An Age of Fraud?
One of the reasons for having a blog is the reason for writing in general--to expose one's views to the sure knowledge that at least one demented reader might seek to make some sense of them. In the better blogging moments, that lifts a person above their own solipsism and forces them into an encounter with objectivty. You have to ask yourself, 'does what I am saying make sense in a way that someone else would see? Is there any logic to what I am saying at all?'
The best writers I've read, regardless of their conclusions, have something of this appeal to the exterior about them. For instance, Eric Hobsbawm--not a man with whom I naturally sympathise--was a good enough historian that he could admit there was something to the idea of long-wave economic cycles, such as Kondratiev and Kuznets waves, whilst indicating that he had no clue why that should be true.
Two of my intellectual problems are linked, My mind is a tank. It always has been, probably always will be. Though I have been surrounded in life by rapier intelligences, by intellectual cavalry, and by people whose cranial light arms have been very effectively deployed, I have tended to take my time and either ride over or fire through, walls. When added to a natural concern for righteousness that can border on the pompous, and the ingrained arrogance of a cradle Catholic (I love my church but recognise my flaws) this combination can be dismissive and deadly to debate. I tolerate more than I accept.
So throwing off words like 'fraud' is probably something that I should not do easily. Fraud is acting in a dishonest fashion with the intent of gain for oneself or another, and can in this jurisdiction be committed by false representation, abuse of position, or failure to disclose information. I have friends who spend their working lives prosecuting it, In a larger sense, however, the past seventy or so years--about the length of a Kondratiev wave--have seen the introduction of fraud as a governing style across the West, to the point where defining the period after the Age of War inaugurated in the 1860s as an Age of Fraud is probably correct.
We live in a world in which, for example, the reserve currency has in theory been the dollar. The dollar has been connected to gold, for a large part of that time, and yet the USA has been systematically double- and triple-counting its holdings of that substance since at least 1959. The economies to which the reserve currency applies have been measuring themselves by a system of counting so flawed that no independent statistical modeller would now adopt it, and indeed GDP and GNP in a digital age are increasingly being recognised as not really good for purpose. The international system since the end of the Korean War has been racked by small wars, 'light arms' conflicts, Cold War and intentional holocausts on a stupendous scale and yet in most of the circumstances involved, governments officially dedicated to peace and development have connived in the destruction. News media have become propaganda, and politics a kind of Noh theatre in which what the public sees and what really goes on are two different things. Our universities seem not to teach people to think, and our medical services--unprecedented in human history in their capacity and sweep--seem to be staffed by large numbers of people who view human beings as a kind of virus and who spend time making up tenuous arguments about abortion and euthanasia, if they think at all.
All of this is really quite troubling. As one gets older, the idea that material human progress can coincide with delusion or regression into the moral abyss becomes more and more sadly acceptable. This is almost especially true if you happen to be an historian.
By that I mean, to use a word that is not often understood in the modern west, a vocational historian. There is a pleasure to knowing about the past that is not confined to those who feel an identity with its unfathomable and recurrent stories. One can validate oneself and one's belief in the past, or dip into biography, or safely imagine the dramas lived by others now dead, and enjoy 'history'. If you need some sort of fallacious empirical way to validate your social or political prescriptions, historical examples can often convey a sense that you speak sense, which is of immense benefit to the sort of people who think that life and their daily activities should have a point. At its best (away from my own turgid prose) history is also fun. It's heart stopping and heart pounding and thought-provoking and ultimately sweetly melancholic to think of the adventures and thoughts of the Roman Soldier who, with his troubles, is now ashes under Uricon.
However, I'd characterise the vocation of history, or perhaps the ingrained historical sensibility, as different. As I get older, I find myself more and more certain in something that I have always felt, which is that human nature does not change. There are, perhaps in our DNA, perhaps just to use a Catholic formulation in our Nature and its relationship to the universe, ingrained truths. Ways that people are. We can convince ourselves that these copybook headings are 'patriarchal' or 'exclusive' or 'regressive' or 'situational' or any other combination of jive and relativism but they aren't. What changes is our relationship to technology, and sometimes we get carried away from that and forget that we are still limited creatures that exist within nature.
The latest wave, based on a system of technology and social science which has given rise to the idea that we have somehow transcended all of this, is thus properly one where people advance by making false representations to themselves and then to others. We gain in that sense dishonestly, in that a part of us must understand that our assertions make little sense, logically, and that others would if being truthful agree that they make little sense. This is our condition. It can be understood but to understand is not to transcend. The only way out of it is to identify and to hold to that which must be true. If you can't, you become trapped in a phenomenology of fraud.
Our great heroes are actors and politicians who spend their lives pretending to be people they are not when they should be the otherwise unremembered people who spend their lives doing good and ploughing on as human beings. Our ideas are ones that can be systematically undermined by the questions of a child. Little that we have in this world will last.
Yet this is not a manifesto for indolence or despair. If you seek virtue, for its own sake, look vice in the eye just for the point of it. True virtues will if pursued give rise to all the others just as one vice overlaps the others.
From Keynesianism to Climate Change, and frrom racism to internationalism, our dilemma is that we fail to treat imposters all the same. In a way, though it worries me deeply, it is quite comforting to reflect that there will be a reckoning played our beyond our skulls for this.