Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Autobiographical Note


When I was a high school kid I had a tragic-Maoist vision of the world - which meant that the workers (my parents' friends mainly) were utterly screwed by the rich, but the tragedy was that they were too stupid to do anything about it and always would be.

My bad attitude and poor attendance in high school were carrying me on the long slow slide to Palookaville when the first of a long series of dumbluck happenstances came my way.

Just about the time I was being expelled from high school (as in "don't come back - ever") I took a battery of tests for an honors program at UCLA and was one of two kids in my school who got in. It meant that my going-down-the-toilet grades no longer mattered because I was admitted to the UC system and attended classes half time during 12th grade.

Further dumbluck was that UC was so bureaucratic that they only had one undergraduate status and could not distinguish high school admissions from regular admissions nor could they distinguish UCLA admissions from Berkeley admissions.

Further dumbluck was that the Russians had just launched Sputnik a few years earlier and Congress had freaked out and passed the National Defense Education Act which provided school loans for poor kids like me. So I went from expelled at the end of 11th grade to freshman at Berkeley a year later.

Between freshman and sophomore years I had a summer job scrubbing zoology lab floors that had not been cleaned in years. (The custodians insisted we do it on our knees with brushes so as not take away their jobs of cleaning with big electric floor scrubbers.) Having had plenty of experience of not spending money I saved what I made and spent it the following summer by taking the very first season of charter flights to Europe. More dumbluck.

In the course of hitch-hiking and wandering around my friend Fritz and I were in a youth hostel in West Berlin when we encountered a kid who had more money than brains - and a sports car. He had been touring the various red light districts because he didn't know what else there was to do in Europe. Fritz and I exchanged a look.

The conversation came around occasionally to Moscow, and then again to Moscow, and then I found an article in Time magazine which happened to be at hand and which just happened to be about the USSR. Before Junior knew what had befallen him, we were all three on our way to Moscow and Leningrad in his sports car.

And so it was that in the summer of 1966 at the age of nineteen I learned first hand about what had been an article of conversation and ideological certainty in Berkeley. And it wasn't good. It was a huge eye-opener to actually see what everyone claimed to know all about. It was the origin of all my subsequent political skepticism. Not only had the conservatives lied to us about the Soviet Union, so had the liberals, socialists, and communists. Everyone had lied, and for their own interests.

Including one of my professors, Reggie Zelnik, whose sworn duty it was to teach the truth. But who was a shallow, lying rat-bastard more devoted to his Marxist pretensions than to academic integrity, let alone his students.

From that day to this, I have assumed that anything anyone says about politics or social theory or any such thing is just not true. My view from that day to this is that political speech is born of ignorance, prejudice, self-interest, and even intentional deception. In brief it is my belief that people who speak about politics either literally do not know what they are talking about or are intentional liars. (It does not follow that I necessarily know better. Just that I never believe what I am told.) It was then that I formulated my political philosophy which is summarized in the motto, "Oh, that's bullshit!"

This skepticism has stood me in good stead all my life, although it has gotten me into a great deal of trouble over the years, particularly with authority figures who do not like to have their word doubted or dismissed.


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8 comments:

  1. Would that make me a kesslerite or a kesslerist?

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  2. Nick Danger11:11 PM

    Somewhere in my house or garage I have a real rubber stamp which proudly proclaims "Bullshit!" in Old English font, which I had made years ago when I went to college. No bullshit. I even have a copy of "On Bullshit" by Harry G. Frankfurt, which all Kesslerite-ists would enjoy reading.

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  3. There used to be a device called a "bullshit detector" which one would aim at the source of the annoyance and it would beep.

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  4. In a similar vein, I am skeptical of people who are now railing against "career politicians" and "Washington politics."

    Back in the day, I managed a software development team and I was the president of a condo association.

    I learned first hand that leadership and politics are very hard and to do them well requires a great deal of skill, patients, and experience.

    I managed twelve people in the most ideal circumstances: all were bright and talented, they had similar backgrounds and career goals, and all were handsomely paid to succeed. But it was still surprisingly difficult to get them work together.

    I spent a great deal of time and energy articulating our goals and deciding on approaches, tools, and schedules. It took a great deal of listening, convincing, cajoling, persuading, educating, and on occasions disciplining them to get them to work together. We succeeded more than we failed, but it was exhausting. In the end, I decided I was an average manager.

    During my tenure as condo association president, we had to replace the roofs. Half the owners wanted to replace the roof with the same high quality, aesthetically appealing, expensive shingles to maintain the selling price of their units. They intended to sell sometime during the life of the roof.

    The the other half wanted to replace the roof with high quality but cheaper composite shingles to minimize cost. They never intended to move and were on fixed incomes.

    Both positions were equally valid. There was no right or wrong answer. It came down to political wrangling to finally get a majority to agree on one type of shingle.

    I suspect most who bad mouth politicians and Washington have never had to govern. Our elected officials represent a wildly diverse constituency with disparate needs and dreams.

    It's amazing anything ever gets done.

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  5. I remember my brief stint as a boss in much the same way. If one was lenient and assumed that everyone were adults and would do their jobs without authority and discipline one was promptly proven wrong. Authority and discipline got more work done but at the cost of resistance and resentment.

    I remember reading a short book called "Bureaucracy in Modern Society" by Peter M. Blau. It was illuminating.

    It is history of trends in the French bureaucracy from the time of Louis XIV when it was more or less created, to the 20th Century.

    Blau shows how its trends have oscillated in something like twenty year cycles between stifling authority and by-the-book prescription and then toward more liberal individual discretion. The extremes at each end produce horror-show ineffectuality. Which produces a reaction in the opposite direction.

    Blau claims that these oscillations are dictated from within the bureaucracy itself and are not primarily dependent on the state of French politics at the time.

    Which reinforces Steve's conclusion, which is that you can't win, and nothing works.

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  6. Disgustedbyyourimbecility1:11 PM

    What an absurd sophistry your entire world view is. Its almost a quaint Americanism, a full faced denial of fact for reasons of nihilist indulgence.

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