2013-09-26

You Can't Buy Authenticity

Somewhere along my internal journey toward I-haven't-yet-quite-determined-what I developed a sort of self-check mechanism. The mechanism works something like this: for any idea I encounter that seems plausible and attractive, I ask myself, "What if this were entirely true for most people? What would the world look like?" I must have been onto something when I cooked that up (I certainly didn't do it consciously, so let's call it a happy accident), because The Last Psychiatrist is starting to build a strong reputation for himself on that idea.

It's not a schtick, it's a mental exercise. He starts with something he's noticed in the media and combines his observation with the base assumption that anything presented by the media is intended to be aspirational. That is, the media shows us, if not what we want to be, what the media thinks we want to be. The resulting analysis either tells us something about ourselves, or tells us something about how the "key opinion leaders" wish us to be.

Is Nothing Sacred?
I have written before about the idea of unappealing theories - theories which, if true for most people, present an utterly unattractive potential universe. One of the unappealing theories to which I referred in that post was the Austrian-libertarian idea that we should all drop out of college, buy Bitcoin and bars of gold, drive used cars, and live in rented rooms. Austrian economic theory - especially the Rothbardian kind - seems to highlight just such a way of life. It is often brilliantly argued and eloquently stated. But who wants to live that kind of life.

Where are we going to put our bars of gold if we live in an apartment? Don't worry, there's an Austrian School business waiting to store it for you! How are you going to afford all those gold bars if you drop out of college? Don't worry, just take a few online courses from the Mises Institute! Etc. etc.

And, on that note, Christopher Cantwell wrote this article about the ailing industry of "liberty events." When I responded (via Google+) that forming an industry out of a set of ideals reduced the appeal of those ideals in the long run, he was critical. But the fact of the matter is that hiring a prostitute does not give a person the same level of exhilaration that one gets from wooing a woman for real. Ideas, especially highly personal ideas like love, philosophy and ethics, were never meant to be commoditized. The Dr. Phils and Naomi Kleins of the world have done a good job of commoditizing ideas, but in the end they do their causes more harm than good.

No one wants to buy libertarianism (or liberalism, or communisim, or whatever), and perhaps the reason for this is because we seem to have an emotional need to keep some things sacred. I don't mean "sacred" in the religious sense of the term, although that's obviously part of it. I mean we are emotional human beings, and because of this, we need to know that not everything can just be bought-and-sold. Some things have to be earned through genuine achievement.

This is as true for an ideology like libertarianism as it is for love. You can't just buy tickets to a free world, you have to actually take liberty to the bank. "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots." That's why the new libertarian movement doesn't feel anything like the exalted, quasi-spiritual, battle-hymn-of-the-libertarians movement that spawned the American Revolution. We're trying to buy liberty like a prostitute, only to discover that she's only faking it so that we'll get off sooner and she can move on to her next trick. No wonder it doesn't feel like love.

There's No Such Thing As A Fair Fight
I'm no historian, so I can't tell you whether the old stories are accurate. But at any rate, we all have an image in our minds of what "dueling pistols" are. We picture an ornate box containing a pair of identical pistols. One day an indignant, stiff-lipped prig decides he can bear it no more! He will challenge his nemesis to a duel and settle the score, once and for all! So he presents his adversary with the box of dueling pistols. They each take one, and each one is loaded with a single bullet. They agree on an objective referee. In the full light of day, before the gawking eyes of the general public, they stand back to back. On the referee's command, they take twenty paces, turn, and shoot. The matter is thus resolved, however the cards fall. Perhaps one man dies. Perhaps they both die. Perhaps neither die. Everyone accepts the outcome as it is, and all the survivors go home with their pride intact.

The reason this concept sounds so novel to us in this day and age is because this kind of duel has rules, dignity, some semblance of mutual respect, acceptance of the outcome, and so on.

Compare that to the average fight in the halls of a present-day high school. The two interlocutors weave around in a circle, like cowards. Instead of throwing punches, they kick like girls. The crowd watches with glee, mocking the fighters for their pathetic display of childish raucousness. There are no rules. Hair is pulled, groins are attacked, high-pitched screams are exchanged. It might as well be pre-school.

Later, under cover of darkness, gang-bangers shoot innocent men in the back. Even those who fancy themselves tough guys are cowards in today's world.

The problem isn't that men have forgotten how to fight (although many certainly have). The problem is that, in the old days, at least according to story books (which are "aspirational" in The Last Psychiatrist's parlance), fighting was only deemed honorable if men fought honorably. Brawling was a brutish, dishonorable thing to do. If you wanted to settle the score with someone, you chose your weapons, set the rules, and let the best man win. But because there is no best man anymore, winning doesn't feel like winning.

Similarly, in the old days - again, at least according to the fiction that has defined our species for the last five hundred years or so - a professionally successful man was he who could perform the job better than anyone else. If a man wanted to become captain of the wagon wheel industry, he would learn how to make the world's best wagon wheel, and leverage his superior knowledge and craftsmanship into a corner on the market.

What do men do today when they want to become captains of industry? They get an MBA and then supplicate themselves to any corporate executive to which they can latch on. Men have become some hideous combination of barnacles and courtesans, clinging to the status of their superiors, pretending to "walk the walk" and "talk the talk," all the while trained in nothing other than how to create a PowerPoint slide deck about synergy.

It's crazy. Henry Ford became the president of the Ford Motor Company because he had the know-how to revolutionize both the transportation industry and the manufacturing process. The modern day CEO of Choose-Your-Automobile-Company got there by spending a few years in management consulting after getting an MBA and then pretending to know about corporate strategy.

Okay, but what do you know about manufacturing cars? It doesn't matter anymore. It's not about agreeing on the rules of the game and letting the best man win. It's about image, it's about messaging, it's about PowerPoint. It's become show business, and just like show businesses, everyone knows that showtime is make-believe. What's real is whatever it is we go home to, which tends to be things like grocery bills, mortgage payments, and chores.

That A-Word Again
The problem with all this is not that "messaging" is a bad skill to have, but that it's a lot like kicking and pulling hair when you should be throwing punches: It's a defensive maneuver designed to keep a safe enough distance that you never have to do any actual work.

To people like me, that seems like it would be disadvantageous at first-blush, but what we often forget is that when someone is screaming like a girl and kicking at our groin, we can't throw any punches their way, even if we're the superior fighter. You've heard "the greatest defense is a good offense?" That's wrong. What's true in today's world is that the best offense is a great defense. If you anticipate the fact that all your adversaries throw better punches than you do, then you just kick at their groin until all the real men walk away, pitying your pathetic-ness.

...Only the joke's on the real men, because they've given up the fight under the assumption that the rest of the world can see that it's not really a fight. The rest of the world, however, has lost their ability to differentiate between kickboxing and just kicking like a girl. Similarly, the world has lost its ability to differentiate between someone who knows about manufacturing products and someone who just gives YouTube-able PowerPoint presentations. Thus, all the real men - and women, of course - are disqualified from the upper echelons of professional success because they want something that the PowerPoint crowd can't give us...

Authenticity.

The End?
The pretenders need authenticity, too, of course, which is why they spend so much time searching for it. They've created the "man-o-sphere," a silly, juvenile ring of bloggers whose only knowledge of masculinity is convincing a large number of women to sleep with them. Real men have their pick of the ladies, of course, but they also know that "too many lovers in a lifetime ain't good for you." I could blog about that for days, but I'll have to defer that post to another day. I've rambled on long enough.

The point is, what the pretenders would like to believe - what would lend their world authenticity - is the idea that they genuinely can out-compete everyone else. They want to believe that their corporate success is attributable to a superior skill set. Unfortunately, their only real skill is the business-world equivalent of kicking like a girl. They can't produce more and better cars than the next man. All they can do is make a PowerPoint presentation about what such a thing might look like.

So the real producers of the world are taken out of the competition by a bunch of pretenders who throw PowerPoint presentations instead of production ideas. The pretenders will the top positions, but at the expense of a gaping, existential vacuum in their hearts where their counterparts generations ago once had authenticity. And all they can do to try to fill the gap is cook up unappealing pretend-theories about how they can reclaim their souls. (By becoming an "alpha-male?" By attending a liberty conference? By getting an MBA?)

But you can't buy authenticity. You have to earn it the old-fashioned way.