MacIntyre saying:

Man is … essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual. … We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, a citizen of this or that city. I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.

Hence what is good for me has to be the good for someone who inhabits these roles. I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation a variety of debts, inheritances, expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is, in part, what gives my life its moral particularity.

So: anti-individualist (and thus implicityly anti-liberal) and pro-communitarian. Right? Liberalism says: I am free and thus I am responsible for myself, but I don’t answer for parent, country, tribe, or history. MacIntyre says that is self-deception:

The contrast with the narrative view of the self is clear. For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships.

It’s made me think a lot. Watch the entire lecture. (But first, read this update regarding this post’s title.)

Individuals, tribes & classes

How do genuine liberals (as correctly defined) view the world? As a collection of individuals.

How do conservatives view it? As a collection (clash?) of cultural communities.

Socialists? Economic communities (or blocks).

Communists? Classes.

Fascists? Tribes, nations or races.

People have drawn many diagrams to depict the political spectrum. But they don’t make sense to me. So I drew my own (in the new Google Draw. Try it.) Here it is:

This way of looking at the spectrum might help you to explain “left” and “right” to a child, should you ever need to. (More about the historical and arbitrary origins of “left” and “right” in a subsequent post.)

If you view the spectrum not as a matrix or a line but as a loop or circle, things become clearer. Liberalism then reveals itself to be not the “place in the middle,” the “split-the-difference” no-man’s-land of compromise and moderation, but the extreme and radical opposite of collectivism, which includes everything from Nazism to Communism.

Yes, Liberals care most about freedom, whereas collectivists tend to care more about “equality” (insofar as it pertains to the group of interest to the respective collectivist — ie, the class or the tribe.)

But the debate is not merely about the desired outcomes — freedom vs equality — of policy. It goes deeper. It is a debate about the unit of analysis. What — or rather whom — do we care about? What matters?

As a liberal, I instinctively choose individuals. People matter.

Now, it’s easy to lampoon this instinct. The caricature usually involves a quote from Margaret Thatcher, when she allegedly said:

There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals.

Here is what she actually said. As you can tell, it doesn’t come close to Ayn Rand in shrillness.

Individuals do form families and other groups, and liberals do care about those. But those are groups that individuals volunteer to form. (By contrast, I never volunteered to be American, German or middle class. Most of the time, I’m not even sure what those group memberships are supposed to mean.)

Let’s talk about Arizona

Enough prologue. Let’s talk about the new Arizona law against illegal immigration.

In my article in the new issue of The Economist, I try to analyze how the law and the backlash against it might affect American politics. My editor wrote a “leader” (ie, opinion editorial) to go along with it. And both of those pieces follow a short piece I whipped up the other day, when the law was first signed.

Now, it may not surprise you to learn that, in addition to the hundreds of, shall we say, passionate comments on our website, I have also been getting reader letters.

I have already regaled you with you my cavalier amusement at the tone of the American reader letters I get. But I must say, the mail bag of late has taken another turn for the worse. I leave it to your imagination.

So let’s step back and try to understand why I, and The Economist, would instinctively be

  • for more open borders,
  • for more liberal migration laws,
  • for freer movement of people.

Is it because I love Latinos, as some of my reader letters suggest (albeit in a different vocabulary)?

Well, yes it is. I do love them. Though no more so than I love Eskimos, Wasps and Tibetans. I love them all, but only as individuals.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when only diplomats carried passports. Other people moved freely where they wanted to go. Just read Casanova’s memoirs. 😉

This sounds like an ideal world: Free individuals and families moving wherever they want to go, with a minimum of hassle (besides the natural stress of moving).

I admit that this was before some countries had welfare states which might attract poor migrants and thus be overwhelmed. This issue — whose taxes pay for whose benefits in a given land — must be addressed.

And I also admit that this was before terrorists (who already existed) had access to weapons of mass destruction. So this issue — how do we keep murderous migrants out — also must be addressed.

On the other hand, I do not admit that immigrants in general, whether legal or illegal, are more likely than natives to commit crimes, because research proves this not to be true.

Garden of Earthly Delights

So what would a liberal Utopia look like?

All individuals anywhere would be free to move to and live where they please, within basic and minimal parameters to address the two issues above.

Americans, for example, would be allowed to go to Latin America or Europe to pursue careers, loves and dreams. Latin Americans and Europeans would be just as free to come to America to do the same.

This would apply to the “high-skilled” migrants, such as Indian graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), probably the best university system in the entire world today. And it would apply equally to “low-skilled” migrants, because they, too, have contributions to make and dreams to pursue.

Is this realistic? Probably not.

But is it desirable?

That depends whether you view the world largely as tribes, classes or, as I do, individuals.

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The White Rose: German heroes

In a recent conversation, I brought up the White Rose–die Weiße Rose–and was reminded that most of you (being Anglophone) have probably never heard of them. But you must know them. Now you will.

They were a smallish group of students and one professor at the University of Munich during the Nazi era who defied and spoke out against the Nazi horrors. The middle petals of the Rose were Hans Scholl (above left) and his sister Sophie (middle) and their friend Christoph Probst (right). The group lasted less than a year until, in 1943, they were caught, “tried” and beheaded.

This summary does not do justice to them, however. They are, to me and to all post-war Germans, synonyms for goodness, courage, humanity. They are romantic, having lived Bohemian lives of pipes and poetry. They saw crimes against humanity and resisted, knowing that this would cost them their lives. At a time when conformity turned an entire nation into a murderous mob, they remained individualists, becoming heroes of all mankind.

The Leaflets

Alexander Schmorell

The Geschwister Scholl (siblings Scholl) and their friends watched with increasing horror what the Nazis said and did in the 1930s and early 40s. Then Hans Scholl and his friends Alexander Schmorell und Willi Graf were sent (nobody had a choice) to the eastern front in 1942 where they witnessed German atrocities in Poland and either saw or heard about the Warsaw Ghetto. Many Germans soldiers did, but these three were different: They decided not to stay silent but to fight the evil, which was their own regime.

Hans Scholl

They returned to Munich, where Sophie, Hans’ younger sister had moved to study biology and philosophy. She became friends with Hans’ friends. Never knowing whom they could trust, they formed their group, printing leaflets in secret back rooms and sending them by mail all over Germany.

They managed to print only about 100 copies of the first leaflet. (You can read an English translation of all six leaflets here, but I’ve chosen excerpts from the German and translated them in my words. Pictures courtesy of the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand):

Willi Graf

… Is it not true that every honest German today is ashamed of his government? And who among us can even guess the extent …?

… If the Germans, without any remaining individuality, have indeed become a heartless and cowardly mob, yes, then they deserve to perish…

Goethe talks about the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and Greeks, but today it seems that the Germans are a shallow, mindless herd of followers (Mitläufern) whose marrow has been sucked out and who, bereft of their core, allow themselves to be led into their extinction. It seems so, but it is not so; instead, each individual–after slow, insidious, and systematic rape–has been put into a moral prison, and only once he was captive did he become aware of his dilemma. Few understood the the menace, and their reward was death….

Each individual, as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must therefore rise up in this final hour and resist, as much as he can, against this scourge on humanity, against Fascism and every system like it. Resist passively, resist, resist wherever you are … Never forget that each people gets the government it deserves…

Christoph Probst

They then quoted Friedrich Schiller talking about Lycurgus and Solon (ie, ancient Greece) and Goethe, clearly reminding their readers of the previous heights of their civilization, the starker to contrast it with its present lows.

In the second leaflet, they begin to inform the Germans of what they had seen on the eastern front, so that none might later say (as many would) that they “didn’t know”:

… the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, three-hundred-thousand Jews have been murdered in a bestial way. Here we see the most dreadful crime against the dignity of man, a crime that compares to no other in the entire history of mankind…

… Nobody can pretend he was not guilty. Everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty! But it is not yet too late to wipe this ugliest monstrosity of a government off the face of the earth, in order not to become even more guilty….

.. the only and highest duty, indeed the holiest duty, of each German is to eradicate these [Nazi] beasts….

They then quoted Laozi and closed with an exhortation to copy the flyer as many times as possible and to distribute it (in effect, demanding martyrdom from each reader).

In the third leaflet, they exhort:

… The foremost concern of every German must not be the military victory over Bolshevism but the defeat of the National Socialists ….

before describing how people should resist:

… Sabotage of the military-industrial complex; sabotage in all Nazi gatherings, rallies, festivities, organizations…. Sabotage of all scientific pursuits to further the war, whether in universities, laboratories, research institutes … Sabotage of all Fascist cultural events…. Sabotage of all the arts that serve National Socialism. Sabotage of all writings and newspapers in league with National Socialism….

They ended by quoting Aristotle on the subject of tyranny and again exhorted readers to copy and distribute.

Sophie Scholl

From the fourth leaflet:

… Every word that comes out of Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace he means war, when he says the name of the almighty he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking throat of hell…

They also assured readers that they took addresses randomly from phone books and did not write them down anywhere, then ended with:

… We will not be silent, we are your bad conscience; the White Rose will not leave you alone! Please copy and spread.

In the fifth leaflet:

… Are we to be a people forever hated and outcast by the world? No! Therefore resist these Nazi subhumans! Prove with your deeds that you think different!

They end with an amazingly prescient vision of post-war Germany and Europe, predicting a federalist Germany, a unified and peaceful Europe, and freedoms of association, speech and press.

In early 1943, after the German army was wiped out at Stalingrad, they produced their sixth and final leaflet, with their biggest print run yet–about 3,000 copies. They again mailed it all over Germany.

… Freedom and Honor! For ten years, Hitler and his thugs have twisted, raped, perverted these two beautiful German words…. They have shown what freedom and honor mean to them by destroying, throughout the past ten years, all material and spiritual freedom, all morality in the German people….

This time they went further. For three nights, they stealthily went out and painted the walls of the university quarter: “Down with Hitler!” “Freedom!”

Then Hans and Sophie (whom Hans had tried to keep out of the group in order to protect her but who had become passionately involved) decided to carry stacks of leaflets into the university to distribute them while lectures were in progress. This was reckless and the other members did not know about it.

Hans and Sophie stuffed a big suitcase full of leaflets, took it to the university and put stacks on window sills and in front of lecture halls. Just as the bell rang and students were about to spill out, they threw a big pile from the very top of a staircase into the light-filled atrium (where they are immortalized today, see left). A janitor saw them and alerted the Gestapo.

The guillotine

Four days later, Hans, Sophie and Christoph were “tried”. Hans and Sophie asked that Christoph be spared because he was married. The request was denied. On the same day the guillotine fell on their young necks.

Hans was 24 years old; Christoph 23; Sophie 21.

Their houses were searched and letters and addresses discovered. Soon after, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, as well as their professor, Kurt Huber, were also caught and beheaded. Alexander and Willi were 25; Professor Huber almost 50.

Just before Hans was brought to the guillotine, he yelled out of his cell, echoing through the walls of the prison:

Long live freedom!

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Socrates, individualism and conformity

Here is one way of seeing the timeless relevance of Socrates for us today: Think of him as the archetype of individualism fighting against oppressive social conformity.

In this thread on Socrates, I’ve already looked at some noble and less noble aspects of the man’s character. And every time I found him to be thoroughly modern and recognizable. So too in this way.

Watch the 2-minute video above of the famous Asch Experiments that began in 1956. They were devastating: We saw confirmed what we already suspected, that people will readily surrender truth to a group.

To me, still emerging from my old Ayn Rand phase, this was always the ultimate, the most disgusting, sin. To me, this is how the Nazis perverted an entire nation, how Mao’s Red Guards did it again, how all great evil throughout history spreads.

Hence the inherent appeal of a hero such as Socrates. He told the group (the Athenians) to bugger off. In return, they killed him for it. (This will get a lot more nuanced in future posts, but let’s leave it at that for now.)

If Socrates had sat in the Asch Experiments, he would never have changed his answer.

But should the group really bugger off?

If it were as simple as all that, The Hannibal Blog would not find this so interesting. But it is not so simple. It turns out that we have moved on from the Asch Experiments somewhat. Read, for instance, Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer, two psychologists who took a new approach.

The people who might change their answer to “lie” in unison with the group were in fact facing an exceedingly difficult situation that inherently required all sorts of complex trade-offs, they argue:

  • On one hand, there is the value of truth.
  • On the other hand, there is the value of social solidarity.

In practice, most people did not conform consistently (ie, “lie” with the group every time) but varied their response in what Hodges and Geyer call

patterns of dissent and agreement to communicate larger scale truths and cooperative intentions.

In short, they were being biological organisms that keep in mind 1) their own survival in a group and 2) the survival of the group as a whole.

Now this is exactly the sort of poppycock that I used to have no time for at all. But as I get older I see more complexities. In Socrates’ case, for instance, there actually was a specific threat to the group survival of the Athenians, and I will get to that.

So we can add another timeless conundrum to the issues that Socrates raised. We already said that truth often conflicts with gentleness and kindness, and that one cannot assume truth must always win this fight. What if Hodges and Geyer are right and truth must also occasionally take a backseat to those “larger truths”– and that Socrates, failing to understand that, paid a fair price?

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One-sided thinker: Ayn Rand


I’ve been meaning for a while to respond to Jacob’s nomination of Ayn Rand as the greatest thinker ever. You notice that Rand did not make it into my roster of great thinkers, and I want to explain why.

First, you have to understand where I’m coming from. In my twenties, I had an extreme Objectivist phase. For me, as for many of her fans, her radical and uncompromising individualism had as much romance–yes, romance–as the diametrical opposite ethic, socialism, had for other young people. And that is what young people need above all in a philosophy: romance. The time for nuance is old age; the time for bold clarity is youth.

So there we were, the young’uns. Some had Che Guevara posters on their walls (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Others were curled up with Atlas Shrugged and pictured John Galt (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Oh, and yes, they stood for opposite ways of looking at the world. But we were all revolutionaries in our ways, and happily so.

My type went on to become libertarians (properly called liberals), which I am. We reveled in our individualism, as I did and do. It was a great party.

Later in life, when I got to Silicon Valley, I had flash-backs of nostalgia. A lot of the geeks there still call themselves Objectivists. I remember a fun conversation I had with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia and a Rand enthusiast. Indeed, some of us are still at it.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Rand’s philosophy and, worse, her characters do not age. They are caricatures. Howard Roark, the über-architect in The Fountainhead, John Galt, the über-entrepreneur in Atlas Shrugged, are sketches of square-jawed action heroes as a girl who had escaped from Soviet Russia (ie, Rand) would draw them. They have no complexity, no nuance, no contradictions; they are, in short, not human. As you get older and put more life behind you, you lose interest.

Unfair? Not at all. Because Rand chose to deliver her philosophy through these characters, through narrative, through stories. And, as someone fascinated by storytelling, I think she got that part right. But her stories do not cut it.

I am still an invidualist today. But what Rand offered us was not individualism but atomism, the misguided and rather naive view that individuals exist discretely of one another and their surroundings and do not interact in patterns that reflect back on them.

She wrote at a time when Objectivism (the notion that there is one objective and observable reality) should already have been seen as untenable, given that Heisenberg had given us his uncertainty principle. Everything we have learned since should make us even more humble about our ability to observe reality. If I see red and the dog sees grey, thanks to the way photons form different patterns in his neurons and mine, what is the objective part?

Regarding individualism, it was always a distortion to deny collective patterns. Ask E.O. Wilson about his ants! Just as our cells do not run around bragging about their individualism but (usually) work together in our bodies, insects form colonies that come close to having their own consciousness.

If I were to nominate an individualist and libertarian for great thinker, it would not be Ayn Rand but Friedrich von Hayek, who thought about freedom and individuals holistically.

Finally, I cannot forgive Rand for making no allowance for humor. And don’t any of you Galtians pretend that there was any. Here, remind yourself:

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