charisma

Cultural Confidence

I can’t turn around in this country without hearing someone talk about the value of self-esteem and self-confidence.

We blog on it: http://zenhabits.net/25-killer-actions-to-boost-your-self-confidence/

We fret over it in the news: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/nov/29/girls-low-self-esteem-rising-girlguiding-report

We have seminars on it: http://www.optimalthinking.com/SelfEsteem.html

And like every other fashionable intellectual topic, it gets a TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-HYZv6HzAs

So hooray for self-confidence, I guess!

This isn’t a surprise, as this is an individualistic culture. But what if we’re talking about the culture instead of the individual? Should a society have any form of collective self-confidence? Should we have cultural self-confidence?

It seems like the exact same people who place such a high value on self-confidence for individuals also seem to place a negative value on their culture thinking well of itself. When was the last time you heard someone on the political left say something really positive about the cultural values of the industrialized West, anyway? In fact, there seems to be only one element of the West that they really appreciate, which is individualism. When it comes to having faith in systems or institutions, they just aren’t going for it. Everyone with power should be looked at with suspicion, every judgment questioned, every tradition subverted. Really, believing in the ideas of a society gets a bad rap among lots of people.

In a recent Art of Manliness blog entry on pursuing excellence and dominance, one comment said that men should not pursue any such thing, should not pursue an imposition of will over others, because to do so would be an assertion that one way of life is superior to another, which is simply wrong. But why is it wrong?

I guess it’s because individualistic people want to see themselves as self-creating, not competing, and not products of their society; the crux of it comes down to something like a personal “right way to be” that cannot be, and should not be, defined by others. Maybe they will point you to the Crusades and say, “these people believed too strongly in their way of living, and people got hurt. You should live and let live.”

But let me ask: if you believe that the life you’re living is good, why wouldn’t you want to increase the visibility and esteem of a life lived like yours? If you say a culture is messed up, knowing that generations are yet to be born into this culture that isn’t “optimized for human flourishing”, isn’t it morally sound to try and change that culture? We certainly believe that about our own, and at the very least, we appreciate the freedom available in this culture that makes such change a stronger possibility. This sort of freedom is a cultural value. Why not try to spread your values, emphasize your way of doing things, glorify what seems to be working well? Shouldn’t we at least have the confidence in our way of life to not denigrate it? After all, say what you want about the benefits of being humble, but a confident culture is a charismatic culture.

This becomes more important when you understanding that the individual is forged by their environment. Our culture largely defines us. Even when we say, “you shouldn’t impose your culture on others”, saying that is an attempt to modify people’s behavior to create a more ideal culture, which in this case is a supportive and non-judgmental environment. The use of the word should gives it away: you’re making a judgmental assertion on how people should act, in an attempt to modify the prevailing social environment. You have to realize, there is no neutral culture; the supposed moral decency of non-judgmentalism, as many people have noted, is extremely judgmental itself when people fail to meet its expectations, as political correctness in America shows regularly.

Once you understand that the concept of a “supportive environment” with no judgment really makes no sense at all, you’re left with the basic truth: your culture makes you who you are. Every attempt to figure out some core of individuality for humans fails on the basic grounds of experience being relevant to our identity.

And thus, we should ask ourselves: can you love who you are without loving the society that made you?

The voices that cry the loudest over the West’s cultural dominance of other countries solve this problem for themselves by taking and leaving elements of culture as they wish. Institutions with hierarchies are right out, but the philosophical individualism of the West and its notions of rights are in, and never mind that those rights are impossible to create, defend, and enforce without the institutions. The point of the entire exercise is to liberate the individual from obligations. It’s a power game.

In the real world, your choice is between separatism and unity, between alienating yourself and playing the social game with others where you win some and see your cultural environment become more like what you want it to be, or you lose and have to conform. Most people have to conform, and no one conforms harder than the guy saying, “give me liberty” or protesting the WTO. Those are cultural values he’s expressing.

Charisma Wins Elections

If you think the people vote on sophisticated understandings of cultural issues, nuanced moral principles, good sense of how a country should be run, or anything else so high-minded, let’s review the record, shall we? I’m going to start with 1980 just because I haven’t been alive any longer than that, and besides, I don’t even remember who ran against Nixon in ’68 and the 70’s were filled to overflowing with incredibly dull men on both sides. Ford versus Carter was not worth calling an election, and voter turnout emphasized this. But the pattern that put Kennedy in the White House with ease should be every bit as clear in the case of Reagan on up.

1980: Reagan versus Carter – Reagan, with an actor’s charisma, defined a very popular legacy of mediocre ideas shared by other guys with great hair, like Jack Kemp.

1984: Reagan versus Mondale – Mondale looked like a stodgy turd even with a chick on the ticket. Reagan with ease, despite looking almost senile at times.

1988: Think George Bush is boring? Then you haven’t met Michael Dukakis!

1992: Despite handling Iraq reasonably well, Bush, like so many ladies, gets manhandled by that handsome Bill Clinton. We like to chalk this one up to Bush having the audacity to raise taxes, a fiscally intelligent move but unforgivable since he said “read my lips” that one time. Excuses, excuses…

1996: Clinton versus Dole: I did my history thesis on Dole and the Food for Peace program, and won a minor award for it. Dole’s still kicking, an honorable and decent man, and just duller than ditchwater compared to Big Bill.

2000: Bush the Younger versus Gore: dear God, the pain of watching these two cardboard suits blathering on about school vouchers, tax cuts, and the environment was just insufferable. What a terrible choice. Bush might have “won”, but they’re both losers.

2004: Just when you didn’t think the Democrats couldn’t find anyone worse than Al Gore, they go and top themselves! John Kerry? It takes serious effort to embody such a complete lack of charm.

2008: HOLY SHIT THAT GUY’S BLACK! WINNAR!!! Who’s that old dude?

2012: See 2008. Who’s that rich guy?

Hint: if you want to know who will win in 2016, wait until the primaries are over, then go to a gay bar in Oregon. Ask the fruits who they’d rather fuck, and there’s your next president. Romney was a pathetic attempt to deal with this naked superficiality, as he’s fairly handsome, but he’s also obviously a tool and a terrible speaker.

It’s not that any of them are good or bad because of their charisma, but that’s just it: they aren’t good or bad because of their charisma, while charisma seems to be the defining factor here. An election is not a character referendum or a policy referendum; it’s a popularity contest, like high school.

Has it always worked this way? Who knows? It certainly has since televisions found their way into people’s houses. Before that, party loyalty mattered more and having the necessary information to make an “informed decision” was likely even more of a joke than it is now.

The childish fantasies about the guy, or the lady, who “ignites everyone’s imaginations” are just that, nothing more. Leadership of a country with serious responsibilities is not a matter of an inspiring narrative, and yet, the people want to look at it this way. Forget this popular vote crap.

Eventually, it might become clear that the Catholics have it right: first, gather up the people with the most connections, education, seniority, or authority in the various regions under the institutions commanded. Then, lock them in a room and tell them to choose which one will be running the shit between now and his death. Yes, his death. And stick with it.

If he fucks things up, I guess they’ll choose differently next time, right? Or if he’s REALLY bad, get the group together again and a unanimous decision can disempower him and decentralize the system, sending more authority to different regions/divisions/subordinate groups. Then, wait for him to die. Stripping him of his position and making a new choice right there just creates incentives for the next front-runner to lie about his performance to get more power for himself while breeding civil war. Special considerations for wartime only.

That’s it. Define the system and stick to it. No matter the mechanics, if you want it to work, you have to expect people – all of them – to change for the system, not for the system to change for them, on any level. Only egomaniacal fools look at it differently.