The Problem of Perspective


When libertarians (and others) get into debates, we often bewail our opponents’ lack of facts. But I suppose you’ve noticed that even when everybody has the facts, the debate continues — a situation that has become very frequent in this age of quick and plentiful access to information. Often the problem is simply the perfectly accurate perception of people on one side or the other that if the force of the facts were recognized, they would have to alter their political identity.

I recently found myself in a dispute with a person whose writing I admire. (This is not uncommon.) She said that because a certain politician had said X, therefore we must conclude that he was preaching the gospel of Y. I quoted what the man had said, which was literally and vigorously anti-Y. My friend replied, “I know that. But that’s just the cover-up. What he obviously meant was Y.” To my friend, it was so important that X meant Y that she would never be betrayed by mere facts.

People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective.

Even this, however, is not the major barrier to healthy political discourse. The deeper problem is a lack of perspective on facts. People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective. We all know people who can quote every foolish thing that President Obama or President Trump ever said (and that’s a lot), and on that basis are prepared to prove that one of them is a mere pawn of certain Interests or is the master player in a plot to destroy the republic and institute rule by force. What’s missing is common sense, and the perspective it provides. Lots of people say foolish things. In fact, we all do. Anyone can quote some remark by me, or some other libertarian you know, and say, triumphantly, “How can a person who said that pretend to be a libertarian?” Well, it’s quite possible, and it might not be a pretense. Extend the logic to people you don’t know, and it works just as well. To admit this is not to give your sanction to Obama, Trump, or anyone else. It’s to have a little bit of common sense.

A lack of commonsense perspective lies at the root of conspiracy theories generally — the false ones, of course, because people do sometimes conspire to produce certain ends, and why should we be shocked by that? The dedicated researchers who believe that Oswald was a fall guy know many more facts about Oswald than I ever will, but the overwhelming truth that 54 years have passed since Oswald and Kennedy were killed, and no one has emerged to confess that he had any kind of involvement, however peripheral, in any kind of conspiracy to make Oswald a fall guy suggests that facts can easily betray you, absent the perspective of common sense.

The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities.

But there’s another lack of perspective that is especially characteristic of the present moment, and that is sheer ignorance of historical,as opposed to immediate, facts. In 1988, virtually all the public-policy writers in the United States, from the New York Times on down (or up), preached, with the Leninists, that communism in Eastern Europe was an irreversible phenomenon. In 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe crashed. “Oh, who woulda thunk it?” was the experts’ cry. The answer was: anybody who knew some history. Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not. Historical examples: France in 1789. France in 1814. Germany in 1918. The Stuarts in 1688. The Commonwealth of England in 1660. I could go on.

Between 1950 and 1990, Americans were told — and in my experience of some of those decades, Americans believed — that they were living in a unique time in human history: never before had “a civilization and a way of life been threatened with total destruction.” The reference was to the atomic bomb, which was, indeed, new; but the notion about its unique effects was so false to the facts of history as to be laughable. The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities. If your enemies conquer you, they will rape all the women, enslave all the woman and children, and kill all the men. That will be the end of your “way of life.” If one recognized that modern America was not unique in this respect, one couldn’t just go out and deduce some great truth about what should be done regarding, say, Soviet missiles in Cuba, but one might be more rational, and less hysterical, about one’s pacifism or militarism. It’s a matter of perspective.

So much for the myths of the last generation. There were lots more of them, but you get the point. My sense is that the “educated” people of 2017 know a hell of a lot less about history than the “educated” people of 1988 — and not just the history of the world but the history of their own country. I am not a fan of the Southern secessionists, or of Woodrow Wilson. I positively dislike most of what I know about them. But to assume that the only fact about their lives that could possibly be worth knowing is that they were racists is an astonishing intellectual performance. To teach this to children is to warn them against all historical curiosity, to turn history into an endless, and endlessly disgusting, game of hunting the Great Satan. Some people, thus educated, will pretend to join the hunt, out of the cynicism that ideologues are good at inspiring; others will adopt it as their own fanatical crusade; most will get the sense that nothing about history is very interesting, after all — let alone inspiring.

Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not.

Let’s look at another example in which perspective has been completely lost, by the denial of simple curiosity. Unlike many other vocal libertarians, I believe that the current struggle against Islamic terrorism is real and important and must be won. Nevertheless, terrorism results not just from religious or political ideas but from certain, very imperfectly understood, psychological and social factors. Might it not be helpful to know something about the history of terrorism in the modern world?

Well, it didn’t start with 9/11. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialist,” “populist,” and “anarchist” (actually communist) terrorists swarmed over Europe and North America, killing, among many others, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; Umberto, King of Italy; Alexander, Emperor of Russia; William McKinley, President of the United States; and Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (in an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt). They also killed or attempted to kill such private citizens as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (see Liberty, September 2005, pp. 40–45). Then there was labor union terrorism, which peaked in 1910, with the bomb that blew apart the pressroom at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people. This is the case in which the unjustifiably iconic Clarence Darrow, the socialist lawyer, attempted to bribe a juror on the streets of Los Angeles. But the biggest event in “domestic terrorism” was the Bath (Michigan) School Disaster, in which a local farmer, dissatisfied for some reason with his admittedly humdrum life, killed his beloved wife, destroyed his homestead, and blew apart a wing of the schoolhouse down the road, destroying, all told, 44 people, 38 of them children.

These incidents might conceivably shed some light on why depraved men or women (usually men) suddenly decide to kill large numbers of innocent people, but since almost nobody realizes that the events even happened, almost nobody looks for that light.

Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Let’s proceed to another type of violence, the violence of words, and other symbolic deeds, that is making it virtually impossible for sane men and women to read the news without symptoms of convulsion. I, for one, do not wish to rise in the morning only to be assaulted by a vast array of establishment-media venues ravaging the current president as if he were the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nor is it a pleasure to visit my favorite non-establishment sites and find them wholly given over to defenses of the president. Nor — to give you a third and final nor — is it gratifying to me to read the president’s own abusive messages about the media, which are sometimes amusing, but you can’t bank on that. Strange to say, the chief complaint of all these splenetic keyboard artists is that never before in history has political discourse been so hostile and abusive.

Well, that isn’t true, and I’m glad it’s not true, if only because hostility produced the following delightful letter from Former President John Adams to Former President Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817).

Dear Sir

My loving and beloved Friend, [Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy] Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have “few Friends.” I wanted to whip the rogue, and I had it in my power, if it had been in my Will to do it, till the blood come. But all my real Friends as I thought them, with Dexter and Grey at their Head insisted “that I should not say a Word.” “That nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury. That it would betray the Constitution and the Government, if a President out or in should enter a Newspaper controversy, with one of his Ministers whom he had removed from his Office, in Justification of himself for that removal or any thing else.” And they talked a great deal about “The Dignity” of the Office of President, which I do not find that any other Persons, public or private regard very much.

Nevertheless, I fear that Mr. Pickerings Information is too true. It is impossible that any Man should run such a Gauntlet as I have been driven through, and have many Friends at last. This “all who know me know” though I cannot say “who love me tell.”

I’m reminded of the words of Addison DeWitt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” Adams’ superb wit, proud and knowing, and so characteristic of his letters, would distinguish him in any context, just as the lack of any literary quality whatever would be sufficient to identify virtually all political writing of the present age.

I’ve talked about this in Word Watch, and I’ll talk about it again in that place. What I want to emphasize here is the historical perspective offered by the presidential letter of two centuries ago. It suggests that there is nothing off-the-charts about the “abusive rhetoric” of contemporary politics.

To be fair, of course, we need to consider what exalted condition of politesse American political discourse is supposed to have declined from. That high standard, I believe, is the manner of handling news and opinion that prevailed in the days when the senior members of our current news establishment were growing up, the days of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow. The declension from those glory days is sad, sad. Never before in American history . . .

If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one.

Well, did you ever try to read anything that Edward R. Murrow wrote? David Brinkley, who was one of the tribe, but an eccentric one, could actually write, but he was virtually the only one, and none of the present handwringers ever mentions him. His perspective on history, which was a pretty wide one, has been forgotten, and would certainly not be sought, by the preachers of auld lang syne. What they pine for is the slick modern-liberal sentiments and the passive-aggressive style of that former age, a style inveterately contemptuous of the host of people, places, ideas, and emotions whose existence it refused to recognize. What they miss is its lying veneer of “objectivity,” so-called.

That veneer wasn’t much in evidence in the first great age of American journalism, when innovations in printing, transportation, and data transmission (the telegraph) enabled everyone to read two or three papers — Democrat, Republican, and Just Plain Mean — and to spend all day, if they wanted, soaking themselves in political bile. Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict.

Reporting on the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which Lincoln lost, though not decisively, one paper reported that “the triumph of Senator Douglas was complete”; Lincoln was “exceedingly lame throughout . . . The Illinois Giant [Douglas] at the first onset pushed his adversary to the wall, and never ceased for a moment his blows, until Abraham was taken by his friends, dispirited and overcome.” Another kind of partisan paper thought that Lincoln had “chewed [Douglas] up . . . Douglas is doomed . . . [the] contest is already practically ended.” From yet another journalistic standpoint, the campaign proved that the two candidates were nothing but “a pair of depraved, blustering, mischievous, lowdown demagogues.”

All these characterizations were false, and most people knew they were. But verbal abuse wasn’t the only oily sheen on the surface of political life. If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one. Here’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his Thirty Years’ View; Or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (1856), discussing the Anti-Duelling Act of 1839:

The death of Mr. Jonathan Cilley, a representative in Congress from the State of Maine, killed in a duel with rifles, with Mr. Graves of Kentucky, led to the passage of an act with severe penalties against dueling, in the District of Columbia, or out of it upon agreement within the District.. . . Like all acts passed under a sudden excitement [there were sudden excitements in the 1830s, too], this act was defective, and more the result of good intentions than of knowledge of human nature. Passions of the mind, like diseases of the body, are liable to break out in a different form when suppressed in the one they had assumed.

Following that libertarian critique of mere good intentions, Benton notes, as if everyone in his audience already knew it, that the Act

did not suppress the homicidal intent — but gave it a new form: and now many members of Congress go into their seats with deadly weapons under their garments — ready to insult with foul language, and prepared to kill if the language is resented. (Vol. 2, pp. 148-49)

Benton, who had once shot Andrew Jackson in a fight that was something worse than a duel, later became Jackson’s friend and political ally; but in 1850, in the Senate chamber, a fellow member, Henry Foote, attempted to shoot him over a political disagreement. "I have no pistols!”, Benton shouted. “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict that in our law-obsessed era would immobilize the capital and the courts in perpetuity.

Less pacific were many of the things that national leaders said. William Seward had cause to regret his “irrepressible conflict” speech, just as Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his “house divided” speech; both were interpreted by the South, and not unreasonably, as an indication that if either of those gentlemen were elected president, the South must secede. John C. Calhoun had cause to regret the many speeches in which he incited the South to dissolve the union — but Calhoun, like our current politicians, never regretted anything he said, during a lifetime of self-contradiction.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric.

Now, if you look at the public utterances of the people I’ve mentioned (except for Foote), you will find that in both style and intellectual substance they are infinitely above those of anyone now in politics. To say this isn’t to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that happens in one’s own time is happening for the first time in history. If one has any historical perspective, one can distinguish things that actually are new or special from things that actually aren’t.

It is the intellectual and verbal illiteracy of American public culture that has that “never before in history” aspect — and it has that aspect because of the lack of perspective that makes contemporary Americans feel as if they can do without any knowledge of or respect for people who lived in the past. Thus, if you’re a “progressive” leftist, Thomas Jefferson was a racist who considered blacks inferior to whites, as if that were his only historical significance; and Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who behaved with great barbarity toward Indians, as if those evil characteristics, common to hundreds of thousands of Americans of his time, including Indians who enslaved other Indians, were all we needed to know about one of the most complexly influential people in our or any history. And thus, if you’re a rightist, Ronald Reagan was the world’s greatest inspirational speaker; George Patton embodied all the strengths that make real men and women want to get up in the morning; and Theodore Roosevelt, a little man who kept exclaiming “bully!”, made life worth living for soldiers, workers, and the American bison. Meanwhile, all people worship Lincoln as the incarnation of Christ.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries seem incapable of taking any good to themselves from their acts of ferocious love and cherished hatred. They never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric when compared with that of Lincoln, or their own courage when compared with that of Jackson. They may idolize “Teddy” or spit on the memory of Jefferson or rerun Reagan’s speeches or get off on Patton, the movie, but that’s what they’re seeing, a movie playing on their own TVs, just a few feet from their self-infatuated heads. The rest of the house is empty.

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Steven C.

Biggest event in “domestic terrorism”

I think Mr. Cox forgets the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. This was pure domestic terrorism. 168 people were killed and 680 were injured. So much for historical perspective.

Stephen Cox

I'd like to say that I made that characterization of the Bath School Disaster to test our readers, and that Mr. C. passed the test, but the truth is that it was just my stupid mistake. Try "the biggest forgotten event in 'domestic terrorism.'"

Paul Thiel

I am sure I'm way out on a limb here, but I for one have come around to rejecting the entire notion of "common sense". Real common sense is basically farmers' wisdom and certainly existed when the vast majority of people were farmers. Thus "well its just common sense that you don't plant the zucchinis while there's still frost on the shed" (or whatever, I'm not a farmer). But the Industrial Revolution freed up more people for non-agricultural employment. Culture diversified. And schools became less competent at transmitting to the next generation a widely accepted collection of information and wisdom. In the process common knowledge and a common sensibility have shrunk to the vanishing point. "Common sense" has become a thing of the past.

I hope that this does not mean that we can no longer intelligently discuss and debate the issues of the day. But it probably does mean that we no longer have the short-cut to agreement made possible in the past by an appeal to common sense.

Luther Jett

"Common sense" has been co-opted by the left/centre/left as in "Common sense gun laws" and "common sense" health care reform, etc. etc. ad nauseum. As such, "common sense" has come to mean "nonsense".

Stephen Cox

Thanks, Scott! Luther’s hymn refers to “this world, with devils filled.” One of those devils, as you indicate, is the idea that if we only knew all the details about anything, we would find a devil in there someplace. Sometimes that’s true, but more often the phrase is simply an expression of despair on the part of people who spend their time dealing with massive amounts of “data” that don’t mean anything or with huge numbers of government or corporate rules that can never be fully learned or predicted, because they are irrational. And many people are trained to believe that there’s nothing but details. I don’t want to pick on lawyers, because I like some of them and (who knows? The devil’s in the details) may someday need their help. But I’m sure you’ve had the experience of talking with lawyers about some clear provision of the constitution, only to find that they cannot talk about anything except the multitude of silly ways in which the courts have interpreted it. This is a mighty failure of perspective. Ideas of fundamental liberty—as Lori Heine and Russell Hasan have recently emphasized on this site—are indeed fundamental: they are basic and simple. If you’re always looking for the devilish details, you will probably miss those ideas, or think that they’re tricks. Best, as always, Stephen

Scott Robinson

You're welcome, and good job reminding me that the devil in those details is often how a lawyer can dismiss your arguments/rights based on a technicality. Those details don't necessarily give me a clear perspective, but can have me spinning in circles unable to focus on the issues because of the cloudiness I see. I think that is what perspective is about, you simplify the scene by throwing out the nonessential details present and focus on the essential ones. Perhaps the problem of perspective is figuring out which details are essential and which are superfluous.

Details can be Legalese,

Scott Robinson

You know, Stephen, a catch phrase that embodies "The problem of perspective" is, "The Devil's in the details." What it means is that all of those details alter your perspective of the situation and thus the conclusion you can or can't reach. It's Hell to find yourself damned to those complicated states of affairs. Is that what you meant when you said, "The rest of the house is empty"?

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