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Interview: Straight Talk With Independent Journalist, Charles Hugh Smith, Part 2

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Charles Hugh Smith explains why the status quo is unsustainable in answers to questions submitted by readers.

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Though I wasn't consciously aware of it, I guess those previous experiences gave me the confidence to see OfTwoMinds.com as a platform for a range of ideas and analysis.

Lofty goals can sound awfully pretentious, but alongside that risk is the notion that big goals can inspire us to great things. I have four goals for OfTwoMinds.com:

  • Promote serious journalism on the Web by presenting issues which the Mainstream Media sidesteps, dismisses, or whitewashes.

  • Encourage an online role for what was once called "public intellectuals," a category which has atrophied into MSM-approved academic pundits such as Paul Krugman and "entertainer"-type ideologues like Glenn Beck, both of whom parrot simplistic ideologies that are increasingly meaningless.

  • Contribute to the ongoing discussion of practical solutions for the interlocking crises we face.

  • Construct an integrated understanding of the ideas and issues which interest me and my readers.


And when I can't do any of the above, I try to write something mildly interesting.

9. Many leading econobloggers came to the profession via unorthodox paths, but perhaps none so much as you: philosopher, social activist, freelance writer, musician. What about your idiosyncratic background do your attribute your success?

CHS: How the site has gathered such a smart, world-wise readership has been a mystery, and I think the key ingredients that attract people are the two complementary threads which run though my apparently random interests and careers: an interest in the structure of problems, and a desire for a hands-on, practical grasp of how these structures work in the real world.

In our increasingly specialized world, few people seem to bridge the divide between a conceptual understanding and a practical understanding. All the things which have deeply interested me -- building, urban planning, music, politics, gardening, health, fiction, journalism and financial analysis -- have a conceptual framework that you can learn, but that doesn't mean you can actually build a house, play a chord progression, start a business, write coherently, or make a profitable investment.

As we all know, the real world is messy, contingent, and unpredictable. So actually starting and running a small business that does millions of dollars of business is completely different from a pundit's simplistic view from 30,000 feet. That's one reason why the political class of the US is so divorced from reality; they speak glowingly about "small business" with no appreciation for how difficult it has become to start a real-world enterprise.

Since I know about small business from experience, then it's obvious to me that small business is being strangled and will not be hiring millions of new workers.

We all want a coherent explanation of what's unfolding, and we also want practical suggestions on how to adapt. It's difficult to provide both, and the great thing about having a smart readership is that readers educate me about things I don't have any real-world experience in, such as health care.

So philosophy and hands-on working knowledge act as a sort of yin-yang unity: Both are necessary to understand and navigate the real world.

The basic idea behind philosophy is to think clearly about issues and work from first principles. Even non-linear philosophies such as Taoism have first principles which illuminate and explain the whole.

So my goal in any subject is to establish the first principles or assumptions, and then try to explain how each link in the thesis leads to various conclusions. Rather than accept ideas that are repeated as if they are true, we ask two questions: Exactly how does this argument work, and cui bono -- who benefits if we accept this as true?

That is also the core of good journalism.

But in addition to journalism -- explaining, critiquing, asking questions -- we all want and need practical solutions or pathways. I guess I have always been drawn to a hands-on understanding of how things work, and that is the thread which informs OfTwoMinds.com. I think my readership appreciates that practical working knowledge only comes from long practice and a lot of mistakes and setbacks.

Another way of defining these two complementary threads is to look at both as toolboxes. Ideas such as system analysis and evolution are tools which help illuminate the structure beneath the surface, and practical skills -- breaking down tasks and gaining mastery one step at a time -- give us tools for taking those insights into the real world.

Since I'm very average, and have no connections to wealth or power, I've relied on perseverance and enthusiasm. Maybe that carries over somehow to the blog.

10. What question didn't we ask, but should have? What's your answer?


CHS: One such question might be: What are the foundations of my general optimism about the Great Transformation ahead?

One is the process of evolution has expanded from the genome to culture and technology. All species must adapt or perish, and individuals have to adapt to changing circumstances. At a system level, there are feedback loops, positive and negative, which mean extrapolating the present into the future is not very accurate. New feedback loops can be added, and the value systems of cultures can also adapt.

Self-criticism and honesty are essential to growth and learning. The American political and financial Elites are committed to maintaining the Status Quo at all costs, even to the point we have now reached that reality is replaced by simulacra.

But other elements of the society are actively questioning the Elites and our social conditioning. They are asking what part their own actions play in supporting and enabling the status quo.

Honesty includes expressing anger, frustration, whining, and all the rest of human emotions. The idea that maintaining a veil of secrecy and stiff-upper lip "everything's fine, shut up and keep your head down" will yield positive results is wrong. That leads to discord, distrust, illness and madness.

The greatest strength of America, or any society, organization or individual, is open, honest self-criticism and questioning. We only change when we have no other choice, and to expect the status quo to adapt without fierce resistance is impractical. So rather than waste energy trying to change those structures doomed to collapse or devolution, we're better off establishing our own networks of support, cooperation and sustainability.

An honest appraisal will lead us to challenge all sorts of assumptions we have made about the nature of work, property, the economy, health care, the Central State and much else.

The choices will not always be clear-cut. I will end with a story about my friend Dexter Cate. Dexter was committed to saving dolphins from being slaughtered, and he'd found no official interest in protecting them.

So he swam out alone, at night, in a raging storm, and slashed the nets trapping hundreds of dolphins that were to be killed the next day. He was imprisoned in Japan for destroying "private property," that is, the nets.

We all value property rights, but what was more important, the destruction of private property or the lives of the dolphins? The legal system was clear; the dolphins had no standing compared to the nets. Dexter chose otherwise.

What do we really value? Our answers will inform our choices in the transformation ahead.

Thank you for such thoughtful questions, and I hope I haven't put everyone to sleep in answering them.

No positions in stocks mentioned.

The information on this website solely reflects the analysis of or opinion about the performance of securities and financial markets by the writers whose articles appear on the site. The views expressed by the writers are not necessarily the views of Minyanville Media, Inc. or members of its management. Nothing contained on the website is intended to constitute a recommendation or advice addressed to an individual investor or category of investors to purchase, sell or hold any security, or to take any action with respect to the prospective movement of the securities markets or to solicit the purchase or sale of any security. Any investment decisions must be made by the reader either individually or in consultation with his or her investment professional. Minyanville writers and staff may trade or hold positions in securities that are discussed in articles appearing on the website. Writers of articles are required to disclose whether they have a position in any stock or fund discussed in an article, but are not permitted to disclose the size or direction of the position. Nothing on this website is intended to solicit business of any kind for a writer's business or fund. Minyanville management and staff as well as contributing writers will not respond to emails or other communications requesting investment advice.

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