Ideas vs Issues
Dreher pointed to an important article
by Lee Siegel.
Siegel says: "What we never hear about in the popular media—where intellectual discussion once took place—is debate over fundamental meanings, or essential definitions, or connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Those are the elements of an idea, which is the challenge consciousness makes to concrete reality."
Siegel's main point is that we no longer traffic in ideas. Instead, we bash each other with "issues", which are easily divided into Talking Points of Side A
versus Talking Points of Side B
. Web forums nearly always operate on this basis, whether the subject is politics, religion, sex, or technology. As long as you are repeating the Points of one side, you get cheers from your side and respect from the other. If you dare to stray outside the chalk lines, if you suggest that both A and B are meaningless and superficial, you'll get beaten and strafed. Your only choice is to leave the forum.
New ideas are fragile and can't survive amid the meaningless football scrimmage of an "issues debate". To incubate ideas you need both civility
. Polistra has already discussed the role of civility here.
Stability means that you can count on a source of money and structure for a good long time. You need a laboratory (figurative or literal) to explore ideas, suggest new variations, test the consequences.
There are two ways to create a stable lab setting: private wealth and public funding. Private wealth has always worked best .... the ancient Chinese, Hebrew and Greek philosopher/scientists were either wealthy or depended on wealthy patrons. Private wealth continues today as the funding base for think tanks and foundations.
Public funding began with monasteries, which evolved into universities, which served as outstanding idea factories for a few centuries. More recently, universities have been trivialized by several different trends: the tenure process tends to remove outside-the-lines thinkers; pursuit of grants leads to a focus on "issues" favored by the grantor; and fear of litigation stops many good ideas before they can be formed into experiments.
An excellent example of quasi-public funding is Bell Labs. From 1900 to 1980, Bell was a private company with governmental powers, and it had plenty of spare money and plenty of stability. It could afford to maintain the Labs as a place for open-ended experimentation, and the Labs gave us many of our best ideas and technologies in return. After the breakup of Bell in 1982, the Labs lost independence and stability, and devolved into an ordinary R&D department for a French company called Alcatel.
RCA has a similar history on a smaller scale. The Radio Corporation of America was founded as a semi-governmental utility, and for decades had enough profit and stability to support open-ended research in radio and TV.
Privatization and deregulation have ruined stability. Can we put this evil genie back in the bottle? I don't know. Korean and Japanese companies copied the Bell and RCA business style, and still run as partial monopolies. Maybe we could copy the model back from them!
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One point that Siegel missed: the idea-makers have soiled their own nest. Public and private support for the arts would be much larger if artists hadn't spent the entire 20th century mocking the people and committing cruel practical jokes against normal tastes. Public and private support for science would be much larger if scientists hadn't spent the last 40 years insulting Christianity and ripping Western civilization, or the last 20 years whoring after transparently false and wildly destructive pseudoscientific "theories" like Economics, the Big Bang and Global Warming.
Another point: In current political discussion we don't even have "issues", we only have numbers. Though the underlying plans and bills include a tiny handful of new ideas (eg electronic records in medical care, or, uh, electronic records in medical care, or...) the only thing we hear
is numbers, numbers, numbers. Billions, trillions, taxes, spending, deficits, debts. The motive is hardly mysterious: when the only questions are "how much" questions, you never have to answer any real
questions like "Where is this money going and how in the hell is it going to help the goddamn PEOPLE of THIS goddamn COUNTRY?"