Kierkagaard, Facebook and Socialism

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“Pressure makes diamonds”~General George S. Patton

The stress of being in the military has changed me.  And for the better.  Though never one to rest on my laurels, my time in the Army has made me sharper, a better organizer and tougher and driven me to expect more of myself and others.  I’ve learned not only how to give orders as an NCO, but how to take orders from officers who want something done–and they want it now.  My learning experiences were not always pleasant.  I’ve dealt with some downright evil people who used authority as a tool for bureaucratic punishment.  But all this only drove me to learn the system as well as they had learned it.

We live in the age of vastly lowered expectations.  I’ve read several accounts of older people’s experiences in grade school and high school in which they received an “F” on any paper with misspellings, regardless of the quality of the content.  Now, some teachers take no points off final grades for spelling mistakes.  We lowered the bar for our children and they have sunk to our expectations.  Our society pats itself on the back for “helping” little Johnny, when in reality it was just trying make things easier for teachers and slack parents.

Anyone can now join a revolution or even a war.  Just press ENTER.  In Evgeny Morozov’s excellent book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, he writes about “Slacktivism”, or the opportunity that social media like Facebook and Twitter provide for anyone living in their mother’s basements to suddenly become a warrior for freedom and democracy, with virtually no danger to themselves.  Merely click the “Like” button, and you’re running with the Libyan rebels through Tripoli.  But not really.  Morozov goes on to study one of my favorite philosophers, Kierkagaard, (I’m an existentialist at heart).  Morozov himself, conducting an experiment, even joined Russia’s Cyber War against Georgia and all it took was a laptop, an internet connection, and one hour.

Morozov states in his book:

But whereas the majority of contemporary philosophers and commentators lauded this great leveling as a sign of democratization, Kierkagaard, thought that it might result in a decline of social cohesion, a feast of endless and disinterested reflection, and a triumph of infinite but shallow intellectual curiosity that might prevent deep, meaningful, and spiritual engagement with a particular issue.[1]

The author continues:

This is the kind of shallow commitment that Kierkagaard detested and saw as corrupting the human soul.[2]

Kierkagaard’s main thrust seems to have been: That which costs us little, we value little.  In order for something to have value, its acquisition and maintenance must require effort.  We do not grow as humans or as societies when all of our needs are met without any danger to ourselves.  And thus is my problem with the creeping proto-socialism of Europe and America.  It is not that I am against helping the poor, but as with children, we have to know when to take the training wheels off the bike.  Otherwise we create the society we have:  large groups of people with their hands out but who have never contributed in any way to the strength of the system–and more importantly–have no desire to.

Talk about pressure.  Let’s look at a typical Israeli Defense Force Lieutenant.  Israeli society has benefited greatly from two things:   1) Mandatory service in the military. 2) The incredible pressure placed on young conscripts faced with warding off Israel’s myriad enemies.

This is not an endorsement for conscription in America because America is missing the key ingredient that Israel has:  Pressure from an existential threat.  Few Americans fear death or dismemberment as a result of the Iraq of Afghanistan wars.  This is a hugely under appreciated aspect of daily Israeli life.  But the result of this pressure is an army that allows its NCOs and junior officers to make serious decisions.  Young officers and NCOs are expected to perform and with that expectation they’re given the flexibility they need.  Also, Israel’s small population necessitates conscription.

As one Israeli Major puts it:

The most interesting people here are the company commanders.  They are absolutely amazing people.  These are kids–the company commanders are twenty-three.  Each of them is in charge of one hundred soldiers and twenty officers and sergeants, three vehicles. Add it up and that means a hundred and twenty rifles, machine guns, bombs, grenades, mines, whatever. Everything.  tremendous responsibility.[3]

Perhaps readers have heard of Parkinson’s Law, which states: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.  It’s likely that most people can do the same amount of work in 4 hours as they can in 8.  Perhaps no person better used the power of Parkinson’s Law than Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Saddled with debt from his gambling addiction, and ordered by his publisher to produce books quickly or have the rights to the scripts taken from his, Dostoevsky worked feverishly on two novels: Crime and Punishment and The Gambler–and finished them both in one month.  Hit with an “impossible” deadline and facing dire straits kicked in Dostoevsky’s survival mechanism and enabled the miraculous.  Today, however, the average American looks to government to save him, squandering the opportunity of strife.  We can imagine now, Dostoevsky on the government dole, waiting not for his next inspirations for a great novel, but his next block of government cheese.

As I age, I make a point not to settle and to keep pushing myself.  I make things difficult on myself, but not so much as to ensure failure. First, I take online college classes while working full-time.  A couple of tricks I use to ensure I get things done (procrastination is a weakness of mine) is first, to try to do one thing a day that I don’t absolutely have to do, but should be done anyway.  Secondly, I make a list of things I need to in a day, and check them off as I finish them.  This is a good little poke to my psyche, the list is always nagging at my mind and there’s an odd satisfaction from checking off the achievements.

I’ll end with a thought from Sabastian Junger in his book on the war in Afghanistan, aptly titled:  War.  In his mid 40s and working as an embedded journalist in Kunar Province, Junger has to keep up with 20-something Soldiers climbing mountains at 7000 feet above sea level.  Junger made a statement in his book that stuck with me.  He says that even when he was hurting badly, he knew from his days running cross-country in college that when the pain begins to set in, you haven’t even come close to going as long or hard as you can.

Anyone who stops when life starts to hurt, anyone who quits at the first sign of trouble is short-changing not only themselves, but the world.  If something costs us nothing, it’s worth nothing.  And we don’t need Kierkagaard to tell us the truth, we only need our high school football coach:  No pain, no gain.    

[1]Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Public Affairs, 2011.

[2] ibid

[3] Singer, Dan Senor and Saul. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. Twelve, 2009.