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Weekend Redux

November 12th, 2002 · No Comments

Despite an obnoxious late-bloomer wisdom tooth which continues to produce a dull ache by insisting on pushing up through my gums and tearing away at my left inner cheek, I had a blast at this weekend’s Cato University in sunny rainy for three days each year San Diego. Plenty of good food for thought, about which more later, and no shortage of interesting people. These included, of course, The Good Professor, Radley, Gene and Tom, as well as Sharon Harris of the Advocates for Self Government and Slate’s Will Saletan, and, perhaps most interesting from an anthropological perspective, a pair of extraordinarily attractive (“fly,” in the parlance of our times) young women, about whom the male collegiate attendees flocked like vultures to carrion. Since, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t playing that particular game this weekend, it made for a kind of entertaining sociological experiment. The effect was quite pronounced: they’d walk into the bar after sessions, and within five minutes, half a dozen college students had swarmed to their table.

This fascination (in the strict etymological sense, from the Latin root “fascinare” for “to bind”) was enhanced by an endearing lack of self consciousness on their part. Whether the “I don’t realize I’m hot” demeanor was a bit of what Sartre would call “bad faith” or just a charming naivete, it certainly seems to be a key component of that effect. People who are palpably aware of their own attractiveness, perhaps paradoxically, tend to become less so. Maybe — to tie it in to the rhetorical theme of that Cato U — it’s for the same reason that others can most effectively be persuaded when you’re having a kind of exploratory conversation, rather than a debate. When we’re conscious of being in an argument we activate certain defenses — we put up our guard — just as we may do when we know that a person of the apposite sex is fully aware of their own attractive powers. We become uneasy, because this is someone who knows they have a manipulative weapon they may wield against us, for either gain or entertainment. Or alternatively, maybe it’s that a display of self consciousness doesn’t allow the less assertive among us to go through the familiar seductive dance with what government spooks call “plausible deniability.” You know what I’m talking about here — you inch a bit closer, and your hand just happens (purely by accident, you understand) to fall upon hers/his, and the distance between you as you’re talking slowly diminishes… Game theorists could probably map this with great precision, but it’s a sort of staged commitment process, wherein each party makes moves in tiny increments, until at last, when one or another (or both at once, ideally) finally press in for the kiss, there’s little enough question left that both are on the same page, without either having to have risked (or anyway, appeared to risk) that potentially-embarassing first move. It’s the kind of face-saving strategy that only works as long as both are willing to quasi-pretend that neither knows what’s going on until that last moment, and an excess of auto-hotness-awareness on the part of either player breaks the spell. Or at least, that spell — there are, of course, other games for more aggressive moods.

Ah, but you didn’t come for sociology. Like a dutiful public servant, I return to politics. Gene gave us a sharp tour of logical fallacies and argumentative strategies, while Don Boudreaux explained how not to be conned by statistics, and Saletan outlined how one could win a debate before it starts by rigging the question. Despite long standing familiarity with that old line about “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” I hadn’t realized quite how many ways you could construct a misleading argument with numbers. It’s rather depressing, in a sense: I mean, I’m fairly numerate, and might easily have fallen for many of the cons discussed, and if we assume the average voter is no more savvy than I with the graphs and the charts and the hey-hey-hey, well, that’s a situation that doesn’t inspire enormous faith in democracy. Not that I had a whole hell of a lot at the outset. Saletan’s talk provoked that sort of “aha” experience you sometimes get when something you’ve vaguely sensed for a while is clearly articulated, since I realized that he was outlining more precisely a set of strategies I’d tacitly relied upon in my misspent youth as a debater. Clinton’s impeachment… was it about sex, or about perjury? Setting the parameters meant deciding the debate in advance: Clinton & co. managed to convince the public that it was about sex, and he triumphed. The “estate tax” is just something that affects the super-rich, but the “death tax”… well, my God, how can you tax such a tragic event, whether the taxee is wealthy or not? A good romp for the Machiavellian in me, that was.

In other news, go pick up Cake’s Comfort Eagle ASAP.

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